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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
'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
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.
'Where in hell's name are we, exactly?'
Luis gazed moodily out of the blacked-out window as his car nosed its way slowly through the traffic-clogged outer reaches of London. At least he assumed they were still in London, though the dingy rows of scruffy houses bore little resemblance to the elegant city he was familiar with.
His private secretary consulted his clipboard. 'I believe it's a place called Larchfield Park, sir,' he said gravely. 'It's an area with a high proportion of unemployed residents, and significant problems with drug abuse, gang violence and gun and knife crime.'
'How charming,' Luis drawled, leaning back against the soft leather upholstery with a twisted smile. 'Tomás, may I suggest that if you ever leave your job in the royal household you don't apply for a position as a holiday rep. If I'd wanted to die I could have simply crashed my helicopter into the nearest cliff in Santosa.'
Tomás didn't smile. 'Sir, please let me reassure you that the car is fully armoured. You're in no danger. Since the crown prince's death we've increased security by'
'I know,' Luis interrupted wearily. 'I was joking. Forget it.'
He closed his eyes. His hangover, held at bay all day by a combination of strong painkillers and stronger coffee, was threatening to make a comeback, hammering at his temples with depressing persistence. He had only himself to blame, of course
But then he was used to that.
Anyway, he thought bleakly, given that his behaviour for the past ten months had been completely exemplary, he could just about forgive himself one minor lapse at the Balfour Charity Ball. Especially since no high-profile models had been involved. No married women. No women at all, in fact. His vow to Rico was intact. It had just been him and a rather too plentiful supply of Oscar Balfour's excellent champagne.
It was all so different from last year.
He looked out of the window, not seeing the evening sunlight slanting onto the graffiti-daubed walls, the litter-strewn streets, but a pair of blue eyesBalfour blue, people called itand remembering the way their clear, cornflower-coloured depths had darkened when he'd kissed her. With shock, and with desire perhaps, but also with
He felt a stab of self-disgust as he pushed the memory away. Perhaps it was just as well Oscar's youngest daughter hadn't been there last night. Emily Balfour had been every bit as beautiful as her older sistersa fact which had initially distracted him from her quite astonishing lack of experience. If he'd known how green she was he would have taken it more slowly, taken more time to draw out the tremulous passion he had sensed beneath her rigidly polite veneer. But hindsight was a wonderful thing. Last year, if he'd known a lot of things that now seemed all too bloody obvious, his life would look very different.
'We're here, sir.'
Tomás's voice interrupted his thoughts and Luis realised the car had pulled into a sort of compound surrounded by high wire-mesh fencing. It was now coming to a standstill outside a shabby-looking single-storey building that had clearly seen better days.
His security team had arrived ahead of them and were attempting to be discreet as they patrolled the perimeter of the compound, while a guard stood in the doorway and talked into a microphone headset. A small crowd of gangly youths in hooded sweatshirts had gathered on the other side of the fence.
Luis sighed inwardly.
'Remind me what we're here for again?'
'Well, sir, it's a dance group of'
Luis groaned and held up his hands. 'OK, you can stop right there, unless the next part of that sentence was going to be "eighteen-year-old exotic belly dancers".'
'No, sir.' Tomás consulted his clipboard again. 'It's mixed programme. This is a local youth centre, which provides a number of different sports and dance classes for children aged from four to sixteen. Tonight we're here to watch a performance of tap, jazz, street dance and ballet.'
'Ballet?' Luis repeated scathingly, 'Meu Deus. I take it this is all part of the master plan to reinvent me as sincere, high-minded patron of the arts.'
'The press office did think this kind of involvement with children's community arts would be a useful way of highlighting a more sensitive side to your character, yes, sir.'
Despair and frustration closed in on Luis, surrounding him as palpably as the high wire fence against which the youths were gathering outside. 'In that case you'd better nudge me when it's time to clap,' he said wearily. 'And wake me up if I start to snore.'
Emily turned the corner from the tube station and hurried in the direction of the community centre. She was late. Across the road a cherry tree in full blossom was like a ghostly galleon in full sail in the gloom, and as she walked quickly past, a gust of sudden wind sent white petals swirling across the street, their scent for a moment overpowering the spicy smell of Indian and African food from the takeaway shops at the end of the street. Emily pulled her lumpy second-hand cardigan more tightly around her, bracing herself against another wave of homesickness as she remembered the Japanese cherry trees at the end of the rose walk at Balfour. Where Luis Cordoba had kissed her, a wicked little voice reminded her.
She quickened her pace, automatically lifting her hand to her mouth at the memory as if she could scrub it away, and along with it the disturbing, insistent feelings it aroused in her.
But the next moment all that was forgotten as she saw the crowd of hooded teenagers pressed against the fence of the community centre. As she got closer she could see what was drawing them: two black, official-looking cars with darkened windows were parked in front of the building.