“Perhaps you have some influence with her,” Damon suggested softly. “I trust you will use it on my behalf.”

Their gazes met, blue eyes staring into steely gray. It was impossible for Damon to tell whether Scott was motivated by some fatherly feeling for Jessica Wentworth, or if his feelings crossed the threshold of actual jealousy. Scott spoke tonelessly. “I will not be responsible for urging Mrs. Wentworth into a situation that could be compromising or difficult for her—”

“All I want is to spend a few hours with her,” Damon said smoothly. “I give you my word that she will not be offended in any way. I would like you to persuade her to accept my invitation. If she doesn't, my donation to the Capital will still be given as promised.”

Scott hesitated for a long moment, then took another sip of wine. Being a worldly man, he understood that some concession was expected—necessary, in fact, regardless of Damon's assurances to the contrary. One supper was hardly too much to ask in return for five thousand pounds. “Very well. I'll discuss the matter with her.”

“Thank you.” Damon kept his face blank, but he felt as if he could draw a full breath for the first time since Jessica Wentworth had cast her spell over him. It would be done—Scott would convince her to meet with him, and he would have a few hours alone with her.

He must have gone insane. He wasn't behaving like himself at all. He was never moved by impulse—he calculated and planned his every action. But he would allow himself this temporary lapse, if only because he didn't seem to have a choice.

As he and Logan Scott parted company, Damon caught a glimpse of Jessica, who stood several yards away with her own group of admirers. Her accusing gaze was fixed on him as if she already knew what he had done.

“What did you say to him?” Pauline asked as soon as he returned to her and William. Clearly she was annoyed at having been abandoned even for a few minutes.

Damon shrugged and gave her a bland look. “I've decided to become a sponsor for the Capital.”

“You?” She gave him a skeptical glance.

“You never go to the theater unless you're knocked over the head and dragged there,” William commented. “Why the sudden interest in the Capital?”

“Yes, why?” Pauline asked, her mouth tight with suspicion.

“I want to broaden my interests,” Damon replied, the look in his eyes warning them both not to question him any further.

“What did he say to you?” Julia demanded as soon as she could separate herself from the guests and take Logan Scott aside for a private word.

Logan's eyes were pools of innocent blue. “Who?”

“Lord Savage,” she said between her teeth. “What did the two of you talk about? I saw the expression on your face—the look you always wear when someone offers you money.”

“Well, there you have it.” He smiled and opened his hands in an appealing gesture. “He's going to make a handsome donation to the Capital. Quite a generous fellow. Pleasant, gentlemanly—”

“Stop praising him and tell me what he wanted!”

“We'll discuss it later.”

Driven by fast-rising frustration, Julia caught his sleeve, her fingers digging into the fine, dark amber cloth of his coat. “Did he mention me?”

“Why do you ask that?” Logan's gaze delved into hers. “He did, as a matter of fact. What is going on between you?”

“Nothing,” she said immediately. “And nothing will. I have no interest in him at all.”

“That's unfortunate. Because I made him a promise of sorts.”

“You have no right to make any kind of promise involving me!” she said hotly.

“Quiet,” Logan murmured, mindful of the other guests nearby. “No one is going to force you to do anything. We'll talk later, when you've managed to control your emotions.”

Julia willed herself to stay calm, and released her clutch on his sleeve. “Tell me now, or I'll go mad.”

“Savage wants to have supper with you one evening.”

“No!”

“Before you refuse, let me remind you of a few facts. I pay you a higher salary than anyone in the company except myself. I spare no expense having costumes made for you of the best silks and velvets, and real jewels for you to wear. I surround you with some of the finest casts ever put on stage, and choose plays tailored to display your talents to the best advantage. I don't think that having one platonic dinner with Lord Savage would be too much of a trial for you, in return for the five thousand pounds he's donating to the theater.”

“Platonic dinner?” she sneered. “If you're going to become a pimp, Mr. Scott, you may as well be honest about it. I'm hardly naive.”

“No, merely ungrateful,” he said smoothly.

“I've worked hard for you the past two years—that is all my contract requires.”

“Any other actress in the company would accept Savage's invitation with pleasure.”

“Then send one of them in my place. Send them all!”

“Damn you,” Logan said softly. “Refuse Savage, if you must. But there will be a price to pay. You proved tonight that you deserve the leading part in My Lady Deception—but you won't get it, or any other parts you want this season, unless you accept Savage's invitation. And before you cry ‘unfair,’ remember that without the training I've given you, and my close attention to your career, you would probably be touring the provinces with a group of strolling players.”

Julia shot him a look of impotent fury and walked away from him, brushing by the gentlemen who were attempting to gain introductions to her.

Standing before the closed door of one of the second-floor bedroom suites, Julia lifted her hand to knock, then hesitated and let it fall to her side. The hour was late, everyone having retired to his room for the evening. Behind this door, and many of the others, there were sounds of drawers and armoire closets opening and closing, as well as the murmurs of servants as they helped guests change into their sleeping attire.

After bribing a servant to tell her which room the Marquess of Savage was staying in, Julia had come here with a mixture of fear and resolution. She had never visited a man's room before, but this seemed to be the only way she could talk to Savage in private. She had to confront him, and make it clear that whatever his intentions were, he would get nothing from her. Perhaps then he would withdraw his dinner invitation.

She was terribly nervous, almost as panicked as she had been earlier in the evening. Taking a deep breath to restore herself, she forced herself to knock. Her shaking knuckles barely grazed the panels. As slight as the sound was, it had been noticed. Julia blanched as she heard a muffled inquiry from within. Seconds later the handle turned, and she found herself staring up into Lord Savage's shadowy gray eyes.

Julia tried to speak, but her throat had closed, and all she could do was stand there silently. Her heart beat frantically, until her ears were filled with the sound of rapid drumming. She had seen the actors at the Capital in various stages of undress, when quick costume changes made privacy impossible—but it was far different to be confronted with Lord Savage wearing only a burgundy silk dressing robe. In the confines of the suite, he seemed much larger than he had in the spacious ballroom downstairs, his broad shoulders looming over her, his bare golden throat level with her eyes.

Savage inclined his head an inch or two, his gaze not moving from her face. She sensed that she had surprised him by appearing here, and at this hour. Good—she wanted to appear bold and confident.

“May I come in?” she asked, her voice miraculously steady.

Instead of replying, he opened the door and gestured for her to enter. Julia complied, then paused as she saw a valet gathering linens in the corner.

“That will be all,” Savage murmured to the servant, who nodded and left at once, quietly closing the door behind him.

They were alone, in a room filled with yellow brocade, mahogany furniture, and paintings of harmonious pastoral scenes…alone and facing each other, after all these years. There was no way Savage could know who she was, but still she felt exposed and in danger, with only her secrets to protect her.

Chapter 3

Savage continued to stare at her until Julia began to wonder if there was something amiss with her appearance. Self-consciously she smoothed her hair, then jerked her hand away. It didn't matter if every lock on her head were sticking straight out—she hardly cared about his opinion of her.

Glancing down at his own lack of attire, Savage tightened the belt of his silk robe. “I hadn't planned on receiving visitors,” he said.

She folded her arms before her, a gesture that was both militant and self-protective. “I won't stay long.”

He stared at her once more. It seemed that he was as uncomfortable as she was with the silence between them…but he appeared to be equally powerless to break it. Julia tried in vain to read his thoughts, but he revealed nothing. What kind of man was he? Usually it was easy for her to discern someone's character, to sense if a person was intrinsically kind, selfish, shy, or honorable. Savage betrayed nothing of himself.

His face was austerely beautiful, with its long nose, the distinctive angles of his cheeks, and the aggressive jut of his jaw. There were appealing, surprising touches of softness in the wide curve of his mouth and the long-lashed gray eyes. It must be unbearable temptation for many women to make Savage smile, look at them with desire, to arouse any sort of emotion in those enigmatic features. It even provoked her imagination, the% thought of what it must be like to earn his hard-won trust, to hold his dark head in her lap and fondle the thick locks of black hair—

“Why are you here, Mrs. Wentworth?” he asked.

Julia felt a scowl pinching between her eyebrows, and she answered in a crisp tone. “I think you already know, my lord.”

“Scott has spoken with you.”

“Yes, he did. And now I've come to correct an impression of yours. You seem to think that your money can buy anything you want.”

“Most of the time it can.”

“Well, you can't buy me.” She had been sold once in her life, for the price of a title she had neither asked for nor wanted. It would never happen again.

“There seems to have been a misunderstanding,” he said quietly. “If you object to the idea of having dinner with me, you're free to refuse.”

“You've made that impossible. If I don't accept, I'll lose all the choice parts at the Capital this season—parts I would have otherwise had!”

He seemed perturbed, a frown drawing his dark brows together. “Would you like me to speak with Mr. Scott?”

“No! You'll only make the situation worse.”

Savage shrugged, and infuriated her with a matter-of-fact reply. “I suppose you'll just have to make the best of it, then.”

“What about the woman you were seated with in the corner tonight?” she asked. “Lady Ashton, I believe. She seems quite attached to you.”

“Lady Ashton has no claim on me. She and I have an understanding.”

“How sophisticated of you,” she said acidly. “Let me pose a question to you, Lord Savage. If you were a married man, would you still desire to have dinner alone with me?”

“Since I'm a bachelor,” he said evenly, “the question is irrelevant.”

A bachelor! The realization that he had decided to ignore their long-ago marriage, pretend she had vanished from the face of the earth, filled Julia with outrage. To be truthful, she had done the same thing—but their situations were hardly comparable. After all, she had spent the past years struggling to make a new life for herself, whereas he had enjoyed himself playing lord of the manor with her dowry at his disposal!

“Does it bother you in the slightest that I have a husband?” she asked. “That I belong to someone else?”

He hesitated for a long moment. “No.”

Julia shook her head slowly, staring at him with disdain. “I know what you think of me, my lord…the same thing most men in your position think of actresses. But let me assure you, I'm not a prostitute—and I certainly can't be had for the cost of dinner and a few promises—”

“That's not what I think.” Savage unnerved her by taking a step forward until she could almost feel the warmth of his breath on her skin. She was aware of the latent strength in his body, the intimidating force of him, but when he spoke, his voice was gentle. “I'm not going to take advantage of you, Mrs. Wentworth. All I want is an evening with you. If you don't enjoy my company, you can leave at any time…but you won't want to.”

She laughed unsteadily at his arrogance. “You're damned certain of yourself, aren't you?”

“I'll be waiting at the Capital on Friday, after your performance.”

Julia's mouth tightened as she considered him silently. Savage was a perceptive man. If he had attempted to force her outright, she would have fought him to her last breath. But he had sensed that, and had left her the ability to refuse, if she chose.

Savage waited for her reply with the expectancy of a cat stalking some small creature it fancied. For some reason his patience touched her. With a flash of intuition, Julia thought that perhaps he secretly feared and desired the same things she did. He had been shaped by the same manipulations that she had…and in his own way, perhaps he had rebelled against them also.

How could she help but be curious about him? How could anyone resist the opportunity to find out more about the stranger she was married to? And he had no idea who she really was. Why not spend a few hours with him? What harm could it do? Most evenings after a performance she went straight to her small house on Somerset Street, and either read a book or stared pensively into the fireplace. This would be an interesting diversion, to say the least. And she need never tell him that she was Julia Hargate.

The irony of the situation almost made her smile. What a rich joke it would be, although no one but she would understand. If only her father knew that after all the years of rebellion, she was going to have dinner with her husband. He would have apoplexy!

“All right,” she heard herself say in a businesslike tone. “I will see you on Friday.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Wentworth,” Savage said, a flicker of satisfaction in his gray eyes. “I guarantee you won't regret it.”

“He sounds quite dashing,” Arlyss said, drawing her short legs beneath her as she sat in a worn chair in the greenroom.

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