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Мортимер Кэрол

Saving Grace

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CHAPTER ONE

MISS GRACE BROWN, when she came in answer to the jingling bell that could be heard in the depths of the house after he had pulled the bell-rope outside, was exactly as Jordan had imagined her to be from the letters she had sent to his solicitors in reply to their correspondence concerning selling her home: small and delicate, with fluffy white hair caught back in an untidy bun at her nape, sparkling—but faded in colour—blue eyes in a face that had once been beautiful, the pink twin-set accompanied by the customary string of pearls about her throat, her skirt the expected tweed, as her shoes were the expected brown brogues.

The house was as he had imagined too from the reports—huge, old, and dilapidated. But it did have extensive grounds, and a house could be renovated, made to be what you wanted it to be. As in a leisure complex …

At the moment this elderly lady ran it as a sort of boarding house, although she seemed to have only two permanent guests, with the occasional casual visitor during the summer months. There was hardly enough income there, his sources reported, to keep the place ticking over on a day-to-day basis. By the look of the threadbare carpet in the hallway behind Grace Brown, and the emulsioned rather than papered walls, that income didn't keep things ‘ticking over’ very well.

‘Good afternoon.’ She smiled up at him brightly, her movements birdlike, even her voice light and a little girlish. ‘Come in.’ She opened the door wider, turning to walk down the hallway where a light already glowed in the gloomy interior despite the efforts of the bright emulsion. ‘We've been expecting you, of course.’ She shot him another smile over her shoulder.

‘You have?’ Jordan frowned; David, his personal assistant, had already made the blunder of misplacing their main file on Charlton House and its inhabitants—if he had now also warned them of Jordan's arrival here, then Jordan had seriously misjudged him. Arriving here unannounced had been his only advantage without the benefit of that file!

‘Do come in.’ She turned at the end of the hallway to reveal a little reprovingly, ‘You're letting in a draught!'

Suitably chastened, Jordan entered the house and quickly closed the door behind him. It wasn't much warmer inside than it had been out!

Miss Brown waited for him to reach her before turning into a sitting-room, a room that was shabbily welcoming, the worn sofa and four armchairs of differing patterned brocade, the carpet in here even more threadbare than the one in the hallway, in a pattern of faded pink and cream flowers.

There was too much furniture in the room, several tables, one with a chess-set on top of it, the pieces left about the board, as if the two players had been disturbed mid-game. And yet there was no one else in the room.

A tall old-fashioned standard-lamp stood beside the chair nearest the fireplace, alight, but really adding little to the illumination of the room. An old piano, its dark brown wood scourged with scratches, stood against one wall, the lid raised above the keys, a music sheet open on its stand, again giving the impression that someone had been playing it recently but been disturbed.

A fire gleamed in the darkened fireplace, logs crackling warmly.

It was a room totally unlike any Jordan had ever been in before, and yet just being here gave him a warm feeling inside, as if he had finally come home …

Miss Brown was looking up at him curiously. ‘You're very late, you know.’ She made it a statement rather than a reprimand, smiling sweetly.

Jordan was still dazed at the strange feeling that had enveloped him as soon as he entered the house, the cut-throat world he existed in in London fading into the background as if it had never been.

‘I am?’ he said uninterestedly.

‘Very.’ She frowned. ‘Nick was sure you weren't coming,’ she added sadly.

Jordan drew his attention from the yellow flames in the fireplace with effort, resisting, for the moment at least, the sudden urge he had to stretch out in one of the armchairs and fall asleep. ‘Nick?’ he prompted, fighting to control these feelings of lethargy that was such anathema to his usual character; he hadn't taken a holiday in years, let alone felt lethargic!

She nodded, giving him a coy smile. ‘He boards here,’ she explained trilly. ‘But he's a little shy about meeting new people. He was playing the piano until you rang the doorbell. And he plays so well too,’ she added wistfully.

Jordan instantly felt as if he had deprived this sweet little woman of a special treat, realising now that Nick must be one of the permanent boarders here. ‘I'm sorry—–'

‘Don't be.’ She dismissed the mood of melancholy that had swept over her as quickly as it had first appeared, smiling again now, her emotions erratic, to say the least, Jordan decided.

His solicitors hadn't mentioned that Miss Grace Brown, as well as owning Charlton House, was also a little strange!

‘Nick will soon get used to you,’ she told him confidently, squeezing his arm reassuringly.

Jordan gave a frown; he didn't think he was going to be here long enough for anyone to ‘get used’ to him.

Which was a pity …

Even Rhea-Jane, who, as sisters went, was one of the best, couldn't help but be surprised at the unexpected feelings of homecoming he felt in this house, wouldn't understand his feelings at all. He wasn't altogether sure he did!

He straightened his shoulders beneath the navy blue overcoat that was accepted wear among his contemporaries in town, but which, he realised, looked far too formal here. ‘If we could get down to business—–'

‘Oh, you don't want to talk to me about that,’ the tiny birdlike woman told him teasingly.

Jordan's frown deepened. No one had told him that Grace Brown had a business adviser. According to the last report he had, she had flatly refused to consider any offer for her home; in fact she hadn't even wanted to hear about it.

It seemed that someone had been a little remiss all round concerning Miss Grace Brown and Charlton House!

She picked up some letters from one of the coffee-tables. ‘You'll need to talk to Grace about that,’ she smiled. ‘I have to take down the post that arrived today, so if she's in the kitchen I'll tell her you're here.'

Only one thing in that twittering speech really mattered to Jordan. ‘You aren't Grace Brown?’ He hadn't spent the last ten minutes talking to a complete stranger, had he—a stranger, moreover, who was ‘strange', in the nicest possible way, of course, but definitely a little odd, if harmless enough?

‘Goodness, no!’ She laughingly dismissed the very thought of that.

‘Although it's nice of you to think so, Mr Gregory.'

Mr Gregory? Who the hell was—–?

‘I'm Jessica Amery.’ She held out one tiny hand to be shaken. ‘But everyone calls me Jessie.'

The other permanent boarder here, Jordan realised frustratedly, deliberately keeping the grip light, afraid he might crush her fragile bones in his much stronger hand. He shook his head. ‘I think there must be—–'

‘You know,’ she gave him a rather piercing look from beneath silvery brows, releasing her hand slowly, ‘I always tend to judge a man by his handshake.'

Oh, dear, and his rather limp grasp hadn't found favour, he was sure.

But once again she had interrupted him when he had been about to correct her mistake concerning his own identity; he didn't know who this Mr Gregory was, but he certainly wasn't him. Although the mistake in identity at least explained a lot of her earlier remarks; they hadn't been meant for him at all, but for the absent Mr Gregory. The other man would probably find himself being addressed as Mr Somerville-Smythe when he did at last arrive, just to add to the confusion!

And no one deserved to be saddled with that name unless they had to be, Jordan thought with bitterness.

‘Everyone calls me Jordan,’ he invited dully, wondering how long before, or indeed if, he was going to be reconciled to the past.

‘Jordan,’ Jessie repeated brightly. ‘We all wondered what the “J” stood for,’ she nodded.

Whether from approval, he wasn't sure. But the mix-up in names seemed to be getting a little out of hand. ‘I—–'

‘Ah, I think that must be Grace now.’ Jessie tilted her head to one side as she listened to the slamming of the front door. ‘I thought she was in the kitchen preparing dinner. That means the meal is going to be late.’ She frowned. ‘Unless we're having salad. But we wouldn't be having salad on a day like this. I wonder—–'

‘Jessie. Miss Amery,’ Jordan cut in a little impatiently. Really, Jessie was charming, in small doses, and he was sure the subject of what she was being served for dinner was of interest to her; she didn't give the impression that her life was a hot-bed of new and wild experiences. But this habit she had of wandering from the point could be more than a little irritating, especially when because of it he had spent the last ten minutes believing he was talking to someone else entirely! ‘I think perhaps I ought to meet Miss Brown,’ he suggested pointedly.

‘Grace?’ Jessie blinked a little dazedly. ‘Is she here?'

‘She just came in—remember?’ Jordan prompted as muffled voices could be heard in the hallway, making a move towards the door.

‘So she did,’ the elderly lady recalled happily. ‘She will be so pleased you've arrived at last.'

And he would be glad when he could talk to someone who would understand the mistake there had been about his identity!

‘Grace? Grace!’ Jessie reached the door ahead of him, quick on her feet in spite of her years, stepping lightly out into the hallway. ‘He's here! And we were all wrong—his name is Jordan,’ she announced excitedly.

Quite what Grace Brown's initial reaction to this was Jordan had no idea, the other woman still being out in the hallway. He could only hope Miss Grace Brown wasn't as scatty as the irrepressible Jessie, or he was going to be explaining himself forever!

His eyes widened incredulously as it wasn't an elderly lady who entered the room but a young boy of about seven with a blaze of bright red hair, his gaze distinctly critical as he looked up at Jordan.

‘Jordan!’ he finally said disgustedly. ‘I said you were a Jeremy. Jessie said it had to be John—–'

‘Because it's one of my favourite names,’ the elderly lady explained dreamily.

‘Nick chose James,’ the young boy continued as if he hadn't been interrupted at all, probably used to the elderly lady's habit of deviating from the real point of the conversation, Jordan decided.

Jordan had no idea who this young boy was, but he had an appealingly impish face beneath that startling red hair, his eyes more grey than blue. ‘And what did Grace—Miss Brown—think?’ he prompted drily, prepared, for the moment, to humour the little boy. His friends in London would be astounded at his forbearance, he realised, but his time since he had arrived here had already been one of the strangest he had ever spent; why should it stop now?

‘I refused to play guessing games with something as important as a person's name,’ remarked a husky voice from the doorway.

Miss Grace Brown at last!

No, not Grace Brown but the elder brother of the two Jordan had been watching less than an hour ago …

The wellington boots had gone now, showing the denims tucked into thick black woollen socks. But the duffel coat was the same, and so was the red bobble-hat, the elfin features that so matched the younger boy's in the room the same, too, Jordan now realised.

A glance at the little boy revealed the red woollen hat stuffed into one of the pockets of his duffel coat, the dark mittens into the other.

Then where was Grace Brown? he wondered frustratedly. Even as he tried to look past the elder brother out into the hallway behind him, the boy lifted a hand and removed the red woollen hat. Jordan couldn't hold back his gasp as a riot of deep red curls fell down about the slender shoulders to surround the tiny features covered with that smattering of freckles.

Not a boy at all, but a young girl, a girl so startlingly lovely that she took Jordan's breath away!

‘But if I had made a guess—–’ the girl came further into the room, dark grey eyes thoughtful ‘—I would have said—Joshua!’ she announced with satisfaction.

Not just any young girl, it appeared, but Miss Grace Brown!

And not an elderly lady either, but a young woman of probably nineteen or twenty.

He had assumed from the old-fashioned name, and the circumstances under which she lived, that Grace Brown was elderly. But he realised now that no one had actually said she was.

This young woman was ethereally lovely, long dark lashes surrounding the most beautiful smoky grey eyes he had ever seen, red hair so thick and luxuriantly lovely that Jordan had to clench his hands into fists at his sides to stop himself from reaching out and burying them in that fiery magnificence.

This simply wasn't like him. Oh, he had his relationships with women, beautiful women, but they had always been convenient arrangements for both of them, with very little actual emotion involved. He could never before remember an instantaneous response like this to any woman, let alone one who looked so delicately young.

He didn't know what was happening to him!

He didn't look like a Joshua, Grace had to admit ruefully. Not that she was sure what a Joshua would look like, but this tall, distinguished man with his expensively tailored clothing, short-styled dark hair and cobalt-blue eyes somehow wasn't a Joshua.

Because he was a Jordan. Although he looked more than capable of ‘knocking down a few walls’ if he chose to!

Grace looked at him consideringly. A stern man, she would guess by the harsh lines beside his nose and mouth. But forthright too, she would say, from the directness of that dark blue gaze. He had beautiful eyes, the darkest blue, and yet with that intense light behind them. She had seen a car that colour once, had commented on the beauty of its colour to Timothy; he had been absolutely disgusted with her for liking the colour of the car and not realising it was a Porsche! What she knew about cars, the expensive kind or any other, could be written on the back of a postage stamp.

Although as she and Timothy had walked up to the house a few minutes ago even she had recognised the sleek green model parked outside in the driveway as a Jaguar; even she knew what a Jaguar looked like. It was because Timothy had spotted the car that the two of them had come in the front door at all; they would usually have gone down the back stairs straight into the kitchen. But they had both been curious as to who their visitor was.

Jordan.

Why was he here?

There was something in the depths of his eyes, she realised compassionately, that same bewilderment she had known after the death first of her mother giving birth to Timothy, and then of her father eighteen months ago from a heart-attack. Jordan had known a similar loss; she could sense that.

He also looked a little dazed at the moment!

Jessie: darling, muddle-headed Jessie. Grace smiled fondly at the elderly lady; what had she been doing with the poor man while he waited for them to come home?

‘What are we having for dinner, Grace?’ Jessie looked at her anxiously.

Ah, so that was what they had been discussing. Or, at least, one of the things, Grace correctly read from Jordan's rueful expression. She knew herself how erratic Jessie's conversation could be, but she was a dear, none the less. And she did have a passion for her food. And why not, when her only child, a son, only ever came to see her with the intention of trying to talk her into going into a home? Food didn't hurt her. Grace smiled at the elderly lady affectionately. ‘I put a casserole in the oven before I went to collect Tim from school,’ she assured her.

Jessie's face instantly brightened. ‘You're such a warm, considerate girl, Grace. There you are, Mr Gregory—–'

‘Jordan,’ he put in abruptly.

Grace looked at him concernedly; he really was very tense. And extremely attractive, those dark blue eyes mesmerising, she had to admit. But also filled with that bewildered pain and disillusionment …

‘Oh, thank you, Jordan.’ Jessie clasped his hand warmly. ‘And you must call me Jessie,’ she invited with a coy smile. ‘And how lovely for you, now that you've at last arrived, that you should get here in time for dinner. Grace is such a wonderful cook,’ she added effusively.

‘Chicken casserole is hardly cordon bleu, Jessie,’ Grace said drily. ‘I'm sure Mr—Jordan,’ she amended at his sharp-eyed look, ‘is used to much more exciting fare—–'

‘How long before dinner is ready, Grace?’ Timothy cut in, his eyes bright.

She eyed her little brother suspiciously; he wasn't usually concerned with punctuality where meals were concerned. ‘Half an hour or so …’ she told him questioningly.

He turned excitedly to the tall man now standing beside the fireplace. ‘Would you take me for a drive in your car before dinner?'

‘Timothy!’ she gasped incredulously, looking awkwardly across the room at Jordan.

Her brother looked slightly rebellious. ‘But I've never been in a Jag, and—–'

‘Jaguar, Timothy,’ she corrected quietly, still a little taken aback at this uncharacteristic show of bad manners; obviously the lure of the thought of a drive in a Jaguar superseded everything she had tried to teach him about politeness! ‘And I'm sure Jordan would much rather go up to his room and unpack before dinner.’ She turned to the man as he watched them so intently. ‘The room has been aired, even though you are two days later than you expected to be in your original letter—–'

‘I—–'

‘But, of course, I realise you weren't a hundred per cent sure about the twenty-fifth as your day of arrival.’ She smiled to take away any rebuke he might have read into her earlier words. ‘I'm not that strict about arrival dates,’ she said, and shook her head. ‘And I don't exactly have people beating a path to the door this time of year!’ Or the rest of the year really, although they did pick up the occasional summer visitor looking for solitude rather than luxurious accommodation; the latter she certainly couldn't offer here! But Jordan was a ‘winter visitor’ in search of solitude.

Jordan looked at her wordlessly for several seconds, blue gaze piercing, flickering away with a vulnerability that was vaguely endearing. He seemed undecided. Which Grace guessed was an unfamiliar emotion to him. He had aroused her curiosity about him in spite of herself.

‘Oh, please take me for a drive in your car!’ Timothy was the one to break the silence, gazing imploringly up at Jordan. ‘I've never been in a Jaguar before,’ he added, eyes wide with anticipation, and Grace could already hear the tales he would tell his schoolfriends about the adventure in the morning.

Jordan was looking almost wistfully at Timothy now, Grace thought, her own frown thoughtful. He was an enigma, this man Jordan. And she felt an intense curiosity to know more about him.

‘Did you enjoy your snowball fight earlier?’ He was talking to Timothy now, his tone gentle.

Grace looked at him sharply, wondering how he could possibly know—she hadn't realised anyone had watched them earlier, but how else could this man know about the snowball fight if he hadn't actually seen them have it?

Timothy gave the grin of the victor. ‘Grace isn't bad at snowballing, for a girl,’ he shrugged.

‘Timothy Brown, you only won at all because you played dirty and put one down my neck!’ she rebuked good-naturedly.

Jordan watched her intently. ‘You run this house alone, Miss Brown?'

‘Grace,’ she corrected as automatically as he had earlier, knowing that what he was really asking was where her parents were, that she should have the responsibility of Timothy plus the running of a big house like this one. From the intentness of his gaze she had a feeling he had intended disarming her with the unexpectedness of the question, knew herself matched with a sharp intelligence. ‘I manage,’ she dismissed, her gaze steady.

Jordan met that gaze. ‘I'm sure you do,’ he acknowledged quietly.

She straightened. ‘And right now I had better take off the rest of these damp things and finish cooking dinner,’ she said brightly, knowing that although the two of them knew little about each other they at least understood each other; Grace was here ‘managing’ this house because circumstances had dictated that she do so, and because they had she did it with all the love and care that she could. Jordan was here for reasons of his own, but those reasons owed just as much to circumstances as her own.

Timothy was still looking up at Jordan with hopefully expectant eyes. Grace knew that look only too well, had succumbed to the pleading there too many times herself not to know it. And she could see Jordan wasn't unmoved by the pleading over-big eyes either.

‘If you would like to bring your things in from the car I'll show you up to your room …?’ she politely prompted Jordan, removing her scarf.

He was looking at her again now, indecision in the dark blue depths of his eyes. She smiled at him, knowing instinctively that the vulnerability she sensed in him wasn't a part of himself he felt able to cope with.

Grace doubted he would be able to cope with her response to that either; he didn't look as if he very often had women he was barely acquainted with throw their arms around him because they felt an overwhelming need to comfort him in whatever pain it was he was suffering!

There was an answering flicker of warmth in the dark blue depths of his eyes, although he barely smiled in response to hers. She wondered what he would look like if he ever laughed. Younger, was her instant guess. He had an air about him of someone much older than the early thirties she guessed him to be. Too much responsibility at too young an age, she surmised, wondering if she had a similar air herself.

She didn't think so, because she wasn't unhappy. And this man obviously was. Very unhappy.

‘I haven't brought much with me,’ he finally answered in measured tones. ‘But I'll bring it in after I've taken Tim for his drive,’ he added decisively.

Any reply Grace might have made to this remark was drowned out by Timothy's whoop of delight and his cries for them to go right now, this very second. Just in case Jordan should change his mind, Grace guessed with affection.

Jordan stood across the room with Timothy's hand clinging determinedly to his much larger one, awkwardly so, as if the trust in him this young child showed came as a shock. ‘Is that all right with you?’ He looked at Grace enquiringly.

‘Of course,’ she nodded, smiling at her brother as he beamed his excitement up at her. ‘Behave yourself,’ she warned indulgently.

He replied in the affirmative, but in truth it was obvious he barely heard her remark, his thoughts already transfixed on driving in the back seat of a Jaguar. Compared to the old Mini Grace drove him about in he would feel like royalty, the leather interior of the car parked outside being plush to say the least.

She watched them walk to the door together, the tall dark-haired man, and the small red-haired boy who was the centre of her world.

She had known from the day her father died so suddenly and left Timothy in her sole care that she would always do everything she could to ensure that her brother's world would be as secure as she could make it for him. As she stood and watched Jordan and Timothy walk out to the car side by side she had a vague feeling of disquiet, as if her world would never be quite the same again from this moment on …

.

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