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Four

In the days that followed, Julianna wrote her dozens of letters, but as one lonely month drifted into another, the empty monotony of her life provided little worth writing about. The sleepy little village of Blintonfield remained the boundary of her world, and so she filled her time with reading and secret dreams of going off to London when she received her inheritance at eighteen. There she would meet interesting people and visit museums while she worked diligently on her writing. When she sold some of her work, she would bring her two little brothers to London often, so they could broaden their knowledge and share the wonders of the world beyond their little village.

After a few attempts to share this dream with her mama, Julianna realized it was wiser to say nothing because her mother was horrified and annoyed by the whole idea. "Its beyond considering, dear. Respectable, unmarried young ladies do not live alone, particularly in London. Your reputation would be ruined, completely ruined!" She was no more enthusiastic about any mention of books or writing. Lady Skeffingtons interest in reading material was limited exclusively to the Society pages of the daily papers, where she religiously followed the doings of the Ton. She considered Julianna's fascination with history and philosophy and her desire to become an author almost as appalling as Juliannas wish to live on her own in London. "Gentlemen do not like a female who is too clever, dear," she warned repeatedly. "You're entirely too bookish. If you dont learn to keep all this fustian about philosophy to yourself, your chances of receiving a marriage offer from any truly eligible gentlemen will be ruined!"

Until a few months before the masquerade ball, the subject of a London Season for Julianna had never been discussed as a possibility.

Although Julianna's father was a baronet, his ancestors had long before squandered whatever modest fortune and lands that went with the title. His only legacy from his forebears was a thoroughly amiable and placid disposition that enabled him to ignore all of lifes difficulties and a great fondness for wine and spirits. He had no desire to leave his favorite chair, let alone the secluded little village that was his birthplace. He was, however, not proof against his wife's determination, nor her ambitions for their little family.

In the end, neither was Juliana.

Three weeks after Julianna received her inheritance, as she was writing more letters of inquiry to the London papers about lodgings, her mother excitedly summoned the entire family to the salon for an unprecedented family council. "Julianna," she exclaimed, "your father and I have something thrilling to tell you!" She paused to beam at Julianna's father, who was still reading the newspaper. "Don't we, John?"

"Yes, my dove," he murmured without looking up.

After an admonishing look at Juliannas two young brothers, who were arguing over the last biscuit, she clasped her hands in delight and transferred her gaze to Julianna. "It is all arranged!" she exclaimed. "I have just received a letter from the owner of a little house in London in respectable neighborhood. He has agreed to let us have it for the rest of the Season for the paltry amount I was able to offer! Everything else has been arranged and deposits paid in advance. I have hired a Miss Sheridan Bromleigh, who will be your ladys maid and occasional chaperone, and who will help look after the boys. She is an American, but then one must make do when one cannot afford to pay decent wages.

"Dear heaven, your gowns were expensive, but the vicars wife assures me the modiste I hired is quite competent, though not capable of the sort of intricate designs you will see worn by the young ladies of the Ton. On the other hand, I daresay few of them have your beauty, so it all works out quite evenly. Someday soon you will have gowns to go with your looks, and you will be the envy of all! You'll have jewels and furs, coaches, servants at your beck and call"

Julianna had felt a momentary burst of elation at the mention of inexpensive lodgings in London, but new gowns and a ladys maid had never been in the family budget, nor were they in her budget. "I dont understand, Mama. What has happened?" she asked, wondering if some unknown relative had died and left them a fortune.

"What has happened is that I have managed to put your small inheritance to grand use and in a manner that will pay excellent returns, I am sure."

Julianna's mouth opened in a silent cry of furious protest, but she was incapable of speech for the moment -which Lady Skeffington evidently mistook for shared ecstasy.

"Yes, it is all true! You are going to London for the Season, where we will contrive a way for you to mingle with all the right people! While we are there, I have every confidence you will captivate some eligible gentleman who will make you a splendid offer. Perhaps even the Earl of Langford, whose estates are said to be beyond compare. Or Nicholas DuVille, who is one of the richest men in England and France and is about to inherit a Scottish title from a relative of his mama. I have it from several unimpeachable sources that the Earl of Langford and the Earl of Glenmore which is what DuVille will be called-are considered to be the two most desirable bachelors in Europe! Just imagine how envious the Ton will be when little Julianna Skeffington captures one of those men for a husband."

Julianna could almost hear the sound of her dreams splintering and crashing at her feet. "I dont want a husband!" she cried. "I want to travel, and learn, and write, Mama. I do. I think I could write a novel someday Grandmama said I am truly talented with a pen. No, dont laugh, please. You must get the money back, you must!"

"My dear, foolish girl, I wouldn't even if I could, which I cannot. Marriage is the only future for a female. Once you see how Fashionable Society lives, you'll forget all that silliness your grandmother Skeffington stuffed into your head. Now," she continued blithely, "when we are in London, I will contrive to put you in the way of eligible gentlemen, you may depend on it. We are not common merchants, you know-your papa is a baronet, after all. Once the Ton realizes we have come to London for the Season, we will be included in all their splendid affairs. Gentlemen will see you and admire you, and we will soon have eligible suitors lined up at our door, you'll see."

There was little point in refusing to go there, and no way to avoid it, so Juliana went.

In London, her mother insisted they browse daily in the same exclusive shops in which the Ton shopped, and each afternoon they strolled through the same London parks where the Ton was always to be seen.

But nothing went as Lady Skeffington had planned. Contrary to all her hopes and expectations, the aristocracy did not welcome her with open arms upon discovering her husband was a baronet, not did they respond at all well to her eager efforts to engage them in conversations in Bond Street or accost them in Hyde Park. Instead of being given an invitation or invited to pay a morning call, the elegant matrons with whom she tried to converse gave her the cut-direct.

Though her mama seemed not to notice that she was being treated with icy disdain, Julianna felt every insult and rebuff enough for both of them, and every one of them savaged her pride and cut her to the heart. Even though she realized her mother brought much of the contempt on herself, the entire situation made her so miserable and self-conscious that she could scarcely look anyone in the eye from the moment they left their little house until they returned.

Despite all that, Julianna did not regard her trip to London as a total loss. Sheridan Bromleigh, the paid companion whom her mother had employed for the Season, proved to be a lovely and lively young American with whom Julianna could talk and laugh and exchange confidences. For the first time in her eighteen years, Julianna had a friend close to her own age, one who shared her sense of humor and many of her interests as well.

The Earl of Langford, whom Lady Skeffington had coveted for her daughter, threw a final rub into her plans by getting married at the end of the Season. In a quick wedding that shocked London and antagonized Lady Skeffington, the handsome earl married Miss Bromleigh.

When Julianna's mother heard the news, she went to bed with her hartshorn and stayed there for a full day. By the evening, however, she had come to see the tremendous social advantage of being very personally acquainted with a countess who had married into one of the most influential families in England.

With renewed confidence and vigor, she focused all her hopes on Nicholas DuVille.

Normally Julianna could not think about her disastrous encounter with him that spring without shuddering, but as she sat in the maze, staring at the glass in her hand, the whole thing suddenly seemed more amusing than humiliating.

Obviously, she decided, the horrid-tasting stuff she'd drank actually did make things seem a little brighter. And if three swallows could accomplish that, then it seemed logical that a bit more of the magical elixir could only be of more benefit. It was in the spirit of scientific experimentation, therefore, that she lifted the glass and took three more swallows. After what seemed like only a few moments, she felt even better!

"Much better," she informed the moon aloud, stifling a giggle as she thought about her brief but hilarious encounter with the legendary Nicholas DuVille. Her mama had spied him in Hyde Park just as his curricle was about to slowly pass within arm's reach of the path they were on. In her eager desperation to point him out and effect a meeting, Julianna's mama gave her a light shove that put her directly into the path of his horse and curricle. Off-balance, Julianna grabbed at the horse's reins for balance, yanking the irate horse and its irate owner to a stop.

Shaken and frightened by the animals nervous sidestepping, Julianna clung to its reins, trying to quiet it. Intending to either apologize or chastise the driver of the curricle for not trying to quiet his own horse, Julianna looked up and beheld Nicholas DuVille. Despite the frigid look in his narrowed, assessing eyes, Julianna felt as if her bones were melting and her legs were turning to water.

Dark-haired, broad-shouldered, with piercing metallic-blue eyes and finely chiseled lips, he had the sardonic look of a man who had sampled all the delights the world had to offer. With that fallen angel's face and knowing blue eyes, Nicholas DuVille was as wickedly attractive and forbidden as sin. Julianna felt an instantaneous, insane compulsion to do something that would impress him.

"If you wish a mount, mademoiselle," he said, in a voice that rang with curt impatience, "may I suggest you try a more conventional means of obtaining one."

Julianna was spared the immediate need to react or reply by her mother, who was so desperate to accomplish an introduction that she violated every known rule of etiquette and common sense. "This is such an unexpected pleasure and privilege, my lord," exclaimed Lady Skeffington, oblivious to the ominous narrowing of his eyes and the avidly curious glances being cast their way by the occupants of the other carriages who had drawn to a stop, their way blocked. "I have been longing to introduce you to my daughter -"

"Am I to assume," he interrupted, "that this has something to do with your daughter stepping in front of me and waylaying my horse?"

Julianna decided that the man was rude and arrogant.

"That had nothing to do with it," she burst out, mortified by the undeniable accuracy of his assessment and by the belated realization that she was still holding on to the rein. She dropped it like it was a snake, stepped back, and resorted to flippancy because she had no other way to salvage her pride. "I was practicing," she informed him primly.

Her answer startled him enough to stay his hand as he started to flick the reins. "Practicing?" he repeated, studying her expression with a glimmer of amused interest. "Practicing for what?"

Julianna lifted her chin, raised her brows, and said in an offhand voice what she hoped would pass for droll wit rather than stupidity, "I'm practicing to become a highwayman, obviously. By way of an apprenticeship, I jump in front of innocent travelers in the park and waylay their horses."

Turning her back on him, she took her mother firmly by the arm and steered her away. Over her shoulder, Julianna added a dismissive and deliberately incorrect, "Good afternoon, Mr er Deveraux."

Her mother's exclamation of indignant horror at these outrageous remarks muffled a sound from the man in the carriage that sounded almost like laughter.

Lady Skeffington was still furious with Julianna later that night.

"How could you be so impertinent!" she cried, wringing her hands. "Nicholas DuVille has so much influence with Society that if he utters one derogatory word about you, no one of any consequence will associate with you. You'll be ruined! Ruined, do you hear me?" Despite Julianna's repeated apologies, albeit insincere, her mother was beyond consolation. She paced back and forth, her hartshorn in one hand and a handkerchief in the other. "Had Nicholas DuVille paid you just a few minutes of attention in the park today, where others could see it, you'd have been an instant success! By tonight we would have had invitations to every important social function of the Season, and by the day after, eligible suitors would have been at our door. Instead, you had to be insolent to the one man in all London who could put an end to my hopes and dreams with a single word." She dabbed at the tears trembling on her lashes. "This is all your grandmothers fault! She taught you to be just like her. Oh, I should be horsewhipped for allowing you to spend so much time with that dreadful old harpy, but no one could oppose her will, least of all your father."

She stopped pacing and rounded on Julianna. "Well, I know more of the real world than your grandmother ever did, and I am about to tell you something she never did a simple truth that is worth more than all her fantastical notions, and that truth is this -" And clenching her hands into fists at her sides, she said in a voice shaking with purpose, "A man does not wish to associate with any female who knows more than he does! If the Ton's gossip mill finds out how bookish you are, you'll be ruined! No gentleman of consequence will want you! You will be ruined!"


Three | Miracles | c