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Диксон Хелен

Lord Lansbury's Christmas Wedding

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Taking Octavia’s hand in her own, Jane led her towards the terrace, where she asked one of the servants to bring ice cream for Octavia and some fruit for herself. Three governesses sat near a graceful white gazebo, watching several children who had come with their parents playing happily with a ball, throwing it from one to the other. Octavia watched them, showing no sign of wanting to join in their fun as their happy voices rang out, mingling with the deeper, more reserved voices of the grown-ups.

For the next half hour Octavia remained close to Jane. She was quiet, with that odd, faraway look in her eyes Jane had become familiar with. Finishing her ice cream, Octavia became restless, which did not go unnoticed by Lady Lansbury.

‘Why don’t you take Octavia for a walk, Jane? Perhaps she would like to go down to the lake to see the swans.’

Jane was more than happy to leave the party. In the field with her father and his contemporaries the difference in rank had seemed irrelevant. What counted was knowledge and expertise and in that environment she had felt equal to anyone. But here among the glittering nobility and gentry where she had not even her looks to recommend her she felt awkward and was glad Lady Lansbury had given her the opportunity to slip away.

Jane took Octavia’s hand and they walked along the garden paths to the back of the house. Jane stared ahead at the surrounding countryside with her eyes narrowed in concentration. The view never failed to impress her. Acres upon breathtaking acres stretched out before her and all owned by one man.

Swans drifted gracefully on the still water of the lake and beyond the lake a hill was topped by an ornate building that reminded Jane of some kind of temple. Its entrance was supported by two columns of the Roman Doric order, and above was an open colonnade of Corinthian columns. The entire structure was surmounted by a cupola. It looked extremely interesting and Jane had already decided to take a closer look when she was alone.

They paused to sit together on the grass, looking through a long stretch of fence that enclosed the stables and the large paddock where horses nibbled at the grass. Drawing her knees up to her chest, with a sigh Jane listened to the distant voices and the hum of busy insects in the grass and wild flowers. She smiled with a feeling of contentment. Chalfont was like nothing she had experienced before and she felt herself ensnared by this lovely place that seemed to be closing itself around her and claiming her for its own.

Having a deep and abiding fear of horses, Octavia was always reluctant to go close to them. Big-eyed, she watched them warily.

‘That’s a mare, Lady Octavia, the brown one with the lovely mane. Is she not beautiful? See how her coat shines with the sun on it. Of course she is groomed every day, so that helps.’

At the sound of her voice the animal raised its head and began to walk towards them. Standing up, Jane went to the fence and, holding out her hand, patted her neck. Out of the corner of her eye she noted how Octavia held back.

‘See, Lady Octavia, she’s as docile as a lamb. I’m sure she would like it if you were to pat her like I’m doing.’

With her eyes fastened on the horse, Octavia got to her feet and gingerly moved close, her hand resting companionably on Jane’s waist as she moved closer to the fence. To Jane’s delight she didn’t draw back when the horse nudged her head against them.

‘Stroke her nose, Lady Octavia, don’t be afraid. Watch me, just there.’ Taking Octavia’s hand, she rested it on the glossy, quivering nose of the animal and the child left it there, unafraid in the confident grasp of her new friend, patting tentatively the patient mare, her bright, long-lashed eyes like cornflowers in the smiling face.

* * *

Christopher watched them as he strolled along the garden path in their direction and he began to smile for their laughter was infectious.

On seeing Miss Mortimer leave the gathering with Octavia and with Lydia engaged in conversation with a group of ladies, in view of his earlier rudeness and feeling that some form of polite apology was now required of him, he’d decided to follow.

His face was soft and his eyes warm and adoring when they dwelt on his young sister. Octavia was twelve years old, but she had the mind of a child half her age. While ever he was able he would see that she was cherished and that nothing would harm her. At these times his father’s legacy and the responsibility of his inheritance weighed heavily upon him.

He had to give Miss Mortimer her due, for in the short time she had been at Chalfont House she had transformed Octavia. And now here she was, helping his sister combat her fear of horses. No one had been able to get her within yards of one before.

He walked closer, drawn compulsively to Miss Mortimer and to the enchanted child she was bringing, by her own efforts, to everyone’s notice. His footsteps made no sound on the grass and she was speaking, unaware of his approach. He stopped to listen to her, bewitched by this new picture of Miss Mortimer in her sapphire-blue dress. What a proud, spirited young woman she was, he thought.

He hadn’t expected her to blossom into this lovely young woman, simply by shedding those unflattering clothes she wore. Perhaps he had disliked the dismal gowns so much—and her violet eyes reminded him of Lily—that it had tainted his view of her.

‘And when you feel confident enough,’ Jane went on, completely oblivious to being observed, ‘I am sure your brother will teach you to ride and then you will gallop through the fields and the wind will blow away your bonnet and you shall be as free as the lark which soars in the skies.’ Her eyes turned in the direction of the open fields surrounded by thick woodland, dotted with hedges and fences that were used to train Chalfont’s horses for the hunt. Her voice was soft and dreaming.

‘I used to ride once, Lady Octavia. Where I lived for a time, my father and I would ride out together. Sometimes I would ride on and go like the wind. My father would call after me—dear Father, urging me not to go so fast. But I didn’t care. I was free. It was wild where I rode and beautiful and there was no one to tell me what I must do or say or think when I rode alone. You will feel like that when you can ride. Would you like that, sweetheart?’

Sweetheart? She had called his sister sweetheart! Christopher Chalfont was known as a hard man, a stubborn, iron-willed man, but he stood now, immensely shaken, terribly moved, feeling more than he liked to feel. He moved closer, mesmerised by the lovely picture the woman and the child created.

He watched her unconscious grace and poise as she moved to stand behind Octavia. Apart from her face and slender hands and lower arms not an inch of flesh was exposed and not a single hair escaped that severe bun. In the soft light her profile was all hollows and shadows. There was a purity about her, something so endearingly young and innocent that reminded him of a sparrow. He tried to envisage what she would look like if the little sparrow changed her plumage and became a swan, and the image that took shape in his mind was pleasing and also troubling. Feeling compelled and at liberty to look his fill, he felt his heart contract, not having grasped the full reality of her appeal until that moment.

Octavia looked from the horse to the face of the woman, understanding little but responding to the joy in Miss Mortimer’s voice.

* * *

Suddenly Jane became completely still—a young animal which is aware instinctively of danger—then she turned slowly, Octavia turning to look with her, into the face of Christopher Chalfont. Octavia laughed, the horse forgotten, and ran towards him.

‘Why, good heavens, Lord Lansbury, you gave me quite a start,’ Jane gasped. Except for her treacherous heartbeat, which insisted on accelerating the closer he came, she retained her control. ‘You came upon us so quietly I did not know you were there.’

He smiled, placing his arm about his sister’s shoulders. Octavia was clinging to his leg and looking up at him adoringly. ‘Is that not how one learns the secrets of others, Miss Mortimer, and sees things which otherwise one might miss? If one steps carefully and quietly so that no one can hear or see one’s approach the most enlightening facts are frequently uncovered. It can be quite rewarding—as now. I am amazed to see Octavia so close to the horse. She’s shown nothing but fear of them all her life and now here she is, stroking the nose of one quite unafraid.’

‘And is that not a good thing?’

‘It most certainly is. I don’t know how you did it, Miss Mortimer—but I thank you. My sister is lucky to have you.’

Jane smiled. ‘I think we both might be lucky, Lord Lansbury.’

He dropped his arm when Octavia moved away to stand at the fence, where the horse still stood waiting for another pat. Finding herself alone, she merely stood and gazed at the mare. She made no attempt to pat it again, but nor did she move away.

‘Are you enjoying the party?’ Christopher asked.

‘Yes, very much.’

‘Yet I noticed how you seemed to prefer to stand on the fringe.’

‘The truth is,’ Jane said a little shakily, ‘that as a woman of limited importance, I was scared to death of being among so many important people.’

‘You were?’ he said, sobering. That she would feel like that had never entered his head. ‘They won’t harm you and I am the last person in the world you’ll ever have to fear.’

His words and his tone made her limbs quake and her heart hammer. His dark hair was tousled and she was filled with the impulse to run her fingers through its waves.

Gazing openly at him, she decided she liked the crinkles at the corners of his eyes caused by smiling. He had lovely eyes and she wondered if he knew it. Then, pulling herself together, she wickedly chose that moment to lift her head and turn the full impact of her brilliant smile upon him. Lord Lansbury stepped back in amazement.

‘I am the proverbial wallflower, Lord Lansbury. I am happy doing that. I confess to feeling a little overwhelmed by it all. I’m unused to such a grand gathering. When I came out of the house it reminded me of a tableau set up to tell a story. I find it rather awe-inspiring, fascinating and compelling to stand on the edge of a gathering such as this and simply watch everyone—how they react with each other.’

‘You really are the most unconventional woman,’ he said, his lips twitching.

‘I suppose I am to someone like you, Lord Lansbury. A conventional person would not have crossed swords with a perfect stranger in front of so many people as I just did.’

‘The defence of your father was not just a conventional notion of justice. In order to protect a loved one’s reputation what you did was quite understandable.’

‘Nevertheless I frequently find the rules of social etiquette and convention tiresome to the extreme, but they are rules which must be obeyed.’

Tilting his head to one side, he said, ‘Did you really travel by camel train?’

‘Yes, I did—the Silk Road—the southern road from China to northern India.’

‘I am impressed, Miss Mortimer,’ he remarked with a lazy, devastating smile. ‘You are full of surprises. What a truly remarkable achievement for a young woman.’

‘I was just twelve at the time.’

‘And you rode camels.’

‘Yes, indeed.’

‘And elephants?’ he asked, distracted by a strand of hair brushing against her cheek and resisting the temptation to brush it away.

‘I did,’ she replied, unaware of the path along which his mind wandered, ‘although they are not such temperamental beasts as the camels, which are not at all easy to ride. They also spit.’

He feigned surprise. ‘I cannot imagine anyone, man or beast, getting the better of you, Miss Mortimer. Were you not afraid?’

‘Not at all, although with deserts and mountains to traverse, the route from China to India is not the most hospitable region in the world. Yes, I have ridden on camels, lived in desert tents and taken part in the excavation of ancient ruins. It was all one big adventure for me.’

‘Your whole life appears to have been one big fascinating adventure. I envy you.’

Uncomprehending, Jane stared at him. ‘You envy me? But—how? Why? You are the Earl of Lansbury. You live in this beautiful house. You have everything here you could ever want.’

He gave a brief, humourless smile. ‘It must seem that way to you. You are right, to a point. I have a certain amount of power, but I do not have the freedom to do as I wish.’

‘I do not understand.’

He met her gaze. Henry Chalfont, Christopher’s father, had died leaving him with a mountain of debts. His grandfather had been the third Earl of Lansbury with a successful head for business. His running of the estate was crowned with success. On his death Henry had inherited the title and the estate. Henry had committed the grievous sin of believing that the wealth he had inherited would last for ever, with no need on his part to improve or even keep in good repair the estate. He had a talent for one thing and that was how to spend the most money on himself in the shortest possible time.

‘My father died before Octavia was born. I was nineteen when I took over Chalfont, old enough to appreciate all that it means. The estate was almost bankrupt—which, to a certain extent, I managed to overcome. Thankfully things are beginning to improve, but they could be better. Had I the means, as the Earl of Lansbury I could have done all sorts of things—the Grand Tour—all the adventurous and exciting things you have done. But Chalfont was at the core of everything.’

Jane was moved by what he said. His voice was soft and warm to her ears. ‘You must love it very much.’

He nodded, his gaze slowly sweeping the beautiful green acres. ‘Chalfont never changes,’ he murmured. ‘It smiles, it beckons, it invites and welcomes. I have loved it since I was a child. There is nowhere quite like it.’

‘I know what you mean,’ Jane answered. ‘I am a stranger here, yet I feel it, too. Who could resist it?’

‘Who indeed! The estate has to be run,’ Christopher went on. ‘I get to London from time to time and I have bailiffs and managers to oversee the different aspects of managing things, but I have to be here. I consider running the estate a full-time job and the concerns of my tenant farmers are my own concerns.’

‘And is that what all earls do?’ Jane asked, her ignorance showing through.

He shook his head. ‘Most of my fellow landed aristocrats consider my work habits unseemly and highly eccentric—no way for an earl to act, they say, and that I set a very bad example.’

‘And what do you say?’

‘I don’t care a fig what the rest of the gentry think, but the welfare of my tenants is most important to me. And then there is Octavia. With Octavia being the way she is—both my mother and Octavia depend on me being here.’

‘Were you like your father?’

His face hardened and he shook his head. ‘No. When you were growing up, were you ever lonely?’ he asked, quickly diverting the conversation away from her question.

She shook her head. ‘No. We were always with a team of archaeologists and such like. There were times when I was the only English girl for hundreds of miles, with only monkeys and stone statues for company. But I was never lonely.’

‘Why did your father take you with him? Why not leave you with Mrs Standish?’

.

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