Mr. Marshall ignored this. “We can’t provide what you ask for—no Eton, no Season. To give that much, the duke would have to exert himself for the child. His wife would discover it, and he has too much to lose.”
“Then I shall continue to sit outside his house. What do you suppose the gossip will run to once I begin to show?” She began to stand.
He slammed his hand against the table with a resounding thud. “Wait.”
“Don’t you screech at me,” Serena snapped. “Not you of all people.”
He stared at her a moment and then let out a breath. “My apologies,” he said stiffly. “I am rather on edge at the moment. I suspect we both are.” A muscle twitched in his cheek. “We are prepared to give you your fifty pounds, and then an extra fifty beyond that. Enough for you to live on, if you manage your resources judiciously. Enough to pay for a solid education or a finishing school. It’s not what you hoped for, but it is the best I can manage.”
She would be a fool not to take it. Anyone would say so.
But if she agreed, she’d no doubt be setting her name to more silence—a hundred supercilious looks, a lifetime of shaking heads. And her child…he would still be some nameless, unprotected bastard.
“What about my sister?” she asked.
He waved his hand. “She may stay where she is or live with you, as is her preference. This has already been communicated to her landlord; Miss Frederica Barton knows by now that she need not leave.”
She should take what he’d offered. Still, Serena met his eyes and held them. “Is that all you’ve got to offer? It isn’t enough.”
He’d been watching her the entire time. But now, for the first time, he looked away.
“As it happens, there is something else.” He played with the handle of a desk drawer uneasily. “What you wanted for your child was acceptance. That will be unattainable if your child is born a bastard. Eton would have been a futile promise in any event, as the founding statutes say quite clearly that any boy who attends must be legitimate. Have you any plans to marry at present?”
“You know I haven’t.”
He was still looking away, addressing the desk. “Consider acquiring some.”
Serena felt herself flush.
“Mr. Marshall, recall the circumstances in which I find myself. I have no great wealth, no family name to shield me. I am pregnant with another man’s child. Marriage is simply not an option.”
His expression did not change. “On the contrary, Miss Barton. You have a pending proposal of marriage—one you have not yet answered.”
“What are you talking about? I think I would know better than you if someone had proposed.”
“Think harder, Miss Barton. I know the circumstances of the offer quite well. I should. After all, I made it.”
Her heart came to a standstill. That note, that confusing, heart-rending note that he’d sent her…was it just yesterday afternoon?
“That wasn’t seriously meant,” she protested. “You don’t want to get married.”
“Don’t imagine it would be the usual kind of marriage.” He seemed to withdraw even more. “It needn’t even be consummated. Any woman I liked well enough to marry doesn’t deserve to be saddled with me. If we marry, it will be a quiet wedding by special license in a back room. At the end, we’ll go our separate ways—you, to your farm, and me…” He looked around the small room at the messy piles of paper. “I’m not offering to make a life with you. I am merely giving you the chance to make your child legitimate. Nothing more.”
He watched her, his eyes hooded and wary. And deep inside… She had no notion as to what to say.
She let out a long breath. “Oh, you are romantic.”
His lips compressed. “Grow accustomed to it. This is business, not romance.”
He glanced down, avoiding her eyes, and sifted through papers on the desk before him. “You wanted a lease on a farm within your means, did you not? Shall I look out for properties for you, or would you like to conduct the search yourself?”
“I would hate to put you to any trouble.”
“No trouble.” He glanced up warily at her. “As it happens, I’ve already started. There are some possibilities detailed here.” He rescued a sheaf of papers teetering on the edge of the desk and slid them over to her.
No; it wasn’t coldness she detected in his manner. He was nervous. And if he was nervous…
Serena had never been able to suppress hope for long. It filled her now.
There were no fates worse than death. There were only temporary setbacks on the road to victory. And no matter how coldly he phrased the prospect of their marriage, one thing was quite clear. She had won.
He was hers. Not Clermont’s. Not anyone else’s. No matter what he said, one didn’t tie oneself to a woman for life without granting her one’s loyalty. She stood, ignoring the papers he’d shoved over to her.
“The key to picking a good property,” he said, reaching across the desk to shuffle the pages, “is to think of where you’ll have water and sunlight and to look at prior crop yields. Those will tell you much about the quality of the soil.”
She stepped around the desk and set her hands on his shoulders.
He stopped. Swallowed. “Lavender—you did say lavender, did you not?—grows best in dry, sandy soils, neither alkaline nor acidic in nature. You might start looking at the properties in Cambridgeshire—that’s one of the driest parts of all of England, you know. Search out a soil that produces carrots on a regular basis, and…” He trailed off as she leaned toward him.
“You would be giving up all chance at marriage, Hugo. If you met someone and fell in love…”
“Will never happen. Never wanted it.” He let out a shaky puff of air, and Serena realized that he had been holding his breath.
“I have no time for women.” He raised his hand to her face and skimmed his fingertips down the line of her jaw, trailing them along her skin, until his index finger reached her chin. “Not even for you,” he whispered.
She raised her eyes to his. “Are you telling me I can’t?”
He made a confused, scalded noise—and then his arms came around her, catching her to him, pulling her down to sit on his lap. His lips were soft on hers—soft and sweet, but oh so hungry.
He’d claimed there was nothing of romance in this, but she wouldn’t have known it from his kiss. It wasn’t just his tightly-constrained want. A man who was driven solely by physical lust would have tried to seduce her first and marry her never. Instead, he kissed her as if it were his last time. As if she were a glass of water, and he the man about to embark on a trek across the desert. He savored her with his lips.