She was the one person he didn't want to see.
He stared down at her as she patted her old mare on the neck, handed the reins over to his butler, and picked up her riding skirt to climb the stone steps to the front door of his house. Her ancient black dog plodded along at her heels as the monkey whom she and her cousin Cat Lyonns called Darwin slid from the rump of the horse. The macaque, in short pants, scrambled to keep up with her, chatting to himself as usual. Probably reprimanding her for her characteristic speed. That monkey was a menace.
But not as much as Jessica Curtis is to you, old man.
Rand dropped the velvet drapes of his bedroom window into place, shut his eyes, and told himself that was not true.
Jessica Curtis posed no threat to him now. Hadn't ever, really. Of course, he hadn't been able to see that three years ago. That June morning in Saint Paul's when he'd stood beside his friend Spencer Lyonns for his wedding, gazed down the aisle, and found a ghost gliding toward him, Rand's grief over Susannah's death had been too fresh for him to recognize that Jess was no apparition.
But time had healed his sorrow. He had recovered from his loss of Susannah -- and reconciled himself to the fact that his beautiful neighbor resembled the woman he had wanted to become his wife.
Resembled, not duplicated.
He recognized that now.
Yet that day the uncanny similarities had him staring at Jess throughout the wedding reception and, later, sent him to find solace in a bottle of Benedictine brandy. Three nights afterward, when liquor only heightened his craving to go feast on the sight of Jess, he had come to his senses enough to put himself on one of his India-bound cargo ships. Out to sea, in more ways than one, he had kept going, traveling to any port in the world where he might find new textile markets and production methods, old colleagues -- and temporary diversions from heartache.
He discovered them all, to great benefit. The diversions took the form of voluptuous, dusky-skinned women who looked like no one he had ever loved. His old friends and cohorts in cities from Alexandria to Yokohama provided camaraderie. They had also aided him in expanding his shipping business and tripling the wealth in his bank vaults.
During those years he visited England intermittently for a week or two at most. But when he had come home this past February after six broiling months in Siam and Annam learning silk production, he surprisingly found England palatable, a savory for which he'd lost his taste that terrible day when he'd finally tracked Susannah down to a Whitechapel tenement. The day she'd died an agonizing death brought on by too little trust in his devotion to her and too much faith in herbal remedies for abortion. To test his recovery from his grief, he had decided to remain in England for as long as the euphoria lasted. But he'd be wise. Stay mostly in his London house or at the one in Manchester near his mills, coming here to his manor house in Kent only occasionally and usually for business reasons.
This trip was no different. He'd come south a week ago at the request of the local guildsmen to discuss a new railroad line that was to cut through the town of Ashford. He planned to attend their meetings, give what help or advice he could, and leave. Quickly.
Before he could go to church or into a shop -- and run into Jessica Curtis.
He reached for his morning coat and pulled it on. As he took the stairs at a leisurely pace, he admitted to himself that he felt no trepidation.
And great surprise.
Ironic, isn't it, after I spent three years avoiding Jessie Curtis and all the painful memories she evoked, she should pick the time that I recover to come running to me?
She wanted so little from him.
A few hours of his time for a few days. For a child.
Rand Templeton would afford that, wouldn't he? After all, he spent thousands of pounds each year on his orphanages and lying-in hospitals. He could share his talent with a child who needed what only he might provide.
As justification for her request, she knew that sounded good.
If only her body heard that! Then her blood would flow naturally, she'd become serene -- and her fingers would stop touching his treasures.
She snatched her hand away from the cool marble bust of some dead Roman general. She gave a short laugh at her nervous habit and resumed her pacing. Darwin did his best on his short spindly legs to imitate her walk, while the dog, Bones, collapsed on the floor, with only his eyes following her to and fro.
"Will you two please stop doing that!" she reprimanded the animals. But the dog yawned, and the monkey paused to reply in simian some phrase she surmised meant no.
She threw up her hands.
Where was Rand?
It was certainly taking him long enough to come down. It wasn't as if she'd landed on his doorstep to partake of his breakfast. She had waited for a decent hour.
She paused to admire a landscape painting. "Well, all right, Jessie. Perhaps eight o'clock might be termed a tad early."
Hah! More like aeons!
She considered a side table topped with a collection of palm-sized jade and ivory statues, strode over, and subtly arranged the grouping with more symmetry.
She was shocked at her boldness and readjusted them as they had been, all the while preaching to herself. "Actually, Jessie, before the designated calling hour of one or two, this time is rather obscene."
She whirled to find herself before a gold Tudor mirror, rolled her eyes around its floor-length size, and leaned forward, hands on her hips, to speak to her reflection. "Well, acceptable or not, I'm here and he did tell his butler he'd see me."
Talk to me. And for more than a few blithe sentences about the weather, the local crops, the building projects for our students at the Farrell School for Young Ladies.
She set her jaw, spun around, and forced herself to note the more colossal splendors of Randall Templeton's drawing room. She'd never been here before, but she had heard of its assets. Better now to train her mind on those. And what riches this room offered!
The oval buttercup moire walls gave a glow to the English Empire furniture. With the morning sun streaming through cream voile curtains, the brasses and bronzes of India and Siam sparkled, along with the crystals of Ireland and Paris. Even the portraits of the Templetons were gay renderings of happy people, each of whom smiled down at her.
Jess paused before the oil portrait of Felicia Templeton. A woman who had gained notoriety for writing under her own name, Felicia had shocked society with the power of her arguments to improve the lot of women and children in the mills and porcelain factories.
Her work was carried on from near or abroad by her only child, Rand, a businessman and confidant of Queen Victoria. A man who supported legislation for higher wages plus a shorter workday and workweek for the laboring class. A man who resembled his mother physically in the classic simplicity of his cheeks, jaw, and glistening black hair. Randall Douglas Templeton was the fourteenth marquess of Ashford, the scion of an ancient family so entwined with the fortunes of their country that every element here -- each painting, vase, and sculpture -- spoke of his predecessors' wealth and power and friends.
But Jess cared for them not so much as for the other beauties in this room. Her eyes darted to a French pedal harp and a xylophone. Both stood uncovered as testament to their recent use in a house where the master was not often in residence. Yet what attracted her most was the piano -- his rare French Érard grand piano, ebony and gilt rococo, its ivory keyboard glowing, summoning her.
Her hand reached out, touched the keys. A chord resounded softly around the walls, definitive, crisp. The room's acoustics lived up to their reputation. She bent and tried a few more chords, a few bars from an étude she was teaching herself so that she could persuade Amanda to play more than scales.
Drawn herself, Jess glanced toward the closed door. Rand might keep her waiting, and this -- her eyes traveled to the keys, which were her irresistible temptation -- beckoned. Tossing caution away, she seated herself and began to play.
The venerable piano had more resonance, more power, than she'd heard from any other instrument. Even though it was more than a century old, it was the first model the famous French piano makers had constructed and one of only two in England. This particular piano lived up to its reputation. It was grand. Majestic. Sweeping the room with the force of its clarity. Different from Farrell Hall's two pianos, which now seemed too mellow for her taste. Whereas this -- she let herself move into the drama of a piece by Bach -- yes, this instrument could call from one the delights of music -- its ecstasies. Its sorrows. Its --
She felt him more than heard him.
Her back straightened. Her hands stopped.
She turned. Caught her breath.
She had prepared herself so well for her speech...but not for him. She never had. She knew once again she wasted her hope to have tried. Every time she had gazed at Randall Templeton, she had been immobilized.
By his size. Inches taller than her own five feet eight.
By his coloring. Blue-black hair with eyes to match.
By the way he looked at her... oh, now, that did make her shiver. He always gazed on her as if she were unreal.
And that chilled her hope that he might become more than polite to her. Forced her into a flurry of activity to cover her sorrow at his dislike of her.
But she couldn't look flustered today.
For Amanda's sake.
"Good morning, Jessica," he said with politeness as he stood in one of the few shadows of the brilliant room. She couldn't see his face, so she sought other clues to his disposition. Her eyes ran down his body. The dove gray of his morning attire gloved his massive shoulders and lean torso with perfection. He appeared relaxed.
She clasped her hands together and offered him the pose she called Prunes in Vinegar -- mouth pursed, head back. Her attitude was meant to curdle milk, or a student's blood, at twenty feet. But for Rand, she diluted the mix with neighborliness in her voice. "Forgive me, Lord Templeton. I love to play and --"
He took a quick step forward into a sunbeam and said, "And I have kept you waiting an interminably long time."
Gilded, he rivaled her fondest memory of him -- when he attended a dinner party that Cat and Spence had given at Farrell Hall last summer. That night he had worn formal black and stark white. Today his softer hues of gray wool with pearl linen stock performed a sweet counterpoint to his bronzed complexion, and the manly contrasts undid her.
"Don't stop," he told her, extending a finger toward the keyboard. "You're wonderful. I remember hearing you after one of Cat and Spence's parties last June." He smiled with a warmth he had bestowed on countless others, never her.
The unexpected heat baked her reason, and she blurted, "But you left in the middle. I thought you hated my rendition."
She thought she'd see tolerance, hear diplomatic words for an uninspiring performance. Instead, he moved even nearer, caught her eyes with his magnetic blue ones and declared, "I was rude. But I often wished I had stayed for more. I can only apologize now and assure you that my exit had nothing to do with your talent or the piece you chose. I wrestled with a private torment which never should have affected our relationship. Yet I see, regrettably, it has. Allow me to make amends. If it pleases you to play now, after I kept you waiting far too long, I will not be the one to take you from your joys. Won't you continue? Please?"
"No. Thank you."
"But you will be doing me an honor. Few are as expert as you, and the instrument is so rarely used that it falls out of tune without benefits from a master's touch."
His courteous behavior astounded her with its novelty and summoned more bluntness. "You are being gracious, which is all well and fitting, but I really didn't come here to play the piano, my lord. I came to talk."
"Very well." He advanced and she could detect remorse in his concern. His tone and proximity made her freeze. Too close to him, she always felt lightheaded. It was his extreme self-assurance. Today the cause was his charm, which he lavished on her for the first time. She felt her mouth watering as he said, "We will talk. But after these three years we have known each other, Jess, I would hope you'd call me Rand."
Lest he come any closer, she managed a socially correct smile.
His gaze drifted up from her lips to her eyes. "Can I ring for coffee, perhaps?" When she did not answer, he asked, "Or do you prefer tea?"
She would make him ill at ease again if she didn't perk up and treat him normally. He had offered an explanation for his behavior. "Private torments" might mean much to him, but she must accept it for whatever it denoted and state her business. Far from the Prune, you're acting naive and featherbrained -- qualities you dislike...which destroy a woman.
"I don't care for anything, thank you. I realize I am calling at a peculiar hour of the day."
He cocked a brow at her. Laughter stood in his eyes.
The novelty of it thrilled her. Shocked her. Sent her to the edge of propriety and the point of her visit. "I heard from my butler you had come home to Kent the other day. I had to snatch this opportunity to catch you now or lose you entirely. You never seem to stay here at the Temple for very long, and I know you might think this indelicate of me to come so early and without a chaperon. But, well, heavens, Rand, I'm too old and too busy for such fripperies as a guardian tagging along behind me. So I hoped I might prevail upon our status as neighbors and ask you to see me. And I came so early because I wanted to be sure to get you" -- before you could find a reason to avoid me, refuse me -- "before your butler could say you were not at home."
Rand looked as if she'd doused him with ice. "Jess, I would never turn you away, but then...I see from the way you look at me that you think I would."
She swallowed her chagrin at her indelicate phrasing. "Not at home" was a favored expression of butlers to turn out unwanted visitors. From the way Rand had always treated her, Jess assumed she'd never be welcomed into his presence. Used to being regarded as an oddity by anyone who had a whiff of her past, she often wondered if Rand had heard whispers of her background and those caused him to be cool. She couldn't believe that he could be so small as to do that, but she'd had no other explanation for his behavior toward her. Until today. When private torments didn't bother him as they once had. And she felt an enormous wall fall at her feet as he ridiculed himself.
"Good God, I have been awful toward you. I have much to make up for. I apologize again. Come sit down." He nodded toward a gold velvet chair.
She took the chair he indicated and was pleased when Darwin came to perch himself near her legs and offer her a congenial way into this conversation. The monkey stood, arms folded, like a little man in charge. His gleaming brown eyes blinked at her in confusion, then scanned to Rand, who took a wing chair opposite her.
"I hope you don't mind that I brought them," she explained with a glance at Bones, who came to drape himself over one of Rand's feet. "They enjoy our students, but they also like adult company."
"Really?" He glanced down at the dog, who'd closed his eyes with a sigh and a smack of his jaws. "To hear Spence talk, these two don't care for his company."
For the first time this morning, Jess grinned. "Spence has an unusual relationship with them. Darwin never seems to have anything nice to say to Spence, in monkey talk or otherwise. Darwin, we think, somehow understood Cat's sorrow when Spence didn't marry her the first time they were engaged and waits to see how Spence performs as a loving husband. As as for Bones ... well, he cannot forget that the first time he saw Spence he thought Spence was going to hurt Cat."
"And ever after when they meet again, the dog takes a piece out of Spence's ankle."
The two of them chuckled, and Jess marveled at the naturalness of their repartee, wanting more and walking down this path of mutual spontaneity to get it. "Bones used to be the track dog for the Ashford village butcher, and like the rest of us, he is at heart just a creature of habit. Thank heavens, Spence recognizes it. I think he'd be disappointed if he did come home to Farrell Hall and Bones failed to greet him by taking a slice of skin."
Rand seemed totally at case now, and she grew more so. Enough to let her wayward eyes note how he filled the chair admirably. His long legs in the soft gray trousers stretched before her, and she had to tear herself from inspecting every inch. "The animals of Farrell Hall are very important to all of us, but they also help the students immensely."
"Oh, what do they do?"
In response, Darwin preened, grinning at Rand with bright white teeth.
Jess patted the monkey on the shoulder. "This small fellow always likes it when people talk about him. What do you offer to our girls, young man, hmmm?" The fellow chittered his explanation, and she and Rand both laughed. "They add gaiety. But more than that, they give companionship. A quiet acceptance that's very important to any child but particularly to those who feel different and therefore separate from others."
"Unconditional love is important to everyone. Even adults. But so few find it anywhere. If you can give it to children, I think their chances for a happier life are greater."
"That's what Cat and I thought when we opened the school three years ago. Very few institutions in England educate girls. None existed for those who were overly active and talented in special ways."
"You and Cat have made a success of the venture, too."
"Very much so! I never dreamed it could be this wonderful. We've got numerous investors and teachers from here and abroad clamoring to join the faculty. We have twenty-seven girls enrolled this year. Next term, the newest hall should be finished and we'll be able to add another ten students."
"Ten? From what Cat told me when last I saw her and Spence in Richmond, that new hall should house twenty-five more girls."
"Yes, eventually it will. But I cannot expand too rapidly. I must take on more staff, buy more classroom equipment. And to be financially responsible, I cannot do that all at once."
"Certainly. I understand." His dark blue eyes, usually so blank when they looked at her, twinkled in admiration. "The growth of a business must be managed as skillfully as its birth. And since Cat is now expecting twins and retired to Richmond, you are alone with the administration. But you appear to weather that well, too."
"Thank you. Running the school alone these last few months has been a challenge. I welcome the responsibilities. I'm no stranger to that, but...but I do miss talking things over with Cat. I won't bother her with details. Not now. Twins are so rare, and I know Spence is very concerned."
Cat Lyonns had been delivered of a healthy little boy almost two years ago. Victor Lyonns was then and remained now a hardy roly-poly child. So months ago, when Cat's doctor proclaimed that her second pregnancy would bring twins, the man had declared that she needed to be more careful and take longer bed rest each day. Spence had immediately retired Cat and his son to the Red House in Richmond for the duration of her term. Jess had assumed the role of headmistress, and she was certain that after the birth of these two new babies she would remain solely in charge for quite some time to come.
"Cat is very healthy," Rand stated.
"I don't think anyone need be concerned," she continued his logic, but knew she consoled herself. "Vic came into the world without any problems."
"Cat recovered quickly, though Vic was extremely large."
"Yes, but the doctors remember how big Vic was at birth and wonder if Cat will deliver two babies of similar size. They want her to be careful, eat well but not too much, and" -- she nibbled her lower lip -- "I worry about her."
"But she is following doctors' orders, Jess, and the twins will come into the world safely and soon drive us all as mad as Vic does, with their curiosity and their antics. Meanwhile, you have been working yourself very hard. You do look tired."
That he would notice such a thing about her warmed her more, and to her surprise, she shared more of her personal thoughts with him. "I want Cat to feel comforted when she returns that I left no stone unturned to run the school well." She gave a rueful laugh. "I won't say it's been easy. I have never worked so hard in my life. But I love every minute. I would toil night and day, go anywhere, do anything to help any student." She had reached a point where she might explain her purpose here this morning, and she poised, ready to launch.
But with his eyes flowing from her hair to her mouth, he declared, "It shows," and robbed her of reason. "Despite the need for a bit more sleep -- or is it more fun? -- you look so much more fulfilled than when I saw you at Cat and Spence's wedding."
That made her stare at him, astonished at the perceptiveness with which he had observed her, thought about her. "It's true," she admitted. "Over these three years I have become more confident, decisive."
"Each time I have seen you -- at Vic's christening and at that dinner party last June, you have been more sociable. More...content," he confirmed with a truth that had her tilt her head at him. "You love what you do, a sure key to happiness. And the success has been transferred to the school. It's a legend in London. Elsewhere, too." He beamed. "Why, last month, when I was in Vienna, I went to a supper where the topic of dealing with overly active children included a discussion of the Farrell School for Young Ladies."
"Is that right?" Jess asked, still shaken from the knowledge that he had assessed her growth over years when she was certain he had only found reasons to dismiss her.
"They wished to know more, and I found myself telling them what I knew. Unfortunately, that isn't more than a few minutes' worth, and I'm afraid I did not do you proud."
"You spread our reputation and that's more than we could want from you or even ask." Yet she was here to request help for a student.
"You're very polite, Jess. But honestly, I think you'd do yourself and the school some good if you thought about spreading its reputation yourself. Perhaps a lecture or two in London to educators and certainly to physicians who treat those similar to your students."
His businesslike approach intrigued but appalled her. "No." She could never speak in public. "I have too much work here in Kent."'
"But it's often done, especially by experts like you and Cat. Such exposure could do wonders to establish the school as the credible institution it is."
No one who took the time to discover her background, her family history, would value her words. Society did not smile on children of scandalous parents. She knew that firsthand. No one, no matter her topic or her success in educating students with behavioral and learning difficulties, would come to hear her. Jessica Leighton-Curtis giving a lecture? She'd be laughed off the dais. "I couldn't."
"I'm terrible in public."
"No, you're not," he shot back sweetly. "You have now become as gracious and delightful in public with strangers as with your students. As accomplished in a garden as at a piano."
"You have seen me with those whom I know well. But with others..."
His gaze fell to her clenched hands. "You are at ease in your skin with all but me."
"But you always treated me as if I had the plague!"
He gave a shocked laugh, which quickly died to sorrow. "Oh, Jess, what I've done! I'll tell you now what I couldn't say to anyone then, not even to myself. You resembled a woman I wished to forget."
She stared at him, jealous. Furious at herself for such madness, she felt more ire that some woman could be so important to him that she would obliterate any other from his sight. "I see. Have you forgotten her now?"
Her hope died. "That doesn't bode well for this discussion, does it?" Her fingers plucked at the fabric of her riding skirt and, appalled that he should see her undone, she began to rise.
He shot forward, like night enfolding day, and blanketed her hands with his. The shock jolted her. The iron strength soothed her. Stunned, she looked down at their flesh. The heat...the friendliness of it was so astonishing she had trouble focusing on what he was saying.
"Jess." Rand said her name in a deep appeal. "Jess." He lifted her face with fingers beneath her chin. This close, she couldn't avoid his eyes...and didn't want to. They were larger, blacker than she'd thought, more lushly lashed, kinder...and sultry. Jess, he made no sound with his lips but she loved the way they shaped her name. His thumb came up to trace her lower lip. His eyes watched what he was doing to her, and his face took on a look she would have termed yearning.
She turned away.
"Please don't go. Listen to me, Jess. I have done you and me, I think, a great disservice. I want to change that. Let me. Let me nurture our relationship with an objectivity I did not possess until recently. Three years ago, bare months before I met you at Cat and Spence's wedding, I lost a woman I cared for dearly. She died in horrible circumstances, and I found her too late to save her. Afterward I couldn't part with her memory, because I thought I might have prevented her death if I had been more dedicated to her. Then when I saw you in Saint Paul's, I could not bring myself to terms with how you looked so much like her. I have spent years mourning her, and now I find to my surprise that I am done. Let me assure you now, she was very different from you, except that a few of your features are the same."
His gaze traveled to her hair. "She had these extraordinary strawberry-blond curls, like you. And eyes of aqua. Her complexion was as fair but not as perfect as yours. She had freckles and a funny upturned nose. Not your classic profile, Jess. Not your delicate porcelain appeal. Won't you accept my faults as human ones and allow us to start anew?"
Suddenly it seemed so simple. So normal. He had never thought her odd, but similar to someone he had loved. The idea provided comfort, which she'd always craved with him. "I would welcome that, Rand."
This time, when he smiled, no shadows lurked in his marvelous midnight-blue eyes. He took his hands away, and sat back in his chair, leaving her with more than solace -- a new excitement.
"Rand, I came to ask for your help."
"You have it."
She blinked. "As quickly as that?"
"Unnamed, it's yours. I have hurt you, and I want to make it up to you."
"It's not a small favor."
His mouth lifted in a comforting way. "If it were, your hands might not be so cold -- and my wish to make them warmer might not be so hot. Tell me what you want, Jess."
"You." He grinned while she wondered where her mind had fled that she should be so curt. So suggestive. "I need you for an hour or two. For" -- she waved a hand, licked her lips -- "a few days, which I hope will do the trick. Whatever time you can spare for a child. A student. A twelve-year-old who was remarkably talented at the piano until she was thrown from her horse in a riding accident. When she fell, she landed on her head, and her ability to play the piano, among other skills, was affected. She was a wonderful musician. I heard her play once, when her parents first applied to enroll her, months before she suffered the blow. Now that she is with us, I have tried to get her to play again, but I do not have the expertise to lure her to try more than scales. I have heard you play, Rand, after supper parties and Vic's christening. You have the ability to evoke sentiments from a piano that I never will."
He shook his head, rueful. "I am amazed you believe I have something to give this child. Every time I have played in these past three years, I have done it to pour out my bitterness. At Vic's christening, I was in a black mood. I tried to emerge, but think I must have played a dirge."
Her heart ached for him. She too knew how to take her emotions to a keyboard to play out her agony and joy. "You performed a waltz by Liszt that brought tears to my eyes."
"You are kind."
"And you are talented. That's why I need you. Amanda requires someone who can inspire her to play. Someone who feels the music -- sees the variations possible, as she used to. With heart, not just mind."
"Oh, no." She smiled sadly. "I try. But I am too much heart at the keyboard. I cannot find the discipline necessary to bring order to my chaos."
"Perhaps I should use my so-called skills to inspire you as well. Help you realize that you have the ability to master anything you set your mind to."
"Thank you, but no. I have learned that lesson sufficiently by mastering my own challenges."
He quirked a brow, his polite query about her past one for which he would not get an answer from her.
"Rand, you cannot help me. I know my limitations. I live with them. Please understand that I want you only for my student. If you'll come, I will be most grateful that you could help her. I am an entirely different story."
"So I see. Well, then, we will have to try to discover new avenues to progress, won't we?"
Copyright © 1996 by Jo-Ann Power