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Murder and death had only kept the ton’s attention a few days before they forgot the losses and the shock and returned to the gaiety and decadence of the London season. Julian, Lord Wade, was no different. He was glad the ugly business was well and truly behind them. The murderess had been caught and buried a week ago. Given everyone he spoke to had suddenly felt much safer, a flurry of invitations to parties and other amusements had begun to arrive in a steady stream. Julian hurried up the marble staircase of Lord Birch’s home, eager not to miss a moment of the festivities to celebrate Lady Birch’s birthday.

It was the third time Lady Birch claimed to have turned five and twenty, too.

Not that he was counting.

He passed the butler his invitation and sauntered inside. Because Lady Birch was a jolly sort, married and generous with her time—as harmless as one could be—no one dreamed of contradicting her story about her age. Accuracy in a married lady’s stated age was hardly ever to be relied upon anyway. It was only widows and debutants, and never-married old spinsters that were made to feel lesser for reaching another milestone in years.

In fact, where truthfulness was concerned, Julian believed marriage was undoubtedly a gamble not to be entered into lightly. Many men lost their hearts and sanity when they ended up with nothing to show for the sacrifices they’d made in taking a bride. Time and again, he discovered the initial euphoria of attraction and desire of newlyweds tended to give way to frustration and outright rage over their spouses’ oftentimes-bewildering behavior.

Julian had not been so foolish as to wed what his heart desired most when he’d first found her. Betrayal was always one flirtatious smile or one stolen kiss away when trust was given too soon or absolutely. It was not only gentlemen who behaved roguishly. Even seemingly proper ladies delighted in the occasional indiscretion.

Julian had been biding his time, hoping that soon his love would realize he was her best choice for a happy future.

They were to meet tonight at this ball, and he would take another small step toward winning her over. Thankfully her parents had always been rather shoddy, inattentive chaperones, and there had been many occasions when she had slipped away from their sides.

Not with him, though. Never with him. A line of gentlemen had routinely formed around Portia Hayes’ perimeter, almost from the first night she was out in society.

He was consoled by the fact that there would be plenty of opportunities to be alone with her in the future. His love had captured many a heart, but was not yet ready to keep any. She so far showed no sign of serious infatuation with any of her admirers. Because of that, he was content to wait while she enjoyed herself thoroughly.

Julian reached the ballroom and glanced around the large candlelit area, eager to catch a glimpse of the delicious woman.

All of society had come out tonight, masks firmly in place to conceal their identities and to bask under the influence of too much champagne and laughter. Despite the masks, Wade recognized many in attendance. The wealthiest members of the tonwere always distinctive.

He easily spotted the Earl and Countess Rothwell dancing scandalously close. The earl and his bride of last year, Arabella, whispered to each other as they came together. Everyone was waiting for Rothwell to stray but so far, he seemed entirely faithful.

Not far from them were the newly married Windermeres. Lord Windermere and wife, Esme, were thecouple of the season. All eyes were on the pair as they moved in society, waiting, hoping probably too, for someone to come between them. But there was no mistaking the intent behind the hot glances that pair exchanged. They only had eyes for each other.

Julian was happy for both men, acquaintances of his for years. Their brides were worthy of every effort the pair must have made to win their dearest loves’ hands in marriage. Julian especially enjoyed the outrageous gossip that had circulated when the connections had become known. He’d not been surprised or shocked by either marriage.

For years, Julian had paid attention to the ladies of society, and particularly noticed their suitors were not always the first ones to gain their attention. He had accurately predicted a number of unions—not that he was going to shout about it to anyone. He was responsible for no one’s happiness, even if he had secretly played devil’s advocate a fair few times.

He had not bothered with much of a disguise tonight. He couldn’t afford to. He wore an ordinary black suit, tall, black-polished riding boots, and a soft velvet mask over his eyes so he would blend in. He wasn’t in the market to attract attention, but the one he sought always did.

He found Portia Hayes easily enough, dancing prettily with Lord Grindlewood.

Julian moved toward a pillar and stopped to admire her grace in the arms of another. Portia was delicately dressed and masked in pink silk and pearls, a costume he’d never seen on her before. One that must have cost her father a fortune. Portia’s family, though common born, had deep pockets and grand ambitions. They spent extravagantly on their daughter, ensuring she fitted in.

It wasn’t the first time Julian had been relegated to the sidelines but he was happy as always to watch her dance. He never paid much attention to her partners—not even Grindlewood, who was wealthy again, titled, and possessed of an exceedingly handsome countenance.

Portia always did attract the pretty gentlemen to her circle.

Julian didn’t begrudge Portia a roving eye, though for a long time he’d lamented she’d never look upon him with any favor. He always made sure she noticed him, though.

The set ended and Portia was escorted back to her parents, laughing at something Grindlewood had whispered to her. Portia laughed a lot when her partners whispered. She was an exuberant, passionate woman. An original. Someone he cared about very much.

Her dance partner lingered at her side a few moments more, and when Grindlewood finally took his leave of Portia, Julian headed in her direction.

Portia had piled her thick dark hair high on her head tonight and allowed some of it to spill down in chaotic ringlets around her pale throat. She looked as if she belonged in the forest under the stars. As usual her, green eyes sparked with life and merriment—and for the first time, they stayed that way when her eyes fell on him.

Portia held out her hand to him. “My lord.”

“Enchantress,” he said, as he grasped it and bowed. “You take my breath away,” he whispered.

He turned to Portia’s parents to greet them but the pair, as ever, were soon looking elsewhere in the room for someone more important. He turned back to Portia and put his hands behind his back. “You danced well.”

She arched one delicate brow. “Just well, my lord?”

He leveled her with a pained stare. Portia liked to be complimented, the more flowery the endearments the better, he’d recently discovered. But it was not easy for Julian to speak in such glowing terms of anyone, least of all someone he liked as much as he did her. However it must be done if he had any chance to win her one day. “Better than well, but you’ve always known my admiration knows no bounds. Can I tempt you to visit a dark and private corner so I can prove it?”

“No, you may not.” She grinned impishly, clearly pleased with his suggestion. “But a lady always wants to hear the most ardent of admiration spoken of.”

“Haven’t you heard enough insincere flattery from your flock of mutton chops for one night? They must be losing their touch if you find their compliments lacking enough to demand mine.”

She shrugged. “I thought you would be here earlier?”

He glanced away to hide his discomfort. “My aunt changed her mind about coming at the last moment.”

Portia’s brow furrowed and she inched closer, until her skirts brushed his leg. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she whispered. Portia glanced down at her card, her brow furrowing. “My dance card is full,” she admitted, appearing pained by the fact.

Julian was so used to not dancing with Portia that he shrugged away the news. “Another time, perhaps.”

She worried her lip and drew closer still. “You’re not disappointed I could not save a spot for you again?”

He hid a smile at her worried tone. Things had definitely changed between them in recent days, it seemed. Thanks to the actions of a murderess, Portia now wanted Julian around. This was a very great improvement on their past meetings.

To test just how much things had changed, he moved his fingers slightly, until he encountered the delicate material she wore so well about her body. A further flex of his fingers and he brushed her thigh lightly.

A little gasp escaped her lips, and she looked at him sharply.

He pretended he’d done nothing out of the ordinary. “I will as ever enjoy watching you dance.”

“Yes,” she grumbled with a hint of frustration, but she did not move away. “I used to find that so annoying.”

Used to. Julian hid another smile and brushed a little harder against her leg with his fingertips. The room was thankfully so crowded that it should not be seen, and so he continued behaving improperly.

She turned slightly, and he did not withdraw his hand. If he was not mistaken, he was able to trace the curve toward her inner thigh and back, knowing full well that he was presuming a great deal about their relationship by teasing her like this. He watched her breathing quicken and a flush of color begin to darken her pale cheeks.

Portia was a good girl, but he believed she was not entirely pure of thought or unaware of preliminary intimacies between lovers. Her parents had no clue the number of times she’d nearly ruined her reputation, and he wasn’t about to tell on her. A well-timed cough and a quiet word of warning to the worst of the scoundrels had managed to scare off those without marrying dispositions. Deliberately tempting Portia himselfwas something of a first for them.

For too long, Portia Hayes had run close to the mark, and Julian had tried to stay away. She had her would-be suitors eating out of the palm of her hand most nights. They rushed to do her bidding, champagne, kisses and more… But not Julian. He would not play games for a short-lived thrill of just one night.

“I was very aware of your dislike of being watched.” He shrugged, and the act of doing so naturally separated his fingers from her limb. “Who do you dance with next?”

“Lord Sullivan,” she said somewhat breathlessly, then wet her plump lips.

Julian reluctantly dragged his eyes from Portia to look around for his old school chum amid the throng of masked guests. Julian would like to think he’d be able to spot his old roommate in any crowd, even if he were masked. “Where was he?”

Portia eased closer. “We were introduced tonight over by the ferns, and he asked me to dance immediately. Do you know him?”

“Indeed I do,” Julian promised, looking in the other direction without any success. “You’ll be in good hands with Sullivan. Excellent partner. The ladies used to love dancing with him. His wife certainly does, too.”

Portia’s expression changed to acute disappointment. “He never mentioned he had a wife.”

“He will. You even remind me a bit of Clare, too. Especially when you laugh. I doubt he will comment on the similarity, though. His wife is all he ever thinks about.”

No sooner where the words out of his mouth when a firm hand clamped hard on his shoulder.

Julian spun about, and then grinned as he looked up at his friend. Andrew Finch, Lord Sullivan, was tall at just over six foot and three inches. The rest of him hadn’t changed much either. Dark overlong hair, bright blue eyes, and a sharp, square chin completed the illusion of aristocratic splendor. “Sullivan!”

“Bye Jove, it’s Wee Wade,” Lord Sullivan exclaimed before taking his hand and shaking it firmly. “You look like an underfed black drake peering around like that. How long has it been, old man?”

“A few years,” Julian told him, thinking how fast the time had flown by since they’d last been in the same room. A lot had changed, not all of it good for Wade, but then he noticed Sullivan had aged in the past years, too. Obviously marriage was harder than it had first appeared to be for some. There were fine lines at the corner of his eyes, and a deep cleft between his brows that Julian did not remember. Sullivan had lost the jolly countenance he’d possessed at school that had gotten him out of many a scrape. When they were older and moving about in society, Sullivan had used that smile to charm his way into the affections of the season’s diamond and had made Clare his wife as soon as possible.

They shook hands vigorously. Julian had never envied Sullivan his handsome face, but he hadenvied Sullivan for his choice of wife for a brief time. “What are you doing back in London? I thought you were settled in Kent making babies with Clare. Where is she, by the way? I should like to pay my respects.”

Sullivan’s face paled. “She’s gone.”

“Gone?” Julian said in confusion, and then his heart skipped a beat as the only possible meaning became clearer just by looking at Sullivan’s sad expression.

“She died,” Sullivan told him.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” he said quickly. He drew close to his old friend and lowered his voice. “I’d not heard. Clare was a truly remarkable woman.”

Sullivan nodded slowly and his expression grew bleaker still. “It’s been a year now.”

Julian mourned Clare. The sharp stab of pain to his heart almost unbearable. She had been great fun to be around before her marriage. She’d had a wicked wit that had appealed to him greatly. But he’d not lain eyes on her since her marriage to Sullivan. The pair had taken themselves off to Kent to be alone and never returned to partake of society. “How did it happen? How did she die?”

“In childbirth.”

Julian closed his eyes briefly, imagining the horror that had befallen the lovely lady. This was a tragedy. “And the child?”

Sullivan shook his head quickly. “He did not survive to even draw breath.”

The earl had lost the wife he loved and the son he’d always longed for. Julian grabbed his old friend’s hand again and held it more firmly. Sullivan had adored Clare. So had Julian, too. “Again, I am so sorry. I wish I had known.”

“Time has lessened my sorrow somewhat.” Sullivan shook off his grip and then glanced past Julian. He drew in a sharp breath and affected a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Ah, Miss Hayes, I believe they are about to announce our dance.”

“Yes, indeed, Lord Sullivan.” She smiled, quickly stepping forward, her expression full of compassion as she met Julian’s suddenly watery gaze. “Do excuse us, Lord Wade. Perhaps we might continue our discussion later.”

“Of course,” he murmured, as he staggered back.

He forced a smile as Portia brushed past him, heading for Sullivan’s outstretched arm. She settled her hand on Sullivan’s sleeve with a shy smile. “My lord.”

“Miss Hayes,” Sullivan murmured. “I have been looking forward to our dance.”

“I have too. Very much,” she admitted, looking up at Julian’s old friend as if he were a god upon the earth.

Julian grimaced and looked away. Why wouldn’tPortia flirt with Sullivan? She did it with everyone as easily as breathing. She had no reason to hesitate. Sullivan was a widow now. If anything, that made the earl even more desirable as a dance partner. Portia knew nothing of their great loss, the light of Sullivan’s life gone from the world.

Julian listened to their brief conversation as they drifted away toward the dance floor, but experienced a feeling of growing discomfort as he considered their budding acquaintance. Sullivan would be an excellent catch, now he was widowed. He was a handsome earl, wealthy because of his marriage to Clare, and out of mourning now. Julian had nothing to say against Sullivan as a potential spouse for any woman.

Many would assume Sullivan was back in London to replace his late wife with this year’s diamond, too.

As Sullivan positioned Portia on the dance floor, smiling down on her and charming her with small talk, Julian realized that he probably wasback in London to take another wife. He would need a son and heir soon.

Poor Clare. So soon to be replaced by another.

Julian turned away suddenly as a bitter lump lodged in his throat. He couldn’t stay near Portia when his heart was so heavy for another woman. He headed for home to mourn Clare in private, where no one could see the depths of his unhappiness.


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