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The rented hackney rolled to a stop. Lady Julianna Hawthorne leaned forward and stared out the carriage window, surprised by what she found. Instead of the average, unremarkable row home she’d been expecting, an imposing townhouse rose upward, its three stories nearly blocking out sight of the cloudless blue sky above. Clean and genteel, the Georgian residence boasted an elegant stone façade, a fine green iron railing, and a bright white door that appeared recently painted.
Perhaps the driver has mistaken the address, she mused. Surely this beautiful home could not belong to the man she had come to see. Hand trembling, she reached into her silk reticule and drew out a small square of paper inked with the financier’s direction.
36 Bloomsbury Square.
Her gaze flashed back to the townhouse—the numbers three and six plainly displayed next to each other on the door.
Her heart sank. No, there was no mistake. Whether she liked it or not, this must indeed be the villain’s abode.
She passed the driver a generous handful of coins, with the promise of more to come to ensure he would still be waiting once her business inside was concluded. In a quiet, residential neighborhood such as this, finding another hackney cab would be all but impossible. And she hadn’t dared take her own private coach, the one with her late husband’s family crest prominently emblazoned on the side. No one, absolutely no one of her acquaintance, must ever know she’d been to this place.
Before she had a chance to change her mind and let fear send her scurrying back home like some timid brown mouse, she forced herself to alight from the carriage.
She paused, brushing a nervous hand over the folds of her warm woolen pelisse and the cerise satin day dress underneath. Knowing she couldn’t afford to delay further, she forced her feet to action. Climbing the stairs, she lifted the knocker and gave two smart raps.
At length the door opened on a set of silent, well-oiled hinges. Hard black eyes peered down at her out of a long, brutish face. As a woman of diminutive stature, Julianna was well used to craning her neck backward in order to look up at men. But this man, this towering mountain of flesh, was the tallest human being she’d ever seen. He reminded her of a tree. A very large, very dense oak that grew in the deepest, oldest woodlands.
But it was the gruesome, crescent-shaped scar bisecting his left cheek from temple to jaw that made her gasp, saliva drying in her mouth.
“Yeah? What d’ye wants?” he demanded, his bass voice as scary as the rest of him.
Her tongue, usually one of her most nimble allies, lay limp behind her teeth, failing to come to her aid.
The brute scowled harder as she fought for composure.
On a sharp inhale, she made herself begin. “I—I have come to speak with Mr. Rafe Pendragon. Might you be he, sir?”
Merciful God, she prayed, let this not be him.
The Tree scowled harder, thick black brows scrunching like a pair of angry caterpillars on his smooth, bald pate. “Dragon’s busy and he don’t have no time for no morts today, however tasty they might look. Take it somewhere else, ducky.”
Then, in the most appalling display of rudeness she’d ever encountered, he slammed the door in her face.
Shivering from shock, she stood immobile, the cold February air creeping in and around her skirts. She drew her pelisse closer.
What was it that brute had said? Something about tasty morts. What on earth was a mort? If it was what she suspected—affront rushed through her, erasing the worst of her chill.
And he’d called her ducky. Ducky!
Lips tight, teeth clenched, she raised her gloved hand and knocked again.
The door opened, the Tree reappearing. “What now? Don’t yer ears work? Told you already The Dragon ain’t interested.”
Drawing herself up as tall and straight as her five feet one inch would allow, she raised her chin.
“My good man,” she declared, speaking in an aristocratic tone that would have made her late father beam with pride, “you have obviously made some sort of mistake. My name is Lady Julianna Hawthorne and I have a pressing matter of business to discuss with your master. Pray give him this and inform him that I await him directly.”
Using her most formal manners, she extended a small white calling card engraved with her name.
Fingers the size of sausages reached out and took the delicate rectangle of paper in their grasp. He barely glanced at it, leaving her to wonder if the oaf could read. Crushing the card inside his hand, he began to close the door. But before he could manage the deed, she raced forward and slipped inside.
“I’ll wait here,” she stated, taking up a defensive stance in the middle of the attractively tiled foyer. “You may go find Mr. Pendragon.” The huge man raked her with an appraising look, grudging admiration twinkling in his dark eyes. “Yer a pushy bit o’ baggage, ain’t ye?”
On a booted heel, he turned away and disappeared down the hallway.
Trembling anew at her bold actions, Julianna released a shaky sigh. As a lady born and bred, it wasn’t often she had to assert herself in such an overt fashion. Had the circumstances been less dire, she knew she would not have possessed the courage. Had the circumstances been less dire, she would never have come to this house in the first place.
But desperate times, as the saying went, called for desperate measures. Her family’s welfare was at stake, and no matter the cost, she meant to save it.
The Tree soon returned, his footsteps amazingly quiet for a man of his enormity.
“He says you can go in.” The giant poked a thumb over one brawny shoulder. “Left door, end o’ the hall.”
A properly trained servant would have escorted her to the room, and announced her to his master as custom dictated. But there was nothing remotely proper about this great lummox, who swung around, opened a hidden panel in a nearby wall, and vanished, presumably belowstairs.
Julianna drew in another lungful of air and braced herself for the confrontation ahead. If the master was anything like his servant, she was in for a truly loathsome ordeal.
She remembered how her brother Harry’s voice had shaken as he’d spoken the name, as he’d drunkenly confessed to her a few nights ago how he’d placed himself in the financier’s power.
“I’m sorry, Jules,” he’d moaned, brown eyes moist with unshed tears and shame. “I’ve let you down. I’ve let us all down. I know I shouldn’t have touched the money, but a man’s got to keep up appearances.”
“What kind of appearances? And what money?” She frowned for a long, thoughtful moment. “Surely you don’t mean the loan for improving the home farm? Tell me you didn’t risk all that money playing cards?”
He hung his head. “Well no, not all of it, at least not at first. I gambled a bit—all the fellows do—but there were other things as well.”
“What other things?”
He hesitated, plainly reluctant to continue. “There was a girl. Prettiest little opera dancer I’ve ever seen. She . . . um . . . she had a marked partiality for diamond bracelets.”
Julianna tightened her lips but somehow remained silent.
“The blunt didn’t seem so much at first,” Harry continued. “A bit here, a bit there. I thought I could pay it all back once the profits from the fall harvest came through. But the crop didn’t fare as well as it should have this year, and I kept waiting for my luck to turn at the tables. Just one more hand, I kept thinking, and I’ll win.”
“But you didn’t.”
He shook his head, his face white except for a pair of ruddy streaks across his cheekbones. “The loan came due at the bank and I had to pay. A man has his honor to consider, don’t you know.”
“So you took out another loan. From this Dragon person I presume.”
Harry’s shoulders tightened. “At least he’s not a cent-per-center. I’m not so far gone in the head as to traffic with one of them. The new loan is fair, even if the interest rate is a bit higher than the bank.”
“If this Pendragon person is a fair man, then why not ask for an extension? Surely he can be persuaded to see reason.”
“I said the deal was fair, I didn’t say Pendragon was. He’s as hard and ruthless as they come. There’ll be no extensions.”
Her brother paused, drawing in a trembling, terrified breath. “If I don’t pay up by the end of the month, the estate will be forfeit. I’ll have no choice except to sell.”
“Oh, Harry,” she gasped, raising a horrified hand to her lips.
“And there won’t be any money for Maris’s come out next month,” he admitted. “ ’Course it might not matter if we’re broke, what with the size of her dowry. Thank God father set it up so I couldn’t touch her portion or there’s no telling to what depths I might have sunk.”
He rubbed a distraught hand over his face. “Plague take me, Jules, what am I to do? Perhaps I ought to put a bullet between my eyes and have done with it.”
She grabbed his shoulders and forced him to look at her. “There will be no talk of that. Killing yourself is not the answer and you are never to think of it again, do you hear me? You’re our brother and Maris and I love you, no matter if you’ve made an admittedly dreadful mistake. We’ll think of a way out. I’ll think of a way out. There has to be a reasonable solution.”