Stormy Persuasion Page 40

The ecstasy arrived for her first and rather quickly. She hoped it wouldn’t always be so, because reaching that pinnacle was half the pleasure. Perhaps she could persuade him to make love to her again. But the champagne caught up with her as she finished the thought and nodded off.

“I want to marry you—if I can have you without your family.” Nathan was only half joking, yet she didn’t respond. “Judy?”

He sighed when he realized she was already asleep. Or pretending to be, and that would be his answer, wouldn’t it? No, he was done with doubts, had experienced far too many when it came to her. He dressed, kissed her brow, and slipped out the way he’d come in. It was her turn now. If she wanted him in her life, she knew where she could find him to let him know.

Chapter Fifty-One

Judith woke with a smile and a nasty headache. The headache went away as the morning progressed; the smile stayed. It had been a magical night, just not at the ball. It would be nice if she could remember it in more detail, but her joy was still overflowing. She ought to caution herself that she’d felt this way before after the first time Nathan and she had made love, but she didn’t. This was different. This time she was sure Nathan loved her.

Jacqueline showed up midmorning instead of staying home to receive her own callers, which wasn’t unusual. Jack didn’t have the patience for all the formalities of a Season. But she still couldn’t escape all of her beaux. Having been told where she’d gone, some of them followed her to Judith’s house, so the parlor on Park Lane was quite crowded today. Which was why it took so long for Jack to find a moment alone with Judith.

When she did, Jack observed, “You seem quite chipper today, though I have to admit that was a splendid ball, wasn’t it?”

“No, but it was a splendid night.”

“I thought you went home angry?”

Judith didn’t reply to that, grinning excitedly instead. “I’ve made a decision. You were right. I should have told Nathan long ago how I feel about him and I will, just as soon as I see him again.”

“He barely said two words to you last night. D’you really think that’s going to happen?”

“Yes, for the simple reason that he made quite an impression last night on the ton. He’s no doubt on everyone’s lips this morning.”

Jack glanced over her shoulder, then nodded with a snort. “He’s definitely on their lips.”

“So every hostess is going to want to include him now.”

“They might want to, but no one will know where to send invitations!”

“But I do.” Judith grinned. “And I’ll make sure they do.”

“You’re going to break our pact to wait, aren’t you?” Jack said with a sour look.

Judith hugged her tightly. “I have to. You will, too, once you feel this way. It’s the most glorious thing, Jack, really it is.”

“Just so you know, if he hurts you again, I’ll do the same to him.”

Judith laughed. “So will I!”

She canceled her engagement for that afternoon so she could go through all of her own invitations and jot brief notes to each hostess. She gave his address in care of Derek, so she sent her cousin a note, too, to deliver them to the ruin. She even added the postscript “It will be repaired soon!”

Of course Nathan might not go straight to Hampshire. He might be staying somewhere in town until he could declare his intentions to her. But in that case he’d finagle his own invitations, just as he’d done last night. So she did expect to see him again, and soon. The only thing she didn’t expect was for him to call on her on Park Lane. He’d made it perfectly clear that he didn’t want to run into her father. But he could come through the window again. . . .

Her confidence started to wane by the end of the week. She didn’t get despondent, though. She got determined instead. She confided in Jack about what she was going to do. Jack merely cautioned her not to go alone. So they found her parents in the dining room that morning, and just in time. Anthony had just stood up to leave. His habit was to escape the house before the callers arrived.

“Sit down, please,” Judith requested. “And don’t worry, the house is now officially back to normal.”

“Did a few months fly by without my noticing?” Anthony said drily as he resumed his seat.

Judith might have laughed at his quip if she weren’t putting the cart before the horse, as it were. “No, but I am henceforth declining all callers, well, except—no, he won’t, and we know why he—” Before she got any more tongue-tied, she declared firmly, “I’ve canceled all my engagements, too. The Season is over for me.”

Roslynn might have had some warning, but she still exclaimed, “Judy! It’s barely begun!”

“But there’s no point, Mama, when I already know who I’m going to marry.”

Judith was looking at her father as she said it. He didn’t ask her who, merely said, “I don’t suppose he intends to ask my permission first?”

“And risk a resounding no?”

“But has he even asked you yet?”

“No, but he will, just as soon as I get to Hampshire. Will you take me?”

He didn’t answer. He looked at Jack and asked, “Are you responsible for the courage in her words?”

Jack grinned cheekily. “No, actually, I just wanted to watch.”

Anthony snorted. “Minx.”

He didn’t look angry, and it was usually quite easy to tell when he was. Judith still held her breath as he stood up and came over to put his hands on her shoulders.

“Is he who you really want, poppet?”

“More than anything.”

“That’s quite a lot. And since I’ve already had my brow beaten quite enough lately, I suppose I should summon the coach.”

She gave a delighted cry and hugged him, but he wasn’t quite done. “Of course, if he should disappoint you, I’ll want to know why.”

At least her father didn’t say he’d kill him. One hurdle down, the bigger one to go. . . .

Chapter Fifty-Two

The ruin looked the same from a distance . . . well, except for the roof, which appeared to be finished, and all in clay tiles, too. But as Judith got closer, she saw that many of the windows had been replaced as well, perhaps all of them. Nathan had obviously been busy this week. Too busy to open the invitations she’d arranged to have forwarded to him? Or had he deliberately ignored those?

The front door was wide-open. So were the new windows. As she stepped inside, she noticed that a nice breeze was circulating. The entrance hall and the parlor hadn’t changed much, but at least the cobwebs were gone and the staircase had new boards, all but one, which Nathan was still hammering in place.

His shirtsleeves were rolled up, his tool belt strapped to his hips. And he was wearing knee-high Hessian boots? She almost laughed. Did he not realize he shouldn’t be working in such fancy footwear? But he probably found them too comfortable to resist. He’d obviously done some shopping while in London. Or collected the rest of his wardrobe that he’d left in England when he sailed.

She’d been filled with such determination and resolve. Why the deuce was she suddenly so nervous now that she was here? But she didn’t have much time. Her father was allowing her a brief visit alone with Nathan, but warned if she took too long, he’d come to find out why. Did he really think they’d make love in a crumbling old ruin? Well, rake that he used to be, he probably thought exactly that.

She carefully stepped inside because he’d replaced some of the rotted floorboards in the foyer, but not all.

“Are your nieces here with you? I’ve looked forward to meeting them.”

He glanced back, straightened, and came down the stairs without taking his eyes off her. “They’ll be remaining with Peggy and Alf, your uncle James’s caretakers, until the house is fit for them.”

“You mean until it’s finished?”

“No, just until it’s no longer a danger to curious children. Which won’t be much longer. The attic and the first floor sustained the worst of the weather damage. The second floor hasn’t needed nearly as much work. The girls’ rooms are already done.”

She was surprised. “And furnished?”

“Well, no. And I’ve still got to paint or wallpaper them and figure out what to put on the new floorboards.”

“You don’t think they’d like to be a part of that? Watch the progress? Make choices for their own rooms? They could stay with my cousins next door in the meantime. They’ve got an army of servants to watch over them, including my cousin Cheryl’s old nanny. And Derek’s cook makes such wonderful desserts. They’d be thrilled.”

His brow furrowed with a frown. “Too thrilled. I don’t want them getting used to a grand mansion like that because then they might be disappointed with the home I’m giving them.”

Judith knew his nieces would be delighted with this manor once she added her touch to it, but she didn’t say that. He was annoyed enough with her suggestion to finally take his eyes off her face—and notice the kitten in her arms. She’d brought it as an excuse to visit him—if she ended up needing one.

“I never expected to see it again.” He couldn’t help smiling at the furball. “Figured you would have found it a home by now.”

“Bite your tongue. Silver is quite entrenched. And it has been determined to be a he by my mother.”

His eyes came back to hers. “Why did you bring him?”

“I know you only gave him up because you had nowhere to keep him while you finished your business in America. I thought we might share Silver, now that you appear to be staying in England for the time being.”

“Share?”

“We can—figure something out.” She looked away.

Her nervousness had just shot through the roof. This wasn’t exactly how she had expected this meeting to go. Why wasn’t she in his arms already? Or was he as nervous as she was?

She set Silver down on the floor. He didn’t wander off, just started licking his paws. Nathan might have picked him up, but he followed her instead when she walked over to the room she’d first met him in—when she’d thought he was a ghost. And had, more recently, been kissed by him. He never did confirm that he was a smuggler. Still, she was sure he used to be one, but hoped he was done with that part of his life.

The room looked the same with blankets hanging over the windows and a rumpled cot in it. But the blankets looked clean. She guessed he simply preferred this old study for now to a moldering master bedroom upstairs.

“Show me the hidden room.”

She wasn’t sure he would, yet he moved past her to one of the decorative wooden strips spaced several feet apart on each wall to cover the seams of the old wallpaper. One had a switch on the side of it.

“A bookcase used to hide this,” he explained as a panel opened in the wall next to him. “It was empty, the books likely stolen, and wasn’t worth keeping, so I used it for firewood long ago. Then I noticed the latch when I was here one day, trying to see how easily I could punch my fist through these walls.”

She grinned. That must have been one of his angry-at-the-house days. She went over to peer inside the room. The decent-size space was filled to the brim with stacks of lumber and other supplies—and an open case of brandy up front, a few bottles missing from it.

“Ahha!” she couldn’t help saying.

He laughed behind her. “When The Pearl became mine, her crew expected me to continue in my father’s footsteps. Smuggling I knew how to do. Merchant trading is much more involved, and I didn’t know the first thing about finding markets that would turn a profit instead of a loss, or making contacts for cargoes. I do now, thanks to the Andersons.”

She swung around. “So you’re going to try legitimate sailing?”

He shook his head. “I’m actually thinking of hiring a captain and sending The Pearl to join the Skylark fleet, which was Boyd’s suggestion. They already know all the markets and have all the necessary contacts.”

“And you’ll turn a tidy profit from that while you—farm?”

He laughed again. “No, I think I’m more partial to your idea of building a few rental cottages. After the house is done, of course.”

They were talking about such inconsequential things while she . . . “I don’t have much time.” She hurried back to the main room to make sure her father hadn’t yet arrived.

He followed her and put his hands on her shoulders to keep her there. “I was going to give you two weeks.”

“Two weeks for what?”

“Before I returned to London for your answer. But I’m not exactly partial to climbing through windows, so I’m glad it only took one week for you to bring it to me. But if you heard my question, I’d like a chance to rephrase it.”

“I’m pretty sure I would have answered if I’d heard one,” she said breathlessly, her heart starting to soar. “When—did I miss it?”

“Last week, and thank God you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

She swung around with a gasp. “Excuse me?”

“I mucked it up, darlin’. You would have been too angry to say yes.”

He obviously wasn’t talking about what she hoped he was, if she would have been disturbed by what he’d said. She’d rather not get angry with him ever again, so she wasn’t going to ask him to repeat whatever he’d mucked up.

Instead she said, “About that rephrasing?”

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