No questions, no recriminations.
Curled up in a tight ball of misery against the door of the coach, Julianna watched the house where it had all happened sway and pitch and lunge from view. “I’m going to be sick,” she whispered.
“No dear, that wouldn’t be at all pleasant.”
Julianna swallowed and swallowed again. “Are we almost home?”
“We aren’t going home.”
“Where are we going?”
“We’re going right . . . here,” her mother said, leaning to the side and searching for something with narrowed eyes that widened suddenly with delight.
Julianna made an effort to see where “here” was and saw only a pleasant little cottage with her papa’s carriage in front of it, and another carriage with a crest painted on its side. And then she saw the chapel. And in the yard of that chapel, ignoring her father and watching their coach draw up, was Nicholas DuVille.
And the expression on his dark, saturnine face was a thousand times more glacial, more contemptuous, than any she had seen in the park.
“Why are we here?” Julianna cried, feeling faint from shock and nausea and headache.
“To attend your wedding to Nicholas DuVille.”
“My what?! But why?”
“Why is he marrying you?” her mama said dryly as she opened the door. “Because he has no choice. He is a gentleman, after all. He knew the rules, and he broke them. Our hostess and two servants saw you running out of his bedchamber. He ruined the reputation of an innocent, well-bred young lady. If he didn’t marry you now, you would be ruined, but he could never again call himself a gentleman. He would lose face among his peers. His own code of honor requires this.”
“I don’t want this!” Julianna cried. “I’ll make him understand!”
* * *
“I didn’t want this!” Julianna was babbling a quarter of an hour later as she was shoved roughly into her new husband’s coach. He had not spoken a word except in answer to his vows. He spoke now: “Shut up and get in!”
“Where are we going?” she cried.
“To your new home,” he said with scathing sarcasm. “Your new home,” he clarified.
HUMMING A YULETIDE MELODY AS she sat before the dressing table in her bedchamber, Julianna tucked tiny sprigs of red holly berries into the dark green ribbon that bound her heavy blond hair into curls at the crown.
Satisfied, she stood up and shook the wrinkles from her soft green wool gown, straightened the wide cuffs at her wrists, then she headed for the salon where she intended to work on her new manuscript in front of a cheery fire.
In the three months since her husband had unceremoniously deposited her in front of this picturesque little country house a few hours after her wedding, and then driven off, she had not seen or heard from Nicholas DuVille. Even so, every detail of that hideous day was burned into her mind with such vivid clarity that it could still make her stomach knot with shame.
It had been an obscene parody of a real wedding, an eminently suitable ending for something that had begun at a masquerade. Far from condemning Julianna’s breach of conduct the night before, her mother actually regarded it as a practical and ingenious method of snaring the Ton’s most desirable bachelor. Instead of offering maternal advice about marriage and children before her daughter walked down a short aisle to become a wife, Julianna’s mother was advising her on the sorts of furs Julianna ought to insist upon having.
Julianna’s father, on the other hand, obviously had a clearer grasp of the real situation, which was that his daughter had disgraced herself, and her groom had participated in it. He had dealt with that by anesthetizing himself with at least a full bottle of Madeira before he walked her unsteadily, but cheerfully, down the aisle. To complete the gruesome picture, the bride was clearly suffering from the aftereffects of extreme inebriation, and the groom . . .
Julianna shuddered with the recollection of the loathing in his eyes when he was forced to turn to her and pledge his life to her. Even the image of the vicar who had performed the ceremony was branded into her brain. She could still see him standing there, his kindly face a mirror of shocked horror when, at the end of the ceremony, the groom responded to his suggestion that he kiss the bride by raking Julianna with a look of undiluted contempt, then turning on his heel and walking out.
In the coach, on the way here, Julianna had tried to talk to him, to explain, to apologize. After listening to her pleading in glacial silence, he had finally spoken to her. “If I hear just one more word from you, you will find yourself standing on the side of the road before your sentence is finished!”
In the months since she had been dumped here like a piece of unwanted baggage, Julianna had learned more about the agony of loneliness—not the kind that comes after losing someone to death, but the kind that comes from being rejected and despised and defiled. She had learned all that and more as the gossip about Nicki’s flagrant affair with a beautiful opera dancer raged through London before the firestorm of gossip about his abrupt wedding had even gathered real force.
He was punishing her, Julianna knew. Publicly humiliating her in retaliation for what he believed—and would always believe—had been a trap set by Julianna and her mother. And the worst part of it was that when Julianna put herself in his place, and looked at things from his point of view, she could understand exactly how he felt and why.
Until last week, his revenge had been completely devastating. She had wept an ocean of tears into her pillow, tormented herself with the recollection of the hatred in his eyes on their wedding day, and written him a dozen letters trying to explain. His only response had been a short, scathing message delivered to her by his secretary, which warned that if she made one more attempt to contact him, she would be evicted from the home she now occupied, and cut off without a shilling.
Julianna DuVille was expected to live out the rest of her days, in solitude, doing penance for a sin that had been almost as much his as hers. Nicholas DuVille had five other residences, all very grand and far more accessible to company. According to the gossip she read in the papers and what she gathered from the bits of information she pried out of Sheridan Westmoreland, he gave lavish parties at those houses for his friends, and intimate ones for two, Julianna was certain, in his bedchamber.
Until last week, her days had dragged by in an agony of emptiness and self-loathing, with nothing to give her relief except what little she found by pouring out her heart in letters to her grandmother. But all that had changed now, and it was going to improve more every day.
Last week, she had received a letter from a London publisher who wished to buy her new novel. In his letter, Mr. Framingham had compared Julianna in glowing terms to Jane Austen, he had commented on her humor and her remarkable subtlety in dealing with the arrogance of Society and the futility of trying to belong where one can never truly belong.
He had also enclosed a bank draft with the prediction of many more to come, once her first novel was published. A bank draft was independence, it was validation, it was release from the bondage her wedding to Nicholas DuVille had placed her in. It was . . . Everything!
She was already daydreaming of a place to live in London, something cheerful and tiny, in a respectable area . . . just the way she and her grandmother had always planned she would live when she received her inheritance. By the end of the coming year, she would have enough money to leave this silken prison to which she had been banished.
Her dreams at night were not so comforting. In the defenselessness of sleep, Nicki was there, exactly as he had been in the maze. With a booted foot propped on the bench beside her, he gazed into the distance, a thin cheroot clamped between his teeth, smiling a little as he listened to her outrageous request that he ruin her. He teased her in those dreams about expecting to be paid. And then he kissed her, and she would wake up with her heart racing and the touch of his mouth lingering on hers.
But in the morning, with sunlight streaming in t