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Spanish moss hung from the towering trees, draping branches, shadowing the drive in coolness. It should have looked gloomy, but didn’t, somehow. Sunlight filtered through the leaves and moss to create a mosaic on the hard-packed ground.
Rory stood leaning against the opened car door, gazing around and noting that Nature had been allowed to encroach on what had once, probably, been stunningly beautiful land. The woods were now thickly grown with brambles and nearly impassable; the distant pasture, although obviously still cultivated for hay, was surrounded by a once-white three-rail fence that looked more imagined than real; a gazebo nearly invisible beneath years of ivy strove valiantly to remain standing; and the driveway was packed dirt with not a trace of gravel or pavement, but many a deep rut.
His cool gray eyes measuring, Rory calculated what it would take to restore the land. A riding path through the woods, he mused, and a footpath and benches for guests in need of shaded solitude. The old gazebo torn down and another constructed. The stables weren’t visible, but probably they, too, would need a major overhaul.
He thought of the other plantations he’d purchased and converted into resort-type hotels, then looked steadily up the tree-lined drive to the house. Outwardly, it was in better shape than most of the few remaining privately owned plantations. It possessed wide, shallow steps, a veranda extending along two sides, solid white Doric columns, and the landscaping near the building had been kept up. Red brick mellowed by time was decorated here and there by climbing ivy. The shutters appeared to be in good repair and there were no broken windows in sight. Although heaven only knew what rotten floor-boards and moldy draperies awaited him inside inside . . . Jasmine Hall’s noble owner had never allowed cameras inside the place, so Rory hadn’t the faintest idea what he’d find.
Sighing, he got back into the car and continued up the drive. He’d stay two weeks, as invited, he decided, to look the place over and find out if old Jake Clairmont was really serious this time about selling Jasmine Hall.
Twice before, the crusty old man had spread the word, only to back out gleefully when Rory and others had expressed interest in buying. The second time had been in Charleston, nearly a year before. The third time, six weeks ago, no one but Rory had taken the bait. And he was still vaguely surprised and slightly suspicious that he had been promptly invited out to visit the estate. He frowned as he parked the car in the graveled area near the house and got out, wondering if Clairmont had been foxy enough to have weeded out less interested parties by offering to sell the first two times and then retracting his offer.
It put Rory on guard, his keen business sense wary of an attempt to drive up the price. Although, of course, the place was priceless. Pushing the thought aside, he went up the broad, shallow steps and made use of the shining brass knocker. He had to use it three times, the third time with considerable force, before the heavy solid-oak door finally swung open. And in that moment Rory experienced the somewhat bewildering shock of a man whose entire attention was quite forcibly ripped from all thoughts of business.
She was an antebellum Southern belle, complete from the raven hair dressed in ringlets to the silk slippers peeping from the hem of her hoop skirt. The gown was emerald silk, off the shoulders and breathtakingly low-cut, and the faint rustle of each movement announced the presence of at least a dozen petticoats. Her face was heartshaped and delicate, each feature finely drawn by an appreciative artist. She seemed young, perhaps in her early twenties, although the costume might have been deceptive.
And Rory thought dizzily that Scarlett O’Hara had a rival here in green eyes and an impossibly tiny waist.
“Whatever you’re selling, we don’t want any.”
If her voice was soft and drawling, her tone at least was thoroughly modern and more than a little impatient. And there was faint surprise in her eyes as she stared up at him, a tiny frown of puzzlement on her forehead.
Rory pulled himself together with determination, leaving his questions for later. “My name’s Stewart–Rory Stewart. Mr. Clairmont is expecting me.”
“Oh.” Sea-green eyes looked him up and down thoughtfully–and with faint hostility?– before focusing on his face. “You’re early; we weren’t expecting you until tomorrow,” she said abruptly. Rory ignored the rudeness. “I finished my business in Charleston this morning and decided to get an early start. Unless that’s inconvenient, Miss–?”
“Clairmont. Banner Clairmont. Jake’s my grandfather.”
Uncomfortably aware of the measuring green eyes holding that slight animosity, Rory reminded himself sternly that Scarlett O’Hara had been a lady only skin deep . . . and sometimes not even that. “If it’s inconvenient–?” he repeated steadily.
“No. No, I suppose not.” She stepped back, gown rustling, and allowed him into the foyer. “Come in.”
Rory’s second shock came upon entering the house. He was experienced in detecting attempts to camouflage decaying old mansions with paint and paper in order to have them fetch a higher price, and knew full well that most southern families never sold out until they simply could not afford the upkeep of their mansions. He had assumed Jake Clairmont to be in that majority, after seeing the condition of the property surrounding the house.
But Jasmine Hall was fully restored and absolutely beautiful.
He stood in silence, staring about him, his innate love of these historic old homes nearly overpowering him as he saw the foyer as it was meant to be and probably had been a century before.
The wide twin staircases flanking either side of the vast foyer, polished wood gleaming and thick carpet deeply red and spotless. The sparkling chandelier. The antique tables holding priceless vases and figurines. The Old Masters hanging on the walls. The marble floor dotted here and there with intricately woven rugs.
A myriad of thoughts crowded Rory’s mind. The old man was toying with him; he couldn’t mean to sell this treasure. If he could afford to maintain it in this prime condition . . . It would cost the earth if Clairmont were serious. But . . . dear Lord, wouldn’t he love to own this! He’d mortgage practically everything he possessed to have this house. And no resort hotel here. No, this was a home meant to hold a family. But there was no way he possibly could justify the expense; it was impractical and impossible and . . . and damn Clairmont for the tormenting old devil he was!
Only then did Rory snap out of his trance and realize that the “old devil’s” granddaughter had been watching him steadily. He fought to hide what must have been hunger in his eyes, turning to her and waiting politely for her to lead the way. He was faintly surprised to observe that her animosity had vanished, to be replaced by a speculative curiosity, but she gave him no opportunity to probe it.
“This way,” she said, gesturing for him to follow as she headed across the foyer to a set of huge, beautifully carved double doors. She flung one of them open, rustling into a room revealed to be a library as beautifully restored as the foyer and announcing with a hint of mockery in her soft voice. “You have a visitor, Jake.”
Rising from a leather wing chair by the fireplace, Jake Clairmont set aside the book he’d apparently been reading and immediately came forward with hand outstretched to greet Rory. He was a benign old man in appearance, tall and slender, with a full head of silver hair and the slightly leathery skin of a man who’d spent most of his life outdoors. His lean body was hard and still powerful though he was in his sixties, and he moved with certainty and grace. The mild serenity of his expression was belied by the acuteness of his vivid green eyes.
Quite suddenly, Rory remembered overhearing from the lips of one of Clairmont’s closest friends that Jake was half hawk and half shark, and that the only living soul capable of making him bow to another’s wishes was the granddaughter he adored.
“Rory! Glad you could make it, my boy. Welcome!”
The “my boy,” Rory reflected musingly, would have been patronizing from anyone else’s lips; from Clairmont it sounded entirely natural and amiable. Suspicious, Rory wondered what the old shark was up to. “Thank you, Jake,” he responded mildly. “It’s good to see you again.” “You’ve met Banner, I see.” Half statement, half question.
Glancing toward the fireplace, where Banner stood with a disquieting look of amusement on her lovely face, Rory nodded. “I’ve had that pleasure,” he confirmed, and wondered ruefully why he always felt somewhat like a Regency gent whenever he was around Jake; they had met several times in Charleston, and on each occasion he’d felt an alarming attack of careful manners sweeping over him. Perhaps it was the Old World quality in Jake’s own behavior.
The damned old rogue could rob you blind and leave you with a smile, he thought with an inner laugh.
“Good, good.” Jake seemed inordinately pleased. “She can give you a quick tour of the house while I have someone bring in your bags. I’m sure you’ll want to wander around by yourself tomorrow, but Banner can tell you quite a bit about our history.”
Before Rory could respond, Banner did.
“Jake, have you forgotten the party? I do have a few things to take care of before our guests arrive.”
Her grandfather waved the remark away.
“Plenty of time for that. Besides, you look so beautiful nobody’s going to notice anything else.”
While Rory watched in silence, two pairs of green eyes locked in a silent struggle that was almost palpable. Both combatants smiled easily and gazed steadily, and Rory didn’t dare wager to himself who would win. He just waited. Finally, Banner sighed and turned away to head for the door. “This way, Mr. Stewart,” she said wryly.
Rory only just stopped himself from bowing to the smiling Jake before following the girl from the room.
Once out in the foyer, she began speaking in a cool, faintly insolent tone that grated and was, Rory thought, quite deliberate. And she sounded for all the world like a bored tour guide.
“The main house was restored ten years ago; until that time it had been kept up structurally but the interior had been neglected. Now, each room has been painstakingly restored; all furnishings are period pieces and all materials authentic. There are thirty rooms, including library, study, a formal dining room, ballroom, several sitting rooms and dens, and bedrooms. Only the bathrooms are not authentic, and those have been designed to blend in as much as possible. Where d’you want to start, Mr. Stewart?”
He gazed down at her bland, inquiring face, and said pleasantly, “If you’ll just direct me to my room, I’ll leave you to get ready for your party. We can skip the tour for now.”
“My grandfather requested it,” she reminded him coolly.
“Sounded more like an order to me.”
She shrugged slightly, whether in agreement or disagreement or mere acknowledgment of his comment he couldn’t tell.
Ignoring his suggestion that the tour could wait, Banner said briskly, “We’ll start with the ballroom.” And she led the way.
For the first time in his memory, Rory paid scant attention to the tour and quite a bit to the guide. She seemed intent on alienating him– or at the very least angering him. Every word seemed calculated in tone to rouse defensiveness and aggression. She was cold, rude, patronizing, and impatient.
Rory was not a man to stand for that kind of thing, but he stood it from Banner Clairmont. He met coldness with amiability, rudeness with impeccable manners, condescension with blandness. He ignored her impatience, asked few questions, and came to the conclusion that his first impression had been the correct one.
Banner was not innately rude, cold, patronizing, or even unfriendly. She was deliberately trying to provoke him. He hadn’t a shadow of an idea why she wanted to, unless it was because he was interested in buying Jasmine Hall and she didn’t want it sold. He let that thought rest in the back of his mind for later study, while the tour continued.
There was quite a bit of activity throughout the house in preparation for the party. Servants in antebellum dress scurried about carrying flowers and linens and food, getting in one another’s way and being stridently polite about it. And Rory was more than a little curious. “Jake didn’t mention a party,” he said carefully as Banner was conducting him through the bedroom wing of the huge house. “I would certainly have waited until tomorrow to come if I’d known.”
Banner sent him an inscrutable look. “You’ll find a costume on your bed,” she said calmly.
“Jake’s always prepared,” she added cryptically.
“I don’t want to intrude,” Rory ventured.
She ignored that. “There’ll be a couple of hundred guests at the party,” she said, “and about fifty staying the night. Tomorrow morning we’ll have a hunt; you’ll find a riding costume in your closet. You do ride?” she added on a questioning note.
“As it happens, I do,” he said, stung for the first time.
She smiled an odd little smile. “I’ll be sure to pick out a good hunter for you.”
Rory looked at her suspiciously.
Halting before an open door, Banner gestured inside. “This is your room. Your bags have been unpacked. If you need anything, just pull the bell rope. The party is scheduled to start in two hours; we’re serving a light supper downstairs in the little dining room in thirty minutes. If you decide to skip that, there’ll be food served during the party.”
Half- expecting her to add, “Any questions?” Rory took a deep breath and struggled to hang on to his manners. And lost. “You don’t like me very much, do you?” he said abruptly.
“I just met you,” she answered coolly.
“If you treat everyone this way on first meeting them,” he noted almost savagely, “you must make a lot of enemies.”
“Only my share,” she said sweetly.
Rory strove with himself. “I don’t enjoy being treated like a pariah, Miss Clairmont,” he said in the most even tone he could manage.
Her smile was limpid. “Why, Mr. Stewart– we never invite pariahs to our parties.”
“I wasn’t invited,” he snapped.
“Do tell.” She was still smiling.
Rory glanced around, wondering with that unfamiliar savagery if there would be witnesses to imminent homicide. He restrained his impulses when he saw several couples at the end of the hallway descending the stairs from the third floor and apparently on their way to the ballroom. He noted absently that the men seemed to be wearing Civil War uniforms–Rebel Gray, of course.
“There go some of your guests down the stairs. You’d better see to them,” he muttered. “They seem to be early.”
Banner followed his gaze, and Rory felt more than saw her start slightly, as if in surprise. When she looked back up at him, there was an arrested, almost panicky expression in her green eyes. “Yes,” she said softly. “Yes, I’d better do that.”
That look in her eyes bothered him. “Banner–” he began, hardly aware of using her first name.
She interrupted him, her voice still soft. “If you have any trouble with your costume, Jake’s valet will help you. Just pull the bell rope. I’ll see you downstairs.” She hurried down the hall, silk gown rustling quietly.
Rory gazed after her for a long moment, then shrugged almost irritably and went into his bedroom, wondering vaguely why the very masculine bedroom smelled of jasmine.