The Courtship

Excerpt from The Courtship, by Lynna Banning....

     Oh, God, can this really be happening? I am sitting here in Rydell Wilder's bank at noon on the hottest day yet this July, asking--begging!--for money?

     "How old are you, Jane?"

     His voice was low and quiet, but the question sliced through her muddled thoughts. She stiffened. "How old– ? Not ‘How much do you need?' or ‘How do you intend to proceed?' but ‘How old am I'? Why on God's green earth would you want to know that?"

     "I know how much you'll need," he said. His mouth quirked toward a smile. "And how you intend to proceed; you'll roll up those lacy sleeves and go to work. What I need to know is what my risk is."

     "Your risk? What about my risk? I am prepared to offer our home as collateral."

     "I don't want your home. As you said, it's in disrepair, and besides ... "

     Every nerve in her body jangled into excruciating attention. "I am twenty-six years old," she blurted. "If you don't want the house, what do you want?"

     He did smile then, a slow, sensuous curving of the lips, and a light flickered deep in the cool gray eyes. He paused, assessing her with an odd mixture of amusement and pain. "I want to make you a deal."

     "What kind of deal?" Her voice sounded tight.

     Rydell waited a full minute before answering her. She would never know how many years he had thought about such a moment, a time when Jane would again turn to him for help. His chest felt like a horse had ridden over it.

     He'd wanted Jane for so long he couldn't remember a time when seeing her didn't make him ache. He knew about the debts her father had incurred, about the state of their house. At least a dozen times he'd planned to go to her, in spite of her father's disapproval, and offer a proposal of marriage.

     "I'll lend you three hundred dollars, enough to pay off your father's ... obligations, rent you a store, and get you started in business."

     Jane sat bolt upright. "You will? Just like that?" She narrowed her eyes. "With no collateral?"

     Rydell smiled. "A deal, as I said."

     That she wanted to be independent surprised him. He had to admit he admired her for wanting to try setting up her own business, but the truth was he wouldn't give a moldy flapjack for her chances of success. She was a lady with a capital L, refined manners, soft voice, gentility.

     He'd always admired that, too. Oh, Lordy, she was so close to being his he couldn't think straight. He was facing the biggest gamble of his life.

     "If you succeed in your business venture," Rydell said carefully, "you simply repay the loan."

     Jane stared at him. "And if I can't?"

      Rydell took a deep breath and tried to keep his voice steady. "Well, here's the deal. I'm going to hold you yourself as collateral."

     "Me?" Jane echoed. "What happens if I fail?"

     He sent her a quick look, his eyes unreadable. "If you fail, you marry me."