Authors: Callie Hutton
Tags: #Category, #Historical Romance, #secret pregnancy, #divorced, #marriage mart mayhem, #betrayal, #callie hutton, #husband returned, #annulment, #Regency, #reunion, #blindness
“As always, you are most observant, Your Grace.” Tristan cast Drake a slight smile and crossed one booted foot over his ankle. Never had he hated his blindness more than last evening when his precious Marion had been right there in front of him. The longing to look at her and take her in his arms had been so strong, it had left him weak-kneed. Had she changed? Was she still as lovely as he remembered?
Manchester mentioned she’d locked herself away in mourning. His stomach knotted at the vision of his love weeping for him. Until now he’d been able to keep those images at bay. But now they hit him full force, stinging his useless eyes with tears, which would surely further unman himself in front of her brother.
“I would appreciate more information, Tunstall.” Drake prodded in the softest voice he’d used since he entered the room.
“As you wish.” He leaned his head back, gathering his thoughts. “My ship came upon a battle between a Portuguese merchant and sea pirates. After we had been engaged in the clash for more than three hours, both my vessel and the pirate ship blew up, tossing me into the ocean.
“I was told the force of the explosion knocked me unconscious. One of the merchant sailors pulled me from the sea, along with others from my crew. We sailed to Lisbon where I was dispatched to a hospital.”
He sat forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “When I awoke I had no memory of who I was. I was also without sight.”
“So more than two years later you only just now regained your memory?” Drake grunted.
Tristan leaned back, shaking his head. “No. I regained my memory after only a few months.” Once again, the feelings of anguish and horror swept over him, much as they had when he’d realized he had a beautiful wife who most likely assumed him dead. The melancholy he’d sunk into had lasted for weeks.
The only thing that had helped to keep his sanity at the time was his resolve to remain “dead” to his wife so she could one day marry a whole man and be happy. At that point, Lorelei Gibbons had already entered his life, and he’d hung onto her like a lifeline. She had spent hours talking to him, encouraging him, until he’d told her about Marion. Then she had badgered him endlessly to contact his wife.
“Did you not think to notify Marion of your whereabouts? Did the fact that you had a wife waiting for you completely slip your mind? Or was that part of your memory loss?”
Tristan’s jaw tightened. “You have no idea how much I wanted to contact her. How much I wanted her with me. But the unselfish part of me prevailed, and I realized she was much better off thinking me dead so she could find happiness with someone else.”
“And the fact that she would be inadvertently committing bigamy if she married again did not disturb you?”
“I planned to remain dead to her. After seven years she could declare me legally so, and could remarry.”
Drake shook his head before he realized Tristan could not see him. “No. That is not correct. She might have been able to declare you dead with the courts, but you were, in fact, not deceased, so she would have committed bigamy. Any children born of that marriage would be bastards once your perfidy was discovered.”
“I did not plan to ever have her know.”
“We see how well that strategy worked.”
Tristan stiffened. “Mrs. Gibbons stepped beyond herself.”
“Ah, yes. Let us discuss Mrs. Gibbons, who I assume was the woman with you last evening?”
“That’s right.” Tristan shifted in his seat. “I met her when I was a patient in the hospital in Lisbon. Her son, Everard Gibbons, fought under Wellington, and had been injured in the Siege of Badajoz. After being notified of his injury, she traveled to Lisbon, but he died shortly after she arrived.
“I had been friends with Gibbons. We spent his last hours together. In her misery, she turned to me, and I became like a son to her.”
“There is absolutely nothing romantic between Mrs. Gibbons and myself. She is a friend and companion. In fact, it was her inclination to lie to me about where we were staying. Lorelei told me we were in some obscure village miles from everywhere. I had no idea we were in Donridge Heath and that Marion and her family were close by.”
“So you intended to stay in England and never be discovered for the remainder of your life? How realistic was that?”
Tristan shrugged. “Had we actually gone to a place remote enough, it might have worked.”
“It does make one wonder if you had planned all along to reveal yourself to Marion.”
“No.” Tristan’s voice rose. “I never wanted to hurt her that way. Despite what you think of me, and what I have done, I love her. Very, very much. My heart aches each day we’re apart, but I refuse to saddle her with a blind man for the rest of her life.”
“Don’t you think that should be
decision?” Drake’s voice had lowered to a dangerous pitch.
Tristan remained silent. No, it could not be her decision, because Marion would never spurn him. She was much too honorable. Giving her no choice was the best way.
“What are your plans now that Marion has discovered your duplicity?”
“I have given it some thought.” Tristan paused. “I intend to free her.”
“Is that right? And just how the devil will you do that?”
Tristan swallowed, horrified at the words he was about to speak. “I will allow her to divorce me.”
Drake snorted. “That is an even worse idea than trying to stay hidden. Divorce is impossible.”
“Perhaps not.” He raised his chin. “I will have my solicitor research it.”
“A divorce will bring shame and disgrace to my sister. I strongly advise you to rethink that avenue, Tunstall,” Drake snapped.
“I just want her to have a full life, and it will not happen if she stays married to me.”
After the big clock in the corner marked the passage of several minutes of strained silence, Drake’s chair creaked as he stood. Once again Tristan was amazed at how his other senses had learned to compensate for his loss of sight.
“I will leave you now. You’ve given me quite a bit to think about and discuss with my sister.”
“Mason will show you out.”
“Thank you.” Drake’s footsteps padded across the floor. “One more thing.”
Tristan gazed in the direction of his brother-in-law’s voice. “Yes.”
“Do not try to leave Donridge Heath until I’ve spoken with Marion. If she wishes to see you—and I expect she will—I will not tolerate her being distraught once more by your disappearance.”
Tristan gave a curt nod and listened for the soft click of the latch on the library door. He dropped his head into his hands and groaned. What a mess this had turned into. His plan to remain hidden from his wife had all come to naught. As much as he wanted to curse Lorelei, he knew she only thought to do the right thing. And Drake had been correct. How realistic had it been to think he could avoid Marion for the rest of his life?
With shaky fingers rubbing the back of his neck, he recalled the first time he had set eyes on Lady Marion. She was all of six years, and he ten. England had just allied itself with Russia and several other countries against France. The late Duke of Manchester had brought his family to London to confer with Tristan’s father, who was a member of the House of Commons.
Marion had been a lovely little thing, with dark brown wavy hair and huge brown eyes. She had been soft-spoken and quiet, even at that young age. While her brother and sisters and Tristan’s brother had raced around playing outdoors, he had stayed with Marion and entertained her with games of Fox and Geese and Spillikins.
Over the next few years their families had visited quite a bit, and he and Marion had become fast friends. But it wasn’t until the night of her coming out ball that he had realized he loved her as a woman. Because of that love, he had to set her free.
“Enter,” Marion called as she turned from the window and smiled softly at Penelope as she pushed open the door.
“Are you up for visitors?”
“Yes. Please come in. I’m afraid my family is tiptoeing around me, and I feel the need to talk to someone.” She motioned toward the flower-covered settee.
Penelope took Marion’s hand once they settled side-by-side. “How are you feeling this morning?”
After staring at their joined hands for a few moments, she whispered, “Dazed. Afraid. And very, very sad.” She shrugged. “But then I assume that is to be expected.”
“Drake left a while ago to visit Tristan.”
Marion stood and rubbed her palms up and down her arms. “I can’t imagine what sort of an explanation he will give him. It seems obvious. He wasn’t killed when his ship was blown up, but for whatever reason, he chose to ignore me and took up with another woman.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Penelope, please.” She swung around, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “The evidence was right there in front of our eyes. At least it was before I collapsed.” She twisted the gold and ruby band she’d never removed from her left hand. “Do you know, after I received word of Tristan’s death, I thought I’d cried every tear my eyes could ever hold? But this morning I proved myself wrong.”
Seeing her husband last night had been like losing him all over again. He had looked wonderful, as handsome as ever, and with the soft smile she remembered so well. The woman clinging to his arm had moved him forward, toward her and Penelope. Once Marion had realized he was not a mirage, and her dead husband was, indeed, flesh and blood and heading her way, the buzzing had started in her ears, and black dots had danced in front of her eyes. That was all she remembered until she awoke in the carriage nestled in her brother’s arms.
Unable to stand still, she began to pace, her arms wrapped tightly around her middle. “Because of the love we shared, I’m trying my best to think of a reason why he had not contacted me.” She stopped and studied the wardrobe next to the window. “Perhaps his appearance at the assembly was to be a surprise.”
She shook her head and continued striding up and down. “No. Tristan was never the type to spring things on people. Everything with him was always planned well in advance.”
“I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation. Please try to calm yourself until your brother returns.”
Marion whipped around, covering her cheeks with her palms. “I should have insisted that Drake bring me with him.” She closed her eyes and abruptly sat next to Penelope. “Oh dear, I’m feeling lightheaded again.”
Penelope stood and walked to the door. “I’ll have a footman fetch some tea.”
Lowering her head to her lap, Marion took slow, calming breaths. The warmth from the fire blazing next to her brought back memories of Tristan when he had arrived at their home shortly after his family had been killed. Only in his fourteenth year, he’d arrived with just the clothes on his back to take up residence with the late Duke, his appointed guardian.
Feeling better, she straightened and said, “You know, Tristan’s family was killed when he was only fourteen years.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.” Having issued instructions to the footman, Penelope joined Marion on the settee. “What happened?”
“My father was his guardian. Tristan had nothing when he came to us. But the worst part was the vacant, empty look in his eyes. We spent hours just sitting close together, sharing our presence. Despite being only ten years, I understood his pain, and hoped he gained solace from my company. Then one morning, words poured forth from him like a dam had burst.
“He told me that they’d all been in their bedchambers when the fire broke out. One of the servants had raced into Tristan’s room and bundled him out before he even knew what was going on. Since his parents and older brother slept in another wing—the one where the fire had started—they all died when that part of the house collapsed.
“Tristan had stood in the dark, damp night with a blanket wrapped around him as the structure caved in on itself, forever taking from his life the people he loved most in the world.”
Penelope covered her mouth with her fingertips. “Oh, how terrible for him. The poor man.”
“He has a horror of fire, you know.” Marion raised her head and accepted the cup of tea from Penelope. “I imagine watching your family die right before your eyes would scar you for life.”
“You hadn’t told me that about Tristan.”
Marion shrugged her shoulders and took a sip of bracing tea. “In any event, after he’d been with us for a few months, he asked my father if he would permit him to join the Royal Navy.
“Father was very much against it, since he was only fourteen years. He wanted Tristan to follow Drake to Oxford. But my husband was adamant. He confessed to me at the time that he felt as if he were floating through life since his family had died, so why not float on the ocean for real?
“He entered as a midshipman, and by twenty, he had obtained the rank of lieutenant and was acknowledged by the Admiralty for services performed. That is how he received his title.” She glanced at Penelope. “I was so proud of him.”
“I imagine you were. He sounds like a remarkable man.”
“Yes.” Marion placed her cup on the table and turned to Penelope. Her chin quivered as she regarded her. “Why?”
With a slight moan, she covered her face with her hands and cried.
Penelope moved closer and pulled her into a hug. A barely perceptible knock on the door drew their attention. Marion sat up and wiped her face with her handkerchief. “Come.” At her bid, Drake entered and smiled softly at his wife. “My dear, would you be so kind as to join my mother downstairs while I speak with Marion?”
“No!” Marion grabbed her sister-in-law’s arm. “I want Penelope to stay.”
“Perhaps this is best discussed in private.”
When Marion shook her head quickly, he said, “As you wish.” He eased himself into the chair across from them and took a few moments to stare at her, seeming to gather his thoughts.
“Marion, I am afraid there is no easy way to say this. Lord Tunstall is blind.”
Marion blinked a few times, waiting for his next words. Unsure what to say. Tristan blind? How terrible for him. He must be so lost and alone. Her heart ached to hold him, tell him everything would be all right.