He kept her waiting, but not for long.
“Please be so kind as to wait here, madam. Lord Huntley will join you shortly.”
Upon her arrival, Lady Catherine Corvedale, Countess of Bewleton, had been shown into the library, a room of massive shelves overflowing with books and periodicals of every type. The Corvedales were not book lovers. Her late father-in-law had frequently opined about the danger that came of women reading too much. What a pleasure it would be to have the time to explore these shelves, she thought, her gaze flickering around the imposing space.
A large desk stood at one end of the room with an overstuffed chair and settee directly across. A fire burned merrily in the grate. It was a comfortable space, but her nerves were wound too tightly for her to appreciate any of it. She sat on the very edge of the chair, waiting for him.
She had dressed carefully, not knowing what was appropriate for a meeting of this sort, but wishing that he might see her at her best—as ridiculous as that might be, given the circumstances. Still, black had never suited her, and the high collar and long, heavy sleeves of the widow’s weeds were stifling on this unusually warm spring day, making her feel like an old crow. She had put a little color on her cheeks, but there was no way to conceal the dark circles and worry lines that had etched themselves across her face in the span of a few days.
He strode into the room a few minutes later, looking every inch the titled lord. His shoulders were broader now, his boyish frame filled in with lean muscles. The crystal-blue eyes and the brown hair, the color of a finely aged whisky, were still the same. Otherwise there was little else to recall the smiling young man she had once known. In place of the formal black overcoat and trousers from yesterday’s funeral, he now wore a snowy white shirt, undone to just below his collarbone, the sleeves rolled up to reveal muscled forearms sprinkled with brown hair. Dark green trousers fit snugly against his tautly hewn body. It was the first time they had been alone in the same room in fifteen years, and she had never felt as tense or uncertain as she did at this moment.
“James,” she said, taking in the sight of him. She had not meant to utter his name like that, but the word slipped out as the years fell away. As if the past were just a bad dream and it was just the two of them together again, the air fraught with possibilities instead of betrayals.
“Lady Bewleton,” he said, bowing, his voice formal, with no trace of warmth. In that instant, she knew with a sinking heart that her mission would be for naught. He wasn’t going to help her. There was no reason for her to stay.
“I should go,” she said awkwardly, rising from the chair.
He looked at her quizzically. “You have just arrived.”
She could see that she had set him off balance, and that made her a little bit happy, as she herself could not seem to keep her bearings.
“I do not think…” Her voice trailed off as she looked at him again, allowing all her senses to fully absorb his presence for the first time in years. They stood no less than five feet apart, but every nerve in her body was alert and alive, as if his strong hands were touching her body. She felt as light-headed and breathless as she had when they first met.
“You do not think what?” he said, staring at her intently, his liquid gaze caressing her features. For a long moment he was not the oh-so-intimidating Lord Huntley, but just James. Her
She tried to focus on his question. “I fear I am on a fool’s errand,” she said, still unable to unlock her gaze from his. It was terribly unfair that those ice-blue eyes had not lost their ability to simultaneously chill and heat her senses.
“How so?” His voice was gentler now, as if he had fully assessed her weaknesses and decided to take pity on her.
“I need help, and now that I have seen you, I do not…” Her voice broke a bit, the despair threatening to overwhelm her ability to bring forth words. “I do not believe that you will help me.”
“What exactly is it that you need from me, Catherine?” His voice lingered over the syllables of her name, the deep tone striking a chord that made her tremble inside.
“Do you know why I am here?” she asked. She hated the way her voice sounded almost breathless.
“Yes, I do, actually,” he said, and she could not tell if he felt anything of what she was feeling, or if this was just an amusing little game to him—or perhaps a casual conversation with someone he had once known.
She forced herself to ask the thing she longed to avoid most of all. “Will you help me?” she asked steadily. By the look in his eye, she knew that he understood it all. Every bit of it. And that whatever happened next, it would cost her. He would have his pound of flesh.
“I will help you,” he said, his cool tone giving no evidence of the burning tension that snaked between them. If he had reached out to touch her, she knew she would have shattered into pieces. “I will help you,” he repeated. “But there will be a price. You know that, don’t you?”
She nodded and shivered, the ice eyes searing her right down to her soul. The need she had gone so long without tending suddenly came alive within her, the sparkling heat flaring in places she had not expected. Whatever his terms, she knew the price she would ultimately pay would be much higher. Something elemental within her would be lost forever if she gave anything to this man. But what choice did she have? What choice had she ever had?
“You will get your money back,” she said, hoping her voice would not betray her. She must be brave, no matter what. Her son was counting on her. The whole family was too, although they did not realize it. “I will repay you as soon as I can. I just need a little time.”
His short laugh was without humor. “I don’t care about your money.”
“What is it that you want, then?” She feared his answer.
He paused. “You.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“My terms are you.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, but her question was a lie. She knew. She had known from the start how it might go. From the moment the solicitor had informed her she had just thirty days following her husband’s blood-soaked death to repay the staggering debts he had left behind. And then revealed the name of her creditor.
“Seven days,” he said.
“Seven days,” she repeated.
He emitted a long sigh, and she felt she had failed him somehow, had not been clever enough to divine the meaning behind his cryptic words.
“You are here to beg me to save you from financial ruin, are you not?” he asked, and she nodded. There was nothing to argue about there. “My price for forgiving the debt is seven days with you. For one week, I will be your master. I will own you, body and soul.”
She stared at him as she sought to comprehend his words. She had known, but hadn’t. Could not have predicted exactly what he would want from her because what he was asking was beyond her thinking. Past anything she could have imagined. Now that he had said the words, she felt unable to react. As if numbed by laudanum, she was incapable of absorbing the meaning of his demand.
“Do you find the terms to be agreeable?” he asked, and in the unyielding tenor of his voice she heard the tiniest tendril of uncertainty. He knows that what he is asking is wrong but is doing it anyway.
It gave her hope. Perhaps the young man whom she had once loved was not entirely lost inside this chilly stranger.
“No decent woman could find such terms agreeable. No decent person would make such an offer,” she said fiercely, the heat rising in her cheeks.
“We all have choices,” he said, looking bored now. “The question for you is whether spending a week at my mercy is a price you are willing to pay to save the Corvedales. If I were you, I wouldn’t do it. They are bloody useless people.”
“My son is not useless.” She flared and wanted to slap him when he laughed.
“Yes, of course. Your son. How could I have forgotten?” His voice went flat. “Tell me, just how far gone were you the night you begged me to give you a child? Was Charles not coming up to scratch as hoped?” He gave her a calculating look. “Or perhaps your son’s father is yet unknown?”
His insult was unmistakable, and the rage she normally kept so well hidden rose inside until it was all she could do not to scream at him. For her, that night was a sacred memory, and she hated him for diminishing it with ugly insinuations. But it would do her no good to throw his words back in his face as she so badly wanted to. She would grieve the moment later when she was alone. For now she would be strong.
“No one who has laid eyes on my son could ever doubt his father’s identity.” Her voice trembled slightly, but her gaze back to him was steady. She hoped he could not sense the molten anger bubbling beneath her surface. “The family resemblance is quite remarkable.” Her words wouldn’t matter, she knew. His mind had been made up about her long ago, and to some degree she couldn’t blame him. She was not the only one who had been hurt.
“Another fine performance, Lady Bewleton. Bravo,” he said, bringing his hands together in mock applause.
She looked at him in frustration. “Why do you wish to spend seven days with a woman whom you so obviously despise?”
“Is it not obvious?” His tone was silky now. “It’s not an insubstantial sum I am owed. I want my money’s worth.”
“No one is worth that much money, least of all me.”
“We shall see, will we not?” he said, and his look and tone sent a shiver down her spine. She was dealing with either a fool or a madman; she was not sure which.
“What if…” she began, but he cut her off abruptly.
“There are no what-ifs
. These are the only terms I am offering. If you refuse, then whatever happens to you and your son will be none of my concern.”
“You will forgive the entire amount for just seven days with me?” she whispered, unable to believe him.
“Yes.” His tone invited no further questions.
“For revenge?” It took all her courage to voice that particular fear. But she had to know.
“Madam, this conversation has reached its end. If you are agreeable to what I have proposed, then I will advise my solicitor to make the necessary arrangements. The exact terms shall, of course, remain private between the two of us. If you do not wish to move forward on that basis, then please let us not waste each other’s time any further. You have one day to consider the matter.”
He would not be shamed from this path. Of that she was now certain.
“May I ask a final question?”
He looked impatient. “If you must.”
“What does it mean that you will own me ‘body and soul’ for a week?”
“What does it sounds like?”
“I am not at all sure. Will you hurt me?”
She saw the bleakness in his eyes and remembered that he believed the last hurt between them had been delivered by her.
He said nothing, but reached for her in a moment that felt so inevitable it was as if it had begun before he had entered the room. As his mouth claimed hers, the years gave way to the heat and sensations that took her back to when they were both young and mad for each other.
All those long, empty years of yearning for him made her mouth catch up against his in a kiss that was firm and hot. She wanted to weep for the beauty of the moment even as something came undone inside her, and she was startled by the sudden wave of a passion she had nearly forgotten ever existed.
He held her closer, his mouth raw and sinuous against hers as his hands roamed hungrily across her body, caressing her shoulders, skimming down her arms, and then tracing the contours of her back and hips, even as his mouth ravaged her. He cupped her bottom and pulled her so close that she could feel his jutting hardness beneath the fine fabric of his clothing. It was madness, this feeling, she thought as she rubbed against him seeking relief from the pulsing he had provoked inside her body.
The kiss ended, and he slowly eased his lips and his hands away. She experienced the loss keenly, but she could not tell if he felt the same, for his face was impassive, his expression betraying no hint of turmoil like she was feeling.
“Did that hurt, Catherine?” His tone was like silk over steel. Deceptively soft, but ultimately unyielding.
Yes, it had hurt. But not in the way he believed. And now she feared more than ever the damage seven days with him might do to her.
“Will you consider nothing else?” she whispered, seeking but not finding any sign of mercy in his eyes.
“There is nothing else.”