“That you would marry for convenience and search for love elsewhere.”
“That's precisely what my father did. I'm certain my mother, being a sensible woman, expected nothing else of him, but I believe it hurt her all the same. I swore to myself that I would have something different.”
“That isn't always possible, though.”
“It will be for me.”
How would it be possible? He must have an annulment in mind. He would have to be rid of her before he could consider marriage, unless he thought there was nothing wrong with bigamy.
“How can you be certain?” she asked. “You have no guarantee that you'll find your soul mate.”
“No guarantee,” he agreed, releasing her ankle. “Only hope.”
He stood until he gazed down at her from his full height. His head was above hers, his face cast in shadow. Julia should have let go of his shoulders, but she felt peculiarly off-balance, as if that would mean releasing her hold on the only solid thing in the world.
“We've met before, you know,” he said softly.
The words sent a chill of alarm through her. “You're mistaken.”
“I've never forgotten that night.” His hands were firm on her waist, holding her steady as he stared into her upturned face. “It was three years ago in Warwickshire. I had walked from the castle to watch the village May Day celebration. I saw you dancing.” He was silent then, watching as her expression changed from bewilderment to recognition.
“Oh,” Julia said faintly. “I didn't realize…” At first she had thought he was referring to their marriage. Good Lord, so he was the stranger who had kissed her that night! She lowered her gaze to the center of his chest, remembering how the kiss had haunted her for months afterward. It was incredible that fate had drawn them together yet again. “I asked you that evening if you were one of the Savages, and you denied it. Why didn't you tell me who you were?”
“I had no way of knowing how you would react. You might have assumed I would try to take advantage of you.”
“You did—you kissed me against my will.”
A reluctant smile crossed his face. “I couldn't help it. You were the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. You still are.”
Julia tried to pull away, but he kept her anchored against him. “What do you want from me?” she asked unsteadily.
“I want to see you again.”
She shook her head vehemently. “You can't buy another evening with me, even if you purchase the entire Capital Theatre.”
“Why not? Because your husband would object?”
“I've told you I won't discuss him.”
“I won't let you refuse without explaining why you won't see me.”
“Because I have no interest in an affair with you…and given our respective situations, that is the only thing you would be able to offer me.” Julia's blood drummed in a volatile rhythm. His body was so close to hers, she could hear his breathing, sense his heat, and she was drawn to him like a moth blundering toward a flame. She wanted to tilt her head back and feel his mouth on hers, and press herself against him. There had never been temptation like this, a promise of something extraordinary within reach. But she would not give in to the self-destructive urge. It would be disastrous.
“I won't see you again,” she said, twisting until his hands dropped away and she was set free. “I must leave.” She hurried back to the fountain, and paused at the juncture of two paths.
Savage's voice was just behind her. “This way.” They walked back to the house in silence, seized with a tension that neither seemed able to break.
As the carriage rolled away with its lovely occupant tucked safely inside, Damon wandered alone across the marble floor of the entrance hall. He felt more restless than he had ever been in his life. His mind was filled with her; he relived every moment of the past few hours and craved more.
He wanted her. He wanted her with an unreasoning, blind insistence that raged through every nerve. And he resented her for it.
Slowly he went to the long staircase leading to the top two floors of the house. He stopped at the first landing and sat on the steps. Bracing his forearms on his knees, he stared without interest at the luminous medieval tapestries that covered the wall.
Jessica Wentworth was committed elsewhere. So was he. They occupied separate worlds. She was right, there was little he could offer her except an affair. And there was Pauline to consider. She didn't deserve to be betrayed and abandoned. What they had together was comfortable and easy, and it had been enough for him…until Jessica Wentworth.
He should put Jessica from his mind, now. It was the only rational choice. But something in him rebelled at the thought. He had never felt so confined, his choices limited by a past that weighed on him like a mile's length of iron chain. He was married to a woman he didn't even know.
If only he could find Julia Hargate, damn her to hell, and cut her from his life once and for all.
The moment Julia entered the greenroom, she found a half-dozen expectant gazes pinned on her. The assembled actors, the principals of Taming of the Shrew, were unabashedly curious about what had occurred during her evening with Lord Savage.
Only Logan Scott seemed too preoccupied with rehearsal notes to notice her entrance. “You're late, Mrs. Wentworth,” he finally said without looking up.
“Forgive me, I overslept,” Julia murmured as she made her way to an empty chair. It was the truth. After she had returned to her small house on Somerset Street, she had stayed awake for a long time, drinking wine and staring pensively at nothing. Even after going to bed, she had found sleep elusive. It seemed that when she finally dozed off, it was already time to awaken and face the day with bleary, dark-circled eyes.
She hadn't been able to stop thinking about Savage. Last night had been the culmination of all the fear and curiosity that had plagued her for years. Now all her imaginings about her unknown husband were gone. He was real to her, and more dangerous than she had ever dreamed. Savage was a magnificent man, intelligent, powerful, driven, the kind who could dominate a woman's life so completely that she would lose herself in his shadow. He was very much like her father in that regard. Julia didn't want to be the wife of a strong man—she had worked too, hard to become Jessica Wentworth.
It would have been easier to disregard Savage if not for the disarming hint of vulnerability she had seen…the gentle way he had touched her, the startling admission that he wanted to marry for love someday. Was there more to be discovered beneath his guarded exterior? She could never take the chance of finding out. It filled her with a strange despair, thinking of what had transpired between them. She had made it clear that she would not see him again, and she knew in her heart that it was for the best. But why did it feel as if she had lost something infinitely precious?
“Here you are,” came Arlyss's murmur, and the petite actress passed her a cup of hot tea.
Julia accepted it gratefully and sipped the sweet, bracing liquid.
“He didn't let you sleep a wink, did he?” Arlyss asked in delight. “I've never seen you so exhausted. Was he very good, Jessica?”
Julia gave her a weary scowl. “I wasn't with him—not in that way.”
“Of course not,” said Mr. Kerwin, a portly actor in his sixties who considered himself a sophisticated man of the world. He excelled at playing anxious fathers, harassed husbands, drunkards, and buffoons, always with a lopsided charm that endeared him to the audience. “Never admit a thing, my dear—your private life should remain just that.” He punctuated the comment with a friendly wink.
Logan's voice, dripping with sarcasm, intruded on the budding conversation. “Mrs. Wentworth, would you care to join us? I have a page of notes concerning your mistakes of last night's performance. I'm certain you'll want to hear them.”
Julia nodded and sipped more tea, wondering why Logan seemed so tense this morning. He should be pleased—the performance had been well-received by the audience and critics, and she had done her part for the Capital by attending the promised dinner with Lord Savage. What more did he want?
Before Logan could proceed with his reading of the morning's notes, the greenroom door opened and the hesitant face of one of the company's property-men appeared. “Begging pardon,” he said apologetically to the room at large, and his gaze flew to Julia. “A parcel was just delivered for you, Mrs. Wentworth. The boy who delivered it said it should be brought to you right away.”
Intrigued, Julia gestured for the small, plainly wrapped box in his hand, and he brought it to her. Mindful of Logan's gathering scowl, the property man vanished quickly. Julia was sorely tempted to open the package, but she set it aside to be unwrapped later, knowing it would annoy Logan to have further interruptions of the meeting. The assembled company stared intently at the mysterious box, completely ignoring Logan's impatient rustling of his notes.
“Well?” Logan finally said to Julia, his mouth twisting sardonically. “You may as well open the damned thing. It's apparent that no one will pay attention to the work at hand until you do.”
Arlyss leaned over Julia's shoulder, her eyes bright with interest, her brown curls fairly dancing with energy. “It's from him, isn't it?”
Cautiously Julia unwrapped the box and discovered a folded note inside. Everyone leaned closer, as if they all expected she would read it aloud. Defensively she held the note close to her midriff and scanned it silently.
I am told this once belonged to the gifted actress Mrs. Jordan. It deserves to be worn by someone with the grace and beauty to display it properly. Please accept this token with the understanding that no obligation comes with it, save that you enjoy it.
Damon, Lord Savage
Cautiously Julia lifted a small blue velvet pouch from the box, and dropped its contents into her hand. Arlyss gave an audible gasp, while Mr. Kerwin made a rumbling noise of approval in his throat. Unable to resist, the group of actors gathered around to view the offering.
In the center of Julia's palm was the most exquisite brooch she had ever seen, a tiny bouquet of roses with glittering ruby petals and emerald leaves. She could well believe that Mrs. Dora Jordan, the consort of the king's brother so many years ago, would have owned such a magnificent piece. Although Julia had been offered jewelry and gifts from many would-be suitors—and she had refused all of it—no one had ever given her something so elegant. Dumbfounded, she stared at the small treasure in her palm. “I…I'll have to return it,” she said with difficulty, and there was an immediate chorus of disapproval.
“Why should you?”
“Keep it, lass, there's your future to consider—”
“With his fortune, the marquess could buy you a thousand more and never miss a shilling!”
“Don't be hasty,” Arlyss urged. “Before you do anything, think about it for a day or two.”
“All right, that's enough,” Logan said, tugging impatiently at a lock of his burnished russet hair. “There are far better things to occupy us than Mrs. Wentworth's conquest.”
Obediently the players returned to their seats. Julia closed her fingers over the jeweled pin, her mind racing. Of course she must return it—she had never accepted a gift from a man before. In spite of his words to the contrary, she knew that Lord Savage would expect a favor in return. He was not the kind of man to give something for nothing. But a strange thought came to mind. He was her husband; why shouldn't she take it from him? Their long-ago marriage had deprived her of so many things. Surely she deserved this small compensation. The brooch was so beautiful, so enticing, and it suited her perfectly.
Mrs. Wentworth's conquest, she thought, flushing in dismay and delight. She shouldn't be pleased that Lord Savage had taken an interest in her. She should be alarmed. What an astonishing twist of fate, to be courted by her own husband! This flirtation with disaster must end before it went any further.
Sliding the brooch back into the velvet pouch, Julia forced herself to pay attention to Logan's notes. She was quiet and subdued while the others asked questions and made their own suggestions concerning the play. When the meeting was concluded, she went toward her dressing room, wanting a few minutes of privacy to think.
“Mrs. Wentworth,” Logan murmured as Julia passed, and she stopped with an inquiring glance.
“Yes, Mr. Scott?”
Logan wore a matter-of-fact expression, but there was a pinched look between his ruddy brows that betrayed some inner turmoil. “It appears the dinner with Lord Savage wasn't a great hardship after all.”
“No,” she said evenly. “It was quite pleasant.”
“Will you see him again?” Suddenly a self-mocking smile hovered on his lips, as if he felt like a fool for asking.
“No, Mr. Scott.” Julia wondered why his expression seemed to smooth out. Perhaps he was concerned that a relationship with Lord Savage might interfere with her career? Or was there possibly some personal motive in his question?
“Then it's all over,” he said.
Her hand tightened on the brooch encased in velvet. “Most certainly, Mr. Scott.”
Pauline, Lady Ashton lounged on the embroidered ivory silk counterpane of her bed, her voluptuous body covered in a slightly transparent pink dressing gown. She murmured a languid greeting to Damon as he entered the bedroom of her elegant London townhouse. They had been apart for the weekend, while she had visited her sister's family in Hertfordshire.
Immediately upon her return, Pauline had sent a brief note, perfumed and sealed with gold wax, to Damon's town address. From the demanding tone of the message, Damon guessed that Pauline had already heard of his latest activities. God knew how she kept such a close eye on him—it appeared as if she had employed a network of spies to watch him.
“Hello, darling,” Pauline said, gesturing him close with a slender white hand. Pulling his head down to hers, she kissed him ardently, holding him to her with surprising strength. Damon jerked his head back and stared at her curiously. There was a look on her face that he didn't like, a mixture of excitement and triumph, a glitter of anticipation in her dark brown eyes. It seemed that she was preparing for battle…and that she possessed a weapon that would guarantee her victory.
“Pauline, there's something I want to tell you—”
“I already know,” she interrupted calmly. “It's rather humiliating, you know, enduring the sneers and false pity of the ton, while they're all trying to be the first to tell me that you've developed an infatuation for some cheap little actress.”
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