That Perfect Someone Page 27

“Excellent, one less thing for me to worry about. I"ve hired triple crews to make sure the room is finished in time. I might even add an enclosed garden off of the room, if time permits.

And please don"t worry, I"ll have the room restored to its current state right after the wedding.”

“Then why not just hold the service outside?” Milton said. “I already have numerous gardens.”

“But what if it rains!” she said, aghast. “No, it must be indoors. Nothing is going to stop me from having the wedding I"ve always dreamed of.”

Milton glanced at both of them. Richard"s arm tightened about her waist. If that didn"t warn her what was coming, the suspicious glint that entered Milton"s eyes did.

“I find it preposterous that you could fall in love in the span of a week—even if you didn"t hate each other for so many years. Why are you really—?”

“Some of that week was spent in bed,” Richard cut in bluntly, adding in an ironic tone,

“Didn"t you once tell me that would change her attitude? You forgot to mention it would change mine as well.”

“Richard!” Julia gasped, as embarrassed as she"d known she would be, and angry, too, but she directed that anger at the Earl of Manford. “We don"t need to explain ourselves to you. The only reason we are here is for the wedding, but come to think of it, it was more my mother"s dream to have the wedding here, than mine. She instilled that dream in me because I saw grandeur in this place through a child"s eyes, but quite frankly, your home as it stands simply won"t do.”

“How dare—,” Milton began to sputter.

“Peeling wallpaper,” Julia continued, “cracked floorboards, the main chandelier in the hall missing a third of its crystals, frames on paintings rotting away they are so old. It will involve much more than creating a chapel to have Willow Woods ready to receive members of the ton in less than a month. Not that I couldn"t manage it. Everything needed to refurbish the entire house can probably be found in Miller warehouses. But I"m not so sure I want to now. In fact, Richard, let"s just leave. This was a bad idea.”

“A moment, love,” he said while pinning his father with a curious look. “You didn"t actually think this was a reunion, did you? She had to convince me to come here, and you can be certain, it wasn"t easy. I would have been quite happy never to step foot here again, and after the wedding, I don"t intend to return. She"s right, this was a bad idea, but it"s an idea already in progress. The banns were posted before we left London, and her father probably has sent out most of the invitations already.”

“The location can be changed,” she assured Richard.

“That isn"t necessary,” Milton said gruffly and a bit red-faced now. “You"re welcome to have the wedding here.”

“When you just questioned the validity of our love for each other?” Richard said to his father. “Do you even realize how hard-hearted and narrow-minded you seem in not understanding how easy it was for me to fall in love with her? But just for the record, Father, we met in London at the beginning of the Season and didn"t recognize each other a"tall. I was completely smitten and did my best to seduce her. She nearly succumbed, drawn to me as well.”

“Richard, stop giving him intimate details!” she protested again.

He didn"t quite ignore her, just leaned down to kiss her cheek and say, “Hush,” before continuing his improvised tale. “It was a shock when we finally figured out who we actually were, and as she said, we parted in anger because of it. But then, ironically, you brought us together again and were responsible for the powerful emotions that consumed us—relief, gratitude, and anger that was not directed at each other for a change, but at you. And, well, one thing led to another, and the recent attraction we"d just experienced took over again.”

“My God,” she said in wonder. “He is responsible, isn"t he? We never would have seen each other again if I didn"t feel compelled to rescue you.”

Richard chuckled at her. She must have looked suitably awed because he was able to say,

“You don"t need to feel beholden to my father, really you don"t, love. But if you still want to be married here, I suppose I can tolerate a few weeks under this roof while you make all the preparations for this grand wedding of ours.”

Chapter Thirty-five

THE YOUNG MAID WHO had shown Julia to a bedroom had wanted to clean the room immediately. She"d had no notice of guests coming to visit, she"d whined, so she hadn"t prepared a room ahead of time. Julia shooed the girl off, telling her to come back and clean it later that afternoon while she wasn"t in it. She just wanted some privacy immediately so she could tremble in peace.

But collapsing on the bed as soon as the door closed stirred up so much dust, she sat up and coughed and sneezed for nearly a minute. That took care of the trembling, and she almost laughed when the clear outline of her footprints across the dusty hardwood floor caught her eye.

She hadn"t been exaggerating about the condition of Willow Woods. The bedroom she had been shown to probably hadn"t been used, or even cleaned, in years. With so few servants, the maids—if there was even more than one for the entire upstairs—obviously only cleaned the regularly occupied rooms of the large manor house.

She"d been given a room with blue drapes, walls, and bedcover. At least the decor used to be blue. The wallpaper was so faded it was more a dull gray now. The dark wood floorboards needed to be polished. The room contained a narrow desk, but no vanity, hence no mirror. She needed to make a list soon of all the items she would need from the warehouses in London.

She was filling her mind with these trifles so she wouldn"t think about the interview with the earl, which had shredded her nerves so badly. She might have thought she was up to that confrontation, but she"d known how easy it would have been to slip up and say the wrong thing. She wasn"t certain that Milton had been completely convinced by their charade, despite his giving his permission for the wedding, which was why she"d started trembling as soon as she left his study.

For a man who had wanted this wedding to happen for most of her life, he didn"t seem the least bit delighted that it was finally taking place. At least not yet. He obviously had some reservations—or needed more proof that she and Richard were sincere. Such as an actual wedding.

She started to laugh hysterically at that thought, but cut it off abruptly when the door opened again and Richard stepped inside.

She shot off the bed, stirring up another cloud of dust that she tried to wave away as she said testily, “You need to figure out how to knock.”

He closed the door softly behind him. “We"re soon to be married, no knocking.” She raised a brow. “That doesn"t give you privileges.” Then dropping her voice to a whisper, she added, “Even if we were getting married.” He just grinned at her before he glanced at the deplorable condition of the room and said with a wince, “I was really hoping your room would be in better shape than mine, but obviously not. Willow Woods really has fallen into a miserable state.”

“Just one more thing to prove how desperate your father should be for us to marry.”

“He"s always been greedy, but desperate might be more accurate now. The gambling debts I left him with would have pinched his pockets even more. Apparently, he had to borrow from Charles"s father-in-law to pay them off.”

“You like to gamble?”

“Not really. Those were deliberate losses to get him to disown me back then. It didn"t work, so I left instead.”

She really knew so little about Richard anymore. But the snob was gone. Had snobbery ever really been there? Or had his rage over the situation caused that nastiness she remembered?

And today, he"d been remarkable.

Recalling his performance, she said, “You were amazing downstairs. How did you do that?

You mask your emotions so well! You even had me believing you!” He blushed slightly. “Sorry for embarrassing you, but my father has a suspicious nature. If anything deviates from the norm he wants to know why. And what we"re attempting here is about as far from normal as it gets.”

“Do you think he believed us?”

“It"s hard to say at this point. I don"t really know him anymore. Nine years ago when I left, he wouldn"t have done something as horrendous as what he just did to me. But he had slowly been heading in that direction, his punishments growing steadily more harsh. If he didn"t believe us, he still can"t afford to not go along. The boon we"re offering is too great for him to risk losing it. If he does believe us, well, it would be my guess that he"s simply forgotten how to be gracious anymore.”

“I don"t recall him ever being gracious.”

That wasn"t really true. When she"d been young, the earl had seemed like any other grown-up she"d met. His belligerence had only shown up when the situation had begun to turn sour and her father had tried to end the relationship between their families.

She suddenly realized she hadn"t been whispering any more than Richard was, and she ran to the door, opened it, looked both ways down the hall, then closed the door with a sigh.

“We"re really going to have to be more careful around here. We can"t afford to be overhead.”

“Why don"t we go outside and enjoy some of this fine weather?” he suggested. “And give the servants a chance to clean these rooms.”

Julia thought that was a splendid idea, especially since they could talk freely outdoors with no one nearby. She grabbed her bonnet and opened the door, but paused to dust off the back of her skirt a little. She had left the outline of her body on top of the bedcover, it was so dirty.

“Wait!” Richard exclaimed, staying her hand. “Let me do that for you.” She glanced back to see the roguish glint in his eye and his reaching for her skirt. She swung around to face him. “No, I don"t think so.”

He was grinning widely now. “Ah, come on, love, what better opportunity than a little dust!”

“Really, you"re not putting your hands on my arse.” She tried to sound stern, but his teasing humor was contagious.

“Be a sport,” he cajoled, and reached for her again.

She laughed and quickly backed her way out the door with a firm “No.” He ignored her denial and leapt forward. She shrieked and ran down the corridor. Giggling now, she half turned to make sure he wasn"t getting too close … and bumped into his father.

Her blush was hot! “Beg pardon,” she got out, and hurried down the stairs in embarrassment.

“You sure know how to put a damper on things, old man,” she heard Richard complain before he bounded down the stairs after her.

Chapter Thirty-six

WITH THAT BIT OF silliness upstairs, the last of Julia"s nervousness vanished. She was amazed at herself for being drawn into those childish antics with Richard, though she reasoned she"d needed an outlet of some sort, and laughter was a potent cure for dour emotions. Temporarily at least. But even her embarrassment over Richard"s father witnessing some of it went away quickly once the afternoon sun touched her cheeks. She even removed her bonnet so she could feel more of the sun"s warmth, hooking the tied ribbon over her wrist.

She told her maid, who was standing beside the coaches, that she could direct the luggage inside now and unpack. There had been no point in doing so sooner when their welcome had been in question.

“That was brilliant,” Richard said as he closed the front door and joined her at the bottom of the entrance steps.

She gave him a curious look. “Did you do that on purpose so you could chase me around the house?”

“What do you think?”

She didn"t know what to think, but since he seemed so triumphant over it, she simply said,

“Give me warning next time.”

He shook his head with a grin. “Spontaneity plays out better.” In that he was likely accurate if it produced the desired effect, but that silliness could have gone either way. Considering their past and her nervous state, she could just as easily have railed at him for not being serious, and Milton would have walked in on a fight.

“Did you suspect he"d be up there to witness our antics?” she asked.

“I suspect he"ll be watching us like a hawk. But he also has to be full of questions, so, yes, I had a feeling he"d track me down within the hour.”

Richard put an arm around her waist to lead her. The long drive stretched before them lined with trees in full bloom, the sun peaking through the treetops. But not taking this picturesque path, he led them around the house instead. The large terrace back there ran along a good portion of the house, with doors leading to it from the parlor, the formal dining room, even the breakfast room. The place didn"t bring up fond memories for Julia, and the lake was back there, too—even worse memories.

She tried not to think of them and blurted out instead, “Did you start the search yet? I don"t want to stay here a moment longer than we have to.”

He rolled his eyes at her, making her blush with the realization of how illogical her question was. “Our baggage hasn"t even been brought in yet,” he pointed out. “But allow me to spend a few days with my brother and nephew, who I haven"t even met yet. When we do leave here, I"ll be returning to the Caribbean.”

“Where?”

“The Caribbean. It"s where I"ve made my home.”

“Not France?” Then she immediately hit her forehead. “No, of course not France. How silly of me. That was just your fake identity.”

Prev Next