London, February 1819
Kirstin Blair curled up in her favourite armchair in front of the fire and poured herself a cup of fragrant tea. It was a new blend, a gift from one of her oldest friends, the Marquis of Glenkin, but while the smoky brew was undoubtedly as refreshing as any Ewan had previously supplied, tonight she may as well have been drinking dishwater. As she settled in her seat, the rustle of the letter secreted in her dressing gown pocket proved too difficult to resist.
She opened the missive once again, staring down at the bold, decisive masculine handwriting. The maelstrom of emotions she had been keeping at bay all day overtook her, making the delicate Sevres tea cup shake in its saucer. She set it down, closing her eyes, laying her head back on the wings of her chair. She’d never seen his script before. She’d had no inkling, when she broke the seal this morning in her office, of the explosive contents of that single sheet of expensive pressed paper. Scanning the signature first as she always did, she’d thought her eyes deceived her, but a second appraisal of it left no room for doubt. Cameron Dunbar. There could not be another with that particular name.
The shock hit her afresh as she stared at the letter. It was not that she’d thought him dead, more that she had so effectively written him out of her life, it was as if he had never existed. She never permitted herself to recall any detail of that fateful night. As she struggled to repress a confusing and almost unprecedented smart of tears, years of practice allowed her to draw a thick black curtain over the memory. She would not cry. She had barely shed a tear in the darkest of times. She had taught herself to concentrate wholly on the positive, to look forwards not back. ‘Onwards and upwards,’ she whispered to herself now, but the words which had so often inspired her and many of the women she had aided, failed to work their magic on this occasion.
Cameron Dunbar. He was unquestionably an outrageously handsome man, but it was not his classical good looks which had drawn her, it was his smile. He had one of those intimate smiles, a smile seemingly intended only for her. Despite the fact that they had been surrounded by strangers, that the carriage had been pungent from the succession of boiled eggs one passenger consumed at regular intervals, and ripe with the sweat from another, and regardless of the fact that they had been sitting diametrically opposite each other, that smile had enveloped them in a bubble of their own. She’d found herself smiling back, something quite alien to her reserved nature. It should have been a warning. It most certainly should have been heeded.
Kirstin’s eyes snapped open. Cameron Dunbar’s easy charm was of no interest to her. On the other hand, the letter which lay in her lap, whatever his mysterious request turned out to entail, might prove to be a very lucrative business opportunity. If she chose to accept it. Not that she could. She would be a fool to have anything to do with the man who had, albeit unwittingly, come so close to destroying her. She had saved herself, living by her considerable wits, re-inventing herself, working hard to create the myth behind which she now flourished, to establish the flawless reputation she now enjoyed. There was no need to conjure up this ghost from her past.
On the other hand, business was business. Despite the fact that her alter ego was besieged every day with enquiries, such was the complex nature of her extremely discrete and niche service, only a very small percentage of these commissions could be accepted. Making the impossible possible required her to ensure that she never failed, but the need to make a handsome living that would safeguard her future meant she was not in a position to reject any approach out of hand. But this particular prospect she most decidedly could not investigate, far less take on, for she could not possibly meet Cameron Dunbar face to face.
Yet it was impossible to deny that she wanted to, given the incontrovertible evidence that he was alive. She found herself intensely curious as to how his life had turned out, six years on, what his circumstances were. And she wanted to know what desperate bind he had found himself in, that he was compelled to seek her expensive and exclusive assistance. Not that he could have any idea at all who it was he’d actually written to.
Which thought gave her pause. A small smile played on her lips as she poured herself a fresh cup of tea. Taking a sip, she nodded with satisfaction, relishing the smoky blend this second cup. Cameron Dunbar had written to her alter ego. Even if he remembered Kirstin from that one night six years ago, he had no reason to connect the two of them. And actually there was a reasonable chance that he wouldn’t even remember that night, for a man as handsome and as charming and as charismatic as Cameron Dunbar must surely have had many such nights since. That illusion of intimacy between them, that feeling she’d had, the reason she’d allowed herself to be carried away, that she was special, that his behaviour was every bit as out of character as hers was exactly that, an illusion.
Seeing him again would change nothing, Kirstin told herself, but the logical approach which ruled her life, the legacy of her mathematician father, failed to hold sway. Her world was quite perfect, as far as she was concerned, and most importantly of all, it was hers. She had no desire whatsoever to change it, and plenty of reasons to protect it from the eyes of the world. So it made no sense to her that from the minute she opened that letter, a persistent niggling voice had been urging her to meet the owner of the signature.
Relentlessly analytical, Kirstin probed deeper into her own motives. It was not only blind curiosity which drove her, though that did play a small part. She wanted to prove to herself that the path she had chosen was the correct one, that her defiance of convention had been vindicated, that the smooth, impenetrable face she presented to society was the best form of protection from the judgement of the world for those she held most dear, allowing the life of splendid isolation which existed behind the façade to blossom. There was no place there for Cameron Dunbar, but nor was there any room for doubts. Thanks to this letter, he’d temporarily escaped from the mental prison she’d locked him in. She needed to see him one more time, to assure herself that he was completed business, put him back in his cell and this time throw away the key.
Besides, from a business perspective, she had an obligation to meet him, at the very least to discover what it was he sought, and whether she could provide it. If she could, well and good, she would match a deserving subject to his requirements, and there would be no need for them ever to meet again. If not, there was no harm done. Kirstin set down her empty tea cup. She folded up the letter. All she had to do was to find a way for them to meet once, a meeting that would allow her to see him, to question him, but which would grant him no such reciprocal privileges.
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