Excerpt from Georgie Lee's A Debt Paid in Marriage, book #1 in the Business of Marriage Series.
Finalist in the 2016 First Coast Romance Writers National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award
'What exactly do you think you are doing?' Mr Rathbone demanded, his deep-blue eyes fixing on her through the wisps of steam rising from the copper bathtub. Dark-brown hair lay damp over his forehead. One drop escaped the thickness of it, sliding down his face, then tracing the edge of his jaw before dropping into the tub.
Laura slid her finger away from the trigger, afraid of accidentally sending a ball through the moneylender's sturdy, wet and very bare torso. She had no intention of killing him, only frightening him into giving back the inventory he'd seized from her uncle Robert. Judging by the hard eyes he fixed on her, he wasn't a man to scare easily.
'Well?' he demanded and she jumped, her nerves as taut as the fabric over the back of a chair.
When she'd slipped into the house determined to face him, she'd expected to find him hunched over his desk counting piles of coins or whatever else it was a moneylender did at night. She hadn't expected to surprise him in his bath with a film of soapy water the only thing standing between her and his modesty. What had seemed like a good plan in the pathetic rooms she shared with her uncle and her mother, when hunger gnawed at her stomach and cold crept in through the broken window, now seemed horrible.
Laura settled her shoulders, shoring up the courage faltering under his steady stare. Beyond this humid room was nothing but ruin and poverty. She had no choice but to continue. 'I demand you return to me the fabric you seized from my uncle.'
The moneylender raised his arms out of the water, disturbing the calm suds, and she caught sight of his flat stomach before the soapy water settled back over it. His hands rested on the curved sides of the tub. They were long but sturdy, like those of the delivery men who used to haul the bolts of cloth off the cart and into her father's draper shop. Mr Rathbone's were smooth and free of calluses, however, and, except for the red of an old cut snaking along one knuckle, the hands of a gentleman.
She took a step back, expecting him to rise from the water and rush at her. He did nothing except study her, as though appraising her market value. 'And who exactly is your uncle?'
Laura swallowed hard. Yes, this was important information to impart if one was to make demands of a naked man. 'Robert Townsend.'
'The gambling draper.' Neither shock nor surprise broke his piercing stare. 'He came to me six months ago in need of a loan to pay a large debt accrued at Mrs Topp's, among many other establishments. In return for my money, he put up the inventory of the draper business as collateral. When he defaulted, I seized the goods, as was my right pursuant to our contract.'
The floor shifted beneath her. Uncle Robert had lost the business. In the past, he'd stolen merchandise from the storeroom, a bolt of silk or a cord of tassel, and sold it to fund his gambling. They were losses to the business, but not the whole business.
It couldn't be gone, not after everything she'd done to hold on to it after her father's death.
Anger overcame her shock and she gripped Uncle Robert's old pistol tighter, her sweating palms making the wood handle stick to her skin. 'I don't believe you. I know how men of your ilk operate, taking advantage of desperate people with high interest rates until they have no choice but to turn everything they own over to your grasping hands.'
Mr Rathbone's eyes narrowed a touch. What the gun and the element of surprise had failed to do, her smear of his character managed to achieve—a reaction.
'If it's proof you require, I'm most happy to oblige.' He pushed up against the edge of the tub and rose.
'Sir!' Laura gasped and shuffled back until the edge of a table caught her hip. She clutched the pistol tighter, unable to tear her eyes away as fat drops poured down his slender body, catching in the ripples of his stomach before falling into the sloshing water of the tub. The drops were not thick enough to offer any semblance of modesty and she struggled to keep her gaze from wandering from his handsome face to the long length of chest, stomach and everything else beneath. Her heart pounded harder than when she'd crept into the house through the open terrace door, then pressed herself deep into the shadows of an alcove beneath the stairs when a maid had passed by.
He lifted one long leg, then the other over the copper tub and stepped dripping on to the small towel on the floor next to it. Over a nearby chair lay a brown banyan of fine silk—French, she guessed, by the subtle pattern in the weave. She expected him to take it up and pull it on over the long expanse of him, but he didn't. Instead he strode past her, through the wide double doors adjoining the dressing-and-bathing room to his bedroom without so much as a second look, as though she were not standing there threatening his life and he was not stark naked and leaving a trail of wet footprints on the wood floor. He headed to the small desk in the opposite corner of the bedroom, near the windows and across from the tall, four-poster bed hung with expensive embroidered curtains. Behind the desk, he opened one of the drawers. Neither the neat stack of papers on top nor the oil lamp on the corner did anything to prevent her from seeing him as Eve must have seen Adam after they'd tasted the apple. Laura could feel her own judgement coming. What she wouldn't give for a lightning bolt from above, or at the very least a large fig leaf.
'Here is the contract we drew up the day he came to see me.' Mr Rathbone came around the desk, holding out the paper.
Laura forced her eyes to meet his. 'Would you please get dressed?'
'This is my house. You broke into it and threatened me. I may stand as I like. Now here is your proof.' The paper fluttered at the end of one stiff, outstretched arm.
In the flickering candlelight she read the list of her uncle's debts laid out in points in the centre of the page. There were more names than just Mrs Topp's. Most were unfamiliar, but a few she recognised from snatches of conversation she'd caught in the hallways of their ramshackle building. Below the terms were Mr Rathbone's signature and that of a witness, a Mr Justin Connor. Next to them sat Uncle Robert's uneven letters, the wide way he wrote his R and T clear.
It wasn't so much his signing away the shop that shocked her, it was the document he'd put his name to. 'Where did you get this paper?'
'Mr Townsend brought it to me the night he came here seeking a loan.'
'This is mine. I wrote this, it was my plan to save our business.'
'It was an excellent one and, combined with the collateral he possessed to secure the loan, the reason I extended him the sum. He could have succeeded, if he hadn't gambled the money away.' He laid the document on the desk. 'Are you quite satisfied?'
'I am.' And we're ruined.
'Good, then you won't need this.' Mr Rathbone grabbed the barrel of the pistol and wrenched it from her hands.
'No,' she cried, as naked as him without the weapon.
'The gun would have done you no good. It was improperly loaded.' He pulled the flint from the hammer and tossed the now-useless weapon on the desk along with the contract. 'Had you fired it, you would have blown your pretty face off.'
She looked to where the weapon lay on the blotter, as useless as her hope and her foolish plans. This morning she had thought her situation couldn't sink any lower. It seemed she had yet to reach the bottom, but all she could think of was her mother. Laura's botched attempt to save them would no doubt land her in gaol. How would her mother survive without her and what would Uncle Robert do to her? 'You should have let me fire it and finish myself.'
He strode past her back to the bathroom. 'You'd have ruined the carpet.'
Anger overcame her sense of loss and she whirled on him. Without concern, he took up the banyan from the chair and slid his strong arms into the sleeves, pulling it shut over his nakedness. Laura's anger flickered, nearly blown out by the sight of his skin caressed by the dark silk, before it flared again. 'I can see all you care about is money.'
He pulled the banyan ties tight across his slim middle. 'I'm a businessman, Miss Townsend. Men interested in financial backing for ventures come to me, as well as those seeking to shore up a struggling business. I offer them finance to be repaid with interest, or, if they default, as your uncle did, I seize their goods and sell them to cover my losses. I have a family and employees whose welfare I must ensure. I am not a charity.'
'No, of course not.' She looked down at the carpet he was so worried about, moving one toe of her worn-out half-boot to trace the swirling curve of a vine. In the brief time she'd spent plotting this ridiculous scheme, she'd failed to work out exactly how she might extricate herself from it without landing in the Old Bailey, or worse. She only hoped the generous nature he spoke of with his family and employees might extend to a very foolish young lady.
'Mr Rathbone, please forgive me for intruding on your privacy and for trying to blacken your good name. I was not in possession of all the facts before I decided to confront you. It seems I was not in possession of my reason either.' She smiled, trying to look the way she imagined a senseless young lady might look, in the hope of saving both her dignity and her freedom. It failed to soften the hard set of Mr Rathbone's mouth.
'Don't play the fool. It's not becoming of a woman of your ingenuity.'
She dropped the smile but not her hope, unwilling to concede defeat. She couldn't, not with her mother shivering at home. 'Then let me offer you a proposal, one that speaks to you as a businessman.'
Mr Rathbone stood silent and she couldn't discern if he planned to listen or to summon a footman to fetch the constable. She didn't give him a chance to answer, hoping her words might at least make him consider her offer and postpone for some time whatever fate he had in mind for her. 'Among the contents of the inventory you seized was a large bolt of cotton woven into a very fine cloth. It's from a special variety, grown in Egypt. It can be rendered, like the Indian kind, into a very fine, almost transparent cloth, but it costs less to produce. I plan to introduce it through Madame Pillet, a modiste to many fashionable and influential ladies. Their orders for the fabric alone could bring in hundreds of pounds. With the profits, I can import more and establish a fine trade. If you return the inventory to me, I'll pay you a portion of the profits until the original debt is settled.'
'I'm afraid I can't entertain your proposal,' he answered without consideration. 'The contents of the draper shop were sold to settle Mr Townsend's debts. I no longer have the bolt of cotton to which you are referring.'
'But you know who has it. You could get it back and we could still reach an arrangement.' 'I cannot.'
'You're leaving us to starve,' she blurted out as even this slim hope dissolved. There was no chance of reviving the business, or doing anything other than sinking into even more degrading poverty.
No sign of sympathy or regret marred the smoothness of his face. 'Your plan has merit, but will not succeed. If the cotton becomes fashionable, those with better connections and more money will race to import it before you can secure more, flooding the market with it and lessening its value.'
'But before then?' she protested meekly.
'I can't afford to gamble my money on the whims of the ton. Nor can you.'
'I can't rely on my uncle Robert if that's what you're thinking. He's got everything out of us he wanted, my father's business and what was left of the money,' she scoffed. 'It won't be long before we see the backside of him. Then what will happen to me and my mother?'
'You must have other family?'
She shook her head. 'No.'
'Uncle Robert saw to it that they were driven away when he borrowed money from them and never repaid it.' She dropped her hands to her sides in imitation of Mr Rathbone, trying to appear as confident and sure as he did. 'I know what I did tonight was foolish and I never meant to hurt you, I only wanted the merchandise back because I couldn't see the business fail. It took my father years to build and my uncle Robert less than a year to destroy.'
If Philip had passed Miss Townsend on the street, he'd have overlooked her. Forced to stare down the end of a barrel at her, he couldn't miss the stunning light of determination in her round hazel eyes. It was undi-minished by the faint circles darkening the smooth skin underneath them or the slight hollow beneath the high cheekbones. Loose waves of auburn hair hung on either side of her face and down to the shoulders of her worn-out dress. The sad garment hung loose on her. Regular meals would bring back the fullness of her cheeks and the softness of her waist. Her skin was pale, like Arabella's had been, but where illness had faded his late wife's bloom, only hardship dampened the lustre of the lady before him. 'In business, it's always best to keep facts and emotions separate so one does not cloud the other.'
'I'll remember that when I'm starving,' she spat.
'You won't starve. You're too smart.' There was something of life and fight in Miss Townsend, a trait Arabella had not possessed. Despite his annoyance at being disturbed tonight, he admired it too much to see it snuffed out by gaol fever. He swept the pistol from the desk and held it out to her. 'Thank you for an interesting evening, Miss Townsend.'
Hope flooded her cheeks with a wash of pink. 'You're letting me go?'
'Would you prefer I call the constable and have you hauled before the magistrate?'
He moved aside and waved his hand at the door. 'Then go.'
In a flutter of threadbare bombazine, she was gone.
'You there, stop.' Justin's voice sounded through the downstairs hall before the thud of the back door hitting the wall and the squeak of the garden gate let Philip know Miss Townsend was away.
A second later Justin came running in, his pistol drawn. 'Are you all right?'
'Quite.' Philip sat down in his chair, rubbing his still-damp chin with his fingers. Miss Townsend had stirred something inside him—not pity, or even lust, though she was pretty. No, it was curiosity, like the first time he'd seen Arabella sitting across his desk next to her father, Dr Hale. Philip hadn't been able to focus on anything but her while Dr Hale had laid out his plans for a small medical school. The school had failed and Dr Hale had lost both his and Philip's money. It was the only time Philip had allowed emotion to guide a business decision.
'Leave it to you to be so cavalier about an intruder threatening you.' Justin lowered the hammer on the pistol.
'She was never a threat.' Philip curled one finger to rub it along his ring finger still missing the plain wedding band he'd buried with Arabella. No, this was nothing like the day he'd met his wife. There was no emotion to touch his love for Arabella, especially not in the guise of this stranger, no matter how intriguing she might appear.
'You look like the devil.' Justin slid the pistol in the holster under his coat.
'It's been a trying day.' He'd thought the headaches of it were over when he'd sunk down into the hot water. He couldn't have been more wrong.
Miss Bell's Ballroom Betrothal,
a free short story by me, is now up on the Harlequin Blog. Read it here!
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