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In Your Arms Again
She was a fraud. He was a fraud.
From his position near the upper balustrade, North Sheffield watched his prey as she twirled around the taupe and cream marble dance floor, smiling in the arms of a handsome young lord. Diamonds glittered in her hair, and her gown was the height of fashion.
She looked as home there as he knew he did, weaving in and out among the upper ranks of society. There was one big difference between her and him. She wanted to belong. North had given up caring about what society thought of him years ago -- when the upper ranks of the ton let him know in no uncertain terms that while he might look as though he was one of them, the simple accident of his birth ensured that he was not.
Bastards weren't equals unless they were born under the guise of legitimacy, and neither North nor the girl laughing far below him could claim such distinction. At least North's father had claimed him. This girl's father stood not even ten feet away from her. If he had any idea of her identity, he did a good job of hiding it.
Poor girl. She would be forever ruined before the night was over. No one would come to her rescue, especially not her father. She would be tossed into the street, if not sent directly to Newgate. Once he unmasked her, her fate would be out of his hands. The knowledge left him feeling dirty.
Sighing, he pulled the silver watch from his pocket and checked the time. A glob of wax from the sconce on the wall by his head dropped onto the glass facing, obscuring the numbers in a splattering of milky white. He wiped it away with his thumb before it hardened.
It was five minutes before midnight. His associates would be waiting for him outside, and he did not want to keep them or the person with them waiting any longer than he had to. It was a consideration he normally didn't extend to those helping him solve a case, but this one was special.
And he felt all the dirtier for it.
Turning his back on the glittering ballroom, he crossed the soft claret red carpet to the stairs.
"There are three men waiting in a carriage out front," he told a footman when he had descended to the next floor. "Have them come in."
The footman looked as though he'd dearly love to tell North to do it himself, but North was still the fellow's better, bastard or not. With a stiff nod, the young man went off to do as he was bid, leaving North watching him with a narrow and somewhat anxious gaze.
He stood alone, in a small opulent vestibule decorated in shades of crimson, cream, and gold, waiting for his companions to join him. He hoped Francis had left the restraints behind as he instructed. He would give the girl -- Lady Amelia, she called herself -- as much dignity as he could. Whether she chose to accept the consequences of her charade with the same dignity was up to her.
Christ, but he'd be glad when this was all over. The entire situation left a foul taste in his mouth. He could just let the girl go, forget all about proving her a fraud. It wasn't as though she was hurting anyone -- at least not anyone who couldn't afford it. She was simply trying to claim a life she believed herself to be entitled to. Of course she had raised suspicions. If she hadn't, no one ever would have thought to hire North to ferret out the truth. The "Caraboo" fiasco of last year had made Society paranoid, everyone new was suspect.
Which was why North could not just let Lady Amelia walk away. Even when he'd first discovered her secret, he knew he wouldn't be able to let her go. To do so would not only be a lie, but if the truth was ever discovered, it would destroy his credibility among the ton as a man of discretion and honor. He could not afford to have his name tarnished any further than his birth and occupation had already tainted it.
The bastard son of the late Viscount Creed and Nell Sheffield, a Scottish actress, North had lived much of his life on the fringes of society. In his mother's world he had been readily accepted and loved. After her death he'd gone to live with his father and brothers -- much to Lady Creed's disapproval. It was in that world -- his father's world -- he had so desperately wanted to belong. But eventually he gave up trying.
Now, those same people who hadn't wanted him hired him to solve their dirty problems, protect their nasty secrets. He was suddenly very much in demand and wanted by the aristocracy. He kept their secrets as though they were his own, and reminded himself to never mistake their offers of friendship for anything other than fragile overtures with no more solidity than the flecks of wax still clinging to the edge of his watch.
Now if only Francis and the others would hurry up so he could get this job over with. He had yet to meet anyone who knew him, mostly because he'd spent the better part of his brief time there skulking in the shadows, but now he was out in the open, and if anyone saw him, the whispers would soon follow. People would begin to suspect that he was there for a reason -- he was rarely in society without a case being involved. He didn't want to answer any questions, and he didn't want the girl to suffer any more than she had to.
North looked up. It was Francis. Six feet tall and barrelchested, somehow the investigator had managed to sneak up on him. That wasn't good. It only proved how much this particular case affected him.In Your Arms Again. Copyright © by Kathryn Smith. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.