Lady Desire Godwin’s gentle existence is rudely interrupted when a handsome brigand crosses the parapet of her rooftop garden. She watches, dismayed, as the impudent stranger is carried off to jail.
As the Great Fire rages across London, Jakob Balston uses the confusion to escape. He fully expects that Desire will have already fled town. Only, she is still there, at the mercy of the flames and alone.
Is his intention rescue or abduction as he rows them both to safety upstream? He must surely be after her wealth, because no man could possibly want a woman as scarred as she .
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Stockholm, Sweden, 1653
"What's wrong, Father? Is it bad news?" Jakob asked.
Instead of replying, James Balston continued to stare at the letter in his hand.
Jakob's sense of unease grew stronger. His mother also noticed her husband's unusual reaction to the letter. Margareta lowered her embroidery to her lap and waited for James to speak, a crease of worry between her eyes.
"Andrew is dead," said James. It was a measure of his shock that he spoke in English.
"Förlåt?" Margareta looked at Jakob in confusion. Despite the fact that she and James had been married for eighteen years, she still spoke very little English. "Vad sade han?"
"Andrew är död," Jakob automatically repeated his father's words in Swedish.
"Åh nej!" The colour drained from his mother's face.
The depth of her distress momentarily surprised Jakob. None of them had ever met his cousin Andrew—
Jakob's wits suddenly caught up with him. Now that Andrew was dead, Jakob's father was first in line to an English viscountcy. They would all have to go to England. No wonder his mother was so upset.
"Must we leave at once?" he asked. "No!" Margareta took a deep breath and visibly calmed herself. "We will do as you think best," she said to her husband.
"There's no immediate rush," said James, his tone reassuring. "By all accounts my father is in excellent health. But we must make some preparations. Gustaf!" He raised his voice. "Gustaf! Birgitta, tell your brother I want him!"
Jakob's brother and sister were playing chess at a small table on the other side of the room. Birgitta had lifted her head at the sound of her father's voice, but Gustaf was still absorbed in studying the chess board. Birgitta gave his shoulder a shove.
"Father wants you," she told him, when he looked up in surprise.
"I'm sorry, sir," Gustaf apologised. "I was engrossed in the game."
"I understand," said James, a slight smile briefly lightening his expression, "but now it is time for you to become engrossed in work."
Jakob saw a spark of excitement in his brother's eyes. "Am I to join you and Jakob in the counting house?" Gustaf demanded.
"Yes.'James laid aside the letter and divided a thoughtful look between his two sons. "Your cousin Andrew is dead," he told Gustaf, "which means that one day I will have to return to England and so will Jakob. I had hoped that the two of you would be equal partners in the business you will one day inherit from me here in Sweden. But now circumstances have changed," he paused, pressing his lips together as he considered the implications of those changes.
Jakob listened with interest and some excitement at the prospect of the adventure that lay ahead of them. He knew his mother was dismayed at the idea of living in a strange country, but surely with the comfort of her family around her she would not find it too difficult. Jakob himself was eager to face the challenge. "One day Jakob will inherit the title and estates in England," James continued. "If he is to do his duty by his inheritance, he will have to make his permanent home in England. He will not be able to take an active part in the merchant business I have established here in Sweden."
Disappointment suddenly dampened Jakob's enthusiasm for his new life. He enjoyed working alongside his father, trying to prove he could be just as successful and shrewd a merchant as James. He would be sorry to leave that part of his life behind.
"You will start working with me tomorrow," James said to Gustaf. "We must waste no time in teaching you everything you need to know. As for you, Jakob—" he looked at his older son, a curious mixture of pride and resignation in his eyes '—we will have to make other plans for you. You would have made an excellent merchant—but it seems that is not to be your destiny."
The Strand, Saturday 1 September 1666
Lady Desire Godwin stood in the middle of her rooftop garden, looking around at the results of her afternoon's labour. This small Eden above London was her domain and her sole creation. Servants kept the water cistern filled for her. Soon she would have her porters carry the orange trees down into the stove house to protect them from the first frosts. But she did all the other work in the elevated garden herself.
The early evening air was heavy with the sultry heat of late summer. Desire pulled off her broad-brimmed straw hat and brushed an earth-stained hand across her damp forehead. When she was finally satisfied that her sanctuary was in order, she lifted her gaze to look beyond the parapet.
The sun was setting, painting the western sky in glowing shades of gold and crimson. The earthenware-tiled roofs and church spires of London stretched away towards the east, deceptively peaceful beneath the honeyed evening light.
Desire tried to conjure an image of people hurrying or loitering through the streets and alleyways. She had little experience to draw upon. She had never been part of the jostling crowds. She rarely left the safety of Godwin House. The last time had been five years ago, when she'd watched the King's coronation procession from the window of an upper room on Cheapside.
From the corner of her eye she saw a sparrow swoop down to bathe in a shallow dish of water she provided for the birds. She turned her head to watch it, smiling at the pretty sight. The heady scent of stocks drifted on the warm air. A bee buzzed lazily among the flower heads. The sparrow ducked its head beneath the water, tossing a myriad glistening droplets over its back and half-opened wings.
A scraping sound from the other side of the wall disturbed the tranquillity of her haven. She frowned in puzzlement and took a step towards the unfamiliar noise, startling the sparrow into flight.
A man's head appeared over the top of the parapet. Desire swayed back in shock. An instant later the man's shoulders came into view. Desire stared in disbelief as a stranger vaulted on to her roof, landing neatly on his feet a short distance away from her.
She gazed at the intruder in frank astonishment, her heart thudding with surprise. She was too startled to be frightened—or even to hide her face.
It was years since she'd last met a stranger. And she'd never before laid eyes on a man who looked like this. An angel who had taken mortal form.
His eyes were the infinite blue of a summer sky. His face the most beautiful Desire had ever seen. His features were finely carved, yet full of masculine strength. He wore his blond hair long, according to the fashion of the times. The setting sun gilded his flowing locks, transforming them into a cascade of liquid gold about his shoulders.
He looked just like the archangel Desire had seen once in a stained-glass window. All the colours in the picture had been given heavenly radiance by the sunlight streaming through the glass. This man reminded her of that shining, golden image. He was too perfect to be made of human flesh and blood.
His flesh was smooth and firm, his skin bronzed like Apollo's by the rays of the sinking sun. He possessed the perfection of youth, but it was coupled with the strength and virile power of full maturity.
He wore only a white linen shirt and dark breeches. Beneath the shirt Desire could see the contours of lean, hard muscles. The shirt was open at the neck and the soft fabric revealed the uncompromising breadth of his shoulders. Desire's gaze travelled downwards, taking account of his flat stomach and narrow hips, and the long, powerful length of his legs.
Her eyes returned briefly to his perfect face...
And then she gasped with shock. Finally remembering what she so rarely completely forgot.
The man standing before her was perfect.
But she was not.
Shame and distress thundered through her. She half-raised her hands to cover her face, then turned her back on him instead. Now, belatedly, she trembled with shock at his abrupt intrusion. Confused questions raced through her mind, but she didn't yet trust her voice to challenge his trespass into her private domain.
Jakob was contending with some surprises of his own. He had been told that Lady Desire Godwin lived a reclusive life in her grand mansion on the Strand. He'd assumed her reticence was the result of sensible prudence, since apparently she had neither father or guardian to protect her. He had also been told that Lady Desire was usually to be found in her rooftop garden. He had therefore imagined her reclining gracefully in a shady bower, attired in silks and satin.
Instead he'd surprised a work-dishevelled woman wearing simple, unfashionable garments. Her skirt had obviously been torn and mended several times in the past. To Jakob's pleasure, the soft fabric of her bodice revealed the natural contours of her slim, shapely body. It seemed the lady had chosen not to endure the discomfort of heavy boning while she worked. Jakob admired her good sense, even as he wondered whether she could possibly be the woman he sought.
Her hands were stained with earth. Her face was beaded with perspiration, and there was a streak of dirt across her forehead. He had been told that Lady Desire was thirty years of age, but this woman appeared to be several years younger. Her chestnut hair was pinned haphazardly on top of her head in a style that owed more to convenience than fashion. The low sunlight burnished her errant curls to a rich red. A few tendrils, which had escaped the pins, were darkened with perspiration and stuck to her damp face.
Far more startling than her clothes were the scars on her face. They were blemishes that had no place on a woman so young, shapely and obviously full of healthy energy. The pale scars ridged one cheek, puckering skin that should have been smooth and youthful. The fairness of her other cheek revealed the beauty that should have been her birthright. The comparison between what her appearance could have been, and what it was, was cruel in its simple starkness.
Confusion held Jakob silent for several long seconds. How had she come to be so badly injured? Smallpox scars were not unusual among all sections of the population, but these scars looked more like the wounds a soldier might receive in battle. He felt a surge of pity for her, even as the analytical part of his mind strove to make sense of what he'd discovered. Was this the heiress he sought? Were the scars the reason for her seclusion? Or was this simply a maidservant toiling in the lady's garden?
The lady stared at him in equal confusion, for which he could hardly blame her. But there was an expression of wonder, almost awe, in her warm, velvet brown eyes he didn't understand at all. By rights she should have been haranguing him for his trespass or calling her servants to throw him out.
Instead she gazed at him as if he were a mirage, or some kind of ghostly vision. Jakob wondered briefly if the accident that had marred her body had also robbed her of her wits.
At that very instant, her expression changed. From wonder to horror. A variety of shifting emotions flickered in her eyes. Distress, shame, anger.
Her hands half-lifted towards her face. Then she turned her back on him.
The soldier in him was profoundly shocked that she chose a response which left her so defenceless. The man in him noticed the graceful line of her slim neck, exposed by her upswept hair. The skin of her nape was pale and soft, emphasising her vulnerability. Jakob cursed himself as his body tightened with unexpected desire for hers—even as he felt an equally strong, conflicting compulsion to comfort her.
He kept his hands resolutely by his sides and cleared his mind of everything but the reason he had scaled the wall of Godwin House. He was running out of time. He needed to make sure of the lady's identity. He cleared his throat.
"Do I have the honour of addressing Lady Desire Godwin?" he asked.