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Jacob Winters, eleventh Earl of Hawthorne, cursed his memories of the heat, filth, betrayal, and hatred that had marred his final months in Bombay. Their sudden reappearance battered the calm he cultivated so assiduously, reminding him that his heritage included more than a title and fortune. He glared at Lt. Stevens, whose unexpected arrival had pierced his defenses. Years in India had added a too-familiar languor to the man's movements and a singsong cadence to his speech.
Another wall cracked, flashing faces before his eyes--officers biting back protests to orders that should not have been issued ... his nurse lying dead on his sixth birthday ... his mother cringing in terror at every unfamiliar sound. Dark faces, white faces, highborn and low. And the one harsh face that had controlled them all...
Feelings returned that he'd tried to forget--overwhelming grief for those who had died, searing pain at the reminder of his father's broken promises, horror over the murder of--
He swept the memories back into hiding and slammed the door. "I'm told you bear letters."
"They are for the earl, sir."
"I am Hawthorne." Jacob bit back another curse. Stevens must want his father. Didn't the regiment know the man had been dead for nineteen years?
Stevens bowed, then proffered a sealed note. "The matter is urgent, my lord. I should have arrived a month ago, but storms off the Cape prolonged my voyage."
The words freed other memories. His own voyage had been remarked for reaching England at all. Pirates had attacked off Madagascar. Storms shattered the mainmast and damaged the rudder. Disease claimed half thecrew, encouraging a poisoner to ply his trade.
He shook the images away and scowled. What calamity in Bombay warranted posting an officer halfway around the world to call on a man who had retired twenty years ago? Major Winters had severed all ties to the regiment the moment he'd acceded to the Hawthorne title.
But he said nothing. Accepting the letter, he cracked the seal. It was brief, with none of the perorations so beloved of solicitors.
14 October 1817
I regret to inform you that Colonel and Mrs. Wentworth died of typhoid yesterday leaving their daughter orphaned. You are now the girl's guardian. She will sail for England on a Company merchantman in early November, accompanied by a suitable companion.
Robert Berriton, Esq.
East India Company
"I don't know Colonel Wentworth." Jacob set the missive aside.
"He was the regiment's commander until his untimely death. I understood he'd been a friend of Major Winters earlier in his career."
"My father left the regiment in 1798."
Stevens extended a packet of documents. "Perhaps it was his wife who knew the major. Wentworth married a widow shortly after arriving in 1799. Her first husband served under Major Winters."
Dread pooled in Jacob's stomach. "His name?"
"Captain Nichols, my lord."
"And the girl?"
"Miss Harriet Nichols, born six months after the captain's unfortunate death."
Jacob clenched his teeth as grief welled. Captain Nichols had been his father's antithesis--kind, caring, never too busy to listen to a boy's chatter. Nichols had been the best part of his childhood, a surrogate father who almost compensated for his real father's neglect. But everything had changed when he'd married.
Jacob's hatred resurfaced as the image of Mrs. Nichols hovered before him. She'd been unworthy of such a fine man. If not for her, Captain Nichols would still live. What evil fate had thrust her brat into his care?
Captain Nichols would expect you to help, whispered his conscience. He did so much for you. Don't blame the child for its mother's transgressions.
"The situation is urgent," continued Stevens, recalling Jacob to the library. "If Miss Nichols boarded the November merchantman, she could arrive at any moment."
Jacob nodded as he rang for a footman. "You are acquainted with the girl?"
"Of course. You must know how small the English enclave is."
"Just so." No matter how many common soldiers were posted abroad, the officers mingled only with one another and with the more important envoys of the East India Company.
The footman arrived.
"Refresh yourself," suggested Jacob. "When I have studied these documents, we will speak again. We eat in two hours," he added.
He waited until the door closed behind Stevens before releasing a string of curses. Not that it helped. Even a large glass of brandy couldn't melt the ice gripping his chest. He'd thought he'd put Mrs. Nichols behind him. Now she was back and doubtless laughing at his predicament.
Guardian. To the daughter of the brassiest jade in Christendom.
Sucking in a deep breath, he spread out the papers.
The first described the birth of Harriet Nichols to Captain George Nichols and Mrs. Beatrice Nichols on December 14, 1798.
He cringed, remembering again that fateful day in June when word of Captain Nichols's death had dashed his hopes for the man's safety, shattering his reliance on justice for all time. He had dedicated his adult life to obtaining justice for others, but he knew life's vagaries too well to ever again expect it for himself.
The next page was marriage lines for then-Captain Wentworth to the Widow Nichols on January 3, 1799. Another naïve fool. He must have wed her immediately on arrival.
Jacob's jaw clenched. But Wentworth was hardly the first to succumb to Mrs. Nichols's blandishments. If only Captain Nichols had known what marriage would bring...
Shoving the paper aside, he picked up a copy of Wentworth's will. Dated May of 1799, it proved that he had quickly discovered his wife's defects. Disdain and distrust permeated the document, which left everything to his brother, Sir Harold Wentworth--a note in the margin valued his estate at ten thousand guineas. Out of that, Sir Harold was to pay one hundred guineas per annum to Wentworth's wife as long as she remained unwed. If she left India for any reason, she forfeited further claim on his estate. If she died within a year of his own demise, Harriet would receive a dowry of five hundred guineas. Otherwise, she got nothing.
The insult to Mrs. Wentworth was no surprise to anyone who knew the woman. Nor was the minimal amount left to Harriet. The girl was not Wentworth's, after all. But Wentworth's antagonism meant that Jacob could not appeal to Sir Harold to take Harriet in.
The ideal solution would be to send Harriet to the Nichols family, but there wasn't one. Captain Nichols had been the last of his line after his father and brother died in a fire in 1796. To prevent its demise, he'd sent home for a bride--a fatal mistake.
Now Jacob must repair the damage.
Don't blame the girl, his conscience repeated. She is innocent.
Maybe. But her breeding made that doubtful.
Jacob was still brooding about breeding when he joined Lt. Stevens in the Oakhaven dining room for dinner.
Most families passed peculiarities from generation to generation. The Raeburns produced madcap daughters who often ran mad in adulthood. Caldwells were mostly cads. At least five Dougherty men suffered the distasteful fits of falling sickness. His own family curse was blind obsession. So he must assume that Miss Nichols had inherited her mother's selfishness. One could control a selfish miss only by trading something she wanted for her good behavior.
She would want a husband. A five-hundred-guinea dowry would attract a merchant or farmer, which was all her mother's blood could aspire to. But Nichols had been gentry, so if Jacob could offer her a younger son or a professional man, maybe even a squire or baronet...
"Tell me about Miss Nichols," he urged his guest. "If I am to look after her, I need information."
"She is striking," admitted Stevens, helping himself to the broccoli. "Dark hair is common in India, of course, but porcelain skin and blue eyes are not, so she drew attention. And her vivacity made her the sweetheart of the regiment once Wentworth allowed her into local society."
Jacob's fork paused midway to his mouth. "Then why is she unwed at nineteen?"
"Choice." He shrugged. "The offers she's received would keep her in India, but she hates the heat, dust, and fevers."
Jacob nodded, though her antipathy puzzled him. He could understand it in one who had lived elsewhere, but why would Harriet notice? Like him, she'd been born there. He'd heard others complain about the heat and dust, but their words had meant little, since he'd known nothing else. He'd not realized how different India was until he moved to England.
The first week in his homeland remained clear in memory--the damp chilliness so different from India's monsoons, the daylight that lasted seemingly forever, the fog ... It hadn't taken him long to revel in the cool mornings and soft light. Hawthorne Park didn't reek with stupefying odors. Nor did it teem with voracious rats. And when he'd bitten into his first fresh beef loin, he'd found heaven--in India, beef arrived in barrels from England, salted, and was reserved for regimental occasions since the native servants wouldn't touch it.
But despite hearing about England since birth, he'd formed none of those impressions before leaving India.
Stevens hadn't noticed his abstraction. "Miss Nichols also hates the military," he was saying. "Mrs. Wentworth encouraged her by painting a distorted image of England. Since many wives echoed her sentiments, Miss Nichols is determined to reach England's shores."
It was true that such tales might act as a lure for the greedy, Jacob admitted. Homesick men often spoke of England's vast wealth, its glittering elegance, and the majesty that overshadowed the wealthiest raj. Thus he'd expected gold-paved streets, panniers so wide ladies must sidle through doors, powdered wigs a foot high...
In truth, fashion had not been much different from what officers' wives wore in Bombay, for powder had disappeared under the weight of new taxes, hairstyles had shrunk to clusters of curls, and gowns had become diaphanous draperies that clung to shapely legs--not that he'd thought of it that way at age eleven. The opulent buildings that filled Mayfair had seemed dark and cold with their thick walls and narrow windows. The streets were mere stone cobbles. And while London society dressed in silk and satin, the styles had seemed subdued after watching brocaded, bejeweled rajas and other Indian notables gather with Company leaders for a banquet.
But once he accepted the difference in details between story and reality, adjustment had been easy. Each tale's essence was uniquely British--and nothing like Bombay.
Harriet might have a harder time adjusting, though. Life as the ward of an earl would bear little resemblance to her mother's childhood.
"She will likely be disappointed," he said aloud. "Mrs. Wentworth can't have many good memories to pass on. Her own experiences were hardly endearing."
Curiosity lit Stevens's eyes. "I didn't realize you knew her."
"Not well." Too well, but he needn't reveal that. "Nichols was a family friend and our nearest neighbor. When he sent home for a bride, the parish chose an orphan who had recently come under its care."
"A common situation, though you must have confused Mrs. Wentworth with someone else," said Stevens stiffly, making Jacob wonder if he'd been enamored with her. "She was never a parish orphan. Her father was a baron, you know."
Possibly, but Jacob had no interest in discussing her, so he turned the subject. "I need to understand Miss Nichols's training. Describe Bombay's social calendar. I was ten when we left India, so I was not included in most gatherings."
Stevens's accent broadened as he spoke of balls and teas and other entertainments, sending shivers along Jacob's arms. Every word evoked new memories. Some were good--like his mother dressing for a Christmas ball. But most were painful. He didn't want to listen, didn't want to recall those years. But duty called. If the merchantman found favorable winds, it could dock any day. Wasting time on recriminations was pointless. Harriet was now his responsibility.
He had planned to return to London next week for a debate in Parliament. Now he must leave at dawn. Harriet would need a companion and a proper place to live. Keeping her at Hawthorne House for even a day would invite scandal. And sending her to Hawthorne Park would be worse. Though he'd not visited his seat in ten years, it remained home to his aunt, widow of the ninth earl. His mother had shared enough tales of Mrs. Nichols that his aunt would never welcome Harriet.
He signaled the footman to clear. His best course was to consult his closest friends. Lord Charles Beaumont was a charmer whose fortune and breeding drew every matchmaker in town. In contrast, Richard Hughes projected a lighthearted conventionality that hid a hellion curbed only by pinched pockets. Both had sisters making bows this Season. He'd already agreed to help escort them, easing the burden on their mothers. His friends would delight in returning the favor. The three of them should find Harriet a match in no time.
Housing her was a bigger problem. Charles's mother, Lady Inslip, would take her in, but living at Inslip House would reduce Harriet's chances of meeting a suitable husband. The Marquess of Inslip was so far above her station that she would receive different invitations, complicating everyone's schedules. And since Charles kept his own rooms, Jacob would never know if Harriet proved disruptive. His sister Sophie might complain, of course--she was outspoken enough--but she posed other problems. Having already enjoyed three Seasons, Sophie no longer needed the close supervision a green girl required. It wasn't fair to restrict her.
So Inslip House was impossible.
Hughes House might work, though. Lady Hughes's long illness had eased enough to allow travel, so Emily would finally have a London Season at the advanced age of four-and-twenty. Richard's strained purse meant he had to live at Hughes House even when his parents and sister were in residence, thus he could keep a close eye on Harriet and prevent trouble. Lord Hughes would welcome the allowance that would cover Harriet's keep. Both Emily and Harriet would be in their first Season, and their stations were closer so they would receive similar invitations.
It would do. He hadn't seen Emily for several years, but she had always been a levelheaded, intelligent girl. He could trust her to accept Harriet and polish any rough edges in the girl's training.
His butler removed the covers, set out a platter of cheese and sweets, then left the men to their port.
While Jacob considered the arguments that would win Lord Hughes's cooperation, he encouraged Stevens to discuss the changes he'd seen in India during his ten years posted there. Having partaken freely of the wine, Stevens willingly embarked on a monologue, unaware that his host was no longer listening.
Tomorrow Jacob would discuss his dilemma with Richard and Charles. If they agreed with his assessment, he would seek out Lord Hughes. The viscount had reached town a week earlier and was likely reeling at the expense of mounting Emily's come-out.
Richard and Charles could help compile a list of younger sons and cousins who might like Harriet. If she was anything like her mother, she would jump at the chance to better her station. And if Stevens's description was accurate, she could be off his hands in a week. Sweetheart of the Regiment sounded promising.
Emily Hughes wiggled into the carriage seat beside a mountain of packages. This third shopping expedition in as many days had been exhausting, but she'd finally amassed the essentials for her Season. Excitement surged through her veins, making it hard to sit still.
She'd waited seemingly forever for this moment. Four years to finish growing up. Six more interminable years because of her father's financial reverses and her mother's endless illnesses, which always worsened in the spring. Then heavy rains had postponed their departure until the roads were dry enough to let Lady Hughes travel in comfort, so the Season was already underway. But she was in London at last. Only one last wait remained--Jacob had stayed late at Oakhaven, overseeing the spring planting, but he would return next week.
Thoughts of the man she loved increased her excitement. Sunlight turned his eyes bluer than a summer sky. His silky hair seemed at odds with the rugged planes of his face, but touching it drove her fingers wild. He was tall enough to stand out in any crowd. She couldn't wait to again caress those powerful shoulders and mold his chiseled lips with her own.
It had been ten years since she'd last seen him. Ten years since he'd crushed her against his hard body, ravishing her mouth. Ten years since her heart had been her own.
She'd tried to reclaim it--after all, he'd insulted her brutally before abandoning the orchard that day. Yet she'd failed. She might have been barely fourteen, but his kiss had propelled her from the schoolroom into the world of adult passion. His rejection couldn't erase that, especially since she knew how much he'd wanted her. He'd figured prominently in her dreams ever since.
A week had passed before her anger had cooled enough to admit that he'd been right to leave. Fourteen was too young for marriage. She'd needed to grow up before they could be together.
Now the time had finally arrived.
The carriage bounced, feeding her excitement. She was the most fortunate of girls, for the Season held no terrors, no uncertainty, nothing to threaten her success. A fixed future had made it easy to be gracious when her father admitted that he could not afford even a small ball. Jacob would give her a ball the moment they were wed.
She knew how it would be, had dreamed of it over and over, the image growing clearer with each postponement of the moment. He would spot her as she entered her first ballroom. Brushing past the other guests as if they didn't exist, he would rush to her side, sweep her into a waltz, then propose on the spot.
She would wear the pale yellow Venetian gauze with its broad blond flounce edged in roses and pearls. Even her dull brown hair and muddy brown eyes seemed brighter when she wore yellow. The fan she'd bought this morning would be perfect--yellow silk painted with a pastoral scene. Her grandmother's pearls. And the yellow slippers with--
"We're here," said Huggins from beneath a pile of parcels.
"Of course." She pulled herself together. Not once in ten years had she revealed her love, and she wasn't about to slip now. She looked forward to everyone's surprise at her instant success almost as much as to her next meeting with Jacob. So she chattered gaily about the day's shopping even as her mind remained on him.
Jacob, whose dark hair was usually a little too long for fashion, whose laugh could send shivers down her spine that had nothing to do with cold, whose reputation--
She wouldn't think of that. All young men sowed wild oats.
He was one of her brother's best friends and had often visited Cherry Hill during his school days. As had Charles, for that matter. Now that the three lived in town, she had to glean information about Jacob from Richard--which meant listening to interminable tales of Charles, too. But singling Jacob out might raise questions that would reveal that kiss. Even ten years later, the incident could cause him trouble. Richard would be appalled, and her father--
Their footman lowered the steps and helped her down.
Richard wasn't her only source of news, of course. Jacob's aunt, widow of the ninth earl, lived at Hawthorne Park. Emily called often--unremarkable, for she called on all her neighbors. And she had no trouble hiding her interest in Jacob. Lady Hawthorne doted on him, sharing his letters with everyone.
Now her secrecy was nearly at an end. In another week he would claim her, letting her shout her love to the world. The next time she saw Hawthorne Park, it would be as Jacob's countess.
Leaving Huggins to deal with her packages, she skipped up the steps and into the hall ... and bounced off a gentleman unaccountably standing inside the door.
"Oomph!" she grunted as his hand shot out to catch her.
"Steady, Miss Hughes. You must temper your exuberance. This isn't a racetrack."
Emily backed into the wall, her head shaking in disbelief. This was all wrong. He wasn't due until next week. She was wearing a faded walking dress two years old. Her bonnet--
Forcing air into her lungs, she curtsied, then managed, "My lord. How pleasant to see you again."
"And you." But his tone dismissed her as negligible.
She cringed. How could she meet the love of her life when she looked like a hoyden who'd been dragged through a hedge?
Without another word, he turned back to Richard. "Convey my appreciation to your father. He has my eternal gratitude. I'd no place else to turn."
"It's nothing," said Richard. "Even Mama seems pleased."
"About what?" Emily forgot her embarrassment, touching Jacob's arm so he had to look at her.
"Ask your mother, Tadpole. I'm pressed for time." His use of the despised childhood nickname threatening her with tears. "White's tonight?" he added to Richard.
"Charles will join us for dinner."
Jacob nodded, then left without another word.
"What was that all about?" Only fierce effort kept Emily's voice steady. Her hand burned where she'd touched him.
But Richard was as dismissive as Jacob. "Just a small favor, Em. Mama will explain." He headed for the study, leaving her to climb the stairs to the drawing room alone.
Something was up that neither man wanted to discuss--how often had they hidden secrets in just this way? Their capacity for ignoring questions had long infuriated her. It was one reason Jacob's openness that summer had been so precious. But what could he be hiding now?
Needing time to regain her composure--and not wanting her mother to spot the sheen in her eyes--she passed the drawing room and continued up to her bedroom.
"Stupid girl!" she cursed her reflection as she removed her bonnet. "Scrape the stars out of your eyes."
Footsteps in the hall snapped her mouth shut, but the oaths continued to bounce through her head. Jacob had been less than dazzled to see her.
She wanted to blame her appearance, but he'd seen her looking worse--like the day he'd fished her from the lake after a tree branch cracked, dumping her in. It had been the most frightening experience of her life--yet also exhilarating. He'd dragged her ashore, then held her until the shaking stopped, all the while murmuring soothing nonsense into her ears. His warmth had driven away her chills, replacing them with heat as sparks rampaged along her nerves.
The next afternoon had been that devastating kiss...
Idiot! He could hardly sweep you into his arms in front of an audience.
"True." He couldn't know that she still loved him--one of his charges had been that she was too young to know her mind. With Richard standing in the hall--to say nothing of the servants--he could only treat her as Richard's baby sister. They must talk privately before pledging their love in public. Perhaps his abrupt departure covered his struggle to remain aloof.
A weight lifted from her chest, restoring her excitement. Everything would be all right. She could wait. Hadn't she waited ten years already? Hadn't she expected a week more?
As Huggins pushed open the door, Emily smiled brightly, smoothed her skirts, and headed downstairs.
The drawing room hadn't been refurbished since her grandmother's tenure, but the staff kept the French furnishings impeccably clean. The red silk wallcoverings had long since faded to rose, but they still added warmth to the space. A new Grecian sofa covered the worn spot in the carpet and gave Lady Hughes a place to lie during the day.
"There you are, dear," she said as Emily entered. Her waxen cheeks were nearly transparent, confirming how difficult she'd found their recent journey. On days like this, Emily felt selfish for expecting a Season. Even stretching the two-day journey into four hadn't kept it from draining Lady Hughes's meager store of energy.
"You look tired, Mama," she said, pressing her hand before taking the nearest seat so Lady Hughes needn't raise her voice.
"A little, but I've wonderful news for you. Lord Hawthorne has asked us to take in his ward. It is a marvelous honor, and she will provide company for you."
"Why would she be in town?" asked Emily, frowning. "It would make more sense to send her and her governess to Hawthorne Park."
"Miss Nichols is past needing a governess. She is coming out, just as you are. The earl and Richard can chaperon you together, allowing me to rest. And I'm sure you will enjoy having a friend beside you at balls. I often wished there was someone with whom to share confidences during my own come-out. So many incidents require a stoic response in public when one would so much prefer to laugh."
Emily stared, the words buzzing loudly in her ears. Share her come-out with a stranger? Six postponements, only to be saddled with a green girl? And Jacob's ward to boot. Where the devil had he acquired a ward? Lady Hawthorne had said nothing of it, though they'd last spoken only a week ago.
She wanted to scream.
But it wasn't possible. Her mother would fall into a swoon at the first sign of unpleasantness. Triggering one of her spells would postpone this come-out yet again.
"Who is Miss Nichols?" Emily asked with credible calm.
"His ward," said Lady Hughes crossly. "I told you."
"But who is her family? I know nothing of any Nichols." She knew Jacob's family tree as well as her own. There wasn't a Nichols on it.
"As to that, he didn't say, though he mentioned India."
"Captain Nichols was a close friend of Jacob's father," said Richard, joining them. "His daughter Harriet is now nineteen. Her mother died last autumn, naming Hawthorne as her guardian. There is no other family. She will arrive from Bombay any day now, and he can hardly house her himself."
"True." Such an arrangement was too scandalous to contemplate. But she was reeling. Of all the times she and Jacob had talked, he had never once mentioned his life in India. Even in childhood, when he'd been back only a short time, he'd turned aside any questions. It was as if the first ten years of his life didn't exist.
She didn't recall his actual return, of course--she'd been in the nursery at the time--and though he'd met Richard shortly afterward, they'd not become close until Jacob started school the following year. Only then had he started spending more time at Cherry Hill than at Hawthorne Park. Richard had once remarked that the death of Jacob's parents had cast shadows over the park that Jacob couldn't forget.
Emily understood. She meant to erase those shadows once they were wed. Her success would boost his love even further and--
"This is a wonderful opportunity for all of us," repeated Lady Hughes. "Her housing allowance will let us expand your wardrobe, increasing your chances of drawing attention. Perhaps we can even afford a rout--I know we'd talked of holding one, but I didn't know how we could manage. Everything is so much more dear than I recalled. Your father was complaining only this morning--"
"You needn't fret about our finances," said Richard, patting her hand. "That is not your affair. If you want a rout, we will hold one, but do not schedule anything until you discover how wearying it would be. For now, have you finished the list of friends we must notify of your arrival?"
Emily swallowed a snort. Lady Hughes would never manage a rout, which would keep her in a receiving line for hours. Nor did she know the first thing about expenses, having lost interest in the world twenty years ago after suffering a debilitating miscarriage. Ten years later, she'd turned her last duties over to her only daughter and taken permanently to her sofa, preferring to wallow in her fragility rather than oversee the staff.
Emily suppressed the suspicion that some of her relapses had been exaggerated to keep that daughter home until Richard was of an age to wed, allowing his wife to run the manor.
Richard again patted his mother's hand. "Hawthorne trusts us to take good care of Miss Nichols. She will likely be a trifle rustic, having never moved in the more exalted circles, so we must be ready to smooth her manners. Em and I will take care of that. You need only welcome her."
Emily nodded, but inside she was moaning. How could Jacob do this to her? Not only must she share her Season, but she must teach his ward how to go on in society, then accept the blame if the girl misbehaved.
Yet wasn't this proof of his love and trust? He must know how frail Lady Hughes was. Even a restricted social schedule would exhaust her, so Richard would be Emily's primary escort. If that frailty hadn't postponed her debut, she and Jacob would have long since wed, making Miss Nichols her responsibility. So who better to take charge of the girl?
Housing Miss Nichols at Hughes House would allow him to call often without raising eyebrows and to remain at her side every night.
Satisfied, she poured tea and let her mother chatter while her mind recalled today's glimpse of her beloved. Their collision had stolen her breath.
He had become an imposing man, adding breadth to the height he'd achieved at age twenty. His eyes still burned like sunlit sapphires. His hard body exuded a masculinity that recalled the feel of his lips on hers, his long fingers digging into her skin as he crushed her in his arms. His manhood had pressed against her stomach, igniting sensations that loomed large in many a dream. His tongue--
Heat pooled between her legs. Her fingers itched. The longing was more powerful than ever, though she couldn't explain what she wanted beyond Jacob himself. But the wait was unbearable. Heat made her want to rip off her clothes. She might have run for miles as far as her body was concerned.
To hide the breathing that refused to stay even, she excused herself to change for dinner.
Tomorrow she would attend the Penleigh ball, where Jacob would sweep her into his arms forever...