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From This Day Forward
by Deborah Cox
ISBN: 0-06-108361-5
Harper Monogram 1995

 

Chapter One

Caroline stood on the pier, watching uneasily as the mail boat rounded a bend in the river and disappeared from view. She dabbed her face with a damp handkerchief and gazed around, unease threatening to become genuine fear at the vast emptiness of the jungle.

At least he could have sent someone to meet me.

The jungle sweltered with tropical heat, even though the sun had begun to set in the western sky. A fragile breeze set the foliage at the tops of the tall trees in motion. She longed to feel its soothing touch, but the air at her level remained unaffected.

Unbuttoning the top few buttons of her bodice, Caroline dabbed at her moist throat, glancing at the dirty white sack the boat's pilot had dropped on the dock. Logically, she knew that if the inhabitants of this isolated, remote wilderness didn't know when to expect the mail boat, they certainly couldn't know when she would arrive. Still, the boat's captain had blown the whistle several times as they'd approached the pier. Surely someone must have heard. How long would she have to wait before someone realized she was here?

A feeling of unreality gripped her. During all the preparations, Brazil had seemed a world away, a vague dream. All she'd been able to think of was escaping the dull emptiness of her life in New Orleans and grasping at what might be her last chance at happiness. Now, as she stood on the very threshold of a new life in a savage wilderness awaiting a man she'd never laid eyes on, her heart grew faint.

Fifteen years in the wild.

What would he be like after being cut off from civilization for so long? As she'd read his letters, she'd formed a mental image of Jason Sinclair as a polished, refined gentleman planter. But her long journey up the Amazon had opened her eyes to the primitive conditions he'd lived under. The towns where they'd stopped along the way could hardly be called towns at all, with the exception of Manaus, which had stood out in this boundless wilderness like a ruby in a pig's ear.

The few homes she'd seen along the way had been raised Indian huts. Most of them barely passed as dwellings. Some didn't even have walls but were just wooden frames with thatched roofs.

And the heat and the insects! She'd thought they were bad in New Orleans, but they were nothing compared to what she'd experienced here. Somewhere between the Rio Negro and the Rio Branco, she'd stopped wearing a corset -- until today. Today she wanted to look her best, but the torturous garment had quickly become soaked with perspiration. The cloying fabric caused her skin to itch miserably.

Movement at the edge of the jungle caught her attention. A figure emerged from the rich verdure, moving toward her with the casual grace and animal strength of a lion. Her mouth went dry and she began to tremble with anticipation and fear. Was this man walking toward her with long, sure strides her husband?

The closer he came, the larger and more commanding he appeared and the smaller and more vulnerable she felt. Tan breeches hugged muscled thighs, disappearing into black knee-high boots. She caught a glimpse of broad, muscled chest as he shrugged into a white shirt and worked at fastening the buttons.

The sultry air vibrated with male power as he drew near. He brought to mind the animals she'd seen at the circus -- restrained for the moment, but always there was the sense of wildness just below the surface.

A lump formed in Caroline's throat. What had she done? This wasn't the Jason Sinclair of her fantasies. In fact, the reality was so at odds with the picture she'd formed in her mind that she almost convinced herself that this man couldn't be Jason Sinclair. But as he stopped before her, she saw the resemblance between Jason and his cousin in the curve of his mouth and the shape of his stubborn chin.

That was the source of her disillusionment. She'd expected him to look like Derek Sinclair. Derek was a tall, handsome man, and Jason Sinclair was certainly that. While Derek possessed a certain refinement and elegance, those traits seemed completely lacking in this man. Where Derek was polished and sophisticated, the man before her was rugged and earthy, not at all the genteel plantation owner she'd hoped for. His clothes were dirty from working in the orchards no doubt. His dark blond hair looked as if it had never known a comb, and his large hands resembled a sharecropper's instead of a gentleman planter's with their callused skin and dirty fingernails.

His gaze met hers briefly, and she caught a glimpse of arresting blue eyes, eyes the color of periwinkle. They captivated her for an instant before he looked past her over her head, searching the dock for something or someone. When he realized the dock was empty, he glared down at her as if she'd suddenly sprouted horns, taking her measure in a callous, almost angry manner.

"Are you Jason Sinclair?" she asked tautly. He was head and shoulders taller than she, and he stood so close she had to tilt her head back severely to look into his eyes. Did he do so intentionally, she couldn't help wondering, and if so, why?

"I am." Suspicion showed plainly on his expressive features as he waited patiently for her to speak again.

His gaze dipped to her unbuttoned bodice, scorching her exposed flesh. A jolt set her heart pounding as hot color flooded her throat and face. She'd been ogled by men before, but his gaze smoldered with such carnal energy that her bones turned to liquid and a quiver of something like fear radiated through her.

She fought the urge to close the gaping neckline, knowing that to do so would only draw more attention.

"I am Caroline Marshall Sinclair," she said, trying to sound casual. Never before had she been so aware of a man as an animal. It was as if she'd stumbled across man in his natural state in the wild. Jason Sinclair exuded a raw maleness that took her breath away and left her drained and flushed.

Taking a step back, she extended her hand, trying with all her will to extinguish the tiny spark of fear that threatened to devour her. She tried desperately to remember why she'd come here, but she could think of nothing beyond the stranger standing before her.

"That's impossible," he said, moving closer, his tall, powerful body dwarfing her.

She withdrew her hand, wiping it on her skirt in a nervous gesture as she fought the urge to back away from the displeasure in his eyes. He acted as if she'd arrived on his doorstep uninvited when he had been the one who had requested a wife.

Anger hardened her resolve, and she glared her contempt up at him. "I'm afraid it's not only possible, it's true. I am Caroline Sinclair."

For a long moment, he said nothing, just stood there studying her so intently she could almost see his mind working furiously behind his eyes, before he spun on his heels and moved away from her, assuming she would follow.

"Come along, Mrs. Sinclair," he said over his shoulder, "I'll show you to the house." He stopped and turned back to her with a smirk. "Unless you'd rather stay here and wait for the next mail boat."

"How long would I have to wait?" she asked under her breath, not entirely in jest. A lump of apprehension clogged her throat, but she managed to swallow it. "Are you always so charming, Mr. Sinclair?"

Jason Sinclair smiled without humor. "If you wanted charm, you should have stayed in New Orleans."

Turning, he started walking away from her once more, but her words halted him. "Wait! What about my bags?"

Jason gazed past her at the pile of trunks and satchels on the wooden dock. "I hope you have something in those trunks more suitable for the jungle than what you have on."

Caroline glanced down at the pale green muslin dress she'd chosen so carefully that morning. It brought out the color of her hazel-green eyes and contrasted perfectly with her dark hair. Besides, it was light and cool and the nicest thing she owned.

"Leave them," he growled. "I'll have a couple of servants bring them up."

Speechless for the first time in her life, Caroline could only stare at his departing back in shock. He was the rudest, most infuriating man she'd ever met. How could she have been fooled so completely? A poetic soul? Hah!

Grasping the handle of her father's black medical bag, Caroline lifted her skirts and hurried after him, afraid he would leave her behind.

The narrow, sharply inclined path wound its way through the jungle. Long, green branches reached out from both sides, their prickly green fronds scratched her hands. She brushed them aside with one hand, ignored the slight pain. With her other hand, she gathered her long skirt. At first she tried to step around the mud holes, but that soon proved to be impossible. Instead, she held her skirt as far out of the muck as possible, but the hem quickly became soaked, the weight draining her strength.

As the house appeared before her, she tilted her head back, running her gaze up the stark white-washed stone wall that rose toward the heavens. Melanie had been right when she'd guessed at its size. It reminded her of a Moorish castle with its pointed arches and interlocking circular plaster work.

Captivated by the huge, sprawling structure, she missed her footing and fell to the ground, catching herself with her hands. Up ahead, Jason Sinclair kept walking, oblivious to her predicament.

"Stop!" she cried. "Wait!"

He turned impatiently, shaking his head in utter exasperation. He started toward her, but Caroline pushed herself up before he could reach her. She'd humiliated herself enough by falling. She wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of pulling her to her feet as if she were a helpless child. Angrily, she brushed her muddy hands on the front of her ruined skirt.

She gazed up to see Jason Sinclair bearing down on her, a long, lethal-looking knife in his hand. A cry of terror rose in her throat as she backed away from the fury in his eyes. Grabbing her skirt, he sliced the bottom ruffle off with two quick swipes of the knife, then sheathed the weapon in his boot before turning and walking away again.

"Fashionable frocks have no place in the jungle," he bit out, turning a few feet ahead and waiting impatiently.

It was a moment before Caroline could gather her shattered wits. Her heart finally calmed to a degree, and she looked down at the damage done to what had once been her best dress. He'd ruined it, and in the process, he'd left her ankles and booted feet exposed.

Embarrassment and fury seethed inside her. Lifting her chin defiantly, she retrieved her father's medical bag and trudged through the mud toward him. Admittedly, the shorter skirt increased her ease of movement tenfold. Still, he had no right to attack her so unexpectedly. The least he could have done was explain his actions. He'd frightened the daylights out of her.

"Why are you in such a hurry?" Her lip quivered with anger and injured pride as she glared up at him.

"This is a coffee plantation, madame," he said impatiently. "I have work to do."

Caroline bristled at his harsh words. He thought of her as a bother, a nuisance that was keeping him from his work. Bitterness clogged her throat. What had she done to offend him? He'd obviously taken an instant dislike to her.

He waited for her to catch up to him, and when she stood before him, she said, her voice trembling slightly, "I'll try not to detain you longer than necessary. How stupid of me not to know how to get to a house I've never seen before."

"I don't like sarcasm in a woman," he informed her before walking away toward the house.

"And I don't like rudeness in a man!" she cried after him, but if he heard her, he didn't respond.

Caroline followed her new husband through an arched entranceway. Ahead was a wide, square courtyard around which the house was built. In the center, a large fountain gurgled, and in each corner, a wrought-iron spiral staircase led up to the vine-draped balcony that completely encircled the courtyard. Jason led her up the left staircase.

Stopping before the first door at the top of the stairs, he pushed it open and stepped across the threshold onto a pale rose-colored stone floor scattered with small rugs of muted pastels. The white-walled room contained a variety of small, inlaid tables, two divans of white silk, and a richly carved brass-bound chest. On one of the tables stood a vase of fresh orchids. Their scent filled the small parlor, and Caroline breathed deeply of the sweet aroma, heartened at the care and attention to detail apparent in every feature of the room.

Jason crossed to the wide, arch-encased windows on the opposite wall and opened the shutters. Brilliant sunlight flooded the room. The interior was as bright as the outdoors, thanks to a gilt-framed mirror that almost completely covered the wall to her right and reflected the light, despite the damage wrought on it by the harsh elements.

Placing the medical bag on the table that held the orchids, Caroline lifted a bloom to her nose, closing her eyes as she savored the aroma. When she looked again, her new husband's impatience showed plainly in his blue eyes. He gazed at the medical bag as if seeing it for the first time.

"It belonged to my father," she said defensively.

He made no reply, just nodded toward a door to her left. "Your bedroom is through that door."

Caroline glanced away quickly, feeling the heat of embarrassment suffuse her face, trying not to think of the intimate nature of their relationship.

"Thank you," she murmured. She was virtually alone here with him. Of course, there was nothing improper about that; he was her husband, after all. But propriety had nothing to do with the elemental fear in her heart.

Wade had courted her for months, always in the watchful presence of her father or in a public place like the park or the theater. She'd had ample time to get to know him before their wedding. Still, the marriage bed had been a shock, even with the medical knowledge she'd acquired beforehand -- the intimacy of it, the invasion of body and soul, the terrible vulnerability. She had never known another man, but then could there be that much difference?

Yes, she thought immediately, yes, there could be a world of difference.

Wade was nothing like this man -- nothing at all. Her first husband had been only a few inches taller than she, always carefully manicured, always fashionably dressed, even when they didn't have money for food. There had been nothing threatening or unsettling about Wade, nothing overwhelming.

Glancing at her new husband surreptitiously, she found him studying her with a frown creasing his brow, whether from impatience or concentration, she couldn't say.

"I trust you will be comfortable here," he said indifferently.

"It's lovely," Caroline managed to reply.

With a nod, Jason Sinclair turned and was gone, leaving a puzzled Caroline to stand in the middle of the room and stare in mute astonishment at the doorway through which he'd disappeared.

She released her breath, unaware until then that she'd been holding it. Closing her eyes, she tried to remember the words of the letters that had prompted her to make this journey. At the moment, nothing came to mind, but as soon as the servants brought her baggage, she would dig them out and read them again for reassurance. Could she really have been so wrong about him? Had she read things into his letters that hadn't been there? Was she so desperate for marriage that she'd given Jason Sinclair attributes he didn't possess?

Where was the gentle dreamer she'd glimpsed in his words? Where was the scholar who ordered crate after crate of hand-picked books?

A light smattering of huge rain drops began to fall quietly beyond the open window. The scent of damp earth and leaves filled the room and stirred her senses. Her house in New Orleans had always made her feel a bit claustrophobic. Cramped and cluttered with her possessions, the small structure, though meticulously clean, had possessed little charm. And it had been too close to the fish market to open the windows throughout most of the year.

At least Brazil had lived up to Jason's description in every way -- beautiful, wild, savage. She would never feel cramped or claustrophobic here.

Moving to the windows that lined the far wall of the small salon, she wondered if she would be able to see the view of the coffee orchards that he'd described so poetically in his letters. At this height, she was eye-level with the distant trees that had spread their canopy of leaves so far overhead on her long journey through the jungle. Between them, the brown river snaked its way through the valley toward the setting sun. She could even see the dock on which she had met her new husband, but no orchards.

No mail boat either, she thought, realizing that she had half expected to see it in the distance, hoping against hope that it would turn around and come back. She was stranded here, alone with the man of her dreams, dreams that were fast turning into nightmares.

Well, she might not have received the welcome she'd expected, but she was here now. And while the marriage contract could be dissolved, she wasn't sure that was what she wanted. First impressions could be misleading. Besides, the mail boat, her only link with the rest of the world, had left her behind. She'd have to make the best of it and try to find something in this dark, brooding ogre of the sensitive, vulnerable man she'd fallen in love with.

She would rest for a few minutes until the men brought her baggage up, and later she would go down and have a civilized meal with her husband. He would learn soon enough that he couldn't treat her so offhandedly.

#

Caroline sat at the huge oak dining room table, the only sound in the room the tapping of her fork against her water glass. She glanced at the empty chair across from her with an angry scowl. Today marked the third morning she had awakened in her new home and the third morning she had eaten breakfast alone. This morning she'd risen early in order to catch her elusive husband, but even that had failed. What time must he get up?

She hadn't seen so much as a shadow of Jason Sinclair since that first day. Just how long did he plan to ignore her? She was beginning to wonder why he'd wanted a wife in the first place. It certainly wasn't for companionship, and if he truly wanted an heir as he'd indicated in his letter, he was going to have to get a lot closer to her than he had so far!

Heat rushed to Caroline's face at her own thoughts, but it was true! He'd specifically asked for a woman of childbearing age, and he'd revealed his desire for a child. Naturally, she'd been relieved that he'd given her time before claiming his marital rights, but she'd hoped to use the time to get to know him, to dig until she found the man who had written those lovely letters.

Oh, the letters, those damned letters! If not for those letters, she wouldn't be here at all.

Caroline had spent much of her time since that first day trying to reconcile the reality of Jason Sinclair with the man who had written those lovely, often poetic letters. She'd re-read them all, every one of them, and their impact was no less powerful now than it had been the first time she'd read them. It just didn't make sense.

The natural rhythm of life here comforts and invigorates me, he'd written. I look out over the orchards full of trees my men and I planted as saplings only a few years ago. Now those same trees are heavy with coffee berries. Watching them grow to maturity and yield fruit year after year gives me a feeling of connectedness with the earth, something I never would have experienced had I not left the city.

"You are not eating, senhora."

Caroline glanced up to see the cook, Ines, standing over her, her hands on her hips, her expression reproving.

"I'm not hungry." Caroline pushed her plate away for emphasis.

"It is not good. You must eat to be strong."

Smiling ironically, Caroline studied the small woman who spoke to her like a mother would a child, despite the fact that she was two years Caroline's junior. Ines had provided Caroline's only human contact since that first day. Their growing friendship had kept her from losing her sanity.

"When did my husband leave the house this morning?" she asked.

"Oh." Ines stopped in the motion of clearing the table to give the matter her undivided attention. "Oh, before daylight."

"Do you know where he might be?"

"Sim, senhora. He will be at the beneficio."

"What is that?"

"Coffee house, where the beans are dried and processed."

Caroline rose. "And how would I get there?"

"Oh, senhora, you cannot go there alone," Ines cried. "The patrao --"

"Then one of the servants will have to escort me." Caroline's unwavering gaze locked with Ines's. She was struck anew by the woman's eyes. They were old eyes, old and hard.

"But the patrao, he will be unpleased for you..."

"I am going, Ines," Caroline said emphatically, coming to her feet.

"Sim, senhora," Ines acquiesced. Her expression clearly conveyed her displeasure and the fact that she believed Jason would be equally unhappy with her actions. "Vincente will take you where you want to go. He will meet you in the courtyard."

"Thank you." Caroline sighed with relief that Ines had given in so easily. She didn't care if Ines disapproved. She didn't care if Jason would be "unpleased." At least displeasure was an emotion. It would be the first she'd seen him express since the surprise he'd evinced on the dock that first day. "I'll be ready in fifteen minutes."

Ten minutes later, Caroline stood on the patio in her brown riding habit, waiting for Vincente. She didn't have to wait long before she was joined by a tall, wiry Portuguese youth who, to her chagrin, spoke very little English.

At least he seemed to know where she wanted to go. They rode slowly along the narrow path that led into the heart of the jungle. Caroline swatted at swarming insects as her horse followed the path with no prodding from her. It had obviously traveled this way frequently.

The sound of voices and rushing water reached her as the beneficio, a low, wide stone building covered by a flat, red-tiled roof, came into view. All around the central structure, workers in straw hats used hoes to spread the golden coffee beans over broad patios that extended in every direction.

The aroma of coffee permeated the thick, sultry air as they approached. Caroline studied the orchards that surrounded the building. Other workers wound their way between the rows of trees, picking the ripe coffee berries and filling baskets slung over their shoulders.

She watched the narrow trail ahead as they turned a corner, and she pulled her mount to an abrupt stop. Her eyes fastened on the man who stood on one of the unused patios.

Jason Sinclair. He was completely naked.

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