Helen gave him her hand. “I’m sorry to have interrupted your evening.”

“Not an interruption,” Quincy said, pressing her palm warmly, “but a pleasure, as always.”

Gesturing to the other chair at the table, Helen said, “Please join me.”

The valet remained standing, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “You know that would not be fitting.”

Helen nodded slightly, her smile turning strained. “Yes, but this isn’t an ordinary conversation. I’m afraid—” She paused, the words jamming inside, refusing to emerge. As she tried again, all she could seem to do was repeat numbly, “I’m afraid.”

Quincy stood before her, his expression patient and encouraging.

“I have something important to ask,” Helen finally managed to say. “I need you to tell me the truth.” To her annoyance, raw salt tears collected in the corners of her eyes. “I think I already know the answer,” she said. “But it would help if you would tell me—” She stopped as she saw the way his face had changed.

Quincy’s shoulders were sinking as if from the weight of a terrible burden. “Perhaps,” he ventured, “you shouldn’t ask.”

“I have to. Oh, Quincy . . .” Helen’s temples throbbed as she fixed her gaze on him. “Is Albion Vance my father?”

Slowly the valet reached for the empty chair, repositioned it, and sat heavily. Folding his hands into a compact bale of fingers, he rested them on the table. He focused on the lone casement window on the outside wall. “Where did you hear such a thing?”

“I found an unfinished letter that my mother had written to him.”

Quincy was silent. His gaze was distant, as if he were staring all the way to the farthest edge of the world. “I wish you had not.”

“So do I. Please tell me, Quincy . . . is he my father?”

His attention returned to Helen. “Yes.”

She flinched. “Do I look like him?” she whispered.

“You look like neither of them,” he said gently. “You resemble only yourself. A unique and lovely creation.”

“Rabbit-faced,” Helen said, and could have bitten her tongue at the self-pitying remark. With chagrin, she explained, “She wrote that too.”

“Your mother was a complicated woman. Competitive with every female in the world, including her own daughters.”

“Did she ever love my father?”

“Until her last day of life,” he surprised her by saying.

Helen gave him a skeptical glance. “But she and Mr. Vance . . .”

“He was not her only indiscretion. Nor was the earl always faithful to her. But your parents cared for each other in their own fashion. After your mother’s liaison with Mr. Vance had ended, and you were born, your parents resumed their relationship.” After removing his spectacles, he fished in his coat for a handkerchief and cleaned the lenses meticulously. “You were the sacrifice. You were kept upstairs in the nursery, out of sight and out of mind.”

“What about Mr. Vance? Did he love my mother?”

“No man can see inside another’s heart. But I don’t believe he is capable of that particular emotion.” He replaced his spectacles. “It would be best to pretend that you never learned about this.”

“I can’t,” Helen said, digging her elbows into the table and pressing the sockets of her eyes into her palms. “Mr. Winterborne hates him.”

Quincy’s tone was uncharacteristically dry. “There isn’t a Welshman who doesn’t.”

Helen lowered her hands and looked at him. “What has he done?”

“Mr. Vance’s loathing of the Welsh is well-known. He wrote a pamphlet that is widely quoted by those who seek to eradicate the use of Welsh language in schools. He believes their children should be forced to speak only English.” He paused. “But in addition to that, Mr. Winterborne has a personal grudge against him. I don’t know what it is, only that it is so vile, he won’t speak of it. The subject is dangerous and best left alone.”

Helen gave him a bewildered glance. “You’re suggesting that I keep this from Mr. Winterborne?”

“You must never say a word to him, or to anyone.”

“But he’ll find out someday.”

“If he does, you can deny knowledge of it.”

Helen shook her head in dazed misery. “I couldn’t lie to him.”

“There are rare times in life when a lie serves the greater good. This is one of them.”

“But Mr. Vance may approach Mr. Winterborne someday and tell him. Or he may even approach me.” Distraught, she rubbed the corners of her eyes. “Oh God.”

“If he does,” the valet replied, “you will pretend to be astonished. No one will know that you were the wiser.”

“I’ll know. Quincy, I must tell Mr. Winterborne.”

“Don’t. For his sake. He needs you, my lady. In the short time I have known him, he has changed for the better because of you. If you care for him, don’t force him to make a choice that will hurt him beyond healing.”

Her eyes widened. “A choice? Then you believe he would end the engagement if he knew?”

“It would be unlikely. But not impossible.”

Helen shook her head slightly. She couldn’t fathom it. Not after the things Rhys had said and done, the way he’d held and kissed her that very afternoon. “He wouldn’t.”

Quincy’s eyes glimmered with some strong emotion. “Lady Helen, forgive me for speaking freely. But I’ve known you since you were an infant in the cradle. I always thought it a great injustice, and a pity, that an innocent child was so scorned and neglected. You were blamed by both of your parents, God rest their souls, for sins that were theirs, not yours. Why should you continue to pay the price? Why shouldn’t you allow yourself to be cherished as you have always deserved?”

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