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Authors: Constance Hussey

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A Love Laid Bare

BOOK: A Love Laid Bare
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Missing, presumed dead

 

 

Devastated after his young bride vanishes at sea only
months after their wedding, Lord Halcombe is finally beginning to
accept her loss when she suddenly reappears almost two years
later—with a child she claims is his daughter. Where has she been,
and why had she stayed away all this time?

 

Hard questions he needs answered before he dares
allow her back into his life. Torn between the pain she has caused
him and the love he still feels for her, Halcombe is forced to
decide both her fate and his. Just what was he to do about
Frances?

 

Pregnant, penniless and trapped in a foreign country,
Frances has but one goal—survival for herself and her daughter.
Only after their safety is assured is she free to choose her
destiny—return to the husband she still loves and who may have
betrayed her, or build a new life far from England. Frances is no
longer the naïve girl Lord Halcombe married. Can he accept the
determined, self-reliant woman she is now?

 

Two strong-willed people navigate a rocky path strewn
with heartache and risk. Only if they can learn to put the past
aside and build on the future will they succeed in creating the
loving union they both desperately desire.

 

 

 

 

A Love Laid Bare

 

Constance Hussey

 

 

 

Published by Constance Hussey at Smashwords

Copyright 2014 Constance Hussey

Smashwords Edition

 

Discover other titles by visiting

http://www.constancehussey.com

 

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment
only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people.
If you would like to share this book with another person, please
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use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your
own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this
author.

Chapter One

 

 

Sussex, England 1809

 

They never did find her body
.

 

Mine, mine, mine.
The sea’s mocking litany
beat in his head with each wave that crashed against the rocky
shore below. Lord Halcombe settled his restless horse with a
reassuring touch on its neck and allowed the animal to back away
from the edge of the cliff. It was ill judged, stopping here today.
Almost two years now, and he was no more reconciled to his wife’s
absence than he had been in those first months of disbelief.

Halcombe shook his head, mouth tight to contain the
shout of denial he wanted to throw at the sky boiling above and
turned Zeus toward the house perched on the hill behind him. He at
least had enough sense to not have them both soaked and in
lightning’s path when the fast building storm slammed ashore.
Was that what happened that day? The storm blowing up so quickly
as to take her unaware, experienced sailor though she was?
It
ate at him, not knowing.

Clifftop. It was a surprisingly mundane name for his
wife’s childhood home, considering she had named his horse Zeus,
but perhaps Frances had not chosen it. Perhaps the house already
bore the name when she moved here. It was yet another thing
Halcombe did not know, and that gnawed at him as well, the many
things he had never learned about her. He did feel, however, that
she would have been pleased to see the house as well kept now as it
was before her father’s death—something owed more to the careful
ministrations of the steward than any effort on his part.

The earl rode up the winding path, thinking of the
first time he had done so. The image of Frances was in his head,
the picture of her as clear as on the day he first saw her, framed
in the window as he walked up the front steps. So achingly young,
her eyes wide with surprise at his sudden appearance. He learned
later she had been deep in her studies, not expecting company,
which explained the careless sweep of hair, tumbling childlike
around her face. He had been amused at the quick rounding of her
lips and the sudden laughter in her eyes.

“My lord?”

The groom’s hesitant voice drew him from the past.
Halcombe dismounted and handed over the reins with an absentminded
nod. His steward, Thomas Blount, stood waiting for him on the wide
porch.

“I trust your journey was agreeable, my lord,” Blount
said in his grave voice. Halcombe smiled. Blount said the same
thing every time he arrived here, and if the man ever smiled,
Halcombe had yet to see it.

“Mr. Blount. You are keeping well?” The steward
nodded again and, the ritual over, they entered the house. It smelt
of beeswax and lemons and was scrupulously clean, exactly as it was
when Frances and her father, Lawrence Nesbitt, had lived here.

Halcombe cut off the memory of his visits here and
said, more curtly than he had intended, “You take good care of this
place, Blount, but it does no good for a building to sit empty. I
am considering letting it out. The staff is welcome to stay
on.”

“Of course, my lord. Have you someone in mind? Shall
I make inquiries?”

“Please do that. In the meantime, I want the contents
of Mr. Nesbitt’s study boxed up and sent to Halcombe Manor, along
with any personal belongings of Lady Halcombe’s that remain
here.”

“Certainly, sir. The work will begin at once.”

The earl braced himself for the effort of walking
into Nesbitt’s study. This would be the last time he would put
himself through this ordeal. He would not come here again.

Chapter Two

 

 

Portugal, 1809

 

Those who claim that eavesdroppers usually hear ill
of themselves speak wisely. Frances certainly knew this as a truth.
She stared at the waves rolling onto the Portuguese shore and
pictured another sea, one that tossed cold grey water roughly upon
the Sussex cliffs. Home. She had to go home. The thought of it
swamped her with a mixture of longing and dread. Now she had no
choice, and if she were honest, she’d admit knowing weeks ago that
she could not put it off much longer. Only the thought of facing
Richard and the certain knowledge that he would never forgive her
had kept her here.

“Judging by the look on your face, you
have
read my letter from England? From Thomas Blount?” Olivia declared
as she entered the room. She took Frances’ arm and led her to a
chair. “Sit down, child, and tell me why it has upset you. Shall I
get you some port?”

Frances summoned a smile. Aunt Olivia was convinced
that a glass of rich wine could soothe most ills. “The news is not
such as to take spirits at this hour of the morning, Aunt Livvy. In
truth, I have expected it.” She opened her hand and smoothed out
the letter she had crumpled up earlier.

“Perhaps I am reading more into it than is needful,”
Frances said. “But the fact that Richard is going to let Clifftop,
and have all the books removed to Halcombe Manor, makes me think he
is finally attempting to put my disappearance behind him.”

Olivia sank into the chair beside Frances. “I see.
I’ve become so accustomed to Mr. Blount’s correspondence that this
did not seem anything out of the ordinary. I believe the dear man
writes with these little anecdotes about your father to console me,
and I do enjoy them. But, yes, other than an occasional snippet
about your childhood scrapes, he seldom writes of anything else.”
She smiled, somewhat sadly. “You will be going back to England, I
imagine.”

It was the hint of fear in Livvy’s sympathetic
expression that moved Frances to reach over and take her hand.
“Yes, I must. I have already done enough harm. I cannot allow
Richard to make an irreconcilable mistake through no fault of his
own. What if, thinking as he must, that he is a widower, he
petitions the court to have me declared dead? I believe there is
usually a seven-year wait, but I know him. He will not allow that
much time to pass, and he has very influential friends to support
him with such a petition.”

Livvy nodded, clearly having expected no other
answer. “I will go with you, of course.”

Frances looked at the lovely face of her father’s
sister, strained now with worry, and blinked away the moisture
filling her eyes. “You are kind to offer, but I know how much you
love your home here in Portugal. I’d never ask it of you. You have
already done so much for us.” Olivia Blake had taken Frances in
when she and Flora arrived without warning, both wretchedly ill,
and nursed her and her daughter to a full recovery. Then Livvy had
coaxed and bullied Frances into building a productive
life
.

“Nonsense. I’ve done nothing I did not choose to do,
and now I choose to return to England. It’s more than time I
visited my homeland. When do you plan to leave?”

There was to be no argument with that firm voice and
straight back. Frances knew Livvy considered most displays of
emotion a waste of time and energy better spent elsewhere. She bit
back a sigh, released the older woman’s hand, and stood.

“As soon as I can book passage and pack. I will ask
one of the men to get a shipping schedule.” Frances looked down at
her aunt. “You do know it will be unpleasant, at best. The scandal
will be horrid. I cannot begin to predict what Richard will
do.”

“We will deal with it as it comes,” Livvy said
briskly. “Now, I believe we have company.”

Frances turned to see her daughter dance into the
room. “Mama, Mama! Pretty dress!” Flora twirled around and around
until she plopped down in a heap. Her laughter was infectious and
both Frances and Livvy chuckled at her antics.

“How fancy you are! Did Nancy make that for you?”
Flora’s nursemaid sewed beautifully and enjoyed making clothing for
her charge. Frances went over and picked up her elfin daughter. “I
hope you thanked her, young lady.”

Flora nodded so vigorously that her hair ribbons were
in danger of sliding out of her red-blond hair. “T’ank you.”

“That was well done, pet. Perhaps I should thank her
too and ask her if she will make some more pretty clothes for you.
We are going on a journey—a grand adventure. Shall we go and see if
Nancy wants to go with us?”

Frances exchanged a smile with her aunt and walked
from the room with Flora. What would they do if the young woman did
not want to go to England? Nancy had been Flora’s nursemaid since
they arrived in Portugal. The child faced so many changes. She did
not need to adjust to a new nursemaid as well.
You will have to
be very persuasive. The one thing working in your favor is that
Nancy would not easily be parted from Flora. That might be enough
of an incentive.
Frances certainly prayed so.

 

***

 

The weeks that followed were hectic. Frances was
almost relieved as she watched the brightly colored houses that
dotted the Portuguese coast dwindle as the ship drew away from the
shore. She leaned on the rail, ignoring the wind that tugged at her
hood, and tried to order her mind. Her thoughts had tumbled about
in her head like the oft-wild Sussex waves ever since the letter
from Thomas Blount had arrived.

“Are you having second thoughts?”

Frances turned at the light touch on her shoulder. “I
don’t know, Aunt Livvy,” she admitted with painful honesty. “Part
of me wants desperately to go home, but I also dread it. Facing
everyone …especially Richard.” She took one of her aunt’s hands and
tried for a lighter tone. “It may be that we will become permanent
guests, after all.”

Livvy smiled, but the concern in her eyes remained.
“You know you are welcome to live with me as long as you wish,” she
said firmly. “It is your choice.”

Frances leaned over and gave her aunt a hug. “No one
could be kinder than you, dear Aunt, but as soon as I read that
letter from Thomas Blount my path was set, whatever the future may
bring.” She stepped back. “Now, why have you come on deck? I know
how you dislike navigating the ladder.”

Livvy accepted the change of subject with her usual
grace and took Frances by the elbow. “Flora insists her mama come
to tuck her in. She is delighted with the ‘funny bed’ and won’t
sleep until you see it.”

“A treat, to be sure,” Frances said with a laugh. She
took one last look at the receding shoreline and allowed Livvy to
guide her to the gangway that led to the lower deck. With fair
winds, they might reach Portsmouth in less than a week.

Chapter Three

 

 

Sussex, 1809

 

The earl handed Zeus’ reins to one of the grooms and
walked across the stable yard toward the manor house. He was
pleased with the condition of the estate. The land was in better
heart than it had been for a long time, and he was justifiably
proud of all he and his people had accomplished in the past two
years.

BOOK: A Love Laid Bare
3.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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