Copyright © Alice Gaines, 2017
She took a step backward, freeing her chin from his grip, and hugged her ribs. “Why are you doing this?”
He didn’t answer for a bit but only studied her, his expression serious for once. “My mother will sack you if you return without me.”
“I don’t think so.” But the moment he’d said the words the truth of them registered. Lady Weighsford would be deeply displeased. If she didn’t fire Mary outright, she’d make her life miserable for weeks, if not months.
“She will, and she’ll send you off without references,” he said. “She’ll ensure that you won’t find another position.”
“She wouldn’t be so cruel.”
To that, he merely arched a brow in skepticism.
“She wouldn’t,” Mary protested without much conviction.
“Never mind. I have the solution.” He gestured for her to join him, and they walked along the beach for a bit. “I have a house in Derbyshire. Nothing as grand as Weighsford, but pretty. I could settle you there with a decent income. You’d never have to face my mother’s wrath again.”
Another astonishing declaration. If her mouth kept falling open, she’d collect flies. “Why would you do something like that?”
“I wouldn’t for any Miss Mary Simmons, but I would for my wife.”
Suddenly, the sand seemed to swallow up her feet, and she came to an abrupt halt. “We should go back to the house. You’ve been in the sun for too long.”
He laughed again, this time in what sounded like honest enjoyment. “I’m in earnest. The local midwife also performs marriages. I’m sure she’d do it for us.”
She gaped at him. “Why?”
“A number of reasons. It would free you from my mother’s tyranny, and it would irritate her in the extreme,” he said. “I’d enjoy both.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“We’d have a true wedding night. That would satisfy any qualms you have about giving yourself to me.”
“I beg your pardon,” she said. “I give you my body, and you give me money and a house. What you’re suggesting is little more than prostitution.”
He put his hands on his hips. “I beg your pardon, Miss Simmons. The people here take their marriages as seriously as any performed by the Church of England.”
“They may very well—”
“In fact, more seriously. A Rangalan marriage is a love match, not a transfer of assets. Further, they don’t have to marry to enjoy each other’s bodies. They can do that at will.”
“But you don’t love me.”
“How do you know what’s in my heart?” he said.
Of all the absurd things he’d said, this one topped them all. They’d only met the day before, and he hadn’t shown her any tender feelings. Perhaps this was all some misguided attempt to care for her, but love?
“Besides, you’ll go back to England, and I’ll know you’re safe,” he said.
“That’s very kind of you, but—”
“Damn it, Mary. I won’t have a virgin in my bed unless I’m married to her.”
The rake who’d cut such a wide swath through London in his day had scruples about taking a woman’s innocence? But then, she’d never heard details of his exploits. Perhaps he’d limited himself to experienced women. He certainly appeared outraged now, his jaw tense and his eyes full of anger. Very convincing. But if he was telling the truth about his offer of marriage—even a native one—he might very well mean the rest of what he’d said. A house for her and an income. In her most elaborate fantasies she’d never entertained a dream like that.
“I’ll put it in writing if you want,” he said. “Maybe you’ll believe me then.”
“That you’ve never had intercourse with a virgin?”
“No, no, not that. Good Lord, woman, do you always test people who are trying to help you?”
“I wouldn’t know. No one’s tried to help me before.”
“Precisely why I want to.” He took her hands again. “I’m as surprised at my reaction to you as you seem to be. I keep thinking of the woman with the dirty shoes and wrinkled clothing, obviously exhausted after a long ocean voyage. Standing up to me. And not backing down when I tried to frighten her with a show of naked carnality.”
“So you were trying to frighten me.”
“It didn’t work.” He dug his fingers into her hair again. “And then there’s your unruly curls. I’d like to see them on the pillow next to mine.”
“You’ve given me a great deal to think about.” Although her heart was already screaming yes! She’d have to sort through this with her head, though. And her body could stand aside while she did. This was one decision she’d have to make logically.
“Don’t take too long to decide. I’m afraid I’m not a patient man,” he said with another of his devilish smiles. She could almost grow to love them. Then he took her hand in his and led her up the beach. She could grow to love that, too.