"I'm so, so bored."
"Hmmm? Did you say something?"
Erica Lane folded her arms across her chest and gave her fiance a disapproving glare. "I said, I'm bored. By you."
"What?" Jack Ryerson looked up from his books and blanched at the expression that confronted him. "Forgive me, darling. I was miles away."
"Well, take me with you next time, because I'm bored to death of this house and of this life."
"And of me?" He flashed his trademark boyish grin. "I'm wounded, Erica."
She relented easily. "Where were you, exactly? When you were miles away."
"In the California mountains, at a lumber mill. I hear it's beautiful there. We should consider spending some time there after we're married."
"So that you can evaluate some horrid old lumber mill as an investment? How romantic," she drawled. Still, to herself she had to admit the scenario had its allure. Rugged, lonely men with saws and axes, taming a wilderness. The scent of pine and danger in the air. Maybe even a bear or two!
"Erica? Are you angry?"
"Me? Never. I was just imagining those mountains, and all the big strong men who work there in the fresh air. Doesn't it make you want to do something a little less cerebral?" She wriggled between the man and his desk until she was securely ensconced in his lap. "We could go for a ride, into the woods. I'd let you kiss me--"
"That sounds tempting, darling, but I promised Owen I'd have an answer for him tonight. You remember, don't you, that he and Mary are coming to dinner?"
"This investment is not even for you? It's for Owen?" Erica shook her head. "It's as though you'd rather do anything but be alone with me."
"I'm alone with you now."
"But you're distracted. I want your attention."
He brushed her thick auburn hair away from her ear and nibbled gently on the lobe. "Is that better?"
"Mmm, wonderful," Erica closed her eyes and allowed the tingling to radiate through her. "I wish you were a lumberjack."
"I think you'd enjoy me more," she explained. "Because you'd be lonely, and you'd savor every opportunity for female companionship."
"Where do you get your ideas?" He laughed and reached past her for a ledger book. "Run along and visit with Sarah for a while, darling. I have work to do."
Erica bristled at the familiar dismissal. Not that she didn't enjoy talking to Sarah, of course. The Ryerson family's governess was a delight. More importantly, she was a godsend of sorts, seeing to it that Jack's little sisters were pampered, civilized, educated and generally satisfied. On the other hand, it seemed these days that Jack expected Sarah to keep Erica occupied and out of his hair more often than the children!
"You haven't even kissed me today, Jack Ryerson. I don't think you really love me at all."
"I've loved you since the night you pretended to faint into my arms at the fireworks display over the bay. That was almost two years ago, wasn't it? And I love you more every day."
Erica smiled at the fond memory. "You should have tried to take advantage of me that night. I believe I would have allowed it, you were so handsome and attentive. I might even allow it now," she suggested precociously, stroking his face with her hand while moistening her lips, readying herself for his kiss.
Jack set the ledger down on the desk, turning his full attention to her at last. As his mouth covered hers, she twined her arms around his neck and sighed aloud in anticipation of the seduction to come. Then to her dismay, he grasped her firmly by the waist and lifted her off his lap. "Run along now and stop teasing me. What would your mother say?"
"She'd say you're a bore. And if Father were still alive, he'd take back my hand and tell you to find another girl to rebuff."
"I doubt it." Jack laughed. "I still remember how relieved he was when I offered to take you off his hands."
"He was not!"
"He said you had a worrisome tendency to get carried away, and he feared you'd run off with some fortune hunter or adventurer."
"Well, no one will ever mistake you for an adventurer--" Erica caught her temper, knowing she wouldn't fare well in a quarrel with a logical man like Jack Ryerson. She'd do better appealing to his soft heart, and so she wheedled, "I just want to spend some time with you, darling. Because I love you so much. Is that so very wrong?"
His green eyes warmed visibly. "Let me finish with this, and then, if you behave yourself at dinner tonight, I'll take you riding tomorrow. For the entire afternoon."
"And will you court me passionately?"
"I'm your fiance," he reminded her with a satisfied grin. "I'm finished courting you."
"Jack Ryerson!" She shook her head in disgust. "Perhaps you should marry Owen, since he's the only person you seem to have any time for these days."
Jack shrugged. "I have a small interest in this mill, and so, if Owen decides to invest heavily, you and I will profit. I'm doing this as much for you as for anyone."
"You acquire small interests in so many businesses," she mused. "Why is that?"
He studied her for a moment, as though doubting the wisdom of such a discussion, then explained, "Whenever I see an intriguing business that's faltering, I acquire an interest in it. That allows me access to its books and accounts. If it seems to be a wise prospect, I recommend it to one of my associates, and they make a substantial investment. The business begins to thrive, and my small interest becomes a profitable one. Do you see how it works?"
Erica smiled with pride. "Do you know what you are? You're the Russell Braddock of the investment world!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Russell Braddock is that marriage broker in Chicago--the one Owen was telling us about a few months ago. You're just like him, except you don't put a bride together with a groom, you put a failing business together with an investor."
"I suppose you could say that." Jack chuckled reluctantly. "He fascinates you, doesn't he?"
"If half of what we heard about him is true--"
"I'm sure none of it is, darling. How can a man hope to match two persons from just a letter or two? In my business, I have ledgers and inventories to evaluate. What does this Braddock character have? Nothing. I'm sure he has more failures than successes because of it."
Erica winced, remembering the letter she and Sarah had so solemnly crafted one rainy day in March. They had been so certain that the Happily Ever After Company was the answer to all of the poor governess's prayers. Was it possible Jack was right?
"You seem disappointed," Jack teased. "Were you thinking about ordering a lumberjack for yourself?"
"Would you be jealous if I did?"
"I don't know." Jack pretended to consider it carefully. "It would keep you occupied, so that I could concentrate on these books."
"You're hateful," Erica grumbled, but her thoughts had turned almost completely to Sarah's dilemma. If Jack was right, and Braddock was some sort of charlatan, the poor nanny's heart would be broken. Which meant Erica had to find her right away--before the response came from Happily Ever After--and convince her that she was better off finding herself a man the traditional way.
She knew it wouldn't be too difficult to change Sarah's mind about Braddock. After all, it was Erica who had convinced her to turn to the marriage broker in the first place. The governess had been aghast at the suggestion, and had resisted so valiantly that Erica had ended up writing almost every word of the letter herself.
"When you decide to start behaving, Jack Ryerson, let me know. Until then, I'll be in the garden with Sarah and the children, saying horrible things about you."
"Have fun. And, Erica?"
She turned to glare. "Yes?"
"I love you."
She bit her lip, pleased by the unexpected tribute. Then, after a playful curtsey, she turned and rushed off toward the garden, hoping Jack's sisters would still be napping, so that Erica and Sarah could converse undisturbed.