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Eleven

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 all 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 derriere 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 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."

It hit him then, that there would never be another family Christmas, not for him, and he stiffened his shoulders against the hurt of that knowledge.

At least by putting on this act with Julianna, he had made his mother feel reassured. She completely believed that he was happily married, sleeping with his wife, and diligently attempting to get heirs.

By this time tomorrow, he would be on his way to his house in Devon.


"Nicki will be on his way somewhere else as soon as our coach is clear of the drive," Nicki's mother told his father, as they dressed to go downstairs for supper.

In answer he pressed a kiss atop her head as he fastened a diamond necklace around her throat. "You cannot do more than you have, my dear. Don't vex yourself, it isn't good for your heart."

"It isn't good for my heart to know that, after years of associations with an endless string of unsuitable females, Nicki has managed to marry a female who is perfect for him, and for me, I might add – and he won't share a bed with her!"

"Please," he teased, sounding scandalized, "do not tell me you've stooped to asking the servants."

"I don't have to ask," she said sadly. "I have eyes. If he were sleeping with Julianna, she would not be watching him with that look of helpless longing in her eyes. That young woman is in love with him."

"You cannot make Nicholas feel something for her."

"Oh, he feels something alright. When he forgets he hates her, he is thoroughly delighted with her, you can see that. She's beautiful and enchanting," she added as she slowly stood up, "and I would make you a wager that he found her to be all those things, and more, the night of that dreadful masquerade."

"Perhaps," he said noncommittally.

"You know he had to have done! Nicholas may have a long history of defying propriety in his personal life, but there has never been a breath of scandal that involves anyone else. He would never have taken Julianna to his bedchamber when he was a guest in someone's house unless he were thoroughly besotted with her."

Since he couldn't argue that logic, her husband smiled reassuringly. "Perhaps everything will work out, then."

His wife's shoulders sagged. "I've thought of saying something to Julianna to encourage her efforts, but if she knew I was aware of her situation, she'd be mortified." She placed a hand upon his arm. "It would take a miracle to bring them together."


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