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Sebastian Conway, Marquis of Ardhallow, glanced wearily at his watch before returning it to his fob pocket. Just gone midnight. Ye Gods was that all! He'd expected the evening to be substantially more entertaining, especially since this house had a reputation for hosting the raciest parties on the ton's social circuit.
The recent death of King George the Fourth having caused many social gatherings to be cancelled, there was a very healthy turnout at this one. The relative earliness of the hour meant that the veneer of respectability cloaking the main salon was still more or less intact. The ladies sat clustered in small groups, idly swapping gossip, artfully posed to display their ample charms. Their gowns cut fashionably but daringly, they comprised the so-called fast set, women longenough married to have done their duty by their husbands, who therefore considered themselves to have earned the right to conduct the kind of discreet affaire which frequently both began and ended at a party such as this. On the other side of the room the gentlemen gathered, sipping claret and appraising their quarry with a practised eye. The air crackled with sexual tension. Everything was the same, just exactly as he remembered, and none of it interested him one whit.
Sebastian exited the drawing room. In the adjoining salon, for those eager to lose their wealth rather than their reputation, card tables had been set up. The play was deep and the drinking which accompanied it deeper still, but he had never been interested in games of chance. Out of curiosity he made his way to a room at the back of the house which had been the subject of salacious rumour.
The chamber was dimly lit, the windows heavily shrouded. He paused on the threshold. The atmosphere inside was thick with a sweet pungent smell which hung like incense in the air. Opium. As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he could make out several prone figures lying on divans, some lost in the dream-like state induced by smoking the drug, others clutching their pipes to their mouths, eyes glazed, attention focused inwards.
The room had been decorated in the Eastern manner, strewn with low divans, the rich carpets covered in jewelled and fringed cushions of silk and velvet. He had seen numerous such places on his travels and his own, single, experience of the drug in Constantinople had been, on the whole, pleasant. His dreams had been highly sensual, heightening the pleasure of the release he sought afterwards in the adjoining seraglio. He knew that others endured waking nightmares and grotesque hallucinations while under its influence, or suffered shivering sweats in the aftermath, and so counted himself fortunate. Perhaps if he indulged tonight, it would make one of the beauties so patently on offer in the salon more tempting.
A low, grumbling objection from one of the smokers reminded him that he was still holding the door ajar. Closing it softly behind him, he leaned against the oak panelling and scanned the room. In the centre, a low inlaid table held the complex paraphernalia required to vaporise the opium. A selection of bamboo pipes with their bowls and saddles were set out on a lacquered tray beside several opium lamps. Scrapers, scoops and tapers were scattered across the table, and the drawers of the little cabinet which contained the opium itself were askew. His host, that most flamboyant and failed of poets, Augustus St John Marne, had married an heiress, he now recalled. It must be she who was funding her husband's hobby, which was like to be very expensive, especially since he was supplying his guests' requirements so generously.
The poet wafted into the room at that very moment, waving distractedly at Sebastian. St John Marne was a wraith-like figure who had in his youth, if one were to believe the gossip, had the ladies swooning over his beauty and the breathless romance of his verse. A few of the other faces in the room were frighteningly familiar, men he had known all his life. Rich, titled, dissolute and purposeless, they looked much older and more jaded than their years, though many were the same age as he.
Slightly sickened by this realisation, Sebastian deciding against partaking of the drug and was turning to leave when a long tress of hair caught his attention, stopping him in his tracks. It was far too long to belong to any man. The colour, that of burnished copper, made his heart freeze for one long, terrible moment. He had never known another with hair that precise colour, but she would surely not frequent a place such as this.
The woman was lying with her back to the door, her figure obscured under a swathe of shawls and embroidered throws. It wasn't her, and even if it was, he had sworn he would have nothing to do with her ever again. If she chose to make herself insensible with opium, it was none of his business.
Thus spoke his head. Sebastian's feet were already moving of their own accord towards the divan, his heart thudding hard and fast in his chest, his skin suddenly clammy with sweat. If it was indeed her, and he simply couldn't bring himself to believe it was, then the wisest thing he could do would be to turn around and leave forthwith.
He leant over the divan and roughly pulled back the covering from the comatose woman's body. She did not stir. Sebastian swore heavily, reeling with shock. He barely recognised her. Thin, painfully so, under the emerald gown which hung loosely around her, the only sign of life was the pulse fluttering under the fragile skin at her temple. He cursed again. Her eyes were closed. Wisps of copper hair clung to her high forehead, which had a glistening sheen of perspiration. Her hand, when he touched it, was clammy. The skin which had once been so milky-white was ashen. Her cheekbones were too prominent, flushed not with health but fever. Her mouth, whose sensual, teasing smile he had once found irresistible, was drawn into a tight grimace. Beneath her lids, her eyes fluttered. Her hand gripped him like a claw and she moaned, a tiny, hoarse sound of protest against the opium-induced hallucination she was experiencing. Hers had always been the kind of beauty which reflected her mood, sometimes in full bloom, at others so withdrawn into itself as to make her look quite plain. Now, she looked more like a cadaver than a living, breathing woman.
Scarcely-breathing woman, Sebastian corrected himself as he bent his head towards her face. Her breath was the merest whisper upon his cheek. What had happened to her? The woman he knew was so strong, so full of life, so vibrant. She had been patently unhappy when last they met, but this stupor went way beyond the seeking of painless escape. What had befallen her to make her so careless of her life?
Telling himself again that it was none of his business, he knelt down next to the prone figure, a terrible suspicion lodged in his head. Her lips were cracked and dry. He bent closer and touched them with his own, the merest contact, yet enough to confirm his fears. She had not smoked the drug but consumed it. Dear Lord.
'Caroline.' He tried to rouse her by shaking her shoulder. Still, she did not stir. 'Caro!' he exclaimed, more sharply this time.
There was no response. Getting to his feet, Sebastian turned towards his host, who was fastidiously preparing a jade pipe on the table in the centre of the room. 'How long has she been like this, St John Marne?'
The poet blinked at him owlishly. 'Who?'
'Caroline! Lady Rider. How many other women have you here, for heaven's sake! How long?'
'I don't know. I do not recall
' Augustus St John Marne ran a hand distractedly through his over-long blond hair. 'Two hours? Three at most.'
'Three! And she has not stirred in all that time?'
'I'm the host, not a governess, for goodness' sake. I can't be expected to keep an eye on all my guests. Let her be, she'll come round. Obviously she has misjudged the quantity.'
'She has not taken it in a pipe, St John Marne, she has ingested it.'
'Egad!' Suddenly the former poet was all flapping concern. 'Are you sure? You must get her out of here. This is very purethe best, I only ever serve the best. What can have possessed her. Take her away, get her to a doctor, give her a purge, just get her out of here right now, I beseech you.'
Sebastian told himself yet again to walk away. Caro was a grown woman. Given the four year age gap between them, she must be seven-and-twenty and therefore more than capable of taking care of herself. Except that there was something about her that told him she no longer cared for anything. The way her hair fell about her in lank tresses, the pallor of her skin, the outmoded gown. Her breathing seemed to be growing ever more faint.
In all conscience Sebastian could not leave her here, but he had no idea where she lived. A terse question prompted St John Marne to look at him in surprise. 'Did you not you hear? Rider threw her out. Caught her in f lagrante with the boot boy, according to the Morning Post. Turns out that the boot boy was merely the latest in a long line, and Rider being the up-and-coming man in Tory circles, he really had no option but to be shot of her.' The poet tittered. 'Quite the social outcast, is Lady Caroline. She has lodgings somewhere. My footman will know, he knows everything.'
Sebastian struggled with a strong and perfectly unjustified desire to smash his fist into his host's supercilious face. 'What of her family?' he demanded tersely. 'Surely Lord Armstrong
St John Marne sneered. 'Oh, the great diplomat is off saving the world, I believethe Balkans or some such place, last I heard. The house on Cavendish Square is shut up. That frumpy wife of his must be in the country with her brood of boys. As for the sistersnot one of 'em left in England now, save for this one and the youngest, who has apparently eloped.' He looked contemptuously over at the comatose figure. 'You could say, you really could say, that poor Lady Caroline is quite alone in this world.'
Pity overwhelmed Sebastian, and anger too. Whatever she had doneand he simply could not bring himself to believe those scurrilous allegationsshe did not deserve to be abandoned. Whatever had happened to her, she had obviously given up hope. He would regret what he was about to do. He would curse himself for it, but he could not leave her alone in this state when there was no one else to care for her. Wrapping a black velvet cover around her body, Sebastian lifted her into his arms and strode, grim-faced, from the room.
Killellan ManorSummer 1819
The sun beat down remorselessly from a cloudless sky as Lady Caroline Armstrong made her way towards the rustic bridge which spanned the stream at the lower border of Killellan Manor's formal gardens. She paused on the pebbled banks, tempted to pull off her shoes and stockings and dip her feet in the burbling waters, but knowing she would then be in full view of the house she resisted, her desire to be alone much more powerful than her need to cool down.
Not that anyone was at all likely to be interested in her whereabouts, Caro thought dispiritedly. At sixteen, she already felt as if she had endured enough upheaval to last her a lifetime. She barely remembered Mama, who had died when Caro was five. Celia had taken her place, but two years ago Celia too had abandoned them to accompany her new husband on a diplomatic mission to Egypt. Her eldest sister's departure had left the four remaining sisters quite bereft. The murder by renegade tribesmen of George, Celia's husband, had shocked Caro to the core, though not nearly as much as the subsequent developments which saw Celia happily ensconced in Arabia and married to a Sheikh. Of course Caro was glad Celia had found happiness but she couldn't help wishing, just a little selfishly, she had found it a little closer to home. She missed Celia terribly, especially now that things had changed so drastically at Killellan Manor.
Pausing in the middle of the bridge to carry out the ritual of casting a twig into the waters, waiting only long enough for it to emerge, bobbing and bumping along in the shallows on the other side, Caro took the path which led through the woods to the borders of her father, Lord Armstrong's estate. It was quiet here and cooler, the sun's rays dappling down through the rich green canopy of the leaves.
She made her way along the path almost without looking, her thoughts focused inwards. They had always been close, the five sisters, but Celia had been the glue which bound them. Since she left they had all, it seemed to Caro, retreated from each other in their own way. Cassie, who always wore her heart on her sleeve, had hurled herself, in typically melodramatic fashion, into her coming-out Season. She had already fallen wildly in love with the dashing young poet Augustus St John Marne and had taken to declaiming long tracts of his terrible poetry, at the end of which she inevitably collapsed dramatically in tears. Caro, for what it was worth, thought Augustus sounded like a bit of a ninny. Cressie had simply locked herself away with her precious books. And as for Cordeliawell, Cordelia always was as mysterious as a cat.
The only thing which united the sisters these days was their enmity towards Bella. Caro kicked viciously at a stone which lay in her path, sending it flying into a cluster of ferns. Bella Frobisher, now Lady Armstrong, their father's new wife. Their new stepmother. Cassie had summed it up best. 'Bella,' she had said dismis-sively, 'has no interest in anything but usurping all of us by providing Papa with a son and heir. As far as Bella is concerned, the sooner she can empty Papa's nest of its current occupants and replace us with her own little cuckoos the better.' And that prediction had proven to be wholly accurate. Bella made her indifference towards her stepdaughters quite plain. And as for Papa, once he had ensconced his new wife at Killellan, he was as absent a father as ever, wholly consumed by his political manoeuvrings. Not even Bella, it seemed, was as important as the diplomatic affairs which sent him to London, Lisbon and goodness knows where he was just now.
It could be Timbuktu for all Caro cared. Except she did care, no point denying it. Papa was all she had left. She wished that he would, every once in a while, put his family before his country. She knew he loved her, he was her father, after all, but there were times, like now, when she was completely miserable and it would be nice to have some evidence of the fact. She kicked even harder at another, bigger stone. The pain which stabbed her toe was comforting, a physical reflection of her inner mood.