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 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 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 the 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 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 to 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 naivete 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.