"Oh, there you are, Jason," the raven-haired beauty said to her husband's reflection in the mirror above her dressing table. Her gaze slid warily over his tall, rugged frame as he came toward her; then she returned her attention to the open jewel cases spread out before her. A nervous tremor shook her hand and her smile was overly bright as she removed a spectacular diamond choker from a case and held it out to him. "Help me fasten this, will you?"
Her husband's face tightened with distaste as he looked at the necklaces of glittering rubies and magnificent emeralds already spread across her swelling breasts above, the daring bodice of her gown. "Isn't your display of flesh and jewels a little vulgar for a woman who hopes to masquerade as a grand lady?"
"What would you know about vulgarity?" Melissa Fielding retorted contemptuously. "This gown is the height of fashion." Haughtily she added, "Baron Lacroix likes it very well. He specifically asked me to wear it to the ball tonight."
"No doubt he doesn't want to be troubled with too many fasteners when he takes it off you," her husband returned sarcastically.
"Exactly. He's French -- and terribly impetuous."
"Unfortunately, he's also penniless."
"He thinks I'm beautiful," Melissa taunted, her voice beginning to shake with pent-up loathing.
"He's right." Jason Fielding's sardonic gaze swept over her lovely face with its alabaster skin, slightly tilted green eyes, and full red lips, then dropped to her voluptuous breasts trembling invitingly above the plunging neckline of her scarlet velvet gown. "You are a beautiful, amoral, greedy...bitch."
Turning on his heel, he started from the room, then stopped. His icy voice was edged with implacable authority. "Before you leave, go in and say good night to our son. Jamie is too little to understand what a bitch you are, and he misses you when you're gone. I'm leaving for Scotland within the hour."
"Jamie!" she hissed wrathfully. "He's all you care about -- " Without bothering to deny it, her husband walked toward the door, and Melissa's anger ignited.
"When you come back from Scotland, I won't be here!" she threatened.
"Good," he said without stopping.
"You bastard!" she spat, her voice shaking with suppressed rage. "I'm going to tell the world who you really are, and then I'm going to leave you. I'll never come back. Never!"
With his hand on the door handle, Jason turned, his features a hard, contemptuous mask. "You'll come back," he sneered. "You'll come back, just as soon as you run out of money."
The door closed behind him and Melissa's exquisite face filled with triumph. "I'll never come back, Jason," she said aloud to the empty room, "because I'll never run out of money. You'll send me whatever I want...."
"Good evening, my lord," the butler said in an odd, tense whisper.
"Happy Christmas, Northrup," Jason answered automatically as he stamped the snow off his boots and handed his wet cloak to the servant. That last scene with Melissa, two weeks earlier, sprang to his mind, but he pushed the memory away. "The weather cost me an extra day of travel. Has my son already gone to bed?"
The butler froze.
"Jason -- " A heavyset, middle-aged man with the tanned, weathered face of a seasoned seaman stood in the doorway of the salon off the marble entrance foyer, motioning to Jason to join him.
"What are you doing here, Mike?" Jason asked, watching with puzzlement as the older man carefully closed the salon door.
"Jason," Mike Farrell said tautly, "Melissa is gone. She and Lacroix sailed for Barbados right after you left for Scotland." He paused, waiting for some reaction, but there was none. He drew a long, ragged breath. "They took Jamie with them."
Savage fury ignited in Jason's eyes, turning them into furnaces of rage. "I'll kill her for this!" he said, already starting toward the door. "I'll find her, and I'll kill her -- "
"It's too late for that." Mike's ragged voice stopped Jason in mid-stride. "Melissa is already dead. Their ship went down in a storm three days after it left England." He tore his gaze from the awful agony already twisting Jason's features and added tonelessly, "There were no survivors."
Wordlessly, Jason strode to the side table and picked up a crystal decanter of whiskey. He poured some into a glass and tossed it down, then refilled it, staring blindly straight ahead.
"She left you these." Mike Farrell held out two letters with broken seals. When Jason made no move to take them, Mike explained gently, "I've already read them. One is a ransom letter, addressed to you, which Melissa left in your bedchamber. She intended to ransom Jamie back to you. The second letter was meant to expose you, and she gave it to a footman with instructions to deliver it to the Times after she left. However, when Flossie Wilson discovered that Jamie was missing, she immediately questioned the servants about Melissa's actions the night before, and the footman gave the letter to her instead of taking it to the Times as he was about to do. Flossie couldn't reach you to tell you Melissa had taken Jamie, so she sent for me and gave me the letters. Jason," Mike said hoarsely, "I know how much you loved the boy. I'm sorry. I'm so damned sorry...."
Jason's tortured gaze slowly lifted to the gilt-framed portrait hanging above the mantel. In agonized silence he stared at the painting of his son, a sturdy little boy with a cherubic smile on his face and a wooden soldier clutched lovingly in his fist.
The glass Jason was holding shattered in his clenched hand. But he did not cry. Jason Fielding's childhood had long ago robbed him of all his tears.
Portage, New York
Snow crunched beneath her small, booted feet as Victoria Seaton turned off the lane and pushed open the white wooden gate that opened into the front yard of the modest little house where she had been born. Her cheeks were rosy and her eyes bright as she stopped to glance at the starlit sky, studying it with the unspoiled delight of a fifteen-year-old at Christmas. Smiling, she hummed the last bars of one of the Christmas carols she'd been singing all evening with the rest of the carolers, then turned and went up the walk toward the darkened house.
Hoping not to awaken her parents or her younger sister, she opened the front door softly and slipped inside. She took off her cloak, hanging it on a peg beside the door, then turned around and stopped in surprise. Moonlight poured through the window at the top of the stairway, illuminating her parents, who were standing just outside her mother's bedroom. "No, Patrick!"' Her mother was struggling in her father's tight embrace. "I can't! I just can't!"
"Don't deny me, Katherine," Patrick Seaton said, his voice raw with pleading. "For God's sake, don't -- "
"You promised!" Katherine burst out, trying frantically to pull free of his arms. He bent his head and kissed her, but she twisted her face away, her words jerking out like a sob.
"You promised me on the day Dorothy was born that you wouldn't ask me to again. You gave me your word!"
Victoria, standing in stunned, bewildered horror, dimly realized that she had never seen her parents touch one another before -- not in teasing, nor kindness -- but she had no idea what it was her father was pleading with her mother not to deny him.
Patrick let go of his wife, his hands falling to his sides. "I'm sorry," he said stonily. She fled into her room and closed the door, but instead of going to his own room, Patrick Seaton turned around and headed down the narrow stairs, passing within inches of Victoria when he reached the bottom.
Victoria flattened herself against the wall, feeling as if the security and peace of her world had been somehow threatened by what she had seen. Afraid that he would notice her if she tried to move toward the stairs, would know she had witnessed the humiliatingly intimate scene, she watched as he sat down on the sofa and stared into the dying embers of the fire. A bottle of liquor that had been on the kitchen shelf for years stood now on the table in front of him, beside a half-filled glass. When he leaned forward and reached for the glass, Victoria turned and cautiously placed her foot on the first step.
"I know you're there, Victoria," he said tonelessly, without looking behind him. "There's little point in our pretending you didn't witness what just took place between your mother and me. Why don't you come over here and sit by the fire? I'm not the brute you must think me."
Sympathy tightened Victoria's throat and she quickly went to sit beside him. "I don't think you're a brute, Papa. I could never think that."
He took a long swallow of the liquor in his glass. "Don't blame your mother either," he warned, his words slightly slurred as if he had been drinking since long before she arrived.
With the liquor impairing his judgment, he glanced at Victoria's stricken face and assumed she had surmised more from the scene she'd witnessed than she actually had. Putting a comforting arm around her shoulders, he tried to ease her distress, but what he told her increased it a hundredfold: "It isn't your mother's fault and it isn't mine. She can't love me, and I can't stop loving her. It's as simple as that."
Victoria plunged abruptly from the secure haven of childhood into cold, terrifying, adult reality. Her mouth dropped open and she stared at him while the world seemed to fall apart around her. She shook her head, trying to deny the horrible thing he had said. Of course her mother loved her wonderful father!
"Love can't be forced into existence," Patrick Seaton said, confirming the awful truth as he stared bitterly into his glass. "It won't come simply because you will it to happen. If it did, your mother would love me. She believed she would learn to love me when we were wed. I believed it, too. We wanted to believe it. Later, I tried to convince myself that it didn't matter whether she loved me or not. I told myself that marriage could still be good without it."
The next words ripped from his chest with an anguish that seared Victoria's heart: "I was a fool! Loving someone who doesn't love you is hell! Don't ever let anyone convince you that you can be happy with someone who doesn't love you."
"I -- I won't," Victoria whispered, blinking back her tears.
"And don't ever love anyone more than he loves you, Tory. Don't let yourself do it."
"I -- I won't," Victoria whispered again. "I promise." Unable to contain the pity and love exploding inside her, Victoria looked at him with tears spilling from her eyes and laid her small hand against his handsome cheek. "When I marry, Papa," she choked, "I shall choose someone exactly like you."
He smiled tenderly at that, but made no reply. Instead he said, "It hasn't all been bad, you know. Your mother and I have Dorothy and you to love, and that is a love we share."
Dawn had barely touched the sky when Victoria slipped out of the house, having spent a sleepless night staring at the ceiling above her bed. Clad in a red cloak and a dark blue woolen riding skirt, she led her Indian pony out of the barn and swung effortlessly onto his back.
A mile away, she came to the creek that ran alongside the main road leading to the village, and dismounted. She walked gingerly down the slippery, snow-covered bank and sat down on a flat boulder. With her elbows propped on her knees and her chin cupped in her palms, she stared at the gray water flowing slowly between the frozen chunks of ice near the bank.
The sky turned yellow and then pink while she sat there, trying to recover the joy she always felt in this place whenever she watched the dawning of a new day.
A rabbit scurried out from the trees beside her; behind her a horse blew softly and footsteps moved stealthily down the steep bank. A slight smile touched Victoria's lips a split second before a snowball whizzed past her right shoulder, and she leaned neatly to the left. "Your aim is off, Andrew," she called without turning.
A pair of shiny brown top boots appeared at her side. "You're up early this morning," Andrew said, grinning at the petite, youthful beauty seated upon the rock. Red hair shot with sparkling gold was pulled back from Victoria's forehead and secured with a tortoiseshell comb at the crown, then left to spill over her shoulders like a rippling waterfall. Her eyes were the deep, vivid blue of pansies, heavily lashed and slightly tilted at the corners. Her nose was small and perfect, her cheeks delicately boned and blooming with health, and at the center of her small chin there was a tiny but intriguing cleft.
The promise of beauty was already molded into every line and feature of Victoria's face, but it was obvious to any onlooker that her beauty was destined to be more exotic than fragile, more vivid than pristine, just as it was obvious that there was stubbornness in her small chin and laughter in her sparkling eyes. This morning, however, her eyes lacked their customary luster.
Victoria leaned down and scooped up a pile of snow with her mittened hands. Automatically Andrew ducked, but instead of launching the snowball at him, as she would normally have done, she threw it into the creek. "What's wrong, bright-eyes," he teased. "Afraid you'll miss?"
"Of course not," Victoria said with a morose little sigh.
"Move over and let me sit down."
Victoria did so, and he studied her sad expression with mild concern. "What has you looking so grim?"
Victoria was truly tempted to confide in him. At twenty, Andrew was five years her senior and wise beyond his age. He was the only child of the village's wealthiest resident, a widow of seemingly delicate health who clung possessively to her only son at the same time that she relinquished to him all responsibility for the running of their huge mansion and the 1,000 acres of farmland surrounding it.
Putting his gloved finger beneath her chin, Andrew tipped her face up to his. "Tell me," he said gently.
This second request was more than her heartsick emotions could withstand. Andrew was her friend. In the years they had known each other, he had taught her to fish, to swim, to shoot a pistol, and to cheat at cards -- this last he claimed to be necessary so she would know if she was being cheated. Victoria had rewarded his efforts by learning to outswim, outshoot, and outcheat him. They were friends, and she knew she could confide almost anything to him. She could not, however, bring herself to discuss her parents' marriage with him. Instead she brought up the other thing worrying her -- her father's warning.
"Andrew," she said hesitantly, "how can you tell if someone loves you? Truly loves you, I mean?"
"Who are you worried about loving you?"
"The man I marry."
Had she been a little older, a little more worldly, she would have been able to interpret the tenderness that flared in Andrew's golden brown eyes before he swiftly looked away. "You'll be loved by the man you marry," he promised. "You can take my word for it."
"But he must love me at least as much as I love him."
"Perhaps, but how will I know if he does?"
Andrew cast a sharp, searching look at her exquisite features. "Has some local boy been pestering your papa for your hand?" he demanded almost angrily.
"Of course not!" she snorted. "I'm only fifteen, and Papa is very firm that I must wait until I'm eighteen, so I'll know my own mind."
He looked at her stubborn little chin and chuckled. "If knowing your own mind" is all Dr. Seaton is concerned about, he could let you wed tomorrow. You've known your own mind since you were ten years old."
"You're right," she admitted with cheerful candor. After a minute of comfortable silence, she asked idly, "Andrew, do you ever wonder who you'll marry?"
"No," he said with an odd little smile as he stared out across the creek.
"I already know who she is."
Startled by this amazing revelation, Victoria snapped her head around. "You do? Truly? Tell me! Is it someone I know?"
When he remained silent, Victoria shot him a thoughtful, sidewise look and began deliberately packing snow into a hard ball.
"Are you planning to try to dump that thing down my back?" he said, watching her with wary amusement.
"Certainly not," she said, her eyes twinkling. "I was thinking more in the line of a wager. If I can come closer to that rock atop the farthest boulder over there, then you must tell me who she is."
"And if I come closer than you do?" Andrew challenged.
"Then you way name your own forfeit," she said magnanimously.
"I made a dire error when I taught you to gamble," he chuckled, but he wag not proof against her daring smile.
Andrew missed the far-off target by scant inches. Victoria stared at it in deep concentration; then she let fly, hitting it dead-on with enough force to send the rock tumbling off the boulder along with the snowball.
"I also made a dire error when I taught you to throw snowballs."
"I always knew how to do that," she reminded him audaciously, plunking her hands on her slim hips. "Now, who do you wish to marry?"
Shoving his hands into his pockets, Andrew grinned down at her enchanting face. "Who do you think I wish to marry, blue eyes?"
"I don't know," she said seriously, "but I hope she is very special, because you are."
"She's special," he assured her with gentle gravity. "So special that I even thought about her when I was away at school during the winters. In fact, I'm glad to be home so I can see her more often."
"She sounds quite nice," Victoria allowed primly, feeling suddenly and unaccountably angry at the unoffending female.
"I'd say she's closer to 'wonderful' than 'quite nice.' She's sweet and spirited, beautiful and unaffected, gentle and stubborn. Everyone who knows her comes to love her."
"Well then, for heaven's sake, why don't you marry her and have done with it!" Victoria said grimly.
His lips twitched, and in a rare gesture of intimacy, Andrew reached out and laid his hand against her heavy, silken hair. "Because," he whispered tenderly, "she's still too young. You see, her father wants her to wait until she's eighteen, so she'll know her own mind."
Victoria's enormous blue eyes widened as she searched his handsome face. "Do you mean me?" she whispered.
"You," he confirmed with smiling solemnity. "Only you."
Victoria's world, threatened by what she had seen and heard last night, suddenly seemed safe again, secure and warm. "Thank you, Andrew," she said, suddenly shy. Then, in one of her lightning-quick transformations from girl to charming, gently bred young woman, she added softly, "How lovely it will be to marry my dearest friend."
"I shouldn't have mentioned it to you without first speaking with your father, and I can't do that for three more years."
"He likes you immensely," Victoria assured him. "He won't object in the least when the time comes. How could he, when you are both so much alike?"
Victoria mounted her horse a little while later feeling quite gay and cheerful, but her spirits plummeted as soon as she opened the back door of the house and stepped into the cozy room that served the dual purpose, of kitchen and family gathering place.
Her mother was bending over the hearth, busy with the waffle iron, her hair pulled back in a tidy chignon, her plain dress clean and pressed. Hanging from nails beside and above the fireplace was an orderly assortment of sifters, dippers, graters, chopping knives, and funnels. Everything was neat and clean and pleasant, just like her mother. Her father was already seated at the table, drinking a cup of coffee.
Looking at them, Victoria felt self-conscious, sick at heart, and thoroughly angry with her mother for denying her wonderful father the love he wanted and needed.
Since Victoria's sunrise outings were fairly common, neither of her parents showed any surprise at her entrance. They both looked up at her, smiled, and said good morning. Victoria returned her father's greeting and she smiled at her younger sister, Dorothy, but she could scarcely look at her mother. Instead, she went to the shelves and began to set the table with a full complement of flatware and dishes -- a formality that her English mother firmly insisted was "necessary for civilized dining."
Victoria moved back and forth between the shelves and the table, feeling ill at ease and sick to her stomach, but when she took her place at the table, the hostility she felt for her mother slowly began to give way to pity. She watched as Katherine Seaton tried in a half dozen ways to make amends to her husband, chatting cheerfully with him as she hovered solicitously at his elbow, filling his cup with steaming coffee, handing him the pitcher of cream, offering him more of her freshly baked rolls in between trips to the hearth, where she was preparing his favorite breakfast of waffles.
Victoria ate her meal in bewildered, helpless silence, her thoughts twisting and turning as she sought for some way to console her father for his loveless marriage.
The solution came to her the instant he stood up and announced his intention of riding over to the Jackson farm to see how little Annie's broken arm was mending. Victoria jumped to her feet. "I'll go with you, Papa. I've been meaning to ask you if you could teach me how to help you in your work, I mean." Both her parents looked at her in surprise, for Victoria had never before shown the slightest interest in the healing arts. In fact, until then, she had been a pretty, carefree child whose chief interests were in gay amusements and an occasional mischievous, prank. Despite their surprise, neither parent voiced an objection.
Victoria and her father had always been close. From that day forward, they became inseparable. She accompanied him nearly everywhere he went and, although he flatly refused to permit her to assist him in his treatment of his male patients, he was more then happy to have her help at any other time.
Neither of them ever mentioned the sad things they had discussed on that fateful Christmas night. Instead they filled their time together with cozy conversations and lighthearted banter, for despite the sorrow in his heart, Patrick Seaton was a man who appreciated the value of laughter.
Victoria had already inherited her mother's startling beauty and her father's humor and courage. Now she learned compassion and idealism from him as well. As a little girl, she had easily won over the villagers with her beauty and bright, irresistible smile. They had liked her as a charming, carefree girl; they adored her as she matured into a spirited young lady who worried about their ailments and teased away their sullens.
Copyright © 1987 by Judith McNaught
Once and Always
Unable to resist her spitfire charm, Jason gathered her at last into his powerful arms, ravishing her lips with his kisses, arousing in her a sweet, insistent hunger. Wed in desire, they were enfolded in a fierce, consuming joy, free at last from the past's cruel grasp. Then, in a moment of blinding anguish, Victoria discovered the shocking treachery that lay at the heart of their love...a love she had dreamed would triumph...Once And Always.
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