“Now,” he continued, stepping closer. “Let me assist you with your outer garments.”
She moved back. “I-I’ll do it, thank you.”
Hands visibly trembling, she tugged loose the bow of navy grosgrain ribbon tied beneath her chin, then pulled off her hat. Her hair gleamed, dark and sleek as sable, the clean scent of French-milled soap drifting faintly in the air. He took her bonnet and set it on a nearby marble-topped foyer table.
When he turned back, she was fumbling with the clasp on her mantle and doing a poor job of it. Crossing to her, he covered her small hands with his own much larger ones and gently stilled her movements. “Please, allow me.”
After a moment, she relented, her hands falling to her sides, her eyes averted.
Smoothly, efficiently, he unfastened the small, filigreed gold and pearl clasp at her throat but made no move to slide the garment from her shoulders. Drawing a finger over her satiny cheek, he watched her eyelids fall shut and her lips tremble. Was she truly prepared to take this scheme through to its conclusion? Would she be grateful, even relieved, if he offered her one last opportunity to escape?
He sighed. “Are you certain this is what you want? It’s not too late to change your mind, you know.”
Her eyes sprang open and her jawline firmed. “Please don’t toy with me. I’ve already told my brother the loan is paid. I can’t go back to him now and say I’ve lied. This…bargain between us is the only way.” She paused, a sudden glimmer of hope dawning in her expression. “Unless you’d be willing to forgive the debt.”
Rafe blinked at the suggestion.
Forgive the debt? Impossible.
Even if he was magnanimous enough to contemplate such an action, he wasn’t that much of a fool. After all, he hadn’t earned the nickname “The Dragon” by letting people cozen him out of money—not even pretty little widows with eyes as rich and dark as fine, melted chocolate, and lips that beckoned with the sweet perfection of a newly blossomed rose. If he were inclined to act the gallant, he supposed he could allow her to walk out the door with no more than a few kisses and a gracious thank-you. But he had a reputation to maintain among his business-minded brethren, and that was one thing he could never afford to lose.
Besides, he wanted her.
Wanted her badly. So no matter what wild impulses might be swirling inside his head, there would be no foolish acts of charity in the offing today.
“No,” he said in an implacable tone. “The agreement stands. Six months as my mistress or thirty thousand pounds payable on the morrow. The choice is entirely yours. But if you choose our arrangement, acknowledge you do so willingly. Tell me you come to my bed of your own accord.”
A long silent moment passed before she drew a deep inhale and met his gaze. “I come to you of my own accord. You may take my mantle now if you like.”
Tension he hadn’t known he felt eased from his muscles, quickly replaced by a renewed simmer of desire. Reaching out, he lifted the heavy garment from her shoulders, then turned to hang it inside a closet under the staircase.
When he returned, he stopped directly in front of her, letting his gaze rove over her body in a leisurely downward sweep. She wore a long-sleeved, dark green kerseymere wool dress, conservatively decorated with black ribbon stitched at the throat and cuffs. A modest garment, he was certain she’d worn it for warmth, not style. Despite its plainness, the gown did nothing to disguise her generous curves, nor hide the shape of her breasts and hips that so overtly declared her femininity. He couldn’t wait to peel her out of the thing and reveal all the glories he was sure awaited him underneath.
Her chin came up as if she could read his lascivious thoughts, as if she were waiting for him to pounce on her right there in the hall.
Tempting idea, he thought wickedly. But he’d leave that pleasure for later when the foyer wasn’t quite so uncomfortably chilly.
Squaring her shoulders, Julianna braced herself for whatever was to come next. Not an easy task when her instincts were ringing an alarm, warning her that Rafe Pendragon was far more man than she could handle.
If she had any sense, she would run. Now!
But she couldn’t retreat, nor could she rescind her promise to give him access to her body, to let this stranger touch her in the most personal of ways. She only hoped she had the strength of character to see it through.
Lord above, she whimpered silently, what have I done?
Before she had time to panic further, Pendragon reached out and lifted one of her gloved hands into his. Slowly, mesmerizingly, he began to remove the glove, tugging it free one finger at a time. Ever so gradually he slid the cloth away until her hand lay naked within his own. The move seemed an astonishingly intimate act somehow, even more so than a kiss might have been.
Linking his clear green gaze with hers, he raised her hand upward and pressed it against his cheek and jaw. Warmth spread like fire across her palm, his skin smooth and recently shaven, the plane of his jaw firm, the muscle and bone lying strong beneath.
Captured inside the moment, Julianna waited, her heart hammering, her breath a shallow draught in her lungs. It grew shallower, faster, as he turned his head and slid her hand sideways, positioning her palm so its center pressed against his lips. A gasp escaped her as he opened his mouth and drew a sleek circle on her skin using only the wet tip of his tongue. He kissed the spot, then lowered her hand, curling her fingers into a gentle fist as if to hold his touch in place. She shivered, a surge of electricity rippling over her body, her skin flushing hot, then cold, then hot again.
Mortified, that is what I ought to be, she chastened herself. Mortified and shocked all the way to her core. Not even Basil had ever touched her in such a way, and he’d been her husband. Only she wasn’t mortified, she realized, nor was she pulling away.
I can’t refuse him, she told herself. That’s why she allowed such an embrace. That’s why she remained still in his grasp.
Yet it wasn’t coercion that kept her quiescent as he repeated the process on her other hand—glove, caress, kiss. At length he moved away to calmly deposit her gloves on the hall table next to her hat.
Her hands throbbed, skin oddly tight and tingly, almost swollen. Crazy pulses beat in her wrists, making themselves known to her in a way she’d never before experienced.
What has he done to me? she marveled. And what will he do to me next?
Crossing back, he captured her right hand in his own; then without speaking a word, he pulled her gently after him.
Up the stairs they went, then along a carpeted hallway toward a tall wooden door at the end. Pausing, Pendragon swung the door wide to reveal a vast room that she surmised must be the master suite.
Decorated in browns and greens, the masculine atmosphere announced itself immediately. Bookshelves carved of dark walnut lined the sitting room walls while in the center sat a broad sofa done in hunter green, flanked by a pair of matching leather armchairs. A cheery blaze crackled within the fireplace, the mantel above cast in gold-and-white marble. Italian, she guessed, noting the tiny sheep and ethereal shepherdess carved on its face.
Beyond, through a set of connecting double doors, lay the bedroom. Peering through, she could see a tall armoire and large dressing table with a gilded mirror, both pieces finely made. Yet it was the huge tester bed that caught and held her attention. High and wide, the bed was carved from the same dark walnut as the bookshelves and other furniture. It dominated the room, eclipsing everything else, its canopy rising to nearly the height of the ten-foot ceiling, hangings and tester sewn from a heavy, pale bronze satin.
Her mouth dry, Julianna forced her eyes past it to the stately casement windows. Bright sunlight poured through the glass, spilling in an arc across the carpeted floors like a pool of liquid gold.
Behind her, Pendragon shut the door, the soft click of the lock sounding loud as a gunshot to her ears. Only then did he relinquish her hand.
“Would you care for a drink?” he asked, nodding toward the heavy sitting room sideboard, and the silver tray on top with its trio of crystal decanters and glasses.
Ordinarily she didn’t drink spirits, certainly nothing stronger than the occasional sherry. Then again, she didn’t ordinarily find herself in an unfamiliar house, inside a bedroom suite with a man who shortly expected her to become his mistress.
“Yes,” she agreed, deciding a dose of false courage might be exactly what she needed right now.
Crossing to pour the drinks, he returned far too quickly for her comfort. He held out a snifter, an inch of amber-hued brandy inside. Accepting the glass, she cradled it in both hands, afraid she might drop it otherwise. Giving a curious sniff, she let the sweetly pungent aroma curl inside her nostrils.
She’d never had brandy before.
Screwing up her courage, she took a healthy swallow and promptly lost her breath, the inside of her throat burning as if it had been set ablaze. Gasping, she fell into a paroxysm of coughing, wheezing faintly as she strained for air.
“Easy,” he counseled, rubbing a palm between her shoulder blades. “Don’t take so much at once. Small sips.”