Alone in her bedchamber, Julianna stood at her dressing table, the box of letters she'd written to her grandmother in her shaking hands, the Christmas presents she'd received that night on the bed. Nicki intended to leave tomorrow, he'd told her that the day he arrived, and the butler had inadvertently confirmed it yesterday.
Nicki and his parents had been very generous to her, though Nicki's gifts were completely impersonal and only for appearances. He had given his parents their presents as if they came from Julianna as well, but it wasn't the same. And when the moment came for Nicki to open his gifts, there had been nothing there from Julianna – a fact which he'd explained away by saying she wanted to give it to him later. He'd even managed to imply with a smile that she wanted to be private with him when she gave it to him.
But the truth was, Julianna had given no gifts to any of them, because she had nothing to give… nothing except the contents of the box she was holding. She had that to give to Nicki. In the last week, she'd heard him called "Nicki" so much that she'd even started to think of him in that way. She'd also done everything she could think of to make him notice her, to make him see her in a different light. She'd flirted outrageously, spent ages on her hair and deliberated for an hour over what she ought to wear. And there had been a few times, when she thought she caught him watching her… times when he looked at her in the same way he'd done when he took her to his bedchamber that long ago night… as if he wanted to kiss her.
She was in love with him, she'd learned that during this wonderful, agonizing week with him. She'd learned other things, too, that made it seem essential to make one more attempt to heal the breach between them. First and foremost, according to Nicki's mother, Nicki loved children and doted on his nieces. He wanted children, she said, while Nicki's mother was hoping specifically for a grandson to carry on the family name. As things stood now, all that was impossible. Because of Julianna. She had caused this nightmare, and if there was any way to repair the damage she would do it. The scandal of a divorce would taint the whole family, not merely Julianna. Besides, there had only been a handful granted in the last fifty years anyway, so they were married for life.
An empty childless life, unless she did something, and there was only one thing left that she hadn't already done. .She had not shown him the letters. They were the only "evidence" she could offer Nicki that she hadn't planned their meeting at the masquerade, nor schemed to trap him into marriage.
The problem was that she could not let him see the evidence without simultaneously letting him see all of herself… Everything she had been and wasn't and wanted to be. It was all in there, and once he read it, she would be more nakedly vulnerable than she had ever been in her life. It was still fairly early, and she could hear Nicki moving about. Uttering a fervent prayer that this would work, Juliana walked over to the adjoining door that connected both suites and knocked.
Nicki got up and opened the door, took one look at what she was wearing and nearly slammed it shut in self-defense. Clad in a cherry velvet dressing robe with a deep oval neck and her hair tumbling about her shoulders like molten gold, Julianna Skeffington DuVille was almost irresistible. "What is it?" he snapped, backing up.
"I-I have something to give you," she said, moving toward him in a halo of shimmering hair, alluring skin, and rich velvet. "Here, take it."
Nicki glanced at her and then at it. "What is it?"
"Take it, please. Just take it."
"Why in hell should I?"
"Because it's – it's a present – a Christmas present from me to you."
"I don't want anything from you, Julianna."
"But you do want children!" she said, looking almost as stunned by that announcement as he felt.
"I don't need you in order to sire children," he said contemptuously.
She paled at that, but persevered. "Any others wouldn't be legitimate."
"I can legitimize them later. Now get out of here!"
"Damn you," Julianna choked out, tossing the box that contained her heart and soul onto the table in front of the sofa. "I did not set out to trap you at the masquerade. When I asked you to ruin me, I thought you were someone else!"
A slow, sarcastic smiled crossed his saturnine face. "Really," he drawled in a scathing voice, "who did you think I was."
"God!" Julianna burst out tearily, so miserable and so insane about him that she almost stamped her foot. "I thought you were God! The proof is in that box, in the letters I wrote to my grandmother. My mother had them sent to me here."
She whirled on her heel and fled. Ignoring the box, Nicki fixed himself a drink, carried it over to the sofa, and picked up the book he'd left lying there when he answered her knock. He opened it to the first page, then glanced at the box of letters. Out of sheer curiosity to see what ploy his clever and imaginative young wife had concocted this time, he decided to read one of the letters instead.
The one on top was dated last spring, and he presumed he was supposed to start there, though he'd never set eyes on Julianna Skeffington as long ago as that.
I met someone in the park today and made such a cake of myself, I can hardly bear to think of it. There's always so much gossip about gentlemen in London -about how handsome one of them is supposed to be, and it's always such a disappointment when you see them. And then I saw Nicholas DuVille… He was beautiful, Grandmama… so beautiful. Hard, too, and cold, at least on the surface, but I think he laughed at what I said when I walked away. If he did, then he can't be hard at all, merely cautious.
Two hours later a log fell from the grate and crashed in an explosion of orange sparks as Nicki laid the last letter aside, then he picked up the one that he had already read twice, and he read the same lines that had filled him with self-loathing.
I know how ashamed you are of me, Grandmother. I only meant to dance those three dances with him, so that Sir Francis would withdraw his offer… I knew I shouldn't let him kiss me, I knew it, but if you'd ever been kissed by Nicholas DuVille, you'd understand. If you'd ever seen his smile or heard him laugh, you'd understand. How I yearn to see his smile and hear his laughter again. I long to make things right somehow. I yearn and I yearn and I yearn. And then I cry…
With her hip perched on the window seat, Julianna stared into the frosty night, her arms wrapped around her midriff as if she could keep out the chill that spread deeper and deeper as each moment passed and he didn't appear. Lifting her finger to the cold pane, she drew a circle, and another inside that one. As she began the third one, an image moved slowly into the center of it – man in shirtsleeves, his hands shoved into his trousers pockets, coming toward her, and Julianna's heart began to pound in deep, painful beats.
He stopped close behind her and Julianna waited, searching his face in the window because she was afraid of what she'd see – or not see – if she turned and saw it clearly.
"Julianna." His deep voice was rough with emotion.
Julianna drew a shaking breath and slowly turned her head, watching a somber smile twist his lips as his gaze met hers and held it.
"When you were thinking I was God, and then the devil, would you like to know what I was thinking about you?"
Julianna swallowed over a knot of unbearable tension and nodded.
"I thought you were an angel."
Unable to move or breathe, she waited for him to indicate how he felt about her now.
Nicki told her. Holding her gaze, he said solemnly, "I yearn, too, Julianna."
Julianna stood up, took one step forward, and found herself crushed against him, his arms like iron bands around her. His mouth seized hers with gentle violence, his hands shifting over her back and sides in a possessive caress, pressing her ever tighter to his chest and hips and legs. Slowly, tantalizingly, he coaxed her lips to part, and when they did, he deepened the kiss. He kissed her until Julianna was breathless and leaning into him, fitting her body to his rigid length, her arms wrapped around his neck to hold him closer. When he finally broke the contact, he kissed her cheek and the corner of her eye and her temple, then he laid his jaw against her hair. "I yearn," he whispered tenderly. "I yearn."
Against her cheek, his chest felt warm and hard. Julianna waited for him to kiss her again. Shy and uncertain, she set about to make it happen again by sliding her own hands along his spine, and when that only made him hold her closer, she took a more direct means.
Tipping her head back, she gazed into his heavy-lidded, smoldering eyes and slowly slid her hands up his chest in an open invitation, watching the banked fires in his eyes begin to burn.
Nicki accepted the invitation by sliding his fingers into the hair at her nape, holding her mouth within his reach as he lowered his head and whispered gruffly, "God, how I yearn…"