The Devil's Web

James Purnell left England for Canada three years ago in an attempt to leave behind memories that had tormented him all his adult life--and to forget Lady Madeline Raine, whom he had felt he had no right to love. Madeline in the meanwhile had been left broken-hearted--and desperately trying to persuade herself that she did not care, that she could and would find love with someone else. But now James is back for a short visit, and the two are bound to meet again as James's sister Alexandra is married to Madeline's brother Edmund, Earl of Amberley. It happens one afternoon when Alex takes James with her to her mother-in-law's home for tea. Both James and Madeline have been expecting this meeting, but neither is ready for it.

So he was to meet her again. In her mother's drawing room, doubtless in the presence of other guests. And she was in love again. Soon to be married.

Well, it was as well to meet her this way. Now, before he had time to think about it. Casually. He would look at her, greet her, converse politely with her for a few minutes, and put behind him once and for all the obsession of four years.

He stood outside the doors of the drawing room, his sister's arm in his, her animated face smiling up into his, while the butler announced them. He smiled back.

The room was crowded with people, though only a remote part of his mind knew it. He saw only her as he entered the room. She was not with either of the two groups into which the occupants had divided themselves, but was partway across the room, obviously on her way to greet them. Except that it was clearly not him she had expected to greet. She stopped, frozen in her tracks.

Time rolled back as if it had never been. Madeline. She was exactly as he remembered her, only more slender and lithe, more fair-haired, more lovely, more vivid in every way. Every part of his insides seemed jolted out of place.

He saw her in a moment that was quite outside time. A moment that would always be etched on his consciousness. And yet in actual fact he did not look at her at all. His eyes touched on her and slid away and no force on earth could have forced them back to her again.

He obeyed the pressure of Alex's arm and reacted to her voice and was soon bowing over the dowager countess's hand and answering her polite queries. And he was being presented to a crowd of people he had never met before and would probably not remember again. And he was shaking the hand of Sir Cedric Harvey and settling into a conversation about his employment.

He found himself sitting with the dowager's group while Alex had joined the other group, the one that included Madeline. And all the time he talked and listened and laughed and drank tea and ate scones he was aware of her with every nerve ending in his body, aware of every move she made, every expression on her face, every sound of her voice, though he never once looked her way.

He had not greeted her, or she him. They had shown no sign that they had ever so much as set eyes on each other before.

And yet he had held her in his arms. He had unclothed her to the waist and kissed and fondled her. He had wanted her with every instinct of his body and every atom of his mind. And he had been raw with the pain of leaving her for months and even years afterward.

And now they were strangers in a room together. Strangers, except that his pulse pounded with the knowledge of her. Except that he could not look at her or speak to her. Except that he felt an irrational urge to kill the handsome officer who sat beside her, and even Lord North, with whom she was making arrangements to drive later in the afternoon.

Fool! He would have given anything in the world, he felt after half an hour, if he could only go back and make that entrance all over again.

Madeline had been holding court in her mother's drawing room, if entertaining two gentlemen who were currently showing a marked interest in her could be called holding court. She had been laughing gaily and assuring Lord North that she would indeed have gone driving with him in the Park if only the day were not so beastly cold and the rain not drizzling down intermittently.

And while Lord North had looked somewhat crestfallen, she had turned toward Colonel Huxtable and said that yes, she was to attend the concert at Mrs. Denton's that evening with her mama and would be pleased with his escort. After all, Sir Cedric would undoubtedly be accompanying her mother, as he had accompanied her almost everywhere since his return from Vienna, and she herself should have an escort of her own.

When the butler had opened the doors of the drawing room, Madeline had looked up brightly to see who the latecomers might be. She was taken completely off her guard. She had known he was coming, of course. Alexandra had talked of little else for months. But she had not known he had come.

She did not listen to the butler's words. She saw her sister-in-law.

"Here come Edmund and Alexandra," she said gladly, rising to her feet and stepping past her two admirers to greet the new arrivals. And only then, when she was stranded in the middle of the room, did the butler's words register on her hearing and did she see that the man with Alexandra was not her elder brother.

He was very different. Very much darker of complexion and more agile looking. And his eyes were less brooding and less hostile. Very different. He had changed.

And yet he was no different at all. She was paralyzed with the sameness of him. James as he had lived deep in her memories for four years, dark and intense, seemingly coiled like a spring, an almost frightening power in him. James, more handsome than any man she had ever known, though not in a drawing room kind of way. He belonged in the wilderness and not in the ballrooms and saloons of society.

And that truant lock of dark hair fallen across his forehead as it had always used to do, the one feature she had forgotten about, though it was so very familiar now that her arm ached to lift and put it back to join the rest of his dark hair.

James as he had always been. Throwing only one brief, contemptuous glance her way before turning away to greet her mother. Though how she knew about that glance when she had not once looked fully at him, she did not know. She behave with all the gaucherie of a girl only one day out of the schoolroom. She neither looked at him nor greeted him, but smiled at Alexandra and continued on her way to the tea tray, where she poured her sister-in-law a cup of tea, but not their other guest.

And then she rejoined her group and behaved with all the mindlessness of the most flighty of social butterflies.

"But where is Lady Beckworth?" she asked Alexandra, far too brightly and far too loudly.

"She would not come with us," Alexandra said. "She thought the weather too inclement for an outing. And Edmund would not come." She laughed. "He said that since he is of no more importance to me now that my brother has arrived, he might as well retire to the nursery and sulk. He is being very silly. He is teasing me, of course," she added, for the information of Colonel Huxtable and Lord North, who might have taken her words seriously.

"Are you going to Mrs. Denton's tonight?" Madeline asked, smiling at Jason Huxtable with a flirtatiousness that she had not intended.

"We are all going," Alexandra said. "Even Papa, if you can imagine. Of course, he does not consider concerts quite as frivolous as other forms of entertainment. James will be coming too, naturally."

Madeline felt rather as if a giant fist had punched her just below the waist. She felt as if she had just run hard for a mile. She had glanced across the room and almost met his eyes. She drew her head back as if to ward off a touch, though he was clear across the room from her and really had not looked at her at all.

"I have just had a thought," she said, and heard in some dismay the high pitch and volume of her voice. But she seemed unable to do anything about it. She turned to Lord North and laid a hand lightly on his sleeve. "When a gentleman offers to take me driving, I immediately visualize a curricle or a phaeton. You were not by any chance offering a closed carriage, were you, Geoffrey?"

"It could certainly be arranged," he said, brightening.

"I should not even dream of accompanying you in a closed carriage without the presence of my maid, of course," she said gaily. "But one advantage of having been on the town forever is that one does not have to pay heed to all that faradiddle."

"On the town forever, Lady Madeline?" Lord North said gallantly. "Why, you look not a day older than the newest young lady in town."

"Gracious!" she said, tapping his arm and laughing merrily and altogether too loudly across at the colonel. "I am not at all sure I take that as a compliment, sir."

She was aware of Sir Cedric and Mr. Brunning in the other group smiling across at her. And she could not stop herself from smiling. She could not force herself to be quiet and let the conversation continue around her.

She was behaving as she had always behaved in the presence of James Purnell. He had always despised her as silly and empty-headed. She had always been aware of his contempt. And yet she had always lived up to his expectations when he was in the same room. She had never been able to act naturally with him. Except perhaps on that last occasion, when she had offered herself to him and told him she loved him.

His cheeks burned with shame at the memory.

She wished she could relive the last half hour, have another chance to do it right, to greet him civilly, to behave with the coolness and poise of a mature woman. Oh, she wished she could have the time back again.

When Lord North rose in order to return home for his town carriage, all the guests took his doing so as a cue to take their own departure.

"I shall look forward to seeing you again this evening," Alexandra said, kissing her mother-in-law's cheek.

"Of course, dear," the dowager said. "We will see you there as well, Mr. Purnell?"

He answered her question, bowed, and extended a hand to her. Madeline turned away and took an effusive farewell of Colonel Huxtable.

© Mary Balogh