My injuries were extensive -- so much so that I will not list them all here. Safe to say, I had received fractures to a number of bones from leg to skull, lost copious amounts of blood, and was, in the words of my physician, extremely fortunate to survive such trauma.
The first person I saw on returning to consciousness was, of course, Jana. She appeared above me, her limpid eyes glowing with angelic light, as my eyelids fluttered open, and at first I thought she was an angel and that I had awakened to a life beyond the mortal coil. Such beauty threatened the stability of my senses, and yet a felt nothing but euphoria at this vision. I should perhaps remark that I was sedated rather heavily and that morphine was being administered to me at frequent intervals.
It was some days before I was sufficiently compos mentis to be able to appreciate the extent of my injuries, during which time I fluttered between consciousness and a drug-hazed awareness of faces and voices. Foremost amongst them was Jana, but I recall Thomas peering anxiously at me one evening, and others from the agency. Time had no meaning, and indeed, there was nothing on my mind except pain and confusion.
When I finally awoke one morning with a head that was both relatively clear and aware, Jana was once more there to greet me. She told me of the accident and of my parlous health, and reassured me that I would make a full recovery -- but only if I rested both my mind and body. She spoke to me at length about the state of the business, understanding that I would not relax until I was sure that matters were under control, and even in my sorry state, I welcomed the sound of every word she uttered in and of itself.
In the days that followed she returned to my bedside with metronomic regularity, providing me with the latest news from the office, and a balm in her voice that was as efficacious as any of the medicaments that I was taking.
Those long days and weeks gave me plenty of time for thought -- more than enough, in fact -- and I finally realised sometime around the beginning of February that Jana's attitude to me had changed. There was nothing overt, but rather, she appeared a little more relaxed when she spoke to me, a little less guarded.
The evening following this realisation, I steered our conversation away from talk of the agencies ever-burgeoning client list and spoke of my hopes for the future. I told her, quite honestly, that I was grateful beyond words for her wonderfully efficient handling of the business in my absence, and that I intended to reward her diligence with a partnership. For once, I could see the surprise in her face, and more delightfully yet, I could see joy.
Oh reader! I chastise myself now more than you could imagine -- for I am quite simply incapable of describing to you how that joyous look transformed Jana's already beautiful face. It was as if a heavenly fire lit her up from inside! It transcended her form and I swear on all that I hold sacred and precious that there appeared a distinct aura around her head.
She thanked me profusely and even went as far as to lay a hand on my arm -- a gesture of more intimacy than she had ever shown before -- and her touch thrilled my very essence.
I had wondered, or more accurately hoped, that this would bridge the gap between us -- not that this had any bearing on my decision to promote Jana thus -- but within minutes her calm reserve was once more back in place, and I sighed inwardly, disappointed at one level, but more than happy at another.
Easter came and went before I was finally allowed out of the hospital, and even then I was consigned to a wheelchair and under strict instructions to rest up at my house in Bloomsbury for a minimum of two more months.
Although I had been freed from the plaster casts that had adorned much of my body, movement of any sort was incredibly painful, and a nurse was assigned to take care of my needs around the house. Despite this, it was Jana who took the greatest care of me over those first few weeks. She would arrive each morning at eight o'clock, prepare my breakfast and then feed it to me while she spoke of the affairs of the day ahead. She left me afterwards to the ministrations of my nurse, returning at the end of each day with more news from the agency, and with an understanding that her company was as important to me as any business reports.
It was that understanding of my need for simple human companionship that I believe started to thaw the ice in Jana's veins. I pressed her gently one evening to tell me a little about her childhood, and to my surprise she relented, describing a quite idyllic family life in Moscow before the revolution. Over the next few days we exchanged snippets of personal information -- although the exchange rate was, from my perspective, staggeringly high, but entirely worth the price -- and by the end of June I finally had a clearer picture of Jana's life.
It seemed that 'Lady Jane' was a rather fitting epithet since she had been born of Russian nobles and enjoyed the attentions of the Imperial Court as a child. Her early life had been understandably joyful and the memories of it brought a sad but genuine smile to her features. The revolution had changed all of that and she had fled with her parents to exile - first in Prussia and then on to France when the tide of the Great War turned in favour of the Allies. Tragedy struck in the last months of the War when the farmhouse they were staying at was hit by a stray shell, eradicating both the structure and the lives of her parents.
Just fifteen years old, Jana was taken by locals to Paris where her innate intelligence saw her accepted at the Sorbonne. A gifted student, she was schooled in all manner of subjects and excelled at English, a skill which led her upon graduation to seek employment in London where at least there still stood a Royal family. From Miss Fotheringale's academy, Jana had joined my own agency and was now a partner.
The story was complete but for a couple of incidents -- clearly important to judge by Jana's careful skirting of these topics -- which I gave up pursuing when it became clear that these were labelled 'private' and not for my consumption.
With the picture of her life complete and my own recovery nearing the same state, I gently guided the conversations to the immediate future. I spoke of my plans for the agency once I was back in the saddle, and of my desires for other ventures. By the tiniest increments, I guided these discussions on to my private life until, on evening in July, I deemed that the time was right.
"Jana? May I ask you something?" I began, having waited until I was sure that she was as relaxed as ever she got in my presence.
"Of course, James."
"Do you recall my somewhat clumsy effort last summer when I asked you to consent to become my betrothed?"
Jana sighed, and for second I saw he protective mask slip into place. She uttered a gentle snort and her face cleared, "Of course I do, James. It was a moment that I treasure, and honour."
"Then would you... would you reconsider?"
It was as if a switch had been thrown somewhere inside Jana's head. Her eyes, I swear, dimmed and she looked down at her hands, "James, I cannot. In that regard nothing has changed."
I was crestfallen and not a little frustrated, "Jana, I beg of you, if your answer must remain in the negative, then would you at least tell me why? Tell me what is so wrong with me that you cannot face the thought of a future together?"
"Oh James, it is nothing to do with you!" Unaccustomed animation took over her features for a while, "I... I cannot tell you precisely why but you must believe me when I say that this is something that goes beyond you, or even me for that matter. James, I can see that there is love in your eyes when you look at me, and I know that you are a decent, honest man -- a good man. If things were not the way they are..." Jana paused, took a deep breath as if to control herself and then went on, "If things were not as they are then I would accept your offer in an instant, but you do not understand the commitment you would need to make to me. No man would, and I could never ask that of anyone -- least of all someone as decent as you, James."
"I don't understand..."
"I know you don't. Sometimes I'm not sure that I fully understand this thing myself, but my refusal, James, is a kindness, whatever you would believe. I cannot ask that of you."
"I will do anything, I swear-"
"James, please don't!"
Jana stood suddenly, and in the instant before she spun away from me I saw tears forming in those beautiful eyes. This display of emotion was enough to still my tongue, to stop my protests no matter how genuine they were. Instead I took a deep breath and said softly, "I am sorry, Jana, I didn't mean to upset you."
I could hear her swallow before she answered, "I know that, James, and believe me I am sorry that I must refuse you." Her voice become as quiet as the grave, "I am more sorry than you could ever know." Without so much as a backward glance, she retrieved her coat and headed out into the night.
In the days that followed Jana's second refusal, the atmosphere between us gradually warmed once more, although the uncomfortable presence of the proposal lurked in the shadows like an unwanted ghost. Despite everything Jana's presence made my heart swell with joy, and engendered an altogether different form of engorgement elsewhere upon my anatomy. By the time my convalescence neared its end, I was having to take preventative measures before Jana arrived at the house so that I could at least give a passing resemblance of attention to the matters of which we spoke.
My physician recommended that I take a few weeks holiday before returning to full-time duties at the agency and I readily agreed -- such was my discomfiture in Jana's presence at that time. The first week of September saw me arrive in Nice where I spent my days walking to build muscle and my evenings eating and drinking to build a wall of resistance between my heart and my true love.
In the first few days I missed Jana so very much that it was like having a limb torn from me. My thoughts were with her every waking second and my dreams were a collage of images and sensations that I could only... well, dream about. But as my fitness returned with agonising slowness, so I began to build that emotional wall.
By the end of the third week I was confident that I could return to London afresh, and that Jana's presence would engender no more than a sensation of innocent delight -- a feeling that stayed with me until the eve of my return.
That night I dreamt once more of Lady Jane. In that dream I was looking into her eyes from no more than a couple of inches and as a sensation of intense heat overtook my heart and my loins, so I descended into the soul of my beloved. There I was enveloped by a soft blanket that moulded itself to every contour of my body, comforting me with its warmth. Gradually the heat inside me rose and as Jana's eyes floated before me I realised that I stood on the edge of a precipice. I had a choice to make -- to walk away to safety in my new shroud, or to step forward into love and death. The heat burned higher and I searched those eyes for some clue, but the more I searched, the less I knew of my dilemma and the more insistent the heat became.
Jana spoke to me then, her voice as clear in the dream as if she were standing right there in front of me. "James, I want you but I cannot pay that price."
The dream me laughed, relieved at last. "Jana, I will pay with everything I have, and gladly so." I stepped forward and her arms held me up, a million miles from the ground, a million miles from the life I had known.
"James, you are a fool," Jana told me, "But I love you."
Our bodies melded into one, our hearts and minds following. Heat sought out heat and as they combined my heart soared, my pulse raced, and from deep within me came an outpouring of pure love.
I awoke, sweating and fevered, my heart racing and my mind filled with echoes of the heat and climax that I had felt so deeply in the dream. Even through the shock of awakening so abruptly, and the disorientation that threatened to overwhelm me, I knew now that back home in London Jana waited for me. I knew that, despite her words, she yearned for me and that, yes, she loved me.
During the long journey home I cast my mind around for the reason for Jana's earlier refusals and finally came up with the answer. It was clear to me now that she had declined by offers because she knew that she couldn't bear me children. Or that she carried, like the good Queen Victoria, the haemophilia curse. Or that some other hereditary disease would be likely to strike her down before her time. Or a dozen other plain and obvious reasons.
It mattered not which one was true, merely that I now knew that it was something very simple, and that it was a price that I would happily pay a thousand times over for a future, however long or short, with Jana Safina. And I knew that this was what she really wanted beneath her façade of resistance.
It was after midnight when I finally arrived at Bloomsbury and despite the excitement that I felt at the prospect of seeing Jana the following day, I took myself off to my bed and slept deeply and easily.
I awoke refreshed, excited and determined. By the time the clocks were striking the eighth hour of this momentous day I had bathed, showered, dressed and broken fast. As prepared as I was for what was to follow, my heart still lurched when I heard the front door open and Jana's beautiful voice calling my name.
As she entered the parlour, her face broke into a smile that would have dazzled a blind man. "James! You look so wonderfully fit and well! And it's lovely to know that you are back safe and sound."
"And you, my dear Jana, are a sight for sore eyes. It is truly marvellous to come home toy you."
Jana slipped out of her coat and turned to face me, her eyes roaming over me, "You look so very fit, James. It is such a relief after those long months of sickness."
I laughed, "It is, isn't it? I feel fitter in body than I have in many a year, and fitter in mind as well. And may I say, you look even more radiant than I remembered."
"Oh, James, enough of your nonsense. Now, would you like me to start with news of the latest bookings, or of the new clients?"
"Neither," I said, confident and assured, "I want you to sit down while I tell you some things."
Jana shrugged and settled onto the end of the sofa.
"Jana, my time away has been far from wasted, and it has done more than help my body recuperate. It has given me time to think, and I imagine that the distance has allowed me to finally make out the woods from the trees, so to speak. Jana," I paused and smiled, "I know what you really think about me now."
"Let me finish, Jana. You see, I understand now why it is that you have refused my offers of marriage and I have come back determined to set things to their rightful course. Jana, my dear, it matters not one jot or iota to me that you may not be able to bear me children or that you are in some way unwell-"
"No! James you are wrong!"
"Please, Jana, no more nonsense. I know -- I absolutely know -- that you care for me and that if things were perfect for you, then you would accept my proposal at the drop of the proverbial hat. Tell me that is so."
"Jana, is that so?"
She sighed, "Yes, but-"
"Then there are no buts. You love me do you not?"
"Do you love me, Jana?"
"This is wrong, James-"
"I will ask all morning if I have to. Jana, do you love me?"
Lady Jane was almost writhing in her seat but now she sat forward and held me with her gaze, "James, it does not matter whether I do or not, I still will never be able to ask for the sort of commitment from you that is required. You really do not understand-"
"I understand everything! Now, one last time, Jana -- do you love me?"
"James-" Jana's resistance broke in the face of my determination, "Very well, yes! James, yes, I love you. And that is all the more reason-"
My cry was exultant, "I knew it!"
"But me no buts. There is nothing that cannot be achieved with love!" I was evangelical and not a little mad with delight, "It is all we need, Jana."
Tears welled in her eyes and she stood abruptly, "James, I'm sorry. Truly. But this cannot happen, I won't allow it."
"You have no choice, Jana. It is destined!"
"I'm going, James, and I cannot return."
Jana spun on her heel and took a step towards the door. But I was fit again, and I now had certainty as my guide. No matter what her objections, I was not going to let this opportunity pass for there was too much at stake. Now that she had admitted her love for me I was all-powerful and in complete control. I snaked out a hand and snared the shoulder of her blouse, "You cannot leave!"
Jana twisted in my grip, "I must!"
I pulled hard and heard buttons popping as I threw her back towards the sofa where she stumbled onto hands and knees. That simple sound, cotton snapping under stress, travelled straight from my ears to the very centre of me. My body responded, the erection pushing painfully against my trousers as the blood coursed through my veins. All I could think was that Jana was now mine, bound to me by declaration of love, and I had to prevent her leaving at any cost.
As she began to protest once more I crossed to her slumped form and yanked her onto her back, pushing her into the cushions of the sofa. My hands dropped to the front of her starched blouse, gripped, and then pulled apart with desperate ferocity. The material tore as if it were tissue paper to reveal a plain cotton vest beneath. Blinded by love and by lust, I pulled her protesting form up into a sitting position and with a guttural roar rent her undergarment, pulling the ragged halves outwards and down, baring the pale flesh beneath.
Such was the blindness that I scarce registered the mark at first, captivated and astonished be the perfection of Jana's naked breasts, their firm smoothness, her nipples dark and erect, the perfection of their shape and form.
As the tattered clothing feel from her shoulders Jana had let out a wail and now she thrust her shoulders back, inviting my gaze, and her voice quivered with something that could have been rage but I soon learned to be anguish, "There! There is the reason! There is the mark of evil!"
Her words registered somewhere deep in my subconscious and my eyes focussed on the whole of her form. As they took in the detail, it was hard to believe that I had dismissed this 'mark', From a point somewhere behind her right shoulder, a line of scar tissue some half an inch wide and unnaturally pink ran down across her chest, between her breasts, and down to her left hip where it disappeared beneath the waistband of her skirts. Along its length, the skin was gently puckered, gleaming in the morning sun against the alabaster paleness of the surrounding flesh.
I could have reacted in many ways, I suppose, but even to me in the midst of my frenzy, my reaction was a shock. I looked upon that damage and I found it beautiful. It was part of Jana, as essentially hers as her face and breasts and arms, and I loved her all the more for it. And lusted also.
As she stared defiantly at me, he shoulders quivering with an emotion that I could not discern, I stepped closer and pushed her back against the cushions. Reaching down I hooked my fingers in the waistband of her skirts, clutched at these and the petticoat and bloomers beneath, and pulled hard.
Shock crossed Jana's features before she reached down and tried to stop me, a panicked cry escaping her lips. But I was not to be denied now, and I had her laid bare before me in a few seconds. The second the clothes left her body, Jana went limp, her head turned away as I surveyed her nakedness. The scar meandered from her left hip back inwards towards the very centre of her, disappearing at the point where her inner thigh met her torso. It took my eyes to that soft, sweet cleft and my heart rose into my throat as I truly realised that my love was now open to me.