Mrs. Florence pinched her nose shut and took a sip of bitter mineral water. “I also told you that I regretted my actions,” she said, using a lace handkerchief to dab at the corners of her mouth.
“If you could make the choice all over again—”
“No,” Mrs. Florence interrupted gently but firmly. “Once the decision is made, it won't do to look back. Proceed in the direction you've chosen, whatever it may be, and tell yourself it's all for the best.”
Julia threw her a pleading glance. “If only you would advise me, as you've done so often before—”
“I'll dispense all the advice about acting you could ever require, but not about your personal life. I can't make such a decision for you. And I don't care to think about what I might have done differently. The past can't be changed.”
Julia made a face, realizing just how much she had hoped that Mrs. Florence would tell her what to do. “There's only one thing I'm certain of,” she said glumly. “It will be safer to follow my head rather than my heart.”
“Indeed.” The older woman regarded her with a mixture of amusement and sympathy. “At all costs we must be safe, mustn't we?”
William strode into the parlor of his St. James terrace apartment, where his butler had just shown Lady Ashton. It was no surprise that Pauline had come to call at this late hour in the evening. Immediately upon William's return to London, he had made it known among the appropriate social circles that he would be staying at his town residence for a while. In addition, he had hinted broadly that he was at a loss for sorely needed female companionship. Like a fly to honey, Pauline had wasted no time in descending on him.
Pauline was standing at the window, expertly displaying her spectacular silhouette. In a practiced move, she turned to face him with the hint of a smile on her red lips. She was strikingly beautiful in a burgundy velvet dress that blended in rich harmony with the masculine colors of the room. The bodice was cut very low, revealing an inch or two more of her smooth white br**sts than was tasteful. The effect was stimulating, to say the least.
“Lady Ashton…what a surprise,” William murmured, crossing the room to her outstretched hands.
“Lord William,” she purred, wrapping her fingers around his. “I had to see you right away. I hope you don't mind. I'm so terribly distraught.”
He looked into her face with a show of concern. “But why, Lady Ashton?”
All of a sudden there was a glimmer of moisture in her dark eyes. “You must call me Pauline. Surely we've known each other long enough for that.”
“Pauline,” he repeated obediently. “Won't you sit down?”
Reluctantly she released his hands and went to the sofa, spreading her skirts across the slick damask.
“A drink?” William offered. At her nod, he went to pour each of them some wine, and sat on the other end of the sofa. Pauline held the wine glass in her long fingers, toying with the shape of it, delicately tracing the stem and the rim.
“I hope I haven't interrupted your plans for the evening,” she said, staring at him intently.
“Nothing to interrupt,” he assured her.
“You look lonely, poor boy.” Her voice softened to a throaty whisper. “I happen to be lonely as well.” Her sleek head came to rest on his shoulder, causing him to shift uncomfortably.
“Lady Ashton…Pauline…please don't think I'm unsympathetic, but to someone with a suspicious mind, this situation would seem rather compromising. I owe my brother a certain amount of loyalty—”
“Your brother is the reason I'm distraught,” she interrupted, smoothing the fabric of William's coat before settling her cheek on his shoulder. “I can't bear to talk of what is owed to him, when he apparently thinks nothing is owed to me. There is no one I can trust with my innermost feelings, except you. You wouldn't be so heartless as to turn me away, would you?”
William squirmed uncomfortably. “I can't interfere in the relationship between you and Damon—”
“I don't want you to interfere,” she said, her hand beginning a slow stroking of his chest. “All I want is a friend. Is that too much to ask of you, William? Your brother hasn't been very kind to me of late. Can you imagine what it is like to be a woman in my position? I need some companionship.”
“Surely you can get that from someone other than me.”
“No one is able to offer me what you can, William.”
“But my brother—”
“Damon is gone for now. He doesn't care what I do in his absence, as along as I'm available when he wants me. And he's made no claim on me…you know that. Come, William, you're a man of the world. There's nothing wrong with two friends spending time with each other in private.”
Before he could reply, she leaned over him and crushed her red lips on his. Her small hands swarmed hungrily over his body, while her exotic scent surrounded him in an invisible cloud.
“Pauline,” he yelped, flinching as she sought between his thighs with tightly grasping fingers.
“It's all right,” she muttered, levering her body over his. “We won't tell anyone. Haven't you wondered what it would be like with me, William? I'll give you pleasure beyond anything you could imagine. Don't worry about your brother. You must be jealous of him—anyone in your position would be. He's the firstborn, he has all the money and influence. You deserve a taste of what he's had…and I'm going to give it to you.” Aggressively she pulled his hand to her breast. “Yes, touch me,” she purred. “Touch me everywhere…take me to your bedroom…oh, William…”
As she twisted herself around him, a shadow crossed Pauline's face, and her heavy lashes lifted a fraction. Suddenly her eyes flew open, and she turned white with astonishment as she beheld Damon standing before them. His eyes were cold, his expression as hard as marble.
The moment was fraught with tension until Pauline shoved William away in a decisive motion. She jerked at her bodice in a futile effort to cover her ample breasts. Her gaze returned to Damon's, and her voice trembled as she spoke. “I'm sorry you had to see this, darling. It must pain you to witness your younger brother trying to take advantage of me.”
A cynical smile touched Damon's lips. “I heard everything, Pauline.”
William leaped from the sofa and pulled at his cravat and coat, looking for all the world like an outraged virgin. “I was wondering how damned long you were planning to let it go on,” he said, giving Damon a dark frown.
“You planned this?” Pauline asked in building fury, looking from one to the other. “The two of you conspired to trick me?” She confronted Damon with her fists clenched. A wrathful flush covered her face. “You have no decency! I will not be manipulated or deceived, you bastard!”
Suddenly Damon burst into uproarious laughter. “You won't be manipulated?”
“That's right. You owe me for all the months we spent together, for the use of my body and the way you misled me—”
“I paid for the use of your body, overpriced as it was,” Damon informed her, a gleam of laughter lingering in his eyes. “As for your being misled…you'll have to explain, since it's not precisely clear to me.”
“You let me believe that you would take responsibility for this baby!”
“There is no baby, though not for your lack of trying.”
“I was doing it for us,” she said vehemently. “You know we're a good match, Damon. You know I'm the best you'll ever have, and that we're right for each other—”
“I know you were planning to foster my brother's bastard on me,” Damon said softly. “That was a master stroke, Pauline, though hardly flattering to William or me.”
“I would have succeeded. I only miscalculated how much under your thumb he is.” She cast a baleful glance at William. “You have no will of your own, do you?” she asked spitefully. “You'll spend your entire life living in your older brother's shadow—”
“That's enough,” William said, coming forward to take her by the arm. “Damned if I have to be insulted under my own roof.” He bundled her out of the room, while she spat and hissed like an enraged feline.
When William returned, he looked harassed and exhausted, and there was a distinct slap mark on his right cheek.
“Is she gone?”
“Yes, after giving me a parting shot.” William rubbed his cheek reflectively. “My God, she must be a tigress in bed. It's a wonder you weren't eaten alive. You're a better man than I, brother—I prefer my females a little more accommodating than that.”
“Thank God I'm finally rid of her,” Damon said, dropping into a chair and stretching out his legs.
William smiled as he beheld the weary relief on his brother's face. He went to the sideboard and poured two brandies. “I assume you're going to tell Julia right away?”
“Yes—although it's not going to solve the problems between us.”
“What problems could you possibly have now?”
Frowning, Damon took the drink that William offered him. “The last time I saw Father, he told me that no woman would ever be straitlaced enough to suit me. He was right. I've made it clear to Julia that I want her to play yet another role…the properly dependent and devoted wife, existing only to serve my needs.”
“I don't see what's wrong with that.”
Damon shook his head and groaned quietly. “Julia isn't like any other woman I've ever met. Unfortunately the very things that make her unique are also the obstacles to a peaceful marriage between us.”
“You want her to leave the theater for good,” William said rather than asked.
“I can't see any other way. God knows I can't live with the idea of my wife flaunting herself on stage in front of thousands of people. I've tried to imagine it—” Damon stopped and rubbed his temples. “I can't,” he said gruffly. “But neither can I stop wanting her.”
“Perhaps in time that will fade,” William said with an effort at diplomacy. “There are other women in the world, some of them every bit as beautiful and accomplished as Julia—and they would leap at the chance to sacrifice whatever was necessary in order to marry the future Duke of Leeds.”
“I don't want anyone else.”
“You and your women…” William shook his head and grinned. “You always pick the complicated ones. Thank God I'm a man with simple tastes. I assure you, my barmaids and lightskirts never give me the problems you've been having.”
Damon went to his London residence, intending to leave for Bath in the morning after a good night's rest. However, he was awakened in the predawn hours by his butler, who knocked with quiet insistence at the bedroom door until he sat up in bed. “What is it?” he grumbled.
The door opened a crack. “My apologies, my lord, but one of the footmen from Warwickshire was dispatched to bring you a letter. The matter is of some urgency. I assumed you would want to know immediately.”
Damon shook his head to clear the haze from his brain. “Know what?”
Entering the room with an oil lamp in hand, the butler set it on the night table and handed a sealed letter to Damon.
Blinking in the yellow light, Damon broke the wax seal and scanned the letter quickly. It was from his father's doctor. “Damn,” he said softly, and to his surprise, the parchment trembled in his hand.
The butler averted his eyes, though he wore a look of quiet understanding. “Do you wish to notify your brother, Your Grace?”
After a week of rapturously received performances of My Lady Deception, the play's success was being touted all over England. Theaters from Bristol to York were clamoring to be included among the Capital players' tour destinations. Critics had begun to call the character of Christine one of Jessica Wentworth's signature roles, one that only she could play with such artless perfection.
Julia found it ironic that the success she had dreamed of should prove to be far less fulfilling than she had expected. She felt alive only in the glow of the stage lighting, while every moment off the boards seemed flat and anticlimactic. Now she understood exactly how Logan felt about the theater. Because she had sacrificed everything else of value in her life, the illusions of the stage were all she had left.
Logan had offered to give Julia a grand wedding, but the thought of it made her uneasy. She asked him instead to arrange a private ceremony, and to keep their plans secret. She wasn't yet ready to offer explanations or face the surprise of friends and family when they learned of her decision to marry Logan. Not being the sentimental sort, Logan had readily agreed. In the meanwhile Julia had consulted with a lawyer who had confirmed everything her father had said. Any day now, Damon would receive the letter requesting the return of her dowry.
After the next-to-last performance of the play in Bath had been concluded, Julia sat in her dressing room and removed the paint and sweat from her face. Dully she stared into the looking-glass, wondering how to take away the numbness she felt inside.
“Jessica!” Arlyss burst into the dressing room without warning, her face glowing with excitement. “I had to see you at once. You'll be the first to know.”
Julia turned to her with a wan smile. “The first to know what?”
Arlyss's smile turned shy, and she extended her hand. “Michael just gave this to me.”
Still seated, Julia leaned close and looked at Arlyss's fourth finger, where a small diamond glittered on a narrow gold band. “Oh, my,” she breathed, and glanced up at her friend's face. “Does this mean—”
“Yes!” Arlyss beamed at her.
“It's very soon, isn't it?”
“It may seem so to others, but not to me. Michael is the only man who will ever love me like this, and I love him the same way.” Arlyss stared proudly at the ring and tilted her hand to make it glitter. “Isn't it pretty?”
“It's beautiful,” Julia assured her.
“He also gave me this.” Arlyss showed her half of a broken silver coin. “It's a tradition in the Fiske family to break a coin when a couple becomes engaged. Michael is keeping the other half. Isn't it romantic?”
Taking the coin from her friend, Julia looked at it closely, and her mouth curved in a bittersweet smile. “You're very lucky, Arlyss. It's a rare thing to be able to marry someone you love.”
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