Edward began to weep openly, the tears seeming to drain what strength he had left. “That was the last time I saw her. Anna went to France to stay with a distant cousin. Later we learned that she had died in childbirth. I managed to put her out of my mind for several years—it was either that or go mad thinking about her. Just when I had almost forgotten that she had ever existed, you were born.”
He blotted his face with a handkerchief, the stream of moisture from his eyes refusing to abate. “You looked so much like her that it shocked me every time I looked at you. I thought it a cruel twist of fate to see her in your face, your eyes…you were a constant reminder of my cruelty to Anna. And worse, you had her spirit, her way of looking at things. You were my sister reborn. I didn't want to lose you as I did her. I thought if I could make you more like me…sensible, serious, completely without imagination…then you would never leave me. But the more I tried to mold you, the more you resisted…the more like her you became. Everything I thought I was doing for your good was a mistake.”
Julia wiped a trickle of tears from her own cheeks. “Including the marriage to Lord Savage.”
“Especially that,” Edward agreed in a choked voice. “I thought it would leave you no choice except to become exactly what I wanted you to be. But you rebelled just as Anna did. You discarded your name and took to the stage, and worse, you became successful. I tried to punish you by disinheriting you…but that didn't seem to matter.”
“You're right, the money didn't matter,” Julia said, her voice unsteady. “All I wanted was for you to love me.”
Her father shook his head, the movement resembling the wobble of a broken toy. “I didn't want to love you if I couldn't change you. I couldn't bear the risk.”
And now? Julia longed to ask, questions hovering on her lips. Was it too late for them? Why had he brought himself to tell her all this? She was afraid to hope that he would want her back in his life, that he might try to accept her as he hadn't been able to in the past. But it was too soon for questions. For now, understanding was enough.
She stared at her father, seeing the exhaustion in every line of his face. His eyelids drooped, his chin dipping toward his chest. “Thank you for telling me,” she whispered, and leaned over him to arrange his pillows. “Sleep now—you're tired.”
“You'll…stay?” he managed to ask.
She nodded and smiled tenderly. “I'll stay until you're better, Father.”
Although her father's confidences had left her too stunned to be hungry, Julia mechanically consumed a small plate of chicken and boiled vegetables from a tray sent to her room. She had told Eva all that had been said, and her mother had reacted without much surprise. “I knew about poor Anna,” Eva had admitted, “but none of the Hargates were inclined to talk about her. Your father never told me that you reminded him so strongly of his sister. I suppose I should have guessed. It explains so many things…”
“Why did he tell me now?” Julia had wondered aloud. “What did he mean to accomplish?”
“He was trying to tell you that he is sorry,” her mother replied softly.
It was strange to be sleeping beneath her parents' roof once more, listening to the subtle creaks of the house, the sound of the wind whipping against the windows, the night noises of the countryside beyond. All of it was acutely familiar. Julia could almost believe she was a little girl again, and that she would wake in the morning to spend the day studying her lessons and seeking private places to read piles of books.
Staring open-eyed into the darkness, Julia saw images of her childhood pass before her in a slow parade…her father's iron-fisted rule of the house, her mother's timid presence, her own elaborately wrought fantasies…and as always, the shadow of Damon. Throughout her adolescence he had been the focus of her curiosity, fear, and resentment. He had been an invisible burden she had yearned to cast off. And when she had met him, she discovered that he was not so much torment as temptation, luring her dangerously close to a betrayal of her hard-won freedom.
Damon had shown her what she would miss if she spent her life merely interpreting roles on the stage, going home each night to an empty house and a solitary bed. She loved him now in spite of her will to resist; how much more she could love him if she let herself! She wanted him even despite his entanglement with Lady Ashton. Beneath his controlled exterior Damon was a passionate flesh-and-blood man, one who struggled with questions of desire and honor and responsibility. She admired his relentless pursuit of his goals, his efforts to shape the world to his will. If she had met him before she became an actress, how might it have changed her life?
When she finally slept, there was no respite in her dreams. Images of Damon and the sound of his voice filled her mind, tormenting her sweetly. She awoke several times during the night, reshaping her pillow, constantly changing positions in the effort to get comfortable. “Will you send for him?” her mother had asked earlier in the evening. The question still plagued Julia. She couldn't help wanting him…she ached to feel his arms around her. However, she would not send for him. She would not depend on anyone but herself.
For the next three days, Julia spent endless hours at her father's bedside, helping to care for him, entertaining him by reading aloud from novels. Edward listened with rapt attention, his gaze locked on her face. “I'm certain you must be an accomplished actress,” he said at one point, surprising her into silence. For a man who was so bitterly opposed to her career, it must have been a difficult admission. “When you read, you make the printed word come alive.”
“You might come to see me at the Capital someday,” Julia said, her tone more wistful than she had intended. “That is, if you could bear the idea of watching your daughter on stage.”
“Perhaps,” came Edward's dubious reply.
Julia smiled. Merely allowing for the possibility was more than she ever would have expected from her father. “It's possible you would enjoy it,” she said. “I'm known as a fairly proficient player.”
“You're known as a great actress,” he corrected. “I can't seem to avoid every mention of you in the papers. It seems that you are a favorite subject of the gossips—most of it highly discomforting for a father to hear, I might add.”
“Oh, gossip,” Julia replied airily, enjoying the experience of actually conversing with him. “Almost all of it is false, I assure you. I lead a very quiet life in London—no affairs or scandals to boast of.”
“You're often mentioned in the same breath as your theater manager.”
“Mr. Scott is a friend, nothing more.” Julia met his gaze directly. “The theater is his only true love, and no other passion could come close to it.”
“What of Lord Savage? Your mother seems to think you may have some feelings for him.”
Julia looked away, her brow wrinkling. “I do,” she admitted reluctantly. “But nothing can come of it. He's too…uncompromising.”
Edward seemed to understand the wealth of implications in the word. He regarded her silently, his gaze reflective.
“No doubt you would still like me to take my place as his wife and become a duchess someday,” Julia said.
A dry laugh escaped him. “As you've so clearly demonstrated over the years, the choice isn't mine to make.”
“What if I have the marriage annulled?” she asked. “Would you disown me once again?”
“No,” he said after a brief pause. “I will abide by your decision, whatever it happens to be.”
Gratitude welled inside her, and she found herself reaching out to him. Her hand closed tightly over his. “Thank you,” she said, her throat constricting. “You'll never know what that means to me.”
To Julia and Eva's relief, Edward's return to health was slow but steady, his color and strength improving a little each day. As Julia prepared to return to Bath, she took pleasure in the new beginning she had made with her family. Edward's attitude had softened toward her, his autocratic manner now tempered with tolerance and even occasional signs of affection. He seemed to be more considerate of Eva as well, perhaps realizing how much he had taken his wife's devotion for granted throughout their marriage.
On Monday morning, when the last of her bags had been packed, Julia went to her father's room to say goodbye. It was imperative that she reach Bath in time to prepare for tomorrow's rehearsal and performance. To her surprise, Edward was not alone. He had been meeting with a lawyer who had been in the Hargates' service for at least a decade. “Come in, Julia,” Edward said. “I was just concluding some business with Mr. Bridgeman.”
Exchanging a polite greeting with the lawyer, Julia waited until he had left the room before turning to her father with a questioning glance.
Edward's expression was solemn, but there was a glint in his eyes that betrayed his satisfaction. He gestured for Julia to sit by him. “I have a gift for you.”
“Oh?” Julia made her reply deliberately light and flippant. She settled in the bedside chair. “Dare I hope that I'm back in the will?”
“Yes, you've been reinstated. But I've included something else in the bargain.” He extended a packet to her, a sheaf of papers enfolded in parchment.
“What is it?” she asked, hesitating.
Cautiously Julia received the packet and held it in her lap.
“Enclosed is your marriage contract,” Edward said. “In the meanwhile I will undertake to have the clergyman who performed the rites remove the entry from his register. There will be no sign that the ceremony ever took place.”
Julia was silent. Apparently desiring a demonstration of gratitude, Edward frowned at her. “Well? You must be pleased. It's what you claim you've always wanted.”
“What I've always wanted is never to have been married in the first place,” Julia murmured, trying to rouse herself from her bewilderment. She wasn't certain how she felt…perhaps like a prisoner who had been unceremoniously tossed the keys by the jailer. It had come without warning, leaving her no opportunity to prepare herself.
“I can't change that,” her father replied. “However, I can try to make amends.”
In his own way he was admitting that he had made a mistake—he was doing his best to return what he had taken from her. He was right, the past couldn't be changed. However, they each had control over the future, and they were free to shape it as they wished. Lifting the packet to her lips, Julia regarded him over the edge of it, and summoned a smile.
As Edward saw the crinkling of her eyes, he smiled in return. “In your view, I have done the right thing, then.”
She lowered the packet and ran her fingers over the smooth, dry surface. “You've given me the power to navigate my own course. Nothing could please me more.”
Her father shook his head slowly as he stared at her. “You're an unusual woman, Julia. I suspect it would be easier for everyone if you were more like your mother.”
“But I'm not,” Julia replied, a faint smile lingering on her lips. “I'm like you, Father.”
The amusements of Bath had quickly begun to pall for Damon. He had little interest in shopping or social amusements, and God knew he had no need of the mineral waters and their vigorous effects on the digestive organs. That left nothing to do except wait for Julia's return, an, occupation that bored and frustrated him mightily. He had a busy life awaiting him in London, business and personal affairs that required his immediate attention, and here he was languishing in Bath.
It had been a carefully considered decision to remain in the city rather than follow Julia. Having coaxed the particulars of the situation from Arlyss and a few talkative members of the acting company, Damon knew that Julia had left Bath because of a family illness, and she would likely return by Tuesday. He guessed that Eva had taken a turn for the worse, moving Edward to send for his daughter against all inclinations.
Julia had chosen to go to her family alone, wanting no outsider's support. That was her right, and Damon would not force himself into the Hargates' private family gathering. Besides, he would be damned if he trotted after Julia like a puppy dog.
The second day after Julia's departure, as he returned from a two-mile walk to the nearby village of Weston and back, Damon was surprised to discover that his brother had arrived at the Laura Place terrace house. William was in his usual fine form, stretched out on a Grecian-style couch in the library with a brandy in his hand. He looked up as Damon entered the room, and grinned in welcome.
“Taking your exercise?” William commented, noting the ruddy touch of color in his brother's cheeks and the crisp scent of leaves and autumn air that still clung to him. “Don't tell me you've exhausted all other possibilities for a fine afternoon in Bath. If nothing else you could find some fairly attractive old maid to dally with—the city is full of them. They're quite underrated, old maids. I find that an abundance of gratitude and willingness makes up for a lack of beauty—”
“Spare me your theories on women,” Damon said wryly, pouring himself a drink and sitting in a heavy leather armchair.
William sat up and regarded him amiably. “How is your wife, dear brother?”
“Julia's fine, as far as I know.” Damon paused and added curtly, “She's left Bath.”
“Oh?” William's head tilted to the side, in the manner of an intrigued parrot. “When will she return?”
“Tuesday, most likely. She didn't tell me.”
Regarding his brother's grim expression, William suddenly burst out in irrepressible chuckles. “My God,” he gasped. “I find it ironic that with the scores of women angling for you, and Lady Ashton's pursuit, all Julia seems to want is to escape you.”
“Go on and laugh,” Damon said, a reluctant smile intruding on his scowl. “Someday she'll see my charms in a new light.”
William continued to snicker like a schoolboy on holiday. “Knowing you, I can guess what the problem is. Let me give you some advice, brother—”
“I'd rather you didn't,” Damon said, but William continued.
“Women don't look for honesty in a man. They want to be charmed, deceived, seduced…and above all, they don't want to be certain of a fellow. Women like to play games. And before you give me that superior look, reflect on the fact that I've always gotten every woman I made a play for.”
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