England, Summer 1924
He was late, deliberately so. And alone. Another deliberate choice, driving down from London in one of his own sports cars. Jack Damarell, the Eighth Earl of Crieff, eased his long legs out from behind the wheel. He’d designed the four cylinder engine himself, a commercially modified version of the one he’d raced at Brooklands. Listening with quiet satisfaction to its ticking as it cooled under the sleek bonnet, he made a mental note of some minor adjustments before making his way up the shallow flight of steps into the house. Handing over his driving coat and gloves to the butler, he glanced into the crowded drawing room from the cover of the doorway.
It was exactly as he had expected. All the usual crowd had flocked to Lady Eleanor Kilpatrick’s Saturday to Monday. The latest cocktails, the latest jazz and the latest party games, Lady Eleanor was famous for being the first with them all, and the Bright Young Things who filled her drawing room were eager to be the first to sample them. There was about the place a manic air of desperate people partying just a little too hard. It was not Jack’s scene at all. He much preferred the sanctuary of his club, one of the few all-male bastions left in London, where no-one gave a damn about the latest swim party, black and white party, bottle party or treasure hunt, and the only games played were cards, albeit often for outrageous stakes.
As a rule, he refused all such invitations as this one, knowing that the illicit thrill of swapping sexual partners lay at their root. Despite his famed reclusiveness, Jack had no shortage of willing conquests, and he preferred to chose them for himself. He certainly had no wish to rely on such whims as the turn of a card, the fall of a dice or even the floating of a feather to make the selection for him. He wondered disinterestedly what Lady Eleanor had planned as this evening’s jeu de jour. Not that he had any intention of joining in. He had a game of his own to play out.
His arrival caused a stir. Tall, dark and handsome, the phrase could have been invented for Jack Damarell. His dinner jacket fit tightly across those broad shoulders of his. A military cut. Almost six years after the end of the war, when he had served as Captain Damarell, he still had a military stance. The crisp white shirt and plain silk waistcoat seemed stretched taut over his chest. The tailored black trousers clothed legs which were long and muscled. An athlete’s legs. The body of a Greek statue, one smitten young lady had once declared as she positively drooled over him in his tennis whites. Jack’s love of sport was almost as legendary as his hatred of socialising.
As he stood in the doorway, idly surveying the scene before him, every woman in the room, young and old, seemed drawn towards his brooding figure. Who could resist the challenge of breaching such defences? Many tried but remarkably few succeeded, and not even those select few who did could claim to know him. An enigma, was Jack Damarell. An illicit secret. A brooding god. A deliciously sinful-looking angel. An infuriatingly aloof one.
“Darling, so thrilling to see you, we’d quite given you up.” Lady Eleanor Kilpatrick appeared at his elbow. Dressed in her trade-mark silk pyjamas and black pearls, she enveloped him in a perfumed embrace and a cloud of pungent smoke emanating from the cigarette at the end of the long ivory holder she waved like a wand.
Jack disentangled himself politely, and kissed her hand. The emerald she’d extracted from Iain Kilpatrick was so large that it overlapped the fingers on either side. As husband number three, Iain no doubt thought himself in need of such an anchor. Poor fool.
“I knew you’d come,” Lady Eleanor said. “Naughty boy, you usually turn down my invitations, but I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist this one, not when I dropped you the hint about our intriguing visitor from across the pond. It was I who recommended her work to Archie Davenport who owns the gallery, did you know?” As she spoke, Lady Eleanor led him into the room, making for the bar which had been set out in the corner. “Shall I introduce you? Or should that be re-introduce you,” she asked maliciously.
“Why not,” Jack replied carelessly. She could fish all she liked but he’d be damned if he’d give his hostess any satisfaction. Not that she hadn’t begged him to give her exactly that on their last meeting. He smiled inwardly. Lady Eleanor was not accustomed to being spurned.
As he waited for her pink gin to be replenished, Jack eyed the crowd. A sea of women with shingled hair and Clara Bow pouts, but he spotted Lindsey instantly. He always could, right from that first time he’d seen her in the Oyster Bar at Grand Central. Her presence drew his eyes towards her like a magnet. It made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
He’d forgotten. No, he hadn’t forgotten, he’d just chosen not to remember. He was good at that. He’d had plenty of practice.
She’d had her hair cut. Her beautiful long auburn hair. It was fashionably bobbed now, the sleek style showing off the long, tender line of her neck, framing the perfect oval of her face, the fringe stopping just above her big hazel eyes. That air of fragility was one of the things which attracted him, but it scared him too. Bones that seemed to be as light as a bird’s. Veins too near the surface of her translucent skin.
When they had first met, she looked as if she would break too easily, shatter like a porcelain figurine at the slightest touch. On board the Aquitania only a few months after the Armistice, her glorious hair had been formed into a heavy bun, sitting just at the nape of her neck. It was twilight. She was leaning against the rail staring out at the wake with New York harbour retreating rapidly into the distance. Everyone else had retired to dress for cocktails. She was quite alone – in more than one sense, as he later discovered, for she was an orphan, brought up by an over-protective aunt and uncle. Just turned eighteen, having attained a measure of independence from them, she was endearingly eager to experience what she called real life, starting in London.
He never did tell her that he’d seen her earlier that day, in the Oyster Bar. She’d seemed to him like an angel sent from heaven, but he never did tell her that either. He remembered thinking it though, those words exactly. They came back to him with a jolt now. Not just the words, the feeling he’d had, of being in the presence of someone pure, someone untainted by the dirt and horror of the battlefields, the misery and pain and pitiful suffering of the war he had only just survived. He’d felt breathless, and strangely certain that she was the one. That somehow she could save him. He’d felt desire too, so deep it felt bottomless.
He’d stood there on the deck too entranced to move for what seemed like hours. If she turned before they passed the cargo ship which was making its way towards New York, if she turned before it passed them, he would take it for a sign, he promised himself. It was not like him to be fanciful, but this felt like no other occasion. Either the gods were on his side, or they were not.
And they had been. She had turned, just as the two ships crossed. And their eyes had met. And she had smiled. And he had been lost. Just like that. Jack Damarell fell in love. Hook, line and sinker, rather aptly.
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