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Max Monroe gazed at the cherry blossoms outside the doctor's office on Park Avenue, the fully opened buds as soft and round as pink puffballs. He blinked; were the blossoms blurring together into one indiscernible rosy mass, or was he imagining it? Fearing it?
He turned back to the doctor who was smiling at him with far too much compassion and steepled his fingers under his chin. When he spoke his voice was bland, deliberately so. 'So what are we looking at? A year?' He swallowed. 'Six months?'
'It's difficult to say.' Dr Ayers glanced down at the clipboard that chronicled Max's history of sight loss in a few clinical sentences. 'Stargardt's disease is not a predictable process.As you know, many are diagnosed in childhood, yet yours was not detected until recently.' He gave a tiny, apologetic shrug. 'You could have months of blurred vision, loss of central vision, sudden blackouts ' He paused, tellingly.
'Or?' Max asked, the single word opening up a well of unwelcome possibility.
'or it could be faster than that. You might have nearly complete loss of sight within a few weeks.'
'Weeks.' Max repeated the word with cold detachment, turning to gaze once more at the blowsy blossoms, now at the height of their glory. Perhaps he wouldn't see them fall, wouldn't witness the silky pink petals turn brown and wrinkled, curling up at the corners before they fluttered slowly, disconsolately to the ground.
Max held up a hand to stop the doctor's words of sympathy. He didn't want to hear how sorry the man was, how Max didn't deserve this. Polite but pointless offerings. 'Please,' he said quietly, his throat suddenlystupidly tight.
Dr Ayers shook his head, his words lapsing into a sigh. 'Your case is unique, as the head trauma from your accident might have exacerbated or even accelerated the conditions of the disease. Many people with this disease can live with a managed condition'
'While others are legally blind and have nearly complete loss,' Max finished dispassionately. He'd done his research, back when the first flickers of darkness rippled across his vision, as if the world had gone wavy. Back when he'd been able to read, watch, see. Just three weeks ago, yet a separate lifetime.
The doctor sighed again, then reached for a brochure. 'Living with sight loss is challenging'
Max gave a sharp bark of disbelieving laughter. Challenging? He could do challenging. He thrived on challenges. Sight loss was not a challenge. It was a devastation. Darkness, utter darkness, as he'd felt once before, when the fear had consumed him, when he'd heard their cries He bit off that train of thought, refused to lose himself in the memories. It would be all too easy, and then he would never find his way back.
'I could refer you to some groups that help you to become accustomed'
'no.' He pushed the proffered brochure away and forced himself to meet the doctor's compassionate gaze, angling his head so the man's blurred face was in his peripheral vision, where his eyesight was best. He blinked, as though that would help. As though it would change. Already the world was losing its focus, softening and darkening at the edges like an old photograph. Shapes blurred, and spots and lights drifted across his vision, like stars in a darkening sky. How much he could see at any given time was, as Max was coming to realise, a complete crap shoot.
And when he was sightless, Max wondered, when the curtain of his vision finally drew completely closed, would the present realitythose vibrant cherry blossomsbe like an old photograph to him too? Blurred and distant, hard to remember, fading with time? How would he cope with the unending darkness? He'd felt it once before; he couldn't bear to face it again, yet there was no choice. no choice at all.
He shook his head, both to block the thought and Dr Ayers's suggestion. 'I'm not interested in joining some kind of group,' he said flatly. 'I'll handle this my own way.'
'I'm not talking about some touchy-feely thing' Dr Ayers began. He was, Max knew, a military man, which is why he'd been referred to him. Army, though, not air force. And he hadn't seen any action.
'I know.' He forced his lips to stretch into a meaningless smile. 'Thank you.' He rose from his chair, his head aching, his leg throbbing with pain. For a moment he felt dizzy, groundless, and he reached out to steady himself on the corner of the doctor's desk. He missed, his hand swiping through air, and he cursed aloud.
'I'm fine.' He righted himself, shoulders thrown back in military fashion, his eyes dark and hard, the scar that now bisected his face, running from the inside corner of his right eyebrow along the side of his nose to the curl of his lip, blazing with remembered feeling. Pain. 'Thank you,' he said again and, walking with careful, deliberate steps, he left the office.
outside the window a single, silky petal fluttered lazily to the ground.
Zoe Balfour handed her wrapnothing more than a bit of spangled silkto the woman at the coat-check counter and ran a hand through her artfully tousled hair. Throwing back her shoulders, she stood for a moment in the soaring entrance of the Soho loft and waited for heads to turn. She needed heads to turn, shamelessly craved the attention and praise. She needed to feel like she always had, as though her world hadn't blown apart when the newspapers had splashed the story of her illegitimate birth across their pages just three weeks ago. When the worldher world had drawn a collective gasp of salacious shock. When she realised she didn't know who she was any more.
She took a deep breath and entered the art gallery, plucking a glass of champagne from a nearby tray and taking a deep draught. She relished the crisp taste of it on her tongue, the bubbles zinging through her body. And she sawand feltthe heads turn, but realised now she didn't know why they were turning. Was it because she was a beautiful woman entering a party, or because they knew who she wasand who she wasn't?
Zoe took another sip of champagne, as if the alcohol could ward off the despair that stole coldly into her soul despite her intent to have fun, to forget. It frayed the edges of her composure, made her feel as if she were teetering on the precipice of something terrible, an abyss she couldn't even fathom or name. It was a despair and a fear she'd been fighting since the newspapers had told the story of her shame, and even more so since she arrived in new York three days ago, at the request of her father. no, Zoe mentally corrected, not her father. oscar Balfour, the man who had raised her.
Her father was here in new York.
Only that afternoon she'd finally summoned her courage to stand outside the gleaming skyscraper on Fifty-Seventh Street, watching and waiting for a glimpse of the man she'd come here to see. She'd paced; she'd drunk three coffees; she'd even bitten her nails. After two hours he still hadn't appeared and she'd slunk back to the Balfour penthouse on Park Avenue, feeling like an impostor, a fake and a cheat.
Because she wasn't a Balfour.
For twenty-six years she'd smugly rested in the knowledge that she was one of the Balfour girls, a member of one of the oldest, wealthiest and most powerful families in all of England, if not all of Europe. And then she'd learned from the front page of a gossip rag, no lessthat she had not a drop of Balfour blood in her veins.
She was nobody, nothing. A bastard.
'Zoe!' Her friend Karen Buongornimo, the organiser of tonight's gallery opening, looking sleek and elegant in a littletiny actuallyblack number, her hair like a gleaming dark waterfall, pressed a powdered cheek to hers. 'You look amazing, as I knew you would. Are you ready to sparkle?'
'of course.' Zoe smiled, her voice airy and bright.
Perhaps she was the only one to notice its brittle edge. 'Sparkle is what I do best.'
'Absolutely.' Karen gave her shoulder a little squeeze and Zoe tried to inject some feeling into her smile. Her face hurt with the effort. 'I'm just about to make some terribly insipid remarksI have to thank our sponsors, including Max Monroe.' Karen rolled her eyes suggestively, and Zoe raised her eyebrows, trying to act as if the name had meaning for her. 'He's apparently the most eligible bachelor in the city, but he's certainly not winning any points from me tonight.'
'Oh?' Zoe took another sip of champagne. Someone else wasn't having a good time, she thought, even as another part of her brain insisted fiercely that she was having a good timeshe was the good-time girl. An accident of birth didn't need to change that.
Because if it did
'no, he's sulkingor really, gloweringin a corner, looking like he's got a thundercloud over his head. not exactly approachable.' Karen pouted prettily. 'He's probably consumed a magnum of champagne on his own.' She gave a little sigh. 'Still, he is rather sexy I think the scar just adds to it, don't you?'
'I'm afraid I don't see the man in question,' Zoe replied, surveying the milling crowd, her curiosity piqued, and Karen shrugged.
'It won't be hard to miss him. He's the one looking like someone's torturing him. He did have an accident a month or so ago, and he's not been the same since. Such a nuisance.' She shrugged again and set her glass on an empty tray, air-kissing Zoe on both cheeks. 'All right, I must get everyone's attention somehow.' She pulled her designer dress down a bit, to reveal another inch of bronzed cleavage, and gave Zoe a salacious wink. 'Shouldn't be too hard.'
Smiling faintly, Zoe took another sip of champagne and watched her friend work the crowd. She was usually the one working the crowd, yet she found she couldn't summon the energy or even the desire to chat and flirt and sparkle. All it seemed she could do was remember.
Illegitimacy Scandal Rocks Balfour Legacy! When Blue Blood Turns Bad!
The newspaper headlines screamed inside her mind ever since a grasping journalist had overheard her sisters' argument at the Balfour Charity Ball. They'd discovered the truth of Zoe's birth in her mother's forgotten journal, and Zoe wished they'd never opened that worn book, wished she could forget the truth that now would never escape her. Bad blood. Her blood.
The shame and pain of it was too much to endure or even consider, and so she hadn't. She'd accepted every invitation, gone to every party and nightclub, in an attempt to forget the shame of her own birth, her own self. She'd found her wildest friends and acted as if she didn't care. Yet all the while she'd been frozen, numb. Wonderfully numb.
Oscar had let her be for a fortnight, hardly ever home, arriving at dawn only to sleep the day away.
Then he'd finally forced her out of bed and called her into his study, that sanctum of burnished mahogany and soft leather, the smell of pipe tobacco lingering in the air. She'd always loved that room with its unabashed masculinity and its memories of Sunday afternoons curled into her father's deep leather armchair, flipping through his old atlases and encyclopedias, reading and dreaming of faraway places, exotic names and plants and animals. She'd never been much of a student at boarding school, but she'd loved to read those fusty old books and then regale her family with odd little facts nobody expected her to know.
Yet that afternoon in her father's study she hadn't even glanced at the row of embossed leather encyclopedias. She'd simply stood by the door, listless and blank faced and a bit hungover.
'Zoe.' Her father swivelled in his desk chair to survey her with a kind-hearted compassion that made Zoe's insides shrivel. It lookedand feltlike the compassion of a pitying stranger, not the deserved emotion of a father. 'This can't go on.'
She swallowed, her throat tight, and forced her shoulders to give a tiny shrug. Her head ached. 'I don't know what'
'Zoe.' He spoke more firmly, giving her a stern stare that reminded her of when she'd been eight years old and had got into her stepmother's make-up. She'd used most of a lipstick and eyeshadow in one sitting, and somehow managed to make it to school decked out in glittery warpaint without anyone noticing. 'For the last fortnight you've been out all hours, God knows who with, doing what'
'I'm twenty-six years old,' Zoe returned sulkily. 'I can do as I like'
'Not in my house, with my money.' Although his tone was level, there was a hardness in Oscar's eyes that made Zoe stare at her feet, more miserable than ever before. 'I know the story in that rubbishy newspaper upset you,' he continued more gently, 'but'
'It's not a story.'
For a second Oscar looked nonplussed. 'Pardon?'
'It's not a story,' Zoe repeated a bit more loudly. She looked up, staring at her father with the angry challenge of a sulky childexcept she wasn't a child, had never been his child. 'It's the truth.'
Oscar was silent for a long moment, too long. 'Oh, Zoe,' he finally said, shaking his head, 'is that what you think? That.that somehow this matters?'
'Of course it matters,' she'd replied, her voice torn between a hiss and a whisper. 'It matters to me.'
'Well, I can assure you it doesn't matter to me,' Oscar replied briskly. 'If the truth must be told, Zoe, I suspected as much from before you were born'
'What?' Zoe recoiled as if she'd been stung. Hurt. 'You knew?'
'I suspected,' Oscar replied evenly. 'Your mother and Iwell, we hadn't been happy together in some time'
'You knew all this time and you never thought to tell me?' Zoe shook her head, blinking back angry tears.
'Zoe,' Oscar asked gently, 'why would I tell you such a thing? You areand always have beenmy child in every way that matters.'
Zoe could only shake her head again, unable to voice the clamour of unsettling emotions that raced through her. How could she explain to her father that it wasn't the same, that it did matter? She wasn't a Balfour. She didn't belong.
'I know,' Oscar continued quietly, his voice laced with his own sorrow, 'this is difficult for you. In a matter of months you've lost your stepmother, and discovered you have another sister'
'But I don't.' Zoe met her father's gaze directly. 'Mia's no blood relation to me.' It hurt to say it. Only in the past few weeks had sheand the rest of her sistersdiscovered Oscar's affair before he married Lillian, and the daughter that had resulted from the one-night liaison. Yet while Mia had discovered she was a Balfour, Zoe had learned she was not. The irony tasted bitter in her mouth.