It was clear Arlyss couldn't resist such blatant flattery. “You came to Bath just to see me?” she asked warily.
“Of course I did. There's no other attraction here.”
Michael Fiske joined the conversation, glaring fiercely at his rival in the manner of a handsome mutt challenging a polished thoroughbred. “Arlyss is with me now. Go now, and don't bother her again.”
Seeming amused, William addressed his reply to Arlyss. “Am I bothering you, sweetling?”
She stood between the two men, her mop of curls bobbing as she looked from one to the other. Tentatively she inched toward Michael Fiske. “I'm with Mr. Fiske now,” she murmured, in a tone that was far from certain. It was a small step, but it was all that Fiske required.
Seizing the meager encouragement, he jerked Arlyss close and planted a bruising kiss on her lips. As Arlyss laughed at the blatant display, Fiske hoisted her in the air and slung her over his shoulder. Feminine shrieks and uncontrollable giggles resulted, causing everyone in the marketplace to turn and stare at the pair as Fiske carried Arlyss away.
“Now see here…” William protested, beginning to follow them. He was brought up short as Damon caught him by the arm.
“Will…find some other pigeon to amuse yourself with.”
William hesitated, staring after the departing couple. “You know how I enjoy a challenge,” he said wistfully.
“Let this one go,” Damon said. “You've caused enough trouble. Besides, you're leaving for London with me tonight…remember?”
William grumbled and nodded. Quickly recovering his former high spirits, he cast a roguish glance at Julia and back to Damon. “Just remember my advice to you,” he said, winking broadly before taking his own leave.
Julia turned to Damon. “What was his advice?”
“He told me that women like to be charmed and seduced.”
Her mouth twisted wryly. “Your brother has a great deal to learn about women.”
“It appears your friends have left you. Would you like to be escorted somewhere?”
Murmuring a refusal, Julia shook her head. “It's only a short walk back to the inn.”
“You push me away with one hand and beckon me closer with the other. Some would say you are a tease, Mrs. Wentworth.”
“Is that what you think of me?”
“I think you're the most maddening woman I've ever known.” His gaze caressed her even as his mocking voice stung her ears. “Make up your mind about what you want, Julia. Soon. My patience has its limits.” He left her standing there among the bookstalls, her delicate face drawn in a scowl beneath the veil.
In spite of the reports of the bad luck My Lady Deception had experienced in London, every seat in the New Theatre was occupied, the building filled to overflowing. It seemed that everyone of note in Bath was attending, the audience infected with enthusiasm as they waited for the play to begin. Julia came to the wings to wait for her first entrance, smiling briefly at the encouragement the crew offered as they passed her in the semidarkness.
She made an effort to concentrate on the work ahead of her, making the play as successful as it deserved to be. However, it was difficult to push the events of the last few days from her mind. Her mind kept dwelling on the peace offering her father had given her, the scene with Damon today, the knowledge that she could free herself from him at any time. Damon was right; she would have to make a choice soon, if only for her own peace of mind.
Despite the hardships of her profession, she loved being an actress, loved the excitement and fulfillment of it. The idea of giving up the stage for good was unthinkable. But never to see Damon again…or, worse, to see him marry someone else, while her own life was devoid of companionship…that was equally repugnant.
“You're not thinking about the play,” a voice said behind her, and Julia glanced over her shoulder at Logan Scott.
“A thousand other things,” she confessed. “How could you tell?”
“You're so tense that your shoulders are at your ears.”
Julia made a face at him and relaxed her shoulders. She took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and let it out slowly. When she looked back at Logan, he seemed reassured.
Thoughtfully Julia looked out onto the stage, the shadowy outlines of scenes and props barely visible behind the lowered curtain. She had always loved this moment just before a play began, anticipation coursing through her body. But for some reason the feeling was tainted with sadness now. She felt almost as if she were a little girl who had opened a brightly wrapped package and found it empty. “How long will my life on the stage last?” she asked, speaking almost to herself. “Will I have another ten years? Even twenty?”
Logan came to stand beside her and viewed her critically. “You'll have a long run, I would say. As you age, you'll have the talent to mature into other kinds of roles, including substantial character parts.”
A bleak smile touched her lips. “Will that be enough for me, I wonder?”
“You're the only one who can answer that question.”
Together they waited in silence for the curtain to be drawn, for real life to be banished and the illusions to begin.
The performance flew by with lightning speed. For two hours one scene flowed into another, blending into a seamless whole. When Julia wasn't onstage or changing costumes, she waited impatiently in the wings, riveted on the action that kept the audience enthralled. When she was on the boards, speaking her part, she felt as if she were pulling magic from the air. She sensed the way the crowd hung on every word, their gazes following each gesture, every tilt of her head.
Julia knew she had never acted so well with Logan, their scenes resonant with emotion, filled with sparkling humor and yearning. For a while she ceased to exist as herself. There was no other thought in her mind but the play, no feelings inside her except those she manufactured to entertain the audience. As the final curtain fell, she knew that she had fulfilled the expectations others had of her, that she had played the part to the best of her ability. Triumphantly she let Logan pull her in front of the curtain to receive a thunderstorm of clapping and cheers.
Her face glowed, and she sank in a curtsy to acknowledge their appreciation. The applause endured for long minutes until she drifted toward the wing in an effort to slip away. Logan wouldn't let her leave, catching her hand and bringing her forward as the cries of appreciation rose even higher. Flowers and small gifts were thrown to the stage, piling in heaps. Bending to scoop up a white rose, Logan handed the blossom to Julia. She closed her fingers around the long stem and curtsied once more before walking to the wing despite the multitude of voices that entreated her to stay.
The cast and crew backstage erupted with congratulations, making her laugh self-consciously. Her maid Betsy accompanied her to her private dressing room. “There's a pitcher of lemonade for you,” Betsy pointed out, and headed to the door, knowing Julia liked a few minutes of privacy after a performance. “I'll be back soon to collect your costume.”
“Thank you,” Julia said, sighing in relief at the peace and quiet of the small room. She stood before the looking-glass, beginning to unlace the front of her dress. Now that the exhilaration of the performance was fading, she was exhausted. There were blotches of sweat beneath her arms, and the bloom of paint on her cheeks was beginning to streak and fade.
As she contemplated her reflection, she saw a dark form slip into the room. Startled, she whirled around, a faint exhalation leaving her lips as Damon stood before her. She hadn't expected him to be here tonight. Whatever he had thought of the performance, it wasn't delight or pride he felt. A flush colored the tops of his cheeks and the bridge of his nose, and his gray eyes were brilliantly hot. He was angry with her…and she wasn't going to be spared the biting lash of his fury.
Staring at her husband in silent wonderment, Julia didn't resist as he approached her in two strides, crushing her back against the looking-glass. One large hand gripped her arm, and the other came to her face, his fingers wrapping around her jaw.
“I thought you were leaving for London tonight,” she managed to say.
“I had to see you first.”
“You saw the play—”
“Yes, I saw. I saw the pleasure you took in your acting. I saw how much it meant to you and everyone else in this cursed place.”
Julia shook her head, confused by his anger.
Damon's fingers tightened on her jaw, almost hurting her. “You're going to choose this, aren't you?” he said through his teeth. “You won't be able to give it up. Tell me the truth, Julia.”
“Yes, now. I need to hear the words from you before I leave.”
“How would you react if I asked you to sacrifice everything for me?”
“Is that your answer?”
“I'm not even certain what the question is,” she cried, trying to pull free.
“I want you,” he muttered.
“But only on your terms.”
“Yes, on my terms. Taking my name, living in my home, sleeping in my bed each night. I want you to be mine with no limits…every part of you…every thought, every word you speak…”
Julia's struggles ceased suddenly as she felt his mouth on hers, the heat of his lips and tongue robbing her of breath. It seemed that he was trying to brand her with his kiss, imprint her very soul with the force of his jealous passion.
His arms were hard as they closed around her. Roughly his hands gripped the curves of her body, his head bending over hers until she arched against him. She didn't want to respond, but the wildness rose inside her until she submitted with a sob of despair.
Her hands reached around his neck, fingers clenching in his dark hair to hold him close. Damon made an urgent sound in his throat and cupped his hands over her buttocks, lifting her high against him. “You are mine,” he said against her throat, teeth and bristle scraping her soft skin. “You'll never be free of me, no matter what you do.”
She only half-heard the words, her body straining desperately against his, seeking the pleasure that only he could give her. His palms slipped up to her bodice, catching the edges of the fabric and spreading them wide until the laces slid free. Pushing her chemise down, he sought her breasts. His warm fingers curved beneath their tender weight, his thumbs passing over her nipples. Gasping, Julia offered herself to him, her mouth open beneath his, her br**sts impelled into his hands.
He urged her against the dressing table and lowered his head to her breast, drawing the tight peak past his lips, against the flat of his tongue. Holding on to him for balance, Julia clasped his taut body between her thighs, her arms locked around his waist. Damon turned his attention to her other breast, licking and tugging at the rosy crest. Julia was trapped between desire and denial, knowing that the closeness she craved so desperately would be her ultimate undoing.
“Please stop,” she said between the rasping breaths that were torn from her throat. “Please…I don't want this.”
At first Damon seemed not to hear her, his attention focused on the ripening promise of her body, his mouth moving hungrily over her skin. She pushed at his chest and head, tentatively and then with greater force, until the embrace was broken. His gaze bore into hers, hands coming up to hold her head steady. “I'm going to London,” he said thickly, “and then I'm coming back for you.”
“I'll never let you go. Not until you can look into my eyes and tell me that you don't love me…that you can spend the rest of your life without needing this…without wanting me.”
Her lips trembled, but she couldn't make a sound.
The opening click of the door, as quiet as it was, made them both start in surprise. The maid, Betsy, stood in the doorway with a basket of clothes. “Oh,” she said, her eyes round as she beheld Julia's visitor.
Damon moved in front of Julia to hide her from view while she fumbled with the laces to her bodice. “Excuse me, Mrs. Wentworth,” the maid murmured, and disappeared at once. The door shut firmly behind her.
Flushing, Julia continued the effort to restore her clothing, while Damon watched intently. “Please don't come back for me,” Julia said, avoiding his gaze. “I can't see you for a while. I need time to think.”
“You mean you want time to convince yourself that things can go back to the way they were before we met. It won't work, Julia. You'll never be the same…and neither will I.”
“You'll make it impossible for me to act. I won't be able to concentrate on anything.”
“I'll return soon,” he insisted, “and we'll settle things once and for all.”
Julia didn't move as Damon left. She leaned against the dressing table for support and let out an unsteady breath. It seemed that she had finally lost the tight control she had maintained over her life ever since leaving home. She thought of the papers her father had given her, the key to her freedom. Did she have the courage to use them? She hated the paralysis that had come over her, the fear of losing Damon almost as great as the fear of giving herself to him.
Slowly she undressed, letting her costume drop to the floor in a heap. “Mrs. Wentworth?” came Betsy's voice, accompanied by a timid knock.
“Yes, come in.”
The maid's face was stained with a blush. “I'm sorry about interrupting before, ma'am, but I didn't know—”
“That's perfectly all right,” Julia said evenly. “Just help me with my clothes.”
The maid helped Julia to dress, fastening a row of buttons on the back of her green silk gown. After pinning her hair tightly on the crown of her head, Julia washed her face and checked her appearance in the looking-glass. Her lips were soft and swollen, her cheeks were flushed, and there were betraying bristle marks on her throat. Carefully Julia arranged the high ruched neckline of her gown to cover the marks. She paused as she heard Logan Scott's deep murmur beyond the dressing room.
“Mrs. Wentworth, I desire a word with you.”
Julia motioned for the maid to admit him inside. Logan had also changed his clothes and washed, the residual dampness turning his gleaming hair the color of cherry wood.
Picking up her basket of clothes, Betsy said good night and left them alone.
“Were you pleased with the performance tonight?” Julia asked, “or have you come to deliver a critique?”
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