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The Hidden Heart
By Candace Camp
Harlequin EnterprisesCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Duke of Cleybourne was going home to die.
He had decided it the night before, as he was standing in his study, gazing up at the portrait of Caroline that Devin had painted for him as a wedding present. Richard had looked at the picture, and at the smaller, less satisfactory one of their daughter, and he had thought about the fact that it was December, and the anniversary of their deaths would be coming up soon.
Their carriage had overturned and skidded over the slick, icy road and grass into the pond, breaking through the skin of ice on top of the water. It had been only a few days before Christmas when it happened.
He could still smell the heavy scent of fir boughs that decorated the house for the holiday. It had hung in his nostrils all through his illness and convalescence, like the cloying odor of death, long after the boughs had been taken down and burned.
It had been four years since it happened. Most people, he knew, thought he should have gotten over the tragedy by now. One mourned for a reasonable period of time, then gathered oneself together and went on. But he had not been able to. Frankly, he had not had the desire to.
He had left his country estate, taking up residence in the ducal town house in London, and he had not returned to Castle Cleybourne in all thattime.
But last night, as he looked at the portrait, he thought of how tired he was of plowing through one day after another, and it had come to him, almost like a golden ray of hope, that he did not have to continue this way. There was no need to walk through the days allotted him until God in his mercy saw fit to take him. The Cleybournes were a longlived group, often lingering until well into their eighties and even nineties. And Richard had little faith in God's mercy.
He did have faith in his own pistols and steady hand. He would be the bringer of his own surcease, and the dark angel of retribution, as well.
So he rang for his butler and told him to pack for the trip. They would be returning to the castle, he said, and felt faintly guilty when the old man beamed at him. The servants, who worried about him, were pleased, thinking he'd thrown off his mantle of sorrow at last, and they packed both cheerfully and quickly.
And it was true, he told himself. He would end his sorrow. In the most fitting way and place: where his wife and child had died, and he had not saved them.
* * *
Lady Leona Vesey was beautiful when she cried. She was doing so now ... copiously. Great tears pooled in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks as she took the gnarled hand of the old man lying in the bed. "Oh, Uncle, please don't die," she said in a piteous voice, her lips trembling slightly.
Jessica Maitland, who stood on the other side of General Streathern's bed, next to the General's greatniece Gabriela, regarded Lady Vesey with cool contempt. Her performance, she thought, was worthy of the best who trod the stage. Jessica had to admit that Leona looked lovely when she cried, a talent that Jessica suspected she had spent some years perfecting. Tears, she had heard, worked enormously well with men. Jessica herself hated tears, and when she could not keep them at bay, she gave in to them in the quiet and solitude of her own room.
Of course, Jessica, a supremely fair woman, had to admit that Lady Leona Vesey was beautiful when she was not crying, as well. She had been one of the reigning beauties of London for some years now - though she was considered far too scandalous to be admitted into the best houses - and if she was reaching the last few years of that reign, the golden glow of candlelight in the darkened room hid whatever ravages time and dissipation had worked upon her.
Lady Vesey was all rounded, succulent flesh, soft shoulders and bosom rising from the scooped neckline of her dress, more suitable for evening wear than for visiting the sickroom of an aging relative. Her skin was smooth and honey toned, complementing the gold of the ringlets piled atop her head and the tawny color of her large, rounded eyes. She reminded Jessica of a sleek, pampered cat - although she was apt to change into something more resembling a lioness when she was angered, as yesterday, when Leona had slapped a clumsy maid who had spilled a bit of tea upon Leona's dress.
Jessica had itched to slap Leona herself at that moment, but, being only the governess of the General's ward, she had kept her lips clamped firmly together. Though in normal times Jessica kept the General's household running efficiently, Leona was not only above her in rank but, being the wife of General Streathern's great-nephew, also had a claim of kinship. From the moment she and Lord Vesey had swept into the house, Leona had taken over, treating Jessica as if she were a servant.
"Oh, Uncle," Leona said now, dabbing at her tears with a lacy handkerchief. "Please speak to me. It lays me low to see you this way."
Jessica felt Gabriela stiffen beside her, and she knew what the girl was thinking - that the General was no real relation to Lady Vesey, being the greatuncle of her husband, and that Lady Vesey's spirits were anything but lowered at seeing the General lying in his bed at death's door.
In the six years that Jessica had been at the General's house, the Veseys had visited but rarely, and usually those visits had been accompanied by a request for money. She had little doubt that it was money that had brought them flying to the old man's bedside now. Less than a week earlier, General Streathern had received a letter telling him of the death of an old and dear friend. He had jumped to his feet with a loud cry. Then his hand had flown to his head, and he had crumpled onto the carpet. Servants had carried him to his bed, where he had lain ever since, inert and seemingly insensible to everything and everyone around him. Apoplexy, the doctor had termed it, with a sad shake of his head, and held out little hope of recovery, given the General's advanced years. The Veseys, Jessica was sure, had dashed to his bedside because they hoped to be named in the General's will.
Jessica had tried her best to put aside her antipathy to Lord and Lady Vesey. They were, after all, Gabriela's only living relatives besides the General, and, as such, she knew with a cold queasiness, in all likelihood Lord Vesey would become Gabriela's guardian if the General did indeed die, which seemed more likely with each passing day.
Excerpted from The Hidden Heart by Candace Camp Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.