“But it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
~Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
A soft spring breeze tugged a long curl from Randi Jean Dailey’s carefully styled up-do. She paid the cabbie his quid, stepped from the car with the help of the hotel doorman, and gave him a smile. The cabbie let out a satisfactory wolf-whistle before zipping back into London traffic.
Jean’s heart pounded with excitement. Instead of climbing on the plane to go home after her semester abroad, she’d primped and polished and put on her perfect little black dress accented with proper pearls and sexy stilettos. The ones Court had bought for her two weeks prior. The ones that made her short legs look a mile long, he said. The black shoes she’d worn to seduce him last night. The ones that had driven him so mad with lust he’d made love to her all night long.
With a long bittersweet kiss, they’d parted at noon. His promise to follow her to California as soon as he possibly could were the last words spoken between them.
She adjusted the lace shawl around her shoulders and headed into the hotel where the Lynford International Importers new hire reception was being held. As an only-just-hired summer intern, she’d received her job acceptance and invitation to the reception shortly after Court had left her studio flat. The afternoon had been spent madly running around making arrangements to stay in England another three months. To start.
But that wasn’t all the good news she had for Court. Instead of only the summer, she’d be extending her stay indefinitely. Forever. The thought made her dizzy with delight.
Upon reaching the doors to the reception hall, Jean stopped and rested a hand over her abdomen. She had one more surprise for Court. One she prayed would thrill him to his bones. One that would give him the leverage to work around his father’s manipulations. Like the song from a few years before, their future was so bright, they’d both have to wear shades. A silly grin crossed her face as she started through the wide open doors.
Soft string ensemble music drifted across the room. The event was exactly as Court had predicted. Proper Englishmen and their ladies talking quietly, mingling, as much to see as to be seen. For a week, he’d bemoaned the fact that instead of seeing her off at the airport, he had to attend this stuffy reception put on by his father’s company. Not interested in the décor, she searched the sea of bodies in semi-formal wear, looking for one particular blond head. The men wore sharp suits of worsted wool with silk ties, the women cocktail gowns in various levels of fashion and expense. The student interns and freshly graduated new hires were easy to pick out, by not only their youth, but by the less expensive clothing and the nervous smiles on their faces. Because Court’s family owned the company, she looked beyond the students and concentrated on the older attendees. The people Court had known since the day he’d been born.
One bright head stood out. Danielle Richards, the hiring contact. If not for Danielle’s call hours before, Jean would have been boarding a plane just then. Jean headed for Danielle, who certainly knew Court and could help Jean find him. She merely had to work her way through to the other side of the large ballroom.
Descending the steps into the crowd, she plowed ahead, exchanging nervous smiles with the three or four people she recognized from classes.
Among the glittering bodies, various scents perfumed the air and queasiness assaulted Jean for a moment. Something that had never bothered her before the past week. She and Court figured she had a mild touch of flu, or possibly food poisoning like she’d had right after arriving in January. The call from the student clinic this afternoon had negated that theory.
A glint of Danielle’s bright copper hair through the crowd assured Jean she was still on the right path. A few more steps and her gaze briefly met Danielle’s. Someone stepped in and cut off the line of sight before Jean could take a second look at what appeared to be mild alarm on the other woman’s face. Jean glanced behind her to see what might be happening that would cause the hiring director’s reaction. No, nothing unusual there. Jean pressed forward once again.
Like the sun prying back a thick layer of dark clouds, she saw his golden blond hair through a parting of bodies. His back to her, he stood near Danielle, part of a circle of immaculately groomed men and women, a mix of older and younger.
Finally, she eased past a knot of distinguished men and stood directly behind Court. On a deep breath, she assessed the situation. The group he stood with contained two older couples, important looking men and their society wives, all perfectly dressed and bejeweled. A younger woman with a sleek blond bob stood at Court’s left. Too close, but he came from people who knew people and had friends he’d been raised with. This could be one such. Across the small circle, Danielle was the only other person Jean recognized. A person who’d been friendly. Although the expression on Danielle’s face wasn’t exactly comforting.
Court began to speak, and Jean was able to hear him clearly, see clearly as his left arm came up to encircle the waist of the blond woman at his side, the action surprising her. If his shoulders looked a bit stiff, the movement a tad forced, she seemed to be the only one who noticed.
“Danielle, I’d like you to be among the first to know, Bea and I will be married next weekend. There isn’t time for formal invitations,”—his chuckle was forced—“we’re expecting, however, we’d love you to attend.”
The timbre was Court’s, but the tone and the words couldn’t be his. Dizziness surged in Jean’s head. She took a step back and clamped both hands over her now roiling stomach. The air had evaporated from the room and darkness framed the edges of her vision.
“Court…” Danielle said, doing her best to keep her face clear of emotion. Jean could see it, could hear the strain, as the other woman’s electric blue gaze locked on her.
Jean swallowed against rising nausea and took another step back, bumping into someone’s chilled glass of something. The shock of cold liquid dribbling down her back froze her in place.
In an almost dreamlike parody of slow motion, Court’s arm dropped from the woman, and he slowly turned. Jean’s gaze flew to his face as it came into view. His skin took on an ashen cast, as his eyes widened above his slackening jaw. For a long moment, it was all she could see.
“Courtland?” The sharply spoken word from the blonde woman broke the spell. “What is it, darling?”
Jean’s breath rushed back into her starved lungs, and her heart jolted into triple time, rushing adrenalin into her system. It was the spark she needed to turn on her heel and push through the crowd.
She heard him call after her. Heard Danielle call after her, but didn’t stop. Escape was the one thought in her head. Later she’d think about Court’s announcement. But now there was room for only one instinct pounding through her veins. Run.
Snippets of his history came to her as she forced her way past people now expressing their shock at her rudeness. The girl he’d practically been engaged to since they’d been in nappies. The horrible break up days before Jean had tripped him in the library. The stories of his family and how he was expected to take over the business one day, like generations of Lynfords and Robinsons before.
Above all, the vision she couldn’t reconcile with the words he’d just said, Court’s face smiling down at her. His voice saying, “I love you. I’ll come for you. We’ll have a wonderful life.”
As she broke through the edge of the crowd and rushed into the lobby, she thought she heard Court call out her name one more time, but from a distance. She didn’t look back. Couldn’t look back. Adrenalin pounding through her veins powered her forward. A doorman opened the heavy outer door.
His enquiry went unacknowledged as she rushed by, headed for the cab parked at the curb.
“Taxi!” she called out.
Surprised, the doorman who’d recently helped her from a cab, leaped to open the door for her.
“Miss? Everything all right?”
She shook her head and climbed into the cab.
“Where to, miss?”
“Home.” It was all she could think of. She could be at Heathrow in a few hours where she’d wait until a seat opened on a plane headed for New York. From New York she’d get a plane to San Francisco. There, she’d figure it all out.
“Where’s home, miss?”
“Away from here.” Tears blurring her vision, she met the cabbie’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “Just drive.” No one had followed her out the door. Especially not Court. His words echoing in her head tore her heart to shreds. The cabbie turned around and slowly eased into traffic.
Unable to stand it, she gave into temptation and looked back through the tears welling in her eyes and spilling down her cheeks. The sidewalk remained empty of anyone she recognized. Only the doorman looked after her.
The image of Court’s face rose in her mind. Merry blue eyes, laughing at her driven need to experience everything Anglo, jokes about her attempts to learn the Brit accent, the little presents of Earl Grey tea, crumpets and flowers he brought her. The rose petals he’d scattered on her bed last night where they made love pretending to be in an English garden. The flower pressed between the pages of her favorite novel, a sweetly scented bookmark and reminder of his promise they’d be together.
From the dark and dreary February day when she’d accidentally tripped him in the library, her world had been filled with sunshine and laughter. He took her places, both physical and emotional, she’d never have discovered without him. Small shops, hidden parks, intimate pubs, classic tea houses, historical sites, and the places known only to locals. To heaven, where he wrapped her in soft clouds of love, like the weekend in the country where they hiked green fields and pretended to be Robin Hood and Maid Marian. A better friend, guide, and lover she couldn’t have asked for.
“I need an address, miss. Or an intersection at the very least.”
Of course the man needed a direction. Jean wiped tears from her cheeks and wrapped her arms around her middle. “Houghton Street,” she said. She needed a direction, too, knew where she was headed in the next twenty-four hours, but had to take baby steps to get there. “Houghton Street and then Heathrow.” One step at a time.
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Traditional Romance for Modern Women
Copyright Shea McMaster June 2015