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PART ONEThe ReturnCHAPTER ONEASHBURNHAM, WEST SUSSEX, 1760
She stood outside in the shadows cast by the moonembraced clouds, reluctant to go into the house. It was a pleasantly cool June night. A whisper-soft breeze caressed her bare arms and caused tendrils of silvery blond hair to escape the many braids coiled around her head and tickle her neck and cheeks. The gentle sounds of a harpsichord drifted outside from the terrace doors, left ajar, so that guests could wander the sweeping lawns with its rioting gardens. The house itself had been built just ten years ago by the current earl and was a solid stone structure with imposing Ionic columns, numerous balconies, and temple pediments front and back. Stone stairs led from the terrace where she stood to the unfashionably abundant gardens and the deer park. The melodious strains of the harpsichord suddenly, abruptly, shifted as the musician made a jarring error, and there was a moment of absolute silence.In that moment, Olivia felt so much. Sensations she did not wish to feel. Fear, anguish, and desperation.She closed her eyes as the musician played again, perfectly now, but without the flamboyance of one truly born to perform. All that day, awaiting the arrival of their guests, she had felt dread. As if, with the arrival of her husband and guests, some terrible event would come. Now her temples throbbed. Thus far, nothing had gone awry; there had been no disaster. Surely this time she was wrong, and her dread had been the result of her husband’s return, nothing more.How Olivia hated her cursed gift.How she wished she had been born normal, like everyone else.She knew she had to rejoin Arlen’s guests. Her pulse pounding, she debated several excuses that would allow her to go upstairs, and not merely to retire. Were the candles still burning in Hannah’s room? Just the day before yesterday, that foolish Irish maid had let them burn out and then had tried to argue with Olivia about the merits of leaving the child’s room lit at night. Had Hannah’s governess, Miss Childs, not been visiting her parents, the fiasco would not have occurred. Surely the candles remained lit tonight. Surely by now Hannah was soundly asleep and dreaming of happy things, like spotted ponies and sugar plums and the puppet show they had attended at the county fair last week.Surely her eight-year-old daughter was not feeling what Olivia was feeling. Would she not have said something? Olivia immediately shut off that thought, pulling herself together, glad Arlen would return to London in a few days, glad that she and her daughter would once more be left to their own devices in the country—with their own secrets still safely held. Clad in a beautiful pastel floral and striped silk dress, her small waist accentuated by the huge bell skirt, one supported by wide panniers, diamonds and pearls glinting from her ears and throat, reluctantly given by her husband years ago, Olivia moved swiftly across the flagstone terrace, past a stone water fountain, and into the paneled-and-gilded salon where her husband’s guests were gathered.The harpsichordist continued to play, her small back to Olivia, her narrow shoulders set rigidly, telling Olivia that she hated playing for the assembly. As Olivia glided into the room, her sister-in-law, renowned as one of England’s great beauties, lifted a slashing black eyebrow at her. Elizabeth’s small, perfect nose was tilted just slightly in the air. Her look was clear. She knew Olivia was not at ease in this company—or any company—and she was filled with disdain.When Elizabeth Wentworth was at Ashburnham, Olivia’s duties as hostess were usurped. Olivia did not care about that, just the manner in which it was done.As Elizabeth’s cool blue eyes locked with Olivia’s pale gray ones, Olivia wondered, as she had repeatedly for the past nine years, what had she done to make Arlen’s sister dislike her so? Olivia had once attempted to be friendly, but now she avoided her like the plague, a task easily enough done, because Elizabeth hated the country as much as Olivia hated town.The harpsichordist, Susan Layton, had finished the song. Olivia sat down next to her husband, taking a small, goldcaned chair. The company broke into a round of applause. Susan faced them, a pale, blond girl of no more than seventeen, a smile pasted on her face. Olivia applauded loudly. “Bravo,” she called, so the shy young lady could hear. Silently she thought, How courageous you are.Susan sent her a grateful glance, rising, giving the company a small curtsy. Her cheeks were red.“Doesn’t she play well?” Sir John Layton, a bejowled man with a huge frame that even his velvet coat could not contain, beamed at his daughter. His powdered wig was askew, his puffy cheeks flushed. He was a brewer, knighted a dozen years ago for some service to the Crown. He had made such a fortune that he could have bought the earldom of Ashburn several times over—or so Arlen had said.Olivia liked him very much, in spite of his antecedents and the fact that his periwig was always slipping. He had quite the proverbial heart of gold. Arlen, she knew, merely pretended to be his friend. She had yet to glean what purpose Layton served the man she had married.“Extremely well,” Elizabeth said smoothly with a look of boredom that belied her words.Susan’s mother, Lady Layton, was a tiny, attractive, birdlike woman, and she smiled her thanks quite nervously—she had yet to say a thing since arriving at the estate. Henry Wentworth, the marquis of Houghton, sat beside her. He was half as tall as Sir John and twice as wide, and was soundly asleep. His stocking-clad ankles were hugely swollen with gout. His feet overwhelmed his buckled shoes. Elizabeth snapped her japanned fan loudly, and the marquis awoke with a start. “Do you not wish to hear me play, my lord?” she said as she stood up.Arlen suddenly gripped Olivia’s wrist. “Where have you been?” he whispered, his dark eyes boring, his face close to hers.He was hurting her, but Olivia did not try to pull her hand away. “I needed air.”He kept his voice low as the company around them continued to discuss Susan Layton’s abilities as a harpsichordist and Elizabeth took her turn, sitting gracefully, and with supreme confidence, in front of the instrument.“You always need air when I am entertaining,” he said, his eyes flashing. “I protest, madam, for I am only in the country two months a year!”Olivia forced herself to smile at her husband. Two months, she supposed silently, was far better than three. “My headaches are far worse than ever, my lord,” she said demurely.The earl of Ashburn eyed her. He was a slender, darkhaired fellow with features as perfect as his sister’s, who had just taken up the current fashion of wearing his own hair, rolled, powdered and tied back, sans peruke. Olivia knew that the ladies in London oohed and aahed over her husband. She also knew that he kept an actress from Vauxhall as his mistress. She had even heard that his mistress was with child. Not that she, Olivia, cared. She wished he would never come to the country. She prayed his mistress would give him a son. She dreamed of being left alone in the country, just her and Hannah and their wonderful staff.Arlen Grey, the earl of Ashburn, stared coldly. “And what dreams do you now have? What delusions? What nightmares?”Olivia swallowed. “None, my lord,” she lied. “That—malady—is past.”He eyed her with utter disgust, and perhaps with real loathing. It had not always been that way. Olivia had been married at the age of sixteen, and looking back upon the memory, one that was not happy, she could hardly believe she had ever been so naive, innocent, or trusting. How quickly all that had changed. And any fond feelings Arlen might have had for her had vanished the moment he had realized just how different she was—before their daughter was born. Now Olivia knew that he knew she’d lied.Finally Arlen adjusted his lace cuffs, which frothed out from under his turquoise coat sleeves. His sapphire signet ring caught the light from the crystal chandeliers overhead. “I ask very little of you, madam,” he said. “See to it that your dreams remain just that.”Olivia nodded, clasping her hands tightly together, wanting to escape upstairs now more than ever, yet knowing she could not. Was Hannah all right? And what would Arlen do if he knew about her current “dream”? For he referred to her oddly accurate intuition and premonitions as dreams. Olivia found herself watching Susan, who spoke quietly with her mother. She was obviously unhappy. Miserably so.The desperation, the fear, was coming from her. Olivia was certain of it. She had been certain of it from the moment they had been introduced earlier that day. How she wished to help her. But what could be so terribly wrong?Susan suddenly looked up at Olivia, as if feeling her eyes upon her. Olivia gave her an encouraging smile. She knew she must befriend the young girl in order to prevent a catastrophe. She did not know how she knew it. But she did. It was always that way. The unwanted knowledge—truths that were never complete.Arlen broke into her thoughts. “Elizabeth is about to play,” he said, and he settled back in his seat. “My sister is one of the finest musicians I know, and her voice is unsurpassable,” he said proudly to everyone present.“Hear, hear,” the marquis agreed. “My wife is, in general, quite unsurpassable.”Elizabeth accepted this praise as her due, not even a spot of pink upon her alabaster cheeks as she gracefully inclined her head.“Yes, we have heard all about Lady Houghton’s talents,” Sir John said expansively. “Please, my lady, do play for us.” His pretty words were spoiled by a sudden belch.Olivia smiled at him.And Elizabeth smiled benignly at the crowd, then began to play. In fact, she was more than adept at the harpsichord. Note after note rippled sweetly across the room. “Ah, yes, lovely,” Sir John said with a sigh. But the way he was regarding Elizabeth, Olivia was quite certain he referred not to the music, but to the musician herself. The marquis, she noted, was drifting off once again.Then Olivia heard it. The child’s scream. She jumped out of her delicate Hepplewhite chair.Elizabeth’s back was to her and she continued to play. But the entire company stared at Olivia as if she had lost her mind. And Olivia realized that she had been the only one to hear Hannah scream—that the scream was only in her mind.She knew that the candles had burned out.Fury—and the need to rush to her daughter—engulfed her.“Is something amiss, Lady Ashburn?” Sir John asked with concern, also rising to his feet.“Nothing is amiss,” Arlen said unpleasantly, standing. He gripped Olivia’s wrist. “Sit down.” His tone was filled with warning.Olivia did not obey. “Arlen. My lord. I must go upstairs.”“I told you to sit down.”Elizabeth stopped playing and turned. “Why, whatever is wrong, sister dear?”“You will sit down,” Arlen said flatly.“The candles are out,” Olivia returned. Then she stiffened, seeing the anger in his eyes—thinking he would strike her—forgetting they were not alone. For Arlen never spoke of his daughter publicly; in fact, few peers even knew of Hannah’s existence.“Is that what this is about?” Elizabeth stepped forward, her lavender skirts rustling. She actually came between them in spite of her wide skirts and laid a graceful hand on Arlen’s arm. “Do you still coddle her?” She spoke only to Olivia, her tone low. “She still insists on sleeping with candles, for goodness’ sake?” She was amused. “You must not allow a child to dictate terms, Olivia dear. How you spoil Hannah.”Arlen gave Elizabeth a warning look. “Continue playing, Elizabeth.”Elizabeth shrugged, but before she could turn, Olivia spoke. She rarely argued with Elizabeth, but this was very different. “And how many children do you have, Elizabeth?” She fought to control her anger.Elizabeth’s eyes widened. Her blue eyes darkened. “Well, when I consider the circumstances of your own child, I should think it is fortunate that I have none.”Olivia understood her meaning exactly and almost clawed the other woman’s face. Hatred, an emotion foreign to her, swept her in a heated rush. “If Hannah is spoiled, it is no less than she deserves,” she said, low and strained.“Is there a child in the house?” Sir John queried. “I’m sorry, I could not help overhearing. A blessed thing, a child is. Good God, is it a secret that you and Lady Ashburn have a child, Arlen?”Arlen looked at Sir John, remaining silent.Olivia wet her lips, knowing that she would be the one to pay for this, when it was not her fault—or was it? “It is hardly a secret,” she finally said uneasily.“The child is a girl, then,” Sir John asked, surprised.“Yes.” Arlen finally spoke.Olivia glanced at her husband and then at Elizabeth, who hid a smile, turning her face away, fluttering her fan. “Our daughter has recently had her eighth birthday,” she said.“Eight years of age!” Sir John was bemused. “I hadn’t a clue. How odd. But then, had you a son, I’m sure we would all have known.” His amiable manner was gone. His pale eyes were speculative. The man had not made a fortune by being an idiot.“It is not a secret, Sir John. But Hannah is hardly an interesting topic for discussion.” Arlen was perspiring and flushed. He faced Olivia. “Go, then.” But his angry eyes told her that this was hardly over—that he would punish her in some form or other in the morning for everything that had thus far transpired that night.Olivia curtsied to the company, distressed. Arlen was ashamed of Hannah, and Olivia had never been able to get over it or to forgive him for it. She caught Elizabeth’s eye. Her sister-in-law seemed pleased.Temples pounding now, Olivia left the salon, rushing up the stairs, tripping in her haste. The nursery was on the third story—and Olivia also slept on that floor when Arlen was not home. She heard Hannah crying, soft little whimpers, as she approached the open doorway. The room was now blazingly alight with candles.The Irish maid sat with the child in the four-poster bed, her freckles standing out on her starkly white skin. She leapt to her feet as Olivia raced inside the child’s room. “Mum, I beg your pardon,” Megan cried.“Mama,” Hannah also cried, simultaneously, her arms outstretched. Her eyes were wide, unseeing, the exact same shade of silvery gray as Olivia’s. For Hannah was blind. She had been blind since birth.Olivia rushed to her daughter, pulling her into her arms, cradling her against her chest. Livid, she faced the young maid, who was now standing nervously by the doorway.“You allowed the candles to burn out,” Olivia cried, thinking, Thank God Miss Childs will be back in another two days.“A blind girl don’t need candles,” the girl began.“Just leave us,” Olivia said, holding her daughter tightly. She would not explain, for it was almost incomprehensible. Hannah was blind, but she was terrified of the dark, insisting upon candles when she slept. “It’s over now, darling.”Hannah held on to her hard, no longer whimpering. “I’m sorry, Mama, I didn’t mean to cause you trouble,” she whispered. “I’m sorry I’m such a coward.”“You are not a coward! You are incredibly brave,” Olivia whispered, aghast, smoothing her daughter’s pitch-black hair. It was tied into a single, waist-length braid. “I know of no other child as brave, my darling.” She squeezed her eyes shut. Tears burned behind her lids. Arlen’s angry eyes filled her mind. She was a peaceful woman, but she almost hated him.“Then why am I so afraid when I go to sleep?” Hannah asked, a plea in her tone.“Many people sleep with a candle lit,” Olivia said gently, thinking, But if you are afraid of the dark at night, doesn’t that mean you are also afraid of the darkness you live with every single second of every single day? Inside her heart, she wept. She lived with her tears the way Hannah lived with her affliction of blindness. Olivia held her daughter close and rocked her.“Mama, don’t be sad,” Hannah said suddenly. She pulled back, and had she been able to see, it would have been as if she wanted to meet her mother’s gaze. But Olivia looked into her beautiful, silvery, sightless eyes without her daughter being able to share the regard. Still, they shared other things, far deeper than a glance.“I am only a little sad,” Olivia whispered, forcing a smile.It was a moment before Hannah answered. “Father is furious.”“It’s all right, and you have not gotten me into trouble, dear, not at all. I can manage the earl.” Olivia inhaled, trembling. She and her daughter shared far more than a deep sensitivity to one another’s feelings and thoughts. Hannah was cursed with the gift, too. Only she hardly understood it at the age of eight. “Your father will be leaving in two days. There is nothing to worry about. And when he is gone we shall picnic again at the lake, every day, and read books together, and pick berries and flowers. When he is gone, we shall once again be free.”Hannah was silent, her expression doubtful.“What is it?”“What if he finds out?”Olivia tensed. “He must not find out, Hannah, not ever, and he will not, not as long as you are very careful. Promise me.” Her tone caught. “Promise me you will be very, very careful.”Hannah nodded, lying back against the pillows. “I promise.”Olivia did not relax. She did not know what Arlen would do if he ever found out that his daughter was as different as his wife, that she, too, had been cursed with the gift of sight.
Weeping. Soft and filled with anguish.Olivia jerked awake. Was she dreaming? No, she could still hear someone, a woman, crying. She sat up slowly. Her bedroom was cast in darkness, for she had not left a single taper burning. She knew it was impossible to hear crying from any of the guest rooms, all of which were at the far end of the corridor. Was the weeping in her mind? Or had she been dreaming?But she could still, just barely, hear it. Olivia shoved the covers aside, filled with unease. There was desperation in the insistent, barely audible sound.It was Susan. Olivia had not a doubt.She lit a taper and slipped on her light lawn wrapper. The feeling she’d had all day, dread filled, that something terrible was going to happen, swept her again, stronger than before. She hesitated. And thought, She will die.Olivia froze, aghast with the thought, now etched upon her mind. It was not a thought she wanted. But she never wanted the thoughts God so often gave her! Who will die? Surely not that young girl, Susan Layton?Olivia padded barefoot to the door and opened it. Her pulse was pounding. Across the hall, her husband’s paneled oak door was solidly closed. She knew he had already retired, and for that she was thankful, while now she could only hope that he was soundly asleep.She strained to hear. The weeping continued, but it did not seem to come from any particular direction, and certainly not from the opposite, far end of the corridor where the Laytons had their rooms.What she was hearing, she knew, was in her mind, even though it sounded real.Olivia felt it again, the absolute certainty that death was lurking not far away. Panic tightened her limbs. Why hadn’t Hannah said something? This was so strong, and her daughter was far more gifted—or cursed—than she herself was. Why hadn’t Hannah mentioned these feelings?Olivia again glanced at Arlen’s closed door. If he caught her up and about, she would be in an even more difficult position on the morrow than she already was. But she had to find Susan. Olivia turned toward the end of the corridor, the weeping stronger now, and with it, the sheer, stunning desperation.She will die.Olivia inhaled, heard soft footsteps, whirled. Hannah raced blindly toward her, tears streaming down her cheeks. But she did not make a sound.Olivia’s first thought was that the candles had somehow gone out. Her concern for Susan vanished. She rushed forward, embracing her daughter, who clung. A moment later Olivia propelled them both into her bedchamber, closing the door behind them.“Mama, we have to help her,” Hannah cried in a whisper, gripping Olivia’s hands. “She is going to die if we don’t stop her.” Hannah tried to pull Olivia back to the door. “I saw it. Mama, please!”“Susan?”Hannah nodded, her silvery eyes huge in her pale face. “The lake. She has gone to the lake.”And Olivia saw it all then, the frail, female body drifting in the shallows, the pale white muslin dress billowing out about her—and the body was facedown.“Stay here,” Olivia ordered, adrenaline surging.“No!” Hannah cried. “Don’t leave me!”Olivia took one look at her daughter, realizing that the weeping had ceased. Did that mean Susan was already dead? There was no time, dear God. She took her daughter’s hand and together they raced from the room, down the two flights of stairs, and through the house. The lake was almost a quarter of a mile from the house. How could they make it in time to avert this tragedy?Yet there was nothing but silence now, surrounding them, cold, cold silence.“Run,” Olivia cried.They ran. The path, often traveled, was smooth enough, especially as it had not rained in some time, but periodically stones and pebbles dug into their bare feet. Fortunately the sky was lit with stars and three-quarters of a moon, illuminating the way. They topped a rise, panting and out of breath. Below, Olivia saw the lake, blacker than the sky, glistening silently—and she saw a white shape.A white figure, walking into the water, step by agonizing step.“No!” Olivia screamed. She released Hannah’s hand and, lifting her nightclothes to her knees, ran as hard as she had ever run in her life. Her ankle twisted and pain shot up her leg, but she did not stop. The very air burned in her lungs, which heaved and begged for more. Ahead of her, the lake lapped the sandy shore. Susan was chest deep in the shining black water. And then she disappeared.Olivia screamed, barreling into the water after her. Her nightclothes, coupled with the weight of the water, made it seem as if she were moving in slow motion, as if in a dream. Olivia pushed on through. The water reached up to her chin, and she ducked under where Susan had disappeared. Olivia could not swim and hoped the water didn’t get any deeper.The water was pitch black. But immediately she touched the fabric of Susan’s dress. Olivia moved forward, bumped into the solid mass of Susan’s flesh, and put her arm around her. She pulled her furiously to the surface, dragging her limp burden all the way.Olivia gulped in air desperately. Before she had regained her breath, she turned to look at Susan, whose head lolled on her shoulder. Her eyes were closed, her cheeks pale. Then her lashes fluttered and her mouth opened in a gasp as she too sucked in the precious, life-giving oxygen.Olivia continued to hold her as her feet touched solid ground. They stood chest deep now, with Susan coughing and choking beside her. Olivia pounded her on the back until the choking had subsided.Susan met her gaze weakly, then her face changed, becoming twisted with emotion. “Let me go!” she screamed, struggling.Olivia slapped her, hard, across the face.Susan gasped and burst into tears, collapsing against Olivia. Qlivia held her and stroked her, murmuring soothing sounds. She raised her eyes to search for Hannah, who stood ankle deep in the water, facing them, listening intently.“We are all right,” Olivia called.Hannah nodded. “I know. I heard,” she called back.Olivia put her arm around Susan’s waist as all the strength and energy she had suddenly drained away from her, leaving her feeling exhausted as never before, then led her to the shore. Once there, they collapsed on the sandy ground. Hannah rushed to them and hugged her mother, hard.Susan wept.Olivia kissed Hannah’s cheek and turned. She gripped Susan by the shoulders, shaking her. “It is not so bad. What you tried to do was terrible! Miss Layton, I beg you, please, rethink yourself!”Susan shook her head. “You should have let me die. I wanted to die. Oh, God, death is far better than my fate.”Olivia grimaced, pushing strands of thick wet hair out of Susan’s eyes. “Dear, dear child, you have a long and happy life ahead of you, I am sure of it.” But she wasn’t. She was only consoling the young woman; she had not a clue if she spoke the truth or not.“No. I have a horrid life ahead of me—and death would be better!” Susan burst into tears again. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed.“She is afraid,” Hannah whispered to Olivia, her head cocked toward Susan.Olivia nodded, for the fear was as tangible as the anguish and, now, the resignation. “What is so terrible that you tried to take your own life?” Olivia asked kindly.At first, Susan was so upset that she could only shake her head. Her tears still fell. Finally she looked up. “I have been betrothed.” Her tone was bitter. “To a man no one wants, no one else will have, not in all of England. My father has sold me off, so that one day his grandchild will be an earl.” She swiped at her eye with a small, balled-up fist.“And that is a fate worse than death?” Olivia asked gently.“It is if your betrothed is Garrick De Vere, the viscount of Caedmon Crag.” Her eyes filled with anguish again. “And that is why I wished to die, my lady.”Olivia stared. And the dark, anguished image of a man, one whom she had never met before, filled her mind. It was so clear that it was startling—she could see his chiseled features, his straight nose and high cheekbones, the strong jaw, even the color of his golden eyes. Had she met this man before? she wondered, surprised by the shock of recognition she had just felt. Then she felt so much more—his pain, his sorrow, his grief. The intensity of his emotions was far more than shocking; it was disturbing. “Is that not Stanhope’s son?” she asked slowly, with trepidation, quite certain now that they were not acquainted.“So you have heard of him?” Susan said, lifting her head.“What I have heard,” Olivia said slowly, “is sheer rumor, and not much of it. I thought he had been banished to one of the sugar islands.”“He was exiled to Barbados ten years ago, but he is in London even as we speak.” Susan smiled without mirth. “He has returned to marry me.”Olivia wet her lips, oddly ill. “Is that not a cause for celebration, my dear?” she asked.“I am to marry a man who murdered his own brother. That is hardly cause to celebrate!” Susan’s gaze was accusing.Olivia could not find a suitable reply.Copyright © 1998 by Brenda Joyce.