London, England 1810
“He is quite smitten with you, you know.”
Julia Freemont lowered her fluttering fan and boldly glanced back at the group of admiring young gentry slowly being swallowed into the crush at the Buckingham soiree. “Which one?”
“Most assuredly not any of those.” Her best friend Isabella St. Clair rolled her eyes. “And your flippancy would be best saved for one of the gaggle of shallow ninnyhammers that usually shadow your every step. You know very well of whom I speak.”
Yes, she most certainly did. But she did not want to think of him. Or the indecent thoughts he evoked. So easily recalled given the scandalously delicious dream she’d stretched languidly awake to only that very morn. In need of more relief than her delicate, silk fan provided, she set her sights on the yawning balcony doors. Quickening her pace, she left her companion no choice but to do the same.
One foot over the threshold, Julia skid to a stop and spun so fast, had she not dropped her fan and grasped Isabella’s shoulders, they would’ve ended up a shocking tangle of limbs on the floor.
“What-- Oh...” Isabella gasped softly, espying the two men leaning casually against the stone balustrade not fifteen feet away.
“Forgive me,” Julia said in a rush. “Had I realized how close you were, I would not have turned so suddenly. It only now occurred to me I might benefit more from refreshment than fresh air and--”
“You do not truly expect me to swallow that plumper, do you?” Isabella looked meaningfully toward the balcony. “One might expect cowardice from me, but never you.”
Had Julia not been pricked by the hint of truth in the softly spoken accusation, she would have immediately addressed the erroneous estimation of her friend’s own character. “It has nothing to do with cowardice.”
“Then why does the mere sight of Mr. Barringer have you running in the opposite direction? And do not even think to convince me you feel the least repulsed by the man. Admit it. You are undeniably attracted to him.”
“I most certainly am not.”
“Careful or your nose will grow as long as that wooden puppet’s from the story your mother used to tell us as children.”
“And it would appear your head is made of the same hard substance.” The words spilled out on a stream of irritation and growing frustration. “That aside, what would be the point in encouraging him? Mr. Barrigner is--”
“Well-mannered. Wealthy. And ever so handsome.”
“You are forgetting one very important detail. It matters not how disgustingly rich or handsome he is. Or that his grandfather is a Duke. I could never marry a bastard.”
“Oh, my.” Isabella’s eyes grew to the size of gold sovereigns, alerting Julia to an unexpected presence behind her.
Chest constricting, stomach somewhere between her knees and toes, Julia turned to see the object of her disparaging comment straightening from a bend, her forgotten fan in hand. The additional presence of his cousin Robert, Isabella’s fiancé, only added to her embarrassment. “Mr. Barringer, I...”
Through a haze of mortification, she watched him gather her gloved hand within his, press her fan into her palm, and with firm pressure wrap her numb fingers around it.
“Things of worth should never be treated so cavalierly, Miss Freemont.” He took his hand away. “For one day you may come to regret their loss.”
The low, evenly spoken comment, delivered along with her fan, was meant for the sake of anyone close enough to hear.
The look of loud condemnation in his frosted blue eyes was meant for her alone.
Before Julia could form the basest of apologizes, he was gone.
And where before she sought a respite from the stifling heat, she longed for nothing more than her thickest woolen shawl.
* * * *
“This had better be damnably important, Henry,” Brandon Barringer responded to his butler’s interruption without looking up from the ship’s lading bill he was tallying.
“I did inform the lady you were not to be disturbed, sir. However, she is most insistent upon seeing you,” Henry stated dutifully, easing further into the room.
“A lady, hmmm? I suppose this lady has a name,” he inquired distractedly, more concerned with the numbers adding up in his head than the answer to his question.
“Certainly, sir. Miss Freemont.”
“Bloody hell!” Brandon transferred his frown from the half-written sum and the bold, black slash that trailed off the neatly columned page to his butler’s unruffled features.
“Shall I show her in?”
“No.” With a dismissive wave of his hand he returned his attention to the papers on his desk. “Inform the chit I’m not in.”
“Why not inform the chit yourself, Mr. Barringer?” asked a soft spoken feminine voice that snapped Brandon’s head up to see his butler step hastily aside and an elegant, black-haired woman swish past him to enter what had, up until now, been a bachelor’s private sanctuary.
“Shall I have tea served, sir?” Henry asked cordially after a slight clearing of his throat.
Setting the quill into its gold holder with exacting precision, Brandon consulted the open pocket watch on his desk and leaned back in his chair. His gaze, fastened on the sonnet-inspiring, though somewhat strained features of the woman standing stiffly inside the door, he said, “I doubt Miss Freemont will be staying long enough for tea, Henry. You may leave us.”
“Very good, sir.”
“And close the door, please,” he added pointedly when Henry would have left it open.
Julia’s gaze went the way of the butler. His slight hesitation and the surprising glimmer of mild disappointment directed at his employer did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. But in the end, the request was carried out with quiet dignity.
Inspired by the servant’s gracious deportment, she swallowed both her pride and the automatic recrimination that leapt to her tongue at the impropriety. After all, she had barged into his home practically unannounced and, God help her, there was nothing proper about the reason she’d come.
“At the very least, a gentleman would stand in the presence of a lady, Mr. Barringer.”
“A lady would not enter the residence of a bachelor without proper chaperone, Miss Freemont.”
Julia stiffened her spine against his insolent scrutiny and the undeniable truth of his words. “Am I to be denied the courtesy of being seated as well?” she inquired, locking her knees against an overwhelming urge to wilt. Unsure whether the weakness stemmed from the wicked display of uncommonly muscular chest and hint of dark brown curls revealed through the lax opening of his white linen shirt...or from the reason she’d sought him out.
“By all means. Be seated.” With a half-hearted flick of his wrist, he indicated her choice of two high-backed chairs facing him.
Julia forced a step forward. Nearly reversing the movement when he finally rose and with blatant disregard for the deep-brown jacket draped over the back of his chair, matched her step-for-step until they stood a mere two feet apart.
The small distance between them didn’t eliminate the need for her to tilt her head back to meet his inhospitable gaze. And for several heart-sinking beats, standing in the shadow of his intimidation, she wondered if the task she was set upon was that of a fool’s.
Shaken by the thought, she swayed.
He reached out. Clasped her shoulders.
The unexpected warmth of his hands jolted her into taking a hasty step back.
He arms immediately fell away, as did the momentary softening in his eyes, “You needn’t fear, Miss Freemont,” he said, easing back to perch on the corner of his desk. “I imagine I have as little desire of touching you as you have of me doing so. I merely meant to steady you as you seemed on the verge of swooning.”
Oh, Lord, he must think her the biggest of twits. And to make matters worse, he now thought she abhorred his touch. A misconception she would need to rectify immediately if her mission was to succeed.
“You are mistaken, Mr. Barringer.” Moving in front of the chair, she readily sank into it. “I do not find your touch abhorrent in the least. I find it...” under his quirked brow interest, she searched frantically for a suitable word, “acceptable,” she finished lamely, nearly groaning under the weight of her uncharacteristic social inadequacy.
Her floundering composure in desperate need of a respite from his unappeased regard, Julia took great care in removing her muff and discarding it to the oval, cherry table nestled between the chairs.
From beneath veiled lashes, she watched as he adjusted his balance for better comfort. Position, proximity, and the hugging fit of his fawn-colored riding breeches, afforded her a detailed view of his thickly muscled thighs as they tensed and shifted. Clearly, a confident man who relished physical pursuits, he was not small in any respect. Size, stature, or presence. The observation both frightened and enthralled her, bringing with it the most peculiar unfurling sensation deep in her stomach.
“Are you going to tell me why you are here, Miss Freemont? Or are you waiting for me to broach the subject?”
Her throat constricting on a half-formed breath, her gaze swung to his. Did he know?
No sooner did the question form, than a rational blanket of impossibility settled down to silence it. How could he possibly know the true purpose of this visit when she’d only convinced herself of its necessity that very morning? An agonizingly belabored decision, settled upon after weeks of alternately restless and sleepless nights.
“I assume it is your father’s gaming debt that has brought you here.”
She exhaled a relieved breath. “Yes, I--”
“You needn’t have bothered, Miss Freemont. You will be glad to know that even I am not bastard enough to hold you accountable for what he owed me.”
Brashly reminded of her regrettable remark, Julia swallowed a lump of mortification
“As far as I’m concerned...” the inflexibility in his voice grabbed her attention, “the sacrifice your father made more than paid his debt.”
Grief fisted her heart. How tactfully he alluded to it--her father’s suicide.
“Now that your fears have been laid to rest, I think it best you leave.”
Her fears laid to rest? Had her plight not been so desperate, she would have laughed at the monumental inaccuracy of his statement.
“I shall ring for Henry to escort you out.”
“No! Wait!” The shrill, desperate plea burst from her lips, sounding overly loud in the densely book-lined space.
Eyeing her with surprised speculation, he aborted his effort to rise.
“Please,” she said more softly. “Please, wait. You...you do not understand.” She pushed the words beyond the increasing knot of panic in her throat.
“What is it I do not understand?”
“There...there are others.” She forced herself to maintain eye contact, her courage stumbling beneath his dark, piercing intensity.
“By others, I assume you mean debts.”
“I am not your solicitor, Miss Freemont. I would suggest you speak of these matters with him.”
“I already have.”
The long, exaggerated breath he drew was far from encouraging.
“It seems you were not the only one to whom my father owed money, Mr. Barringer. I have only recently been made aware that he’d been gambling in excess for the past seven years,” her voice dropped to a near whisper, “since my mother’s death.”
Through the parting of her cloak, she unobtrusively fingered the emerald silk along her thigh, hoping to channel some of her agitation and perhaps draw strength from her choices. One, being the gown she’d chosen to wear. The exact shade of her eyes. Purchased months earlier on an extravagant, audacious whim. Never worn before today, because of its indecent neckline.
“Exactly what are you saying? Your father gambled away most of his fortune?”
Julia lifted her chin. “No, Mr. Barringer, not most of it. All of it.”
His eyes narrowed to speculative shards as he eased off the desk and stood. Began pacing. “So you’ve come to me.” Each word and stride made ominous by its strict measure. “Expecting what? Expecting me to help you?”
“Thought what? That I would be foolish enough to hand you a small fortune?”
He jerked to a stop, his head whipping around so fast, Julia sucked in a startled breath.
“Or is it marriage you seek? Has your desperation suddenly made the taint of my birth more palatable to you? You want to be my wife?” he sneered, leaving no doubt of his feelings on the matter.
“No!” His aggravation fueling her own, she jumped to her feet. “That is not what I want.” She clenched her hands. Forced herself not to turn. Not to run from the room. Refused to fall prey to her emotions--as her father had.
His nostrils flared. “If not that, why are you here? What is it you want from me?”
“To become your mistress!” Julia blurted.
His head reared back. “Mistress,” he repeated, drawing out the word as if it were foreign to him.
For several long, excruciating seconds silence reigned, leaving Julia to wonder if she’d socked him mute.
Then he burst out laughing.
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