“I didn't intend to embarrass you.”
“How clever of you to plan it for an evening when you knew I would be visiting my sister's family in the country! How was she, darling? It must have been thrilling to have such a celebrated tart in your bed—”
“Nothing happened between us.”
She laughed skeptically. “Really? So she's playing that game. I've used that tactic myself…remember? I made you wait a full month before allowing you to have me. Waiting makes the victory so much sweeter, doesn't it?”
Until that moment, Damon hadn't been certain of what he wanted from Pauline, or what his obligations to her might be. She had been an entertaining companion for several months. He had never lied to her, had never taken anything that wasn't willingly offered…and he had paid handsomely for the privilege of being accepted into her bed. Although he hadn't come here with the intention of breaking off their relationship, he knew now that his liaison with Pauline had grown stale. They had never shared anything but physical pleasure. No deeper understanding or intimacy had developed beyond that, and it never would.
“Why did you send for me?” he asked.
She stiffened at the new note in his voice, a cool disinterest he had never shown to her before. “I want to discuss your intentions, darling. Are you planning to make Jessica Wentworth your new mistress?”
“That isn't your concern.”
“You're going to leave me for a creature like her? She's nothing but a new toy, a pretty bauble that you'll soon tire of…and when you do, you'll return to me.”
Pauline's arrogance annoyed him. He had never allowed anyone to take him to task for anything he did, and he was hardly going to give Pauline that right. “If I do visit another woman's bed,” he said softly, “I'll be damned if I require your approval.”
“Very well, my lord. Am I at least allowed to ask what will become of me?”
Damon raked her with an appraising glance. As beautiful and desirable as Pauline was, she would find a new provider within a week. He had no illusions that she loved him—she showed no symptoms of that particular malady. Ending their relationship would hardly leave her brokenhearted and destitute.
“You'll do very well,” he said. “I doubt a man has ever looked at you and found you wanting, Pauline.” He softened slightly as he continued. “I've enjoyed being with you these past months. I'd like to end things on an agreeable note, without spoiling the memories. I'll make certain all your bills are settled. I want to leave you with a parting gift…a new carriage, more jewelry, a house just tell me what you'd like.”
Her brown eyes locked with his. “You've already left me a parting gift,” she said without blinking. Her voice contained an edge of irony that he didn't understand. Slowly her hand crept to her slightly rounded stomach, and slid over the smooth surface in a meaningful caress.
Uncomprehending, Damon watched the movement of her white fingers. His mind would not accept what she was trying to tell him.
“What should I ask for?” Pauline murmured idly, keeping her hand clamped protectively over her abdomen. “A little extra money, I suppose, and then I should promise not to trouble you about my condition after that. That's the usual arrangement, isn't it? Men in your position have illegitimate children all the time, and they feel no obligation to the mothers of their bastard offspring. But I know you, darling. You're not like most men.”
“We took precautions—” he said hoarsely.
“Sometimes precautions fail.”
“I want you to see a doctor.”
“I already have. You're welcome to meet him, of course, and have him confirm the news.” She paused and added with a sudden flash of vulnerability, “You may disbelieve me, or claim that the baby isn't yours, but at least I've told you the truth.”
If it was a bluff, it was a masterful one. Pauline spoke without blinking, without the telltale flush or heightened pulse of a woman who was lying. She was supremely calm and clearheaded.
A child…his, and Pauline's. Every part of him rebelled against the idea. For his entire adult life, he had never overindulged himself where women were concerned. He had chosen his partners carefully, and to his knowledge he hadn't sired bastards by any of them. Pauline was right; men seldom felt they owed anything to their pregnant mistresses except financial support for the children. This didn't have to be a trap…but for him it was. He felt cold all over. He turned away from the bedside so that Pauline couldn't watch the sickening realization sweep over his face.
He couldn't abandon her now, no matter what he felt for her personally. He was linked to her forever through this child. Pauline knew him well enough to understand that he couldn't live with himself if he didn't take care of her and the baby. From now on his life would be entwined with theirs.
He knew that Pauline wanted to become his wife, she expected it of him…and he would have expected it of himself, if not for one obstacle. A bitter smile twisted his lips, and he heard himself say aloud, “I can't marry you.”
“I understand your reluctance, darling. However, there are some facts to consider. You have need of an heir, or your brother will have the title after you. And there is the welfare of the child—”
“I'm already married.” It was the first time Damon had ever admitted it to anyone except his brother. He closed his hands into fists, while impotent rage swept over him. Damn his father to hell for bringing him to this!
Silence descended over the scene, so absolute that he finally turned to look at Pauline. She was gray-faced, whether from shock or fury he couldn't tell.
“What?” she wheezed. “The rumors are true? I never would have believed it—not of a man like you—”
“It happened a long time ago. I was a boy of seven. My father arranged it.”
“If this is a trick—”
“It's the truth.”
The gray left Pauline's complexion, replaced by a rush of crimson. “My God…why has it been such a bloody secret? And where have you kept your w-wife all this time?”
“I haven't seen her since the day we were married. The families agreed that we would be raised separately, and ‘introduced’ when we were of suitable age.” Damon took a deep breath and forced himself to continue. “But that never came to pass. I don't know how the facts of the matter were told to her. My father chose to emphasize how fortunate I was, being tied to a wealthy family and never having to go through the trouble of choosing a wife for myself. I hated him for what he had done, no matter what his reasons were. I resisted my family's attempts to bring the two of us together, and Julia—”
“Julia,” Pauline repeated blankly.
“—she appeared to be equally reluctant to meet me. By the time I had finally decided to take the matter in hand and confront her, she had disappeared. That was three years ago. I still haven't been able to find her.”
“What do you mean, disappeared? Doesn't anyone know where she is? Her family?”
“If any of her friends or relations know, they're not going to admit anything. I've hired detectives who have searched all through Europe without finding a trace of her.”
“But why would she vanish like that? Something must have happened to her.” A hopeful note entered her voice. “Perhaps she's dead! Yes, that or disfigured by an accident…or perhaps she's taken her vows and is hiding in a convent—”
“All of those possibilities have been considered—but there's no evidence to support any of them.”
“If she were alive, she would come forward to take her place as the next Duchess of Leeds.”
Damon shrugged. “It's possible that the idea of me as a husband doesn't appeal to her,” he said dryly.
There was a visible struggle on Pauline's face, anger and desire making small blue veins prominent on her temples and throat. “What will you do about Mrs. Wentworth?” she asked in a voice that shook. “Or must you have an entire collection of women at your disposal?”
“She has nothing to do with Julia Hargate, or with you.”
“She's to be my replacement,” Pauline snarled. “Regardless of what you've done to me, and what you owe me!”
As he gazed at Pauline's enraged features, another image appeared in Damon's mind…Jessica Wentworth's clear turquoise eyes, and the gleam of moonlight on her skin. I have no interest in an affair with you, she had said, and that is the only thing you would be able to offer me.
“I'm not going to see her again,” Damon said quietly. “She deserves far more than I can give her.”
“What about me?”
“You'll be taken care of. You and the child. But it won't be the same between us, Pauline.”
She relaxed visibly, evidently choosing to ignore his implication. “Naturally,” she said in a much softer voice. “I knew you wouldn't abandon me, darling.” She reached out for him beseechingly, her red lips parting in invitation. Damon shook his head and walked toward the Bedroom door. It took all his self-control to keep from running away from the perfumed prison.
“Damon, we must talk!”
“Later,” he muttered, grateful for every step he put between them. He didn't want to make love or talk…he wanted to stop thinking and feeling, at least for a while.
Madame Lefevrbre's shop was filled with the acrid scents of dye, fabric, and steaming amber tea. There were other, more lavishly appointed dressmakers' shops in London, with furniture upholstered in velvet and walls covered in gold-framed mirrors, but none attracted the kind of wealthy and discriminating clientele that Madame Lefevrbre did. Julia loved the enterprising Frenchwoman's simple, flattering designs, as well as the beautiful silks, muslins, and soft wools she used.
Pausing in her consultation with another woman, Madame Lefevrbre came to personally welcome Julia into the shop. She valued Julia's patronage not only because of her growing celebrity, but also because Julia always paid her bills promptly, unlike the scores of women who had to coax reluctant husbands or paramours to pay for their newest gowns.
“Mrs. Wentworth, you have arrived early for your fitting,” Madame Lefevrbre exclaimed, guiding Julia to a chair by a table laden with stacks of designs, fabric swatches, and dolls outfitted with miniature versions of the latest fashions. “If you wouldn't mind waiting here for a few minutes—”
“Certainly, Madame.” They exchanged a smile, regarding each other with the mutual respect of two women accustomed to providing for themselves. Julia sat in the well-worn chair, declined a cup of tea, and began to browse through the stack of fashion prints.
“I will return for you soon,” the dressmaker said, disappearing behind the muslin curtains that led to the back of the shop.
As Julia lingered over a particular design, a morning gown with a slim silhouette and satin ribbon that crossed over the breasts, she realized that the nearby chair was occupied.
The attractive dark-haired woman picked up a doll and toyed with the tiny frilled ruff around its neck. She glanced at Julia and smiled slightly.
Julia's answering smile dimmed as she realized that the woman was Lady Ashton. She groaned inwardly, wondering why such an unlucky coincidence would happen to her. Without doubt, Lady Ashton had found out about her clandestine meeting with Lord Savage by now. A guilty flush began to creep over Julia's skin, but she reasoned with herself valiantly. She had done nothing wrong in having dinner with Lord Savage…and besides, after all these years she was entitled to at least one evening with her own husband!
Lady Ashton possessed a formidable self-composure, seeming not at all perturbed by their chance meeting. “Mrs. Wentworth,” she said in a velvety voice, “how pleasant to see you again.”
Julia managed an agreeing smile. “It's rather a surprise to find you here,” she commented.
“Not so much of a surprise. I insisted that Madame schedule my appointment close to yours. I hoped we would have the opportunity to chat.”
Refusing to let her discomfort show, Julia stared at her with a perplexed arch of one tawny brow.
“How many people admire you, Mrs. Wentworth,” Lady Ashton remarked, setting aside the doll and picking up another. She slid an appraising glance over Julia's slender form. “Lovely, talented, and desired by most of the men in London. I've seen engravings and paintings of you everywhere…why, you're the most admired actress on the English stage. I'm positive you could have any man you set your cap for. Who would be able to resist you?”
A tense silence followed, while Julia marveled silently at the woman's acting skill. If Lady Ashton was outraged, hurt, or humiliated, she wasn't revealing a trace of it. “I'm not certain what you mean,” Julia said with a questioning lilt in her voice.
The other woman shrugged. “I suppose I'm trying to say that any other female—myself, for example—would be poor competition for one as celebrated as you.”
Julia looked at her without flinching. “I have no desire to compete with anyone.”
Lady Ashton gave a light laugh, although there was no amusement in her brown eyes. “That's very reassuring. I certainly hope that a woman with all your advantages would never attempt to lure away a man who belongs to someone else.”
Unspoken messages were transferred in their shared gaze. Don't try to take what is mine, Lady Ashton's eyes warned, while Julia replied silently, You have nothing to fear from me.
Eventually Lady Ashton looked away, turning her attention to the lace trim on the doll in her arms. She replaced it carefully on the table. “This is my first visit to Madame Lefevrbre's,” she remarked. “I will require a great many new gowns, I'm afraid.”
“No doubt you'll look very well in anything she designs,” Julia replied mechanically. With a trim, voluptuous shape like Lady Ashton's, she could probably wear sackcloth and make it look fashionable.
“Not for long, I'm afraid.” Lady Ashton patted her flat stomach and glanced down at it fondly. “I'm expecting some significant changes in a matter of months.”
The fashion prints trembled in Julia's hands, and she set them in her lap. The information struck her like a bolt of lightning, scattering her thoughts into chaos. My God…a baby…Lord Savage's child. Aware that Lady Ashton was watching her intently, she recovered enough from her confusion to pretend a great interest in a particular design. She wondered if Lord Savage had known about the pregnancy before, if he knew now, how he felt about it…
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