After teatime, everyone retired to change into elaborate dinner outfits. The women eventually emerged in gowns of thin crinkled silk or rib-boned gauze, the men in gleaming linen shirts, patterned waistcoats, and narrow trousers strapped under the insteps to keep them straight. Julia donned a gown of champagne-colored silk with a low-cut bodice sewn in tiny flat pleats. A narrow swath of delicate blond lace covered but didn't entirely conceal the shadowy vale between her breasts. The short, puffed sleeves were made of gauze and trimmed with more blond lace.
Dinner was a spectacular array of roasts and game, puddings in fancy molds, flavored jellies, and innumerable dishes of vegetables in sauce. An army of servants moved in a dignified bustle to serve the two hundred guests seated at the two long tables in the center of the dining room. Near the end of the feast, meringue baskets filled with creams and pastries were brought out, as well as platters of berries and fruit.
In spite of the temptations set before her, Julia ate sparingly. She knew that as usual, Logan would be asked to entertain the guests after dinner, and she would be called upon to assist him. She was never able to perform well on a full stomach, which made her sluggish and sleepy. Tonight of all nights, she wanted her wits about her.
Julia caught glimpses of Lord Savage at the next table, as he conversed with the women to his right and left. Both ladies seemed to find his company enthralling. Frequently they reached up to rearrange their own dangling curls or toy with their jewelry, like fluttery birds preening themselves in hopes of gaining his admiration. Julia wondered if all women reacted to Savage in such a manner. Perhaps it was inevitable. Whatever his character, his wealth and good looks were indisputable. Moreover, his air of reserve would provoke any female to try to attract his attention. Julia was relieved that he didn't so much as glance in her direction. Apparently he had forgotten all about her, his interest diverted by other, more approachable women.
When the meal was concluded, the ladies retired for tea and gossip, leaving the men to enjoy a selection of cigars and glasses of rich port. Later they all rejoined in the large salon, where a multitude of chairs and settees had been arranged in groups.
Walking into the salon on Logan's arm, Julia was not surprised when Lady Brandon approached them with a look of anticipation on her round face. It wasn't every hostess who had the opportunity of providing her guests with the likes of Logan Scott as the after-dinner entertainment. “Mr. Scott,” Lady Brandon murmured, her ample cheeks flushed, “perhaps you would honor us with a recitation, or some characterization from a play?”
With an elegant flourish, Logan took the lady's plump hand and bowed over it. He had a way with women, no matter what their age, appearance, or circumstance, that made them swoon with delight. Boldly he stared into Lady Brandon's eyes until she must have felt as if she were drowning in the rich blue depths of his gaze. “It would be my great pleasure, madam—and hardly enough to recompense you for such magnificent hospitality. Is there anything in particular you would prefer?”
“Oh,” Lady Brandon breathed, her hand trembling visibly. Her rosebud lips parted in a helpless smile. “Oh, anything you choose would suffice, Mr. Scott. But…something romantic would be very nice!”
“Something romantic,” Logan repeated, smiling at her as if she were the most clever woman alive. “We'll do our best, madam.” He glanced at Julia and quirked his ruddy brows inquiringly. “Shall we undertake a scene from my new play, Mrs. Wentworth?”
Julia murmured her assent with a demure smile, knowing that he had been planning on it. Once or twice a season, Logan launched a play he had written, always a social satire loaded with wit and charm. If not a genius, Logan was a clever writer with a sure instinct for what the audience desired. His newest creation, My Lady Deception, was the story of a nobleman and a well-bred woman who, through a set of implausible but amusing circumstances, found themselves posing as their own servants; he as a footman, she as a housemaid. Naturally they met and fell in love, and their subsequent efforts to maintain their deceptions and stay true to each other produced many comical results. The play gently teased the aristocracy for its narrow views and suffocating social rules.
It was hardly original material, but Logan had a way of shaping it into something fresh and entertaining. Julia liked the story of two people discovering each other without the constraints of their usual lives. Logan hadn't yet decided to give her the leading role in the stage production. It was clear that he would choose between Julia and Arlyss Barry, another young actress in the company. Julia wanted the part for herself, but she knew it depended on whether Logan liked Julia's romantic approach, or Arlyss's more broadly comic one. Perhaps if all went well this evening, it would sway his decision in her favor.
When the group had settled around the room, leaving a cleared space in the front, Logan stepped forward and introduced himself and Julia. Briefly he described the scene they were about to perform for the guests' entertainment, and mentioned that if they cared to see the entire play, it would be shown at the Capital Theatre later in the season.
As Logan spoke, Julia sorted through lines of dialogue in her mind. But there was a strange shiver of nerves all across her back, and her concentration was ruined as she sensed the dark presence of Lord Savage nearby. Like a magnet, her gaze was drawn to the corner, where he was seated in the company of Lady Ashton.
Savage seemed relaxed and comfortable, his long legs stretched before him as he appeared to listen to Lady Ashton's light chatter. But his gaze was fastened alertly on Julia. Her heart pounded as she realized that he was as unwillingly fascinated by her as she was by him. Perhaps he was somehow able to sense the link that had been forged between them since childhood, changing the course of both their lives.
Julia had never imagined that someday she would be acting while he watched. She had performed such drawing room scenes before, either with Logan or the other actors. There was a far more intimate quality in playing to such a small audience. Because of the close range, there was less need for voice projection, and she could use a more finely tuned array of gestures and facial expressions. Usually she enjoyed situations such as this…but not now. It seemed that every trace of her ability, and every word she had memorized, had completely vanished.
Logan motioned for Julia to join him at the front of the room. She tried to obey, but for the first time in her life, she froze. Her feet had no sensation, save for an icy prickling around her ankles, and her chest was filled with panicked drumming. She couldn't do it—she couldn't go on with the scene. She knew Logan could see the color drain from her face. He showed no reaction except for a pleasantly encouraging smile. Walking over to her, he took her hand in a painful grip that had the effect of restoring her senses somewhat.
“Do you want some wine?” he murmured, leading, her to the front of the room.
It took all her strength to manage a whisper. “I-I don't know.”
Logan murmured to her sotto voce, making it appear to the others in the room as if he were offering her advice. His words, however, were anything but soothing. “Listen to me. I don't give a damn about how you feel or what's going through your blasted mind at the moment. All I care about is the play and my theater. If you value your career, you're going to do the damned scene as we rehearsed it. You're an actress. Do what I've hired you to do.”
Julia nodded stiffly, feeling the warmth come back to her cheeks. She must get through the scene, no matter that her long-lost husband was watching her. Logan's quiet bullying reminded her of all the work she had done to become Jessica Wentworth. She couldn't ruin it all now.
“Tell me my first line,” she whispered unsteadily.
“For God's sake…” Logan muttered, giving her a dark look. “I'll start the thing. Just try to follow along.”
Julia went to a spot a few yards away from Logan and concentrated on him fiercely, waiting for his first words. The scene depicted the moment at which the two lovers discovered the other's true identity. As she stared at Logan, she saw his face change, and he began to speak to her as if he were a man in love. She felt herself slide into the role without effort, almost without thought. She was more focused than she had ever been in her life. Dimly she sensed the thrill of excitement in the room, but she was too engrossed to dwell on it.
As the characters uncovered their mutual deception, they went through a lightning-fast chain of reactions; disbelief, outrage, defensiveness, relief, and helpless passion. Logan's antics sent the small audience into fits of laughter, but only with the balance of Julia's sweetly romantic yearning did the scene reach a startling depth of tenderness.
Damon watched without blinking, almost without breathing. It seemed as if each word were spontaneous, as if the actors were living the scene rather than performing a piece that must have been rehearsed many times before. They made the art of acting look effortless. It was clear that Jessica Wentworth was an actress of extraordinary talent.
“My God, they're both wonderful,” murmured Pauline, who was never moved to praise anyone unless she could somehow include herself.
Damon didn't reply. Despite his admiration, an unpleasant feeling crept over him as he watched the two actors. Was it genuine, the undercurrent of emotion that seemed to flow between them? How could such smoldering intensity be merely an illusion? He wondered if Logan Scott had ever held Jessica in his arms and kissed her for real, if he had ever crushed her exquisite body beneath his. Surely any normal man would find her an unholy temptation. Damon imagined what Jessica Wentworth was like in her passion, shivering and abandoned as she gave herself to her lover.
A trickle of sweat ran beneath Damon's starched cravat. He took a deep breath, suddenly feeling as if his lungs would explode. It was insane, but he wanted to rush to the front of the room and tear her away from Logan Scott. It shocked him, his piercing awareness of her, the maddening craving to touch and smell and taste her. He had always been in control of himself and his circumstances, had insisted on it for as long as he could remember. No one had been allowed to have any power over him…not since he had realized long ago that his future had been sacrificed for Hs family's well-being. He had never wanted anyone with such unthinking desire, a feeling that engaged him body and soul and left no choice but pursuit.
The scene ended as Logan Scott bent over Jessica and gave her an impassioned kiss. Damon's hands curled into fists, while jealousy filled him in a poisoned rush. Applause resounded through the room as the guests exclaimed in delight. Smiling broadly, Logan Scott declined pleas for another scene, a monologue, something else to entertain them. Soon he and Jessica Wentworth were surrounded by admirers.
“A handsome pair,” Pauline observed, plying a fan of silk and lace to cool her face and throat. “This afternoon Mrs. Wentworth claimed that their relationship is strictly professional…but only a fool would believe that.”
Before Damon could reply, his younger brother William approached them, and obediently bowed over Pauline's gracefully proffered hand. “You look ravishing this evening, Lady Ashton—as usual.”
Pauline smiled flirtatiously. “How charming you are, Lord William.”
William turned to Damon, his blue eyes alight with enthusiasm. “Quite a good scene, wasn't it? I never thought there could be such a thing as a female Logan Scott—but Mrs. Wentworth is as superb as he is. I want to meet her, Damon.”
“She's a married woman,” Damon replied flatly.
“I don't care.”
Pauline laughed at William's youthful passion. “For a lad of your looks and blood, it shouldn't be difficult, dear boy. She's an actress, after all. Just be forewarned—she'll probably demand a fortune in jewels in return for her favors.”
“It would have to be a fortune to exceed your price, darling,” Damon said softly. Pauline gave him a haughty frown, while William smothered an impudent laugh. “Excuse me,” Damon continued, rising to his feet, “I want to have a word with Mr. Scott.”
“What for?” Pauline asked sharply, but he ignored her, making his way to Logan Scott, whose ruddy head was just visible over the crowd around him. Damon was filled with the most biting impatience he had ever known. He wanted to make everyone in the room disappear except for Jessica Wentworth.
As busy as he was, Scott didn't fail to notice him standing nearby. His blue eyes met Damon's, and though they had never been introduced, there was a gleam of recognition in them. Skillfully he managed to disengage himself from two or three simultaneous conversations, and approached Damon. Although he wasn't quite as tall as Damon, he was broad-shouldered and solid. Scott appeared to be a prosperous, supremely cultured man, his well-heeled image belying the rumors that he had been born as the son of a common fishmonger on the east side of London.
“Lord Savage,” Scott said, transferring a glass of wine from his right hand to his left in order to exchange a firm handshake, “I regret that we've never had the opportunity to meet before now.”
“Mr. Scott.” Damon returned the handshake. “I've long admired your talents.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Scott's mobile features arranged themselves in an expression of mild inquiry. “I hope you enjoyed the scene tonight. It is a small sample of the many worthy productions that will be shown at the Capital this season.”
“Yes, I did. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I feel moved to make a contribution to the theater.”
“Ah.” A flash of satisfaction appeared in Scott's blue eyes, and he took a long sip of wine. “That would be very much appreciated, my lord.”
“I hope that five thousand pounds will be of help.”
At the mention of the sum, Scott nearly choked on his wine. Quickly regaining his composure, he regarded Damon with frank surprise. “As I'm certain you're aware, Lord Savage, that is an unusually generous donation. You have my deepest gratitude, as well as that of all the Capital players.” He paused, his gaze speculative. “However…I can't help but suspect you would want something in return for such a large sum.”
“I have one small request.”
“I thought so.” Scott raised his brows inquiringly.
“I would like Mrs. Wentworth to have supper at my estate one evening.”
Scott seemed unperturbed by the statement. Undoubtedly many men had shown such interest in Jessica Wentworth before. “And if she refuses?”
“The money is still yours.”
“That's a relief to hear, Lord Savage. Because Mrs. Wentworth is not a woman who can be bought, nor is she easily wooed. I can tell you about the scores of gentlemen who have failed with her. She doesn't seem to care about wealth or social position, and to my knowledge she has no desire for a man's protection. To be blunt, I would lay very steep odds against her accepting any kind of invitation from you.”
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