Before Alex could think, he took her uncovered hand in his own ungloved hand. The feel of her skin against him was a hot brand upon his heart, both a balm and an agony.
Wordlessly, she followed him to the corner, where Ellingsworth and Langdon couldn’t cast their curious gazes in his direction. Even in a gaming hell, where guests engaged in numerous vices, people gossiped.
Her familiar fragrance of rose and warm vanilla drove thorns of heat through his chest. Though her expression remained unreadable, the long line of her throat revealed the quick pulsation beneath her flesh. His fingers itched to stroke along that silken column, as he’d done before. Or press his lips to the spot at the juncture of her jaw and neck, to taste her again.
Her eyes widened slightly, as if she could read his thoughts.
Very slowly, as if diffusing an incendiary device, she untangled her fingers from his. But she didn’t put more distance between them.
“Alex,” she whispered.
“Where did you go?” he demanded lowly.
She didn’t speak. Yet her gaze never left his.
“I woke up,” he continued, “and you had disappeared.”
Her gaze slipped to the side, as if she had trouble looking him in the eye. Was she ashamed?
He pressed, “No one at the hotel knew when you’d left or where you had gone.”
Her lips tightened regretfully. “I know.” She glanced back at him, and a wealth of misery shone in her eyes. “I’m…” She drew a breath. “I’m so sorry.”
Her apology was only a trickle of water upon the hot wound of the past. The words were too meager for the immensity of his feelings, broad and vast as a jungle, and just as dangerous.
He couldn’t stop the words that tore from him, revisiting that dark time. “And then no word. Not a letter, not a note. Nothing.” Anger and fear pulsed beneath his words. And relief, to find her again after so long, after he’d believed the worst.
“I looked everywhere for you,” he went on. “Every inn between Cheltenham and London. My solicitors scoured the country for word of you.”
“England is a vast place,” she whispered. Her face was pale, her eyes wide.
“It always seemed too small to me,” he gritted. “Until I tried to find you. It was as though you were made of smoke. You vanished utterly.”
She looked down at her clasped hands, her knuckles white as she gripped her fingers tightly.
He gazed at the crown of her head, shining softly gold like something deeply precious. “I thought—” His voice thickened. “I thought you’d been hurt. Worse. That you’d…” He couldn’t even say the word, though he had proof at last that his greatest fear had been unfounded.
“Oh, God, no,” she breathed. She glanced up, and then her eyes briefly closed. “I had hoped that you’d forget me. Go on with your life as if we’d never met.”
“How can you say that?” He realized his voice had grown louder. Alex carefully lowered his tone so that they wouldn’t be heard above the noise of the gaming hell. “It’s not my habit to seduce impoverished widows at spa towns.” Sharp, cutting feelings threatened to overwhelm him once more—in Cheltenham, he’d reached toward her like a plant finding sunlight. And when she’d gone, he could only think that again, he was unworthy of love. The sun disappeared.
“Nor is it my custom to become a duke’s lover,” she said, barely audible.
The words seduce and lover reverberated between them. Her pupils widened, darkening her eyes. Her gaze darted up and down his body. A flush stole into her cheeks. She blushed like that when she came.
He couldn’t think of that now. Not here. Not when there were too many unanswered questions and raw emotion nearly engulfed him.
“Please,” she breathed. “Forgive me. I acted out of self protection.” She pressed her hand against his thundering chest. “The money you gave me—so honorably—it was enough for me to go home. To contest my wicked cousin.” Her brow furrowed and her mouth turned down. “The villain. The clever, shrewd villain. He kept my creditors hounding me. I had to leave for home in the dead of night so they wouldn’t pursue me. I had to vanish utterly to keep myself from the Marshalsea.”
The thought of Cassandra being imprisoned there shot frost through him. The infamous debtors prison was a miserable place, full of desperation and sorrow. Alex had once been there to visit an old school friend, who had refused to allow him to pay off outstanding debts. The Marshalsea was a warren of sad, cramped rooms and hopeless people spending interminable hours in squalor.
“Damn it,” he said gruffly. He barely cared that he’d sworn in her presence.
She smiled sadly. “I know.” Her smile faded. “I reached home, also in the dead of night and found my ancestral home barred to me. No place to go, no friend to give me shelter. I applied to the local magistrate.” She shook her head mournfully. “Too late. My cousin had taken control of my entire fortune. I hadn’t two groats in my pocket. I had nothing, and nowhere to go.”
He shook with the force of her revelations. The trials she had endured. Faintly, he heard the shouts of the men and women at the gaming tables, the click of dice, and harsh explosions of laughter. They seemed so far away, so frivolous to what Cassandra had faced.
“You could have come to me,” he rasped. Her hand against his torso recalled that night, two years ago, when they had gone to bed together. She’d dug her nails into his chest, urging him on, as he’d moved within her.
A merciless storm of desire and emotion pummeled him. He wanted to rage against it like a mad king shouting at the tempest, yet it had him. All these years had passed, and his hunger for her—his need for her affection—hadn’t dimmed. Not at all.
“Already, you’d done so much for me. How could I ask for more?”
He felt his cheeks darken. “What’s the use of my bloody fortune if I couldn’t help you?” Rage at her faceless cousin was an acid in his veins. “Tell me that bastard’s name and I’ll wring your fortune out of him.” He’d never meant any words more than these.
She shook her head once more. “He took my money and went to the Continent. Aix-les-Bains, Vichy, Montecatini Terme. He could be at any spa, or any city. There’s nothing anyone can do.” Her lips tightened. “It was difficult enough to ask you for money to get me home. I couldn’t come to you with my hands outstretched.” She moved her hand from his chest. “I know you. You’re generous. You would have given me what I asked for, because of the strength of your honor.”
Another flush stole into his cheeks. He’d been complimented many times in his life—a matter of course for a duke—but none of those flattering words had the impact that hers did, perhaps because he genuinely cared what she thought of him. She gave out compliments because she meant them, not because she was obliged to.
She exhaled in a short burst. “If I was to survive, it would be through my own strength, my own will.”
He nodded, even as he cursed the very thing he admired so much about her.
They’d come to know each other during that fortnight in Cheltenham. She’d married too young to a man of hot blood—but emotion had been her guiding principle when she’d accepted his proposal. When he had died of a fever contracted after a hunt, her strength had carried her through.
It didn’t matter how dire her circumstances might be, she was determined to succeed on her own merits. She was no lost damsel in need of rescuing.
He thought it would just be a few dull weeks at the hotel while recovering from a riding injury that had hurt his shoulder. He’d come into the hotel’s elegant, marble-clad foyer, and seen her. All thoughts of his injury fled. Her proud, assured bearing had drawn him in, and beneath that, an elusive sensuality. She’d eaten alone in the dining chamber, with its vaulted ceiling and echoes of murmured conversation.
Alex had never believed in fairy tales, but she seemed an elfin queen in exile. Her pale hair, the clearness of her gaze, the sleekness of her limbs all recalled the stories he’d heard from his nursemaid about the fairy folk who lived in the woods behind his home. So he’d dubbed her The Lost Queen. He’d been unable to resist her allure.
He’d had the hotel’s manager introduce them. They’d talked about fairy tales and old legends and the wish to sail away to far-off places. It was as though idle conversation was unnecessary, and they’d spoken directly from their hearts. He’d never met anyone who could be so reserved and yet so incisive at the same time. Her contradictions wove themselves into a web, ensnaring him.
When he’d learned of her plight, he had decided at once to give her money to help. They’d been in the hotel’s conservatory, warm and damp and green, and he’d seen a trickle of perspiration work its way down her neck to nestle in the folds of her fichu.
She had tucked the money there. Not in her reticule. “For safety,” she’d explained, but he had been too distracted by the sight of that gleam of sweat to pay close attention.
He’d taken her to bed soon after. Not as a man purchasing a woman’s favors, but as further proof of his heart. For the first time, he’d allowed himself to feel soul-deep emotion, believing that at last it would be reciprocated.
She’d gone away instead. He’d been so hurt by her—but now he knew why she’d been so quick to put distance and silence between them. The wounds could at last heal.
“What can a woman alone do,” she explained, “but make her way in the world.”
“What did you do?” He was half-afraid of the answer, because there was always a particular option available to women.
She gave him a wry smile without much humor. “Became a lady’s companion.”
“Yet you’re here now.” He glanced behind him, at the crowded gaming hell full of men and women drinking and wagering.
She blushed deeper, as though ashamed. “Mr. Hamish needed a woman of gentle birth to keep the people at the tables, and I had no choice but to accept his offer of employment. The last woman who’d retained my services was a bitter, angry widow—a dowager countess. She resented my youth. Accused me of stealing. She planted jewelry in my possessions. I left her employ with a blight on my name and without a character reference. Finding more work as a lady’s companion became impossible.” She spread her hands, an expression of rueful acceptance on her face.
His heart ached with pity. His beautiful, proud Cassandra, brought to this. He couldn’t reproach her for not informing him of her whereabouts or circumstances. Had he been in the same place, he would have acted as she had.
Yet they were here together again. After two years of fruitless searches, and the resulting despair when he couldn’t locate her, providence had seen fit to have them meet again. He didn’t know how or why, only that it was a gift he wouldn’t toss aside.
She glanced worriedly over her shoulder. “I have to get back to work. Mr. Hamish will notice I’m not on the floor, and I cannot afford to lose my position here. And…I’m sorry to hear about what happened with Lady Emmeline.”
He grimaced. The news was one day old and everyone knew, even a woman he hadn’t seen in two years.
But he didn’t want to think of his fruitless wooing of another woman. He took Cassandra’s hand in his. “Don’t go.”
“I can’t stay.” She pressed a quick kiss to his knuckles—to his shock and pleasure—then slipped away, back into the heat and chaos of the gaming hell. He stepped out from the corner, watching her go as though she was the last glint of light in the darkness.