Pandora darted forward, reached over the railing to feel the creature’s limb and furrowed knee, and scurried back to the group. “It’s like a horse’s coat,” she reported with satisfaction. “The hairs are no longer than a half-inch. Cassandra, do you want to feel it?”
“No, thank you.”
Pandora took her twin’s hand. “Come on, then—shall we go to the hoofed beasts, or the ones with claws?”
Lady Berwick began to follow the girls, but she paused to take another glance at the giraffe. In a few hasty strides, she went to the exhibit, furtively touched its leg, and glanced guiltily at Helen.
Biting back a smile, Helen looked down at her map, pretending not to have seen.
After the countess joined the twins in the southern gallery, Helen headed to the northern one, consisting of five vast rooms filled with exhibits contained in enormous glass cases. Finding the second room, she walked past displays of reptiles. She paused at the sight of a lizard with a large frill around its neck, which reminded her of Queen Elizabeth’s ruff. According to the placard beside it, the lizard could expand the frill to make itself look threatening.
Before Helen proceeded to the next case, containing a variety of serpents, a man came to stand beside her. Knowing that he was Mr. Vance, she closed her eyes briefly, her muscles tensing with instant antagonism.
He studied a pair of African chameleons. Eventually he murmured, “Your scent . . . it’s the same one your mother wore. Calanthe orchids and vanilla . . . I’ve never forgotten it.”
It caught her off guard, the notion that he had been so familiar with her mother’s scent. No one had ever noticed that Helen wore the same fragrance. “I found the recipe in one of her journals.”
“It suits you.”
Helen looked up to find his evaluating gaze on her.
Albion Vance was riveting at this close distance, his high-cheeked face fashioned with sharply androgynous delicacy. His eyes were the color of a November sky.
“You’re a pretty girl, though not as beautiful as she was,” he commented. “You favor me. Did she resent you?”
“I would prefer not to discuss my mother with you.”
“I want you to understand that she meant something to me.”
Helen returned her attention to the case of lizards. Mr. Vance seemed to expect a reply, but she couldn’t think of one.
Her lack of response seemed to annoy him.
“I, of course, am the heartless seducer,” Mr. Vance said in an arid tone, “who abandoned his lover and newborn daughter. But Jane had no intention of leaving the earl, nor did I want her to. As for you . . . I was in no position to do anything for you, nor you for me.”
“But now that I’m engaged to a wealthy man,” Helen said coolly, “you’ve finally taken an interest. Let’s not waste time, Mr. Vance. Do you have a shopping list of demands, or would you rather name a simple financial figure?”
His fine dark brows lifted. “I had hoped we could come to an arrangement without being crass.”
Helen was silent, waiting with forced patience, staring at him in a way that seemed to make him uncomfortable.
“A little icicle, aren’t you?” he asked. “There’s something vestal about you. No spirit. That is why you lack your mother’s beauty.”
She refused to rise to the bait. “What do you want, Mr. Vance?”
“Among Lady Berwick’s many philanthropic concerns,” he finally said, “is a charity that administers pensions to blind paupers. I want you to persuade Winterborne to donate twenty thousand pounds to the charity’s board of trustees. You will explain that his generous gift will be used to purchase freehold ground rents at West Hackney, which will produce annual dividends for the benefit of the blind pensioners.”
“But instead,” Helen said slowly, “you’ve worked out a way to benefit yourself.”
“The donation must be made right away. I have immediate need of capital.”
“You want me to ask this of Mr. Winterborne before he and I are even married?” Helen asked incredulously. “I don’t think I could convince him to do it.”
“Women have their ways. You’ll manage.”
Helen shook her head. “He won’t hand over money without having the charity investigated. He’ll find out.”
“There will be no documents for him to uncover,” Mr. Vance replied smugly. “I can’t be attached either to the charity or the property at West Hackney, the arrangements are verbal.”
“What will happen to the blind pensioners?”
“Some of the money will filter down to them, of course, to make everything appear aboveboard.”
“Just so I understand the situation clearly,” Helen said, “you’re blackmailing your daughter to enable you to steal from blind paupers.”
“No one is stealing from the paupers; the money isn’t theirs to begin with. And this is not blackmail. A daughter has a natural obligation to help her father when he is in need of assistance.”
“Why am I obligated to you?” Helen asked, bewildered. “What have you ever done for me?”
“I gave you the gift of life.”
Seeing that he was perfectly serious, Helen gave him a disbelieving glance. An irrepressible, half-hysterical burst of giggles rose from her chest. She pressed her fingers to her lips, trying to hold the laughter back, but that only made it worse. It didn’t help to see Mr. Vance’s offended expression.
“You find that amusing?” he asked.
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