A Brazen Bargain Excerpt
Minerva dragged herself up the Drummond front steps as if on the way to the gallows to deliver her final words. In a dream-like state, she watched her disembodied hand pull the bell cord. In a blink, the butler announced her into Lord Drummond’s study. The rustle of her blue silk skirts as she stepped inside offered the only sound of greeting.
The warm, civilized, book-filled room surprised her. The master of the study, on the other hand, shot ice into her veins from his large armchair. Polished boots with dirt and grass embedded in the tread were propped on the desk. Even in a slouch, tension radiated from his body.
She forced herself to stay rooted while he examined her from head to toe. Her trembles would betray her sickening nerves, and she refused to give him the satisfaction. She needed every ounce of courage she could muster—even if it was all for show—but with each passing moment, his insolent study raised her anxiety another notch.
Rafe Drummond was a fearsome sight. While some might think the lined scar that ran from his brow into his beard imparted that impression, for her, it was his eyes. The swirled blue and gray coronas reminded her of a dangerous ocean, ready to pulverize dissenters.
Sleek, expressive brows overset his stormy eyes. A black ribbon tied back wavy, dark brown hair, much too long for current fashion. Although, she suspected he didn’t cow to society’s expectations in any way. An escaped piece brushed a sharp cheekbone. A crook marred a blade of a nose, and his mouth, the corners pulled down in displeasure, looked hard, unyielding. Undisguisable by the beard, his chin jutted prominently, lending him a stubborn, overly aggressive look.
Muscular and huge in every direction, he exuded a masculine virility that ton dandies played at. She’d always felt…well, feminine around him. For a woman used to bossing men hither and yon, his strength was strangely appealing.
His comportment, however, was abominable. A welcome indignation rose at his blatant, seated perusal, steadying her quivering knees and fluttery hands. Finally, so slowly it had to be deliberate, his boots thudded to the floor. He rose and gestured her to the armchair across from the desk.
She fussily arranged her skirts, not sure how to begin the interview. Once reseated, he swung his boots back on the desk and trailed his forefinger down his scar. The man was a foreign language. Was he angry? Surprised? Pleased to see her? Probably not the latter. She stifled an inappropriate, nervous giggle.
“I expected your brother, my lady. Is he behind your skirts, perhaps?” His voice was rife with sarcasm.
Fisting her hands so tightly fingernails bit through her thin, lace gloves to score her palm, she forced an even voice. “I am acting on the duke’s behalf. I understand he was involved in a high-stakes game last night whilst in his cups, and you fleeced him of a large sum of money.”
“Fleeced him, did I? Believe me, I tried to convince him to stop playing, but the young whelp refused. And, let me tell you, he would have lost even sober. He’s a horrendous player.” He weaved a surprising amount of lazy amusement in his insult.
Off balance, she smoothed her hair. “What’s done is done, I suppose. I’m here to discuss repayment.”
“Interesting. What are you proposing?” He arched his legs gracefully to the floor and leaned over the desk. Lacing his fingers, he pinned her with steely eyes.
The sudden intensity startled her. Weren’t his lashes unusually long for a man? “Well…I…” Heat suffused her body, making her wish for a fan.
“Did you bring a bank note?” Both his eyebrows rose while his gaze coasted over her face.
“I…that is…no.” Jabbing a finger to emphasize her negative response, she grabbed at the frayed threads of her rehearsed offer with profound relief. “I hoped you would accept half the money now, and we would repay the rest over the course of three years.”
“Are you telling me you don’t have the available funds? Is the duke in the dun with others?” His eyebrows arched higher.
For pity’s sake, what if Simon had vowels all over town? The grim possibility had her patting the prickly, hot skin of her forehead. “I don’t think so.”
“If he isn’t yet, he soon will be.” The prediction was delivered somberly.
All she could do was stay the course. “The money is tied up in investments. If I withdraw now, I’ll take an enormous loss. Given time, I’ll be able to pay you with the dividends.”
“I’ll take a loss, I’ll pay. You’re doing the duke a disservice if you constantly clean up his messes. If I agree, will your brother turn a new leaf? If I were a betting man—” his lips quirked, “—my guess is he could be in the same predicament tonight, but to someone not willing to be as generous. Tell me, why didn’t he come this morning?” He pressed steepled fingers to his mouth.
Her gaze drifted to his large hands—rough, callused, capable hands. They reflected a man well acquainted with hard work. A few thin white scars ran over the tanned backs dotted with dark hair. Her stomach spun as if she were falling off a cliff, and her mind blanked once again.
He cleared his throat. The rumble tossed her back in the moment. “I-I manage the estates and investments. Simon’s still young and doesn’t know where our money has been allocated.”
“He’s twenty, isn’t he? You can’t be much older than that. Two and twenty, perhaps?” His brow furrowed.
She nodded reluctantly.
“How long have you been handling the estate business?”
“I started learning the ins and outs when I was sixteen and took it over entirely at nineteen with the help of my man of affairs.” Minerva worried her bottom lip with her teeth, knowing the path his thoughts tread was a dangerous one for her. His cold eyes sparked with a heat that sucked the moisture from her mouth and forced her tongue out to run over her lips.
“My point is your brother is quite old enough to take on a responsibility you have handled since you were nineteen. In fact, you should have handed over the reins already.” His voice had dropped and roughened. “It’s quite unseemly for a lady to be involved in business.”
His words pierced her cloud of befuddlement and released a torrent of resentment. “Not seemly? Are women too emotional or are our brains too small? Please tell me you don’t believe the drivel some of these scientists purport?” Her voice was unsteady. “If I had handed things to Simon, we’d be on the streets and penniless.”
“You’ve coddled and controlled him to the point of uselessness. Do you enjoy having your brother under your thumb?” The corner of his mouth drew back as if he took delight in the provocation.
Anger twisted her gut. She rose, placed her fists on his desk and leaned forward. He mimicked her stance until they were face-to-face across the desk
“I hate constantly worrying about my brother. I’ve done my best to guide him. For you to suggest this debacle is my fault is unmerited. You would rather see me ruined than help. Don’t deny it. You’re heartless and…and…an arse.” The word hung between them. Had she really cursed at him? She was so close she could see his pupils dilate, darkening his eyes.
“And you are a haughty, conceited shrew.” Irony, not horror, laced his voice.
She gasped, even though her insult had been more shocking.
“I have an alternate proposal. Either you pay me all the money today, or you and your brother come to Wintermarsh and pay off his debt by working for me.” His mouth clamped shut in a frown.
Is this what he’d been planning since luring Simon into the high-stakes game? To what end? It was utterly beyond the pale. Her throat closed to the size of a reed.
“I assure you, Lord Drummond, I am a lady and not some…some…Covent Garden strumpet. I have an unbesmirched reputation.” Still face-to-face with her over the desk, he dominated her, and her thoughts scattered like dropped marbles.
“Never fear, I don’t require your services in that manner.” His eyes warmed from ice to molten steel in an instant. He leaned even closer to whisper a few inches from her ear, “I only invite willing women to my bed and have no need to pay them.” His breath skittered across her neck like the brush of gentle fingertips.
Gentlemen didn’t speak of such things to ladies. It was disrespectful, despicable. She tried to summon the proper horror. Instead, she angled toward him and took a deep breath. Heady warmth and an intoxicating smell assailed her.
Soap, leather and a scent that belonged entirely to him. It wafted over her, smothering her outrage. An irrational urge to bury her nose in the nape of his neck right where an escaped lock of hair curled over his open shirt had her creeping forward. No collar, no cravat impeded her body’s single-minded goal. She jerked herself upright in the same instant he sprawled back into his chair.
“What sort of work are you proposing then, my lord?” Smoothing the wrinkles out of her dress, she focused on an ornate dagger acting as a paperweight.
“Housework for you and outdoor work for your brother. I’ll teach Simon about the day-to-day requirements of running an estate. He’ll be kept busy with no time for trouble.”
Minerva wandered to a set of shelves that ran along the wall of his study, putting much-needed space between them and buying herself time. Obviously, his aim was her humiliation. She didn’t savor submitting herself to his control.
But there was the no small matter of her dowry. If she paid him today, it would all be gone. Every quid. She would be left to find an inferior husband or left to rely on her intemperate brother for the rest of her life. In truth, left with nothing.
If she paid Lord Drummond and released her brother from responsibility, Simon might be back out tonight drinking, gambling, ruining them. This impetuous, ill-advised bargain would force him out of London and fill his days with hard work. Her choices ranged from bad to devastating.
“Why would you want me here as well if not to humiliate me?”
“Would you allow your brother to come and put himself under my care with no oversight from you?” he asked in an amused voice. Her dismay must have been apparent, because he didn’t wait for a reply. “Learning some humility wouldn’t be amiss, Lady Minerva. If you want to watch over Simon, you must work as well. That’s my bargain.”
She propped her hands on her hips, her usually impeccable manners deserting her once again. “Humility? Me? That’s a kettle-and-pot situation if ever I heard one. You’re the most arrogant—”
“Yes, yes, heartless and a complete arse. You’ve made your opinion clear. But if I were indebted to you, you’d seize your pound of flesh and probably negotiate for more.”
She rubbed her temple and cast about for any other option. None presented itself. “How long would the arrangement last? There are certain functions I’m obliged to attend, and Drake needs to be made aware of everything that must be handled in my absence.”
“The beau monde will head out of town in a few weeks. Let’s say the two of you plan to arrive at Wintermarsh the second week of September and work for me at least…three months. Your debt would be paid by Christmastime.” He twirled the dagger in his hands, his gaze on the ceiling.
Three months. A pittance compared to a lifetime indentured in a loveless marriage. “If I agree to this, I would need everything in writing. In three months, you’ll tear up the voucher and sign a paper absolving the debt. There can be no physical mistreatment of either of us. You wouldn’t be able to extend our time without due cause, and you can’t discuss our arrangement. Is that understood?”
“Do you want me to involve my solicitor or is a gentleman’s agreement written and signed by the two of us sufficient?” He sounded amused by her demands.
“No third parties. I can’t allow a word to get around London. I would be ruined. What about your servants? Will they gossip?”
“If they did, who would believe them? It’s rather far-fetched to think a duke and his sister would be working at a country estate. You’re Lily’s friend. It’s not implausible I would invite you to stay at Wintermarsh.” With a flick of his wrist, the knife’s tip embedded in the wooden top of the desk.
Minerva’s couldn’t look away from the vibrating handle. His ease and familiarity with the weapon planted another seed of worry and doubt. What kind of man was Lord Drummond?
“I’ll send a contract for your perusal. You can revise and amend to your heart’s content. We both need to think the situation over at some length, don’t you agree?” he asked.
“I do finally agree with you on something, my lord.” Relief and fear warred internally while she walked to the door.
Finally, playing the gentleman, he rose to see her out.
“I shall wait for your proposal, Lord Drummond. I…I mean your terms.” Yet another blush bloomed across her face. Proposal indeed.
Quirking an eyebrow, he hummed in amusement, his lips curling. The smile, if it even qualified as such, held her immobile. The flash of humor in his blue-grey eyes was a wash of refreshing water, cooling the tension and anxiety of the interview.
The study door closed gently in her face. The dignified white-haired butler saw her out, and she glanced back at the imposing, black front door. Had she made a bargain with the devil?