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Диксон Хелен

Caught in Scandal's Storm

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The swirling snow encircled the young woman, freezing her body and mind with a numbness that blocked her senses, but could do nothing to alleviate the pain in her heart. As she stumbled through the park she clutched her cloak tightly beneath her chin, the wide hood covering her hair. Blinded with snowflakes and buffeted by wind, she was unaware of the intense cold which numbed her hands and feet and turned her cheeks to ice. Her gait was that of a person in pain, but her pain was not physical. Her body was strong and youthful and healthy with the benefits of good living.

The whirling white flakes were coming down so thickly that she could not see more than a yard in front. She thought of her father, a man she could not remember, and was surprised to feel tears pricking her eyes. It had been so long. Since she had left Philippe, she had not been able to cry. She feared that if she gave way for a moment, she would shatter into a thousand pieces and never stop. So she kept her emotions wrapped tightly inside her. But now, the thought that her father was alive when she had thought him dead, that she would see him, pierced the barrier of her emotions and her cheeks were flooded with her tears.

Suddenly a dark form loomed up through the driving snow immediately ahead of her. She swerved wildly, but she was too late and cannoned into something solid. She would have fallen but for a hand that gripped her arm and held her upright. Panic struck her and she tried to wrench herself away, but the grip on her arm might have been a vice. A man’s voice said curtly, ‘What the devil are you doing out in this?’

Alice opened her mouth, but she was unable to speak. Her throat, along with the rest of her, seemed frozen and the wind drove thick snowflakes into her eyes, blinding her.

‘What’s the matter?’ the man demanded, his voice deep and rough. ‘Lost your voice?’

Her captor raised his gloved hand and brushed the snow roughly from her face, peering down at her in the hazy light. She had a fleeting impression, blurred by the driving snow, of height, and a pair of eyes, hard and flint grey and very angry, before her own were blinded with snow once more. The man muttered a low curse under his breath. She did not recognise the voice and she was suddenly very afraid.

The grip on her arm relaxed and in that moment, with a strength born of fear, she wrenched her arm free and fled as fast as she was able. Thankfully the ground beneath the trees was in her favour, being sheltered and only thinly covered with snow, and she was able to widen the gap between them. She heard him call out to her, but he did not follow as she vanished into a seemingly solid wall of snow.

* * *

Fifteen minutes later, blinded by snow and buffeted by wind, breathless and shaken by her encounter with the stranger, Alice reached Hislop House in the heart of Piccadilly. Hislop House was the grand residence of Lady Margaret Hislop, Countess of Marchington. At present it was all abustle as servants busied themselves preparing for the grand occasion Lady Marchington was hosting that very night, to announce the betrothal of her niece Roberta to Viscount Pemberton, the Earl of Winterworth’s eldest son. Alice barely had time to compose herself before Roberta came hurrying to her across the hall.

‘I’m relieved to see you back, Alice. Although why you had to go off like that with a blizzard screaming outside escapes me.’

‘You know why, Roberta,’ she replied, managing with a supreme effort of will to keep her emotions well hidden. ‘I can’t bear being cooped up all the time. It’s so stuffy in the house. I need to breathe the fresh air.’

‘I know and I’m not complaining, but you know Aunt Margaret doesn’t like you to go out on your own. You should have taken one of the servants.’

Alice heaved a rueful sigh. ‘I hoped she wouldn’t notice.’

Alice had ignored the stricture which required that she take someone with her, after receiving a letter the day before from a person by the name of Duncan Forbes. Forbes had informed her that he had information regarding her father, whom she had believed deceased these past twenty years. Deeply troubled and anxious to find out more, Alice had fled to nearby Green Park without a chaperone to meet him at the designated time and place.

‘Aunt Margaret misses nothing. She knows everyone’s secrets and nothing is hidden from her. You should know that by now.’ Roberta gave Alice a speculative look. ‘Did the letter you received yesterday have anything to do with you going out?’

Alice shook her head. There had been few secrets between them since Alice had come to live at Hislop House two months ago. She had confided in Roberta about her reason for not marrying Philippe—though not all of it, for some of the things she had done with Philippe were too sordid for Roberta’s gentle sensitivities. Roberta was aware of the scandal that had shamed her and that, with her reputation in tatters, Alice had been forced to flee Paris.

Alice would keep her meeting with Duncan Forbes to herself for the time being.

Duncan Forbes had told her that after the Battle of Culloden, back in ’46, her father, Iain Frobisher, had been captured and taken south to stand trial for high treason. He’d been held on the hulks in the Thames. Justice for traitors was swift and he had been stripped of his possessions and estate. When the guards had come to take him to Kennington Common for his execution, he had leapt into the murky waters of the Thames in a reckless bid for freedom. Although he was shot and the river searched, his body was never found. He was presumed dead.

Duncan Forbes had told her that he himself had been a common soldier at the time of Culloden and had been on the hulk with her father. He was one of many who had been released under the Act of Indemnity which was passed in ’47.

What Duncan Forbes hadn’t told Alice was that he had fallen on hard times. He had given little thought to Iain Frobisher since the day he’d jumped into the Thames, until he’d met a man in London recently who bore an uncanny resemblance to his companion on the hulk. His suspicions were proved correct, and after spending a short time reminiscing, the two men had gone their separate ways. But on reading a small clip in the papers about Alice Frobisher’s fall from grace in Paris, and learning that she had come to London to reside with Lady Marchington, he realised the information he had acquired could be turned to his advantage. He had sent a note to Marchington House addressed to Alice Frobisher, stating that he had information concerning her father she might find interesting.

Having whetted her appetite and seeing that she was desperate to know more, he had told her to meet him at the same time and place the following day. Alice had agreed, by which time she would have acquired the money to pay him what he asked for the information.

‘No, of course not,’ Alice lied in answer to Roberta’s question. She handed her snow-clad cloak to a waiting footman, who was not at all pleased to have water dripping all over his buckled shoes. ‘I’ll go to Lady Marchington as soon as I’ve changed my gown. The hem is quite sodden. See,’ she said, kicking a booted foot out in front of her to prove her point.

‘I think she wants to see you now.’

Alice threw Roberta an exasperated look. ‘Really, Roberta, unlike you I do not feel that I always have to do your aunt’s bidding. If I were you, I’d stand up for myself. No one would blame you.’

Roberta smiled tolerantly. She did not possess a strong will of her own and often allowed herself to be browbeaten into compliance by her Aunt Margaret. It was easier that way. ‘Aunt Margaret has been very good to me—to both of us, Alice. If it hadn’t been for her, I would have been sent to live with strangers. I could not have borne that. Aunt Margaret has done a lot for me.’

Roberta had the misfortune to be an orphan, but it was fortunate for her that she possessed as her sole relative and guardian the Countess of Marchington, Lady Margaret Hislop, a widow these ten years past and without offspring. Roberta had long ago become submerged in the strong waters of her aunt’s personality, for Lady Marchington was an autocratic, domineering woman who employed outspokenness to the point of rudeness as a form of social power and was feared and deferred to in consequence.

She had an eye that could bore holes through granite and a tongue that could flay the hide off a rhinoceros. It was pretty unnerving to those who found themselves in close proximity to the formidable lady. Roberta submitted herself to Lady Marchington’s authority without complaint. Strong men withered before her and women ran for cover. She was a highly colourful character, tall and slender with iron-grey hair and a face wrinkled with age, but it was said she used to be a raving beauty when she was a girl.

Alice was not afraid of her, but then she always took care to avoid her. ‘Oh, well,’ she said, heading for the stairs with Roberta following on behind her, ‘as long as you feel like that about it. What do you suppose the party will be like tonight? The whole of London is anticipating the announcement of your betrothal. Indeed, they can talk of little else. I doubt the bad weather will prevent those invited from attending.’

‘I sincerely hope not, but we will just have to wait and see.’

‘I am certain the evening will be a tremendous success.’ Alice cast Roberta an amused, knowing glance. ‘Knowing how enamoured he is of you, Roberta, you can be assured of Hugh’s company all night. The manner in which you become quite flustered when you are with him tells me that his attentions are not unwelcome.

Come, do not deny it. It is forever Hugh this and Hugh that,’ she gently teased her friend, who had turned as red as a poppy when Alice pointed out this slowly growing obsession.

Roberta’s china-blue eyes never left Alice’s face, the soft brown ringlets demurely hiding her rosy dimpled cheeks. She was quite tall and slender and cast in a gentler mould than Alice. It was not just that, Alice mused bitterly. What she lacked and what Roberta had in abundance was a tender innocence to add to her sweet beauty.

‘You’re quite right, Alice,’ Roberta said, warming to her subject despite her strongest wish to be sensible. ‘It’s an exciting feeling. When I see Hugh I always feel so happy. I—I do love him, Alice.’

Alice smiled at her. She did not begrudge Roberta her happiness, but she did envy her and wished with all her heart that she could have found the same kind of happiness in her betrothal to Philippe. ‘That you cannot deny and very soon you will be his wife.’ When Roberta and Hugh were together, mostly they talked. Occasionally they touched each other’s hands, tentatively, the lightest of movements before making a shy retreat. Marriage would be a steady arrangement which Roberta would be content with and Hugh would have an absolute single-minded devotion for her. How Alice envied her friend these feelings. Let her not be disappointed as she had been.

‘I confess that I cannot wait,’ Roberta softly replied.

‘Although what will happen when Hugh discovers you were once betrothed to another—may still be betrothed to him since the engagement was never broken—is anyone’s guess.’

The light vanished from Roberta’s eyes at Alice’s mention of Ewen Tremain. ‘Aunt Margaret says Lord Tremain no longer counts. He pledged his troth to me in Paris. But where is he now? He left over a year ago after being summoned to his brother’s home in Bordeaux on a family matter and there has been no word from him since. Living close to Paris, did you never meet Lord Tremain?’

Alice shook her head. ‘I know of him. His brother Simon fought alongside my father and brothers at Culloden.’

‘I recall you telling me that your brothers did not survive the battle.’

‘Sadly, no. Two of them were killed. William was too young to fight. I have no memories of my older brothers. I was just a baby at the time. My mother died soon after we went to live in France. Now there is just William—and me, of course.’

‘Aunt Margaret has written to Lord Tremain on numerous occasions, without the slightest result. He could not have done more to earn her displeasure. He is deserving of her contempt, and mine. It would seem I’ve been fortunate to escape marriage with a man who is unworthy. In fact, I think Lord Tremain is the only man who has ever snubbed Aunt Margaret firmly—and, she says, with intention. I have to say that it’s a salutary experience for her. Which is why she has relegated Lord Tremain to the past.’

And which was why, Alice mused, Lady Marchington was giving a ball tonight to display Roberta like a costly gem to be admired, a diamond to be destined for a coronet, no less. Lady Marchington was the matchmaker, the woman who would marry her niece to the most eligible bachelor in London. She had thought of nothing else since Lord Tremain had left Roberta in Paris. Lady Marchington was fearfully strong willed and quite ruthless about getting her own way.

‘I do recall you saying how relieved you were when he left Paris. You had an aversion to him, I believe.’

‘Not an aversion exactly,’ Roberta answered, raising her skirts and having to hurry to keep up with Alice as she climbed the stairs.

‘Does he still trouble you?’

‘On occasion. We were not well acquainted, but on the few times we met he was always polite and considerate towards me. He was a man to stir a female’s heart—quite dashing—handsome, too. But he was a mysterious man—secretive—sinister even, I often thought.’

Alice had become very fond of Roberta. She was angry at the treatment her friend had received from Lord Tremain and was persuaded that he was unworthy of Roberta’s devotion. She was determined to remain just as sensitive to Lady Marchington’s motives of ridding Roberta of that erstwhile suitor, yet if Lord Tremain was as handsome as Roberta would have her believe, then one would assume he had made quite an impression on her. The loss of such a magnificent suitor would have made any woman resentful of an aunt who was determined on his removal from her life. Alice was of the opinion that, if for no other purpose than to make Roberta happy, Lady Marchington had been justified.

‘But what of you?’ Roberta asked. ‘I would not ask, Alice, but I fear I must. I’m so glad your brother sent you to live with my aunt and me, but you must miss Paris.’

Alice drew up her slender shoulders in a small, distressed shrug, not wishing to recall the events that had made her leave her brother’s house, the shame she had brought on William’s good name. Now that she was in England, she was keenly aware that her memory of those weeks was best put behind her for the sake of her own peace and well-being. ‘It wasn’t Paris I had an aversion to, Roberta, only the man I was supposed to marry.’

‘You jilted him. But if you did not love him, then you have nothing to reproach yourself for.’

Despite Roberta’s charitable words, Alice realised she was still feeling the effects of the nightmare of what she had done. A fleeting frown touched her smooth visage as a memory stirred in her mind of the self-satisfied smirk Philippe had worn that first time he had taken her to bed. It was almost as if she had become a possession he could flaunt to lord it over others. The day had come when she had told him she would not marry him and walked away. She had never loved him and had soon come to despise him, so she knew he could not break her heart.

William’s wrath had been terrible at first. ‘How could you?’ he had berated. ‘Have you no shame? No remorse? You’re a disgrace to this family and especially to the memory of our dear mother.’

Alice had closed her ears at that point. She wished he hadn’t mentioned their mother. That had been unfair of him. Alice couldn’t really remember her—she had been just four years old when she died of a weakness of the lungs. All she knew of her was what she had gleaned from William and she had taken his memories to herself. She might not have known her mother long, but she felt sure she would have listened to Alice, that she would have understood and taken her side.

But when William’s wrath had subsided, for the first time Alice had seen sadness rather than anger. ‘What happened to you would be shocking and tragic even if no one in the world knew of it but me,’ he had said. Alice saw that her brother was sincere in this and the realisation had thrown her off balance. It was true that William’s pride was wounded, but that was not all. He genuinely feared for her welfare. Alice was sorry she had hurt him, which had added to her disgrace.

And then London. She was sent to London to live with Lady Marchington and to learn some wifely skills and, presumably, the sense that her brother set such store by. She had told herself it was for the best. She had to trust William to have her best interests at heart. On saying farewell, he had looked mortally wounded. Alice had felt regret like a sudden pain. It gave her no satisfaction to see her brother’s distress. But then his expression had changed. ‘Don’t worry,’ he had said. ‘The matter will be dealt with. I’ll take care of everything.’ There had been a hardness in his voice that had made her uneasy. But, encased in her own misery, she had thought no more about it.

It was when she had been in London for two weeks and received a letter from William’s wife that she realised there was a side to William she did not know. She shuddered, not wishing to dwell on the contents of that letter just now—of how her brother, defending her honour, had fought a duel to the death with Philippe. She kept the guilt and shame locked away, and there it would remain until, coward that she was, she could face what had happened.

‘I suppose there are many who would say running away never solved anything,’ Roberta said, breaking into Alice’s reverie.

‘It is a fresh start, Roberta.’

‘A happy one, I hope. Whatever people say I, for one, am glad you’re here. So now I insist that you forget all about him and begin by enjoying my betrothal party.’

Alice no longer lived in dread of seeing Philippe again, but nor was she able to relax. She was suspended in a past for which she felt a deep shame and hated to think about, and a future she could not bear to contemplate.

Although she had not been raped by Philippe it had still been an assault—she had been so young and innocent, and what he had done had had life-changing repercussions. She was no longer the happy, carefree girl she once was and she mourned the loss of her innocence. Her heart had been badly damaged and she felt so tainted that she had lost her faith in love. Romantic love was just a silly dream. Feeling insecure in herself, she did not feel capable of having a successful relationship after all that she had endured, nor did she imagine that she could ever be truly happy again, or make someone else happy.

With Roberta hard on her heels Alice hurried along the landing and passed through her chamber doors. She began to unfasten her dress. ‘I’m surprised Lady Marchington agreed to allow me across her threshold—although I suppose William’s wife being the daughter of her closest friend had something to do with that.’ What she said was perfectly true. Lady Marchington had taken her in as a favour to William’s wife, Anne, but also to act as companion to Roberta. Alice was in no doubt that as soon as Roberta wed Viscount Pemberton, Lady Marchington would lose no time in securing a match for her. Although, she thought bitterly, she could not hope for as fine a catch as Roberta. Anyone would do as long as Lady Marchington got her off her hands.

Seeing her fingers struggling with the buttons, Roberta went to her. ‘Here, let me.’ After a moment she asked, ‘What was he like—Philippe? Was he handsome?’

Alice’s gaze hardened as her heart had hardened when she had decided not to marry him. ‘Oh, yes, he was handsome. It was a matter of fact rather than opinion. But it was his handsome looks that annoyed me. They added to his air of arrogance and his self-belief. Confidence was not lacking in that particular male either. It never occurred to him that he would not get what he wanted.’

Roberta helped her off with her gown and draped it over a chair for Alice’s maid to attend to later. ‘But he must have attracted you for you to agree to marry him.’

‘Perhaps a little—in the beginning. Philippe Duplay, the Comte de St Antoine, was the kind of man women dream of—a man to whisper words like little pearls into their ear. Weak men would give their souls to be like him, to be as tall and fair as him, to possess those laughing blue eyes—witty and gay—and to ride and dance like him. But strip away those pretty words and fine titles, and what is left? Arrogance, a blackguard—a roué, a gamester.’ She spoke with such bitterness that Roberta looked at her with a questioning eye.

‘You speak of him as if he were dead, Alice.’

Alice stiffened and looked at her hard. ‘He is, Roberta. Philippe is dead. And now, if you don’t mind, I do not wish to discuss him further.’

Turning away from the shocked expression her revelation had caused, Alice moved to the window and watched the snowflakes flutter down. Roberta disappeared into her dressing room to compose her thoughts and to select a suitable gown to wear for her meeting with Lady Marchington.

Alice thought of William, with whom she had lived for most of her life in a village close to Paris. When she had reached eighteen, William had only one ambition and that was for his sister to marry—and to marry well. William was wealthy in his own right and would offer a substantial dowry. Suitors came and went, leaving Alice feeling like an animal at the local market. It was finally decided that she would wed Philippe Duplay, Comte de St Antoine, who had long been enamoured of her.

But from the start Alice had felt out of her depth. The scale of the Duplay family’s power and wealth intimidated her, reflected as it was in their grand chateaux and vast estates and the value of everything with which they surrounded themselves. The treasures that filled the Châteaux Duplay were all manifestations of the Duplays’ significance.

‘What you did,’ Roberta said, emerging from the dressing room with a plain blue day gown over her arms, ‘deciding not to marry him—knowing a scandal would ensue—was a brave thing for you to do, Alice.’ Much as she would have liked to ask how Philippe had died, not wishing to distress Alice, she refrained from doing so.

Alice was normally a mistress of restraint. She hated being the subject of gossip and speculation. Generally she kept her thoughts and opinions to herself, observing the outbursts of emotion and the careless talk of others with disdain. With Philippe, she had learned to control her feelings better than ever. In this way she kept up the appearance of being a perfect fiancée. Sometimes, however, when provoked too far, she would allow herself the luxury of a spontaneous outburst. When it came, it had the impact of a summer storm, which was the case when she told Philippe she would not be his wife.

She had not been prepared for his vicious retaliation or how she would afterwards be ostracised by society. To cover his embarrassment on being jilted, Philippe had let it be known that she had the morals of a harlot.

This piece of slander was repeated all over Paris and with much embellishment. At first Alice was hurt, then she was angry. With strength and determination, she made herself come to grips with what she had done and faced the painful knowledge that her former life was permanently over. She learned how to cry lonely, private tears for all she had lost, then put on a brave face and her brightest smile. But unable to avoid the publicity and the very unsavoury scandal, she left Paris for good.

‘I would not have been happy married to Philippe. When I thought of him I could not see him as my husband. He gave me so much grief when we were together I could not bear it. I decided to weather the scandal of walking away rather than live the rest of my life with a man for whom I felt neither love nor respect.’

Roberta looked at Alice’s still figure and sighed. ‘We have both experienced a broken engagement, Alice, so in that we are alike. I can only hope that in the future you find yourself with someone who will make you as happy as I am with Hugh.’

Alice very much doubted she ever would, and at this present time, when bitterness continued to gnaw at her heart, the very last thing she wanted was another man in her life. She supposed she would marry eventually. A good man. One who would treat her with the respect and tenderness due his wife. Please God, she thought, let such a man exist.

Roberta moved to stand behind her, her face flushed with disquiet. ‘I—I’m sorry, Alice. I hope I didn’t sound insensitive—I didn’t mean to.’

Smiling reassuringly, Alice turned and patted Roberta’s hand. ‘You were not insensitive, Roberta. I was merely thinking.’

‘But you had such a melancholy look about you,’ Roberta said plaintively.

‘These are melancholy days,’ Alice said softly. ‘Now I’d best go and see Lady Marchington before she comes looking for me. No matter how agreeable I always try to be, I will never find favour with her.’

Leaving Roberta to go to her own room to begin preparing for the evening’s festivities, Alice went in search of Lady Marchington. Her astringent tones could be heard uplifted in comment and criticism from the ballroom as the footmen and servants rushed about to do her bidding. Alice cringed as she descended the curving staircase and braced herself to receive the force of her wrath. Lady Marchington emerged from the ballroom with the unshakeable confidence and regal bearing that came from living a thoroughly privileged life. She regarded Alice with an attentive, critical expression in her eyes.

‘Ah, Alice, there you are. I was looking for you earlier. Well?’ Her voice was as cold as her face. ‘If it’s not too much trouble, perhaps you would explain yourself. Where have you been?’

‘I merely stepped outside for some air, Lady Marchington.’

‘Stepped outside? Really! How dare you disobey me? How dare you leave the house without a maid to accompany you—and in this weather?’

‘Lady Marchington—I am sorry...’

‘It is most unseemly that you should embarrass me in this way.’

‘That was not my intention. I did not mean to upset you in any way—’

‘Hold your tongue, Alice,’ the formidable lady snapped. ‘Your unacceptable behaviour is why you left Paris in disgrace. I will not have it. I am most displeased with you, most displeased. Now run along and get ready for the ball. I’m sure Roberta could do with some help. I trust you will be on your best behaviour tonight. I want you to remember that this is Roberta’s night. I want nothing to spoil it.’

She turned away to speak to Simpson, the butler, who was requiring her attention, but it was evident she continued to seethe at Alice’s disobedience. Lady Marchington had opened her house and her purse to help Roberta on the demise of her parents, Roberta’s mother being her stepsister, her father being Lady Marchington’s brother-in-law by marriage, she wanted nothing to jeopardise Roberta’s marriage to Viscount Pemberton. Just four weeks ago she had extended her hospitality to Alice Frobisher, the sister-in-law of the daughter of an old and valued friend.

Alice’s circumstances had necessitated her flight from her family in Paris. Her brother had sent her to London to join the Marriage Mart, and the man she married would become the recipient of a dowry generous enough to elevate his status considerably. Lady Marchington had agreed to take charge of her and opened her door to the girl in the hope that a suitable husband could be found.

Unfortunately the scandal of jilting her betrothed on the eve of marriage had followed Alice to London and given her a certain notoriety that was unsavoury and most unwelcome. Ever since she had made her appearance at her first society event, she had become the focus of everyone’s scrutiny, male and female. The admiring looks of eager young males followed her wherever she went, and with so many posturing about hoping to gain an introduction, she could have the pick of the bunch. But Alice seemed to have ideas of her own. She showed no interest in the rich, titled and handsome men she met—in fact, she scorned them all, much to Lady Marchington’s annoyance, for she was eager for her to make a good marriage and be off her hands.

Relieved that the moment had passed, Alice returned to her room.

As she dressed for the ball she couldn’t stop thinking about her meeting with Duncan Forbes. What did he have to tell her? If her father was still alive, then where was he? It was twenty years since he had leapt into the Thames. Why had he not contacted William? It was a mystery to be certain. She was impatient for tomorrow when she handed over the money and Duncan Forbes would reveal all.

Her nerves were strung tight and she was in no mood for socialising. She could not wait for the night to be over.

* * *

Alice was right. The weather did not deter the guests from arriving. An unending line of carriages filled the circular drive and overflowed through the double gates into the neighbouring streets, lined with big private houses. To be invited to the Countess of Marchington’s ball was an honour, a true mark of distinction.

The grooming and dressing preparations for her engagement ball took Roberta, her maid and Alice three hours. Adorned in a chiffon gown with an overskirt dusted with shimmering silver spangles, her hair brushed until it shone and arranged in soft brown curls high on her head, she resembled a fairy princess.

Alice stood back to survey their handiwork and smiled. ‘There! All done. You’re looking as radiant and as beautiful as the bride you will be in just a few weeks!’

Lady Marchington swept into the room, wearing an elegant russet-and-gold satin gown trimmed in cream lace. ‘Nearly everyone has arrived,’ she announced as Roberta’s maid finished putting the last touches to her coiffure. ‘It’s time to make your grand entrance, Roberta.’

Roberta faced her aunt obediently, but her knees were trembling. ‘I would much rather have stood in the receiving line with you, Aunt Margaret, so I could meet the guests separately. It would have been less nerve-racking.’

‘But not nearly so effective. Come along—you, too, Alice,’ she said, casting a critical eye over the young woman standing by the vanity, her shining black hair caught up at the crown in a mass of thick, glossy curls entwined with ropes of tiny pearls. Roberta was lovely, but Alice was the acknowledged beauty of the two. Tonight no one would have eyes for anyone but her.

Footmen dressed in formal, claret-velvet livery trimmed with gold braid stood to attention in the hall, which resembled a flower garden and smelled just as sweet, with tall silver stands holding urns of freshly delivered flowers and exotic pots of airy ferns. So as not to take the shine off Roberta’s entrance as she walked beside Lady Marchington, stiff with pride, Alice followed in her wake. Simpson stood at the entrance to the ballroom and announced her name in stentorian tones.

A lightning bolt of anticipation seemed to shoot through the crowd, breaking off conversations as three hundred guests turned in unison to look at the girl who, it was rumoured, had stolen the heart of Viscount Pemberton. But the majority looked beyond the pretty brown-haired girl with her shining eyes focused on the young man striding to her side, to feast their eyes on the exotic, raven-haired goddess beside her, a young woman who had fled Paris to escape a scandal of her own making according to the gossips. Alice was dressed in a shimmering gown of sapphire watered silk decorated with serpentine ruched robings on the stomacher, the sleeve ruffles in matching lace fabric. The fashionable style was elegant, the colour matching her lustrous deep-blue eyes.

Indeed tonight she was breathtakingly beautiful. The slender rope of diamonds that adorned her throat flashed with white fire as she stepped into the glittering light of the ballroom, rousing an answering flash of envy in the eyes of every woman present and of their male escorts, too. But the gentlemen’s desires were bent as much on the wearer and the perfection of her smooth features as on her diamond necklace. And yet if one troubled to look harder, they would see something at once remote and detached in the attitude of this dazzling creature, an indifference to her surroundings that was almost melancholy.

When everyone was present, Simpson stepped towards the Countess and called for attention. Conversations broke off and guests slowly turned to their hostess.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ she said in an unsurprisingly carrying voice, ‘I have the very great honour of announcing the betrothal tonight of my niece, Roberta Hislop, to Viscount Pemberton. I ask you to raise your glasses to the happy couple. I will ask them to do us the honour of performing their first formal duty as future husband and wife by officially opening our ball.’

Simpson signalled to the musicians in the gallery with a nod of his head to start the music. It was a happy crowd that watched the handsome Viscount Pemberton take Roberta’s hand and lead her on to the dance floor to begin the dancing. Scrupulously polished mirrors around the opulent ballroom reflected the dazzling couple as they danced before some of London’s richest and most influential people.

Alice watched them, moved by the happiness she saw shining from Roberta’s eyes as she upturned her face to that of her betrothed, which only emphasised her own miserable state. She was seized by a longing to run away. It was a primitive urge, a legacy perhaps from some long-dead ancestor. It was not cowardice—she was not afraid to face her troubles—but rather a need to hide her feelings from prying eyes and seek her own cure in silence and solitude.

* * *

The betrothal banquet was excellent. Only the very finest food was served, with many of the dishes so elaborately dressed that they were viewed and commented on before they were finally tasted. Huge ice sculptures of peacocks and swans formed centrepieces for the tables.

‘Magnificent!’ exclaimed one of the guests. ‘A spread fit for royalty.’

‘And suitable for the betrothal of the Countess of Marchington’s niece to the grand Viscount Pemberton,’ another murmured.

Above the ballroom Italian-crystal chandeliers twinkled and turned, their lights reflected in fancy glassware, ice sculptures and glittering jewellery. With extravagance the order of the night and with an army of servants dancing attendance on the guests, the hours of wining and dining succeeded in their objective of producing a truly unforgettable night.

Alice smiled and laughed, drank some wine and chatted with a group of ladies. She danced with several dashing young men who asked her and made polite conversation, sat through supper with an admirer and danced some more and listened to her partners’ words of admiration. She even managed to keep smiling when one ardent gentleman who had consumed too much wine whispered lewd suggestions in her ear.

He was not the only man present who did not look at her for her wealth, who stared with a lustfulness that sickened her to her soul. She saw with a feeling of horror men who skulked about the edges of the room, now moving in on her like rats after the only morsel of food. As a result of the damage Philippe had done to her reputation, were these the only type of men she could attract now, men who would flaunt her at their sides like a trophy for all to view and envy?

When she could stand it no longer, seeking out Lady Marchington and pleading a headache, she quietly left the ballroom and went upstairs to her room where she could close her eyes and let the darkness hide her.

She felt suddenly very tired. The nervous tension she had lived under since her meeting with Duncan Forbes had left her feeling drained, longing for nothing but the peace and sanctuary of her own room. Closing the door behind her, she crossed to one of the two French windows opening on to balconies with wrought-iron balustrades overlooking the garden. She pulled back the long curtains.

It had stopped snowing. The sky was still and bright with stars, the fountain and stone statues in the shrouded garden etched with a silvery glow. It was a night made for lovers and Alice sighed at the persistent twists of fate by which she, whom so many men desired, seemed doomed to everlasting loneliness because of her disastrous affair with Philippe, which had made her unwilling to become close to any other man.

Abruptly she turned her back on the night. She snuffed out the candles on the mantelpiece, leaving the room with no other light than the soft glow shed by the small lamps placed at the bedside. The room, with its dim, mysterious light and the soft, inviting bed, had the power to attract her. She had made up her mind to sell some of her jewellery in the morning with which to pay Duncan Forbes the hundred pounds he had requested for information about her father, whatever the consequences might be should Lady Marchington find out. She knew she would never rest until she had the truth and then she must write to William. But first she must undress.

Removing the pins from her hair, she shook it out with both hands so that it tumbled like a thick black mantle down to the small of her back. The dress was more difficult to manage and for a moment, driven to distraction by the innumerable hooks, she was tempted to summon her maid, but then she remembered that Philippe had admired her in the dress and with a sudden spurt of anger she tugged and tore the fragile material away from its fastenings and tossed it into a chair. Attired in just her shift, she sat on the bed and removed her shoes. About to stand up, she froze. She had the strange feeling that she wasn’t alone, that someone was watching her. As she looked up her throat tightened and fear jabbed her in the chest.

A man was standing as still as a statue at the window, holding the curtains apart to watch her, looking dark and severe in the shadows. His manner of dress told her he had not been invited to the ball. He wore a tightly cut coat of black cloth and a white cravat. His narrow hips and muscular thighs were encased in black breeches and his gleaming black boots came to his knees. His long hair was tied back in a somewhat unruly style which, she suspected, was the result of carelessness rather than deliberate design. It was a dark shade of brown and in its depths were several strands of glittering grey.

He took a menacing step forward, edging into view with a cynical twist to his lips, allowing the shifting light of the lamps to illuminate his features. The eyes seemed to bore through her, and the gaze was so bold and forward that Alice’s eyes slowly widened and for a brief moment she held her breath, frozen by his steely gaze.

‘You!’ she uttered, struggling against that aching, mesmerising stare. It was him! The man in the park! She had not seen his face properly, but it was him. When he spoke, she was certain.

The intruder saw the wary look of a trapped but defiant young cat enter her transparent eyes, eyes of the deepest blue. ‘Please do not be alarmed. Forgive my intrusion.’

‘I do not, sir! If you lay one finger on my person, I swear I will scream.’ With a cry of indignation and in fearful panic she sprang off the bed and made for the door.

‘For God’s sake, I am not going to hurt you,’ he ground out, and as quick as a panther he moved after her. With no other thought than to stop her raising the alarm prematurely, he grasped her shift from behind and pulled her back, ripping the soft fabric.

Before Alice knew what was happening her foot became tangled in the loose folds of material about her legs. Her arms floundered wildly before she fell to the floor, dragging her assailant with her. She gasped with pain and tears of helpless fury filled her eyes. Her thick hair was trapped beneath the man’s arm and she was unable to move her head. With this small measure of discomfort, something exploded inside her. Suddenly she ceased to care how much he hurt her, but she would not let him do the vile things to her that Philippe had done. His entire being was of finely tempered steel as he leaned over her, his head so close to her own that his warm breath fanned her face.

Fear pricked her consciousness that he would demean her and abuse her, and the surety that he would was beginning to loom monstrously large in her mind. Her mind tumbled over in a frenzy. Please God, don’t let it all be about to happen again. Had she not suffered enough at Philippe’s hands, when he had commanded and she had obeyed, when she had submitted to his pawing? She had wondered what evil she had done that he should abuse her most cruelly, while he pleasured himself at his leisure, telling her that soon she would come to enjoy what he did to her—but for the present she must learn to accept her lot.

Her already depleted strength would little deter this intruder’s assault. But it was best not to dwell on the degradations that would precede the final one and Alice fought the despair that threatened to reduce her to a whimpering wretch.

A new strength surged into her. Like a baited wildcat that turns on its tormentors, she jerked her hair free and hit out at him. Managing to wriggle out from underneath him, in desperation she sank her teeth into his hand. With a string of oaths the man sprang to his feet.

‘You little hellcat!’ he bit out, taking her arm and hoisting her to her feet. ‘Be still, damn you! I’m not going to hurt you.’

She struggled, but he held her easily, letting her wear herself out until she was still. Resolutely she detached her mind from what was happening, the grip of his hand, and thought with savage concentration of how she would punish him when she escaped to tell the constables how she had been treated.

With her breath coming rapidly from between her parted lips, she glared into the cold silver-grey eyes. There was no denying that this man was handsome, physically magnificent. Before Philippe had spoiled her for all men, she might have even dreamed of such a man. But never in those innocent dreams of romance did she imagine that her love would fly to her on the wings of violence.

‘Take your vile hands off my person,’ she hissed. ‘I will scream, so help me I will. I don’t know who you are, but I hate you! I loathe you! I despise you. I don’t want you to touch me.’

‘I promise you that nothing was further from my mind until you threatened to scream the house down,’ he replied coldly.

Ewen Tremain’s manner was almost calm as he looked at her. A more observant woman than Alice might have noticed the distinct hardening of his lean features, the tightening of his jaw, the coldness of his gaze—and taken warning.


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