Julian had been about to bite into his second tea cake when Barnaby entered the parlor in a flush.
“You have a visitor,” his butler announced.
Julian arched a brow.
“I know that you’re busy,” Barnaby said quickly. “But I did not want to send the young… er… person… away without consulting you. She… she…” The butler flushed and placed a calling card on the dining table next to Julian’s tea cup.
Julian hadn’t thought it possible for his already raised brows to climb even higher, but here he was, staring at an extremely unlikely calling card.
“What does she want?”
“A meeting with you.”
“Obviously. But what does she want?”
“Er…” The butler coughed into his gloved hand. “She implied the answer to that question is whatever you want, Your Grace.”
An intriguingly indecent offer that Barnaby apparently believed the duke ought to consider taking.
Julian had never and would never employ a mistress, a stance which some courtesans seemed to take as a personal challenge. However, those women tended to already know him and his proclivities. He had never heard of a Unity Thorne.
Something else had brought her here. Money, most likely.
The promise of luxury was what brought everyone to his door. He could listen to her entreaty, and perhaps give her a banknote or two before sending her on her way.
Or, if she struck him as the right sort, perhaps he’d invite her to tomorrow’s masquerade instead and allow her to fish in an even deeper pond.
“Show her into the green salon.” Julian glanced at the tall-case clock. “I will be there in seven and a half minutes.”
Despite his unquenched curiosity, no one controlled the duke’s time but the duke. Tea ended precisely at four o’clock. Miss Thorne had already disrupted Julian’s repast enough.
“I shall see to it, Your Grace.” Barnaby bowed and closed the door behind him as he left.
Julian returned his attention to his cakes and his newspaper, putting the unusual interruption from his mind. The dining room was perfectly silent. The footmen in the shadows did not speak. His servants were paid to attend their posts, a task they did very well, and for which labor they were rewarded handsomely.
All non-masquerade days were exactly the same. He awoke at a precise hour, bathed and dressed at a precise hour, broke his fast at a precise hour, attended to his correspondence at a precise hour, took his tea at a precise hour, met with his man of business at a precise hour, and so on.
Everything in Julian’s life unfolded just as he planned it. Even the gossip about him was divine. Last week’s masquerade had been phenomenal. People were still whispering allusions to entertainments that could not be spoken aloud.
The notoriety greatly reduced the amount of correspondence the duke must deal with. He received plenty of invitations, although not to any of the truly proper things. Which was too bad, he supposed. He might have liked Almack’s. There were rules there.
The invitations Julian received were to the sorts of unorthodox affairs where anything might happen. He tossed them all into a large basin for his man of business to politely decline, as he had for years.
Julian didn’t want “anything” to happen. He wanted the things he carefully orchestrated and only the things he carefully orchestrated to occur.
Such as the business of finding a wife.
This was the last year for masquerades. Julian turned thirty-five next year, and he had long planned to have a wife by that age, and beget his heir by the following spring. It was all there in his journal.
He took his position in the House of Lords seriously and expected his son to do the same. This meant raising his children as part of society, which meant Julian had a reputation to mend… right after this season. He would make these last masquerades the most memorable of all, and then settle down to the business of selecting a proper, impeccable, predictable wife.
All he had to do was orchestrate the perfect marriage and the perfect heirs and the perfect family just like he structured every other aspect of his life. He could do it.
Not every lady wished for a husband whose name graced the scandal columns as often as Julian’s, but the vast majority of young ladies would overlook quite a bit if it meant nabbing a wealthy duke. All that nonsense about reformed rakes making the best husbands.
Julian had no intention of being a romantic husband. Romance was unpredictable, and he had neither the time nor the patience for such folderol. All he required was a union of convenience.
What was marriage if not a masquerade? He could design and manage it as well as any other. He’d select a biddable wife, who would bear well-behaved sons, who would take their rightful place in society without disrupting the duke’s life one whit.
This unexciting future was what he would have, because it was all he could have. He was not capable of love, so there was no sense pretending to seek it.
Julian set down his napkin and rose to his feet. It was time to make sense of the courtesan in his sedate green parlor.
He left the calling card on the table and strode down the corridor and into the drawing room, intending to inform Miss Thorne that—
Well, he wasn’t certain what he might have informed her. He had planned a stern speech. He planned everything. But when he saw her, all of the carefully chosen words evaporated from his head.
She was tall for a woman. Voluptuous. The scarlet opera gown she wore at four o’clock in the afternoon simultaneously hugged every curve whilst also managing to swirl lushly over his understated Axminster carpet.
Her skin was a light golden brown, darker than tea with milk but not quite dark enough as to be chestnut. A great deal of soft skin was on display. Her neck was bare, her arms were bare, and her bodice—well. He could certainly see what had scrambled Barnaby’s brain. Julian’s throat had also gone uncomfortably dry.
Miss Thorne’s full lips were painted as red as her gown, an affectation that was not remotely fashionable, and yet constricted his tight chest further. A beauty spot beckoned just to the left of her mouth. Her nose was wide and pert, her cheekbones high and flushed, and her eyes… were drinking him in with much the same expression he imagined displayed on his own face.
Her black lashes were long, her eyelids sleepy, but her clear brown eyes were quick and alert. A profusion of black ringlets spilled over her forehead and down her neck from an upswept coiffure dripping with pearls.
No—not real pearls. Julian could tell the difference from here. Perhaps in the dim light of evening, one would be fooled, but here in his parlor, beneath three enormous windows brimming with bright sunshine, Miss Thorne looked…
Disreputable and utterly ravishing.
“Miss Thorne,” he said.
He expected her to curtsey. Perhaps to coo or to flutter or whatever she thought would best sell the wares she had on display.
Instead, she attacked him.
Not physically. She did not move from her position in the center of his parlor. She didn’t have to. She unleashed a whirlwind of words, pelting him at all angles until he squinted against their force like a wanderer lost in a sandstorm.
“Here we are, Your Grace, and I am certain you’re wondering why that would be. Or perhaps you’re not, because you think you know why I’m here, and are eager to get to the business of it, in which case I must swiftly inform you that your access to my body shall be limited to your handsome eyes because I have come for another reason entirely. Your masquerades.”
“My what?” he said, his tone sharp with warning.
She smiled, not cowed by him in the least, which was unprecedented and infuriating. His ability to command a room just by being in it was a trick he had cultivated into a fine art and had never before failed him.