Read The Redemption of Julian Price Online
Authors: Victoria Vane
Tags: #Friends to lovers, #marriage of convenience, #wounded warriors, #spinter, #rake
THE REDEMPTION OF JULIAN PRICE
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination, or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real.
THE REDEMPTION OF JULIAN PRICE Copyright © 2016 by Victoria Vane.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.
Editor: Jenny Toney Quinlan – Historical editorial
Cover Illustration: Romance-covers.com
Stock Photography: Period Images
Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, 1807
INY RIVULETS OF PERSPIRATION trailed a path down the shallow valley beneath Henrietta’s bodice. She shifted in the pew, her underskirt clinging to her thighs. It had been the warmest August she could recall, but this day seemed the most stifling of them all. The church was crowded, airless, and growing increasingly oppressive as the vicar of St. Michael’s droned on about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego while mopping his brow with a limp handkerchief.
In the pew directly in front of her, Julian Price tugged on his cravat and mumbled a curse. “Bloody hell, I’m roasting alive. Thomas,” he whispered to the boy beside him, “do you really suppose it can be any hotter than this in the pit of hell?”
“If you don’t reform your ways,” Thomas retorted, “you will surely find out.”
Julian seemed to take particular joy in taunting the vicar’s son, but Thomas always accepted his friend’s jibes with equanimity. Although Julian and Thomas were chalk and cheese, they were still the best of chums. If it wasn’t for Thomas, Julian would probably never have set foot in church.
Henrietta coughed to disguise a giggle, but the scathing look from Mama told her the subterfuge had failed. She passed the remainder of the sermon watching Julian fidget until the congregation stood for the Lord’s Prayer. The vicar had hardly murmured the final
before Julian burst from the pew and bolted for the door, ripping at his neckcloth.
“Where are you going in such a fury?” Henrietta’s brother, Harry, called after him.
“To the lake,” Julian shot over his shoulder. “Come with me,” he cast a defiant look at Harry and Henrietta’s mother, “if you dare defy your dear mama.”
“Heathen boy,” Mama murmured with the special glare she reserved solely for Julian. “He’s become an abominable influence on Harry.”
“It’s hardly Julian’s fault, Mama,” Henrietta protested.
“I supposed it’s only to be expected.” Her mother’s ample bosom rose and descended with a heavy sigh. “That uncle of his is an absolute disgrace as a guardian. He always was a ne’er-do-well.”
Henrietta had never seen Winston Price, but whispered tales of his debauchery circulated frequently, growing more sensational with every mention of his name.
Although they’d spent many summers past enjoying Price Hall’s fishing lake, Harry and Henrietta had been forbidden to visit Julian’s home since his parents’ passing three years ago. Julian had been away at school in Shrewsbury when smallpox had ravaged the village of Bishop’s Castle, claiming the lives of his parents and baby sister, leaving Julian under the guardianship of his uncle. None too concerned with his responsibilities, Winston had placed Julian in the care of an unsupervised staff of servants. Left to his own devices, Julian had indeed run wild.
It wasn’t that Julian was a bad seed; he just had no one who truly cared about him other than his closest friends, Thomas, Henrietta, and her twin, Harry. The four of them had been nearly inseparable for as long as Hen could remember. Now she feared Mama would force her and Harry to sever the connection with him entirely.
It was shortly after they arrived home from church that Hen and Harry perceived the chance to escape Mama’s watchful eye. The opportunity had come with the arrival of the Ladies Auxiliary for the Michaelmas Fair, of which Mama was the chairwoman. Hen and Harry sneaked away right after tea, safe in the knowledge that their absence wouldn’t be noted for several hours. They set out on foot, passing through the wooded acres that divided the two properties.
The ornamental lake at Price Hall was located on the former grounds of one of the many motte-and-bailey castle ruins that dotted the Shropshire landscape. Old and crumbling, little of the original structure remained, but that had never prevented Henrietta and the boys from laying siege on the invisible ramparts.
Thomas and Julian were sitting along the bank of the lake with poles in hand when Hen and Harry arrived. Sighting his friends, Julian tossed aside his fishing gear and leaped to his feet. “So you came after all? I was beginning to wonder if you would.”
“You should take greater care with Mama,” Henrietta warned. “She already disapproves of you.”
“Everyone in Shropshire disapproves of me,” Julian replied with a shrug.
“And whose fault do you suppose that is?” she returned.
“Will you please keep your voices down?” Thomas whispered. “You’re going to scare away all the fish.”
“What bloody fish?” Julian asked. “We haven’t caught a cursed one in nearly two hours.” He kicked off his shoes and then began to strip down to his smallclothes.
“What are you doing?” Thomas asked.
“I’m going swimming,” Julian declared. “I’m too bored and too damned hot to just sit here on the bank and bake when there’s a perfectly good lake beckoning. Anyone care to race?” Julian challenged, nodding toward the other side.
“What does the winner get?” Harry asked.
Julian pursed his lips and cocked his head. “How about a bottle of French brandy?”
“Brandy?” Thomas frowned. “There’s a trade embargo. How would you have come by a bottle of brandy?”
“My uncle sent several casks to store down here. French goods are a rare commodity these days.”
“I suppose that might be because they are illegal,” Thomas said dryly.
“Since I lack Thomas’ scruples, I’ll race you for it,” Harry said with a laugh and began removing his clothes.
“What about you, Hen?” Julian asked.
“I . . . ah . . . don’t know that I feel much like swimming today,” she replied. Although she’d swum in this lake with the boys countless times, Henrietta watched them cast off clothing with a growing sense of discomfort. She’d never taken much notice of their anatomical differences until things had begun to change. . . or rather,
had begun to change.
“Is that so?” Julian asked. “Hen has given up without a fight? That’s a first, isn’t it, Harry? She’s usually the one to lead the charge in leaping fences and climbing trees.”
Henrietta jutted her chin. “You think I can’t beat you, Julian?”
“I know you can’t,” he said, adding with an arrogant look she wanted to wipe from his face, “but you are always welcome to try.” His smirk said he knew the goad would work.
He was right.
“I accept your challenge,” Henrietta answered. Turning her back to the boys, she kicked off her shoes and stockings and then wiggled out of the breeches she’d borrowed from Harry. She struggled a bit with her stays but managed them unaided while Julian and Harry impatiently waited. Would they notice? She was relieved when neither Thomas nor Julian gave her a second look.
Her transformation had begun slowly several months earlier, unbeknownst to all but her chambermaid, Millie, who’d calmed Henrietta’s panic when she’d awoken in a pool of blood. It was Millie, rather than Mama or Lavinia, who’d explained the changes nature had cruelly wrought upon her. And loyal Millie, as always, had kept her secret.
“Aren’t you going in too?” Julian asked Thomas, who had remained placidly seated, fishing pole in hand.
“I hardly see the point,” Thomas replied. “I’m a poor swimmer and have no interest in strong spirits. I’ll just stay here on the bank and cheer you on.”
“Suit yourself,” Julian said. “Or better yet, you can walk to the other side and judge the winner.”
As always, the boys stripped down to their breeches and Henrietta to her shift. Wearing only the thin layer of white linen, Henrietta stood on the bank nervously awaiting Thomas’s signal to start. Just as Thomas shouted, “Go!” Julian shoved Harry into the water. Laughing and splashing all the way, Henrietta, Julian, and Harry raced across the ornamental lake, arriving panting on the other side, where Thomas declared Julian the victor. Harry was a close second, and Henrietta followed a dismally distant third. Only a year ago, she could have held her own against any of the boys, but once more nature had not proven her ally. Julian and Thomas, at fifteen, were two years the twins’ senior and fast approaching manhood. They’d each sprouted at least four inches in two summers and outweighed her by well over a stone. Even Harry, who shared her birthday, was growing bigger and stronger by the day.
“Tell you what, ol’ chum,” Julian consoled Harry, “I’ll share the bottle with you.”
“What about me?” Henrietta asked. “I raced too.” The moment she spoke up, she wished she hadn’t. She should have just done as the others had, dragged herself up the muddy embankment and thrown herself onto the grass to dry. Instead, she’d stupidly drawn attention to herself and the transparent linen that now revealed all of her closely guarded secrets to three gaping faces.
Harry was first to recover. “For God’s sake, Hen, cover yourself!”
Her gaze darted around in panic. With what? Her clothes were on the other side of the lake. Noble as ever, Thomas came to her rescue, stripping off his shirt and handing it to her, gaze downcast.
“Thank you, Thomas.” She accepted his dry garment, noting the color that suffused his cheekbones and the tips of his ears. She quickly pulled the dry shirt over her wet shift.
“Go home, Hen,” Harry demanded.
“What do you mean?” she asked, perplexed.
“Exactly as I said,” Harry replied. “You are to get dressed and go back home to Mother and Lavinia.” Henrietta gaped at her brother, unable to comprehend his radical alteration in behavior. He’d always treated her more as a brother than a sister. “Now, Hen,” Harry insisted. “If you refuse, I’ll tell Mama everything, and she’ll never let you out of the house again.”
Henrietta spun away with tears of anger burning her eyes. Her body may have changed, but
had not. She’d always been more comfortable with male companions over females. They had readily accepted her when she’d proven their equal in climbing, riding, and other sports, but everything changed once she’d sprouted breasts. Thomas could hardly look her in the face anymore. Julian, however, seemed particularly fascinated. A month later, he even tried to kiss her at the Michaelmas Fair. In response, Henrietta had balled up a fist and drawn his cork, leaving him with a small hump on the bridge of his nose. Perceiving her breasts as the root of her troubles, she’d considered binding herself, but it was too late. The damage was already done.
Her life had irrevocably changed.
Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, 1815
ENRIETTA HOUGHTON OPENED HER EYES to sunshine streaming brightly through her violet-and-rose chintz curtains. Staring through the matching canopy of blooms above her bed, she allowed herself the indulgence of lingering a little longer in her fantasy. She’d dreamt that she was once again thirteen and walking between Julian and Harry at the Michaelmas Fair. As before, when Harry left her unchaperoned to take his turn at darts, Julian had offered to buy her a raspberry ice. This time, however, when he pulled her into an alcove to steal a kiss, rather than punching him, she’d let him kiss her. But this kiss was nothing like the brusque peck he’d planted on her cheek at their parting six years ago.
In the dream, Julian’s warm and soft lips moved over hers in a way that made her tingle to her toes. She’d awakened from the dream with a strange sensation resembling fluttering butterflies deep in her belly that spread their wings outward to the sensitive juncture between her legs. She studied the canopy of flowers with the discomposing realization that this was the third time she’d dreamt of Julian and his kiss since his return to Shropshire.
She sighed his name and extended her limbs in a long and languid feline stretch. He’d appeared out of the blue, arriving without the least concern that he’d interrupted the frenzy of wedding fever that had once more struck her family. But that was Julian, never a care or a thought beyond himself. She supposed it was the natural consequence of his careless upbringing. Still, she had been indescribably happy to see the feckless rogue.