“Oh, there you are, Jason,” the raven-haired beauty said to her husband’s reflection in the mirror above her dressing table. Her gaze slid warily over his tall, rugged frame as he came toward her; then she returned her attention to the open jewel cases spread out before her. A nervous tremor shook her hand and her smile was overly bright as she removed a spectacular diamond choker from a case and held it out to him. “Help me fasten this, will you?”
Her husband’s face tightened with distaste as he looked at the necklaces of glittering rubies and magnificent emeralds already spread across her swelling breasts above the daring bodice of her gown. “Isn’t your display of flesh and jewels a little vulgar for a woman who hopes to masquerade as a grand lady?”
“What would you know about vulgarity?” Melissa Fielding retorted contemptuously. “This gown is the height of fashion.” Haughtily she added, “Baron Lacroix likes it very well. He specifically asked me to wear it to the ball tonight.”
“No doubt he doesn’t want to be troubled with too many fasteners when he takes it off you,” her husband returned sarcastically.
“Exactly. He’s French—and terribly impetuous.”
“Unfortunately, he’s also penniless.”
“He thinks I’m beautiful,” Melissa taunted, her voice beginning to shake with pent-up loathing.
“He’s right.” Jason Fielding’s sardonic gaze swept over her lovely face with its alabaster skin, slightly tilted green eyes, and full red lips, then dropped to her voluptuous breasts trembling invitingly above the plunging neckline of her scarlet velvet gown. “You are a beautiful, amoral, greedy . .. bitch.”
Turning on his heel, he started from the room, then stopped. His icy voice was edged with implacable authority. “Before you leave, go in and say good night to our son. Jamie is too little to understand what a bitch you are, and he misses you when you’re gone. I’m leaving for Scotland within the hour.”
“Jamie!” she hissed wrathfully. “He’s all you care about—” Without bothering to deny it, her husband walked toward the door, and Melissa’s anger ignited. “When you come back from Scotland, I won’t be here!” she threatened.
“Good,” he said without stopping.
“You bastard!” she spat, her voice shaking with suppressed rage. “I’m going to tell the world who you really are, and then I’m going to leave you. I’ll never come back. Never!”
With his hand on the door handle, Jason turned, his features a hard, contemptuous mask. “You’ll come back,” he sneered. “You’ll come back, just as soon as you run out of money.”
The door closed behind him and Melissa’s exquisite face filled with triumph. “I’ll never come back, Jason,” she said aloud to the empty room, “because I’ll never run out of money. You’ll send me whatever I want...”
“Good evening, my lord,” the butler said in an odd, tense whisper.
“Happy Christmas, Northrup,” Jason answered automatically as he stamped the snow off his boots and handed his wet cloak to the servant. That last scene with Melissa, two weeks earlier, sprang to his mind, but he pushed the memory away. “The weather cost me an extra day of travel. Has my son already gone to bed?”
The butler froze.
“Jason—”A heavyset, middle-aged man with the tanned, weathered face of a seasoned seaman stood in the doorway of the salon off the marble entrance foyer, motioning to Jason to join him.
“What are you doing here, Mike?” Jason asked, watching with puzzlement as the older man carefully closed the salon door.
“Jason,” Mike Farrell said tautly, “Melissa is gone. She and Lacroix sailed for Barbados right after you left for Scotland.” He paused, waiting for some reaction, but there was none. He drew a long, ragged breath. “They took Jamie with them.”
Savage fury ignited in Jason’s eyes, turning them into furnaces of rage. “I’ll kill her for this!” he said, already starting toward the door. “I’ll find her, and I’ll kill her—”
“It’s too late for that.” Mike’s ragged voice stopped Jason in mid-stride. “Melissa is already dead. Their ship went down in a storm three days after it left England.” He tore his gaze from the awful agony already twisting Jason’s features and added tonelessly, “There were no survivors.”
Wordlessly, Jason strode to the side table and picked up a crystal decanter of whiskey. He poured some into a glass and tossed it down, then refilled it, staring blindly straight ahead.
“She left you these.” Mike Farrell held out two letters with broken seals. When Jason made no move to take them, Mike explained gently, “I’ve already read them. One is a ransom letter, addressed to you, which Melissa left in your bedchamber. She intended to ransom Jamie back to you. The second letter was meant to expose you, and she gave it to a footman with instructions to deliver it to the Times after she left. However, when Flossie Wilson discovered that Jamie was missing, she immediately questioned the servants about Melissa’s actions the night before, and the footman gave the letter to her instead of taking it to the Times as he was about to do. Flossie couldn’t reach you to tell you Melissa had taken Jamie, so she sent for me and gave me the letters. Jason,” Mike said hoarsely, “I know how much you loved the boy. I’m sorry. I’m so damned sorry.. . .”
Jason’s tortured gaze slowly lifted to the gilt-framed portrait hanging above the mantel. In agonized silence he stared at the painting of his son, a sturdy little boy with a cherubic smile on his face and a wooden soldier clutched lovingly in his fist.
The glass Jason was holding shattered in his clenched hand. But he did not cry. Jason Fielding’s childhood had long ago robbed him of all his tears.
PORTAGE, NEW YORK
Snow crunched beneath her small, booted feet as Victoria Seaton turned off the lane and pushed open the white wooden gate that opened into the front yard of the modest little house where she had been born. Her cheeks were rosy and her eyes bright as she stopped to glance at the starlit sky, studying it with the unspoiled delight of a fifteen-year-old at Christmas. Smiling, she hummed the last bars of one of the Christmas carols she’d been singing all evening with the rest of the carolers, then turned and went up the walk toward the darkened house.