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 stepped foot in Chalfont, Jane has longed for the enigmatic earl's admiration. But they come from different worlds, and her dreams will surely remain forever out of reach
Until one night, Jane's wishes are granted. Now the earl must decidewill there be wedding bells before Christmas?
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The 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 oncehis 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.
'Ohnono, 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.
'Nono, 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 unharmedand 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. 'Noof 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 identifyneither 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 charitiesshe worked on several committeesbut 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 performthose were her musical eveningsthen 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.