Seeing the wistfulness on Julia's face, Arlyss leaned a hip against the dressing table and stared at her sharply. “What's the matter, Jessica? Are you having problems with your lover? Is it Lord Savage?”
“He's not my lover. At least not anymore. I've…” Julia hesitated and chose her words carefully. “I've made certain the relationship is over.”
“I don't understand why. He's handsome, rich, and he seems to be a gentleman—”
“I've realized that I have no future with him.”
“Even if that's true, why can't you just enjoy the affair while it lasts?”
“Because I'm going to…” Julia stopped abruptly, knowing that it would be extremely unwise to confide anything in Arlyss if she wished to keep it private. But she felt driven to tell someone. The unspoken words seemed to burn on her lips.
“What is it?” Arlyss asked, frowning in concern. “You can tell me, Jessica.”
Julia lowered her head and stared at her lap. “I'm going to marry Mr. Scott.”
Arlyss's eyes widened. “I can't believe it. Why in the world would you do that?”
All Julia could manage was a lame shrug in reply.
“You don't love him,” Arlyss continued. “Anyone can see that. Are you having financial troubles? Are you doing it for your career?”
“No, it…just seems the best choice.”
“You're making a mistake,” Arlyss said with certainty. “You don't belong with Mr. Scott. When were you planning to marry him?”
“The day after tomorrow.”
“Thank God there's still time to call it off.”
Somehow Julia had thought that telling a friend about her decision might ease some of the depression and heaviness inside. Her hopes deflated rapidly as she realized that no amount of sympathy or well-intentioned objections would change the situation. “I can't do that,” she said softly, and gave the silver half-coin back to Arlyss. She picked up a damp cloth and wiped it over her cheeks, erasing the last smudges of rouge.
Arlyss contemplated Julia while her nimble mind raced from one speculation to another. “Oh, Jessica…you aren't pregnant, are you?”
Julia shook her head, her throat squeezing hard against an upswell of emotion. “No, no, it's nothing like that. It's just that I can't have the man I want, for too many reasons to explain. And if a life with him isn't possible, I might as well marry Mr. Scott.”
“B-but,” Arlyss spluttered, “you're the one who's always telling me to choose a man for love and no other reason! You told me—”
“I meant every word,” Julia said, her voice slightly hoarse. “Unfortunately some dreams aren't possible for everyone.”
“There must be something I can do to help.”
Reaching out to touch her friend's hand, Julia smiled at her fondly, her eyes glittering suddenly. “No,” she murmured. “But thank you, Arlyss. You're a dear friend, and I'm happy for you.”
Arlyss didn't reply, a preoccupied expression stealing over her face.
There was an unreal quality about the Duke of Leeds's private funeral, attended by only a few relatives and close friends. It was difficult for Damon to understand that his father had finally been laid to rest, that there would be no more of the endless arguments and frustrations and amusements his father had provided over the years. Glancing at his brother's tense face, Damon sensed that William was experiencing the same mixture of sadness and bewilderment.
After the coffin had been lowered into the cold autumn ground and the shovels of dirt landed on its glossy wooden surface, the mourners left to return to the castle and partake of refreshments. Damon and William followed at a slower pace, their long legs matched in a leisurely stride.
A breeze whipped through Damon's hair and, cooled his face as he stared at the gray-green landscape around them. He took comfort in the familiar sight of the castle, serene and stalwart as always, and he felt a flicker of pride that through his own efforts the estate had been kept in the family. Frederick had nearly lost everything for the Savages. Still, despite the duke's selfish whims and dangerous habits, there was no trace of satisfaction in his passing. Damon knew that he was going to miss his father…in fact, he already did.
“Father had a hell of a good time, didn't he?” William murmured. “He did whatever he pleased and damned the consequences. If he hasn't made it to heaven, I'll bet he's managed to tempt old Lucifer into a grand game of cards by now.”
Damon almost smiled at the image.
“I'm too much like him,” William continued bleakly. “I'll end up exactly as he did, alone and chortling over my past debaucheries, trying to pinch the housemaids as they pass by.”
“You won't,” Damon assured him. “I wouldn't let that happen.”
William expelled a deep sigh. “Precious little you've done to stop me so far. I have to take stock of my life, Damon. I've got to do something besides chase after lightskirts and spend my allowance on drink and clothes and horses.”
“You're not the only one who has to change.”
Upon hearing Damon's grim tone, William turned a surprised gaze on him. “Surely you're not referring to yourself? You're conscientious, responsible. You have no bad habits—”
“I'm overbearing as hell. I try to make everyone else fit into the patterns I've devised for them.”
“I've always assumed that's part of being the elder son. Some people would make a virtue of it.”
“Julia isn't one of those people.”
“Well, she's not the usual sort of female, is she?” William glanced at the castle before them, its dignified lines and great stone arches reflected in the silver lake below. “Can you imagine her living so far removed from the amusements of London?”
As a matter of fact, Damon could. It wasn't difficult to picture Julia riding with him through the hills and woods that surrounded the estate, her blond hair wind-tousled…or acting as hostess at a dance in the great hall, her slender figure illuminated by the massive chandeliers…or twining with him in the enormous bed in the east-facing bedroom, waking together as the sun rose.
Damon's mind was still filled with images of Julia as he and William entered the castle. Bypassing the crowd that was milling in the parlor and dining room, they headed to the library, where Mr. Archibald Lane awaited them. Lane was a lawyer Damon had employed for years to help oversee his affairs. Although somewhat retiring in manner and appearance, Lane was acutely intelligent. He was only slightly older than Damon, but his thinning hair and glasses gave him an appearance of quiet maturity.
“My lord…I mean, Your Grace…” Lane murmured as he shook Damon's hand. “I trust all is well with you? That is, as well as could be expected?”
Damon nodded and offered the lawyer a drink, which he declined. “I assume there are no surprises in my father's will,” Damon remarked, nodding at the neat sheaf of papers on the desk nearby.
“Nothing that appears to be out of the ordinary, Your Grace. However, before we attend to that, there is something…” An uneasy expression crossed Lane's narrow face. “Recently I received a copy of a letter which pertains to the matter of Mrs. Wentworth and the circumstances of your, er…marriage.”
Damon stared at him alertly.
“It seems that the union was invalid from the beginning,” the lawyer continued, “It should be regarded in the light of a betrothal that was never fulfilled. As such, Lord Hargate has requested the return of the dowry that was paid to the Savages.”
Damon shook his head, trying to comprehend what Lane had said.
“According to Hargate, his daughter Julia considers the both of you free of all obligations from now on.”
“I have to talk to her,” Damon heard himself mutter. Julia wanted to end all hope of a relationship between them. He had to convince her otherwise. “Damn her…she's my wife.” Although he knew that wasn't really true, he couldn't think of her in any other way. He loved her…he needed her.
“Your Grace,” the lawyer said, “you have no wife. By any legal definition, you never did.”
You have no wife. The words seemed to ring in Damon's ears, quiet and yet dizzying in their intensity. You have no wife…
William chose that moment to intercede. “Damon…this may be fate's way of telling you to make a new beginning. Father's gone, and you're a free man now. There is no reason you shouldn't begin to enjoy some of the things in life you've, always denied yourself.”
“After all this time…” Damon said. “After all the years I spent trying to find her, she dances away to the nearest lawyer and sends a letter like this. By God, when I reach her—”
“You should thank Julia,” William interrupted. “In my opinion, she's done the sensible thing. It's clear that you're not right for each other, and she's wise enough to know…” His voice trailed into silence as he found himself the focus of a chilling glare.
“You don't know what the hell you're talking about,” Damon snarled.
“You're right, I don't,” William said hastily. “There are times when my mouth seems to work independently of my brain…damned inconvenient. I think I'll go upstairs now.” He wasted no time in retreating from the room, after throwing a warning glance to the lawyer that made Lane fidget nervously.
“Your Grace, if you wish I can return at a later time when it is convenient for you to discuss your father's affairs—”
“Go,” Damon said.
“Yes, Your Grace.” The lawyer disappeared even more quickly than William.
It took Damon a long time to think past the flood of anger. He found himself sitting at his desk, a drink in one hand and a bottle of brandy in the other. The smooth fire of the alcohol began to dissolve the cold lump in his stomach!
Julia didn't want him, or the life he had offered her. He wished she were here at this moment, a readily available target for the derisive words he wanted to hurl at her. She was a fool for preferring a life on the stage to that of a duchess. Surely anyone would tell her that—even she must know it, despite her insistence on keeping her damned career.
Thoughts of revenge danced before him. He wanted to throttle her, bully her into accepting what he wanted…but she would never yield to him. She was too stubborn for that. Perhaps he would take some fresh-faced, blushing daughter of a peer as his wife, and bring her everywhere that Julia was certain to see her. He would make Julia jealous, flaunt his pretty young wife before her until Julia was eaten up with envy and regret. He would make her believe that the sham-marriage had meant nothing to him, that he considered himself well rid of her.
Pouring another glass, Damon drank in a search for oblivion that seemed just out of reach. The bitterness faded a little, and he stared at the papers before him until the words and letters were a jumble of foreign markings. Julia's voice drifted through his mind.
You would want me to give up everything I've worked for, everything I need to be happy…
If I were your wife, would you let me go wherever I chose, do whatever I pleased, with no questions or recriminations?…
Don't come back for me.
And the memory of Logan Scott's sardonic question, which stung even now. Can you give her everything she wants?
He thought of Julia in all her different guises. He had never met a woman who was so fascinating. For the, first time he began to understand that to imprison Julia in the gilded cage he had planned would be intolerable for her.
“Damon?” William's brusque voice heralded his entrance. Walking uninvited into the library, he flipped a sealed note onto the desk. “This just arrived from Bath.”
Damon stared at the letter without reaching for it. “Is it from Julia?”
“Oddly enough, the letter appears to be from her friend Arlyss Barry. I thought I would bring it to you before you're too drunk to read.”
“I already am,” Damon muttered, swilling from his glass once more. “You read it.”
“Very well,” William said cheerfully, “although you know how I hate to pry into other peoples' affairs.” Breaking the wax seal, he scanned the letter. The gleam of amusement left his eyes, and he shot Damon a wary glance.
“What does our Miss Barry say?” Damon asked, his voice surly.
William scratched the nape of his neck and shook his head doubtfully. “Considering your present state of mind, it might be better to discuss it later.”
“Tell me, damn you!”
“Very well. Miss Barry writes that although it's not her place to interfere, she feels compelled to inform you that she has learned of Jessica Wentworth's plans to marry Logan Scott…tomorrow.”
William flinched as Damon's half-full glass of brandy shattered against the wall behind him, sending a spray of amber drops and crystalline fragments everywhere. Damon lurched to his feet, breathing heavily.
“What are you going to do?” William asked gingerly.
“I'm leaving for Bath.”
“I think I should go with you.”
“Damon, I've never seen you like this before, and it scares the hell out of me. You should let me…” But before the last word had left William's lips, his older brother had departed the room with purposeful strides.
There was usually a little extra magic in the air during a play's last performance. The actors were touched with a special glow as they went through their paces. The Bath audience was generous with its laughter and applause, becoming intensely involved in the story of My Lady Deception from the opening scene to the last.
Julia couldn't help but feel removed from the play tonight. Although she knew her performance was adequate, she couldn't seem to lose herself in the part as usual. Perhaps it was because she would marry Logan Scott tomorrow, linking her future to his in a permanent, if impersonal way. Her mind lingered on that fact even as she spoke and laughed and acted onstage.
By now Damon must have received the letter. What had he said? How had he felt? She wondered how it would be the next time she saw him, when she introduced herself as Logan Scott's wife. It was better for both of them, she thought…but practical reasons didn't ease the pain and worry she felt inside. If only things were different, if only…
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