Damon let out a barely perceptible sigh of relief. “Thank you, sir. In the meantime, I'll remove William from Warwickshire to defuse any remaining tensions.”

“That would be appreciated.”

They exchanged a cordial goodbye, and Damon left the room with a sense of relief. As he crossed the threshold, he heard Wyvill mutter to himself, “Hargate…no daughter of his could ever hope to equal Sybill.”

After telling William the good news, Damon was tempted to go immediately to his room and fall asleep. It had been a long day, and he needed some private time to rest and reflect. However, there was still a duty he had to attend to. Squaring his shoulders, he headed to his father's suite of rooms. He hoped that the duke had already retired for the evening, but as he neared the bedroom door, he saw a light burning from within, and heard a woman's voice reading aloud from a novel.

Knocking lightly on the half-open door, Damon pushed his way inside. Although his father, Frederick, had suffered from a series of brain hemorrhages that had left him partially disabled on his right side, he had retained much of his vigor. He had the coarsely handsome looks of a philanderer, a man who had enjoyed more than his share of worldly pleasures and had never regretted a moment of it. He loved to recount stories of his past debauchery to the many friends who still came to visit him regularly and reminisce about their youth.

Propped up on a pile of luxurious pillows, a glass of steaming milk in his hand, the duke seemed entirely comfortable. It was difficult to tell which he was enjoying more, the novel or the charms of the attractive young nurse who sat at his bedside. The woman paused in her reading, and the duke looked up expectantly.

“I've been waiting,” his father said, his voice slightly slurred from his physical condition. “Why didn't you…come earlier?”

“I had something to take care of.” Damon paused and added darkly, “A matter involving William.”

“Again?” The duke always enjoyed listening to tales of his youngest son's escapades, clearly feeling that he and William had a great deal in common. “Tell me.” He gestured for the nurse to vacate the chair she occupied.

As the nurse left the room, Damon sat by the duke. “You look well,” he commented.

“Yes, I'm quite well.” Frederick reached behind his pillow, withdrew a silver flask, and poured a liberal amount of brandy into his hot milk.

“You never change,” Damon said ruefully, shaking his head as his father offered the flask to him.

The duke seemed momentarily disappointed by his son's refusal of the brandy, then shrugged in resignation. “Neither do you.” He downed a large swallow of brandy-flavored milk and smacked his lips. “Now…about William?”

As matter-of-factly as possible, Damon enlightened him on the events of the past two days. As Damon had expected, the account seemed to entertain Frederick vastly. At first he seemed mildly displeased, but that was soon replaced by a misplaced sense of masculine pride.

“Foolish, self-indulgent boy…” the duke said, chuckling. “William has the morals of a tomcat.”

Damon scowled. “Is his behavior any surprise, after the example you set for him all these years?”

“Ah…here it comes,” Frederick said resignedly, gesturing with his half-finished milk. “Try to lay this at my door, will you?”

It had always infuriated Damon that his father was so unrepentant, so completely unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions. “I'm concerned that William is following in your footsteps,” he muttered. “He appears to have the same tastes for whoring and gambling as you.”

“And if he does? What is the worst that could happen to him?”

“He could end up being shot in a duel, or owing a fortune in debt.”

His father regarded him with maddening indifference. “I shouldn't worry about debt. The money always comes, one way or another.”

“How well I know.” Damon was filled with bitter sarcasm. “It came easily enough to you eighteen years ago, didn't it? You brought the family to the brink of poverty and gave Lord Hargate the perfect opportunity to sail in with the offer of a large dowry. All you had to do was marry your seven year-old son to his daughter, who was barely out of nappies at the time.”

Frederick sighed and set his empty glass on the bedside table. “You may blame me for anything you wish…including William's predicament and your own dissatisfaction with life. I have no doubt I wasn't the father I should have been. But the fact is, I did what I had to do. Why must you dwell on the past instead of looking toward the future?”

“Because for years I've had to dispose of your messes, and now it appears I'm to do the same for William—and I'm damned tired of it!”

“I suspect that in a way you rather like it,” the duke said mildly. “It makes you feel superior to conduct your life with all the propriety and responsibility that William and I never seem to attain.” He yawned and settled back against the pillows. “Heaven help poor Julia when you do find her. I'm afraid no wife will ever be quite straitlaced enough to suit you, even if she is a Hargate.”

Damon opened his mouth to argue, but shut it suddenly as an echo of Julia's voice ran through his mind. What could possibly come of a relationship between us?…I've turned myself into someone who is completely unsuitable…You would want me to give up everything I've worked for, everything I need to be happy…

The duke smiled slightly as he saw the troubled expression on his son's face. “You know I'm right, don't you? Perhaps what you need is to take your example from William. A man should have a few weaknesses…otherwise he becomes a deadly bore.”

Seeing that his father appeared to be tiring, Damon stood and slanted a look of exasperation at him. There were few times in his life when the duke had actually bothered to dispense some advice to him, and none of it had ever made sense. “I'll visit you again in the morning before William and I leave.”

Frederick nodded. “Send the nurse in to attend me.” He paused and added thoughtfully, “You know, you remind me of Lord Hargate in his youth. He was just as self-controlled, and every bit as determined to make everyone else conform to his notions of what was right.”

Damon was momentarily outraged, revolted at the idea that any similarity could be drawn between him and Lord Hargate. But at the same time, he couldn't help but wonder if there were any truth to it. Even more disturbing was the possibility that Julia would agree. Was he so rigid and domineering that she feared he would make her life into a repetition of her childhood?

All of a sudden he was fiercely impatient to return to London and make Julia understand that he wouldn't try to change her, or take anything away from her…but was that true? He couldn't guarantee that he would easily accept her career, the theatrical world she occupied, or her stubborn independence. Perhaps the best thing was to set Julia free…but that seemed to be the most impossible choice of all.

Chapter 7

The opening night of My Lady Deception, Logan Scott's newest play, had attracted a crowd of stunning proportions. Aristocrats had sent their servants to obtain and hold seats for them hours before the performance was scheduled to begin. The house nearly burst at the seams with the eager crowd. In the shilling gallery, where the cheaper seats were located, people argued and erupted into fistfights to defend their territory against determined encroachers.

Safely removed from the pandemonium below, Damon and William watched from one of the private boxes on the third-circle tier. A female singer employed to entertain the house labored to make herself heard above the din. “What a mob,” William commented. He regarded Damon with a curious half-smile. “It's not like you to insist on coming to the opening night of a play. Why now?”

“I'm a patron of the Capital,” Damon replied neutrally. “I want to see how well my investment was used.”

“The word is that this play is very good,” William assured him. “But I wish you had allowed me to bring a female companion or two. It seems a pity to waste the pair of empty seats in our box. I happen to know the most delightful twin sisters, both of them redheads—”

“Haven't you done enough skirt-chasing for one week?” Damon interrupted, shaking his head ruefully.

A grin spread across William's face. “I thought you knew me better than to ask such a question.” When his older brother didn't return his smile, William's expression softened with concern. “Thinking of Pauline?” he asked. During their trip to London, Damon had told him all about the supposed pregnancy and his demand to have Pauline's condition confirmed by a physician. “I wouldn't worry,” William said pragmatically. “It's a safe bet that Pauline is lying. She knows that if she can make you believe she's pregnant, you're the kind who'll feel honorbound to marry her.”

An ironic smile twisted Damon's lips. “I'm not as honorable as you may think.”

“You've never done a selfish thing in your life. You've made sacrifices for the well-being of the family that I would never—”

“Whatever I've done, it's been for purely selfish reasons. It's all been for my own gain, my own protection, so that I would never again be forced to do anything I didn't want.”

William sighed and nodded. “It always comes back to that damned marriage to Julia Hargate, doesn't it? Let's try to forget about her for one night, brother, and enjoy the play.”

“I'm afraid that's not possible. The reason I insisted on coming here tonight is to see her.”

“To see whom?” William shook his head as if he hadn't heard correctly.

Damon didn't bother to elucidate, only stared at him with the shadow of a smile on his lips.

“Do you mean…Julia is here…tonight?” William laughed incredulously. “No, you're trying to make me look the fool—”

“I've found her,” Damon replied calmly, enjoying the astonishment on his brother's face. “I know where she's been hiding and exactly what she's been doing these past two years.”

William raked his hands through his black hair, disheveling the thick black locks. “My God, I can't believe…how did you find her? Have you spoken with her yet? Why didn't she—”

Damon lifted his hand in a silencing gesture. “Wait. You'll understand soon.”

Spluttering, shaking his head, William stared at the crowd around and below them, as if he expected Julia Hargate to leap out of her seat and announce herself.

The female singer concluded her performance, curtsying in thanks at the scattered applause she received. After she left the stage, the orchestra was silent for a minute as the musicians readied their next piece. They broke into a lively melody that heralded the beginning of the play. Gradually the house lights on the sides of the theater were dimmed. Waves of excitement rolled through the pit and galleries, while the applause and cries of anticipation spread to the boxes and proscenium seats.

Damon imagined Julia waiting in some offstage area, listening to the eager roar of the crowd, knowing what they desired and expected of her. It filled him with a strange mixture of pride and jealousy as he realized that the audience of nearly two thousand, rich and poor alike, were all clamoring to see his wife. Mrs. Jessica Wentworth had been the subject of songs, poetry, paintings, and engravings. Everyone was enchanted with her talent, her face and form. Men wanted her, and women fantasized about what it would be like to be her, a beautiful and acclaimed actress with all of London at her feet.

He wondered if Julia would ever be willing to give up such universal adoration for the quieter rewards of marriage and family. What could he offer that would be preferable to this? Wealth meant nothing to Julia—she had proven that by relinquishing her own family fortune in favor of her freedom. And the love of one man must pale in significance to the love of thousands. Troubled by his thoughts, Damon sat frowning at the stage even as the curtain parted to reveal a spectacular oceanside scene. The backcloth was painted to resemble a sparkling blue sea, and delicately painted flats had been erected to resemble an elegant home on the shore.

A single figure strode onto the stage, a slender woman swinging her hat by its ribbons as she stared dreamily at the rippling water. It was Julia—Jessica—steadfastly remaining in character despite the tumultuous applause that greeted her. Other actresses might have acknowledged the wild response of the house with a pretty curtsy or a wave, but Julia continued to maintain the illusion, waiting patiently for the noise to subside. She was ethereally beautiful in a light blue dress, her blond hair falling in long curls down her back.

“Ravishing creature,” William said enthusiastically. “What I wouldn't give to sample her charms!”

“Not while I live,” Damon muttered, sliding him a meaningful look. “She's mine.”

William seemed startled by the comment. “Do you mean you've made her your mistress? Don't you think it would have been wise to get rid of Pauline first?”

“No, she's not my mistress. She has a greater claim on me than that.”

“I don't understand. Damon, she's not…” As William stared at his older brother, a strangled laugh of disbelief escaped him. “My God, you're not implying that she…no.” He shook his head. “No,” he repeated in wonder, glancing rapidly from Damon's face to the woman on the stage. “She couldn't be…Julia Hargate? How is that possible?”

“Her father disowned her when she left home and turned to a life on the stage. She reinvented herself as Jessica Wentworth.”

William spoke in a rapid undertone, his gaze locked on the stage. “By God, I think you're the luckiest bastard who ever lived. And furthermore, you should kiss Father's feet for arranging a marriage with her—”

“Things aren't that simple,” Damon said grimly. “Do you suppose I'm in a position to claim her as my wife and drag her off to the castle in Warwickshire?”

“Well, there is the matter of Pauline to consider—”

“Pauline is the least of it. Julia has no desire to give up the life she has made for herself.”

William was mightily puzzled. “Are you saying that Julia wouldn't want to be your wife? Any female in her right mind would aspire to marry a man with your title and fortune—”

“From all appearances, she already has what she wants.”

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