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Authors: Charis Michaels

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Strictly business
, she reminded herself.

Rainsleigh closed the door behind her and followed her in. “Please,” he said, “let us sit.” He gestured to a pair of plush leather chairs beneath the towering, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a lush garden.

“Oh,” she said, studying the chairs that would position them knee to knee. “I will not tarry, my lord. If the application rules are at hand, I'll simply collect them and be on my way. I have my own work, as I know you do.”

The viscount clasped his hands behind his back. “I was hoping to learn, firsthand, more about your work. Can you not spare five minutes?”

Could she? She bit her bottom lip and looked to the window. Well, yes. Of course, just . . . not in good conscience. Not without engaging in silly fantasies that had no place in a philanthropic transaction. Just as they also had no place in last night's perfectly mundane dinner party. Or afterward on the balcony. In the rain. With his coat.

Dear Lord. Why had she come here alone? Why had she relinquished her cloak?

Rainsleigh waited, staring at her in his intensely focused way. It would be rude, she thought, to deny him. Far be it for her to put him off, considering this unexpected degree of solicitousness. She was, after all, entering the charity contest to win.

She lowered herself into the soft leather chair. With a detached, professional tone, she asked, “What do you wish to know?”

“What do you feel I
should
know?” He leaned on the arm of the adjacent chair.

As little as possible,
she thought. The fewer specifics he knew about the foundation, the better.

“Well,” she said, hedging, “what is your goal for donating the money?”

He watched her. “ 'Tis no secret that the contest will draw attention to my shipyard and my name. Philanthropy has many advantages, as you know. But I'm not entirely motivated by my own ambition. I see the broader value in giving others a step up.”

She nodded. “But this is the purpose of my foundation. To give others a step up.”

“How many people do you serve?”

“At the moment? We have fifteen in residence.”

He raised one eyebrow.

It sounded small, she knew. She huffed out a breath, searching for a better, vaguer answer. “Since the beginning, however, we have given refuge and aid to more than one hundred young women. We provide everything to the girls who come to us. Food, new clothes, lodging, education, a doctor's care. The foundation is everything from a safe haven, to a schoolroom, to a hospital, to a—well, to a home. Our numbers may be small, but we aim to serve every need of the girls who come.”

“Your patrons are mostly children?”

“Young women, mostly. Sometimes they are younger. And we have never turned anyone away based on age. I have hosted girls as young as nine and as old as twenty-five.”

“How do they find you, these girls? How do they come to you?”

Elisabeth chewed her bottom lip, thinking of the least colorful way to term it. “Actually, we seek out needy girls.”

“Seek them out where?”

She took a deep breath. “We rescue them.”

“Rescue them from what?”

“Deplorable situations.”

“Such as?”

And just like that, she saw her bid for his donation drift away. To answer in any truthful way was to say entirely too much. She could lie, but what was the good in that? Worse, she found herself
wanting
tell him. His attentiveness drew her in. His probing questions validated her. His affecting ice-blue eyes . . .

She swallowed. “Lord Rainsleigh—”

He cut her off. “I beg your pardon, Lady Elisabeth, but do you know my given name?”

Bryson
.
Bryson Anders Courtland
. Of course she knew it.

She shook her head.

“May I call you Elisabeth?” he asked. “My given name is Bryson—or Bryse, as my brother calls me. I would welcome a less formal address.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Will all the applicants to the prize be invited to refer to you as . . . Bryse?”

“Only the ones on whom I intend to call.”

Elisabeth opened her mouth. She shut it. She blinked at him. “I beg your pardon?”

He leaned forward. “Please don't think I'm dismissing of your work; I am not. I want to know everything about your foundation and the service you provide. But I also want to know everything about you. I am quite taken with you, Elisabeth. I should like to see you again. Very soon.”

“Oh, God.” Elisabeth forgot to breath. Their imagined rapport on the balcony had not, in fact, been imagined. He was
taken
with her? He wished to know everything about her?

“Have I offended you?” he asked.

“No, you've simply . . . caught me unaware.” It was the truth, not to mention the only excuse at hand. She could hardly say,
I've waited fifteen years for this moment.
Worse still would be her first impulse, which was to shove up from her chair and say, “Yes!”

There was, in fact, very little she could trust herself to say, considering the charity prize and her unwillingness to discuss their previous encounter. Considering the fact that she really did not know this man at all. She had only known him as a boy for one night.

“Would you consider a courtship?” he asked.

“Courtship . . . ” she repeated. And now she did push from the chair and stood.

“Lord Rainsleigh,” she began, “we've only just met. And what of my application for the charity donation?”
Sensible. On topic. Rooted in the real world, where sensible, topical, real-world things happen.

He stood too. They were feet apart, face-to-face. “My personal interest in you will be entirely separate from my involvement in the donation. I can assure you it is only
you
I wish to refer to me as Bryse.”

Bryse.

He had introduced himself as Bryson that night, so long ago, and despite her residual horror, she had clung to the sweet intimacy of that introduction. She'd devoted years of foolish fantasies to guessing whether those close to him referred to him as Bryson or Bryse or perhaps Court . . .

She looked up at him.
Bryse.
And now she knew. Now she was being invited to become one of those people close to him.

Cowardice compelled her to back away and retake her seat. “Forgive me, my lord.” She spoke to her knees. “I don't know what to say, and that is a rare circumstance, indeed.”

“I would also speak to your aunt,” he assured her. “It felt appropriate to suggest the idea of a courtship to you first.”

She laughed, in spite of herself. “I'd say so. Unless you wish to court my aunt.”

“I wish for you,” he said abruptly, and Elisabeth's head shot up. It was almost as if he knew she needed to hear it again, and again, and again.

I wish for you.

He crouched before her chair, spreading his arms, putting one hand on either side of her chair, caging her in. “How old are you, Elisabeth?” he asked.

“How old do you think I am?” A whisper.

“Twenty-six?” he guessed.

She shook her head. “No. I am the ripe old age of thirty. Far too old to be called upon by a bachelor viscount, rolling in money.”

“Or”—he arched an eyebrow—“exactly the right age.”

She laughed and finally looked away. And she thought he'd been handsome at nineteen. Her stomach dropped into a dip. She reminded herself to breathe.

“Why me?” she asked, looking out the window. “Why pay attention to
me
?”

His voice was so low she could barely discern the words. “Because I think you'd make an ideal viscountess.”

An ideal what?
Hope became a living, pulsing thing in her chest. It became her very heart. She fell back in her seat and closed her eyes, but the room still swam before her.

He went on, “You are mature, and intelligent, and poised. And devoted to your charity, whatever it is.”

A thread of the old conversation. She sat up, determined to seize it before he could say another thing. “I've just told you what the charity is.”

“You spoke in vague generalities that could mean a great many things. I let it go because I hope for more opportunities to learn.”

Elisabeth breathed in and out, in and out. She bit her bottom lip again. She watched his gaze hone in on her mouth.

She closed her eyes. “My lord.” She took a deep breath. “Rainsleigh . . . Bryson.” She opened her eyes. “If your far-reaching goal is to earn an esteemed spot in London society, you're going about it entirely the wrong way. My charity is . . . unpopular, and no one has ever asked to court me before. It's really not done.”

“Why is that?”

Because I have been waiting for you.

The thought floated, fully formed, in her brain, and she had to work to keep her hands from her cheeks, to keep from closing her eyes again, from squinting them shut against his beautiful face, just inches from her own, his low voice, his boldness.

“I'm very busy,” she said instead.

“Then I will make haste.”

“Is this because of last night? When I . . . challenged your dreadful neighbor?”

The corner of his mouth hitched up. “It did not hurt.”

“It's very difficult for me to stand idly by when I hear a person misrepresented.”

“And to think I was under the impression that you could barely abide my company. Your defense came as a great surprise.”

“Oh . . . I am full of surprises.”

“Is that so?” His words were a whisper. He leaned in.

She had the fleeting thought:
Dear God. He's going to kiss me . . .

Bam!
The door to the library crashed open.

“Bryse, I—” A man's voice froze them, nearly nose to nose. “Ah, I beg your pardon.” The man laughed. “Bryse, I thought you were alone.”

The man in the doorway was a blonder, younger, exceedingly more rumpled version of the viscount. His face was unshaven; his jacket, absent; his boots, filthy. He stared openly in amused shock.

All at once, Rainsleigh released her from the cage of his arms and stood. Elisabeth shot up, stepped back, and lost her balance. He caught her effortlessly and tucked her to his side.

“Beau,” he said calmly, “a woodworker in Wales spent more than a year carving the relief panels of that door. Please don't whip it about like a stable gate. Where have you been?”

“The wrong place, obviously. Forget the door. I hope my tardiness will not preclude an introduction to your . . . friend?”

“Ring for Sewell, if you will,” he said, nodding to the bell beside the door. “My
guest
is Lady Elisabeth Hamilton-Baythes, and now that you have scared her to death, she'll wish to flee, I'm sure.”

“Flee? Not because of me, I hope.”

“In spite of you, I'm sure.”

Elisabeth rushed to assure him. “In fact, I was just leaving. I was here on a charity errand. Lord Rainsleigh may donate to my cause.”

“I'd say the odds are pretty good,” said the other man, walking slowly into the room.

Rainsleigh inclined his head to Elisabeth. “Do you mind if Sewell sees you to the door? This is my brother. He isn't fit for decent company, I'm afraid.” He looked up at the other man and called, “Beau, say hello.”

“How do you do?” said Elisabeth. She tried to tug away, but Rainsleigh did not release her.

“Very well, thank you,” Beau said, winking at her. “Better now. You're a very pretty charity crusader, if you don't mind my saying. Puts me immediately in a charitable frame of mind. Will you stay for luncheon?”

Rainsleigh and Elisabeth said no in unison, and Rainsleigh added, “Now that you have graced me with your presence, Beauregard, you and I will take lunch at the shipyard, if you pl—”

“In that case,” Beau cut in, “I won't be stay—”


Yes
,” Rainsleigh said, “you will be. Do not think of leaving.”

Gently, he set Elisabeth away and strode to his desk, gathering up a hodgepodge of parchment. Elisabeth drifted behind him, and he handed the papers to her in a heap. “I apologize for the disorder. Retribution from my secretary, I'm afraid. He wanted to distribute this himself and ply you for an early interview, but I sent him away.”

Beau whistled lowly. “Oh, so this was one of
Cecil's
interviews . . . about the—”

“Will you change, Beau, before we tour the shipyard? You are part owner. The workers look up to you.”

“Perhaps I will join Dunhip in retribution.”

Rainsleigh ignored him. “Ah, very good, here is Sewell.” He motioned to the butler who held the door. Leaning in to her, he said, “Good day to you, Elisabeth.” His words were so low only she could hear. “You honor me with your call.”

Elisabeth cleared her throat. “Yes, well. I believe I have what I need.” It was the only thing she could think of to say. The butler waited, holding her cloak aloft. She took the garment and hastened to the door, down the hall, and out the front door, all but fleeing to her waiting carriage.

C
HAPTER
N
INE

“S
ay it.” Bryson sighed.

He collapsed into the chair behind his desk. “I cannot stop you, and I actually want to hear it. For once. Say it.”

His brother laughed. “Say what? Which of the myriad remarks currently swirling in my brain would you find most useful?”

“All of them. What you think of her. The depth and breadth of your shock. Advice for next time, misinformed and wrong-minded though it will be . . . ”

“So there will be a next time?”

“I was in the process of asking permission to call. On
her
. A courtship. There will be a multitude of next times, I hope—not like this, of course. A
proper
call in her home, with her guardian, an esteemed aunt.”

Beau laughed again. “
You're joking
. You'll do no better than your private library behind a closed door.”

“Mind yourself, Beau. Lady Elisabeth is the daughter of an earl. Her aunt is one of the most highly regarded patronesses in London. You need only look at her to see that she is lady.”

“Can I? Perhaps you're asking the wrong fellow. I don't care whose daughter
or
niece
or
second cousin she may be. I am judging by the look on your face when I walked in.”

“What look?”

Beau shrugged, pretending to study the books on a near shelf. “Like you were two seconds away from pulling her out of that chair and down on top of you.”

Bryson put his hands behind his head and stared at the domed ceiling. “Oh God, you're right.” He looked at his brother. “Thank God you came, or I could not have accounted for my actions.”

“Thank God? Bryse, I've robbed you of a bloody fantastic Friday morning! Do you know how many women I've plowed in a library? Of all the rooms in any given house, I believe the library might be my personal favorite, and I'll tell you why.”

“Beau, please—”

“There's nothing like a sturdy, grommetted leather chaise,” he went on wistfully. “No self-respecting study is without one. Ah, yes, here we are. What did I say?” He circled Bryson's eight-foot leather chaise and dropped onto it. “Although—sometimes the chaise is too much like a bed. Too conventional. Any library worth its salt will offer a wide variety of other expansive, horizontal surfaces upon which to lay someone back, if she is so inclined.”

“I said,
careful
. You're talking about my future wife.”

“Your what?” Beau shot up. “Wait. Stop. Forgive me. Perhaps I'm still drunk. I thought you said
courtship
. Courtship means tea and carriage rides and sonnets. Courtship does
not
mean marriage. Just last week you were going on about marrying someone pious, plain, and boring; someone Dunhip
and his mother
chose. And now you've squirreled away a perfectly lovely girl in your library, and you're talking about marrying
her
? Was she . . . Was this Dunhip's choice? If so, well done, Cecil.”

“No, actually. I found her myself. Met her last night at a dinner hosted by Lady Banning, who also happens to be her aunt. I was taken by Lady Elisabeth nearly at first sight. She is everything for which I searched. Cecil will locate no better girl.” Rainsleigh heard the protestation in his own voice, the urgency, but he was disinclined to pretend otherwise. The urgency was real. He
would
protest anyone who challenged him. Lady Elisabeth was the woman he wanted. Intensely. Immediately.
Now
.

Beau whistled lowly and turned away. “Well, she's very pretty. I'll give you that. What is she, a widow?”

“No. She lives as the ward of her aunt and runs a charity for lost girls or some such. To be honest, I'm only just learning her situation.”

“Yet you're setting her up to be the next Lady Rainsleigh based on one dinner?”

Rainsleigh shrugged. “When I see what I want, I know it. There's no need to continue searching. I cannot be certain, but I think she is . . . amenable.”

“Ha, I'll say. She looked very amenable to me.”

Bryson ran a hand through his hair and pushed back from his desk. “Yes, and that may be a problem.”

“Only you could see a problem in an ‘amenable' girl locked in your library.”

“She is an innocent. My . . . er, enthusiasm showed an astounding lack of judgment.”

“Hmmm. How ironic. Astounding lack of judgment has given me years of untold delight. It
is
permissible, you know, to bend the rules, Bryse. Just a little. Or a lot, as is my view. But can't you see this is a good thing? How long has it been since you gave up your mistresses? Five years? Oh, God—
ten
? No wonder you're champing at the bit to get married.”

“I gave up courtesans in order to earn this family some basic decency.” He ruffled the papers on his desk, mindlessly sorting them into stacks.

“Well, you overdo,” Beau said grimly. “You always have. Although, it couldn't hurt to play by the rules just this once. Now of all times. Have you heard that Cousin Kenneth has slithered his way back to town?”

“Kenneth Courtland? Dear God, no. I make it a point to hear as little about our Courtland relations as possible. If he's here, surely he cannot afford to stay long. Who told you? He dare not contact me.”

“Navy mate of mine told me someone named Kenny was invoking the Courtland name for a seat at a card game in Pall Mall last week. Wound up pitched into the gutter, blind drunk. My mate said he'd racked up debts in excess of fifty quid.”

“Splendid.” Rainsleigh sighed, cringing at the thought of his idiot cousin claiming some connection to him. Kenneth was too weak and wretched to shame Bryson as he once had, but his lack of self-control was an embarrassment still.

“I would not worry too much,” said Beau. “Kenneth's sins are not yours to atone.”

Bryson chuckled. “As if that were possible. Even for me.”

“Besides, you're obviously too busy becoming leg-shackled to a girl you've met once in your life.”

“She defended me; did I tell you that?”

“Since when do you need defending?”

“I didn't need it, but she did it, just the same. An old-crone gossip called me out about Father at the party. I was ready with a set-down—the woman had been hectoring me all night—but before I could say a word, Lady Elisabeth leapt to my defense. Rattled off a list of my accomplishments and strengths. She knew all about me, Beau, and we had never met.”

“Hmmm,” his brother mused, “a Rainsleigh devotee. There was bound to be one of them out there somewhere, I suppose. You're in the bloody papers enough. So it was flattery, was it?”

Bryson made a dismissive sound. “No, it wasn't flattery. She understood the things that were important to me.”

“Money and reverence?”

Bryson glared at him. “
Productivity and honor
.”

“Hmmm . . . so you say. And you're sure she's not a fortune hunter?”

“She is a ward of her aunt, as I've said, a wealthy widow who lives in Grosvenor Square. It's not the money. She knew me, Beau. She
knew
all about me.”

“And yet she showed no hesitation,” Beau teased.

“Well, I'd hardly say she's fallen into my arms. She is measured and reticent by nature. Another reason to admire her. I respect her caution.”

“Caution toward what? Not the closed door of a library.”

“Clever. No, I cannot say what, exactly, may make her hesitate. I asked permission to call on her just now, and she hedged. Perhaps I have acted too soon.”

“The morning after making her acquaintance?” Beau scoffed. “Surely not. Twelve hours is only marginally obsessive.”

Bryson ignored him. “I think she is afraid she will lose my donation to her charity if we are . . . involved.”

“Ha—if I hadn't barged in on you, it's clear you would have promised the moon in exchange for . . . well, let me not be indelicate about my future sister-in-law.”

“But this will be my struggle. Regardless of how alluring I find her, we cannot carry on, she and I. I've already had the poor judgment to secret her away in my library. My God, I have no idea what I was thinking.”

“Well,
I
have some idea, and it's perfectly natural. You're an active man in the prime of his life. You should want to steal away with a pretty girl and have a kiss or what-have-you.”

“What I
want
and what I shall have are two distinctly different things. Self-control is a virtue, widely known. I urge you to consider it. Rise above Kenneth, if you can—it's a very low bar.” He sighed and returned to his desk. “You know, the old woman from the party has since suggested an available chaperone for hire. Perhaps I'll look into it. Elisabeth is thirty years old, and she seems wholly independent for all practical purposes. I cannot say what, exactly, is expected of any time we spend together, but I do know the limits of my lust. She is a very”—he took a deep breath and turned away—“beautiful woman. If her aunt will not arrange a chaperone, then I must.”

“You know, Bryse, the more I hear, the more I am inclined to think you are
besotted
with the chit. Lust is one thing, but you've been going on about her as long as you've ever discussed your boats—if not longer. That's saying quite a lot.”

“Well, she is attractive. I'll admit that much.” He gave his brother a hard look. “But what use have I for . . . infatuation?”

Beau chuckled. “Use? Who bothers with usefulness when they are beset by so-called love at first sight?”

“Try
desire
at first sight,” Bryson corrected. “Not that desire does me any good either. Physical intimacy is entirely out of the question before marriage, no matter how much I desire her. I will only enter into a courtship that is steeped in modesty and respect.”

“Ah, yes, your bloody life creed.” Beau tapped a
ba-dum-dum
beat on Bryson's desk and then backed away. “Modesty and respect. Sounds like a lark, Bryse. Good luck, mate—to you both. I wouldn't expect anything less.”

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