Gracious! she thought, feeling warmth spread over her cheeks.
A movement from the far side of the shop interrupted her musings as Maris emerged from the fitting room. Her young sister looked a picture of vibrant youth and beauty, the new dress and its color genuinely flattering despite Maris’s poor opinion of the pale shade.
Julianna smiled, more determined than ever to see Maris enjoy all the things she herself had not—a carefree Season filled with innocent joy and fun. And most of all the freedom to choose her own spouse, and to marry for no more important a reason than love.
If Harry went bankrupt, all those dreams would perish. Maris’s come out would be forfeit, since there wouldn’t be enough money for the clothes and the parties and the balls it took to launch a debutante. And though she wished she could help, her own finances would never come close to covering such an expense.
My path is clear, Julianna realized. And in two days’ time, regardless of her private reservations, she would do what she must to keep her family happy and whole.
After the shopping excursion, she and Maris drove back to Allerton House in Grosvenor Square.
Hoping to catch Harry before he dashed out to spend the evening with friends, she agreed to stay and share a quiet dinner with Maris and Henrietta Mayhew, a distant cousin from their mother’s side of the family. Widowed with grown children, Henrietta had gratefully accepted the offer to act as Maris’s chaperone for the Season. Until last month, Maris had made her home with Julianna, but Julianna had decided her sister would be better off launching her coming out from the far grander family townhouse.
The evening progressed, filled with good food and enjoyable conversation. However, Harry did not appear.
Penning a note to her wayward brother, Julianna left instructions with the butler that Lord Allerton was to be given her message the instant he arrived. Saying her good-nights, she made the short carriage ride home and retired to bed.
She was frowning over a barely touched plate of eggs and toast, tea growing tepid in her cup, when Harry finally strode into her dining room the next morning. She gazed up at him in relief.
Disheveled and bleary-eyed, he looked as if he hadn’t slept. “Got your message,” he mumbled as he pulled out a chair at the table and sat down across from her. “What’s so urgent I had to run over here before I’d even had m’morning coffee? Feel dashed rotten, I do, despite some bloody awful concoction my valet poured down my throat not an hour since.”
She motioned to her footman to bring her brother a cup of hot coffee. Once done, the servant bowed and departed the room, shutting the doors behind him.
His eyes closed, Harry sipped his beverage as if for strength. “Devil take this head of mine.”
“Out drinking, I see,” she observed, trying not to sound as disapproving as she felt.
“Plague take me, yes. What else should a man do when his own ruin’s so near at hand? Just trying to forget my problems the best way I know how.”
“Well, if you’d come home yesterday I could have saved you a great deal of anguish. I have good news.” She pushed her plate away and leaned forward.
Harry reached out and shoved the plate even farther down the table, the scent of food obviously sickening him. “What sort of good news? Don’t see how anything can be good, not when The Dragon’s breathing down my neck, ready to destroy me day after next. Uncharitable as it might be to say, seems a shame somebody couldn’t do us a favor and run him over in the street.”
Julianna cleared her throat, an image of Rafe Pendragon lying prostrate in the middle of some London thoroughfare flashing into her mind. Knowing Pendragon, even as little as she did, she suspected he’d live through such an attack, climb to his feet, dust himself off, then methodically set about hunting down the man who’d done it.
“Well, put away your murderous thoughts because they’re completely unneeded.”
She paused, knowing once she recited the lies she’d prepared there would be no turning back. Taking a deep breath, she plunged ahead. “Harry, the most miraculous thing has happened. I’ve found the money to pay your debt.”
His dark brows shot upward. “What?”
“Yes. After you told me everything last week, I began searching the accounts, trying to find some means of aiding you. And I came across an old box.”
“Something of Basil’s that I’d put away and quite forgotten. Inside, you wouldn’t believe, there were certificates, investment shares for a shipping company. Curious to know their value, I immediately contacted my solicitor and asked him to look into the matter. Well, it turns out the stock is worth a veritable fortune.”
“Really? H-How much of a fortune?”
She could see him running calculations in his head, worrying that the found money still wouldn’t be enough to cover the true extent of his indebtedness.
“Enough to pay off your loan, your entire loan, not just the portion about which you chose to tell me,” she admonished in a stern voice.
He tugged at his neckcloth. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I know. I paid a call on Mr. Pendragon and he told me how much you really owe him, all thirty thousand pounds of it.”
He scowled darkly. “Jules, what were you thinking to visit such a man? He’s not at all the sort with whom a lady should associate.”
Shooting up from the table, Harry began to pace. He stopped seconds later, groaning and clutching his head between his fists, no doubt due to last night’s overindulgence. “Oh,” he moaned, “I knew it was a mistake to have told you any of it.”
“It’s a good thing you did tell me, otherwise you’d be up the River Tick without a paddle. Is your manly pride worth losing your estate over, worth bankrupting the family over?” She huffed out a breath. “Besides, it’s already done. The debt is paid.”
The pacing stopped. “Paid? You mean the stock certificates were worth that much? Egad, Julianna, did he accept your payment? Is the nightmare really over?”
She lowered her eyes, thinking of the real payment Pendragon had accepted. “Yes, it’s over. You are a free man and the estate is safe. At least for the present.”
A shaky smile broke over his face. Rushing forward, he grabbed her in a fierce bear hug. “Jules, Jules, how can I ever thank you? How will I ever repay you? Thirty thousand pounds—it’s a beastly lot of money, but I’ll find a way to return it. I swear I shall.”
He released her, clearly jubilant. “You shouldn’t have done it, but blister me if I’m not glad you did. Though you ought to have given the money to me so I could have been the one to approach Pendragon. Don’t like the thought of you with him.” He hugged her again, then gave her a smacking kiss on the cheek. “You’re the best sister a man could have, have I told you that?”
She laughed and pulled away. “Yes, well, you’re welcome, so long as you promise never to do anything of the sort again. You are to stay away from the gaming tables. And if you take out any more loans for the home farm, you are to use the money for the home farm.”
He laid a palm against his chest. “Oh, I will. I’ll be a regular gentleman farmer, spouting nothing but talk of new cultivation methods and modern agricultural equipment.”
“Well, you needn’t go that far,” she said on a laugh. “I want you to stop risking your security, not turn into a bore. After all, I shan’t be there to bail you out if you land in the suds again, since I doubt I’ll be discovering another fortune in lost stock hiding in Basil’s office.”
“Dashed amazing about that. Rather startling, really, since I didn’t even know Basil dabbled in stock investments. He was always prattling on to me about the strength of land and gold, and how a man couldn’t go wrong with those. Shows you never can tell about a person, I suppose.”
Yes, she thought, that’s exactly what it showed, relieved Harry had so readily accepted her fairy story about the money and her payment of his debt. Perhaps in his distress he didn’t want to question her explanation. Perhaps in his relief, he never would.
Leaning over, he gave her another buss on the cheek. “I can never thank you enough, Jules. You’re simply the best. And I will pay you back, I promise, though it may take me some time. Still, I’ll find a way to make it right.”
“The money’s not important so long as you and Maris are safe and well. The two of you are all I truly care about in this world. Just be a good steward of your legacy and lead the family with pride, that’s all I ask.”
Harry grinned, then returned to collapse onto his chair. Reaching out, he grabbed up her square of cold toast and slathered it with strawberry preserves from a nearby pot.
“Hmm,” he said as he bit in and swallowed. “My appetite has returned. Do you think Cook could make me some breakfast?”
“I’m sure she could.” Julianna crossed the room to ring for a servant.