메인 The Matchmaker

The Matchmaker

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년:
1991
출판사:
Fanfare
언어:
english
시리즈:
Once upon a Time...
파일:
EPUB, 226 KB
다운로드 (epub, 226 KB)

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The Lady and the Lion

년:
1990
언어:
english
파일:
EPUB, 169 KB
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2

Out of the Shadows

년:
2000
언어:
english
파일:
EPUB, 298 KB
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SYNOPSIS




A MYSTERIOUS MAN WITH A STRANGE TALENT...

A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN WITH A DARK SECRET...

AND A LOVE FATED TO BREAK ALL THE RULES

His name was Cyrus Fortune. As enigmatic and elusive as the mysterious forces that had brought him to Richmond, he was secretly desired by a score of women and openly envied by dozens of men. But only the ravishing Julia Drummond ignited his restless soul. She was the beguiling society beauty who had never known the thrill of true passion. A strange and wonderful fate had led him to her door. Now Fortune would win her tender heart.

Something about the mesmerizing, black-eyed stranger aroused Julia as no man had ever done. Powerfully drawn to him, she would defy convention and scandalize society by breaking her most sacred vows. But dangerous forces beyond her control soon threatened her newly won happiness.... Lady Luck had smiled on her once. Would she now lose the only man she could ever love -- before they'd fulfilled their rapturous destiny?





PROLOGUE




It was early one chill November morning in 1870 when he was found in a basket on the doorstep of an elegant mansion in Richmond, Virginia, wrapped snugly in several spotlessly clean and seemingly new woolen blankets. A housemaid, coming out to sweep the step, nearly fell over him. He didn't seem the least bit concerned by his apparent abandonment, chortling happily at the young girl who, after a shriek that should have brought the neighbors bolt upright in their beds, seized the basket by its handle and dragged it into the house. (The baby boy, though obviously an infant, was not a small one. The housemaid, though an average-sized specimen, was totally unfamiliar with babies and had no idea if she could get this one out of his basket even if she could lift him. Which she doubted.)

Within minutes, a small group of servants surrounded the basket, all staring down at its occupant in varying degrees of bemusement or consternation. The infant blew a bubble at them with the greatest of goodwill and waved one pudgy—bu; t surprisingly well-formed—little hand, in which was clutched a much-wrinkled and rather damp piece of paper.

The butler, no more familiar with babies than the housemaid but aware of his responsibilities nevertheless, bent down and wrested the note from the child's hand. Actually, he didn't have to wrest very hard, because the boy gave it up willingly, almost as if it were his idea rather than the butler's.

The butler, whose name was, oddly enough, Stork, fastidiously smoothed the note, held it out, and read aloud in a tone of mounting astonishment: "This child is The Sun, born for great things. His father was a prince, his mother—"

"The son?" one of the footmen said. "That's a peculiar way to put it—"

"Not s-o-n. S-u-n," the butler corrected the footman. "Like in the sky. Now, where was I? Oh. Born for great things... His father was a prince, his mother a poor girl, but a good girl seduced"—Stork cleared his throat rather loudly, cast a quick glance at the young housemaid who was blushing furiously, then went on stolidly—"seduced by one immeasurably above her."

"Wonder if he really was a prince?" the same footman murmured, nudging contemplatively the basket with the toe of his boot.

Stork ground his teeth audibly. "—by one immeasurably above her. An old and wise Gypsy foretold—"

"Gypsies and princes?" the footman queried critically. "Doesn't sound right to me."

"Tom, if you say one more word!" Stork glared at the footman until he assumed the properly respectful expression, then cleared his throat again and read the remainder of the note in the firm tones of a man who didn't mean to be interrupted.

"The Gypsy foretold a special destiny for the The Sun, provided he was put into Fortune's hands. I so deliver him to Fortune, in good health."

The servants looked at one another, and it was the cook who said practically, "Well, of course the poor mother wanted her babe brought up in comfort, and Mr. Fortune's is the finest house in Richmond. I don't doubt the girl chose him because of that. And it's natural she'd make up a fine-sounding story, hoping to make the babe more acceptable."

Tom, venturing a comment since Mr. Stork was obviously finished reading, said with a heavy emphasis, "She picked right all the way around, didn't she?"

Stork was so much in agreement with the spirit of this remark that he could only sigh and look somewhat mournfully toward the stairs. "I suppose I'd better..."

The other servants vanished promptly, giving no more than one or two muffled grunts as elbows and feet collided in the doorway, leaving only the timid housemaid and the butler in the entrance hall. She twisted her apron between nervous fingers and said hesitantly, "Sir, shouldn't we get the baby out of that basket?"

Stork looked down his nose at the infant, who was sucking one fist as he stared gravely—and unblinkingly—back with very wide, very black eyes. "He looks comfortable enough to me," the butler decided. "Stay here with him, Mary, while I go inform Mr. Fortune."

He went up the stairs with a stately tread, returning some minutes later wearing a resigned expression. He stood eyeing the child for a moment, then bent and grasped the handles of the basket. A peculiar sound, a gasping grunt, escaped him when he straightened. The basket was a solidly made affair and with the large baby in it made a very heavy burden indeed.

Stork, aware of the housemaid's scrutiny, strove for an appearance of ease and staggered only a little as he carried it upstairs. He had to rest a moment on the landing, but it was all right as he realized that Mary couldn't see him. The child was perfectly quiet—and perfectly still whenever Stork lifted his basket, as if he were fully aware of his precarious balance.

The butler delivered the basket to the master bedroom, suffering the indignity of being greeted by a shout of laughter and the words: "Storks do bring babies, after all!"

He had expected it. He knew Mr. Tate Fortune rather well.

The entire neighborhood, in fact, knew Tate Fortune. So well did they know him that not a soul was surprised to discover he'd not only taken in the baby boy found in a basket, but also bestowed on the child his own surname—and the Christian name of Cyrus. The Sun might be the boy's given name, Tate explained when asked about the matter, but it was a cursed confusing one. And, besides, Cyrus meant sun.

No one had the nerve to ask if he'd considered the idea that "The Sun" might well have been only a misspelling and undue emphasis on the part of an overwrought mother.

In any case, young Cyrus thrived in his adopted home. He proved to be an amiable infant, sleeping a great deal in those first months- and not at all fussy about what he ate. He ate a great deal. He was not a fat child; those who lifted him eventually discovered that his frame was constructed of large bones and very firm flesh that resembled muscle far more than it did fat.

He was, actually, a rather peculiar baby. When the first pangs of teething woke him from a sound sleep in the middle of the night, his bellow held more startled outrage than pain and roused the household from attic to cellars. Ears ringing, Tate gave the boy one of his best leather gloves, and young Cyrus seemed satisfied to chew on it. The first word out of the child's mouth was "Tate," spoken with perfect clarity. Tate had said several times in the boy's presence that he'd rather not be called Papa but, still...

Cyrus didn't crawl. One morning, sitting on a thick rug in Tate's study, he simply maneuvered himself upright and began walking. He never so much as staggered, and fell once only because Tate's big hunting dog accidentally knocked him over.

He was no more than three when he began reading, and his precocious curiosity seemed insatiable. Tate, highly entertained, spoke to the boy as he would an adult, answered his questions with total frankness, and generally encouraged him to think for himself, to ignore society's conventions whenever they didn't appear to make sense, and to carve his mark upon the world.

With Tate overseeing his upbringing, Cyrus was bound to become a hellion.

Which is exactly what happened.

A big child, he became a big man. A very big man. Both powerful and graceful physically, he moved with deceptive laziness and his deep voice held a slightly sardonic drawl. He was unusually dark and unusually handsome, and if he felt any stigma attached to his illegitimacy, it certainly wasn't apparent. In fact, he was somewhat arrogant.

In later years, even those who deplored Cyrus Fortune's outrageous ways and abrupt manners—if manners they could be called—rarely disliked the man himself. There might have been a devil in his peculiar black eyes, but it was a laughing devil, and if he presented a mortal danger to wives and daughters because of his sinful charm, he was also invariably honest in his business dealings and was a man any other could count on in a dangerous or difficult situation.

It was quite true and perfectly obvious that Cyrus liked women. He liked women so much that he probably would have been shot by a number of husbands if he hadn't been exceptionally fast for a big man and uncannily lucky. He was a bit more careful with daughters and confined himself to flirting with them, not so much because society frowned on the taking of innocence without sanction of marriage, but because he really did like women. And he didn't want any broken hearts on his conscience.... He did have a conscience. Still, he enjoyed flirting, and was gifted at the art whenever he set his mind to it. More than one sweet young thing had cried into her pillow at night because she couldn't manage to claim his wayward interest for more than an hour.

The people of Richmond didn't quite know what to make of Cyrus Fortune. Oh, his scandalous success with women was something his friends and neighbors could understand, even though they disapproved of it, but there was so much more.

Cyrus knew things. Things that logically he shouldn't have been able to know—in advance, at least. He didn't predict disasters or offer advice on business investments or any of that folderol. He merely possessed an extraordinary perception when it came to affairs, particularly amorous ones. He scarcely seemed aware of it, but others noticed. Young lovers, especially, seemed to flourish if they knew Cyrus. And it was also noted that whenever the love was obvious and true, Cyrus never made the slightest attempt even to flirt with the lady in question.

No one really understood him. And most were at least mildly relieved when, upon his adoptive fathers death in 1898, Cyrus Fortune closed up the Richmond house and headed west.

In the years following, occasional word of him and his doings reached Richmond. Most of the rumors were so fantastic that few believed them, concerned as they were with social scandal and ruin on San Francisco's Nob Hill and deadly danger along the Barbary Coast—to say nothing of a very peculiar story involving Cyrus and a Turkish princess.

So, when the shutters came off the mansion in Richmond early in May 1902 and an army of workmen arrived to get the place in shape, curiosity was intense. Rumor had it Cyrus had notified his attorney in Richmond that he was coming home, but no one knew more.

It was midway through the first week in June when Cyrus returned to Richmond. It was a quiet homecoming, and for some time to come people wouldn't realize that this arrival, like the one nearly thirty-two years before, owed very little to chance.

Destiny, now, that was something else entirely.

What had she done?

She folded the newspaper carefully and stared down at the grainy picture while the words she'd read echoed in her mind. Her solution had seemed best at the time—the only answer. Whatever the Old One foretold, she hadn't been able to destroy her own child. Flesh of her flesh... and flesh of his.

Now, haunted by a decision made nearly thirty-two years before, she looked at the picture, the face, and searched for some sign that she had not, after all, made a tragic error. As she looked, a coldness seeped into her. No resemblance there, not to her and not to him. And those eyes. It was obvious even in the newspaper photo that the eyes were strange and held an eerie flatness like the lifeless eyes of a doll. She didn't recognize the face, and the name was unfamiliar, but everything inside her screamed that she had given birth to this man more than three decades before.

It was wrong. Wrong. She unfolded the paper again and looked at another picture in another article on the same page. So much was wrong, she realized numbly.

She'd thought he would be protected and kept separate from the other one, thought she had been able to preserve them both. But destiny, it seemed, had other ideas. Destiny, the Old One had told her, could be altered only with finality. Anything less meant just a temporary detour away from what had to be. She had tried to break the pattern, and she had failed.

Had fate done that to her, filling an exhausted mind with doubt? Had it been the pattern trying to reweave itself?

"He has but two possible destinies. Death—or a life that will destroy others. What you carry in your womb is one true child—and the distorted, empty reflection of him."

"I can't kill my baby," she had whispered.

"You must."

"No! There has to be another way."

"Your lover was not an ordinary man; you know that?"

"I... suspected."

"He had a gift, a gift which he has passed on to his son, one of the babes you carry. At all costs that gift must be nurtured. Your firstborn must survive; he is your true son. The other is the dark side of your lover's gift, the evil of it. It must be destroyed at birth. If you allow that other one to live, you risk the life of your true son, and all the good he will accomplish. The dark one will attempt to murder his womb-mate."

"If they're separated? I can keep them apart—"

"Fate will bring them together no matter what you do."

She hadn't believed. What woman could have?

"You must help me," she had begged. "Tell me what to do, how to change the destinies of them both. There has to be a way."

With no more than a shrug of defeat, the Old One had told the young woman what she could do. In her voice was the weary acceptance of tragic mistakes, but her advice was minutely detailed. The two infants would be separated at birth, each taken to locations far apart and left in the care of carefully chosen strangers. Messages were dictated to provide each infant with the most positive start in life. The young woman was never to attempt to see her babies, for her mere presence could provide all that fate required to reconnect the two lifelines.

Now, staring down at the newspaper, the mother was very much afraid fate had worked to bring the twins together despite her absence from their lives. She rose, still holding the paper, and went upstairs, climbing all the way to the attic. She picked her way through the jumble of furniture and other items to a distant corner. Atop a sea chest sat a dusty oil lamp with matches nearby and a long, narrow box.

She lit the lamp and laid the newspaper aside, then opened the box. Inside was a cane made of polished wood and topped with an ornate gold handle. She touched it gently, gliding her fingers over the warm gold.

"They need you," she whispered.





ONE




"Someone has his eye on you," Anne Butler murmured as she stepped closer to Julia Drummond.

Julia looked up from the refreshment table. Her long, graceful fingers quivered for an instant as they reached for another cup. Then she was ladling punch again with her usual composure. "Oh? Who?"

"Cyrus Fortune." Anne's gray eyes were bright with amusement and speculation. "I didn't realize you knew him."

Julia made certain no one was waiting for punch, then looked at Anne. She had been certain during the last half hour that someone had been staring at her, but she hadn't allowed herself so much as a glance around the room. "I don't know Mr. Fortune, though, of course, I've heard of him," she said. "I was still in the schoolroom when he left Richmond."

"He's been back more than a month," Anne remarked, still studying Julia intently. "Take it from me—a month is long enough."

Two things were clear, Julia decided: Anne was telling her she had recently enjoyed Cyrus Fortune's infamous talents in the bedroom... and she was warning Julia. Anne Butler was, in most ways, a nice enough woman, but she was an incurable gossip; if she once got it into her head that there was something between Julia and Cyrus—or any other man, for that matter—it would be all over Richmond within twenty-four hours.

Julia felt a faint chill of fear that she tried to repress. Her acting abilities had improved over the past two years, so she was able to smile with the rather haughty scorn she'd perfected as her shield. The stiffly Brand ancestors her father had often made reference to would have been proud of her.

"Really, Anne, if you know nothing else about me, you must at least know that I never stand in line. Not even at the market, and certainly not for a man," she said bluntly. "Aside from which, I consider it my duty to avoid foolish entanglements, at least until I've presented Adrian with an heir."

She relaxed almost imperceptibly when Anne chuckled.

"Yes, I suppose you should at that. Anyway, Adrian's so charming and attentive that I suppose you've no cause for complaint?"

The question was about as delicate as Anne's questions usually were, but Julia was able to maintain her poise.

"No cause at all," she said with a slight smile.

Anne nodded, obviously detecting no irony, then glanced fleetingly across the room. "Well, you'd better scare up a chastity belt then, because Cyrus has that look."

"What look?" Julia asked before she could stop herself.

"He's hunting fresh game—and he likes his bedmates married." She obviously knew that much, since she herself was married.

Coolly, Julia said, "As I hear it, he also likes his bedmates willing, which I certainly am not." She smiled across the table as several people stopped to get punch, then began filling more cups. She didn't look across the crowded room, even though she could still feel eyes on her. The sensation made her edgy.

Anne laughed again, but kept her voice low so that they wouldn't be overheard. "My dear, unless Adrian has you bewitched, Cyrus can make you willing. Trust me. Those black eyes of his are absolutely mesmerizing, and his voice is a quite expert caress. As I said, you'd better find a chastity belt." After giving Julia a very female wink, Anne moved away.

Julia continued to smile at the people who approached the table, and when they spoke she was able to answer casually, but her control was strained. If she hadn't promised weeks earlier to preside over the refreshment table at this charity dance, she would have avoided even coming here. But Julia had a reputation in Richmond for being as responsible and capable as she was elegant; having once made a promise, she kept her word if at all possible.

She knew most of the people at the dance, liked a number of them, and disliked some. If asked, many there would have said they knew her quite well. They would have been wrong; what they saw in Julia was only what she allowed them to see. The role she'd designed for herself was a convincing one. Barely twenty-one, she was often taken to be older because of her cool assurance. Other women seemed to trust her instinctively with their secrets, yet few had probed in an attempt to discover hers. Except, of course, for women like Anne, who wanted to know everyone's secrets.

Older women often told her with approval that she was the perfect wife for a politician despite her youth. She ran her home with competence, did her husband credit in public with her style and grace, and lent her name and aid to charities without hesitation.

The perfect wife, Adrian had often said bitingly.

Julia shivered despite the heat of the ballroom, then pulled herself together. She lifted her chin, looking across the room unintentionally for the first time, and her strained gaze was immediately caught by the black eyes that had been watching her.

He was a big man; that was obvious even though he was lounging back against the wall. A powerful man, even though his stance held a lazy air. His shoulders were very wide, and there was a palpable sense of brute physical strength about him. His thick hair was as black as his eyes, his handsome face tanned dark gold, and a diamond signet ring flashed on the elegant hand holding his glass—not containing punch, Julia noted as he raised it in a slight salute.

To her. Julia knew she blushed as she quickly looked away. She was shaken. He had smiled at her, and even across the crowded room she had been conscious of a peculiar, almost sensual shock like nothing she'd ever felt before. Dear God, if anyone had seen that look! Those black eyes had met hers with the starkly intimate heat that belonged only in a bedroom.

She busied herself, resolutely avoiding any further glances across the room and trying not to think about anything, least of all Cyrus Fortune. It was surprisingly, unnervingly, difficult. She was almost feverish, suddenly uncomfortable in her clothing, as if it no longer fit, as if her body found the restriction of cloth unbearable. When Lissa joined her a few minutes later, the diversion was welcome at first.

"You've been doing this for more than an hour," Lissa said in her soft voice. "Why don't I take over awhile?"

Smiling at her younger sister, the thought in Julia's mind was the same one that had kept her going for the past two years. It will be worth it. Whatever I have to do will be worth it if I can only see Lissa safely married....

Aloud, she said, "My part at this charity dance is to see to the refreshments; your part is to dance."

Lissa pouted, but her eyes twinkled merrily. "It's so hot. Honestly, Julia, why couldn't you send me to school in the North in summer, and bring me home to Richmond in winter? As it is, I'm getting the worst of things year round!"

Dryly, Julia said, "If I recall your letters correctly, you love the North in winter. Ice skating?"

Laughing, Lissa put an arm around her sister's trim waist and hugged her. She didn't notice Julia's flinch. "All right, ice skating is fun and so is dancing, even in the heat of July. But I really would like to rest for a little while, Julia, and I know a rest would be good for you. You look pale today."

"Lissa—"

"No one will notice if you leave. Just slip through that curtain over there, and you'll be in Mr. Tryon's study. It's nice and cool, and you can rest for a while."

Julia lifted a quizzical eyebrow at her sister. "How do you know it's cool?"

A mischievous imp laughed in Lissa's green eyes. "Because Mark Tryon thought it would be a good place to kiss me—and he was right."

"Lissa!"

"Oh, Julia, it was just a little kiss. I like Mark."

Looking at her sister narrowly, Julia said slowly, "He seems to be a nice young man."

"Quoth the graybeard," Lissa responded with tolerant mockery. "He's only a year older than you, in case you've forgotten."

The truth was that Julia had forgotten. Sometimes she felt very old. "Lissa, your reputation is so important—"

"My reputation is fine. Everyone knows I'm a good girl, including Mark Tryon. Now, why don't you go and rest for a few minutes, and I promise to stand here very decorously and ladle punch."

Knowing her sister, Julia was certain she'd be gently badgered and bullied until she gave in, for Lissa was not only sweet and loving, but also stubborn. Besides, Julia was tired, and knew that if she didn't take a few minutes to regain her customary calm, she would regret it later.

So she slipped away through the curtained doorway that was half hidden by a large potted fern. Though her host's study wasn't far from the ballroom, it was thick-walled. The muted sounds of music and conversation were as welcome as the room's coolness. It was a book-lined room that smelled of old leather-bound volumes and decades of pipe smoke, the carpet worn and the furniture comfortable. Only a small lamp on a table near one of the windows was lighted, and Julia went to sit in one of the wing chairs flanking it. The window was wide open to catch whatever breeze was forthcoming on the hot and muggy July night, but only the sounds of crickets in the garden found their way into the room.

Julia leaned back cautiously, wincing slightly as she did her best to relax in the chair. As uncomfortable as it was for her to be at the dance, she didn't look forward to going home. Home. The big, impressive house with its multitude of rooms and corridors and its quiet, efficient servants. It was a cold place even, impossibly, in summer. Or maybe, Julia thought tiredly, it just seemed so to her.

"Hello."

She stiffened, recognizing the voice even though she'd never heard it, because it matched the nakedly sensual warmth of black eyes. Slowly, she turned her head, recapturing her aloof mask with the ease of long and constant practice. She watched him stroll across the room, his size and lazy grace making her feel a panicky, threatened sensation. He sat down in the chair on the other side of the table and looked at her with that bold stare, and she felt suddenly exposed. Vulnerable.

With all the coldness she could muster, she said, "I don't believe we've been introduced."

His well-shaped mouth curved in a smile. "No, but then, we know who we are, don't we? I'm Cyrus Fortune, and you're Julia Drummond." The words were terse to the point of rudeness, his manner was definitely arrogant—but the voice was elegant black velvet.

Julia began to understand Anne's warning about the need for a chastity belt. She would have sworn she was the last woman in Richmond who could have felt any temptation to break her marriage vows, but that voice affected her like nothing ever had. In her mind was a strangely vivid little image of the way a cat arched its back when it was stroked, in an instinctive ripple of unthinking pleasure, and she wondered dimly if the sound of her racing heart was anything like a purr.

"I've been watching you tonight," he said. "But you know that. Do you know I've been watching you for days?"

That was a shock, but one she endured silently. She had to stop this before... before it was too late. Her own thoughts were scattered, panicked, and she didn't know why or how he could affect her like this. She drew a deep breath; it felt as if she hadn't breathed at all until then. "Mr. Fortune—"

"Cyrus." It was less a request than a command.

Julia ignored it. "Mr. Fortune, I'm a married woman—"

"Drummond must have robbed the cradle to get you," Fortune said "abruptly, cutting her off without civility. "Somebody said you'd been married for two years, but you can't be a day over eighteen."

Oddly enough, Julia knew she couldn't accuse him of trying to flatter her; she had a strong conviction that Cyrus Fortune was too blunt a man to waste time with insincere compliments—even to get a woman into his bed. He wouldn't need to resort to such tricks, she admitted to herself silently, and was appalled at the realization.

Holding her voice even, she said, "I'm twenty-one, Mr. Fortune. And I am very married."

His mouth quirked again in that mocking little smile. "Not tempted to stray? Drummond can't be such a good lover; the man's heavy-handed with his horses."

The sheer effrontery of that remark made Julia gasp. Her own nature was toward frankness—or it had been, before her marriage—and she was hardly a prude, but for any man to speak to a woman in such a way went beyond the bounds of good taste and decency. But before she could gather her wits, he was going on, and if she'd thought he had gone as far as possible already, she was in for another shock.

"Drummond isn't making you happy, and we both know it, Julia. You're frozen inside; I can see it. You were never meant to be that way. Red hair is a badge of passion, and yours is like fire. I've never seen hair so red or eyes so wildly green. Or such an erotic mouth, like a lush flower. You have a magnificent body, a body made for pleasure. Even those dull colors and fabrics you wear can't hide your wonderful form. And you move with such grace, as if you hear music."

"Don't—" she got out in a strangled gasp, but he went on in his black velvet voice that made even the reprehensible words a sensual caress.

"Drummond wouldn't know what to do with a woman like you. I'm sure of it. He can't appreciate the fire in you. He probably takes you in the dark with your nightgown pulled up and thinks of nothing but his own pleasure. Does he apologize when he turns to you with his carnal appetites, Julia? Does he make it a hurried, shameful act instead of something joyful?" Fortune uttered a low laugh that was derisive. "Gentlemen like Drummond believe there are only two kinds of women: ladies and whores—and only whores enjoy bedding men. So the gentlemen marry ladies and fumble in the dark to breed. Is that all you want? To be a brood mare and never feel the hot pleasure of real passion?"

He laughed again, his eyes blacker than anything she'd ever seen, and filled with a heat that burned her. "I'm no gentleman, Julia. I don't want a lady or a whore in my bed—just a woman. A beautiful woman. I won't apologize for wanting her and I'll look at her naked in the light because God meant for a woman to be seen by a man. And touched by a man."

She wasn't conscious of moving until she was halfway across the room, her heart thudding, the smothering sensation of panic overwhelming her. She didn't go to the door that led back to the ballroom but another one, and she had no idea where it would take her. It didn't matter. Anywhere. Anywhere as long as she could escape him.

"Julia."

That voice. It tugged at her—and the realization she could scarcely resist terrified her. Her hand on the door handle, she half turned to stare at him. He had risen to his feet, but didn't move toward her. He was smiling almost gently.

"I want you. I want you in my bed."

"No." It didn't come from morals or consciousness of her marriage vows, or anything else of which society would have approved. It didn't come from a lack of attraction, shocking though that was to her; she felt the attraction, the strange, irresistible pulling at all her senses. The denial came from deep inside her, without thought, spurred by instinct.

"I can make you happy," he said.

"You can destroy me," she heard herself whisper. Then she wrenched the door open and fled, as if from a devil.

She found herself in a corridor, turning blindly, then again into a shorter hallway, ending up finally in a small sitting room. It was deserted. Julia closed the door behind her and locked it with shaking fingers. She didn't realize she was pacing until her wildly swinging skirt caught the leg of a delicate table, causing the vase on it to rock precariously.

Standing perfectly still now, her hands on the vase, she was conscious of her heart thudding and her breath coming in jerky gasps. She felt... shattered. Adrian had never been able to do that to her, no matter how he'd tried. She'd discovered a way to escape him, a way to preserve herself. In the first months with him, she had found a place inside herself that was quiet and safe, and when it became unbearable, she always went there. Where he couldn't reach her. Where she felt nothing.

She understood, if only vaguely, why that place was inaccessible to her now. Cyrus Fortune hadn't touched her, hadn't threatened her with harm; what he had said, though certainly incredibly indecent, had not been an attack. She knew she was afraid of him, and yet—it wasn't a simple fear, and escape wasn't possible.

Fortune would hardly force himself on her, Julia reassured herself, but her fear didn't ease. What he intended, she knew, had been plainly stated and was beyond question. Seduction. His own relentless, insidious, dreadfully effective brand of seduction. He had decided he wanted her, and she had the curious certainty he would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. He meant to add her name to his list of conquests.

What shocked her so deeply was that he could have any effect on her at all in an erotic sense. That any man could. But she had felt it. His frank sensuality, bold eyes, and disgracefully forthright words had penetrated her mask, settling in her body like glowing embers and evoking a heat she'd never felt before. It was something she didn't know how to fight.

Slowly, she turned toward the door. Her heartbeat had steadied, and her breathing. She was calm again. A few more weeks, she thought, and Lissa would return to school. Adrian was always more careful when Lissa was in the house. All Julia had to do was to avoid any chance of meeting Cyrus Fortune alone, and try her best to limit the possibilities of attending the same social functions. She had to stay out of his way, that was all.

She made her way back to the ballroom and slipped up beside Lissa at the refreshment table, where a number of young men had congregated. That wasn't surprising; Lissa was very pretty.

"There you are," she said cheerfully to Julia. "I was beginning to worry that you—" She broke off to look searchingly at her sister's face. "Julia, you're still pale. Do you feel all right?"

"A little tired." She could feel his eyes on her again, and had to fight not to look across the room. "I'll be fine, don't worry. Some of the guests are beginning to leave; we should be able to go in another hour or so. Why don't you go and have a few dances."

"Are you sure? I can stay here and help."

"No, go ahead." Smiling, Julia kept her gaze on her sister as Lissa chose a partner and whirled away in his arms. Lissa would be eighteen soon; the upcoming year was her last in school unless she chose to go on to college. Adrian was encouraging her to do that; if she didn't continue in school, she was likely to marry quickly and leave the Drummond household for good.

Julia wanted her sister married. She believed that Lissa wasn't ambitious enough to use a higher education to her advantage—but even if she had been, Julia would have encouraged her to marry instead. She had to be put beyond Adrian's reach... and only a husband could guarantee that.

A good husband, please God.

Across the room, Cyrus Fortune lounged against a wall and watched her. He had seen her for the first time less than a week before, walking through the park on her husband's arm. Her lovely face had been shadowed by the stylish hat she'd worn, but Cyrus had seen a more somber shadow. Not a happy marriage, he'd thought, vaguely disturbed by the darkness he'd fleetingly sensed.

The uneasiness had faded quickly, leaving a hot, intense desire behind. He had watched them walking together sedately, his attention wholly on Julia. She was a stunning woman, her body petite yet richly curved, her coloring vivid, and her face delicately beautiful. She carried herself with pride, and a grace that was unusually sensuous.

She intrigued him. And he'd immediately found out all he could about Julia Drummond. It was little enough. A younger sister in her charge, she had married Drummond two years before. No children yet, which made her less likely to take a lover if Cyrus knew women at all—and he did. Her reputation as the perfect wife was complemented by being well-liked. But she seemed to have no close friends.

Nothing of what he found out discouraged Cyrus in the least. He managed to see her from a distance several times during the next few days, and had attended the charity dance only because he had discovered that she would be there. Luckily, she had arrived without her husband's escort, and Cyrus had grasped the first opportunity offered to be alone with her. He could have kissed the pretty little sister who had obviously talked Julia into giving up her duties at the refreshment table temporarily.

Now, as he watched her, he frowned. After being closer to her and gazing into the vividly luminous depths of her green eyes, his desire was stronger than ever, but something was bothering him and he didn't know what it was. He felt oddly uneasy.

He'd been satisfied with her reaction to him and to what he'd said to her; she might have run from him, but she hadn't been able to hide her own awareness of an attraction. It was a good beginning. And though her final words might have daunted another man, Cyrus more or less ignored them simply because destruction wasn't what he had in mind.

Still, there was something about her that he couldn't bring into focus. He thought about it for a while, watching her steadily, then pushed the question aside impatiently. To hell with it. Perhaps he was sensing in her a stronger than usual unhappiness. She was young, after all, younger than any of his other women in recent years; the young tended to feel things more deeply. Or thought they did, at least.

Drummond had quite likely been as heavy-handed with her as he was with his horses; on horseback he had the necessary mechanics, but obviously no skill. It was probably the same in the bedroom. No doubt he had treated Julia like fragile china until the wedding night and then shocked her with the coarse realities of panting, sweating male needs. She hadn't felt passion in her husband's bed, Cyrus knew that. There was something in her eyes that he'd seen only in the eyes of unawakened young women, a kind of unaware innocence that had nothing to do with physical virginity; it was another barrier that some men were too inept or insensitive to find their way past, and it was still intact in Julia.

Cyrus was confident about his own abilities. He'd be patient for a while at least, let her protest to salve pride or convention or whatever was her particular nemesis. Give her a little time to get used to the idea. But she'd come to him eventually, and she'd be willing. He would make certain it was an enjoyable interlude, that he made her happy.

In any case, Cyrus was prepared to do whatever it took to get Julia Drummond into his bed.

It was late by the time Julia said good night to Lissa at the top of the stairs. She was exhausted as she made her way past Adrian's study, a parlor, a few spare bedrooms, toward the master suite. Bedroom, bathroom, and dressing room, the suite was distant from Lissa's room and from the servants' quarters.

There was a light under the door, and Julia hesitated for an instant. She'd hoped her husband would be asleep. Her mouth was a little dry, but she opened the door quietly and went in, her mask firmly in place.

He turned immediately away from the window, where he'd apparently been watching the street outside, and looked at her with narrowed eyes. He was still fully dressed. A bad sign.

"Where the hell have you been?" he demanded softly.

Julia closed the door and leaned back against it, hardly noticing the protesting twinge of tender flesh over her shoulder blades. "I couldn't close down the refreshment table until after midnight," she said in a low, reasonable voice.

"I told you." His voice was harsh now. "I told you not to go to the party without me."

Julia would have protested that he'd told her at dinner he didn't want to accompany her, but she knew it wouldn't make any difference. Nothing would make any difference now. After two years, she was all too familiar with the irrational way his rage fed on itself. Something had made him angry since she and Lissa had gone to the dance, some small thing he probably didn't even remember now.

He came toward her slowly, like a predator, smiling. He had the strap. Julia stared at him, and as the cold dread formed in the pit of her stomach, what she saw became unfocused, then darkened slowly until she didn't see anything. Or hear anything. Or feel anything.

Until he was finished.





TWO




Cyrus Fortune wasn't one of the nine-member city council of Richmond and he wasn't particularly interested in politics, but he attended a meeting of the council a few days after the charity dance. He didn't contribute, just watched and listened with a slight smile, his black eyes flicking from one man to another unreadably.

"Cy, what are you doing here?" Noel Stanton slid into the seat beside Cyrus, his bushy brows lifted in an expression of exaggerated surprise.

Since another heated discussion was going on at the front of the room, Cyrus didn't bother to lower his voice. "Making certain the city isn't run by thieves and scoundrels, of course. Is it, by the way?"

"Well, of course it is," Stanton told him severely. "You don't think any honest man would want a councilman job, do you?"

Cyrus smiled briefly, but said, "I'm surprised they chose Drummond as mayor; he's a bit young for it."

"Your age." Stanton, who was eyeing forty as his next milestone and not happy about it, shrugged tolerantly.

"He sure as hell got the most votes in the election. Very smooth and charming."

Cyrus turned his head, studying the man he'd known for most of his life and one of the very few he trusted implicitly. "You don't like him.'

"I don't like him. He's pleasant enough, I suppose. The ladies seem to think he walks on water. When he married Julia Brand, I expected to see black crepe on half the doors in town."

"And did you?"

"No." Stan ton smiled in amusement, the mustache that was as bristly as his eyebrows twitching like something alive. "But you should have seen all the wistful faces at the first dance the Drummonds attended after their honeymoon."

Cyrus returned his gaze to the front of the room and singled out Drummond. Tall, athletic, handsome; a blond man with a boyish face the ladies would certainly find attractive, and muddy brown eyes set under unusually straight brows. He didn't like the eyes, Cyrus decided thoughtfully; there was a queer shine to them when Drummond turned his head a certain way. After a moment, he said, "Do you trust him, Noel?"

Stanton leaned back and crossed one leg over the other. "Depends. In business, yes, if he's risking as much as I am. Politics—-maybe, but he's ambitious and I have a feeling he doesn't care who he steps on. I'd lend him money on his word, but I don't want him on any of my horses. An automobile is more suited to him, I'd say; he couldn't jab at its mouth if he was annoyed."

"Yes, I've seen him on a horse," Cyrus murmured.

Stanton looked at him inquiringly. "Why the sudden interest in Drummond, Cy?"

"Idle curiosity."

In a dry tone his friend said, "You're never idle despite your lazy air, and your curiosity always means something. Going into business with Drummond?"

"No."

"I see. She's very beautiful."

Cyrus looked at him. "She is," he agreed.

Stanton wasn't smiling. "And very young, Cy."

"If she isn't too young for Drummond, she certainly isn't too young for me."

"He married her."

"The only wife I want," Cyrus drawled softly, "is someone else's."

After a long moment Stanton said, "When you say something like that—and mean it, what's more—I could really dislike you."

With no change in his faintly sardonic expression, Cyrus said, "Do you mean you don't want to take my money tonight at the game?"

Stanton snorted and looked away half angrily. "No, dammit, I don't mean that. But I'll tell you honestly—if I didn't believe you drew the line at going after the wives of your friends, I wouldn't let you into my house."

"I would never bed a man's wife in his own house, Noel," Cyrus said gently. "Even my manners aren't completely hopeless."

"Cy, for God's sake—"

Chuckling, Cyrus said, "Relax. Felice is quite happy in your marriage—and I do draw the line there." He gave his friend a somewhat dry look, but offered no further remarks on the touchy subject.

Stanton wanted to remain angry. In all truth, he was often dismayed by his friend's unscrupulous pursuit of the women he wanted. It was a facet of Cyrus's personality that had always struck him as wrong somehow, not morally, though it was that, of course, but simply because it didn't quite seem to belong to the man he'd known for more than twenty years.

And he was so—peculiar about it. Almost philanthropic, in fact, though he'd never used such reasoning as an excuse. Cyrus didn't offer either explanations or excuses, and tended to become mocking or blandly uncommunicative if one of his friends pressed him for either. But Stanton had watched, and his friend puzzled him. On the face of it, most would say—and did—that Cyrus was a strongly sensual man who preferred a fleeting involvement with a succession of married women simply to avoid the entanglements of drawn-out affairs or the possibility of marriage for himself. There was more to it, though, Stanton thought—if that was even a part of it.

Cyrus became involved only with unhappy married women, and Stanton was almost positive he'd never been wrong in his assessment. Whether through instinct, perception, or just observation, he consistently chose women who seemed, afterward, to settle down in their marriages with perfect contentment.

It was strange, to say the least.

"You're frowning, Noel."

He looked at his friend and wished he could remain angry. But he couldn't. "Cy, one of these days God or the devil's going to teach you a lesson, and I hope I'm around to see it."

"A lesson?" Cyrus was smiling faintly.

"Yes. Either you'll pick the wrong lady, the wrong husband, or the wrong time, and find yourself up to your arrogant nose in trouble."

Cyrus laughed. "Consider me duly warned. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll leave." He nodded toward the front of the room, where a discussion about property taxes was turning into a shouting match. "They're going to be at it for quite some time, and I have an appointment in the park."

"What's in the park?" Stanton asked blankly.

"Julia Drummond," Cyrus murmured, getting to his feet.

"Don't tell me you've persuaded her to meet you— and in such a public place—already?"

"Unhappily, no. I haven't seen her since the charity dance the other night. But she's in the park now, and I want to see her while Drummond is otherwise occupied."

"You know she's in the park? How?"

Cyrus looked down at him for a moment, then smiled mockingly. "How else? The devil whispered in my ear, Noel. See you tonight." He strolled out of the room as lazily as he'd entered, leaving his friend to sputter wordlessly.

Once outside the building, Cyrus quickened his pace, though it wasn't obvious since he merely took longer strides. He knew Julia was in the park, knew it without question, and if he did in fact owe his thanks for the knowledge to the devil, then so be it. It certainly wasn't the first time he'd known something with no rational way to explain it, and he'd gotten used to the odd sensation.

Today, at least, he was too eager to see Julia to care how he knew where she was. He'd made up his mind at the dance to be patient, but hadn't expected to not even see her in the days since. It had proved to be a novel frustration he didn't like at all. As far as he knew, she hadn't ventured outside the Drummond house. He had seen her sister the following evening at a large party, and had overheard her telling an older woman Julia was a bit under the weather.

The older woman, obviously an acquaintance, had asked in a very discreet way if the "illness" was of the nine-month variety, and Lissa had replied with refreshing bluntness that, no, Julia wasn't pregnant.

Cyrus had been glad to hear it, though he was ruefully aware even her pregnancy wouldn't have stopped him. He felt a curious urgency when he thought of Julia, and the sensation had been growing steadily. He'd become aware of it the night of the dance, later when he was home, an edgy feeling of restless disquiet that was unfamiliar to him and not a little unnerving because he didn't understand the cause of it. And if the disturbing sensation wasn't enough, another puzzling thing had begun that night. Even though he tended to sleep soundly, that night he had awakened often from troubled dreams he couldn't remember; each time, in the first fleeting moments after waking, he'd felt a ghostly sense of pain, terrible pain, that vanished when his eyes opened.

For the next two nights the same thing had happened, though the sensation of pain had gradually faded. He'd always been prone to odd whims and notions, most of which turned out to be accurate and positive no matter how absurd they'd seemed at first, but this was something else, something new. It disturbed him. Once again, however, he pushed the uneasy thoughts away as he reached the park and saw Julia.

She was sitting on a bench just off the sidewalk, smiling a little as she watched her sister and several other young people attempt to get a kite airborne. Cyrus slowed his pace as he approached her, taking the opportunity to look at her without her awareness. Today, she was dressed in the Gibson-girl style just coming into fashion: a dark, tailored skirt belted tightly at her tiny waist, a long-sleeved, high-necked white blouse with a scarf tied at the throat, and a small, neat hat.

Cyrus frowned slightly as he studied her very erect posture. He was no stranger to ladies' lingerie, and disliked the current version of the corset, which was very long with steel or whalebone strips and had to be, he thought, one of the worst instruments of torture fashion had ever imposed upon women. The style pushed the bosom forward and the hips backward in exaggerated curves, making walking, standing, or sitting hideously uncomfortable, and cinched at the waist so tightly that normal breathing was impossible. "Ladylike" swooning was a publicly accepted result of the unnatural constriction, but Cyrus agreed with the opinions of doctors who stated forcefully and with considerable heat that it was physically dangerous and ought to be banned.

It bothered him that Julia was obviously conforming to a ridiculous and dangerous fashion. She hadn't followed yet another practice and resorted to padding above and below the waist in order to make the S-curve look even more exaggerated, but since she had a naturally tiny waist and full breasts, the corset alone was quite enough to give her the stylish appearance. At the dance she'd worn a rather concealing gown with a great deal of lace. Of course he hadn't noticed any distortion of her slender figure. One of Cyrus's somewhat peculiar talents was the ability to gauge a woman's natural measurements accurately no matter what misleading fashion prevailed, and he'd known only that her figure was splendid.

He didn't like that corset, especially not on Julia.

He sat down on the bench a foot or so away from her, and smiled when her startled eyes met his. "Hello."

Immediately, she returned her gaze to the young people some distance away. Her smile was gone; she was expressionless now. But her delicate hands twined tightly together in her lap and he could feel her tension.

"Surely you can speak to me in public, can't you, Julia?"

"Not without being ruined," she said a bit grimly.

He couldn't help but laugh, pleased by her honesty, but said, "That's nonsense, and you know it. I often escort the wives of my friends, occasionally an unmarried young lady, and it does their reputations no harm."

"You are not a friend of my husband's." Then she' paused and sent him a swift glance from guarded eyes. "Are you?"

Gently, he said, "One doesn't make a friend of a man and then seduce his wife. Not quite honorable, that. Friends are treated with more respect."

This time she turned her head and stared at him. "Of all the barefaced effrontery!" Her voice wasn't so much shocked as incredulous.

"I'm famous for it," he said, nodding. "But the real effrontery would be if I did seduce a friend's wife. In any case, if it's my plain speaking you object to, I'm afraid that's another trait I'm known for. It saves so much time, you see. I'm paying you the compliment of believing you'd prefer honesty to pretty speeches and bedroom lies. I want you, Julia. And no matter what you've been taught, real desire doesn't come dressed in silks and satins; it's naked."

She looked away again, a little pale except for the heated skin over her cheekbones. A blush suited her, he thought, and it was uncommon among redheads. She was really quite lovely. And young, Noel had been right about that. But she was two years married, and there was no doubt she was a woman—even though her green eyes seemed to hold even more innocence than he'd first thought.

"I'm married," she said in a soft, still voice.

"I hope you don't believe that's going to stop me," Cyrus said calmly. "If you were happily married, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"Have you no sense of decency?"

He didn't fail to notice she let his remark about her marriage go unchallenged. "By society's definition? I suppose not. What does it matter?"

Julia drew a short breath and looked at him with glittering eyes. "Then we'll set decency aside, since that means nothing to you. And I'll be as blunt as you've been. I don't want you. I don't want an affair. Is that clear enough?"

"Let's walk," Cyrus said, rising to his feet and reaching for her hand.

"No—"

He grasped her hand before she could pull away, and gently but inexorably drew her up. "Don't fight me, Julia," he said, tucking her hand into the crook of his arm, "or you'll attract the kind of attention you'd rather avoid."

"Do you often resort to blackmail?" she demanded tightly, walking beside him as he began strolling toward one of the paths that wound among trees and neat shrubs.

"Only when necessary. Do admit you're more comfortable walking—if it's possible, that is, to feel anything but agony in that corset you're wearing."

It was one of the least shocking things he'd said to her, and since "agony" was a fair description of what her tightly laced stays caused, particularly today, Julia was a little bemused to hear her own defensive reply. "To be fashionable—"

"Fashion can go to hell. Forcing the human body to conform to an unnatural shape is foolish and dangerous, particularly in the name of fashion. And any man who'd choose to see his woman resemble a pouter pigeon ought to be forced to spend a few hours in one of those bloody contraptions."

She couldn't think of anything to say to that, and glanced up at him in faint surprise. It was unnerving to discover that the top of her head barely reached his shoulder, and even more unnerving to believe that his indelicate talk of corsets had been prompted by concern. He was a strange man; his black velvet voice made her feel things she didn't understand, his bluntness disturbed her and left her without the protection of conventional propriety, and though he'd been very calm and matter-of-fact about it, his determination to have her seemed unswerving.

Then he continued speaking in the same calm but forceful voice, and she wondered a bit numbly if there was anything, anything at all, that he considered improper to discuss with a woman. Somehow, she didn't think so.

"Besides that, you don't need any kind of artificial help to have a magnificent body. God gave you one. Seeing you naked has become my life's ambition."

Julia wanted to gasp or laugh hysterically, but her stays were too tight to allow her to do either without fainting at his feet. She almost told him so, certain he'd appreciate the remark. Instead, staring straight ahead and determined to keep her calm no matter what he said, she said coldly, "I'm terribly sorry to frustrate your ambition, but I must."

"Why?"

"I told you. I don't want an affair."

"I'll change your mind." He looked down at her as they walked along the winding path, wondering absently how long her hair was. It was difficult to judge, since the fiery mass was arranged in a pompadour. The hand he held firmly in the crook of his arm was very small and slender. Her left hand, he realized; neat gloves hid her wedding ring, but he knew it was there.

Too tight. The thought sprang into his mind, and he didn't know if it was literal or symbolic, if her ring fit too tightly, or her marriage vows did.

"I don't want my mind changed," she snapped. "I have no desire to be flung out in the streets and branded an adulteress."

"Drummond wouldn't do that even if he found out," Cyrus said coolly. "He's a politician. Infidelity means-nothing compared to the damage a divorce would cause his career."

Until that moment Julia had believed she'd experienced all the pain a man could inflict on a woman, but this was a new hurt, an unexpectedly raw hurt. Another man, she thought bitterly, who discounted private torment as long as the world saw only a mask of contentment. Another man who would stop at nothing to satisfy his own needs. She wondered suddenly if even the scars of her private hell would evoke a shred of compunction in what passed for Cyrus Fortune's heart.

The concern she had thought she'd heard in his voice only moments before had obviously been no more than her imagination. Or perhaps his condemnation of corsets came purely from a man's desire to have the body he wanted undamaged by silly fashions.

"No," she said quietly, feeling empty.

"You don't love him, Julia."

Genuinely surprised, she looked up at him. "What does that matter?"

He stopped walking and half turned toward her, still holding one of her hands against his arm. The path they stood upon was shady, and reasonably cool, with a few midsummer flowers perfuming the still air with sweetness. Now, in the middle of the day, only the young people and the two of them were in the park—and the others were so distant even their laughing voices couldn't be heard.

Cyrus looked down at her upturned face, and wondered why he'd even said what he had. She didn't love her husband, but, as she'd said, what did that matter? She wasn't refusing him because she loved another man, but because she was a married woman who wouldn't break her vows.

"I won't give up," he said.

Her green eyes were clouded with puzzlement and something else, something he couldn't read. "Why does it have to be me?" she asked.

"Because I want you."

She shook her head a little, her delicate features briefly holding a kind of bitter anguish. "Is what you want so much more important than what I want? Does it always have to be that way?"

For just an instant an unaccustomed hesitation took hold of Cyrus. This wasn't what he'd expected; she was different from the others. She was in pain, this was hurting her. He didn't want to hurt her, and honestly believed he wouldn't. All his instincts told him she needed him like the others had.

They had needed different things from him, those other women. Though no one who wasn't immediately concerned would have believed it, few of them had ended up in his bed. Some had needed a sympathetic ear or shoulder, some discreet help with problems they didn't dare take to their husbands, some a more nebulous assistance or comfort. Since he didn't particularly care about his reputation and since none of the ladies involved were harmed by their rumored affairs, he allowed people to think what they liked.

But with Julia... He acknowledged silently to himself that with her the instinct to help had tangled instantly and fiercely with a desire so powerful, his own needs had been more important to him.

Now her upturned face was filled with mute emotions that hurt him and made her even more beautiful to him in a strange, primitive way, and the intense desire for her swept over him like a tide. She needed him, he knew it. He knew it.

Julia was caught off guard by what she saw in his burning black eyes. She shouldn't have been, perhaps, because he'd certainly made both his desire and his intentions plain enough. But despite everything he had said, she really hadn't expected him to attempt a blatant physical seduction—and certainly not in broad daylight in a public park.

When his hands rose to her shoulders and his dark head bent toward her, she opened her mouth to utter some wild, wordless protest that never found a voice. His strong face blurred and she closed her eyes helplessly to try to shut out what had already gotten too close. His lips were hard, curiously hot, the demand in them so insistent she was aware of every suddenly throbbing nerve in her body. It was a shock greater than any he'd yet caused, stealing what little breath her stays allowed her and filling her mind with dizziness.

She was dimly aware of his long fingers tightening on her shoulders, of the whisper of pain as tender flesh protested even that slight pressure, but it didn't matter. He was drawing her down into some dark place that was velvet and fire, and she was lost there.

He muttered something against her mouth and then his slanted, deepening the kiss even more with stark possession. His tongue was sinuous as it stroked hers in a touch so intimate it sent a shudder of feverish pleasure rippling through her. Her body swayed toward his, and she felt the hardness of his chest press against her breasts.

Then his hands slid down her back to her waist, trailing new heat and the echoes of old pain, and the reminder was just enough to bring a chill of sanity to her mind and a moan of protest to her throat.

Whether or not he heard, Cyrus raised his head, staring down at her dazed face with eyes so fierce she almost flinched away from them. "You want the same thing I want,. Julia," he said thickly. "That's what matters. It's all that matters."

She backed away from him slowly, and he let her go. She had a fatalistic certainty that next time he wouldn't... because next time she wouldn't be able to protest. It took more willpower than she thought she had to turn and walk away, but she did it. Her heart was pounding and she couldn't breathe except in shallow little gulps, but she walked with her head up and she didn't look back at him.

Some minutes later, as Cyrus continued on his way, frowning in thought, a man stepped onto the path behind him and stood gazing after him. He was a tall man, well-dressed and obviously prosperous. His lean face was without expression, but a shaft of sunlight fell across the powerful hands that clenched into fists by his sides repeatedly in a measured rhythm.

He turned his head and glanced back the way Julia had gone, then looked after Cyrus again. His hands continued to flex and clench steadily. A faint breeze stirred the trees, and a pattern of dappling sunlight shifted briefly over his face. His eyes reflected nothing in the light, like the windows of an empty house.

It was late that night when Cyrus returned home from the poker game at Noel Stanton's house, and he wasn't in the best of moods. He'd been on edge since Julia had left him in the park, and his luck with cards had been so abnormally bad that Noel had chided him on his lack of concentration—cheerfully, since he'd been winning every cent Cyrus lost.

Cyrus didn't care, except that it might have been another sign of his changing luck in other ways and it made him uneasy.

He let himself into the house and locked the door behind him, frowning when a soberly dressed man came silently into the hall. "I've told you not to wait up for me," Cyrus said.

"Yes, sir." The butler's face was impassive as usual. "A package came for you tonight, sir. On your desk."

"A package? From whom?"

"I couldn't say, sir. Someone rang the bell and left the box on the doorstep. Your name was written on the box, but nothing else."

Cyrus nodded. "All right. Go to bed, Stork."

"Yes, sir."

Cyrus crossed the hall to his study and went in. A lamp had been left burning for him, and in the light of it the wooden box on his desk gleamed darkly. He frowned as he stared down at it, surprised to see his name hadn't just been written on the box, it had been burned carefully into the wood.

There was no latch on the box; the well-fitted lid simply lifted off. Cyrus set it aside, surprised again to find a gold-handled cane inside. Real gold, he realized as he held it in his hands. This was old, he could feel it. The handle was ornate, but the design was subtle and exquisitely made, and the cane itself was heavy.

He saw the slip of paper a moment later, and laid the cane on his desk with unconscious care before reaching into the box for what he hoped would be a note explaining the curious gift. It wasn't exactly a note, however, merely a single sentence written in the same fine hand that had burned his name into the box.

Your father wanted you to have this.

Cyrus's first thought was that this had to be somebody's idea of a joke, because Tate Fortune had never used a cane in his life, even in his last years when age had taken its toll....

His father?

Very slowly, Cyrus sat down in the chair behind the desk and stared at the slip of paper. Then he looked at the cane, and he was conscious of nothing except shock.

His real father?





THREE




Julia managed to remain very close to home during the next few days, even though she risked Adrian's suspicion by doing so. Despite his own busy schedule, he always seemed to know if she'd gone out and often where she had been. Any variation from her usual routine was a virtual guarantee he would spark an explosion of questions, accusations, and cruelty. Ironically, he was most suspicious when she didn't go out, apparently believing she was more likely to betray him in his own house.

Normally, she spent no more time in the house than necessary unless it was literally too painful to get dressed, keeping herself as busy as possible so she wouldn't have time to think, to dread. She tried to make certain she was either very much in the public eye or else indisputably in the company of other women, so Adrian had no grounds for suspicion.

The tactics made her feel the constant tug of an invisible leash, and they weren't always successful since he was sometimes completely irrational, but it was the best way she'd found to cope with an impossible situation.

After what had happened in the park, however, she didn't dare go out. She knew that hiding in the house was only a temporary postponement, but she needed the time to try to shore up her splintering emotional barriers. Luckily, Adrian had decided they would give a party—a large party—the following weekend, so Julia was able to claim preparation for it as an excuse to remain at the house.

In truth, there was a great deal for her to do, and since the visible evidence of her work greeted Adrian when he came home late each afternoon, he could hardly deny she'd been taking care of all the arrangements involved in hosting a large social event—especially since she made it a point to greet him with numerous questions regarding his preferences. It was another tactic she'd found to be generally effective; by focusing his attention on mundane details that he had absolutely no interest in, she could induce him at times to release the pressure inside him in small spurts of temper rather than devastating explosions.

"For God's sake, Julia, I don't care what you serve!"

She kept her voice brisk. "If you mean to discuss politics either during or after dinner, Adrian, then what we serve for the meal is quite important.'

They were standing in the foyer, alone after a maid had bustled by with her arms full of linen, and Adrian glared down at Julia. His hat had been tossed aside the moment he came into the house; his blond hair was plastered to his scalp with perspiration, and a nerve beside his hard mouth pulsed visibly. He looked hot and frustrated; his duties as mayor were more difficult than he'd expected. The strains of office coupled with the intolerable heat wave gripping Richmond made his temper more ragged than Julia ever had seen it. At least for the moment it was just annoyance, not irrational rage.

"Why's it important?" he snapped, loosening his tie with a jerky movement.

"In this heat, serving something too rich will just put them to sleep or make them hideously uncomfortable. No one will feel like talking, especially about politics."

"Then serve something mild and chilled—use your head, Julia." He shrugged out of his coat, scowling. "Is my bath ready?"

"Yes."

She remained where she was, watching him ascend the stairs until he was out of sight. Only then did she swallow hard and slump a little as some of the tension left her. Perhaps this would be a good night. She wasn't sure yet, and wouldn't feel completely safe until he was asleep. He could still shout for her and demand she help him bathe, she knew. It was one of the little humiliations he enjoyed inflicting, forcing her to handle his naked body in the most intimate manner possible. The first time he'd made her touch him, she had been unable to hide her loathing and distaste, and she still carried the scars of his resulting fury. Since then she had learned to do as he wished without revealing any of her emotions, to detach the part of herself that felt ill and shamed and degraded.

Sometimes she wondered why she didn't go mad. Sometimes she thought it had already happened.

In the first weeks of their marriage, when Adrian's propensity toward violence had become all too dreadfully obvious, she'd been unable to hide her own shock and fear. Cowering in pain and terror from his blows, flinching from what he said to her and what he demanded of her, she had begged him to stop hurting her.

It made her nauseated now to remember, but she had. If anything, her pleading had only made him more violent.

When she had tried to fight his anger with her own and at least to make an attempt to defend herself, he'd nearly killed her, and when she had withdrawn into a frozen silence, it had been even worse. Gradually, locked into a ghastly cycle of abuse with no escape, she'd learned how to survive it. She had mastered all the little tactics designed to keep him calm, had sacrificed her independence, her pride, and her self-respect. She had learned that when there was no stopping him, the only thing to do was endure. The rest of the time she simply behaved as though nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened between them, as if their marriage was a normal one.

God help all women, she thought, if hers was a normal marriage.

He had only once struck her face, knocking her to the floor, and the resulting swollen bruise had made it impossible for her to be seen for nearly two weeks. After that he was more careful, even in his rages. Careful enough to mark her where only he would see. Whether he feared public censure or simply valued his favored position in the society in which they lived, she could not guess, but it was clear he intended to keep his bedroom brutality secret.

"Julia?"

She looked around with a start, then smiled when she saw her sister. "How was the picnic?"

"Hot," Lissa said, stripping off her gloves as she crossed the foyer. "Whatever possessed Mark to think today would be a good day to sit out in the sweltering heat, I'll never know. He and the other men could at least take off their coats and roll up their sleeves, but Susie, Helen, Monica, and I nearly smothered."

Julia frowned as she studied her sister's flushed face. "You should go up and get out of your stays, then take a nice, cool bath."

"That's what I intend to do. Is Adrian home?"

"Yes, he's bathing. We'll have something light and simple for supper and a quiet evening."

"I imagine Adrian will work in his study?" Lissa asked, starting up the stairs.

"He didn't say."

"In that case, I'll ask him at supper to give me another chess lesson tonight."

Julia kept her smile in place until Lissa was out of sight, then turned slowly and went toward the hallway that would take her to the kitchen. Lissa knew only one side of Adrian, had seen only the charming face he wore publicly. From the very first he had deliberately set out to make her adore him—and he'd succeeded.

She had gone away to school immediately after the wedding, and Adrian had been very careful to do nothing to upset Lissa's favorable image of him when she came home to visit for holidays and the summer break. When she was staying with them he was on his best, most charming behavior and, at least until this visit, had controlled himself and hadn't hurt Julia badly enough to force her to keep to her bed. Julia still didn't know what had set him off the night of the dance, and she hadn't dared ask. He certainly hadn't volunteered the information, and he'd long passed the point of apologizing for what he'd done to her, but it had been Adrian who had ordered her the next morning to remain in bed.

"I'll tell Lissa it's the heat," he had said, smearing ointment over the raw welts on her back. He always did that, and Julia thought it was because he enjoyed touching the marks he'd made on her flesh. "I'll tell her not to disturb you. And if she does come in here, tell her you're feeling exhausted and want to be left alone. Do you understand, Julia?"

"Yes." She understood only too well. And when her sister had visited her briefly, she'd been able to smile and say that it was only the heat, she'd be better in a day or so, and Lissa wasn't to worry. She had been careful to make certain Lissa saw nothing to betray the lie.

It would have been a dreadful shock if she had. Lissa thought Adrian was perfect. It was another of his deliberate little torments directed at Julia: weaving his charming spell so completely around innocent Lissa. Julia had considered telling Lissa the truth, but couldn't bring herself to do so. It was not to spare Adrian, but Lissa... and perhaps Julia herself.

Julia had had her own illusions shattered, and that wound had been the deepest of all; she didn't want to see the pain of it in her sister's eyes. See the dreadful knowledge of what a man could do to a woman. Teach Lissa what fear really was and teach her how terribly vulnerable she could be. And there was another reason she made certain Lissa suspected nothing—because of what Adrian had promised to do. There was no place Julia could go, no one she could turn to with even a faint hope of protecting her sister. Or herself. She had no money of her own, no friends who would take her and Lissa in if Julia dared to leave her husband.

And who would believe what she'd suffered at his hands? The scars on her body were faint, the result of her wedding night and those first few weeks when his rage had been totally out of control. Since then, he had used the strap or his hands and left no permanent marks on her. Not visible ones, at least.

She was his wife, she belonged to him. No one would question his right to punish her—and she doubted there were many who would even believe he did.

Trapped.

Julia went into the kitchen and spoke with the cook, automatically taking care of the details of supper tonight and the coming party. She'd become proficient at dividing her thoughts and attention, and one corner of her mind now worried at the awareness that she couldn't hope to avoid Cyrus Fortune much longer. There was a concert the following night Adrian had insisted they would attend, with a buffet dinner afterward, and Julia had a strangely certain feeling Cyrus would be there.

At the charity dance, his stare had been bold, and he hadn't hesitated to hold and kiss her in the park where anyone could have seen. How would he behave when she appeared on the arm of her husband?

The very thought terrified her. Adrian was always alert to how other men looked at her or spoke to her, though from his charming and attentive facade no one had guessed what demons of jealousy and possessiveness burned inside him. But she knew. She knew the price she would pay if Adrian caught even a glimmer of the naked desire in Cyrus Fortune's eyes.

She was also very much afraid her own feelings would betray her, even if Cyrus didn't. His kisses had affected her in a way she still couldn't quite believe, and being in his arms had felt so... right. Desire. He had, with the first touch, taught her body to feel desire. Her body, that had learned in agony to fear a man's strength, had swayed toward his in mute need and without fear. She found it incredible, and couldn't understand how it was possible.

But a moth seemed to feel no fear, she thought, as it was drawn to the flame that would destroy it.

Like all the women before her, she was bewitched, helplessly in thrall to a black velvet voice and heated black eyes, and what she felt about it was bitter resentment and pain. Another man who could control her with his force—even if his was a different kind of force. Another man who could make her do things she didn't want to do, feel things she didn't want to feel. Another man who wanted to use her to satisfy his own needs no matter what it cost her.

She managed to get through the evening, though watching Adrian smile at Lissa over the chessboard and tease her made Julia's stomach sicken and churn. For the first time, she wondered if she might be wrong in hiding the truth from her sister. Perhaps for Lissa's own protection she should teach her what men could hide beneath charming smiles. Perhaps innocence was something else that cost too much.

Julia was still undecided when they went to bed that night, but the morning brought the only decision possible. Whether Lissa did or did not deserve to know the truth, Julia decided that her sister's ignorance of what was going on was her safeguard. If she knew, she'd confront Adrian, and that was the one thing Julia had sworn to herself would never happen.

Adrian left for his office at the usual time, already looking wilted and irritable from the heat; Julia dreaded the mood he'd be in by the time he came home. Lissa helped around the house during the morning, then went out shopping with two of her friends. Julia tried to keep busy, but two days of steady work had accomplished everything necessary for the party, and by early afternoon she found herself at loose ends.

For the first time, the house felt hot to her, smothering almost, but she was still wary of venturing out in public for fear of encountering Cyrus. She considered and discarded an impulse to walk in the garden; there were no shady spots out there, and most of the midsummer flowers had been burned dry by the unrelenting sun, so it would hardly be a pleasant walk. Without really deciding to do so, she went to the stables in back of the house.

It was relatively cool inside the wide hall and very peaceful. Only the faint sounds of movement from the drowsy horses disturbed the silence. The men who cared for the horses were absent, so she was alone with them. Lissa had taken one of the carriages and a driver, giving in to Julia's suggestion because of the heat; Adrian had taken the other this morning, planning to send his groom and stableman to look over some horses due to be auctioned the following day.

For a few minutes she wandered from stall to stall, speaking softly to the horses and stroking satiny necks. Out of the house she felt more peaceful, though it was a tenuous peace easily disturbed. The shock of his voice shattered it.

"The horses are comfortable with you. I thought they would be."

She whirled around, staring in alarm. "Are you out of your mind?" she whispered.

Cyrus Fortune stepped out of the shadows, smiling faintly. "No one saw me come in," he said, knowing why she was so disturbed. "No one ever has to know I was here. The grooms will be gone for hours yet, and Drummond and your sister as well."

Julia took a step back as he came toward her, but there was no way for her to retreat farther without cornering herself in an empty stall. She felt emotionally cornered. "Leave me alone," she said shakily, control demolished along with peace.

Cyrus stopped immediately, a little more than an arm's length away, and his smile faded. In the dimness of the barn hall, his black eyes were liquid. "Are you afraid of me, Julia?" There was surprise and something else in his deep voice, something she could have sworn was anxiety.

Her laugh sounded a little wild to her own ears, and she wondered dimly if she had finally crossed the line into madness. "Afraid? Whatever I say, you won't stay away from me. Shouldn't I be afraid?"

"No. I won't force myself on you, if you've that in your mind. I want you willing." He still sounded surprised.

She closed her eyes, struggling to regain some control over her emotions. "I don't want an affair, can't you understand that? Please, just leave me alone. I won't... I won't break my marriage vows."

After a moment he said, "You're trembling." He reached his hand toward hers, and when she flinched he said sharply, "I'm not going to hurt you, Julia."

His tone caused tension to stiffen her body and her gaze to fall, but she didn't flinch again when he took her hand, and she didn't struggle or protest when he led her partway down the barn hall, where there was a rough wooden bench outside the tack room door.

"Sit down," he said.

It was only when she immediately obeyed that abrupt command that Julia realized what living with Adrian had done to her. Cyrus was angry. When she'd heard the emotion in his voice, she had felt an almost smothering panic and dread, an anxious need to find out what he wanted or what she'd done wrong so she could somehow satisfy him. It had become a compulsion to yield to an angry male voice, to submit instantly without question or even another word. To do anything in an attempt to avoid pain. Her recognition of the frightened, helpless response made sick shame writhe inside her, hot tears burn behind eyes taught never to shed them, and kept her silent as she sat on the bench with her head bent and her hands folded tightly in her lap.

He went down on one knee, careless of his trousers, and his big hand covered both of hers. She wasn't wearing gloves, and the heavy warmth of his hand made an odd little tremor go through her body. His was a gentle touch without force. His voice, no longer angry, was the familiar black velvet when he said softly, "Julia, look at me."

Instantly, she raised her gaze to meet his. His eyes narrowed briefly, and then he leaned over and kissed her.

She had been trying desperately to withdraw from him, to retreat into herself as she'd learned to do, but at the first touch of his warm, hard lips that escape was lost to her. His black eyes were burning, and she closed hers to shut out the awful temptation to lose herself in the fiery dark pools. This time she felt no shock except the shock of desire.

Everything but that faded out of her mind. The fear and anxiety, the sick shame at what she'd become, and all the memories of pain at the hands of a man were overwhelmed by the emotions and sensations this man made her feel.

He kept one hand on the back of the bench near her shoulder and the other gently holding both of hers, and made no attempt to draw her into his arms. His mouth was a potent seduction, moving slowly and sensuously on hers. His tongue glided between her lips in a caress that made a hot shiver ripple through her body, and she could no more resist him than she could resist her next breath. When her mouth opened to his touch in instinctive need, he accepted the mute invitation and explored deeply in a small possession so searingly intimate it seemed to brand her in a place Adrian had never been able to touch.

Responding was as natural as one beat of her heart following another. Julia wasn't aware that she was kissing him back, that her lips had softened and trembled in need, that her tongue touched his shyly and with hunger, and she never heard her own throaty little moan of pleasure.

His mouth hardened for an instant, but then he drew back to look at her, and murmured huskily, "Is that anything to fear?"

Julia opened her eyes slowly, feeling dazed and hot. Her lips were throbbing, her whole body was throbbing, and when she looked at him she knew only one thing: if she alone were at risk, she would give in to him without another word of protest. But it wasn't only she.

"Yes," she whispered, her throat aching.

His lean face tightened a little, but his voice remained soft and husky. "Do your vows mean so much to you?"

"Shouldn't they?" That reply was a mistake, and she knew it when he smiled slowly.

"When a woman answers a question with another question, then she's saying no. It isn't your vows stopping you. I know you've found no pleasure with Drummond, and I know you want me. I can be discreet, if that's what's worrying you. No one ever has to know we are lovers."

Julia swallowed hard, fighting to resist the lure of his beguiling voice. She barely managed to infuse her own voice with dry sarcasm. "Did you make such a promise to all the others? If so, I can certainly judge the worth of it."

His smile died. "That was different."

"No." She looked at him steadily. "No different. You were right about one thing; I prefer honesty to lies. Don't make an empty promise you have no intention of keeping."

"I don't make empty promises."

She heard a touch of his earlier anger sharpen his voice, and it made her nervous, but she forced herself to continue. "Shall I tell you the names of the women you've been with since you came back to Richmond? At least one of them told me quite bluntly herself."

"Anne Butler," he said flatly.

"Yes."

"She was the only one, Julia. The only one I slept with since I returned." Slept with, he thought, was an inaccurate term in addition to being euphemistic. He had never "slept" with any woman, and none had spent more than an hour or two in his bed.

Her steady gaze wavered slightly. "That isn't what I've heard. Gossip—"

"Gossip seldom has it right."

She shrugged and looked away. "Even so, you can't deny how quickly word of your affairs spreads. Perhaps the others didn't care about that, but I do."

"Stop saying the others as if the path behind me is littered with them," he said roughly, and tried to rein his temper when she darted him a quick, wary look. In a quieter voice he said, "I'm not a lecher, whatever you've heard."

Julia shrugged again. "I'm not an adulteress."

He was beginning to hate the sound of that word, and it had never bothered him before. He was also more baffled than he'd ever been in his life. Both frustration and worry were eating at him. She didn't love her husband—he was growing to hate, too, the word husband—she didn't care about her vows, and she wanted him. Was it really only a fear of public censure that made her refuse him? Whatever it was, he couldn't seem to find a way around it. He didn't want to hurt her, but surely finding pleasure in his arms wouldn't hurt her?

Despite his efforts, his voice had roughened again when he said, "If I kissed you again, would that matter? If I unbuttoned your blouse and opened it, touched you the way I ache to touch you, would you remember you're married? If I carried you to a pile of hay over there and pressed you back into it and lifted your skirts, would you be able to stop me?"

She looked at him, her green eyes appearing strangely blind, her lips quivering in a twisted smile when she whispered, "Probably not."

His hand tightened over hers. "It's what we both want, Julia, what we both need."

"I can't." She held her voice as steady as she could. "And if you—if you really do want me willing, then you have to believe I mean what I say. I won't betray my husband."

Cyrus rose to his feet with such an abrupt motion that she started and then looked at him nervously as he took a couple of steps away from her. His big, powerful body seemed unusually stiff, either through tension or pure anger—and it was the latter possibility that made her apprehensive. She couldn't see his face; he was standing in the center of the barn hall gazing toward the house. It wasn't until he spoke in a very low voice that some of her anxiety eased.

"Do you realize you've never said my name? Will you at least do that much, Julia?"

"Cyrus," she murmured.

He sighed. "If I wasn't so damned sure this was tearing you to pieces... but I am sure. I'm also sure if I did seduce you, you'd hate me for it."

She wondered if she would, but didn't voice the question.

Cyrus turned to look at her. He was smiling faintly, but his facial expression was a bit grim. "If I catch Drummond near the edge of a cliff, I'm going to push him over."

"There aren't any cliffs nearby," she said, trying for lightness because she was sure he didn't mean what he'd said.

"No, I suppose not. And I suppose it'll do me good to face the fact that I can't always have what I want. But I won't pretend I like it."

Julia didn't know how to answer, and so she said nothing.

"You don't have to worry about meeting me in public, and I won't try to see you privately. Whatever I feel, I'll keep to myself."

"Thank you."

He bowed from the waist, a gesture that was only partly mocking. "I know how to be a gentleman, even if I wasn't born one and never bothered to try to be one until now." He paused, then added in a voice more serious than any she'd heard from him, "Julia, if you ever need anything, any kind of help, then please come to me. I won't ask anything in return, I promise you. Just know you can trust me, and count on me if you're ever in need."

"Thank you," she repeated, shaken.

He gazed at her, an odd look of hesitation crossing his dark face, then shook his head as if to throw off a disturbing thought. "Will you attend the concert tonight?" he asked in his normal tone.

Julia was grateful the barn hall was dim, because she was afraid of what he might see in her eyes. "Yes. With Adrian and Lissa."

Cyrus nodded. "I had meant to go, but I believe I won't. And I'll send my regrets to your party as well, if you wish." When she started in surprise, he added, "Your husband invited me yesterday."

Unnerved, Julia couldn't help wondering if Adrian was merely interested in Cyrus because he was wealthy, or if he had some suspicion— No, ridiculous. Unless someone had seen her walking with Cyrus in the park? She didn't know, but the possibility was there.

"Julia?" Cyrus's voice was gentle. "Shall I send my regrets?"

Her thoughts whirled, then settled with a leaden feeling of dread. If Adrian did intend to cultivate an acquaintance with Cyrus for political reasons, he wouldn't let a social refusal stop him; if he was suspicious, he wouldn't rest until he could judge for himself if there was any reason to be. Either way, the party was a hurdle she had to get over.

She cleared her throat. "No, of course not. If Adrian invited you, he'll expect you."

"I don't give a damn what he expects," Cyrus said. "Will it ruin your pleasure if I come?"

It had been so long since Julia had thought of a party with pleasure that for a moment she could only look at him blankly. Then she shook her head. "No."

He frowned slightly as he looked at her, that same hesitant expression returning for a brief moment. "All right," he said finally. "I'll see you on Friday, then."

Julia remained where she was long after he'd gone, sitting on the hard bench, staring at nothing. What a peculiar ending, she was thinking, to something that had barely begun. He had come to her today still bent on seduction, but different somehow. Today he'd been more aware of her emotions, and more responsive to them. She had no doubt at all he had decided to stop pressing her because he believed it was tearing her to pieces.

She should have been relieved. He wasn't a man to betray his feelings unless he chose to. Neither Adrian nor anyone else would see any hint of desire in his black eyes when they rested on her. She wouldn't have to worry about encountering him in public or in private and having her resolve tested. There would be no more improper or seductive remarks, no more heated kisses.

Her body would forget the astonishing pleasure it had known so briefly.

Julia rose slowly to her feet, feeling nothing but an empty ache now. It would pass, she thought wearily. Pain always did, given enough time.

She went into the house that seemed cool again, drawing the threads of her control around her tightly. She reminded herself that she must not betray knowledge of Adrian inviting Cyrus to the party—and concentrated on schooling her features into an emotionless mask so that she wouldn't betray herself when he did mention it. She didn't have to wait long, because Adrian brought up the subject that evening as they were on their way to the concert.

"Julia, I've invited Cyrus Fortune to the party," he said, his tone easy because Lissa was sitting across from them in the carriage. "And he'll be one of the dinner guests."

The darkness aided her ability to hide her thoughts, but it also denied her the chance to try to gauge his. She replied in a tone to match his. "Oh? Where would you like him seated at dinner?"

"On your right," Adrian said.

Lissa spoke up then, asking the question Julia wanted answered. "Is he important to you, Adrian?"

"He could be, if I make a bid for governor one day." Adrian laughed with a touch of dryness. "'Fortune' is an apt name. He was rich before he went west, and has more luck than a riverboat gambler. I just heard that in 'ninety-eight he bought up a few thousand acres of supposedly worthless East Texas property—and where do you suppose they struck oil last year?"

"East Texas?" Lissa guessed.

"Yes. Fortune won't be able to live long enough to spend all the money he's making. I've heard he's never had any political leanings, but it can't hurt to better my acquaintance with him."

"I like him," Lissa announced in a definite tone.

Julia managed not to jump in surprise. "I didn't know you'd met him," she murmured.

"I've seen him at parties, of course, but we were never really introduced until— Well, I know you'll say it wasn't proper, Julia, but there was really nothing I could have done. It was the other day when I was coming out of the library. My arms were full of books, and somehow I tripped. I hadn't even seen him until then, but Mr. Fortune caught me. Wasn't that splendid of him?"

"It was lucky for you," Adrian said.

"I know, I might have broken my neck. He was very nice, and even carried my books to the carriage. I don't know why people say his manners are dreadful. They seemed perfectly all right to me. He was very polite and acted rather like an uncle. And even if his eyes are the blackest I've ever seen, they laugh in the nicest way."

"Don't lose your heart to him," Adrian warned in a light tone that deceived Lissa but not Julia. "Rumor has it that the last thing he wants is a wife—unless it's someone else's."

Lissa laughed. "I just think he's pleasant, Adrian, that's all."

They reached their destination then, for which Julia was grateful. All she could think of, unnervingly, was that she had never seen the laugh in Cyrus's eyes that so many people seemed to notice. It was a strangely painful realization. But she pushed it out of her mind, just as she had all the stray thoughts of him that had been tormenting her since the interlude at the stables. She pulled on her social mask and became the perfect wife.

"The other one isn't big enough?" Noel Stanton guessed, watching two dozen men busily working on the foundation of a huge house-to-be on lovely acreage that sloped gently back to the James River.

"Did you say something, Noel?" Cyrus asked, looking up from the blueprints spread out atop a corded stack of lumber.

"I was being nosy," Noel explained with an apologetic air. "Tate left you a perfectly good house closer in to the city, and God knows it's big enough to hold an army; why re you building out here?"

Cyrus, his coat off and sleeves rolled up, bent over the plans again. "The city gets more congested with every year, as you very well know. I want room to stretch."

"You'll have it," Noel said. He eyed a growing pile of gray stone nearby as another wagonload was deposited, and said thoughtfully, "That rock reminds me of the old buildings they've pulled down recently."

"It should." Cyrus glanced up at him again. "I'm using stone dating from colonial days. Since the city fathers have been merrily destroying their heritage, I thought I'd have a try at preserving a little of it."

Studying his friend, Noel pulled his hat off and began fanning himself absently. They were standing beneath the shade of a huge oak tree, but the heat wave hadn't relented and there wasn't a hint of a breeze to disturb the hot, still air. Cyrus, as usual, hadn't worn a hat, and even though he'd removed his coat, the heat didn't seem to bother him.

"Preservation, eh?" Noel's voice was mild. "Is that why you've had most of the Fortune family paintings and valuables removed from the house, crated, and stored?"

Cyrus looked up again, this time in surprise. "How did you know about that?"

"Your groom told mine. You've got your servants in a tizzy, Cy, they don't know what to make of all this."

After a brief frown, Cyrus shook his head slightly. "There's no mystery. I wanted everything inventoried and decided I might as well get the packing done at the same time."

"It'll be months before this house is completed."

"I'm aware of that, Noel."

Bushy eyebrows rising, Noel said, "Are you also aware of the fact that a bear with a toothache would be 'more amiable than you've been these last days?"

Cyrus stared at him for a long moment, but then a crooked smile tugged at his mouth. "Don't say I've been that bad."

"Worse. Your company manners never were much to brag about, but when even the ladies begin to notice you're in a temper as black as your eyes, the case has to be desperate."

"What ladies?"

"My wife, for one. Felice passed you on the street this morning, and swore that when she said hello, you growled in response."

"I'll offer my apologies the next time I see her," Cyrus stated.

"I'm less interested in apologies than explanations. Yes, I know you never explain, but this time you've really got me worried, Cy. What the hell's wrong with you?"

"Nothing," Cyrus said, frowning as he gazed toward the busy workmen.

"Maybe someone else would accept that," Noel retorted, "but I won't. I've known you for twenty years. When you left after Tate died, I thought you might come back changed, but you didn't. It's since you came back that you've changed. I thought at first it was because of Julia Drummond, but—" He broke off as Cyrus looked at him, then added quietly, "Maybe she does have something to do with it, after all."

Wanting to distract his friend from that possibility, partly because he didn't want to admit to himself how difficult he found it to accept her refusal, Cyrus said abruptly, "I received a package the other night. A gold-handled cane, very beautiful, in a wooden box. There was a note inside that said my father wanted me to have it."

"Your—?" Noel was effectively distracted because of sheer surprise. "Your real father?"

"Apparently. Did you ever know Tate to use a cane?"

"No. But who could have sent it to you?"

"I've been unable to find out. The package was left on the doorstep after dark. As far as I can determine, no one saw it delivered. I've taken the cane to half a dozen shops around town, including two jewelers, and all I've been told with any certainty is that it's very old. The craftsmanship of the gold is exquisite, but if the artist signed his work or left his mark, I haven't been able to find it."

"So that is what's troubling you?"

"Wouldn't it trouble you? Noel, Tate was always honest with me, and the fact that I'm a bastard never meant anything to him. It didn't mean anything to me. But now... 'Your father wanted you to have this' the note said. So who sent it to me? My mother? Is she still alive? Have I seen her across a street without knowing it? Why did she leave me on the doorstep of a stranger? Why didn't my father marry her?"

"You can't be sure he didn't," Noel objected quietly. "Perhaps he died before you were born, and your mother just couldn't raise you alone."

Cyrus shrugged a bit jerkily. "Perhaps. But I can't be sure, that's the hell of it. Always in the past I considered that my life began when Tate gave me his name. Whatever came before didn't matter. Then I got the package... and questions I've never asked myself have begun to haunt me. How common are black eyes, Noel?"

The question was abrupt, and Noel blinked. "Well, not very. To be honest, yours are the only ones I've seen."

"They're the only ones I've seen too. I've seen dark eyes, particularly out west—Indians, Mexicans, a few Gypsies—but not black ones, not like mine. Doesn't that strike you as odd, that in more than thirty years I've never seen eyes like mine in a single face?"

With a stab at humor, Noel said, "You've always struck me as odd, Cy."

His friend didn't smile in return. "I suppose I have."

"Hey, I was joking."

"No, you weren't." Cyrus did smile then, faintly.

A little uncomfortably, Noel shrugged. "All right, but what's that have to do with anything? We're all peculiar in our own ways."

"Yes, but most people can trace their peculiarities to a definite source. They can point to their ancestry as the reason they look and behave as they do; why they're tall or short, dark or fair, calm or bad-tempered. You yourself got those eyebrows from your grandfather."

"Family trait," Noel said automatically, then stopped when he realized his was a response Cyrus had never been able to make. "I'm sorry, Cy. I never thought."

"I never did either. Just as I never thought about the fact that the date I celebrate as my birthday is actually the anniversary of the day Tate took me in. I was a few weeks old then, apparently, so my actual birthday is sometime in October." He sighed. "The point is, none of that ever troubled me until the package came."

"I wish there was something I could say—"

Cyrus waved a hand in dismissal. "There isn't. And there's no one I can ask to find the answers I want, unless I somehow manage to find out who sent me the package. That's the only glimmer of a clue I have to any part of my heritage. Tate tried to find my mother in the weeks after I was left on his doorstep, and if he couldn't find her then, I'm not likely to have much luck almost thirty-two years later."

"You have to try, for your o