That Perfect Someone Page 25

“Don"t count on it.” She grinned, reminding him, “You were a snob.” He laughed again. “A little perhaps, but not toward you. You could have been a queen and I wouldn"t have behaved any differently. It was never you that I fought against, it was my father handpicking my bride without even asking me. It was my not having any sort of control over my own life that was the focal point of my rage.”

The subject was getting touchy, yet their emotions were remaining neutral for the moment, at least hers were. That they could discuss this without going for each other"s throat was amazing.

Then his tone did turn somber when he continued, “When I was sixteen, I"d gotten too big for Father to take a stick to. I took it from him when he tried to hit me with it. He hired his brutes then to enforce his will. Do you know what it"s like to be beaten by servants who actually hated the aristocracy and took perverted pleasure in being ordered to teach me a

„lesson"? Then they threw me at father"s feet, and all he said was „Maybe next time you"ll do what you"re told." What sort of man is that uncaring about his own son?”

“One who hates you?”

“Hates? Nonsense. All the hate is on my side. I"m quite sure he simply knows no other way to be.”

That attitude annoyed her, particularly after the memory he"d just shared, which actually had her feeling sorry for him. “Don"t make excuses for him, Richard, just because he"s your father.”

He raised a brow. “What part did you miss about how much I hate him?” He was taking offense. The conversation might have ended abruptly if she hadn"t shocked him by asking, “Are you certain he"s your real father?”

“Of course he is. How many times I"ve wished he wasn"t, but he is.”

“But how do you know?”

“Because I wasn"t singled out for his harsh discipline. Charles was treated the same, he just buckled under and never fought it like I did. And when Father wasn"t dispensing punishments, he was usually cordial to both of us. Not loving, mind you. He was never that. But he never displayed any sort of hate, either, just anger whenever we broke his rules or didn"t jump immediately to obedience. And that"s how he was raised, you know, so I suppose he thought what worked on him would work on his own sons. Bad parents raising more bad parents,” Richard ended in disgust.

“Nonsense, or are you saying you"d raise your own children that way?”

“God, no!”

“Exactly, so that"s no excuse for your father"s atrocious treatment of his children.” She knew about his mother"s promiscuous Season in London, but she wasn"t sure she wanted to mention that when it sounded as if Richard didn"t even know about it, and he was already much too defensive about the subject. If he and his brother had been treated equally, then perhaps James"s speculation about Richard"s being a bastard had been off the mark.

So she ended with “He"s simply evil.”

“There we go agreeing again.”

Richard didn"t sound the least bit amused and sat up on the edge of the bed and put on his pants. With his warmth gone so abruptly, she was acutely aware of her own na**dness, but her clothes were out in the middle of the room where he"d dropped them. As she started to get under the covers, he tossed her blouse and skirt onto the bed, so she made quick work of getting back into them while he was facing in the other direction.

He didn"t turn around until he was tucking his shirt back in his pants. “What are you really doing here, Jewels?”

A blatant accusation was in his tone, even in the expression on his face, which made her stiffen defensively and scramble to her feet on the other side of the bed. “I told you. I spoke to your father and he told me to prepare for my wedding—and what he"d done to make it finally happen. This was the only way to stop that.”

“I see,” he said a touch derisively. “So you weren"t helping me, you were helping yourself.”

“Exactly!” she was hurt enough to say.

He gnashed his teeth in exasperation. “You could have saved both of us from this nightmare if you had just ignored that contract and married someone else.”

“I was going to, with my father"s blessing. He thought we could weather the storm that might result from breaking the contract. He didn"t know your father would make it a personal vendetta to insure we never recovered from the scandal. Your father alluded to that when I went to inform him I was getting on with my life. He"s a damned nobleman. The trouble he can stir up is—too much.”

“Isn"t your family already so rich it doesn"t matter?”

“You"re suggesting my father retire? He"s barely middle age!”

“No, but perhaps you"re overreacting just a little?”

“When my father has only just begun to recover from a major accident that left his mind damaged for the last five years!? You might have no trouble letting your father be embroiled in a social as well as business scandal if the situation were reversed, but I love mine and I won"t let anything disturb his recovery.”

“I"m sorry, I didn"t know your father"s condition was so fragile.” She was getting close to tears again and glanced down to try to control her emotions. Her eyes landed on the bed between them, and the rumpled covers, evidence of something really beautiful that had happened between them. That calmed her a little, actually a lot. There had to be a way to convince Richard that they needed to find a way out of this dilemma, not just ignore it anymore.

“He wasn"t going to leave you in Australia, you know,” she said, raising her eyes to him again. “He just wanted you to suffer enough and think you were never getting out of there, so that you"d do anything he told you to do in order to escape that hell.”

“That sounds like him. But I doubt he knew exactly what he was condemning me to, that I might not have survived long enough to be „broken."”

She reserved doubts about that, but was still trying to make her point. “I was sure, after that ordeal, that you"d hie off and disappear again. That"s how you reacted before, you just ran away.”

“What choice did I have back then? I was a boy.”

“You"re not a boy anymore,” she said calmly. “And I believe you owe it to me now to find a way for us both to be done with this once and for all.”

He stared at her hard for a moment before he asked suspiciously, “Are you suggesting we marry?”

“No! Of course not. But I"ve run out of ideas. That contract needs to be destroyed, but I have no way of getting my hands on it.”

“That would end it? Despite it being well-known that we"ve been engaged all these years?”

“Known, but who knows it was writ in blood, as it were, binding our families, not just us?

Any child from either family would have sufficed, you know. It didn"t have to be you and me.

But my parents had no other children, and I suppose your father already had plans for Charles, so by the time we first met, it was taken for granted that it would be you and I who formed this family tie.”

“You"re saying Charles could have married you—after he was widowed?” She blinked. “Yes, I never even considered that. I"m sure your father must have, yet he never brought forth that solution to your absence. Perhaps Charles refused to have a second wife picked out for him?”

Richard frowned. “When I recently saw him, my brother did admit that his son has given him the courage to defy our father, and Father treats him with kid gloves now because of it.

Charles and the boy are Father"s link to the duke, after all.” Richard"s eyes swept over her again before he added, “I can"t believe Charles wouldn"t have agreed to marry you, though, if he was asked to. And you and he were never at war like we were.” She blushed slightly. “Perhaps you can ask him about it someday. But that doesn"t help me out of this situation. Our tie is well-known. Besides, it"s also well-known that you"ve been gone all these years, and I expect you to be gone again. With no groom and no contract, your father would have nothing to hold me to, which would invalidate his threats.” Richard sighed. “All right, give me a little time to think of something. And we will be done after this, right?”

“Certainly, why wouldn"t we—?” She stopped, blushing furiously, because he was staring pointedly at the bed now.

Chapter Thirty-two

WHEN RICHARD TOLD HER they would steal the contract from the earl, Julia"s first thought was yes! A perfect solution! But then he told her how they would do it, and she thought he was out of his mind. She still thought that. His plan was far too risky!

So she refused, of course, and was quite adamant about it. She didn"t rescue him so he could jump right back into the fire. He didn"t get angry that she balked—annoyed definitely, but not angry. She didn"t expect him to present the plan to his friends, though, that night at dinner in the captain"s cabin, to gain their support.

After Richard laid his plan on the table, as it were, Gabrielle was the first to react. “What a splendid idea and so daring! It almost makes me wish I was going along.” Drew stared at his wife. “Not a chance.” Then he glanced at Julia, his expression quite concerned. “Did you actually agree to this?”

“No, I think it"s too dangerous, now that we know what the Earl of Manford is capable of,” Julia replied.

“Smart girl,” Drew said.

Drew"s taking her side made Julia admit, “I do think stealing the contract is a good idea, though. I just don"t think Richard and I should risk contact with the earl again to accomplish it.”

“Then how does it get stolen?” Gabrielle asked.

“I could hire a professional for the job.”

“An actual thief?” Richard scoffed, then added, “You think they advertise their credentials?” She stared at him incredulously. She"d just given him an out, releasing him from any further involvement. Why wasn"t he jumping on her revision of his original plan to avoid their participation in the theft?

James seemed to concur with her when he mentioned, “Thieves are easy enough to find if you know where to look. That"s how my son Jeremy met his wife, Danny. He needed to hire a thief and caught her in the trap that he set for one.”

Julia was surprised to hear that rumor confirmed. “I"d heard people joking that she had an odd background, but I didn"t think it was true.”

“Indeed it is, but through no fault of her own. The poor girl was separated from her family when a nasty lesser member of it tried to kill her and her parents for the coveted title. She was barely knee-high and too young to even know who she was when a band of young thieves found her and took her in. Jeremy helped to reunite her with her mother, who survived that tragedy. Course he was head over heels by then,” James added with a chuckle. “So it wouldn"t have mattered if she was an aristocrat or not.”

“Which was your case, wasn"t it?” Drew couldn"t resist pointing out with a smirk.

“Put a lid on it, Yank,” James said in a droll tone. “We both know your sister is the exception to any rule. And besides, George can"t help it that she has barbarians for brothers.” Julia watched Richard closely as his one true love was mentioned. He didn"t appear to even notice! Though with the lady"s husband in the room maybe it was simply self-preservation that had him mask his feelings.

But Richard apparently still preferred his plan over Julia"s, possibly because it was so daring, as Gabby had pointed out, and that appealed to him. Or maybe he felt so beholden to her for arranging his rescue that any option that didn"t include some risk to himself wouldn"t actually remove his debt to her. He"d definitely want to settle that debt. It had to be sticking in his craw that he owed her anything.

For whatever reason, he seemed to want another opinion to tip the scale, so he turned to Ohr and asked, “What do you think of my plan?”

Ohr didn"t even have to think about it, simply said, “Fate will decide the matter.” More than one of them rolled his or her eyes at Ohr"s response, but Richard disagreed.

“People decide fate, fate doesn"t make decisions for them.”

“No?” Ohr said, and even grinned. “A matter of interpretation then.” Julia sighed. One neutral opinion, one siding with Richard, one siding with her. She hoped to settle the matter by confirming James"s support, which she wasn"t quite sure of yet, and asked him, “So you do think a hired thief is the better plan?”

“Didn"t say that, m"dear. In fact, I should point out that if your thief gets caught, that contract will end up getting so well hidden, it will never see the light of day again. So I"m afraid I have to agree with the blighter. Amazing, ain"t it? You"d think a man who covets another"s wife wouldn"t have the backbone to—”

Richard definitely didn"t miss that mention of Georgina and snarled, “You"ve made your bloody point, Malory!”

“Much as it pained me, I was complimenting you, you ass,” James said drily.

“I"d rather be insulted, thank you very much,” Richard rejoined stiffly.

James shrugged, but then with another glance at Julia, said, “The risk will be his, not yours, as it should be considering what he owes you.”

Julia groaned to herself. She simply couldn"t bring herself to disagree with James Malory, and that decided the matter.

Chapter Thirty-three

JULIA SHOULD HAVE STUCK to her original resolve! Richard"s plan couldn"t be enacted without her full participation, and while she might have been talked around to an agreement that evening aboard The Maiden George, the more she thought about it, the more she didn"t think she"d be up to the task. Yet there she was in her family coach, Richard sitting beside her on the plush seat, and they would be arriving at Willow Woods within the hour.

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