That Perfect Someone Page 29

“Your brother isn"t going to join us either?” Julia asked as the first course, fresh fish with herbed cream, was set before them.

“He"s not here,” Richard replied with obvious disappointment. “Mathew"s other grandfather had some business to see to in Manchester. He invited them to join him there for a few days.

He"s the Duke of Chelter, you know.”

“Yes, I know. My family was invited to Charles"s wedding. You don"t remember?”

“I guess you don"t remember that I wasn"t there.”

“Actually, that did slip my mind. Why didn"t you attend your own brother"s wedding?”

“Because I refused to watch him make such a serious mistake. He couldn"t stand his wife, you know, even before the wedding.”

That sounded so similar to their own situation that it sobered both of them. But she couldn"t just end the conversation like that. “All I remember about her was she had a very high-pitched voice.”

“Call a spade a spade, m"dear. Lady Candice screeched like a stuck pig.” Julia nearly choked on her fish. She really couldn"t stop the giggle that followed. “As a child, I thought her voice was quite unique, but let"s not be unkind. There was probably something wrong with her vocal cords at birth.”

He stared at her for a long moment before he said, “Bloody hell, never thought of that. But she was a chronic complainer, too, and you don"t inherit that at birth.”

“Quite right.” Julia grinned at him. “But, she wasn"t very pretty—”

“Don"t forget the spade,” he interrupted with a grin of his own.

She nodded her concurrence. “Very well, rather ugly, with an odd voice, couldn"t find a husband on her own, I"d say she had reasons to complain.”

“You"re taking her side because you"re a woman?” he asked curiously.

“No, just viewing her from a different perspective.”

“Well, consider this perspective,” he said as he gave her a bite of his fish. “The poor and the sick have reasons to complain. She was a duke"s daughter and was spoiled … rotten.” She wondered why he"d paused until she realized he was staring at her with an expression that looked like fascination. He"d been feeding her from his own plate every so often, loverlike. A good touch, she"d thought, and she went along with it. She even pretended that his food tasted much better than hers, putting on a dreamy expression each time he gave her a bite.

But now much more heat was in his eyes.

He even confirmed the direction his thoughts were taking when he said, “I"m about to toss those two out of the room and have you for dinner.” She felt a sudden rush of warmth and her stomach seemed to flip right over with delicious fluttering. And he wasn"t even serious! She knew that, yet she had to fight an urge to climb into his lap and throw her arms around his neck. But he"d said it loud enough for the two male servants to hear him, so she didn"t blush as deeply as she would have if she weren"t sure this was just another “demonstration” of his.

How was she supposed to respond? What would a lover say to such a provocative statement? She had a feeling it might be “Behave—until later.”

“With a promise like that, I"ll force myself to,” Richard said with a seductive smile.

Oh, good Lord, she"d said that aloud? But his grin, a real one, assured her he was pleased with her contribution to the “demonstration.”

That more than anything else enabled her to return to their neutral subject of conversation, albeit with a deep, composing breath first. “So nothing made Candice likable?” He didn"t answer immediately, took a deep breath of his own, even glanced up at the ceiling for a moment before his eyes came back to her and he said, “When Charles gets here, ask him if he ever got around to liking her.”

Julia shook her head. “I always liked Charles, but that question is a bit too personal—even for my future brother-in-law. I"ll trust your word on it.”

He raised a brow at her. “Liked my brother, did you?”

She chuckled. “No need to get jealous. What was there not to like about him? He was always kind to me.” And you weren’t, but she kept that thought to herself.

He didn"t. “And I wasn"t.”

“Shh,” she tried to stop him.

“Don"t shush me, the whole world knows we hated each other.”

“Don"t exaggerate.”

“Very well, all of England.”

He was still exaggerating, as only their respective families and servants had known. But she wasn"t sure why he"d brought up a subject they shouldn"t be discussing—when the walls had ears.

She was beginning to feel uncomfortable when he lightened the subject by adding, “We don"t need to tiptoe around it, love. It"s our past. It"s certainly not how we feel now.” No, it wasn"t. There was nothing to hate about this Richard. Like the man she"d been drawn to in London at Georgina"s birthday ball, he could be quite charming, even gallant. He also had a wonderful sense of humor. And he was honorable. He didn"t have to be here doing this for her, just for her. But he owed her, so he was paying his debt.

A stunning thought came to her—she liked this man. A lot. How oddly disconcerting.

Chapter Thirty-eight

SOON AFTER DINNER JULIA retired to her freshly cleaned room. She wanted to be up early to direct the workers when they arrived. She and Richard had decided to bring large work crews to the manor for several reasons. It would add credence to their wanting to marry. It would also create so much commotion that the earl might be distracted by it—and not think so much about them. But, mainly, it gave them an excuse to enter all the rooms downstairs as they had to determine what needed to be done to them before the wedding guests arrived.

She was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed combing her hair. She usually performed this nightly ritual at a vanity, but none was in the room. She"d actually added a mirror to the list of items she had included in the note she"d sent to her father, apprising him of their reception. He"d insisted on being informed immediately. He might still show up to give Milton a piece of his mind, if he gained enough strength to travel before they accomplished their task. But she was still hoping she and Richard would be out of there in days, not weeks.

She should have been exhausted after all that frolicking in the lake today, but oddly she was wide-awake. Too many thoughts were clamoring for attention, but she was trying her best to ignore them by counting the strokes of the comb through her hair. She was almost to one hundred strokes when the door opened.

She froze. She wasn"t dressed to receive anyone, much less Richard, yet there he stood, frozen as well at the sight of her. She was wearing her favorite summer nightgown, sleeveless, V-necked, made of white silk spun so thin it was the softest thing she owned. And the most transparent.

He came out of his daze first. A slow smile began to form on his lips, but then he groaned and did an about-face.

He didn"t leave, though, merely closed the door and said a bit tersely, “Get decent.” She immediately dove off the bed to the wardrobe where her robe hung and quickly donned it. Made of the same thin silk, it wasn"t that much of an improvement, but at least her arms were covered now and an extra layer of silk crossed her chest. But for good measure, as soon as she pulled the belt tight, she flipped a lock of hair over each shoulder to also lay over her breasts.

“Are you decent yet?”

She glanced up and tsked. “If you would get in the habit of knocking, you wouldn"t get embarrassed seeing what you shouldn"t.”

“I"m bloody well not embarrassed. I"m bloody well fighting tooth and nail to stay on this side of the room.”

Her mouth formed the Oh though no sound came out. He sounded so aggrieved!

Impassioned by what he"d seen? That he was having difficulty over the mere hint of ni**les under silk almost made her smile.

“Yes, it"s safe to turn around—and tell me what you"re doing in here.” He faced her. His eyes still covered her slowly from head to foot before he said, “We"re spending the night together.”

Oh, God! An image immediately filled her mind of the two of them entwined on her bed on The Maiden George and she nearly melted on the spot so much heat washed over her. But he couldn"t mean they"d be doing that again! That couldn"t be what he"d come there to tell her.

He"d just had a very male reaction to her scanty attire.

Really, the man needed to choose his words more carefully. A bit miffed at how easily he"d excited her, she said, “I beg your pardon?”

“Don"t get huffy. I won"t touch you. You"ve my word on it. It"s just for effect. I want the maid to find us together in the morning and report it to my father.” He was serious! How could she survive an entire night with him not touching her? She couldn"t. This was not a good idea.

She quickly reminded him, “We were quite demonstrative today. Do we really need to do more?”

He merely said, “I didn"t like his not making an appearance tonight at dinner. When I don"t see him, I don"t trust him.”

“And when you do see him?”

“I don"t trust him period, but at least it"s easier to gauge what he"s thinking if I can see his mood.”

“He probably just still doesn"t know what to make of our desire to get married. It"s the very last thing he was ever expecting to happen, us falling in love. And besides, it"s my maid who"ll open that door in the morning, not your father"s upstairs maid, so nothing"s going to be reported to him.”

“Do you trust your maid?”

“No, she"s new, but she likes the job because I overpay her, so she isn"t going to jeopardize it.”

“Do you overpay all your servants just because you"re rich?” She wondered why he sounded so annoyed. Did he resent her wealth? Or was he still upset over finding her half-dressed?

She tried not to react to his sour mood with one of her own and simply said, “As it happens, it"s my opinion the average wage isn"t enough to feed pigs, much less people. And my family has always paid our employees what we feel they are worth, not what the standard dictates.

You get much better results when a worker is happy and well fed, you know. Or would you know?”

He chuckled at last. “Good point. No, I wouldn"t. I"ve never in my life paid for a servant of any sort.”

“Never? All the years you were gone?”

“Didn"t I mention I lived at sea mostly? Or in someone else"s house?”

“A lord without a valet. I"m—amazed.”

“Don"t be. It"s not hard to polish your own boots or wash your own clothes. Now, cooking?

No, never tried that, if you must know.”

He grinned, then added, “As for my new plan, it"s still a good one. Father"s only heard that we"ve slept together from me. And that"s really the clincher in this charade. So I want him to hear it from someone else. And if your maid can"t be trusted to take the tale to him, come along, we"ll use my room.”

He didn"t wait for her agreement, just grabbed her hand and led her down the corridor to one of the two corner rooms at the end of it. She still didn"t like this new plan of his at all, despite the logic of it.

But she felt some shyness mixed with avid curiosity. She really wanted to see the room he"d grown up in. But when she entered the room and glanced around it, she saw nothing that indicated a child had ever lived here. Faded jade wallpaper, old yellow drapes open to the night, an empty fireplace with nothing on the mantel, not a single painting on the walls. As it was a corner room, one set of windows looked out on the side yard, the other faced the front lawn. None were open, so the room smelled a bit musty despite having been cleaned. There was a small desk where Richard might have done schoolwork. A bookcase, empty of books.

“This wasn"t your room when you were a child?” she asked as he closed the door behind them.

“It was.”

Not a single thing in the room suggested it had ever been used except as a guest room, so she asked, “You took everything with you when you left?”

“No, it was probably all thrown away when it became obvious I wasn"t coming back. I just took what I could carry, a pocketful of childish mementos, and some clothes. I was running for my life—well, it definitely felt like it. I"d just had my hair butchered, every single lock of it cut off to the scalp with a knife because I wouldn"t cut it when I was told to.” She gave him a sharp look. “That isn"t funny.”

“No, it wasn"t.”

Her eyes widened in horror at his somber tone. “You aren"t joking?” Then she guessed, “Is that why you wear it so long? Because your father wouldn"t let you?”

“A matter of choices that I never had, and a reminder I always carry with me of what I escaped.”

He didn"t really leave England because of her, she realized. She was just another of his father"s choices that had been forced on him. But he wasn"t a boy anymore, and his father could no longer make the choices for him—except by illegal means. Harsh measures of that sort were unnecessary, as long as Milton believed their charade.

“Now laugh,” he told her.

She snorted at such a ludicrous suggestion. “I don"t think so.”

“Don"t feel sorry for the boy, Jewels,” he said with some exasperation. “He doesn"t exist anymore. I"m well pleased with my life now, at least I will be again as soon as I get the hell out of England.” Then he nodded toward the wall to his right. “That"s his room. I want you to laugh loudly, so he knows you"re in here.”

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