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Lord Lansbury's Christmas Wedding

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«Lord Lansbury's Christmas Wedding» - Хелен Диксон

A Cinderella Christmas tale…Lord Lansbury has always known that true love must come second to a suitable match. So why is he so bewitched by the unforgettable violet eyes of his sister’s companion Jane Mortimer? From the moment she set foot in Chalfont, Jane has longed for the enigmatic Earl’s admiration. But they come from different worlds – her dreams will surely remain out of reach for ever… Until one night Jane’s wishes are granted… Now the Earl must decide – will there be wedding bells before Christmas?
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Suddenly the train lurched, propelling Jane out of her seat and across the distance that separated her from Lord Lansbury, sending her crashing into his steely warm chest.

Christopher’s eyes captured Jane’s with some considerable surprise, while Jane looked into his face and for a long moment could not look away again, held by something she was unable to name but which her female body instantly recognised. His eyes had narrowed in sudden concentration and he looked faintly surprised at something his body was telling him.

Unprepared for the sheer force of the feelings that swept through her, she knew, with a sort of panic, that she was in grave danger—not from him but from herself—and was aware that she must, absolutely must pull back. But she was too inexperienced and affected by him to do that.

Her eyes became fixed on his finely sculpted mouth as he came closer still, and she knew he was going to kiss her.

I’ve always enjoyed reading stories that blend history and romance, featuring handsome, enigmatic heroes and audacious heroines.

In Christopher Chalfont, Earl of Lansbury, I hope I have captured such a hero. Having been betrayed by a woman in his past, and just managing to hold on to the ancestral home his deceased father very nearly gambled away, he is prepared to wed an American heiress, thinking she will be the answer to his prayers. Until Jane Mortimer comes along and throws his whole life and his ideas about marriage into confusion.

Before long Jane falls in love with the handsome Earl and becomes more and more wrapped up in a world so different from the one she left behind. She has the ability to reach into the darkness of Christopher’s mind and heal his injured heart.

Lord Lansbury’s Christmas Wedding

Helen Dickson


HELEN DICKSON was born and still lives in South Yorkshire, with her retired farm manager husband. Having moved out of the busy farmhouse where she raised their two sons, she has more time to indulge in her favourite pastimes. She enjoys being outdoors, travelling, reading and music. An incurable romantic, she writes for pleasure. It was a love of history that drove her to writing historical fiction.




Title Page

About the Author

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven





A light rain had settled over the sea, mottling the surface of the choppy water into a dull blackish grey. Jane leaned against the railing of the steamship, letting her eyes skim over the vast expanse of water as it carried her closer to Dover. It was carrying her further away from the wild and mystical beauty and the heat of the Far East, of India and the countries around the Mediterranean, into a new phase of her life.

Tears came to blur her vision when she thought of the circumstances that had brought her to this day, of the anguish that had beset her, almost drowning her in a sea of despair when her beloved father had died in Egypt two months earlier, leaving her bereft.

This morning she had risen before dawn in Paris to catch the boat train to Calais, where she had boarded the ship. She hoped to arrive at her aunt’s London home with something akin to dignity, but her appearance was far from being at its best. The dark-blue bonnet and black woollen cloak served to protect her from the cold, damp wind even if it lent nothing to a stately grace.

There were a great many passengers aboard. Most of them had sought the comforts below for the journey, but Jane preferred to remain on deck. A girl’s laughter drew her attention and she turned to look at her. She was dressed in a warm red woollen cloak with a fur muff and bonnet over her fair curls and clutching a small Pekinese dog. Perhaps eight or nine years old, slightly built with luminous blue eyes, she was such a pretty, dainty little creature with a pale small-featured face that Jane could only gaze at her in wonder.

She was with a fashionably attired woman Jane assumed to be her mother. She noted there was another plain-clad woman beside her. This, she realised, must be her maid, which told her the child’s mother must belong to the gentry. They were accompanied by a tall man in a sleeved cloak and wide-brimmed, low-crowned hat. Several yards away from where they sat and close to Jane, with his back to them, he stood at the rail, his head turned to look at the ship’s wake. He withdrew a thin cheroot from his jacket pocket which he lit, bending his head and cupping his hands over the flame.

The tobacco smoke drifted her way. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply, inhaling the familiar smell which evoked so many memories. Her father had always enjoyed smoking a cigar, and suddenly she was swept back in time to the nights when he would sit outside his tent after a gratifying day’s work, sipping his favourite brandy and smoking a cigar. Moving closer, she expelled the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. The tiny sound made the gentleman glance at her. His eyes narrowed, in surprise or displeasure, she wasn’t certain. Caught in the act of staring at him, she blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t wish to disturb you.’

His dark brows lifted a fraction in bland enquiry. ‘Do you mind?’ he asked, holding out the cheroot.

Several things hit Jane at once—his piercing grey eyes and his voice, which was richly textured and deep, and the fact that he was tall, several inches taller than she was. He was clean-shaven, his skin dark, slashed with eyebrows more accustomed to frowning than smiling, which he was doing now. His mouth was hard, the chin beneath it doing its best to curb its tense, arrogant thrust. It was a face which said its owner cared nothing for fools, and in his darkly lashed grey eyes, silver flecks stirred dangerously like small warning lights. Hidden deep in them was a cynicism, watchful, mocking, as though he found the world a dubious place to be.

‘Mind?’ she repeated stupidly.

‘The cigar.’

‘Oh—no—no, of course I don’t mind,’ she hastily assured him, stepping away.

He looked away at the same moment that the little girl got up to cross to him. A sudden gust of cold wind swept across the deck, causing passengers to reach out and cling to the rail. The little girl stumbled, falling to her knees, and when she reached out to grasp her mother’s hand, she let go of her dog. Jane’s heart dipped frantically in her chest as the child missed her mother’s hand, bringing those about her to a horrified standstill.

The deck was wet and slippery, a threat to those who did not walk with care. The child got to her feet. Her sudden anxiety had become dismayed terror as her adored pet scampered to the far end of the deck. With no other thought than reaching her pet, the child went after her.

Alarmed, the woman got to her feet. ‘Octavia, do come back this instant!’

Jane’s mouth opened on an appalled shout to warn the child to be careful of the wet deck, but it was too late. Losing her footing, the child stumbled and fell and rolled across the deck. Jane thought she heard the woman cry out, but there was nothing in her mind but the frantic necessity of grabbing the little girl before she slipped through a gap in the lower rails and into the sea.

The other passengers not as close to the girl as Jane stood frozen to the deck, watching in horror, women with their hands to their mouths, men ready to dash forward to save the child who was sliding ever closer to the abyss, but on seeing Jane scamper after her they did not move.

Without thought for her own safety, Jane threw herself forward, grabbing the child and landing half on top of her just in time, her larger frame preventing them from slipping through the rails.

Women had begun to scream and the man who stood smoking a cheroot, white faced with shock, seeing what was happening threw his cheroot into the sea and strode quickly towards the young girl. By the time he reached her she was lying on the deck with her rescuer. Picking up the weeping child, after making sure she was unharmed and handing her over to the older woman to be comforted, he went down on one knee and raised Jane up, lifting her in his arms.

She leaned against him in a dizzy, helpless silence, aware of nothing but the power of his arm and the muscular chest beneath his cloak as he balanced her against him, the fine aroma of cigars and brandy on his breath which fanned her cheek. Even in her dazed state she was shaken to the core by the bewildering sensations she felt. A hot wave of pure visceral attraction rushed through her.

Fighting to maintain her wits, shaken and pale, she moved away from him a little unsteadily, standing a moment to compose herself. She brushed down her skirts before looking up at the gentleman, her eyes enormous with passionate gratitude on seeing his concern.

‘Are you all right?’ he asked. ‘You didn’t hurt yourself when you fell?’

He spoke in the well-modulated voice of the perfect English gentleman, with that faint arrogance and authority of his class. There was a nonchalance about him that Jane liked immediately.

‘No—no, thank you, I am quite unhurt,’ she answered, speaking in a soft, well-bred voice that displayed no discernible personal feeling. Her mouth was tinder-dry with shock, her heart pounding in her throat, but she made efforts to compose herself. She still felt a bit wobbly, but was determined not to show it.

Staring at him, she was utterly taken aback by the raw masculinity that radiated from him. The most curious thing happened, for suddenly everything around her faded into the background and there was only this man. His face was strong and exceptionally attractive, the expression cool and compelling. His magnetism was unmistakable. The long, tapering trousers he wore seemed to emphasise the muscular length of his legs. As her thoughts raced, once again she looked into the startling intensity of his eyes. Her heart seemed to suddenly leap into her throat in a ridiculous, choking way and she chided herself for being so foolish. This gentleman was, after all, a stranger to her. She dropped her gaze in shock as he took a step closer.

‘I can’t thank you enough for what you did. Your quick thinking saved my sister’s life. I am indeed grateful, Miss...?’

‘Mortimer,’ Jane provided. ‘In all truth, when I saw her slip and begin to roll towards the rails, I didn’t think. I just knew I had to stop her.’

‘I am grateful, Miss Mortimer. She could easily have fallen through the gap, small though it is, into the water.’

The amazing eyes still focused on her as she drew a deep breath. ‘She is a child and children do impulsive things all the time.’ There was a deep blush on her cheekbones, as much to her gathering annoyance she found herself actually enjoying his presence.

‘Unfortunately my sister seems to make a habit of it.’

‘I am relieved she is unharmed—and see,’ Jane said, indicating a man who approached the child and placed a fluffy white bundle in her outstretched hands, ‘her dog is being returned to her.’

‘Thank goodness. Octavia would be devastated if anything happened to that dog. It is so precious to her.’ His gaze returned to her face. He gave her a long slow look, a twist of humour around his beautifully moulded lips. The smile building about his mouth creased the clear hardness of his jaw and made him appear at that moment the most handsome man in the world.

Then, suddenly, his direct, masculine assurance disconcerted her. She was vividly conscious of his proximity to her. She felt the mad, unfamiliar rush of blood singing through her veins, which she had never experienced before. He had made too much of an impact on her and she was afraid that if he looked at her much longer he would read her thoughts with those brilliant eyes of his. She was relieved when the child’s mother got up and came to her. Tears of gratitude swam in her eyes.

‘Thank you, my dear, for your brave intervention. You have my heartfelt thanks and gratitude.’

‘I’m glad I was able to help.’

‘Is there anything we can do to repay you...?’

The colour rushed to Jane’s face once more, embarrassed that she should be offered payment for helping a child. ‘No—of course not. I only did what anyone else would have done.’ She stepped back. ‘Excuse me. We are approaching Dover. I must go and locate my baggage.’

‘Of course,’ the woman said. ‘Are you going far?’

‘To London.’

‘So you will be taking the train.’

‘Yes.’ She smiled. ‘Please excuse me.’

Turning from them, Jane went to retrieve her bags as more passengers began to appear on deck.

* * *

Christopher Chalfont went to check on Octavia. Thankfully she seemed no worse for her ordeal. He glanced over his shoulder to take another look at the young woman who had rushed to help his sister with a complete lack of concern for her own safety, but she was nowhere to be seen, having been swallowed up in the passengers as they gathered to disembark.

Something stirred within him that he was at a loss to identify—neither pity nor compassion, but a glimmer of something more complex and disturbing. Instinct told him he’d be better served not to look for her. He was quite bewildered by his own interest in this girl who was thin, plain and nondescript.

True, some might be attracted by her, but she was not to his taste. He disliked her generous mouth, the black abundance of her lashes and particularly her eyes that had stared at him too intently. They were too large and a peculiar shade of violet with flecks of grey. They were clear and sharp as glass and they had met his with a steady challenge, studying him carefully as though she was trying to make up her mind about something.

For an instant he knew that someone else, someone with similar violet eyes, had stared at him like that long ago and there had been faithlessness and betrayal and he had known suffering so great it was not to be borne. Something that had been darkly, beautifully perfect had been bruised and broken, and he had suffered aching bitterness and a pain so deep it was ready to destroy him.

And then the impression vanished, leaving only sharp resentment and a memory he could not shut from his mind, a memory that was alive and tactile, and because it had been so, the betrayal of the woman who had done this to him had become a profanation of the integrity of love itself. He had continued to live, to eat and sleep and exist the only way he knew how, but he vowed that never again would he allow himself to be so weakened by a woman’s body and a pair of darkly seductive eyes.

Frowning thoughtfully, for the short time left to them on board, Christopher concerned himself with seeing to the comforts of his mother and sister, and when he left the ship he forgot all about the young woman with the violet eyes.

* * *

As Jane sat on the train taking her to London, she relived every moment of her meeting with the gentleman whose sister she had rushed to help; the gentleman who had made a deep impression on her like no other ever had. Who was he? she asked herself, realising that he had infiltrated every part of her body and mind and yet she didn’t know the first thing about him. That was the power he had, the magnetic force that had attracted her to him. What was it about him that made her feel things she had never felt before? She had never met anyone like him. Just thinking of him was enough to bring his image, tenacious and encroaching, into her mind.

Gazing out of the window at the passing scenery, she breathed a sigh of regret. It was a hopeless situation for it was most unlikely they would meet again. Swallowing her disappointment, she knew there was nothing for it but to put him from her thoughts, only to find over the coming days that it was no easy matter.

* * *

Jane’s father had been an academic and writer on Asian and European history and antiquities. When he had died she was fortunate to have a generous-hearted paternal widowed aunt to take her in. Jane had seen her just twice in her life when her father’s work had brought him to London.

Aunt Caroline gave what she called ‘soirées’ at her small but elegant house in a fashionable part of London. It was decorated and furnished in the latest aesthetic fashion, with the walls festooned with peacocks and pomegranates and several pieces of Japanese porcelain.

Her guests were mainly invited through her charities—she worked on several committees—but there were sometimes politicians and a sprinkling of what she called ‘the Bohemians’: artists, musicians and writers and such like. Sometimes she would engage a violinist or a pianist to perform—those were her musical evenings—then there were card evenings and some supper parties. She enjoyed entertaining, but her charities were always at the forefront of her mind and the money that could be raised from these occasions.

Today she was hosting one of her charity events attended by several of her fellow patrons. A gentle, caring soul, Caroline Standish was a very worthy lady who took her work seriously. The destitution and brutish conditions in some parts of the capital touched her deeply and she worked hard to alleviate the suffering in any way she could.

Jane watched ladies sip the very best tea from Assam and Ceylon out of her aunt’s best china cups and eat cucumber sandwiches and cakes off china plates, her eyes coming to rest on one before moving on to the next.

They were a mixed collection of ladies. Most of them led privileged lives. Their husbands were gentlemen and some titled. The younger ladies were quite beautiful and Jane wondered that such beauty could exist. As an unmarried woman of limited importance and at least three inches taller than what was considered fashionable, it was with wry amusement that she also wondered why nature had seen fit to bless so many with the gift of so much beauty, of face and figure, affording herself nothing more than a tenacity of spirit and a wry amusement that up until now had allowed her to transcend her own shortcomings.

As far as husbands were concerned, Jane didn’t suppose it would happen to her. Even if she did meet someone, she would rather die a spinster than submit herself to a man she did not love—a man who did not love her. All her life she had been aware and deeply moved by the quiet dignity and deep, voiceless love her parents had borne for each other and by their example she would settle for nothing less in her own marriage. With a mind of her own, she possessed a will to live her life as she saw fit and would not submit to mere circumstance.

In her opinion she was nothing out of the ordinary, her looks being unconventional. Being neither stylish nor dashing, she couldn’t blame anyone for not favouring her with a second glance.

‘Too thin,’ an elderly lady had once said. ‘Too tall,’ said another. ‘Too plain,’ someone else had commented.

But as Jane looked at her reflection in the mirror, she doubted a glimpse of her face would frighten anyone. Some men might actually like cheekbones that were too high, a mouth that was too wide and eyes that were a peculiar shade of violet touched with grey. Her hair was the bane of her life. It was long and thick and so rich a brown to be almost red. The weight of it was brushed back severely from her brow in an attempt to subdue its defiant inclination to curl. Most of the time it was kept confined in an unflattering tight knot at the nape of her neck.

Jane knew she didn’t make the best of herself. But if anyone had been inclined to look deeper they would have found that behind the unprepossessing appearance there was a veritable treasure trove. Twenty-one years of age and formidably intelligent, she had a distinct and memorable personality, and could hold the most fascinating conversations on most subjects. She had a genuinely kind heart, wasn’t boastful and rarely offended anybody. She was also unselfish and willing to take on the troubles of others.

Aunt Caroline had told her she was expecting Lady Lansbury—the Countess of Lansbury—and her young daughter at her gathering.

‘They have been in America—New York, I believe,’ she explained, ‘and have spent some time in Paris before returning to England. They have a house in town, but I understand they will shortly be leaving for their estate in Oxfordshire.’

‘How did you meet Lady Lansbury?’

‘She came to one of my Tuesdays. Such a caring soul. She likes to be involved and gives of her time unsparingly, but donations cannot be relied upon. The poor woman was left quite destitute when her husband died. Her son inherited the Chalfont estate in Oxfordshire—at least what was left of it. The old earl left them near bankrupt. But that was twelve years ago and the present earl has worked hard and managed to keep his head above water. But rumour has it that unless he can find a way to inject some money into the place, he might have to let it go.’

‘What a worry it must be for them.’

‘I’m sure it is. I believe Lord Lansbury is considering selling the London house to raise some capital. It is rumoured that he might even resort to marrying an heiress—an American heiress—and why not? He won’t be the first impoverished nobleman to marry for money and he won’t be the last.’

‘That seems rather drastic.’

‘To you, having lived almost all your life abroad, I suppose it does. In English society, marrying for money is considered a perfectly acceptable undertaking. However, pride is a dominant Chalfont trait and the Earl of Lansbury will find it extremely distasteful having to resort to such extreme measures. But that does not concern us. Young Lady Octavia is a charming girl, although she gave Lady Lansbury a hard time when she came along. Born early, she was pronounced delicate. She has—difficulties, but she’s of a gentle, loving disposition. You will love her.’

* * *

Aunt Caroline was right. Lady Lansbury, a regal lady, arrived with her daughter in a carriage with a resplendent coachman and a little page at the back to leap down and open doors.

Jane could not believe her eyes when she saw Lady Lansbury—she was the woman she had met on the ship and the child Octavia was just as she remembered. She was touched that Lady Lansbury should remember her.

‘Why, Miss Mortimer! I am so pleased to see you again. Allow me to thank you once again for what you did for Octavia. Your niece was extremely brave, Mrs Standish,’ she said to Jane’s aunt. ‘She risked her life to save Octavia when she fell on the deck of the ship when we were crossing the Channel and was in danger of sliding into the sea. I was journeying from Paris accompanied by my son, Lord Lansbury. We were indeed grateful that Miss Mortimer acted so quickly.’

Mrs Standish looked at her niece with some degree of surprise. ‘Really? You never mentioned it, Jane.’

‘I had no reason to. We were not introduced so I had no idea the two of you are acquainted. When the child slipped and fell I did what anyone else would have done. At the time I was close to her.’

‘You are too modest, my dear,’ Lady Lansbury said. ‘Your prompt action saved her life.’

‘I was glad I was able to help.’ Jane longed to ask after Lady Lansbury’s son, but thought better of it. After all it was unlikely they would meet again. Lord Lansbury had made a large impression on her virgin heart. When she was least expecting it thoughts of him would fill her mind so that she was unable to think of anything else which totally confused her. No man had ever had this effect on her before. But he was an earl, the Earl of Lansbury, way above her station in life and all she could do was admire him from afar. She looked at the child, who, it was clear, didn’t remember her. ‘Lady Octavia is such a lovely child.’

Jane’s wonder increased when Octavia, clutching her beloved Pekinese in the crook of one arm, danced up to her and said, ‘I like your dress. It’s very pretty.’

‘Thank you,’ Jane said, responding warmly to the compliment, even though she disagreed with her. It was much worn and certainly not fashionable. But the colours were bright, the pattern bold, and she was in no doubt that it was this that had drawn Octavia’s attention.

Octavia sat beside her on the striped sofa, placing her dog between them. The dog lifted its paw, cocked its head and peered up at Jane with yellow eyes, as if to fathom the spirit of this new person.

‘She wants you to shake hands with her,’ Octavia informed her.

Jane took the proffered paw and a pink tongue lolled out the side of the jaws almost in a smile. ‘Does your dog have a name?’

‘Poppy. She’s called Poppy.’

‘That’s a nice name. She is safe, isn’t she?’ Jane questioned with a teasing light in her eyes. ‘I mean—she doesn’t eat people, does she?’

Octavia tilted her head to one side and looked at her curiously, amazed that this lady should think her precious dog might bite. ‘No, of course she doesn’t. She likes you. I can tell. I like you, too. You are a very nice lady. Will you be my friend? I don’t have any.’ There was no hint of sadness in her remark. It was a matter-of-fact comment. That was the way it was.

Jane laughed and said she would like that very much. Stroking the ears of the Pekinese she studied the young girl. With silver-blonde hair and eyes a shining bright blue, her features piquant, she was a lively and restless girl with an independent spirit and full of energies she was unable to repress. For the time the visit lasted Octavia never left Jane’s side. Jane realised that Lady Lansbury was closely following their exchange and watching them attentively, speculatively. She did not withhold comment.

‘I can see Octavia has found a friend in you, Miss Mortimer. You are fortunate. She doesn’t take to people easily.’

From the small table beside her Jane took a painted tin of bonbons she had bought earlier and held them out to the girl. ‘I don’t think I can eat all these, Lady Octavia. Would you mind keeping the tin for me and helping me along with them?’

Octavia blinked her large eyes and looked enquiringly at her mother as if seeking her guidance. Lady Lansbury nodded and smiled her approval, and hesitantly Octavia’s gaze came back to Jane. Accepting the tin, she immediately opened it and selected a bonbon, popping the sugary confection into her mouth and beaming her delight at the taste.

* * *

London was an exciting and fascinating place to be. Jane loved it. Aunt Caroline accompanied her on her excursions, pointing out to her buildings and places of note. They strolled in the parks and Jane was thrilled to see all the bright and beautiful flowers in borders and beds. Having spent most of her life surrounded by hot and arid landscapes, she found it truly amazing to see so much colour in one place.

At other times she was trying to sort out her father’s affairs and considering her future. She gave little thought to her meeting with Lady Lansbury, so she was surprised when she called on the off chance one week later, hoping to find her at home.

Thinking her visit had something to do with one of the charities they supported, Aunt Caroline ushered her into the drawing room. Over tea they chatted about trivial matters. Jane listened, saying very little. Beneath a tiny jacket Lady Lansbury had on a beautiful gown in a silky material which shone where the light touched it. It was in a colour that reminded her of the sun when it was sinking at dusk, a sort of mixture between brown and gold and warm pink. The skirt was full and on her head was a pretty straw hat decorated with flowers to match her dress.

Jane was conscious of Lady Lansbury’s eyes studying her, not critically, nor with the kind of morbid fascination with which many of her class would gaze at her unfashionable attire and plain looks. Rather it was with an assessing frankness, a frankness and even an admiration one woman directs at another when she sincerely believes that woman is worthy of it.

‘How is Lady Octavia?’ Jane found herself asking. ‘It was a pleasure to meet her. She is such a charming, sweet girl.’

‘Yes, she is—but then she is my daughter and I love her dearly.’ Lady Lansbury placed her cup and saucer down. Her face, which had been firm with some inner resolve, softened imperceptibly. ‘Of course I am so glad you think so, Miss Mortimer, because my visit concerns Octavia. When we were here last week I could not help noticing that you seem to have a way with her—and she has talked of nothing else but you since. I have come here today to ask for your help.’

‘Oh!’ Jane uttered, slightly taken aback, for she could not for the life of her think how she could possibly be of help to the Countess of Lansbury.

‘When I spoke to your aunt, I seem to recall her mentioning that you have returned to England after spending many years travelling abroad with your father.’

‘That is so,’ Jane confirmed quietly. ‘Sadly my father died when we were in Egypt, which is why I have come to stay with Aunt Caroline while his affairs are put in order and I consider my future.’

‘Do you like children, Miss Mortimer?’

‘Why—I—yes, of course, although I confess that being an only child and constantly on the move, I have no experience of them.’

‘You appeared to get on with Octavia well enough. I wondered if you would consider helping me take care of her. She can be difficult on occasion. All the young ladies I have employed in the past do not make it past the first month before they are heading for the door.’

‘I—I don’t know...’

‘Miss Mortimer, please, I beg you, let me finish. I want to offer you permanent, full-time employment. We will be leaving London for our family home—Chalfont House in Oxfordshire—within the week. Octavia has developed a slight cough. I believe the country air is so much better for her than this London smog. I can’t tell you how happy it would make me if you were to come with us.’

‘Lady Lansbury—I don’t know what to say. I freely admit you’ve taken me by surprise.’

‘I hope you will say yes. I will not pretend that it will be easy taking care of Octavia. As you have seen she is not—not quite—like other girls of her age. She is twelve years old but looks and behaves much younger. She is fragile and needs tender care. She finds it difficult to tell people what she needs and how she feels—she also finds it difficult to understand what other people think and how they feel. She finds it hard to meet people—and to make friends—but she seems to like you. I do love her so very much, but I have grown weary and I often despair of what will become of her...’

For a moment Jane thought Lady Lansbury was about to break down. She bent her head, placing the back of her immaculately gloved hand to her head, swallowing painfully. Jane stood up, ready to go to her, to kneel and place her own soothing hand on hers, wanting to comfort, but recollecting herself when Lady Lansbury raised her head staunchly.

Jane smiled, a compassionate warmth lighting her eyes. She could almost feel the tension inside this regal lady splitting the air. Jane didn’t take any persuading to accept her offer of employment. Through his work her father had told her that on his death she would be a wealthy woman, but until his lawyer had sorted out his affairs and the will was read she had no idea of her worth, although she knew it would be considerable. Never being one for crowded places, getting out of London into the English countryside for a while appealed to her.

There was also another reason that added weight to her decision—Lady Lansbury’s son, the Earl of Lansbury. The temptation to see him again was too great for her to resist. She had not believed their paths would cross again and for the first time in her life she acted on impulse.

‘I am sorry to hear that, Lady Lansbury, and I will help if I can.’

As she spoke a kindly light appeared in Jane’s eyes. Her interest and feeling towards the girl were obviously sincere. Octavia was unpredictable, dainty and fragile as gossamer. She reminded Jane of a fluff of swansdown blown along on the breeze and may blossom that showed its beauty so profusely in spring. The blossom, flushed with pink, was no more delicately lovely than this child who had latched on to her from the first.

‘I accept your offer, Lady Lansbury. I will return with you to Chalfont House—although I cannot commit myself indefinitely. But for the time being I would dearly like to be Lady Octavia’s companion and I promise I will be patient with her.’

Lady Lansbury’s eyes were bright with tears of gratitude. Miss Mortimer’s acceptance of the post lightened her spirits, as though a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. ‘Thank you, Miss Mortimer. I can’t tell you what a relief that is to me.’

‘There is one thing I must ask of you, Lady Lansbury. When my father died a good deal of his work was not completed. It meant a great deal to him—and to his publisher and other antiquarians he worked with. I was his assistant and I am doing what I can to finish his work.’

‘Of course you must. I quite understand. You will not be caring for Octavia all the time. We have a perfectly good library at Chalfont. It is a quiet room. I am sure you will find it the perfect place for your work.’

‘Thank you. I would appreciate that.’

‘Nonsense. It is I who am grateful to you.’ She looked at Jane’s aunt, who had listened to their exchange closely. ‘What do you say, Mrs Standish? I do so hope you approve of Jane’s acceptance to my proposal. I am certain she will be a great help to me—and to Octavia.’

‘It is not for me to approve or disapprove, Lady Lansbury,’ Mrs Standish said, choosing her words with care. ‘At twenty-one my niece is old enough and sensible enough to decide her own future. But since you ask my opinion I will say that I am—concerned about the position she will hold in your household and how it will be seen by the others who work at Chalfont House. In age Jane will be on a par with your maids in the kitchen and...’

‘Please, say no more, Mrs Standish. Jane will never be on a par in any way with the maids in the kitchen. I know that she is the daughter of an academic, a highly intelligent man, an acclaimed writer, whose own father held a high-ranking position in the army. Her mother is from good stock, the Grants of Derbyshire. They were not a wealthy family, but they were of the class.’

‘But—how do you know this, Lady Lansbury?’ Jane asked.

‘When I saw how taken Octavia was with you, I—made a few enquiries. I ask nothing more of you, Jane, than that you be my daughter’s companion—her friend. Octavia has never reached out to anyone the way she has to you.’

‘I will do my best to make her happy.’ Knowing how concerned her aunt was about her, Jane tried to put her at ease with the situation. Looking after Octavia would be a demanding position but a pleasurable one for the girl aroused a protective fondness in her. ‘Please—do not worry about me, Aunt,’ she said gently. ‘Ever since I returned to England I’ve been undecided as to what to do with my future, which path to take. As you know my mother died when I was very young. Having spent almost my entire life with my father, helping him with his work and wandering from place to place like nomads, I don’t know what I’m cut out for.’

‘You don’t have to do anything, Jane,’ her aunt said quietly. ‘And didn’t you mention that one of your father’s colleagues is to come to London shortly?’

‘Yes. Phineas Waverley. He is to set up an exhibition of artefacts and photographs and the like. No doubt he’ll write to me when he knows more himself. In the meantime I have to do something. I’m not cut out for a life of idleness. I need to be busy. Chalfont House is within easy reach of London so I’ll not be far away.’

* * *

On returning to Lansbury House, Lady Lansbury broached the matter with her son of Miss Mortimer accompanying them to Chalfont to help take care of Octavia. She found him unexpectedly obdurate and impatient.

‘Why this girl? How can you be so certain about her on such short acquaintance? Of course Octavia took to her. It is what she does when anyone shows her kindness.’

‘You dislike Miss Mortimer?’ Lady Lansbury was puzzled by his vehemence. ‘I find her quite charming.’

In a voice that was matter of fact rather than critical, he continued, ‘I cannot be accused of being either uncharitable or unaccommodating in this instance. And contrary to what you might think, I have formed no opinion of her whatsoever. It’s just that...’ He faltered, avoiding eye contact with his mother. ‘I don’t dislike Miss Mortimer. Why should I?’

Lady Lansbury eyed her son closely. Why should he, indeed? For the first time in years she thought of the girl—Lily, her name was—Christopher had fallen for and how it had almost destroyed him when she had left him. Could it be that in Jane Mortimer he saw similarities to Lily? Perhaps that was it, but apart from the colour of her eyes, in her opinion there the similarities ended. Jane was not in the least like Lily.

‘I am glad to hear it. Has it not entered that arrogant, stubborn head of yours that you might even like her? You may be pleasantly surprised.’

‘Even for an arrogant, stubborn man like me it is not beyond the realms of possibility,’ Christopher conceded.

‘My fear is that when she is faced with your formidable manner—a daunting prospect for any girl—it will alienate her from the start.’

‘What I dislike is wasting time on such a trivial matter when Octavia is perfectly happy as she is. Actually, there are one or two minor problems associated with your plan,’ he said drily, but he couldn’t bring himself to dampen his mother’s enthusiasm completely. ‘Miss Mortimer will be the latest in a long line of young ladies we have employed to care for Octavia in the past. Not one of them lasted more than a month and each time they left Octavia was distressed. I doubt Miss Mortimer will be any different. Why don’t you give the entire project some careful thought and we’ll discuss the various aspects of it when we reach Chalfont?’

‘No, Christopher. I have made up my mind. Octavia’s care is my concern and it would help me a great deal knowing that when I have to I can leave her with someone I can trust.’

Christopher sighed. He was not completely heartless. Looking after Octavia, worrying about her, wearied his mother. Finding the right person to care for her had proved a problem in the past. ‘I’m sorry, Mother. Of course you must do as you see fit. Go ahead and employ Miss Mortimer if it makes you happy.’

‘More importantly, Christopher, is that she makes Octavia happy.’

* * *

Chalfont House was the Lansbury seat in the heart of Oxfordshire. Jane was irrevocably touched by its timeless splendour. A wide stretch of stone steps led up to the colonnaded front door, while on either side two great wings stretched out to portray, in perfect proportions, the great arched dome which surmounted the centre of the building. Inside, the pomp and grandeur, which the countess took for granted, left her breathless.

As soon as she entered the house she was greeted with unaffected warmth. She felt this was a house where courtesy and mutual affection ruled in perfect harmony.

A maid appeared and whisked a tired Octavia to her room, leaving Jane with Lady Lansbury. She stood in the hall, looking about her with interest. And then, as if she was seeing a dream awaken before her, Lord Lansbury appeared from one of the many rooms leading off from the hall and strode toward them.

It was strange, but it was as if she had first seen him only yesterday. He had made such an impression on her on the ship and it had remained, only now it was stronger. He had a look she saw rarely—the complete indifference of inherited position. It was something that could not be acquired or even reproduced. It had to develop over time. Attired in a dark-green jacket and pristine neck linen, tall, lithe, his features strong and darkly, incredibly attractive, he moved with the confident ease of a man well assured of his place in the world and completely unconcerned about the world’s perception of him.

Accustomed all her life to foreigners and older men of her father’s acquaintance, men who gave thought of nothing other than their work and gave no thought to their appearance, she had never seen anything like Lord Lansbury. Unable to tear her eyes away from him, she was bowled over anew by that same dark, delicious magnetism she remembered vividly from her first glimpse of him on the ship.

His hair was thick and dark brown, as shiny as silk brushed back from his brow, his glorious grey eyes the colour of smoke. He had a long aquiline nose and his eyelids were heavy, drooping low, giving him a lazy, sleepy look. At over six foot tall, he was built like one of those Greek athletes she had read so much about, lean and muscular, all supple grace, and when he spoke his voice was deep and throaty, reminding her of thick honey and making her think of bodies, of bedrooms and the erotic engravings she had seen on her travels through the far east and Europe with her father.

Lord Lansbury had travelled to Chalfont ahead of Lady Lansbury. When Lady Lansbury introduced her, he looked at her, inclining his head courteously. But he did not see her, not really, and she hadn’t expected him to. He did not look at her in the way a man would look at an attractive woman. His eyes were startling and distracting, not so much for their silver-grey colour or the size, which was substantial. What gave them their unique power seemed to be the fact that the centre of his eyes filled the clear white from top to bottom and the thick lashes both obscured and revealed his gaze, depending on his whim.

‘Miss Mortimer is here to take care of Octavia, Christopher. You will remember that she was the young lady who saved Octavia’s life on the ship. I informed you she would be coming today.’

‘Yes, so you did.’ He fixed Jane with a cool gaze. ‘We are in your debt, Miss Mortimer, for what you did that day. But your work will not be easy. Getting Octavia to do anything she doesn’t like is like piloting a ship into the harbour. It needs a steady hand on the tiller.’

Jane laughed, suddenly nervous. She felt Lord Lansbury was only being polite and sensed he was uncomfortable and wishful to escape. A sense of disappointment rippled through her. How she wished he would look at her differently, that he would find her attractive.

‘Please don’t be concerned. My navigational skills are quite exceptional.’

‘I’m glad to hear it. Your father was a well-known writer and antiquarian, I believe.’

‘He was Matthew Mortimer, a knowledgeable writer on many things—Roman and Greek history and antiquities were his passion.’

‘He must have been an interesting man. My mother tells me you have spent a great deal of your time abroad.’

‘Yes. Together we travelled to many countries—Europe and beyond. We lived in India for five years.’

‘Really?’ Jane felt and saw his interest quicken. ‘You must find life here very different indeed from that hot clime.’

‘Very different,’ she said, trying not to let herself sound too regretful.

‘And dull.’

She laughed. ‘I’m afraid I haven’t had time to find out.’

‘You appear to be a sensible young woman, Miss Mortimer. I am sure you will adjust. I hope you won’t find the English winters too cold and miserable.’

‘I’m sure I will,’ she said with a wry smile. ‘I’m also sure that I’ll survive.’

‘You must miss your father.’

‘Yes,’ she replied, struggling to conceal the sadness she always felt when speaking of her father. She still felt his loss deeply. ‘Not only was I his daughter, but his assistant. When he died I’m afraid much of his work was unfinished so I have a lot of loose ends to tie up for his publisher. Lady Lansbury has kindly offered me the use of your library—when I’m not looking after Lady Octavia, that is.’

‘Of course. Feel free to use it any time. I am sure you will do an excellent job taking care of Octavia. I hope you will enjoy your time here.’

Jane’s heart skipped a beat as his beautiful grey eyes met hers. Pleasure washed over her. ‘I’m sure I will, Lord Lansbury.’ She swallowed hard, unable to think of anything else to say until he had turned his back on her and walked away. ‘Thank you,’ she finally managed to call out, but he must not have heard her words, for he did not turn to look at her again.

‘Oh, dear! My son is hasty sometimes,’ Lady Lansbury said, noting Jane’s dismay. ‘He has grave matters to worry him and he is always so busy. But come, my dear. I’ll take you to Octavia’s rooms.’ She looked at Jane who was somewhat flushed. ‘Are you all right, my dear?’


A cloud shifted across Jane’s face and her eyelids lowered. The expression in them was unreadable, which was just as well, for she loved Christopher Chalfont from that moment. How else could these feelings that consumed her be explained—she, who had no experience of men in the romantic sense? She told herself that she should doubt her reactions to Lord Lansbury, the first man she had ever been attracted to. She was unable to understand why this should be.

The day she had left France and climbed aboard the boat bound for Dover would live with her for ever, because that was the day she had met him, the day he had entered her mind so that she was unable to think of anything else. Because the differences between them were too vast, she did not fool herself into believing it could ever be any different and that he would ever return her love.

Nothing was normal any more, least of all her feelings about herself.


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