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Диксон Хелен

Lord Lansbury's Christmas Wedding

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Jane had been at Chalfont for one whole month and had no reason to regret her decision. The servants were not quite sure about her position. The other young ladies who had cared for Octavia in the past had been employed as governesses. Although Miss Mortimer’s position filled that role, Lady Lansbury treated her as more of a friend. Miss Mortimer was frequently invited to dine with the family, but she always declined, opting to eat in the rooms she shared with Octavia.

Jane realised she had a talent for entertaining Octavia that surprised her. In spite of her lack of experience with children, she managed to win Octavia’s trust and arouse her eager curiosity with the activities they did together. They would walk in the beautiful grounds and at other times Octavia loved to draw and paint, but she was reluctant to learn her letters, so on Lady Lansbury’s advice she did not press her.

But it wasn’t always easy. There were times when Octavia would be silent for long periods and she was unable to concentrate any length of time on any one thing. She was often wilful and sullen and there were tears if she could not get her own way. But on the whole she brought much pleasure to Jane and Lady Lansbury was beginning to lose that tense, anxious look that Jane had noticed on first meeting her.

Hearing the gravel crunch beneath a horse’s hooves on the drive below, she was drawn from her thoughts as she watched Octavia painting pictures in her room. Drawing a deep breath in anticipation of the return of Lord Lansbury from his ride, she moved swiftly to the window and looked down at the man who occupied her thoughts both day and night. He had spent most of the past four weeks in town so she hadn’t seen much of him. The moment she fixed her eyes on his tall, powerfully elegant figure, as he dismounted and handed the reins to a waiting groom, she felt that familiar twist of her heart, that addictive mix of pleasure and discomfort.

* * *

Unaware that he was being observed, Christopher entered the house. At best, he was a fiercely private man, guarded and solitary and accountable to no one. At worst, he was a man with a streak of ruthlessness and an iron control that was almost chilling. He possessed a haughty reserve that was not inviting and set him apart from others in society.

There had been other women. He took them to bed, but he did not let them into his life. He could also be cold, calculating and unemotional, which was his attitude to the decision he was about to make regarding marriage to an American heiress, Lydia Spelling. The American dollars she would bring would go a long way to shoring up Chalfont’s finances. He was still feeling the effects of his father’s ruin, but the returns from his investments were at last beginning to show improvements.

Marriage to Miss Spelling would be advantageous in other ways as well as financial. The Chalfonts had become thin on the ground. To continue the line he had to give some thought to producing an heir. He knew how anxious his mother was for him to marry. If he didn’t produce a legitimate heir, the title was in danger of passing entirely out of the Chalfont family. It troubled him more than anyone realised and he knew he couldn’t go on ignoring the issue.

When his mother had decided to take Octavia on an extensive tour to visit New York and then Paris, reluctant to let them go alone, Christopher had accompanied them. When he’d embarked on the transatlantic voyage, the phenomenon of seeking to marry an American heiress as the solution to his financial situation and to continue the Chalfont line had not entered his head. He hadn’t reckoned on Oswald Spelling.

Spelling, a widower with one daughter, hadn’t passed up the chance to socialise with an earl—British aristocrats had become husbands of choice for American millionaires’ daughters. Invited to dine at the Spellings’s showy mansion on Madison Square, Mr Spelling had seated Lydia on Christopher’s right. It wasn’t subtle, but then it didn’t have to be.

Lydia Spelling was animated and she knew how to assert herself. Encouraged from an early age to express herself and fully confident that she was a worthwhile thing to express, she left Christopher in no doubt that she found him an attractive prospect. As an American heiress she enjoyed a freedom of movement and association that was reserved in Europe solely for married women.

When Christopher finally left New York, he had made no commitment and yet an understanding of sorts had been reached. Lydia was attractive and popular at any event. He did not love her, but making her his wife did not seem such a high price to pay for a lifetime free from financial worry. No sacrifice would be too great if he could restore some of Chalfont’s glories and ensure a more stable future.

* * *

Christopher was ensconced in Chalfont’s library reading the financial sections in the morning papers, one booted foot resting atop his knee,

It was a lovely room. With its beautiful Adams ceiling and Grinling Gibbons chimneypiece, highly polished floor and vividly coloured oriental carpets, it was like an Aladdin’s cave—a treasure trove of precious leather-bound tomes. It smelt strongly of polish and Morocco leather. It was a room which encapsulated every culture and civilisation of the universe, where bookshelves stretched from floor to ceiling, broken only by the fireplace and long windows looking out on to the gardens.

Christopher glanced up when the door opened and his mother swept in.

‘So this is where you are, Christopher. I thought I’d best tell you that I shall be taking charge of Octavia today.

I thought it was time Miss Mortimer took some time off to get on with her work. I really wish she had accepted some kind of reward for what she did for Octavia on the ship. I did think of giving her a bank draft—a reward for saving her life—but she will be undoubtedly offended by the money.’

Christopher smiled disdainfully. ‘Perhaps she is not as eager for coin as some of the lower classes would be, who would try to wheedle some sort of monetary reward regardless of the reason.’

‘You’ve become a cynic,’ his mother teased blandly. ‘But Jane is not like that. She is without guile or greed. She is a lovely young woman, don’t you agree?’

Christopher gave her a narrow look over the top of the newspaper. ‘She’s certainly out of the ordinary—having spent her life, by all accounts, like a wandering gypsy. I’ve never seen you so taken with any of the other young ladies we have employed to take care of Octavia in the past.’

‘You’re quite right, and so far I’m thoroughly satisfied. Jane is an absolute treasure.’

‘Unconventional and hopelessly peculiar is how I would describe her,’ Christopher replied drolly, flicking back the next page of his paper. ‘I would have thought that a girl with her background would be devoid of social skills and find it hard to adjust to the kind of world we inhabit.’

‘You are too harsh. Jane is a thoroughly charming and engaging and well-adjusted young woman, with a remarkable intelligence. In the short time I’ve known her I vow she’s lifted my spirits considerably. I know you had reservations about her suitability from the start, but she has proved you wrong. The difference in Octavia is quite startling. You must have seen that for yourself.’

That Christopher had misgivings about Jane was etched into the troubled scowl on his face. His mother would hear no wrong said about the girl who had slipped so neatly and effortlessly into their lives, and for the sake of Octavia and his mother’s happiness he must accept the situation.

* * *

On the other side of the library door, which Lady Lansbury had left ajar, hearing voices and about to enter, Jane paused. Not wishing to intrude, she considered returning to her room, but on hearing Lady Lansbury mention her name, she halted.

Listening to what Lord Lansbury had to say, Jane felt tears of humiliation burn the backs of her eyes. She stepped away from the door, trying to recover her control. If what he said was to be believed, he didn’t want her at Chalfont, which meant his initial cordiality to her had all been a pretence. He was rightly protective of his sister, but that did not lessen the sting of his words or the terrible hurt that engulfed her on hearing them.

Fighting desperately to hold on to her rising anger and shattered pride, she raised her head. After all, it wasn’t her fault if he found her hopelessly peculiar. Lady Lansbury was happy to have her care for Octavia and was pleased with the rapport that had grown between them.

Taking the bull by the horns, she knocked on the door and pushed it open, forcing a smile to her lips when Lady Lansbury crossed towards her and trying not to look at Lord Lansbury, who had dropped his newspaper on to his knee and was looking directly at her, his face expressionless.

‘Come in, Jane. I’m sure you are impatient to begin work. I shall go and see Mrs Collins in the kitchen. I thought we might take Octavia for a carriage ride later if you can spare the time, Christopher.’

‘I will try, but I have a lot of work to do today. I have to go over the books with Johnson and I want to inspect one of the farms myself. Johnson claims they don’t really need a roof, but it’s going to be a rainy autumn and I want to make sure.’

‘Johnson is a very efficient and able bailiff, Christopher. I’m sure he can manage without you, but—if you must.’

‘I will try. I don’t want to disappoint Octavia. I’ll have more time this afternoon.’

‘This afternoon will be fine,’ she said, turning away. ‘I won’t be gone more than a moment. I’ll leave you to set out your work, Jane. Christopher will look after you until I return..


Her voice faded away into the far reaches of the house and a door was heard to open and close somewhere. Then there was silence.

Without looking at the man lounging in the chair, but conscious of his presence, carrying her things, Jane crossed to a table tucked away in a corner by the window. It would be the perfect place for her to work. Lady Lansbury had introduced her to the library on her arrival at Chalfont, explaining that she would be able to concentrate on her work without interruption.

Christopher watched her pull out a chair and place her files on the surface of the table. With rigid back and head held high, she lowered herself into it. With a mixture of languor and self-assurance, absently drumming his fingers on the leather arm, Christopher let his gaze sweep over her in a contemplative way.

‘How do you find Octavia, Miss Mortimer?’

Her face was half-turned away from him. All he could see was the curve of her cheekbone and the long silky flutter of her black lashes. Her hair was drawn unflatteringly into its severe bun. Her face was composed and her eyes clear and untroubled. In fact, she looked as she always looked, unapproachable and detached from those about her. Yet she was paler than usual and he wondered if she was unwell. She was certainly quiet—in fact, she was as prim as a spinster at a church tea party.

She looked up from sorting out her work as though against her better judgement, and Christopher was mystified by her cool reserve. Her face was set in a mould of chill politeness and he could see it was all she could do to answer him. What the devil had he done to earn her animosity, he wondered, and in such a short time? Then he almost laughed. It was all so ridiculous. He was tempted to ask her outright what offence he had committed, then thought better of it. However, he learned the cause of her cold attitude when she next spoke, and he was contrite. His comments had been unflattering and hurtful.

‘Lady Octavia is a charming girl,’ Jane said crisply. ‘Where she is concerned I take my responsibilities seriously. You may not approve of me, Lord Lansbury, but be assured that I am not out to hurt her in any way.’

‘Ah. So, you overheard what I was saying to my mother, in which case I can see some form of apology is in order. However, since you mention it I did not say that I do not approve of you. On the contrary. I have nothing but respect for you and the work you do. However,’ he said, putting down his newspaper and getting to his feet, ‘what my opinions are concerning you has no bearing on the case. My paramount concern is Octavia’s happiness and well-being. As you will know, having spent some considerable time in her company, she is not like other twelve-year-old girls.’

‘That I do know. Lady Lansbury explained Lady Octavia’s situation before I accepted the post.’

‘I am sure she did,’ he said, moving close to where she sat, ‘but naturally I was concerned when I discovered that my mother had decided to employ you without discussing the matter with me first.’

‘I understand your concern. Lady Lansbury has shown nothing but courtesy itself, and I give you my word that I shall not abuse her kindness. What you must understand is that I did not seek the position she offered me. Indeed, having just arrived in London—having spent most of my life living the life of a wandering gypsy—to quote your own words, my lord—I was undecided on what I would do next.’

‘It would seem my mother came along at the right moment.’

‘Perhaps. Time will tell. I dare say the properly reared young ladies of your acquaintance would be horrified and fall into a swoon at the life I have led and liken me to a savage. I may not have been born with blue blood in my veins and all the advantages that come with it, but I have learned much and my life has been enriched by it. Yes, I have been to many places and seen things good and bad, but I would not change a thing. It is not where a person comes from that matters. It’s what a person is that counts.’

Christopher stared at the proud, tempestuous young woman in silent, cool composure. Her words reverberated round the room, ricocheting off the walls and hitting him with all the brutal impact of a battering ram, but it failed to pierce the armour of his reserve and not a flicker of emotion registered on his impassive features.

‘That, Miss Mortimer, was quite an outburst. Have you finished?’

Pausing to take a restorative breath, wondering if he might order her from the house following her outburst, Jane finally said, ‘Yes, I have.’

Cool and remote, feeling a stirring of admiration for this strange young woman who had dared speak her mind with such force, Christopher studied her for a moment, as though trying to discern something. When he had first set eyes on her he had thought her plain. But now, looking at her anew, he found himself revising his opinion. Her eyes were dark and soft and warm and were surrounded by absurdly long lashes. She had fine textured skin the colour of fresh cream. There were tiny lines at the corners of her eyes that told him she was a woman who smiled often.

But she did not smile at him.

Was she really as innocent and prim as she appeared? His instinct detected untapped depths of passion in her that sent silent signals instantly recognisable to a lusty male. The impact of these signals brought a smouldering glow to his eyes. So much innocence excited him, made him imagine those pleasures and sensations Miss Mortimer could never have experienced being aroused by him. If he had a mind, it would not be too difficult a task to demolish her pride and have her melting with desire in his arms.

Briefly, the idea of conquering her appealed to his sardonic sense of humour—if that was what he had a mind to do, which he didn’t. The idea of seducing any woman for his own gratification was unthinkable. It would put him on a par with his own father, who had been the most corrupt and debauched man he had known. Christopher was his son, but there the association ended. He was not like his father and he never would be. Where Miss Mortimer was concerned he must remember that for him, because of the position she held, she was untouchable.

The lazy smile he bestowed on her transformed his face. She stared at him, as if momentarily captivated by it, unaware of the lascivious thoughts that had induced it. Hot colour washed her cheeks under his close scrutiny and he had no doubt that she hated herself for that betrayal. He smiled infuriatingly.

With a slight lift to his eyebrows, he said, ‘Do I unsettle you, Miss Mortimer?’

‘No—no, of course not,’ she replied, completely flustered as she lowered her gaze and began sorting out the papers on the table, unable to prevent her hands from shaking.

‘Come now, you’re blushing,’ he taunted gently, being well schooled in the way women’s minds worked.

‘I am not.’ Jane’s unease was growing by the second, but she tried not to show it, attempting to maintain a facade of disinterest and indifference.

‘Yes, you are.’ Chuckling softly, he turned away. ‘I see you are busy so I will trouble you no longer.’

The smile disappeared from Christopher’s lips and was replaced by a dark frown as he strode from the room. His conversation with Miss Mortimer had unsettled him and he could not escape the fact that already she had caused a rift in his well-ordered routine—a disturbance that had brought a feeling of unease which was beginning to trouble him. Perhaps it was because, despite her ability to stand on her own two feet, there was a vulnerability about her. Or perhaps it was the fact that she had no flirtatious wiles or it was her candour that threw him off balance. Or those eyes of hers that seemed to search his face as if she were looking for his soul.

Suddenly he found himself wondering what it would be like, having a wife to light up his life with warmth and laughter—a woman to banish the dark emptiness within him.

He caught himself up short, dispelling such youthful dreams and unfulfilled yearnings. He had experienced them once before with Lily, foolishly believing that a beautiful woman could make those dreams come true. How stupid, how gullible he had been to let himself believe a woman cared about such things as love and faithfulness.

Striding away from the library, he scowled as he realised Jane Mortimer was suddenly bringing all those old, foolish yearnings back to torment him.

* * *

When Lord Lansbury had left her, Jane sat looking at the closed door for a long time, her heart palpitating as a whole array of confusing emotions washed over her—anger, humiliation and a piercing, agonising loneliness she had not felt since her father had died.

Despite the unpleasant things she had overheard him say about her and the forthright manner in which she had retaliated—and the way he had looked at her, commenting on her embarrassment—her heart continued to beat with a chaotic mix of every emotion she had ever felt. And when he had smiled at her it was the most wonderful smile she had ever seen and full of provocative charm.

Even she, as immune to charm as she was to good looks, could feel the potency of both in this man. Feeling her heart somersault, she thought that when he smiled like that and looked at a woman from under those drooping lids, he could make a feral cat lay down and purr. Yet the hawk-like shrewdness of those beautiful silver-grey eyes spoke plainly of a man who would not be easy to manage.

* * *

Lord Lansbury’s association with the American heiress was all the talk at Chalfont. It would appear that although an understanding had been reached, they were not formally engaged. An announcement was expected soon. Accompanied by her father, Miss Spelling had stopped off in London en route for Paris. They had arrived at Chalfont the day before Lady Lansbury’s fifty-fifth birthday celebrations.

Octavia was caught up in the excitement and had talked of nothing else for days. Concerned that her young charge would tire herself out before the party started, taking her hand, Jane led her to the bed.

‘You must rest, Lady Octavia, so you are not too tired to enjoy the party later.’

‘I love parties, Jane. You will come, too?’

Jane stared into Octavia’s face. It was brilliant with hope. Her eyes never moved from Jane’s and she scarcely seemed to breathe as she waited for Jane to speak.

Even though Lady Lansbury invited her to attend social events, Jane preferred not to, but since it was Lady Lansbury’s birthday and because Lady Lansbury had insisted she attend, she had accepted.

Jane laughed, turning back the down quilt on the bed while Octavia put Poppy in her basket. ‘I shall, Lady Octavia. I understand from your mama that lots of people will be coming. Now come along. Into bed with you and go to sleep, otherwise you will be too tired to enjoy the party. When you wake you’ll be ready for your bath. I’ll lay out your prettiest party dress—the rose brocade with raised pink rosebuds you like so well. You’ll be the prettiest young lady at the party.’

‘What are you going to wear? Will it be as pretty as my dress?’

‘No, Lady Octavia. I have nothing as pretty as that. I don’t know what I’m going to wear. I haven’t decided.’

Jane tucked the bedclothes around Octavia as she closed her eyes and in no time at all she was asleep. She sat on the bed for a moment, looking down at her young charge. Octavia looked adorable with her curling blonde hair rumpled and falling over her brow, her cheeks flushed and her breath coming softly through her parted lips.

* * *

What to wear for Lady Lansbury’s birthday party was proving a headache for Jane. It wasn’t something that usually concerned her since she was never invited to parties and the like where the guests were made up of fashionable ladies and gentlemen.

Miss Spelling would make her appearance beside Lord Lansbury. Try as she might not to dwell on this, Jane could think of nothing else and would make an extra effort with her appearance. When she tried to picture this unknown American heiress, she was beset with apprehension and a sharp twinge of jealousy—a feeling totally alien to her until now and she rebuked herself for it—all the greater because she had no right to such feelings when Lord Lansbury was going to marry someone else.

A lovely wise old lady she had met in India had told her that whenever a special event occurred, one must cover oneself in silks and perfumes to make one feel secure in one’s own being. To do this would send out whatever messages one wished from this simple subtlety.

Jane had taken this advice to heart, but ruefully she thought how simple that advice would be to follow if one looked like some of the fashionable beauties she had seen in London. At twenty-one years old she was capable of self-analysis and knew it would take more than silks and perfumes to stave off the disharmony she felt for herself. She chided herself for not purchasing some new clothes on her arrival in London. Aunt Caroline, eyeing her out-of-date gowns with distaste, had suggested taking her shopping, but Jane had put it off, telling her she would think about it later. She now had cause to regret not doing so.

Looking through her much-travelled battered old trunk, she drew out a brilliantly hued gown of sapphire silk. It was far more elaborate than her usual day dresses and she was sure it would be suitable for the party. The style was perhaps a little old-fashioned and would not flatter her figure, but it was certainly eye-catching.

The colour glowed and gleamed in the light as though it had a life of its own as she slid the sensuous fabric over her bare shoulders and felt its caress against her skin. The ripples of silk rustled very softly, enticing and provocative. The neckline was modest, the sleeves to the elbow trimmed with the finest lace. The tightly sashed waist and billowing skirt with its layers of supporting underskirts accentuated the feminine shape of her body.

She felt the aura of the old lady very strongly as she twisted this way and that in front of the mirror, assessing herself as never before, as if through someone else’s eyes—Christopher Chalfont’s eyes.

* * *

When Octavia saw her she gasped with delight, reaching out to lightly finger the fine silk.

‘Oh, you look so pretty, Miss Jane. So pretty.’

‘Do I, Lady Octavia?’ Jane asked, looking back at the mirror and frowning slightly as if that image of herself were not quite what she had expected to see.

‘It’s a lovely dress.’

‘This is a very special gown, Lady Octavia. It’s travelled with me all the way from India.’

‘India was where you lived, wasn’t it?’

Jane tilted the child’s face up to hers and smiled fondly. ‘Yes, I told you all about, it if you remember. It’s a country far, far away. Now, I think we had best present ourselves to your mama, don’t you? We mustn’t be late for her party.’

* * *

With Octavia, Jane left their rooms and walked along a wide passage crossing the width of the house. They passed bedrooms and drawing rooms, dining rooms and studies. The Great Gallery was a room of tremendous proportions and a hushed church-like atmosphere. Its floor was of polished oak and its walls supported a huge vaulted ceiling of decorative plaster. Set in rows along the walls were the family paintings, many larger than life and all housed in elaborately gilded frames. They gave the impression to anyone entering the gallery that they were stepping into the presence of nobility.

The afternoon was warm and sunny. Lady Lansbury had opted to have her birthday party on Chalfont’s magnificent lawns, where tables beneath parasols had been set out for the guests. Footmen were on hand to assist an enthusiastic stream of guests from their carriages and see that the vehicles and horses were taken around to the stables.

Beneath a red-and-white-striped awning, trestle tables covered with pristine white tablecloths were laden with a magnificent array of food—every delicacy which was considered necessary to tempt the appetite: pâté, lobster, all manner of succulent meats, pies and jellies, bottles of hock and claret, bowls of punch and fortified wine for the ladies. A large complement of servants flitted about to wait on the guests’ every fancy.

It was quite a spectacle for Jane when she stepped out of the glass doors which opened on to a broad terrace. Octavia in her pretty pink dress, her pretty bonnet held in place by a wide band of embroidered pink ribbon loosely knotted under her chin, held her hand tightly, an anxious look in her eyes. Jane knew she was always uneasy when in the company of so many people and she had promised not to leave her side for a moment.

The scene that confronted them was a kaleidoscope of colour. The gardens were ablaze with blossoms and islands of rhododendrons and azaleas, the air heady with the sweet fragrance of magnolia. Hanging flowers and a profusion of roses and laburnum climbed and trailed over a covered walkway. Elegant sculptures were set against dark green yew trees and an Italian fountain discharged water into a giant lily pond.

Rising above all this was Chalfont House, standing like a magnificent work of art, the brilliantly lit stained-glass windows of the seventeenth century glinting as they caught the sun. The effect was stunning.

Set against this background of unashamed opulence, the lawns and terraces were swarming with titled, wealthy and influential guests, their beautiful gowns, jackets, bonnets and parasols competing with the flower-filled beds. Lady Lansbury presented an imposing figure in a high-necked gown of eau-de-Nil shot silk with a matching turban trimmed with plumes of a moderate height.

Into this select assembly the proud figure of Lydia Spelling stepped on to the high terrace to make her grand entrance. This was the first time Jane had seen her close up and her heart sank at the exquisite picture of fashionable sophistication she made.

Miss Spelling was sandwiched between the Earl of Lansbury and her father, a short, portly man with mutton-chop whiskers, his face carved in hard lines. With her dark hair perfectly coiffed beneath a plume of tantalising white feathers, and a fitted, high-necked jacket of quilted deep-rose satin that hugged her body and accentuated the full swell of her breasts, Lydia Spelling’s appearance was dramatic and could not be faulted. She was not beautiful, or even pretty, but alarmingly arresting.

A hush descended as conversation petered out and every head turned in her direction. Chalfont’s gardens offered the perfect stage on which an ambitious young woman might make her mark, but it was a world in which Lydia Spelling’s place was already secure. It was a grand entrance carried out as only Lydia Spelling could, with enormous panache, and Jane was grudgingly forced to admire it. She saw before her an experienced woman of the world, at ease with men and determined in her goals.

Watching her, Jane was both resentful and fascinated. Whatever she had expected of Miss Spelling, nothing had prepared her for the remarkable presence of the American woman. Jane remembered everything she had heard about her from the servants and now she could believe it all. Miss Spelling had the magnetism and the power that Jane could never possess.

Jane felt strangely inadequate, knowing she could never compete with the worldly experience and fascination of Miss Spelling. She felt vulnerable and gauche.

Lord Lansbury fixed his steady gaze on the figure of his mother seated in a high-backed chair beneath a large parasol, presiding over her birthday party. Accompanied by Miss Spelling and her father, he made his way towards her. Without exception the guests stepped aside so that their progress was unimpaired and before the three of them had reached the Countess of Lansbury conversation had resumed.

Octavia immediately grasped Jane’s hand and pulled her in the direction of her brother. They were both breathing heavily by the time they reached the group.

On reaching his mother, Christopher bent his head and kissed her cheek before drawing Lydia forward.

Lady Lansbury smiled as her eyes settled on the woman who might well become the Countess of Lansbury, her daughter-in-law. ‘Lydia, my dear. How charming you look. I am so pleased you and your father are here to enjoy my birthday party. I am sorry your visit to Chalfont will be brief, although I am certain you will enjoy your trip to Paris.’

‘I’m sure we will, Lady Lansbury. We leave tomorrow, but we were keen to attend your party.’

‘I hope you have a pleasant few weeks. You will miss her, Christopher.’

‘I’m sure I shall,’ he replied, smiling at Lydia.

‘Perhaps you will appreciate me all the more when I return,’ Lydia remarked, trying to catch his eyes, but his attention was caught by Octavia practically jumping up and down to get his attention, bringing a frown of disapproval to Miss Spelling’s brow.

Jane thought Lord Lansbury seemed taller and more elegant than ever. Trying to still her racing heart, not wishing to intrude on the group, she hung back, reluctant to put herself forward. Lord Lansbury received her with polite courtesy and Miss Spelling, with kid-gloved hand placed in a possessive manner on his arm, with a practised smile and noticeable coolness.

Laughing gaily, Octavia wrapped her arms about her brother’s waist, much to Miss Spelling’s annoyance. She took a step back as if she’d been stung when the child reached out to touch one of the flounces on her skirt.

‘Please don’t touch my dress, Lady Octavia,’ she snapped.

Octavia snatched her hand away and stared up at her before sending Jane a look of piteous bewilderment, not liking the tone of Miss Spelling’s voice and not knowing what she’d done wrong.

Seeing the hurt and distress on Octavia’s face, Jane took her hand and drew her to her side. ‘Lady Octavia was only admiring your dress. She has done no harm so please don’t shout at her.’ Looking down at Octavia, she smiled. ‘Don’t be upset, Lady Octavia. You have done no wrong.’

Taken aback by the sharp firmness in Jane’s voice, Miss Spelling stared at her with severe reproach. ‘And why should she not be reprimanded? Spare the rod and spoil the child is what they say, is it not?’

‘They can say what they like,’ Lord Lansbury said with a deadly calm. ‘We like spoiling Octavia.’ Turning from her and looking fondly at his sister, he stroked her cheek. ‘Are you all right, poppet?’ She nodded up at him and he smiled tenderly, hoping that what could have turned out to be an awkward situation had been averted. ‘Allow me to introduce you to Miss Mortimer, Lydia,’ he said. ‘I don’t believe the two of you have met.’

Miss Spelling looked at her with a mocking air, making no attempt to hide her scrutiny. Her eyes were hard as she looked Jane up and down that was only a shade away from insolence. She assessed Jane in a manner suggesting she thought she must have fallen on hard times.

‘Do come closer, Miss Mortimer. There is no need to be so ill at ease, I assure you. I bark, but never have I been known to bite. Lady Lansbury has told me about you. You are Lady Octavia’s governess?’

In that intense moment, surrounded by the opulence of Lady Lansbury’s guests, Jane felt some emotion from Miss Spelling, pressing in on her, squeezing her with icy, inflexible fingers. The woman was striking, secure in her own strength and sure of her own incomparable worth.

‘I suppose Miss Mortimer does hold the position as Octavia’s governess, but she is more of a companion to her,’ Lord Lansbury provided. ‘We met on the ship when we were returning from France. Her quick actions saved Octavia’s life. We have much to be grateful to her for.’

Miss Spelling gave Jane a look which suggested that her presence devalued the occasion, shaking her head as if pondering what the world was coming to when the upper classes entertained their servants.

‘You have been abroad, Miss Mortimer?’

‘I have lived abroad almost all my life,’ Jane answered. ‘My father was an historian—a writer and collector of antiquities. We travelled extensively.’

‘Really?’ Miss Spelling replied, seemingly unimpressed. The full red smile never wavered, but her eyes were cold. Everything about her was precise and impeccable. ‘How very odd.’

Jane managed to retain a cool and unruffled expression as she watched Miss Spelling’s diamond earrings flash against her cheeks. She looked in vain for some trace of softness in her, but she was as hard as the trunk of the stout oak tree behind her. ‘Not at all. His work was interesting.’ Jane felt Miss Spelling’s eyes on her once more and an aura of sensuous rose perfume wafted around her.

‘And did you assist him in his work?’

‘Yes, I did.’

‘And do you miss the work?’

‘I do, although it didn’t end when he died. I still have much to do to complete the work he left unfinished. I enjoyed working with him and we travelled to many interesting places. We even travelled on a camel train from China to Northern India. After that we went to Europe, to Greece and on to Egypt, which was where he died nearly four months ago.’

‘It sounds—unusual, to say the least. But what manner of man takes his daughter round the world with no protection other than himself—and then...?’

Jane heard reproach in the deep, husky voice and her spine stiffened. For some mysterious reason Miss Spelling had clearly taken an instant dislike to her. She suddenly resented the rounded curves, the dark hair piled up on the haughty, fascinating head. Her own eyes narrowed.

‘What? Died? My father was a good man, Miss Spelling, loving and caring,’ she said in his defence, trying to keep her anger at the woman’s rudeness in check, ‘and you insult me by implying otherwise. Until his death he was a healthy, vigorous man. He didn’t know he was going to die. And he taught me well—mainly how to cope when things became difficult. Which I did.’

For one vivid instant the air between them shivered with tense friction. But if Miss Spelling was disconcerted by Jane’s abrupt and forthright manner, she hid it quickly under a mask of indifference.

‘I see.’ She looked towards where a lady seated next to Lady Lansbury was beckoning to her with a hand glittering with sapphires. ‘Excuse me, Miss Mortimer. I am being summoned.’

Jane nodded, feeling irritated that she should be so summarily dismissed. ‘Of course. Don’t let me keep you.’

* * *

Lord Lansbury watched Lydia go before turning to Jane. Her violet eyes with their long shadowing lashes were following Lydia. In one quick glance he saw the change her dress had made to her, the long creamy neck exposed. He saw the tiny dimple in her chin and the voluptuous curve of her red lips. He saw the tiny black mole high on her cheek where the rose faded into the gleaming white of her forehead. She was sensuous, provocative, glowing with colour like a country girl, and it seemed to him she was quite out of place among the elegant and sophisticated guests.

His granite features softened as if he understood how angry and humiliated she must be feeling by Lydia’s thoughtless remark. ‘I apologise for Lydia,’ he said. ‘She shouldn’t have said that about your father. I can see she has offended you with her frankness.’

At any other time she would have been absurdly flattered by his courtesy and concern, but now she was perplexed and shook her head. ‘Frank to the point of rudeness.’

‘I am sorry you see it that way. Lydia is American and tends to be outspoken.’ His voice was polite as he tried to smooth over the awkwardness of Miss Mortimer’s strained meeting with his future fiancée.

‘That does not excuse her. I am not used to Americans, but I am not prejudiced against the race. Miss Spelling should not have said what she did. I allow no one to speak ill of my father. He was a fine man. A clever man and a loving father. I could not have had better.’

Christopher’s entire face instantly became hard, shuttered and aloof. ‘You are fortunate in that, Miss Mortimer. More than you realise.’ With a slight inclination of his head, he said, ‘Excuse me.’

She stepped back. ‘Of course,’ she said stiffly, somewhat bewildered by the small knot of tension in the centre of her chest.

* * *

Jane knew a keen and surprising sense of disappointment when Lord Lansbury left her so abruptly. She watched him join the animated circle of guests that had collected round his mother. The hum of voices and laughter rose. Jane caught Lady Lansbury’s eye. The conversation between the three of them had been observed by Lady Lansbury, who was not too lost in her own that she was unable to monitor the situation a few yards away.

Jane let her eyes dwell on Lord Lansbury’s face. She had dressed with care, imagining the moment when she found herself in his company. She wanted to do something to make him look at her, and if not exactly see her, then at least realise she had the ability, the mind, perhaps, to capture his masculine attention. She so wanted to see that look in his eyes that he reserved for other females, the look that told them they were the most important person in the world to him at that moment.

Never had any man looked so attractive or so distant, and never had her heart called out so strongly to anyone. She knew she must fight her attraction for him. It would be madness to consider herself anything but out of his class, a social inferior. And his standards were not hers. She tried to pull her wits together, all too aware that the other women were studying her with furtive curiosity. She saw Lord Lansbury smile down into Miss Spelling’s upturned face. For one terrible moment she was seized with passionate hatred for the other woman, so terrible and so unexpected that she was shocked by it.

Normally Jane would feel no qualms about joining a group in conversation, but something about the way Lord Lansbury commanded the attention of those around him and the presence of Miss Spelling made her hold back.

She could not hear what he was saying, but she could tell that this was not just polite attention on the part of the listeners. Lord Lansbury held his audience in thrall. A moment later he laughed at a remark thrown his way, looked up and caught sight of Jane. He raised an eyebrow and then resumed his conversation.

‘Come, Christopher,’ Miss Spelling said, hooking her hand possessively through his arm. ‘I care little for standing still in the hot sun. Shall we circulate?’

The two moved off to exchange social niceties and introductions with the other guests, Miss Spelling sailing forth, very much aware of the stir she had created and obviously enjoying it as she and her handsome escort went from one group to the next.

As Jane watched them from across the stretch of lawn that lay like a rich green carpet between them, Lord Lansbury led Miss Spelling in the direction of a summer house, where several guests were seated, the servants dancing attendance on them. She suddenly realised that although he was perfectly attentive, there was no singular affection between them. There was a distance there and Miss Spelling seemed more interested in nodding and greeting those they encountered than engaging Lord Lansbury in conversation.

As if Lady Lansbury had read her thoughts, moving to stand beside her, she said, ‘So you have been introduced to Miss Spelling, Jane.’ She sighed deeply, shaking her head as her eyes followed her son and the woman who might be his intended as they conversed with the guests. ‘She is an American—which I suppose explains a great deal. And she is attractive, do you not agree, Jane?’

‘How could I not? She is very beautiful.’

‘Yes,’ Lady Lansbury said, somewhat absently on a wry note. ‘She has youth, beauty, excellent connections and wealth and a certain fashionable notoriety. What more could a man desire in a woman?’

Continuing to watch the pair, in answer to Lady Lansbury’s wistful comment Jane thought perhaps money was a useful commodity, and property. But then, as the only daughter of an American millionaire, Lydia Spelling had all that. But would she be as desirable if she wasn’t dressed by France’s finest couturiers and wallowing in luxury and wealth? Of course she was as attractive and amusing as any of her contemporaries, but, Jane wondered, was it her money that preceded her whenever she walked into a room? Was it her money that triggered all those sideways covert glances, the conversations that faltered when she approached?

‘Her father is very rich,’ Lady Lansbury went on, ‘made his money in industry—in railroads and armaments and commodities. But he is not a part of the social circle. Some would say Miss Spelling is a good catch, but rich American girls are not accepted by the New York Knickerbocker set.’

‘Then it could also be said that Miss Spelling has landed on her feet.’

‘Exactly. It appears that American girl’s outspokenness and independent spirits are characteristics that Englishmen find charming. On the whole that is the case. Lydia is Mr Spelling’s only child. He is ambitious. He wants only the very best for his daughter—a title, which is why he has brought her to Europe to display her like a costly gem to be admired. This gem is destined for a coronet, at least. Christopher can provide him with that. I can only hope my son knows what he’s doing.’

‘I’m sure he does, Lady Lansbury,’ Jane answered, careful to hide her envy of Lydia Spelling while wishing with every fibre of her being that she was the woman being flaunted on Lord Lansbury’s arm.

‘I’m not at all sure, Jane. I have great affection for my son, but he does have his faults. I’m concerned about him doing the right thing. But of course I take care not to let such comments reach his ears. It is his affair, after all, who he marries. But if I were a betting woman I’d wager he isn’t in love with her.’

‘Not everyone who marries is in love,’ Jane said quietly. ‘In some of the countries I have visited, men and women have their marriages arranged by their parents. Sometimes the couple don’t meet until their wedding day. I’ve heard the opinion that love and marriage are two separate things.’

Lady Lansbury studied her closely. ‘And what is your opinion, Jane?’

‘That those who expressed that opinion must be sadly cynical people. What other reason is there to marry?’

‘Children is a good place to start.’

Jane gave Lady Lansbury a look of feigned astonishment. ‘Oh! I did not realise one needed a wedding ceremony to beget children.’

Lady Lansbury laughed. ‘What a wicked observation, Jane. Some would say you are quite shocking.’

‘Wicked, maybe, but also sensible.’

Lady Lansbury’s smile died. ‘You are a wonderful revelation, Jane, and I shall enjoy continuing our conversation on marriage at another time.’ She glanced once more in the direction of her son, but then, recollecting herself, she looked directly at Jane. ‘Forgive me, my dear, for being so forthright, but—what I said about Christopher, I am sure I can rely on your discretion.’

As if reading her mind, Jane said, ‘Of course, Lady Lansbury. I never betray a confidence.’

A look of understanding passed between the two women. ‘Thank you, Jane,’ Lady Lansbury answered.

Considering Lord Lansbury’s affairs nothing to do with her, Jane thought it prudent to keep any further opinions on marriage to herself. For the time she had known Lady Lansbury, she had discovered she had a forthright friendliness she liked. They often talked together. Lady Lansbury was very frank. She told Jane how much she admired her Aunt Caroline, who had made quite a niche for herself since her husband’s death ten years ago.

Observing Octavia who was watching her brother, Jane noticed her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were larger and brighter than she had seen them. ‘Are you all right, Lady Octavia?’

She nodded. ‘Can we go and get something to eat? I’m hungry.’

‘Of course we can. If you will excuse us, Lady Lansbury.’

‘Of course, my dear. Run along,’ she said, looking with concern at her daughter as she fidgeted from one foot to the other. ‘Octavia is looking a little flushed. Perhaps it’s the sun.’

‘I’ll get her a glass of iced lemonade—and I’m sure an ice cream would not go amiss,’ she suggested, knowing of Octavia’s love of that particular desert.

‘I don’t like Christopher’s friend,’ Octavia said, in a childishly conspiratorial whisper when they were far enough away from her mother to be overheard.

‘But why? Why don’t you like her, Lady Octavia?’

‘She’s always cross. I just don’t like her. She isn’t my friend.’

And just as suddenly her agitation was gone and she looked up and searched Jane’s face with her soft blue gaze. There was a gentle elusiveness about her that declared her to be as fragile and vulnerable as a summer flower and she possessed a strange, tragic quality that always touched Jane deeply.

‘We shall always be friends, won’t we, Jane?’

‘Yes, Lady Octavia, I will always be your friend,’ Jane said with genuine warmth.

Octavia continued to search Jane’s face. ‘Truly? Cross your heart?’

Jane smiled, then with her forefinger she made a sign over her own heart. ‘Cross my heart,’ she promised.


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