“My vowels. I.O.U.s, don’t you know. The Dragon must have returned them when you paid him. It’s customary when clearing a financial obligation.”
His vowels. Dear Lord, she’d never thought about that!
“Hmm, well, yes,” she dithered. “Of course he gave them to me, but I…I burned them.”
“Yes. The debt is paid, and I thought it best to put the whole dreadful affair in the past. You are to think on it no more.”
Please, she prayed, please, think on it no more.
He frowned for a long moment, then reached for another slice of toast. Gradually, his expression cleared. “I guess you are right. Best to forget it ever happened and start afresh.”
“Yes,” she murmured dully, her stomach churning to remember that she didn’t have such a luxury. For her, the indenture was only just beginning.
RAFE CLICKED OPEN the engraved cover of his gold pocket watch and checked the time.
Ten minutes to one.
He snapped the watch closed again and tucked it into his vest pocket, then settled back on the drawing room sofa to wait, his long legs stretched out in front of him.
He tossed an idle glance around the room, eyeing the red brocade draperies with distaste. It’s what came, he supposed, of using acquired properties, such as this house, for his own purposes. If he were going to keep the place, he would make some changes to the decor, such as replacing several of the older, heavier pieces of furniture with lighter, more modern ones. But for now, the house was comfortable and well suited to his immediate needs.
Assuming he continued to have such needs, he thought ruefully.
He’d give Lady Hawthorne to the top of the hour as agreed, and perhaps ten minutes more. After that, he’d ride home and begin preparations for collecting the young earl’s debt.
It was growing ever more obvious that Lord Allerton’s sister wasn’t going to show. And to be perfectly honest, he hadn’t really expected she would. Despite all her pleas and protestations on behalf of her sibling, she’d obviously had second thoughts concerning the bargain she’d struck.
And justifiably so.
Her scapegrace brother had plunged himself deep into the abyss, and by rights, he ought to be the one forced to claw his way out. A tragedy, though, that the earl would need to put Davies Manor on the auction block.
The estate was a fine property with a grand house, a thriving tenantry, and two hundred acres of prime farmland situated in the heart of the Kent countryside. Perhaps he would bid on it himself, Rafe considered. With a trustworthy manager to tend to the day-to-day details, the estate had the potential to generate a nice, steady income. If that had not been the case, he would never have agreed to extend financing to Allerton in the first place. Truly, Julianna Hawthorne was doing him a favor by reneging on their agreement.
So why do I feel so vastly disappointed?
He sighed, suddenly annoyed by the desire humming in his blood, merely the notion of having Lady Hawthorne in his bed enough to bring him to a state of partial arousal. Normally, he wasn’t the sort of man to let lust cloud his mind, but where this particular lady was concerned, there was no fathoming his reactions. The logical, reasonable part of him still marveled that he’d proposed such a bargain with her at all. The animal part of him cheered, howling now at the likely prospect of being denied.
In all probability, he knew he would never see her again. Over the years he’d indulged in a couple of liaisons with aristocratic ladies, each of whom had been eager to add an element of verve and excitement to her otherwise tedious life. As a rule, though, he tended to steer clear of such associations, since they never ended well. As for virtuous widows like Lady Hawthorne…well, ladies like her were very selective when taking lovers, and they certainly never chose men from outside their own narrow social circle.
How ironic, then, to know his blood was every bit as blue as her own! But matters like legitimacy made all the difference in the world. He should know. He’d spent his entire life battling the slurs and slights of illegitimacy because his parents had dared to love outside the bounds of marriage.
His father, a viscount from the the Home Counties, had already been a married man when he’d met Charlotte Pendragon, the daughter of a poor clergyman who ministered to a small rural parish. The young viscount, miserable in his arranged marriage, had come north to visit a friend and to do some hunting. He’d been riding home through an icy fall rain when he’d come upon a bedraggled girl struggling to make her way. He’d stopped, lifted her up onto his horse, wrapped her in his warm coat, and taken her home.
Over cups of hot tea, huddled under blankets in front of a roaring fire, the two of them had fallen in love. Though they knew it was wrong, though they tried to fight their feelings, they’d continued to meet, their love too strong to be denied. And when Miss Pendragon—a good girl from a good family—found herself enceinte, the viscount set her up in a house in the neighboring county, vowing to care for her and their child for all the rest of their days.
He was that child, Rafe thought, his father’s firstborn son, who could never openly be acknowledged no matter how beloved he might have been. His upbringing, his education, his manners—none of it mattered, only the circumstances of his birth and the side of the blanket on which he’d been born.
He wondered what Lady Hawthorne would think if she knew. Then again, what did it matter, since her opinion of him changed nothing.
He was, and always would be, a bastard. And that’s precisely what she must think of him after receiving his disreputable offer the other day.
He checked his watch again: ten minutes past one.
Oh, well, he reasoned with a shrug, some fantasies are simply not meant to be.
Seconds later, a knock sounded on the door.
His eyebrows shot skyward, blood jolting through his veins with renewed anticipation. Climbing to his feet, he made his way to the entrance.
Opening the door, he discovered her on the stoop, looking small in her heavy cloak. A plain gray hood was draped over her head in such a way that all he could see were her nose and mouth and chin.
He fought an impulse to reach out, to drag her inside and into his arms. Instead he contented himself with a look.
“I’d nearly given up on you,” he murmured, the fragrant scent of her as stirring as a caress.
“I had trouble finding a hack,” she replied in a near whisper. “My coachman lingered longer than I’d anticipated.”
A raw gust of wind rushed over them, rustling her skirts and fluttering the edges of her hood. Despite the crisp sunshine, it was a cold day.
“It’s freezing. Come inside.”
She hesitated for the faintest instant, then did as he commanded. He noticed the hack driver watching them and signaled with a hand for the man to depart.
Julianna whirled as Rafe closed the door. “Was that my hack leaving? I told him to wait.”
“It’s too cold for anyone to wait today. Don’t worry, I’ll see you return home safely.” He strode closer. “Now, why don’t I take your cloak?”
She hadn’t lowered her hood, he noticed, as if loath to shed the protection of the garment. As if she still harbored doubts about her presence here with him in this house.
It was brave of her to come, he admitted. Brave and bold. And if he were any sort of gentleman he’d leave her wrapped up in her cloak, go to the coaching house for his carriage, then take her home. But he’d long ago given up any notion of being a true gentleman since it was the one thing he would never be.
Slowly, she reached up and pushed back her hood. Underneath she wore a long-brimmed bonnet with a dark lacy half veil that covered her eyes.
He couldn’t help but smile. “I see you took every precaution to conceal your identity.”
“I must,” she replied, deadly serious. “No one can ever suspect.”
“No one will,” he assured, equally serious. “This neighborhood is very quiet. There are few residents, and those there are tend to keep to themselves. It’s why I chose the place, for its pleasant, somewhat rural location—not easy to find in a bustling metropolis like London.”
The house, just south of Queens Square, was perfect. An attractive, two-story brick Georgian, it blended easily into its surroundings. The house and drive were flanked on both sides by rows of mature evergreen boxwoods and towering elm trees, their branches now bared of leaves. A high brick wall ringed the front of the two-acre property, providing a deep sense of privacy and seclusion.
He’d acquired the house only a month ago from the Marquis of Durbenham, who’d used it for exclusive parties, the kind of entertainments about which a man would rather his wife know nothing. But after getting caught en flagrante by said wife, the marquis had put the property up for sale, remarking that the old harridan had tainted the place with her invective and quite ruined his fun. Rafe could well imagine.