Was Logan worried that she might abandon her career in favor of marriage? You would be difficult to replace at the Capital, he had told her last week. Perhaps that was true, but it wouldn't be impossible. There were always new and talented young actresses on the rise, and Julia had no illusions that she was irreplaceable.
As they conducted a full run-through of the play, the company was relieved to discover that aside from a few minor pacing problems, the production was nearly flawless. Logan, however, seemed far from satisfied, stopping the rehearsal several times to deliver terse lectures to the cast and crew. As the afternoon lengthened, Julia wondered how hard he intended to push the actors. Rebellious murmurs ran through the group until the rehearsal was finally concluded in early evening. “I want everyone to be here at nine o'clock tomorrow morning,” Logan said. Grumbling beneath their breaths, the assemblage dispersed quickly.
“You should be pleased at how well it went,” Julia dared to say to Logan as he stood in the middle of the stage. The lines of his face were set in harsh angles. “Instead you're behaving as if the rehearsal were a disaster.”
He gave her a threatening glance. “When someone appoints you as manager of the company, you can decide how to run things. In the meantime, kindly leave that responsibility to me.”
Julia was surprised and stung by his foul temper. “I wish we could all be as perfect as you, Mr. Scott,” she said sarcastically, and strode away. After snatching up her cloak and hat from one of the theater seats, she made her way to the entrance, forgetting in her haste that there would undoubtedly be a crowd outside. Now that the townspeople in Bath were aware of the acting company's presence, they would gather to catch a glimpse of Logan Scott or the other Capital players.
As she opened the door and began to step outside, she was immediately pushed back by a horde of people trying to enter the locked theater. “It's her!” someone cried. “Mrs. Went-worth!” There were eager cries from both men and women, and frantic hands reaching for her. Startled, Julia wedged all her weight against the door and managed to close it, but not before two men had forced their way inside.
Gasping with effort, Julia stepped back and regarded the pair. One was heavyset and middle-aged, and the other tall, scrawny, and much younger. The portly one removed his hat and regarded her with an obvious leer. The tip of his red tongue edged over small, puffy lips. When he spoke, the scents of tobacco and liquor wafted heavily from his mouth.
He introduced himself as if he expected her to be impressed by his title. “Lord Langate, my dear, and this is my companion, Lord Strathearn.” He removed his hat, revealing a sparse patch of pomaded and cologned hair. “Let me say you are even more delectable at close range than at a distance.”
“Thank you,” Julia said warily. She positioned her small hat on her head and pinned it to the neatly coiled hair at her crown. “If you'll excuse me, gentlemen—”
They crowded closer to her, backing her against the door. Langate's pebblelike eyes gleamed greedily as he glanced over her slender figure. “Being familiar with the city and all its delights, Strathearn and I decided to offer our services to you for the evening.”
“That's not necessary,” Julia said in a clipped voice.
“We'll take you for an excellent meal, madam, and then a tour in my carriage. You'll find it quite enjoyable, I assure you.”
“I have other plans for tonight.”
“No doubt you do.” Langate licked his thick lips and smiled, revealing tobacco-stained teeth. “But surely you could be persuaded to change them for a pair of gentlemen who admire you so greatly.”
“I'm afraid not.” Julia tried to push past them, only to be crowded against the door once more.
Langate's hand came to her shoulder, then spread over her chest. “Perhaps you need a little inducement.”
To her shock, she felt him fumble at her bodice, his short, pudgy fingers depositing a small wad of bills into her cleavage. Shuddering in revulsion, she jerked back and fished the money out of her dress. Her face turned scarlet as she opened her mouth to call for help.
Before she could make a sound, however, a dark whirlwind descended on them. Julia blinked and froze while swift movement took place around her. The two men who had crushed her against the door were suddenly gone, plucked away as if by some gigantic Olympian hand. The wad of money dropped from Julia's fingers and scattered over the floor. Dazedly she stared at her rescuer. It was Damon, his face a cold mask, his eyes lit with murderous fury. He had pinned the hapless lords against the wall like a pair of yapping terriers. It didn't seem that he heard their babbling apologies and explanations. They both fell silent as he spoke to them, words hissing between his teeth.
“If you approach her again, I'll rip you to pieces…and I won't stop until you're scattered from one side of Bath to the other.”
Langate's blubbery face turned purple. “We weren't aware she was spoken for,” he managed to say.
Damon released Strathearn and focused all his attention on Langate. His fingers tightened on the man's throat. “Touch her, speak to her, even look at her…and I'll kill you.”
“No need…” the man gasped, choking for air. “Please…I'll go…”
Abruptly Damon let go, and Langate collapsed against the door. Strathearn went to him immediately, looking cowed and pale as he lent a supporting arm to his companion. Together the pair made their way through the door, back into the eager throng that waited outside.
Damon turned to Julia, his eyes still glittering with rage.
“How…?” she asked breathlessly.
“I came through the back entrance of the theater. There's a crowd waiting for you there as well.”
“And for the other actors,” she said with a flicker of returning spirit.
“Mostly for you.” He gave her a hard smile. “You seem to be considered public property, Mrs. Wentworth.”
“I'm no one's property.”
“I can produce a certificate of marriage that states otherwise.”
“Your certificate is worth this,” she retorted with a snap of her fingers. “Our marriage is of questionable legality, as you're well aware. Any court would set it aside with no hesitation, considering the fact that neither of us was of an appropriate age.”
After a long moment Julia's gaze fell, and she wondered why they were suddenly so angry with each other. She softened her voice considerably. “Thank you for getting rid of those buffoons.”
Damon didn't reply, his features still tense.
“I'll have to wait here until the crowd begins to disperse,” Julia commented.
“That won't be necessary,” he said grimly. “I'll escort you to my carriage.”
She shook her head and drew back. “No, thank you. I don't think it would be wise to spend another evening with you.”
“Not even to share supper? As far as I know, you haven't eaten today.”
“I don't object to sharing a meal with you, it's just…afterward…”
As Damon saw how flustered she had become, he turned strangely gentle. He reached up to her hat and adjusted it a half-inch, his fingers smoothing back a few soft wisps of blond hair. “I didn't come to Bath merely to chase you around the bedroom—though the idea does have merit.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I want to spend some time with you. I want to know more about the life you lead, and why it holds such attraction for you. And I want you to know more about me. The fact is, we're still strangers. Before we discuss how to end our marriage, it wouldn't hurt to become more familiar with each other.”
“I suppose not,” Julia said cautiously, looking up at him. She made a move to unroll the black veil from the crown of her hat. He did it for her, carefully arranging the netting over her face.
“Then have supper with me tonight at my terrace. I'll deliver you to the inn afterward, completely untouched. You have my word.”
Julia considered the offer. The thought of having a meal by herself at the inn, or with other people in the acting company, sounded none too appealing at the moment. “I suppose anything your cook prepares will be better than the fare at the inn,” she said.
Her grudging acceptance provoked a smile from him. “You have my word on that as well.” He pulled her hand into the crook of his arm. “Let's go, madam, before your public become even more unruly.”
It had always been necessary for Julia to fend off overeager suitors and admirers by herself. It was a pleasant change to walk out on a strong man's arm, letting him assume control of the situation. She made no protest as Damon slid a protective hand onto her slender back and guided her through the crush of inquisitive strangers outside. Immediately she was assaulted by eager questions and hands plucking at her hat, veil, and cloak.
Startled, Julia felt her hat being pulled off her head. Smarting tears came to her eyes as the anchoring pin tugged sharply. Turning away from the slew of excited cries, she clung to Damon until they reached the carriage. She managed to smile and wave at the crowd before entering the vehicle. Damon wasn't nearly so forgiving, shoving the people at the front of the mob to keep them at bay, ignoring their protests.
Tucked safely inside the carriage, Julia sighed in relief and rubbed her sore scalp. “I thought they might pluck my hair out by the roots,” she exclaimed as the carriage pulled away.
Damon's gaze was imperturbable. “Basking in public adoration, pursued by everyone…it must be what every actress wants.”
Julia considered the remark and replied carefully. “I suppose I like knowing that people are pleased with what I do…and their approval means that my position at the Capital and my salary are secure.”
“Their approval means more to you than that.”
Annoyed by the derisive note in his voice, Julia opened her mouth to reply. But she closed it abruptly. He was right, although she hated his perceptiveness, not wanting anyone to read her with such apparent ease. She did like the feeling of being admired by the public, who seemed more than ready to give her all the attention and affection her father had always denied her.
“Leading an ordinary life must pale in comparison,” Damon remarked.
“I wouldn't know,” she said with an edge of sarcasm, pulling down her disheveled hair. “Tell me what an ordinary life is like…oh, but I forgot. You wouldn't know either.”
“I lead the life I was intended for.”
“So do I,” she said defensively.
There was a sardonic twist at the corner of his mouth, but he chose not to argue. He watched her steadily as she used one of her tortoiseshell combs to straighten her hair before twisting it back up again.
The terrace house was as elegant as one would expect of an address in posh Laura Place. The gleaming oak floors were covered with pale English hand-knotted carpets, upon which were scattered handsome pieces of polished rosewoodfurniture and urns filled with lush plants. Pale yellow and green curtains covered the long windows, while sheets of ornately framed mirror glass gave the rooms an airy, open appearance.
Relaxing in the luxurious candlelit atmosphere of the small dining room, Julia applied herself hungrily to the meal. The array of French dishes included chicken and truffles in champagne sauce, veal scallops stuffed with herbs, and vegetables glistening with a hint of butter. A plate of wine-soaked fruit was brought out for dessert, as well as tiny almond tarts heaped with raspberries and meringue.
“After such a large meal, I won't be able to fit into my costumes,” Julia said, biting into a tart and making an appreciative noise.
“You barely do now.”
Julia smiled at the touch of jealousy in his voice. “Compared to other actresses, my costumes are extraordinarily modest.” She picked up a raspberry that had fallen to her plate and consumed it daintily.
The shadow of displeasure remained on his face. “I don't like it that other men are able to see so much of my wife. I know exactly what they think when they look at you.”
Amused by his possessiveness, Julia leaned her chin on her hand and stared at him. “What do they think?” she prompted.
On the pretext of pouring more wine for her, Damon stood and walked to her side of the table. Half-sitting on the edge, he refilled her glass and looked down at her. Julia didn't move, even when his warm gaze traveled to her br**sts and back to her face. Lightly he caught the fragile edge of her jaw in his fingers, and tilted her head back.
“They imagine what your skin feels like, and if it could really be as soft as it appears.” His forefinger traced the curve of her cheek and grazed the tender corner of her lips. “They wonder how you taste…they think about loosening your hair and letting it fall over your body…arranging it over your breasts…” His hand moved in a slow caress down her throat, and then the backs of his knuckles passed once, twice over the peak of her breast.
Julia's breath quickened, and her fingers grasped the edge of her chair as she fought for composure. She wanted to stand and press herself into the lee of his thighs, to welcome the warmth of his hands on her skin. Damon continued to toy with her leisurely, his silver-gray eyes locked on every nuance of her expression. “They want to make love to you,” he murmured, “and lock you away somewhere for their private pleasure.” His fingers slid beneath the edge of her bodice, dipping close to the tingling bud of her nipple.
Shivering, Julia caught his hand. “You said you would return me to the inn untouched.”
“So I did.” Gradually his fingers withdrew from her gown. His lips hovered above hers, his breath warm and sweet against her skin. “There's a bit of meringue at the corner of your mouth.”
Automatically Julia reached with her tongue and found the touch of stickiness, letting it dissolve in her mouth. Damon's gaze didn't miss the flicker of movement. His hand, still caught in hers, was as hard as steel.
Slowly Julia let go of him, and happened to glance at the sparkling diamond on her own finger. The stone was extraordinarily beautiful in the candlelight, glittering in constantly shifting patterns. She felt guilty for having accepted it from him, for wearing something she wasn't entitled to keep. “You should take this back,” she said, removing the ring and offering it to him.
“I have no use for it.”
“It doesn't belong to me.”
“It does,” he contradicted quietly. “You're my wife.”
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