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London, May 1822
Asher Wellingham, the ninth Duke of Carisbrook, stood in a corner with his host Lord Henshaw, and watched a woman sitting alone near the dais.
'Who is she, Jack?' he asked with feigned casualness. In truth he had noticed her as soon as he had walked into the salon, for it was seldom a beautiful woman wore such a plain gown to a ball and then sat alone looking for all the world as if she was actually enjoying her own company.
'Lady Emma Seaton, the Countess of Haversham's niece. She arrived in London six weeks ago and every young blood has tried to strike up some sort of relationship with her since.'
'Arrived from where?'
'Somewhere in the country, I would presume. Obviously she has not seen a London stylistI've never seen hair quite like it.'
Asher's gaze travelled across a thatch of blonde curls barely restrained by hairpins. A home-fashioned coiffure, he surmised, and executed badly, yet the whole effect of sun-bleached curls threaded with gold and corn was unsettling.
People seldom surprised him. Or intrigued him.
But this girl with her lack of self-consciousness and her fashion faux pas had succeeded. What woman, after all, ate her supper whilst wearing her gloves and licked the end of a silk-covered finger when the jam of a sweet biscuit stained it.
This one did.
Aye, this one did not nibble on the food as every other female in the room was wont to do, but piled the plate before her from the tray of a passing waiter as though her very life depended on it. As though it might indeed be a good deal of time until the next course showed itself, or as if, perhaps in her old life, in some country village, she had not had as much food as she had needed and could barely believe that she was being offered such bounty here.
He saw others looking her way and felt vaguely irritated. The buzz of whisper had grown as she stood, tall and thin, the hem of her gown reaching a good inch above the line that would have been decent and at least three inches above the length that was now in vogue.
He could hear the conjecture and the whispers all around, even if she did not seem to, and he wondered why the hell it should concern him anyway, but there was something about her. Some hint of familiarity.
Some elusive memory of fellowship that could not quite be shaken. How could he know her? He tried to determine the colour of her eyes, but from this distance he could not. Turning, he cursed the Countess of Haversham for being remiss in seeing to her niece's wardrobe and hairstyle, and left Lady Emma Seaton to the circling society wolves.
The room was crowded with men and women chatting at great speed and without pause, the music from a stringed quartet hardly discernible across the din.
Emerald frowned and sat, closing her eyes in order to listen better. People here did not seem to appreciate music, did not seem to understand that, when silence threaded the undertones, sound could be better heard, melody enhanced.
The music was unfamiliar, an English tune and lightly woven. She could almost feel her harmonica at her lips, notes soft across whisper-swelling seas. Jamaica crowded in like an ache.
Nay, she mustn't think of this, she admonished herself, drawing her body more upright in the chair and forcing herself to observe the pressing crowd around her.
This was her life for a time.
Her hands fingered the silk gown that swathed her from head to foot and, raising the third glass of fine champagne to her lips, she swallowed quickly. Good drink dulled her anxiety and heightened other senses. Sound. Smell. Feel. Every pore in her body longed for sun or wind or rain upon it, to break free of her high-waisted frilled bodice. To lie on summer-warm sand or in the wild grasses on the rise above Montego Bay or to dive deep into an azure sea, down and down until the bubbles tickled greenness and the other world was lost.
Letting out an audible sigh, she schooled her thoughts. 'No more memories,'she whispered beneath her breath and was pleased when her aunt sat down on the spare seat opposite. The paleness in her face, however, was alarming.
'Are you quite well, Aunt?'
'He is here, Emmie ' Miriam could barely enunciate the sentence.
'Who is here?' She knew which name she would hear even before her aunt spoke.
Panic raced across fear and anger.
Finally, he had come.
Weeks of waiting had strained her nerves almost to breaking point and the advances of the men here had become increasingly more difficult to discourage. But had he seen her? Would he remember?
Placing her glass upon the table, she refused more from a circulating waiter and her hand strayed to her hair to tuck in an errant curl. Please God, let it be enough, for, if he recognised her, everything would be lost.
'Where is he?' She hated the tight nervousness she was consumed with.
'Over in the corner by the door. He was watching you before. Watching closely.'
Resisting a strong urge to turn around, Emerald summoned up every reserve she had. 'Do you think he suspects?'
'No, for if he did he would have you dragged out of this place immediately, and hanged in the gallows of Tyburn as the daughter of a traitor.'
'He could do that?'
'Oh, you would be surprised what he can do, Emmie, and do with the impunity of a lord who thinks himself so utterly and morally right.'
'Then we must hurry to complete that which we came here to do. Now, look across at him. Slowly,' she added as her aunt's head jolted around. 'Is he carrying a cane of any sort?'
Emerald held her breath as her aunt looked. Could it really be this easy?
'No. He has a drink in his hand. Wine, I think and white.'
She tried not to let her frustration show.
'At least it will not mark this gown.' She had three dresses, procured from the second-hand markets in Monmouth Street, and with a dire lack of funds for any more, did not want this one ruined by a stain that she could never remove.
'Oh, my dear. Surely you do not intend to just bump into him? He would know a sham when he saw one, I am certain of it.'
'Do not worry, Aunt Miriam. I have done this before in Kingston and in Port Antonio when Beau wished for an introduction to some well-heeled stranger. Here it will be easy. Just a small push. Enough at least to allow me the beginnings of a conversation and the chance to be included for a while within his circle of friends.'
'This is the Duke of Carisbrook. Do not underestimate him as your father did.'
Emerald drew in a breath. Beau had become careless but she would not be. Standing, she bent to loosen the silver buckle on her left shoe. The little details needed to be right. She remembered Beau telling her this over and over again.
Asher Wellingham was still speaking with the host when she came in from behind, falling deftly against him. Her small shriek was inspired, she was to think later, for the Duke's reflexes were quick and he had turned to reach for her as she began to lose balance. If the material of her skirt had not caught at the heel of her shoe, she would have been all right. And if the small man beside him had been stronger and kept his feet, all three of them would have stayed upright. But with the highly polished floor and her soft leather soles she could not gain traction and so she simply let herself fall, the splash of wine cold against her skin.
She heard the gasps all around her as the strong arms of the Duke of Carisbrook came under her waist and knees, the black of his superfine jacket soft against her cheek. He was lifting her up against him. Easily.
She felt her own intake of breath at exactly the same moment as she registered the steady beat of his heart, and when his fingers brushed against her bodice, her whole world tilted. Dressed in these ridiculous clothes, the soft swell of her breasts was highly visible and she was taken aback with what she saw in Asher Welling-ham's eyes as he carried her from the ballroom. This close, the light brown was webbed with a fine and clear gold and an undeniable masculine interest. For just a second shock disorientated her and everything became immeasurably more difficult.
'You fainted,' he said as he placed her on a sofa in a room away from the dancing. His voice was deep, the finely tuned vowels of privilege easily heard on the edges and his glance held more than a sting of question. With his dark hair slicked back at his nape and his brandy-coloured eyes, the Duke of Carisbrook was un-forgettable. A man with legendary confidence and enough gall to pursue her father across three oceans.
And kill him!
Bitter anger congealed with an age-old hurt and, raising the pitch of her voice into something that she hoped resembled embarrassment, she brought her fingers to her mouth.
'I'm utterly and dreadfully sorry,' she gushed, pleased when her sentiment sounded so genuine. 'I think it must have been the heat in the ballroom or perhaps the crush of people. Or the noise, mayhap ' Uncertainly she stopped. Was she overdoing the feminine penchant for histrionics with three excuses all rolled into one? Exaggeration was dangerous, but, dressed in this bone-tight gown and these flimsy, useless shoes, it was also surprisingly easy.
With a quick movement of her fan she hid her eyes and regrouped her defences, every pore in her body aware of the Duke of Carisbrook, and every problem she now had a direct result of his actions. Swallowing a snaking thread of guilt, she was pleased when he stepped back.
'Was it you who caught me, your Grace?'
'It was more a case of you bouncing off the frail old Earl of Derrick and landing in my arms.'
She tried to look mortified while thinking what hard work it was to be so perpetually sorry, or eternally grateful, and of a sudden the whole charade of being here seemed impossibly more difficult. She didn't belong, couldn't understand the rules or nuances and every instinct told her to be wary. It was anonymity she needed to maintainif questions were to be asked, they would need answers and she could not give those without endangering everyone she loved. Even the thought made her tremble. 'Where is my aunt?'
'The Countess has gone to find you a shawl for your dress.'
Swinging her legs down off the sofa, Emerald tried to rise. 'If I could stand '
'I think that it may be wiser to stay still.' His words were husky and her pulse spiked sharply as he placed his finger across the veins of her left wrist. Listening for the beat, she thought weakly, and wondered what he would be making of the pace.
When he smiled she knew. Not a man to incite an insipid reaction from any woman, she determined, not even one as badly turned out as she was. Pulling away her hand, she fanned her face in an exact impersonation of the girls she had watched in many a crowded salon across the past month. 'I am seldom so very clumsy and I cannot think what it was that made me trip 'Lifting the hem of her gown, the loosened silver buckle caught the light. 'It must have been this, I wager ' She let him absorb this and was pleased to see Miriam return, a shawl across her arm and her expression drawn. Lord Henshaw accompanied her.
'Are you feeling better, my dear? You could so easily have knocked your head in the fall and the wine has quite ruined your gown. Here, lean forward and I will wrap this about you.'A bright flame of red-gold material was fastened quickly, although Emerald had had enough of being the wilting centre of attention and stood.
'I will be more careful in future and I thank you for your assistance.' She had to look up at Asher Welling-ham as she spoke and, at five foot ten inches in her bare feet, this was not an occurrence that she was often used to. When his eyes caught her own she wished suddenly that her hair was longer and that her gown was of a better quality.
No. No. No.
She shook her head. None of this made sense. Asher Wellingham was her enemy and she would be gone from England as soon as she found what it was she sought. It was the heat in this room that was making her flush and the shock of the fall that had set her heart to pounding. If only she could escape outside and take a breath of fresh air or feel the wind as it made its path along London's river, a hint of freedom on its edge.
Raising her voice to the discordant and high whining tone she had perfected under the tutelage of Miriam, she pushed into her cause.
'I suspect that it was the soles of my shoes that made me falter and the floor itself is highly polished. I do hope that the gossip will not be too unkind.'
'I am certain that it shall not be.' His tone was flat. 'Oh, how very good of you to say so, your Grace,' and although the flare of darkness in his eyes was intimidating she made herself continue. 'Whenever things went wrong at home, Mama always said the strength of a woman's character was not in her successes, but in her failures.'
The tilt of his lips was not encouraging. 'Your mother sounds like a wise woman, Lady Emma.' The sentiment lacked any vestige of interest and she knew that he was fast approaching the end of his patience.
'Oh, she was, your Grace.'
'She died when I was quite young and I was brought up by my father.'
'I see.' He looked for all the world like a man who'd had enough of this discourse, though innate good manners held him still. 'Rumour has it that you are from the country. Which part exactly do you hail from?'
'Knutsford in Cheshire.' She had been there as a child once. It had been summertime and the memory of the flowers of England had never left her. Her mother had pressed one in the locket she now wore. A delphinium, the sky blue dimmed under the onslaught of many years.