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It was Nathanael Colbert walking down the wide staircase of the de Clare ballroom.
Cassandra Northrup knew it was him.
Knew it from the bottom of a rising horror and an unmitigated relief.
The same strength and height, the same dark hair, shorter now but every bit as black. She could barely take a breath, the guilt and the anger that had been stored inside and hidden for so long seeping out, winding her with its intensity.
Lord Hawkhurst, the heir to the Atherton fortune, descended beside Colbert, laughing at something Colbert had said. Disbelief made Cassie dizzy. Why would he be here in such company and dressed like an English lord? Nothing quite made sense, the wrongness of it all inviting disarray.
Shaky fingers closed around the small pottery shard that she always wore around her neck, the heavy beat of blood in her ears making her feel sick. What could this mean for her?
Carefully, Cassie opened her fan so that it covered most of her face and turned from the trajectory the pair were taking. She had to leave before he saw her. She had to escape, but that was becoming harder as shock numbed reality. Maureen clasped her hand and she was grateful for the anchor.
'You look pale, Cassandra. Are you feeling sound?'
'Perfectly.' Even her sister did not know the exact details of what had happened in the south of France all those years ago, for she had never told another soul. A private torment, the details locked in shame.
'Well, you do not look it.'
The will to survive was flowing back, the initial jolt of shock receding under reason. She doubted Colbert would recognise her at a quick glance and resolved to leave as soon as she was able to without inciting future question.
Future. The very word made her stiffen. Could she have a future if he saw her? She felt as if she stood in the ballroom in nothing but the clothes he had once found her in, the events from almost four years ago searing into memory, all anger and fear and regret.
No. She was stronger than this. In a moment she would walk farther away, into the throng of people, carefully and quietly so as to draw no attention towards herself. She had become adept at the art of camouflage within society, the skill of obscurity in a crowd almost second nature to her now. It was how she had survived, washed back into the world she had not thought to be part of again, with its strict observance of manner and rule.
Cassie's gown mirrored her anonymity, the plain dove-grey unremarkable. All around the well-heeled young ladies bloomed like flowers, in yellows and pinks and light blue, tucks, ruffs, frills and flounces adorning their bodices, sleeves and hems. Her widow's weeds were another way to hide in full view from the notice of others.
As five seconds went past, and then ten, she started to feel safer, beguiled by the noise and movement of the very large crowd.
Everything is all right it is still all right.
Her eyes scanned the room, but Colbert was nowhere to be seen. 'I should not have come, Reena,' she said, turning to her sister. 'You manage these things with far more acumen than I. It is simply a waste of my time to be here.'
Maureen laughed. 'I hate these functions, too, but Mr Riley was adamant about the invitation being for the both of us, Cassie, and his purse is a generous one.'
'Well, as he did not show himself I doubt he would have known if I had stayed away.' She needed to leave, needed to walk towards the door as though she did not have a care in the world. The ache inside intensified.
Once she had loved Nathanael Colbert, right from the bottom of her broken life.
The thought of what had happened next made her swallow, but she shook it gone. Not here, not now. Fixing a smile on her face, she listened to Maureen ramble on about the beauty of the room and the dresses and the lines of the small shaped trees set up near the band to give the appearance of a natural grotto. A fantasy world where anything was possible, a kinder world away from all that was sordid and base and unclean. All about her happy banter tinkled, the easy discourse of people with few worries in life apart from what they would be wearing to the next social occasion or the generous inheritances they had garnered from the latest deceased relative.
A strange sound above caught her attention. Looking up, Cassie noticed one of the chandeliers lurching sideways, each globe spluttering with the motion. Would the whole contraption fall? The horror of the thought that perhaps it was about to made her mouth dry. Had anyone else seen? To shout out would draw the attention to herself she so wanted to avoid, but the death of some unknowing soul would be for ever on her conscience if she did not.
'Watch out! The light is falling.' Her raised voice carried easily across the chatter around her, but a group of girls to one side were not quite fast enough. With a crash the ironwork of the leaves and flowers caught the leg of a beautiful young blonde woman.
In the chaos Cassie hurried forward, kneeling almost at the same time as another did, bumping his arm against hers.
Monsieur Nathanael Colbert.
A touch away, unbridled fury in his eyes. Grey eyes with just a hint of blue. Unbalance hit and she felt a jagged panic, her glance taking in the line of his jaw bissected with the scar she'd wrought upon him. When she had last seen this it had been opened red, blood falling across his shirt in a stream. She wanted to reach out and trace it, as if trying through touch to let him know of her sorrow. He would not welcome it, she knew, but betrayal always held two sides and this was one of them.
The sheer physical presence of him scorched at sense but as the woman's cries mounted the healer in Cassie prevailed. She could not deal with the ramifications of meeting Colbert now. Looking down, she placed her palm hard against the back of a shapely knee and the flow of blood waned, red dribbling on to her skirt, the colours mixing strangely.
'Keep still. There is a lot of bleeding and it needs to be stemmed.'
At that the young girl sobbed louder, grasping her free hand in a vice-like grip.
'Will I die?'
'No. A person is able to lose at least twenty per cent of their blood and still feel only mildly cold.'
Leached grey eyes raked across her own, no warmth whatsoever within them.
'How much would you say I have already lost?' The wounded girl's voice was breathless with panic.
Cassandra made a thorough check of the area, lifting her ankle to ascertain just what lay beneath.
'A little over half that amount so it would be wise to stay calm.'
The answering terrified shriek left her ears aching.
'I am certain that it is not so severe, Miss Forsythe.' The voice she had recalled in her dreams for so many years was measured. It was the first time she had ever heard him speak in English, the clipped and rounded vowels of privilege hanging upon every word. She hated the way her heart began to race.
'Well, as your shin has been badly cut it is most important that you '
A shadow to one side caught her glance and then all she knew was black.
Sandrine Mercier? Speaking perfect English? Downed by the last falling remains of the chandelier and completely unconscious. The loathing he felt for her swelled in his throat. Another deceit. A further lie.
She lay on her side, her eyelashes magnified against the shining de Clare tiles, her hair shorter now, and sleeker. She was still thin, but the beauty once only promised had blossomed into a full and utter radiance.
He wanted to stand and turn away, but to do so would invite question and in his line of work such scrutiny was never a good thing.
Lydia Forsythe was screaming at the very top of her voice, but the bleeding from her leg had almost subsided. A doctor had scurried over as well as her distraught mother and a myriad of friends. Around Sandrine just himself and one girl lingered, an uncertain frown on her forehead and tears pooling in dark-brown eyes.
Albi de Clare, the host of the evening's entertainment, crouched down beside him. 'My God, I cannot understand how this has happened for the lights were installed only a few months ago and I was assured that they were well secured. If you can lift her, Nathaniel, there is a room leading off this one that should offer more privacy.'
Another touch. A further punishment. When Nat brought her into his arms blue-green eyes snapped open to his, horror blossoming into shock.
'I never faint.'
'You didn't this time, either. The debris from the chandelier hit you.'
She was vibrating with panic, her head turned away. On reaching the smaller salon he placed her down upon a sofa, wishing he could leave.
'My personal physician is amongst the guests, Nathaniel, and he is examining Miss Forsythe as we speak.' Albi de Clare's tone was muted and Nat saw Sandrine's glance flicker round taking in the presence of the others who had followed them in. 'He will come to you next.'
'No.' Already she had swung her feet onto the floor and was sitting there, head in her hands. 'Please do not take the trouble to call him, my lord. I should not wish for any fuss and I already feel so very much better.' She stood on the word and just as quickly sat down, beads of sweat garnering on her top lip.
Albi, however, was not dissuaded from seeking a medical opinion, hailing his doctor as he came into the room.
'Mr Collins, could you have a look at this injury?
The back of the patient's head has connected with the remains of the lamp.'
The old physician placed his leather satchel on a table next to the sofa before making much of extracting a pair of glasses from an outer pocket and perching them across his nose.
'Certainly, sir. Those outside intimated that you were one of the first on the scene, Lord Lindsay. Was the young lady unconscious for long after this happened?'
'Only for a few seconds,' Nat answered. 'As soon as I picked her up she seemed to regain her mind.' Plain and simple. Everything complex and twisted would come later.
Sitting, the physician held up two fingers.
'How many do you see, my dear?'
The woman beside Sandrine shook her head and worried eyes went quickly to her.
'Three. Two.' Guessing for all her heart's worth.
'Do you have a headache?'
'Just a small one.'
'Is your right arm numb?'
She did not answer as she dug her nails into the flesh above her elbow. So numb she did not feel it at all?
At the doorway a group of interested onlookers had gathered, though Sandrine, marked by the blood of the other victim, looked bewildered and vulnerable. She had also begun to shake. Badly. Taking off his jacket, Nathaniel tucked it about her, for shock could be as much of an enemy as injury. He hated himself for bothering.
'Warmth will help.'
For the first time he noticed the pendant at her throat, the one he had given her in Saint Estelle before she had betrayed him. The grey fabric of her bodice had drooped to reveal the roundness of one breast and the tall woman who had followed them in knelt down to pull the gown back into place, the skin on her cheeks flaming.
'Keep still, Cassie.'
Cassie? The anger in Sandrine's eyes was magnified by a deep and startling verdant green.
Albi's voice broke into his thoughts. 'If you bring Miss Cassandra this way, Nathaniel, a carriage is waiting. Miss Northrup, if you would collect her reticule and follow us?'
Northrup? Maureen and Cassandra Northrup? These were two of Lord Cowper's daughters? Hell.
A shutter had fallen across her averted eyes at the mention of her name, wariness and the cold surge of alarm evident.
'I need no extra assistance, my lords. My s sister can help me to our conveyance.'
At that the other moved forward, pleased to be able to do something in the room with all its onlookers and the stark awkward silence.
Within a moment they were gone, both of them, only the scent of some flower he could not name left behind.
Hemlock? Foxgloves? Lily of the Valley? All poisonous and lethal.
Albi watched them go, a frown across his brow. 'The Northrup sisters may have their detractors, but it is my reasoning that with just a little time and effort they could knock the Originals from their perches. They seldom come out into society, but by all accounts their mother was beautiful, too. I think there's a third sister, married and living in Scotland. You will need to get your jacket back.'
'Perhaps.' Nat's tone was flat.
'They live in Upper Brook Street and you can't miss Avalon, the Northrup monstrosity.' Nathaniel did not wait to hear more, walking out instead to the ballroom and being instantly surrounded by the newest and most beautiful débutantes of the season.
Young women of impeccable taste and good breeding, their pasts unblemished and flawless. He smiled as he moved into their midst.
Cassie's head ached and her neck stung. She knew the wax from the candle globes had burnt her, but there had been too much to ascertain about the health of the young woman to spend time thinking about her own injuries.
The physician had called him that and de Clare had named him Nathaniel. Lord Nathaniel Lindsay, the heir apparent to the earldom of St Auburn. She could not believe it, could not quite take in that her dangerous rescuer in Nay with his scarred body and quick reflexes was now a dandified lord, known across all of England for his wealth and his power, with family lineage stretching back across the centuries.
Away from the stares, Cassie was feeling a lot better. The borrowed coat was warm, her shivers lessened by the touch of wool. She could smell him, too, here in the carriage, the depth of him and the strength and if her sister had not been right there beside her she might have breathed in further, allowing the colours of his beauty to explode inside, tantalising and teasing.
The scent of a man who could ruin her.