he windows, the future was hers again and the past . . . She left the past in her bedchamber on the pillows. Now more than ever, her refuge was her writing.
Downstairs in the salon, Larkin, the butler, was already placing a breakfast tray containing a pot of chocolate and buttered toast on a table beside her desk. “Thank you, Larkin,” she said with a smile as she slid into her chair.
It was late afternoon, and Julianna was completely engrossed in her manuscript when Larkin interrupted her, his voice taut. “My lady?”
Julianna held up her pen in a gesture that asked him to wait until she finished what she needed to write down. “But—”
Julianna shook her head very firmly, telling him to wait. Nothing of urgency ever occurred here, and she knew it. No unexpected callers arrived for cozy chats in this remote countryside, no household matter arose that couldn’t wait. The small estate ran like a well-oiled machine, according to its owner’s demands, and the staff only consulted her out of courtesy. She was merely a houseguest, though she sometimes had the feeling the servants sympathized with her plight, particularly the butler. Satisfied, Julianna put her pen aside and turned around. “I’m sorry, Larkin,” she said, noting that he looked ready to burst from the strain of waiting for her attention, “but if I don’t write down the thought while I have it, I often forget it. What did you wish to say?”
“His lordship has just arrived, my lady! He wishes to see you at once in his study.” Shock and impossible hope had already sent Julianna to her feet before Larkin added, “And he has brought his valet.” Unfamiliar with the travelling habits of the wealthy, Julianna looked at him in confusion. “That means,” Larkin confided happily, “he will be staying overnight.”
* * *
Standing at the window of the study, Nicki stared impatiently at the same view of the winter landscape that used to seem so pleasing from here, while he waited for the scheming little slut he had been forced to wed to answer his summons. The night of the masquerade was no longer fresh in his mind, but his wedding day was. It had begun with a breakfast tray delivered personally by Valerie, along with several pointed and sarcastic references to his having been the only “fish” in London who’d been stupid enough take the bait provided by Julianna and land in her mother’s net. Before he ejected her from his bedchamber, she had done a good job of adding to his doubts about Julianna’s innocence in the whole thing, and still he had refused to believe that Julianna had intended to entrap him.
He had clung to the comforting delusion that it had been an accident of timing and circumstances.
With a streak of naïveté and self-delusion he didn’t know he possessed, he had actually managed to concentrate only on how adorable she’d been, and how perfectly she’d fit in his arms. He had even gone so far as to convince himself that she would suit him perfectly as a wife, and he had clung to that conviction while he waited for her at the chapel. If he hadn’t been so infuriated with his nauseating future mother-in-law, he’d have chuckled at the way Julianna looked when she alighted from the coach.
His little bride had been positively gray from the effects of the night before, but not so ill she couldn’t chat about furs with her mother, not so ill that they couldn’t stand in the back of the chapel and gloat about snaring themselves a rich husband. He had heard it all while he waited outside.
She would try some sort of play while he was here, Nicki knew. She was not only clever, she was intelligent—intelligent enough to know she could never convince him of her innocence. Based on that, he rather expected a confession, a claim that she had been coerced by her mother.
He turned away at the sound of the door opening, fully expecting to see her looking only slightly better than the last time he had seen her, and every bit as forlorn, perhaps more contrite. In that, he instantly realized, he was wrong.
“I understand you want to talk with me?” she said with remarkable poise.
He nodded curtly toward the chair in front of his desk, a silent command to sit down.
The brief flare of hope that had ignited in Julianna a minute ago when she learned he was here had already died the instant he turned and looked at her in that insolent, appraising fashion. He hadn’t softened, she realized with a sinking heart.
“I’ll come directly to the point,” he said without preamble as he sat down behind his desk. “The physicians tell us my mother’s heart is weakening and that she is dying.” His face and voice were carefully blank, Julianna noted, completely devoid of all emotion, so much so that she instantly concluded the feelings he did have were extremely painful. “She will not see another Christmas.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Julianna said softly.
Instead of replying he stared at her as if he thought she were the most repugnant form of human life he’d ever beheld. Unable to resist the need to try to convince him she was at least capable of compassion, Julianna said, “I was closer to my grandmother than anyone in the world, and when she died, I was desolate. I still confide things to her and think of her. I—I even write her letters, though I know it’s odd . . .”
He interrupted her as if she hadn’t spoken, “My father also informed me that she is deeply troubled by the state of our so-called marriage. Because of all that, it is my father’s wish and my decision that her last Christmas is going to be a happy one. And you are going to help insure that it is, Julianna.”
Julianna swallowed and nodded. Driven by the same desperate eagerness she’d felt the day she encountered him in the park to say or do something to please him, she added softly, “I’ll do whatever I can.”
Instead of being pleased or even satisfied with her, he looked completely revolted. “You won’t need to exert yourself in the least. It will be very easy for you. All you need do is pretend you’re at another masquerade. When my parents arrive tomorrow, you are going to ‘masquerade’ as my tender and devoted wife. I,” he finished icily, “have the more difficult task. I have to pretend I can stomach being in the same house with you!”
He stood up. “My valet and I will remain here until my parents leave in a sennight. Unless we are in their presence, I expect you to stay out of my sight.”
He got up and walked out, his strides long and swift, as if he couldn’t stand to stay in the same room with her another moment.
WITH THE EASE OF LONG practice, Nicki stood at the mirror, tying a series of intricate knots in his neckcloth, bracing himself to go downstairs. He had expected to dislike the time he spent here with Julianna, he had not expected it to be a week straight out of hell.
Thankfully, the ordeal was almost over; all he had to endure was the opening of Christmas presents tonight. Tomorrow his parents were leaving and he intended to be no more than a quarter of an hour behind them.
At least he had the satisfaction of knowing he had made his mother happy. There was no mistaking the fact that her eyes lit up whenever she saw evidence of affection between himself and Julianna, which had left him no choice except to make certain they gave her plenty of evidence.
To give Julianna credit, she cooperated. She looked at him with soft eyes, smiled back at him, laughed at his jokes, and flirted openly with him. She took his arm when they went in to supper, and walked close to his side; she sat at the foot of the table, glowing with candlelight and wit. She dressed as if pleasing her husband were her first concern, and she could fill out a gown as well as any woman he’d ever known.
She graced his table as well as any properly trained socialite could have done, but more naturally, and with more wit. Christ, she was witty! The dining room rang with laughter when she was present. She was also a wonderful conversationalist, attentive and willing to contribute. She talked of her writing when asked, and even of her grandmother, who’d evidently been closer to her than her mother.
If he didn’t know what a fraud she was, if he didn’t despise her, Nicki would have been incredibly proud of her. There were times—too many times—that he forgot what she really was. Times when a
ll he could remember was the enchantment of her smile, the kindness she showed his parents, and the way she made him laugh. Twice, he had actually walked past her and started to bend down and press a kiss on her temple because it seemed so natural and so right.
All that, of course, owed itself to the unnatural situation he was in right now, with his mother bringing up names for grandchildren that were never going to exist. The Ton’s efficient gossip mill had provided her with most of the information that led up to his marriage to Julianna, but despite that, his mother had insisted on drawing her own conclusions. She liked Julianna tremendously, and she made it abundantly clear. She’d actually brought little paintings of Nicki when he was young to show her. She knew she had little time left to spend with her new daughter-in-law and she was evidently determined to make the most of every moment, because she wanted Julianna there—and, of course, Nicki—with her whenever she was downstairs, which seemed to be nearly all the time.
Last night, Julianna had been sitting with her hip on the arm of his chair, her trim derrierre practically on his arm. His mother was describing some childhood antic of Nicki’s and the whole family was laughing. Julianna laughed so hard she slid sideways into his lap, which made her blush gorgeously. She got up quickly enough, but Nicki’s traitorous body had been reacting to the temptation of her before that, and there was little chance she hadn’t noticed his erection when she squirmed off his lap.
He hated himself for his body’s reaction to her. If he’d have been able to keep his hands off her in the first place, he wouldn’t be in this untenable situation. Finished with the neckcloth, Nicki turned as his valet held up his wine-colored velvet evening jacket. He shrugged into the sleeves, bracing himself for the last—and hopefully easiest—of the nightly ordeals as a “family.”