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Balfour Manorgolden and majestic and glowing like topaz in a bed of emerald velvet. Every detail was as familiar to Emily as the back of her own hand. And yet it was the last thing she expected to see in the grimy, diesel-scented chill of the underground station.
It was rush hour. Carried along in the flow of harassed and preoccupied commuters, blinking in the sudden gloom after the brightness of the May evening outside, Emily's first thought was that she was imagining it. That, after two months of self-imposed exile in a bedsit that added a whole new dimension to the word grim, her homesickness had finally got the better of her and she was hallucinating.
Behind her a man cannoned into her as she stopped in her tracks, and swore disgustedly. Muttering apologies Emily ducked her head and pushed against the stream of people, back in the direction of the news stand. She must have been mistaken. It was a picture of Buckingham Palace she'd seensome story about a minor royal indiscretion or
Illegitimacy Scandal Rocks Balfour Legacy
Light-headed with horror Emily snatched up a paper and scanned the column beneath the headline, her mind reeling. It bristled with exclamation marks and was dotted with sly ellipses, but the names jumped out at her: Olivia Balfour Bella Alexandra Zoe
'Are you going to buy that paper? I'm not running a library here, you know.'
From an alternative reality the disgruntled voice of the newspaper-seller penetrated her consciousness. 'Oh. Yes. Sorry. Of course,' she said hastily, delving into the pocket of her cardigan for the five-pound tip given to her by a drunken businessman who had told her all about his wife and kids and then put his hand up her skirt. Mollified, the newspaper man gave her a conspiratorial wink.
''Ow the other 'arf live, eh? Beautiful houses in all the best spots across the world, cars, money, partiesbut I ask you, is any one of them Balfours happy?' Shaking his head, he gave an amused chuckle.
No, Emily thought numbly as she backed away, the paper clutched in her hands. I don't think we arenot any more. She attempted to give him an answering smile, but her face was stiff, her eyes wide and unblinking as the words from the article swooped and swelled inside her head: shocking discovery illicit affair illegitimate disgrace scandal
Just a year ago it had all been so different. As she rejoined the press of people the moment before the guests started to arrive and she had gone downstairs in her blue silk dress, feeling so grown-up.
But she hadn't been grown up at all. Not then. She'd been stupidly, embarrassingly naive.
She rejoined the press of people crowding down into the airless tunnel, holding the newspaper with its lurid headline against her body as if that way she could keep its accusations and speculations secret from the rest of the world. As she waited on the platform she noticed with a stab of anguish that a woman to her left was holding a copy of the paper, her face bored and expressionless as she read the story beneath the headline, as if it was insignificant.
A rumble in the darkness indicated the arrival of the train. Pushing to the front of the crowd squeezing onto the train with uncharacteristic assertiveness, Emily slipped quickly into an empty seat, for the first time in her life without looking round to see if anyone else needed it. As the train jerked into the darkness of the tunnel she took a deep breath and unfolded the paper.
Exclusive! When Blue Blood Turns Bad
Last night there was only one place to see and be seenat the Balfour Charity Ball! But despite the glitz and the glamour, all was not as it seemed.
Behind the scenes, Olivia Balfour and her scandalous twin Bella were locked in a battle over a shocking discoverythat their late mother, socialite Alexandra Balfour, had conceived their sister Zoe during an illicit affair!
Biting her lip against a whimper of distress Emily raised her head and stared blindly ahead of her as Zoe's face swam into her mind. Beautiful, wild Zoe, with her dazzling green eyes that set her apart from her blue-eyed sisters.
She looked down at the paper again, scanning over the rest of the article as her mind whirred and her stomach churned. She was trembling, as if she was cold, and had to grip the paper tightly in both hands to hold it steady enough to read.
The Balfour name might be synonymous with glamour and style, but this is the second illegitimate family member to be outed in as many months. It seems this dynasty is rotten to its core
Which was more or less the same accusation that she'd hurled at her father on the night of Mia's untimely arrival at Balfour Manor. Emily stiffened as the memory of that appalling evening seized her in an icy grip. Poor Mia. She had come in search of a happy family and had instead had walked straight into a tragedy worthy of Chekhov.
The train jolted to a standstill in another station, bringing Emily roughly back to the present. She blinked, looking around her as another tide of people ebbed and flowed through the doorsanonymous faces with lives and interests and joys and heartaches she couldn't begin to guess. And she was just another of them. Another anonymous face in the crowd. A girl on her way home from work, just like any other.
A void of loneliness opened up in front of her, and before she could do anything she felt herself hurtling into it. She squeezed her eyes shut, sucking in a breath, momentarily dizzy and disorientated with homesickness. It happened from time to time; she was getting used to it. It was just a case of holding on and waiting for it to pass. The problem was, up until two months ago, her family and her dancing had been her whole life. And now she had neither.
She looked down at the newspaper, avid for any crumbs of information about the people she loved and had turned her back on so completely. At the bottom of the front page article she read: 'For a full report and pictures of last night's sparkling charity ball, see pages 12-13 '
With shaking fingers she turned the pages, smoothing the paper across her knees as she came to the colourful splash of photographs. Tears leapt into her eyes, but she blinked them away impatiently. Oh, God, there was Kat, looking gorgeous in a dress of scarlet satin, and Bella and Olivia standing together, their dazzling, practised smiles not quite hiding the tension in their eyes. 'The calm before the cat-fight,' read the caption beneath the picture. Looking into their familiar faces Emily realised that she was smiling, even though her heart felt like it was being prised open with a pickaxe, but her smile faded as her gaze moved to a picture of her father standing next to a familiar and distinguished English actress. She was a longtime friend of the family, but noticing the way Oscar's hand was looped lightly round her waist Emily suddenly found herself wondering if she'd ever been more than that .
The shadows gathered at the corners of her mind, the dark shapes slipping through the trees.
Hating herself for her cynicism and suspicion, hating her father for planting it in her mind, she glanced quickly away, to the next photograph.
She tried to tear her gaze away. Really, she did. She didn't want to keep looking helplessly into the slanting golden eyes that stared straight out at her from the page, or remember how it had felt to have them looking back at her for real. Moving over her body. Glittering with amusement and delicious wickedness
'Prince Luis Cordoba of Santosa arrives at the party,' said the text beneath the picture. 'But will the newly reformed playboy prince be able to withstand the temptation of the wild and wayward Balfour girls?'
At that moment the train juddered to a halt and dazedly Emily realised she'd reached her stop. She sprang to her feet, bundling the paper up. For a split second she considered leaving it on the seat, but instead found herself tucking it under her arm as she got off the train.
Because she hated the thought of a stranger picking it up and poring over the sordid details of her family's disgrace, she told herself as she walked briskly towards the stairs. Not because she wanted to read any more about Luis Cordoba, or gaze longer at the photograph of him looking brooding and beautiful in black tie, for goodness' sake.
Of course not.
Why would she? He was dangerous, and Emily didn't like danger. She had no interest in him whatsoevera fact which she'd made perfectly clear at last year's ball.
And just to prove it to herself again now, she dropped the paper into the first bin she passed at the entrance to the station. And she allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction as she walked purposefully away.