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Two

Inside the maze, Julianna took the path to the right, darted around the first corner, which happened to turn right, then she pressed her back into the shrubbery's prickly branches. With her free hand, she tried to flatten the layers of white lace flounces that adorned the hem of her skirts and the low bodice of her gown, but they stood out like quivering beacons in the breezy night.

Her heart racing from emotion, not exertion, she stood perfectly still and listened, separated from the garden by a single tall hedge but out of sight of the entrance. She stared blindly at the glass in her hand and felt angry futility at her inability to prevent her mother from disgracing herself or ruining Julianna's life.

Trying to divert herself, Juliana lifted the glass to her nose and sniffed, then she shuddered a little at the strong aroma. It smelled like the stuff her papa drank. Not the Madeira he enjoyed from morning until supper, but the golden liquid he drank after supper for medicinal purposes, to calm his nerves, he said.

Julianna's nerves were raw. A moment later she heard her mother's voice come from the opposite side of the leafy barrier, making her heart hammer with foreboding.

"Juliana, are you out here, dear?" her mother called.

"Lord Makepeace is with me, and he is most eager for an introduction"

Julianna had the mortifying vision of a reluctant Lord Makepeace whoever he was-being dragged mercilessly by the arm through every twist and turn, every corner and cranny, of the twisting maze and torchlit gardens by her determined mother. Unable to endure the awkwardness and embarrassment of one more introduction to some unfortunate, and undoubtedly unwilling, potential suitor whom her mother had commandeered, Julianna backed so far into the scratchy branches that they poked into the pale blond curls of the elaborate coiffure that had taken a maid hours to create.

Overhead, the moon obligingly glided behind a thick bank of clouds, plunging the maze into inky darkness, while her mother continued her shamelessly dishonest monologue a few feet away on the other side of the hedge.

"Julianna is such a delightfully adventurous girl," Lady Skeffington exclaimed, sounding frustrated, not proud. "It is just like her to wander into the gardens to do a bit of exploring."

Julianna mentally translated her mother's falsehoods into reality: Julianna is an annoying recluse who has to be dragged from her books and her scribbling. It is just like her to hide in the bushes at a time like this.

"She was so very popular this Season, I cannot think how you haven't encountered her at some tonnish function or another. In fact, I actually had to insist she restrict her social engagements to no more than ten each week so that she could have enough rest!"

Julianna hasn't received ten invitations to social events in the past year, let alone in a single week, but I need an excuse for why you haven't met her before. With a little luck, you'll believe that rapper.

Lord Makepeace wasnt that gullible. "Really?" he murmured, in the noncommittal voice of one who is struggling between courtesy, annoyance, and disbelief. "She sounds an odd er unusual female if she doesn't enjoy social engagements."

"I never meant to imply such a thing!" Lady Skeffington hastened to say. "Julianna enjoys balls and soirees above all things!"

Julianna would rather have a tooth extracted.

"I truly believe the two of you would deal famously together."

I intend to get her off our hands and well wed, my good man, and you have the prerequisites for a husband: You are male, of respectable birth, and adequate fortune.

"She is not at all the sort of pushing female one encounters too often these days."

She won't do a thing to show herself off to advantage.

"On the other hand, she has definite attributes that no male could miss."

To make certain of it tonight, I insisted she wear a costume so revealing that it is better suited to a married flirt than to a girl of eighteen.

"But she is not at all fast."

Despite the low decolletage on her gown, you must not even try to touch her without asking for her hand first.

Lord Makepeaces desire for freedom finally overcame the dictates of civility. "I really must return to the ballroom, Lady Skeffington. I I believe I have the next dance with Miss Topham."

The realization that her prey was about to escape and into the clutches of the Season's most popular debutante drove Julianna's mama to retaliate by telling the greatest lie of her matchmaking life. Shamelessly inventing a nonexistent relationship between Julianna and the most eligible bachelor in England, she announced, Its just as well we return to the ball! I believe Nicholas DuVille himself has claimed Julianna's next waltz!"

Lady Skeffington must have hurried after the retreating lord because their voices became more distant. "Mr. DuVille has repeatedly singled our dear Julianna out for particular attention. In fact, I have reason to believe his sole reason for coming here this evening was so that he could spend a few moments with her! No, really, sir, it is the truth, though I shouldn't like for anyone but you to know it"

Further down the maze, the Baron of Penwarrens ravishing young widow stood with her arms wrapped around Nicholas DuVilles neck, her eyes laughing into his as she whispered, "Please don't tell me Lady Skeffington actually coerced you into dancing with her daughter, Nicki. Not you, of all people. If she has, and you do it, you wont' be able to walk into a drawing room in England without sending everyone into whoops. If you hadn't been in Italy all summer, you'd know it's become a game of wits among the bachelors to thwart that odious creature. Im perfectly serious," Valerie warned as his only reaction was one of mild amusement, "that woman would resort to anything to get a rich husband for her daughter and secure her own position in Society! Absolutely anything!"

"Thank you for the warning, cherie," Nicki said dryly. "As it happens, I had a brief introduction to Lady Skeffington's husband shortly before I left for Italy. I have not, however, set eyes on the mother or the daughter, let alone promised to dance with either of them."

She sighed with relief. "I couldn't imagine how you could have been that foolish. Juliana is a remarkably pretty thing, actually, but she's not at all in your usual style. She's very young, very virginal, and I understand she has an odd habit of hiding behind draperies or some such."

"She sounds delightful," Nicki lied with a chuckle.

"She is nothing like her mama, in any case." She paused for an eloquent little shudder to illustrate what she was about to say next. "Lady Skeffington is so eager to be a part of Society that she positively grovels. If she weren't so encroaching and ambitious, she'd be completely pathetic."

"At the risk of appearing hopelessly obtuse," Nicki said, losing patience with the entire discussion, why in hell did you invite them to your masquerade?"

"Because, darling," Valerie said with a sigh, smoothing her fingers over his jaw with the familiarity of shared intimacies, "this past summer, little Julianna somehow became acquainted with the new Countess of Langford, as well as her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Claymore. At the beginning of the Season, the countess and the duchess made it known they desire little Juliana to be welcome amongst the Ton, then they both left for Devon with their husbands. Since no one wants to offend the Westmorelands, and since Lady Skeffington offends all of us, we all waited until the very last week of the Season to do our duty and invite them to something. Unluckily, of the dozens of invitations Lady Skeffington received for tonight, mine was the one she accepted-probably because she heard you were going to be here."

She stopped suddenly, as if struck by a delightful possibility. "Everyone has been longing to discover how Julianna and her obnoxious mama happened to become acquainted with the countess and the duchess, and I would wager you know the answer, don't you! Gossip has it that you were extremely well acquainted with both ladies before they were married."

To Valerie's astonishment, his entire expression became distant, shuttered, and his words conveyed a chilly warning. "Define what you mean by 'extremely well acquainted,' Valerie."

Belatedly realizing that she had somehow blundered into dangerous territory, Valerie made a hasty strategic retreat to safer ground. "I meant only that you are known to be a close friend of both ladies."

Nicki accepted her peace offering with a slight nod and allowed her to retreat in dignity, but he did not let the matter drop completely. "Their husbands are also close friends of mine," he said pointedly, though that was rather an exaggeration. He was on friendly terms with Stephen and Clayton Westmoreland, but neither man was particularly ecstatic about their wifes friendship with Nicki-a situation that both ladies had laughingly confided would undoubtedly continue "until you are safely wed, Nicki, and as besotted with your own wife as Clayton and Stephen are with us."

"Since you aren't yet betrothed to Miss Skeffington," Valerie teased softly, pulling his attention back to her as she slid her fingers around his nape, "there is nothing to prevent us from leaving by the side of this maze and going to your bedchamber."

From the moment she'd greeted him in the house, Nicki had known that suggestion was going to come, and he considered it now in noncommittal silence. There was nothing stopping him from doing that. Nothing whatsoever, except an inexplicable lack of interest in what he knew from past trysts with Valerie would be almost exactly one hour and thirty minutes of uninhibited sexual intercourse with a highly skilled and eager partner. That exercise would be preceded by a glass and a half of excellent champagne, and followed by half a glass of even better brandy. Afterward, he would pretend to be disappointed when she felt obliged to return to her own bed "to keep the servants from gossiping." Very civilized, very considerate, very predictable.

Lately, the sheer predictability of his life-and everyone in it, including himself was beginning to grate on him. Whether he was in bed with a woman or gambling with friends, he automatically did and said all the proper and improper things at the appropriate time. He associated with men and women of his own class who were all as bland and socially adept as he was.

He was beginning to feel as if he were a damned marionette, performing on a stage with other marionettes, all of whom danced to the same tune, written by the same composer.

Even when it came to illicit liaisons such as the one Valerie was suggesting, there was a prescribed ritual to be followed that varied only according to whether the lady was wed or not, and whether he was playing the role of seducer or seduced. Since Valerie was widowed and had assumed the role of seducer tonight, he knew exactly how she would react if he declined her suggestion. First she would pout-but very prettily; then she would cajole; and then she would offer enticements. He, being the "seduced," would hesitate, then evade, and then postpone until she gave up, but he would never actually refuse. To do so would be unforgivably rude a clumsy misstep in the intricate social dance they all performed to perfection.

Despite all that, Nicki waited before answering, half expecting his body to respond favorably to her suggestion, even though his mind was not. When that didn't happen, he shook his head and took the first step in the dance: hesitation. "I should probably sleep first, cherie. I had a trying week, and I've been up for the last two days."

"Surely you aren't refusing me, are you, darling?" she asked. Pouting prettily.

Nicki switched smoothly to evasion. "What about your party?"

"I'd rather be with you. I havent seen you in months, and besides, the party will go on without me. My servants are trained to perfection."

"Your guests are not," Nicki pointed out, still evading since she was still cajoling.

"They'll never know we've left."

"The bedchamber you gave me is next to your mother's."

"She won't hear us even if you break the bed as you did the last time we used that chamber. She's deaf as a stone." Nicki was about to proceed to the postponement stage, but Valerie surprised him by accelerating the procedure and going straight to enticements before he could utter his lines in this trite little play that had become his real life. Standing on tiptoe, she kissed him thoroughly, her hands sliding up and down his chest, her parted lips inviting his tongue.

Nicki automatically put his arm around her waist and complied, but it was an empty gesture born of courtesy, not reciprocity. When her hands slid lower, toward the waistband of his trousers, he dropped his arm and stepped back, suddenly revolted as well as bored with the entire damned charade. "Not tonight," he said firmly.

Her eyes silently accused him of an unforgivable breach of the rules. Softening his voice, he took her by the shoulders, turned her around, and gave her an affectionate pat on the backside to send her on her way. "Go back to your guests, cherie." Already reaching into his pocket for a thin cheroot, he added with a polite finality, "I'll follow you after a discreet time."


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