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His Golden Ring








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By Cheryl Bolen

Chapter 1

Lady Fiona Hollingsworth felt wretchedly guilty for sitting there in her theatre box, and even more guilty for pondering a flame-haired actress, when her brother's very life was being threatened--not that Randy was likely to expire this very night. She had a week before the situation turned truly desperate.

"Who is that beautiful creature?" she asked her theatre companion.

Trevor Simpson screwed in his quizzing glass and, following Fiona's gaze, stared at the actress on the stage below. "Ah, that would be Diane Foley. Lovely, is she not?"

"She certainly is."

Trevor bent his head to hers and whispered. "Miss Foley's protector sits in the box opposite us."

"You are not supposed to discuss such matters with a maiden," Fiona scolded as she playfully swatted the flamboyantly dressed man beside her with her fan. Trevor's disregard for convention could always bring a smile to Fiona's lips. She did not know what she would have done this past year of overwhelming grief had she not had Trevor to cheer her. It was Trevor who had insisted she come here tonight. "Do you good," he had told her that afternoon, "to get your mind off the wretched business with Randolph." Though she had tearfully protested, Trevor's persistence eventually won out.

Curious to see the lovely actress's "protector," Fiona immediately swept her gaze to the lone man in the box across from hers. He was an extremely handsome man in his early thirties, tall and dark and exceptionally well dressed. She thought that even were he not possessed of such striking good looks, the man's haughty air of bored arrogance would have commanded attention. Only once before had she seen such a man. Her spine stiffened. She had met this man before. "Is that Mr. Nicholas Birmingham?" she asked her companion.

Trevor's eyes sparkled, and a grin pinched his slender cheeks. "He's utterly gorgeous, is he not?"

Fiona found herself smirking into her fan. Randy would be appalled over Trevor's blatant effeminism, but she had always found it rather amusing. "I don't think Randy likes Mr. Birmingham," she said.

"Of course not, my dear lady! The man's completely ineligible."

"Then why did Randy introduce him to me?"

"Can't imagine Birmingham being at the same gathering with a viscount's daughter. He's not of the ton, you know. Where could you have met the fellow?"

"Actually I persuaded my brother to allow me to go to Tattersall's with him. Once. Since Randy had been to Cambridge with Mr. Birmingham he must have felt compelled to introduce us when Mr. Birmingham greeted him, but Randy was exceedingly cool to him."

"As well he should be! Even though they're wealthier than the Duke of Devonshire, Birmingham and his brothers are as ruthless as their late father--a man who was brilliant at banking and making money but who made a poor choice in a wife. The boys' mother's painfully crass. And . . . " Trevor lowered his voice, "It's said Nicholas Birmingham even has one of his bastards living with him."

Decidedly improper, she thought.

"He's the one," Trevor said authoritatively, "who's building that disgustingly opulent mansion on Piccadilly, you know."

No, she did not know, though she certainly knew about the Piccadilly mansion. London was agog over the palatial structure rising from the rubble that had been Lord Howard's townhouse. "It's said the man building it is the richest man in all of England."

Trevor examined his fingernails. "I daresay he is. Pity he's a Cit."

Throughout the remainder of the play Fiona watched Mr. Birmingham, who watched his beautiful mistress glide elegantly to and fro while saying the most suggestive things to the men who shared the stage with her. Once when Fiona was staring into Mr. Birmingham's box, his gaze flicked to hers. And held. Fiona quickly looked away.

Though she dared not risk staring at him anymore, she could not free her mind of the exceedingly rich Mr. Birmingham. During the final curtain call, she asked, "Is Nicholas Birmingham married?"

"No," Trevor said. "Deuced awkward for a man in his position to find a bride."

"I should think Mr. Birmingham could buy any woman in the kingdom."

Trevor shrugged. "The late Mr. Birmingham raised his sons to be gentlemen. Had the best education his wealth could buy, use only the best tailors, speak the King's English and all that. But they're still Cits. Too good for women of their own class and not good enough for women of our class, though I daresay their father had hoped for an aristocratic match for the eldest boy, Nicholas." Trevor's head inclined toward Mr. Birmingham's box.

While Fiona and Trevor waited outside the theatre for their carriage, shivering from the December night's frostiness, Fiona half wished to see Mr. Birmingham to confirm that he was as handsome as she remembered, as handsome as he appeared across a dark theatre, but he was nowhere in sight. She supposed someone of his vast wealth never had to wait for anything.

Once she and Trevor settled in her family's rickety coach she broached the subject that had dominated her thoughts all evening. "I'm planning to ask Mr. Birmingham to help me free Randy."

Trevor's eyes widened. "You cannot be serious!"


"Because the man's mercenary. He doesn't give away his precious hoards of money. You'll not be asking for a few guineas. What you need is a fortune. Men of Birmingham's ilk don't give away twenty-five thousand pounds."

Fiona squared her shoulders and spoke firmly. "I mean to strike a bargain with him."

"My dear lady, you have nothing left to bargain with. All your father's property--except that which is entailed--has already been sold off. You've nothing to offer as collateral."

"I do have something," she whispered.

Trevor spun toward her. "Pray, what?"

She took a deep breath. "Myself."

For once Trevor was speechless. When he recovered enough to close his gaping mouth, he said, "A viscount's daughter cannot marry a Cit!" His eyes narrowed. "Besides, have you not always said you would marry only for love?"

Her lips thinned. "I once believed in love, but you know what became of that. Since I shall never love again, why shouldn't I marry a man who can save my brother's life?"

"Randolph wouldn't like it above half if you was to throw yourself away on the likes of Birmingham. Even if the man is devilishly handsome."

A sudden rush of tears filled her eyes. "It's not as if I'm not already dead inside, Trevor, and if I were to be fortunate enough to tempt Mr. Birmingham, I would at least rejoice over saving Randy." Her voice cracked. "Do you know how long it's been since I had something to rejoice over? In the past sixteen months I've lost Mama, then Warwick, then Papa, then the family fortune." Her voice cracked. "I couldn't bear it if I lost Randy too."

Trevor took her hand and pressed it between his own gloved hands. "I know, my pet. Things have been dreadfully wretched for you. If I had a feather to fly with, it would be yours."

"But neither of us has a feather to fly with. That's why I must throw myself at Mr. Birmingham."

Trevor winced. "I beg that you wait, my lady. Surely we can think of something else."

She shook her head solemnly. "No, Trev. You said yourself twenty-five thousand pounds is a fortune. We'll never come up with that much money. And I only have until next week."

"I should like to wring your brother's neck," Trevor muttered in a guttural voice. "I told him he had no business rushing off to the Peninsula. Look what's it's gotten him."

"He didn't know Papa would die and leave his finances so muddled, and Randy couldn't have known those wretched bandits would abduct him."

"Still, he should have stayed here with you after that beastly business with Warwick."

"But he was as upset as I when Lord Warwick married. Randy had offered for the countess himself."

Trevor's lips stretched to a flat line. "He'd only known the countess a few days, certainly not long enough to form the kind of attachment to her that you had with Warwick. Pray, how many years had you loved Warwick?"

Her heart stung at the memory. "Thirteen," she said in a hoarse whisper. It was still difficult for her to believe the man she had loved since she was twelve and been pledged to for three years had married someone else. It was still difficult to imagine a future in which she wasn't Edward's wife, wasn't Lady Warwick. It was still difficult to accept that she would likely go to her grave without knowing a man's love.

"If I knew how to use pistols or swords I'd have called Warwick out myself," Trevor said.

The image of the milksoppish Trevor brandishing a sword brought a smile to her lips. She squeezed his hand even more tightly. For as many years as she had been in love with Warwick she and the diminutive Trevor Simpson had been the greatest of friends. "I don't think I hate him anymore, nor do I still love him," she said with resignation. "All that's left is a huge hole in my heart."

When the carriage pulled to a stop in front of Trevor's lodgings at Albany, he turned to her. "I beg that you don't do anything rash."

"Where does Mr. Birmingham live?"

"Doubtless in some unfashionable neighborhood you can't be seen in. Piccadilly won't be finished until the Italian painters complete the ceilings."

She lowered her fine brows. "Does Mr. Birmingham have offices in The City?"

"He's known as The Fox of the Exchange--but you must know women cannot go to the Exchange."

She smiled. "Women cannot go to Tattersall's, but I went there."

"Now see here, Lady Fiona! You simply cannot go into The City unchaperoned."

"I'm not, Trev dearest. You'll come with me. Tomorrow morning."

* * *

Nicholas Birmingham rose from his broad desk to greet the Foreign Secretary, Lord Warwick. Despite that he had not seen Warwick in many years, Nick had kept abreast of the peer's affairs, including his jilting of the lovely Lady Fiona Hollingsworth last year. How any man could reject such a perfect creature was beyond Nick's comprehension, and the fact that the most superior Lord Warwick humiliated the lady did nothing to endear him to Nick.

What a remarkable coincidence that Warwick should call the very morning after Nick saw Lady Fiona at the theatre. All morning Nick had been unable to purge his mind of the vision of the elegant blond beauty staring across the dark theatre at him. How lovely she had looked in her sapphire gown that matched her extraordinary eyes.

Nick was somewhat surprised that a man of Warwick's importance had sought him out. Though the two men had been at Cambridge together, their disparaging stations had prevented any sort of friendship from forming. "Your servant, my lord," he said. "Please be seated."

Warwick sat on a sturdy wooden chair that faced Nick's desk.

"What can I do for you, my lord?" Nick never wasted time on pleasantries. As long as the sun shone, he could make money, and every minute wasted was money lost.

The Foreign Secretary cleared his throat. "I'm here in an official capacity, Mr. Birmingham."

Nick's brows rose. "I am completely at your service."

A single corner of Warwick's aristocratic mouth twitched as he somberly eyed Nick. "As you know, defeating Napoleon by any means is my objective in all that I do at the Foreign Office."

Why in the hell doesn't the man just get to the point? "As it should be, my lord."

"We've been bloody successful at sea, and our peninsular armies are making great strides in subduing the maniac Corsican, but there's one more area I wish to dominate."

He wants to crush the French treasury. Nick smiled. "Now I understand why you've come to me."

"There's only one man in England with the resources--and the knowledge--to manipulate the markets."

"What's needed is not a manipulation of the market but a devaluation of the franc."

The earl pondered this for a moment, then nodded. "At this point, such a devaluation can only be precipitated by someone possessed of a great fortune."

Nick laughed. "What you propose is that my brothers and I beggar ourselves in order to crush the French?"

"I'll admit there is a certain risk," the earl said, "but the English government is poised to enter into a contract with you. Should you fail--should you lose your vast resources--we would provide handsomely for you for the rest of your life."

"Then why doesn't the English government use its resources instead of mine to foil Napoleon?"

"Because the war's taking everything!"

Nick peered at the earl through narrowed eyes. "And if France wins this war?"

"That is an eventuality I cannot conceive of."

"You'd make a damned poor businessman, Warwick." Nick disliked the pompous Foreign Secretary even more now. It was bad enough that he had humiliated the delicate Lady Fiona, but now he was asking that Nick throw away his family's fortune on a poorly thought-out scheme that would in no way benefit Nick and his brothers and that the English government was not capable of funding.

There was a tap on his door, and his secretary entered the chamber, closing the door behind him. "A Lady Fiona Hollingsworth to see you, my lord," the young man said.

Nick and Warwick exchanged icy stares, then Warwick got to his feet. "I was just leaving. Oblige me by not mentioning this matter to anyone."

Nick nodded.

"And please, Birmingham," Warwick added, "I beg that you give the matter careful consideration. I shall call on you again next week."

As Warwick went to leave the office, Lady Fiona swept in. When she met Warwick's gaze, her face blanched. "Edward!" she said in a shaky voice.

He bowed. "May I hope you're as well as you look, Lady Fiona?"

Except for her ruffled composure, she did indeed look very well. The tomato color of her well-cut velvet pelisse perfectly matched the hue of her lovely mouth. The lithe, dainty blond exuded more elegance than any woman Nick had ever seen. Warwick was an utter fool to have cast aside this beauty.

"I'm quite well," she answered. "And Lady Warwick?"

"She presented me with a son in September."

"Yes, I know. My felicitations."

After Warwick left, Nick crossed the room, bowed before Lady Fiona, then took her shaking hand and brushed his lips across it. "Allow me to say what a pleasure it is to see you again, my lady. Won't you have a seat?"

He pulled up an upholstered chair in front of his desk, and she sank into it.

Nick returned to his desk and faced her, for once not spurring on his visitor to get to the point. "My sympathies on your father's death last year," he offered. "I suppose Randolph is the new Lord Agar?"

Her pale blue eyes were utterly woeful when she looked up at him. "He is."

"I would be most happy to assist you, my lady, in communicating with your brother. My courier service is second to none."

"I do need your assistance, Mr. Birmingham, but not for that." She began to fumble in her reticule, then she removed a single piece of parchment and handed it to him.

"What's this?" he asked, his glance leaping to the masculine scribble on the page.

"A ransom demand I received yesterday. It was wrapped around my brother's signet ring--which I know he would never willingly part with. Randolph has apparently been abducted by Spanish bandits."

Nick took the letter and read.

We have in our custody the son of the wealthy English Lord Agar. If you wish to see Senor Randolph again, you must pay us twenty-five thousand pounds. We will give you a week to secure the funds, then we will be communicating with you once more. If you fail to comply, Senor Randolph will be killed.

"Your brother was in Spain?" Nick asked.

She nodded.

"Why did you not take this letter to Warwick?"

"If you must know," she said proudly, "I'm out of charity with his lordship."

"So you expect a stranger to give you the twenty-five thousand pounds?" At the wounded look on her delicate face, he wished he could retract his insensitive words. Lady Fiona was under a great deal of strain. She was extremely close to her brother and quite naturally worried about him. "I'm sorry for being so brutally blunt, my lady. I'm flattered that you've come to me, but you must realize this is an exorbitant amount of money." He stopped short of reminding her that the Agar fortune had gone the way of powdered wigs. It was Nick's business to know everyone's financial business. The late Lord Agar had lost vast sums in African mines, and that loss was followed with a huge blow on the market. The man had been forced to sell all his ancillary properties and much of his renowned library and art collection just to meet present pecuniary demands.

"To me, yes, it's a great deal of money," she said. "To most people, it's a great deal of money, but not to you, Mr. Birmingham."

"If it's a loan you seek, you need to see my brother Adam. He's the banker of the family."

"I don't wish to speak with your brother," she said, her blue eyes glittering defiantly, her spine ramrod straight. "It's you I wish to deal with."

"Why am I to be so singularly honored, my lady?"

"Because you're not a complete stranger."

"You think one brief meeting gives you access to my money?" Damn, but he was behaving abominably to the poor lady! "Forgive me for my shockingly bad manners."

Two perfect little white teeth nipped at her lip as she watched him. God, but she was exquisite!

But of course he wouldn't give her the money. "I must tell you, my lady, that in order to obtain a loan, one must secure it by pledging property or belongings of equal or greater value than the amount borrowed. What do you propose to use as collateral?"

She did not answer for a moment. Her hands folded and unfolded nervously as she stared at him. Then she finally cleared her throat, stared at his neck, and said, "I mean to offer myself as your bride, Mr. Birmingham."


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