London financier Rafe Pendragon has a reputation for ruthlessness, and exotic beauty Julianna Hawthorne is determined to clear the debt her brother owes him. Captivated by Rafe’s virile good looks, weakened by his intoxicating mix of danger and sensuality, Julianna boldly agrees to Rafe’s shocking terms: six months as his mistress. As Rafe’s intense green eyes pierce her body and set it afire, Julianna can only imagine what emotions his kiss may unleash.
Surrendering to the pleasures of seduction and carnal delight, Rafe never anticipated that love would be the cost of his bargain. When he realizes that a vindictive enemy may harm Julianna should their clandestine liaison be exposed, Rafe must choose between loving her and protecting her. To save his fair mistress, Rafe must risk what he has already lost: his heart.
2007 National Readers’ Choice Awards finalist for Best Regency Romance.
Winner of the 2008 Phoenix RWA Desert Rose Golden Quill Award for Best Historical Romance.
4 ½ Stars, Top Pick!––"Warren delights with the first volume in a new trilogy. Her gift for creating very sexy, poignant romances should endear her to readers – and ensure their reading pleasure all night long." Kathe Robin––Romantic Times BookReviews
5 Roses!––"THE brightest new star in the historical romance genre, Tracy Anne Warren brings us the first in her new Mistress trilogy. Fast paced and passionate, this trilogy is my top pick for your fall and winter reading."—Debbie Kepler, A Romance Review.com
"My Fair Mistress is a seductively fun read. Ms. Warren is a wonderful storyteller, effortlessly transporting her readers to 1812 London. Rafe and Julianna are stubborn, exasperating and perfect foils for one another. The supporting characters are entertaining and there are enough twists throughout to keep the reader engrossed to the final page. Enjoy!"—Paula Myers, Fresh Fiction
5 Cups!––"My Fair Mistress is a rich book full of elegance, desire, and romance. Tracy Anne Warren sketches a magnificent tale that grasps hold of the reader and pulls them into the exquisite world of Julianna and Rafe. This is one impressive read that I will always remember."—Cherokee, Coffee Time Romance
The rented Hackney rolled to a stop.
Lady Julianna Hawthorne leaned forward and stared out the carriage window, surprised by what she found. Instead of the average, unremarkable row home she’d been expecting, an imposing townhouse rose upward, its three stories nearly blocking out sight of the cloudless blue sky above. Clean and genteel, the Georgian residence boasted an elegant stone façade, fine green iron railing and a bright white door that appeared recently painted.
Perhaps the driver has mistaken the address, she mused. Surely this beautiful home could not belong to the man she had come to see. Hand trembling, she reached into her silk reticule and drew out a small square of paper inked with the financier’s direction.
36 Bloomsbury Square.
Her gaze flashed back to the townhouse—the numbers three and six plainly displayed next to each other on the door.
Her heart sank. No, there was no mistake. Whether she liked it or not this must indeed be the villain’s abode.
She passed the driver a generous handful of coins, with the promise of more to come to ensure he would still be waiting once her business inside was concluded. In a quiet, residential neighborhood such as this finding another Hackney cab would be all but impossible. And she hadn’t dared take her own private coach, the one with her late husband’s family crest prominently emblazoned on the side. No one, absolutely no one of her acquaintance, must ever know she’d been to this place.
Before she had a chance to change her mind and let fear send her scurrying back home like some timid brown mouse, she forced herself to alight from the carriage.
She paused, brushing a nervous hand over the folds of her warm woolen pelisse and the cerise satin day dress underneath. Knowing she couldn’t afford to delay further, she forced her feet to action. Climbing the stairs, she lifted the knocker and gave two smart raps.
At length the door opened on a set of silent, well-oiled hinges. Hard black eyes peered down upon her out of a long, brutish face. As a woman of diminutive stature, Julianna was well used to craning her neck backwards in order to look up at men. But this man, this towering mountain of flesh, was the tallest human being she’d ever seen. He reminded her of a tree. A very large, very dense oak that grew in the deepest, oldest woodlands.
But it was the gruesome, crescent-shaped scar bisecting his left cheek from temple to jaw that made her gasp, saliva drying in her mouth.
“Yeah? What d’ye wants?” he demanded, his bass voice as scary as the rest of him.
Her tongue, usually one of her most nimble allies, lay limp behind her teeth, failing to come to her aid.
The brute scowled harder as she fought for composure.
On a sharp inhale, she made herself begin. “I—I have come to speak with Mr. Rafe Pendragon. Might you be he, sir?”
Merciful God, she prayed, let this not be him.
The Tree scowled harder, thick black brows scrunching like a pair of angry caterpillars on his smooth, bald pate. “Dragon’s busy and he don’t have no time for no morts today, however tasty they might look. Take it somewhere else, ducky.”
Then, in the most appalling display of rudeness she’d ever encountered, he slammed the door in her face.
Shivering from shock, she stood immobile, cold February air creeping in and around her skirts. She drew her pelisse closer.
What was it that brute had said? Something about tasty morts. What on earth was a mort? If it were what she suspected—affront rushed through her, erasing the worst of her chill.
And he’d called her ducky. Ducky!
Lips tight, teeth clenched, she raised her gloved hand and knocked again.
The door opened, the Tree reappearing. “What now? Don’t yer ears work? Told you already The Dragon ain’t interested.”
Drawing herself up as tall and straight as her five foot one inch would allow, she raised her chin.
“My good man,” she declared, speaking in an aristocratic tone that would have made her late father beam with pride, “you have obviously made some sort of mistake. My name is Lady Julianna Hawthorne and I have a pressing matter of business to discuss with your master. Pray give him this and inform him that I await him directly.”
Using her most formal manners, she extended a small white calling card engraved with her name.
Fingers the size of sausages reached out and took the delicate rectangle of paper in their grasp. He barely glanced at it, leaving her to wonder if the oaf could read. Crushing the card inside his hand, he began to close the door. But before he could manage the deed, she raced forward and slipped inside.
“I’ll wait here,” she stated, taking up a defensive stance in the middle of the attractively tiled foyer. “You may go find Mr. Pendragon.”
The huge man raked her with an appraising look, grudging admiration twinkling in his dark eyes. “Yer a pushy bit ‘o baggage, ain’t ye?”
On a booted heel, he turned away and disappeared down the hallway.
Trembling anew at her bold actions, Julianna released a shaky sigh. As a lady born and bred, it wasn’t often she had to assert herself in such an overt fashion. Had the circumstances been less dire, she knew she would not have possessed the courage. Had the circumstances been less dire, she would never have come to this house in the first place.
But desperate times, as the saying went, called for desperate measures. Her family’s welfare was at stake, and no matter the cost, she meant to save it.
The Tree soon re-appeared, his footsteps amazingly quiet for a man of his enormity.
“He says you can go in,” the giant announced, poking a thumb over one brawny shoulder. “Left door, end ‘o the hall.”
A properly trained servant would have escorted her to the room, would have announced her to his master as custom dictated. But there was nothing remotely proper about this great lummox, who swung around, opened a hidden panel in a nearby wall and vanished, presumably belowstairs.
Julianna drew in another lungful of air and braced herself for the confrontation ahead. If the master was anything like his servant, she was in for a truly loathsome ordeal.
She remembered how her brother Harry’s voice had shaken as he’d spoken the name, as he’d drunkenly confessed to her a few nights ago how he’d put himself into the financier’s power.
“I’m sorry, Jules,” he’d moaned, amber eyes moist with unshed tears and shame. “I’ve let you down. I’ve let us all down. I know I shouldn’t have touched the money, but a man’s got to keep up appearances.”
“What kind of appearances? And what money?” She frowned for a long, thoughtful moment. “Surely you don’t mean the loan for improving the home farms? Tell me you didn’t risk all that money playing cards?”
He hung his head. “Well no, not all of it, at least not at first. I gambled a bit—all the fellows do—but there were other things as well.”
“What other things?”
He hesitated, plainly reluctant to continue. “There was a girl. Prettiest little opera dancer I’ve ever seen. She . . . um . . . she had a marked partiality for diamond bracelets.”
Julianna tightened her lips but somehow she remained silent.
“The blunt didn’t seem so much at first,” Harry continued. “A bit here, a bit there. I thought I could pay it all back once the profits from the fall harvest came clear. But the crop didn’t fair as well as it should have this year, and I kept waiting for my luck to turn at the tables. Just one more hand, I kept thinking, and I’ll win.”
“But you didn’t.”
He shook his head, his face white except for a pair of ruddy streaks across his cheekbones. “The loan came due at the bank and I had to pay. A man has his honor to consider, don’t you know.”
“So you took out another loan. From this Dragon person I presume.”
Harry’s shoulders tightened. “At least he’s not a cent-per-center. I’m not so far gone in the head as to traffic with one of them. The new loan is fair, even if the interest rate is a bit higher than the bank.”
“If this Pendragon person is a fair man, then why not ask for an extension? Surely he can be persuaded to see reason.”
“I said the deal was fair, I didn’t say Pendragon was. He’s as hard and ruthless as they come. There’ll be no extensions.”
Her brother paused, drawing in a trembling, terrified breath. “If I don’t pay up by the end of the month, the estate will be forfeit. I’ll have no choice except to sell.”
“Oh, Harry,” she gasped, raising a horrified hand to her lips.
“And there won’t be any money for Maris’s come out next month,” he admitted. “‘Course it might not matter if we’re broke, what with the size of her dowry. Thank God father set it up so I couldn’t touch her portion or there’s no telling to what depths I might have sunk.”
He rubbed a distraught hand over his face. “Plague take me, Jules, what am I to do? Perhaps I ought to put a bullet between my eyes and have done with it.”
She grabbed his shoulders and forced him to look at her. “There will be no talk of that. Killing yourself is not the answer and you are never to think of it again, do you hear me? You’re our brother and Maris and I love you, no matter if you’ve made an admittedly dreadful mistake. We’ll think of a way out. I’ll think of a way out. There has to be a reasonable solution.”
Since then, Julianna had thought of little else, putting her mind and her ingenuity to the test. She’d come up with a plan, an appeal she hoped would satisfy all parties. Of course it assumed a bit of forbearance on the financier’s part. Harry said the man was remorseless when it came to business, and Pendragon’s nickname didn’t offer much reassurance otherwise. But surely even the coldest of men had some faint spark of compassion buried deep inside them. Now she had only to see if she could reach it.
Gripping her reticule tightly, she strode forward like a knight prepared to challenge a beast in its lair.
The last door to the left stood open. She didn’t knock, just slipped inside. After all, she was expected.
Paneled in dark wood, the room was shadowy but warm, a fire burning hot and red in a immense fireplace built into the center of the wall to the right.
How atmospheric, she thought. How appropriate for a dragon.
A log snapped, blazing ash roaring upward into the flue, half-startling her as she proceeded deeper into the room. Shelves heavily laden with books lined the walls, while thick woolen carpets woven with exotic Chinese symbols covered the floor, bathing the space in a cascade of browns and reds.
A branch of lighted candles stood on the corner of a massive mahogany desk at the far end of the room; watery winter sunlight making an ineffectual attempt to shine through the pair of tall, double hung windows beyond.
A man sat behind the desk, writing something in a thick, leather-bound ledger. As she approached, he set down his pen and looked up. It was only then that she saw him clearly.
Perhaps the notion revealed a measure of prejudice on her part, but she’d been ready to encounter ugliness and severity, picturing him as some sour, cruel-lipped old man, shriveled by age and the callous nature of his profession.
Instead the sight of him drove the air from her lungs. Rugged and very nearly beautiful, he possessed an aura of pure masculine power. Its impact shot like an energy bolt straight through to her toes. And he was by no means old—far from it. In his early thirties, if she guessed correctly, he was fit and in his prime.
His features were refined, even elegant, with a straight nose and strong, square chin. Long dimples creased the bronzed skin of his angular cheeks, intriguing slashes that framed a firm, yet winsome mouth. His hair was brown, but not an ordinary brown––as rich and decadent as the chocolate that arrived each morning on her breakfast tray. He kept it short, trimmed in the current fashion, a few tendrils left to droop invitingly over his high forehead.
Yet for all his beauty, it was his eyes that sent a shiver rippling over her skin. Bright and penetrating, they were the same translucent green as cool river water on a new spring day. Eyes of power and insight. Eyes of deep intellect. Eyes that seemed as if they could reach inside a person and pierce clean through to the soul. She wondered if this was how Archangel Gabriel had looked on the eve of the Fall––dangerous, deadly and sinfully appealing.
Watching him rise to his feet made her pulse quicken, his lean height complementing the impressive width of his shoulders and the narrowness of his hips. Dressed in a conservative shade of blue, he wore the well-tailored clothing of a gentleman. Everything about his appearance, from pristine cravat to polished Hessians, spoke of tasteful, understated elegance.
He quirked a single dark brow at her bold perusal, his own curiosity about her undisguised. “Lady Hawthorne I presume?”
His words startled her out of whatever trance she had apparently fallen into, abruptly recalling her to her purpose.
“Yes,” she replied. “And I assume you are Mr. Rafe Pendragon, the man who makes loans.”
“Among other investments and financial dealings, yes. I see you are a woman who likes to get straight to the point, but first, why don’t you allow me to take your cloak?”
Julianna realized she had been so mesmerized by him that she’d forgotten she still wore her pelisse. Now that she recalled it, she also became aware of how warm she had grown, perspiration beginning to dampen her collar. With a nod, she reached up and unfastened the garment’s clasp.
Moving behind her, Pendragon lifted the fur-lined cloak from her shoulders. His actions were nothing but polite, his large hands careful not to touch her in any way. Yet he was too close, his physical presence unnerving, overwhelming.
Suddenly breathless, she took a hasty step forward.
“You must forgive Hannibal,” he said as he crossed to drape her pelisse neatly over the back of a chair. “He’s never been much for the refinements.”
Did he mean The Tree? So the brute had a name, did he?
“Then perhaps you ought to consider employing someone else to greet your front door callers.”
An amused gleam shown in the financier’s gaze. “No doubt. But he has his uses.”
Yes, she thought, I can well imagine some of the uses to which he might be put. Such as frightening the supper out of imprudent youth like my brother.
“Would you care for a refreshment?” Pendragon asked. “Tea, perhaps? Or a sherry?”
Every syllable that came from his lips flowed with the warm richness of a fine red wine. He spoke like a gentleman, the cadence and intonation of his words bespeaking a life of culture and education. So what was he doing working for a living? Making loans and investments and trading on the Exchange?
She wondered at his upbringing. He was no ordinary middle-class Cit that was for certain. If she had met him while shopping on Bond Street, she would have taken him for a gentleman. Might have inclined her head and granted him a polite smile as they passed. Clearly, he had the bearing to move easily among members of her class, even those who prided themselves on their elevated status and the innate superiority of their birth.
So who was he to be nearly a gentleman and yet not one? It was an intriguing mystery indeed.
Her curiosity almost got the better of her, questions stacking up like tiny dominoes on her tongue. Abruptly, she shook off the wild impulse to pry.
This is not a social call, she scolded herself. She’d come to rescue her family from the very brink of disaster—her dear brother and sister who meant more to her than anything else in this world. She needed to focus on that fact and only that fact.
“No, thank you,” she said, refusing his offer of a drink. “I should prefer to discuss the reason for my visit here today.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” He walked behind his desk, then gestured a hand toward a chair on the opposite side. “Pray be seated and tell me why you have come.”
He remained standing while she arranged herself on the seat before he took his own. Silently, he waited for her to begin.
Her heart thumped, a familiar, half-sick rush of anxiety returning to twist uncomfortably in her stomach. She clutched her reticule and drew a breath, wondering how best to start.
“I am Lady Julianna Hawthorne,” she stated, her words dwindling to a rapid halt.
“I believe we’ve established that, my lady.”
She swallowed, her throat dry. Suddenly she wished she’d taken him up on that drink. Knowing she would lose her nerve if she didn’t get on with it, she compelled herself to speak. “I am told you’ve had business dealings with my brother, Harry Davies, the Earl of Allerton.”
His face remained impassive. “His lordship and I are acquainted, yes.”
“I understand he owes you a sum of money, a debt whose repayment is due very shortly.”
Pendragon inclined his regal head. “As you say.”
“Which is why I have come . . . to discuss the loan on Lord Allerton’s behalf.”
He raised a sardonic brow, censure darkening his gaze. “I take it he can’t pay and has importuned you to plead his case, has he? I had thought your brother possessed a bit more pride and sense than that.”
A flush rose in her cheeks, further heating her already warm skin. “His pride is very much in tact, as are his faculties. Actually Harry knows nothing of my visit today. If he did, he would be greatly displeased. But I felt compelled to meet with you nonetheless.”
She paused and lowered her voice to a confidential tone. “My brother is over-young, Mr. Pendragon, only twenty, and still learning how best to manage his affairs. Our father died a little more than a year ago and I fear Harry wasn’t yet ready to assume the pressures and responsibilities that come with a noble title. But he is a fine young man, a good boy, who simply needs time to find his feet. I can assure you he has every intention of satisfying his obligations.”
“Then he ought to have used his head instead of foolishly squandering his money. What was it, gaming or women?”
Her eyes grew wide.
Pendragon gave a rueful shake of his head. “Both, I see. Allerton’s certainly been a busy boy, has he not? His vices, however, are really none of my affair.”
“Actually I should think they are under the circumstances. I cannot defend Harry’s ill-considered behavior, but I can assure you he is extremely sorry for what he has done. I promise you he will do everything in his power to make things right if but given the chance. You seem a reasonable man. Maybe you would be willing to grant him an extension. Another ninety days perhaps—“
“Your pardon, my lady, but what good would that do? If Allerton doesn’t have the funds now, there’s little chance he’ll have them three months from now. The outcome will be the same.”
“But surely everyone deserves a measure of compassion.”
“Just so, which is why this good city has any number of fine churches and charitable organizations. I, however, run an investment business and am not in the habit of granting imprudent favors.”
Julianna refused to let herself tremble. Ethan is right, she thought, this man has no heart.
The Dragon relaxed back in his chair. “Now if I might be permitted to ask you a question.”
“And what, pray tell, is that?”
“I’m curious to know what your husband thinks of you coming to see me in your brother’s stead. Or is he also unaware of today’s visit?”
She stiffened. “I am a widow, sir. I make all of my own decisions.”
“Well, that explains a very great deal.”
His remark rankled but she decided to let it pass.
“If you refuse to grant my brother an extension,” she continued, “then I am prepared to offer you an alternate form of payment.” Tugging open the drawstrings of her reticule, she reached inside. “Here is a list of several very fine paintings in my possession. Included among them are an original Tintoretto and an extremely beautiful Caravaggio, old master works of great value.”
She passed him a sheet of paper then returned to dig inside her reticule again. “I have also brought several pieces of jewelry. They include a necklace, bracelet and ear bobs—a matching set given to me by my late husband at the time of our marriage. The sapphires and diamonds are worth at least five thousand pounds. They’re completely mine and in no way entailed to my husband’s estate.”
Opening the velvet pouch, she drew out the jewels and set them on his desk for display. The gemstones winked and sparkled with vivid life in the candlelight.
He leaned forward. “Quite lovely.”
Heartened, she pressed on. “I did some calculations and concede these items do not fully repay my brother’s loan. But if you would agree to accept these valuables now, I will promise to pay you the remaining thousand pounds in cash come the first of April. My quarterly allowance is placed into my account then, you see.”
Pendragon set aside the list of oil paintings. Steepling his fingers, he rested the tips underneath his chin and regarded the woman on the opposite side of his desk.
She really is magnificent, he mused, lush and lovely and so full of earnest animation and optimistic hope. What a shame he was going to have to disappoint her yet again.
How dare Allerton, he thought. What had the careless whelp been thinking to endanger his family’s welfare and reputation in such a manner? Even if the earl was completely ignorant of his sister’s presence here this afternoon, the young lordling deserved nothing less than a sound thrashing for his irresponsible behavior.
A lady of Julianna Hawthorne’s obvious sweetness and grace should not be discussing business with a man like him. She shouldn’t be discussing business at all. Instead she ought to be home sipping tea with her circle of elegant friends, laughing and trading amusing stories, not be here in a stranger’s study doing her level best to barter her finest jewels to him.
His jaw tightened. Striving for a pleasant yet firm tone, he proceeded. “These are very fine items, my lady. However they are of insufficient value to cover your brother’s outstanding obligation.”
Her pretty lips fell open. His gaze followed, drawn like a firefly to a flame. Unable to prevent himself, he visually traced their shape, finding her lips full and pink and every bit as enticing as a dish of ripe June strawberries. And soft. Oh, they looked soft enough to put silk to shame.
Shaking off the sudden rush of desire, he returned to the matter at hand. “The jewelry would need to be appraised,” he said. “Assuming the stones are real—“
Her eyes flashed with offense.
“—which I have no doubt they are,” he amended, “I imagine the set would fetch a little over two thousand pounds.”
“Two thousand but—“
“Resale, your ladyship. What a person pays for jewelry in a shop is far more than what the pieces are actually worth. As to the paintings, art, even fine art, is a difficult commodity to trade. It could take months to sell the paintings, and then likely for far less than you have estimated.”
Her mouth drooped, her lovely brown eyes awash with disappointment.
For a moment he felt sorry for her, an uncharacteristic urge rising inside him to grant her the boon she so desperately sought. But as he’d already told her, a few months more would make no difference, not in the end. Experience had taught him that if a man couldn’t pay his shot by the due date, chances were excellent he would never be able to pay it at all. Besides, he reminded himself, a businessman who let his sentiments override his sense soon finds himself playing the fool. And one thing Rafe had never been was a fool.
“Perhaps I have some other belongings that might make up the difference,” she continued. “I own a very nice set of silver and there is my husband’s book collection—“
He held up a hand. “Please, do not continue to put yourself through this turmoil. It’s of no use. Even if all the items you’ve mentioned were worth what you imagined them to be, they still wouldn’t cover your brother’s vowels.”
“But I don’t understand,” she sputtered. “Of course it should satisfy the debt.”
“How much do you imagine he owes, then?”
“A little over ten thousand pounds.”
He sighed. So the whelp hadn’t been honest with her. Delusions, he mused, were a convenient thing.
“His debt is triple that amount.”
“Triple?” Her voice quavered.
“Yes. He owes roughly thirty thousand pounds.”
The blood drained from her cheeks, leaving them parchment pale. “Good God,” she whispered.
“Perhaps you’d care for that sherry now?”
When she said nothing further, he rose to his feet. Soon after, he returned bearing a small glass filled with a translucent amber liquid.
“Here,” he coaxed, holding out the drink. “I’d advise you to take a sip or two.”
But she made no move to accept. In a sweep of lashes, her gaze lifted to meet his own. “Do you know that Harry will lose his estate if he defaults? That he will have no choice but to sell a home that has been in our family for over a hundred and fifty years?”
Rafe forced aside any inkling of compassion. In his profession, he’d long ago learned to do without such tender emotions. “Yes, I am familiar with the property. Allerton used it as collateral when he secured the loan. To be frank, your ancestors were remiss not to have entailed the estate. Given that, it seems surprising the property wasn’t lost or sold off many years past.”
Visibly, she struggled for control, her breath moving rapidly in and out, causing her ample breasts to rise and fall beneath the rich pink silk of her bodice and the delicate lace fichu tucked above.
He couldn’t help but watch.
What a fine example of womanhood she is, he thought. Her lush body seemed perfectly designed to make a man want to tumble her into his lap and play love games. She wasn’t pretty in the conventional sense—far too brown for a traditional English beauty—yet she was stunning all the same. Deeply dark, her hair gleamed with a lustrous hue, as fine and satiny as the polished mahogany wood of his desk. Her eyes complemented her, their color an unusual shade of coffee containing tiny flecks that sparkled like gold dust. And her skin . . . ah, her skin, smooth and translucent as a summer peach, and no doubt every inch as tasty. He wondered if she had French blood in her veins or maybe Italian, her look exotic and nothing short of intoxicating.
A real sigh escaped her lips, the sound shattering his heated thoughts.
Realizing he still held her drink in his hand, he set it down before her with an unintentional snap. Carefully, he worked to erase any hint of his former musings from his expression. Only then did he speak.
“Hard as it may be for you to accept, the financial arrangement between Lord Allerton and myself is binding and will stand as written. Now, my lady, I believe you should go. I shall see you to the door since I am sure Hannibal is busy somewhere belowstairs.”
Reaching for the small black velvet pouch that lay on his desk, he began to slip her jewelry inside, signaling once more that their interview was at an end.
“Wait!” she exclaimed.
He paused, sapphires and diamonds dangling from his fingers. “Yes?”
“I can’t leave things like this,” she said, her panic plain. “I came to help my brother, to save my family. I cannot go away empty-handed. Surely there must be some other arrangement we could make? Surely there must be something I can offer you, something of mine you want?”
Repressing a sigh, he slid the last of the gemstones into the pouch and tightened the strings. Silently, he set the sack before her.
Over the past several minutes, Rafe thought, he’d done his best to be attentive and polite, striving to help her see that her pleas and exhortations, no matter how prettily done, would not sway him to her cause. He could only admire her for her steadfast tenacity, but now she really did need to admit defeat. Lady Hawthorne, however well meaning, should go home and let her thoughtless puppy of a brother swallow a dose of his own medicine.
Rafe decided then and there to give her a shove in the right direction. He’d tried reasonable persuasion, cool argument, even a splash of cold reality. Perhaps a more fundamental approach was needed, something cruel enough to wound her, appalling enough to send her fleeing out his door.
“Something of yours I want?” he drawled darkly.
Appearing to be in no discernible hurry, he rested his hip against the edge of his desk, his large body looming suddenly above her own tiny frame. Pinning her with a bold look, he gave free rein to all the lustful desire he’d been feeling since the moment she’d strolled through his door. Blood running hot, he let his emotions gleam openly in his eyes.
Beginning with her exquisite face, he raked her with his gaze, roaming slowly, appraisingly over her neck and onto her breasts. He lingered for a few long, pointed moments before traveling onward to rove across her belly and thighs, and downward all the way to her feet. Then he started the process again, upward this time, returning for a last slow, voracious caress.
Her lips parted, color blazing on her face.
“Madam,” he said, his voice a low murmur of danger and sensuality, “I’ve told you already that your belongings are of no worth to me. There is only one thing from you I want, and that would be to strip you naked and take you to my bed. So unless you’re willing to offer yourself to me in exchange for your brother’s debt, we have nothing further to discuss.”
She gasped, her body visibly shivering. He waited, expecting her to leap up, grab her possessions and run screaming from his house.
Instead she sat, silent and utterly still, only her cheeks displaying her inner turmoil, her skin flushing alternately pink, then pale, then pink again.
Finally she drew a shaky breath and raised her chin. “If I agree,” she murmured, “what would be your terms?”
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