June 4th, 2010
The butler announced him. “Mr. Raymond Talbury to see you, Miss.”
“Thank you, Rigby. That will be all.” The butler took one last look at him then left, closing the door softly behind him.
Raymond bowed slightly, his eyes studying this mysterious woman.
She stood and inclined her head. “Greetings, Mr. Talbury. My name is Helena Gracechurch. I am happy to make your acquaintance.”
Good, Alan said nothing about the damned title.
“The pleasure is mine, Miss Gracechurch. How may I help you?”
She indicated the seat across the desk and they both sat. She shuffled papers on the desk, and he took the time to really look at her. At first glance, she looked like a governess or an old auntie, with a high necked serviceable gown in a light shade of gray. Her dark red hair was up in a severe style, without any attempt to highlight her features. She wore spectacles as well, highly unfashionable. And he thought, given the lack of squinting lines around her eyes, very possibly unnecessary.
But all that could not hide the sprinkling of freckles across the line of her nose, proving that despite her rosy pale skin, she occasionally let the sun shine down on her face without a proper bonnet. The warm amber of her eyes could not be dulled but glimmered with intelligence. Her dress might be severe, but it could not hide an impressive bosom or her light and pleasing frame.
Most of all, the tight bun she wore had let a single red curl fall against her neck, and his gaze was immediately drawn to it. Regardless of his respect for women or his attempts to think of this as a business meeting, for a long moment, all he could think about was getting that hair loose and getting his hands into it.
“So, Mr. Talbury, Mr. Saksville has told me that you have considerable—if unconventional—experience in the Navy during the war.”
Raymond smiled. Unconventional was a very politic way of putting it, Alan.
“Yes, Miss Gracechurch, I’ve commanded my share of ships during the recent conflicts.”
She paused for a moment and a smile almost touched her lips. There was something in her eyes that he could not quite identify, though for a moment it reminded him of passion. “Yes, well…have you had any experience with cargo vessels rather than military ships?”
He thought of the months he’d acted as a common sailor in the French-controlled Spanish navy, hauling cargo on supply ships, and acting as crew on captured merchant vessels. “Yes, I have worked on cargo vessels, though not in a command capacity.” Unless the cargo was black powder meant to blow up a bridge over the river Coa. On that tiny boat, he’d definitely been in command.
She nodded and made a note on the page she held in front of her. He wondered how many men she had evaluated for this position, or if he was the first. Noting the very slight tremor in her hand, he thought it was highly probably he was the first.
Had she ever been kissed? What man would be lucky enough to caress those pink lips with his own? To taste her tongue, or taste her other lips, to open the virgin fruit of her loins and savor her intoxicating innocence. Raymond shifted uncomfortably and tried to focus on listening to her words rather than his imaginings.
“You also are half-Spanish, correct?”
He repressed the urge to groan. Why were the English so bloody narrow-minded? His mother would be most interested in an account of this conversation when he returned to their Bristol lodgings, the Rose and Sail Inn. She had insisted on accompanying him, having no desire to be left at the gargantuan Belforth House in London, all alone with disreputable servants and the threat of creditors at the door.
“Yes, my mother is Spanish. Doña Maria Katrina Escobar de Santos.” A smile broke out over Miss Gracechurch’s features, setting her eyes alight.
Rarely had anyone been pleased about his lineage It had practically caused his grandfather to disown his father, and only sheer laziness to bother with the legal details meant that Raymond himself was now the Earl. “Might I ask why this is such a pleasing prospect, Miss Gracechurch?”
She blushed, a rosy bloom that crept up her neck and stained her cheeks in the most becoming manner. Raymond swallowed, thinking how lovely she would look in the throes of passion, her bright eyes filled with desire and her cheeks stained with the evidence of her passion. Dammit, I pray the interview continues, as there is no way I can stand up and still hide my traitorous cock!
“I would like to alter the current business emphasis of Gracechurch Shipping, to take advantage of new open markets available now that the war has ended. In order to do this, I need the aid of a captain who can help with negotiation in the local language and with a local sensibility.” She stood, and he could not help but admire her tall frame and graceful carriage as she walked to the sideboard and poured out a glass of rich amber liquid. She walked toward him and held out the glass, standing close enough that her skirts brushed his knees.
He took it from her bare hand, letting his fingers touch hers briefly. He did not imagine her shiver or the quickly-damped fire that sparked in those amazing eyes. Without taking his eyes from hers, he took a sip, and the fine sherry smoothed over his tongue with a sweet warmth and did nothing to reduce his growing arousal.
“I believe that there are many opportunities now for the import of fine wines and spirits, and the best to be had are in Spain and Portugal. I would like a…a partner if you will. One who knows the waters and the people.”
He nodded, warming immediately to the idea of being this woman’s partner, in any endeavor. “I speak both Spanish and Portuguese fluently. And I have lived for years in Spain and still hold some lands there.”
A brilliant smile was his gift after revealing that fact, and it took every bit of his discipline to keep from pulling this woman down into his lap before tasting the nectar of her lips and running his tongue over her even white teeth.
“Excellent.” Her face shuttered again, and she stepped back slightly, “I have one last question. As I trust Mr. Saksville with his assessment of your integrity and reputation, I ask for your discretion about that which I will now speak.”
He nodded again and wondered how he suddenly felt the need to protect this woman from whatever burdens she carried. She took a deep breath and began to speak in a soft tense voice.
“My father is gravely ill, and my brother is still too young to take the reins of this company. I have no male relatives that I would trust with the fate of my family’s business. I have kept the secret of my father’s condition from all but the most trusted of his business associates and from anyone who might threaten to take over the business. I assure you, I have been trained at my father’s knee since I was a small child, and I have acted as my father’s secretary since I was but fifteen. I know that I can be a custodian for my brother until he can take the reins, and I will do so only with his interests in mind.”
“You need not explain such things to me, Miss Gracechurch. If Alan Saksville believes you to be competent, then I, too, trust his opinion. I have had occasion in the past to trust women with my life, and I have no qualms about working under your orders if that is your concern.” He had been under the orders of a woman during his intelligence work, and Carmina was the most intelligent, ruthless, bloodthirsty person he’d ever come to know. Between Carmina and the unbounded wisdom of his own mother, he knew that women deserved more respect than they were generally afforded.
Again, Helena Gracechurch let a full smile light up her face, and Raymond knew that there would be one distinct problem in his working for her. He wanted her. He wanted her in his bed, his hands caressing her breasts, his cock sliding between her thighs. He wanted to watch her take her pleasure.