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Published by the Penguin Group
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First published as
The Pearl Hunters
by Omnibus Books, Ltd 2008
Copyright Â© 2009 Kim Wilkins
All rights reserved
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA IS AVAILABLE
Unclaimed Heart/by Kim Wilkins
Summary: In 1799, having stowed away on her father's ship sailing from Dartmouth,England to Ceylon in search of her long-lost mother, seventeen-year-old Constance Blackchurch falls in love with a nineteen-year-old
French orphan they rescue from a nefarious pearl dealer.
eISBN : 978-1-101-10859-8
[1. LoveâFiction 2. Social ClassesâFiction 3. Fathers and DaughtersâFiction 4. Missing PersonsâFiction 5. BritishâSri LankaâFiction 6. OrphansâFiction 8. Sri LankaâHistoryâ18th CenturyâFiction 9. Sea Stories]
PZ7.W64867 Unc 2009
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DARTMOUTH, ENGLAND: 1799
Constance burst into the sunlight and began the last dash towards home from Dr. Poole's: precisely where she wasn't supposed to be. She was supposed to be at French lessons, not studying astronomy. She could see the pale grey exterior of Aunty Violet's house, the lavender bushes sunning themselves.
. Constance felt a pang of shame, thinking about her own behavior earlier that morning.
“Mademoiselle Girard is horrid to me!” Constance had protested. “I don't care to learn French; we are at war with them. I speak it passably well already, so I don't see why I should endure her.”
“Constance, so many young women would be envious of your education.”
“I'm grateful for my education, but won't sit for another minute with that cross old harpy while she shouts at me for putting my adjectives in the wrong place.”
“There's no arguing about this, Constance.”
So she hadn't argued; she'd just run off. Which would not have put her in a panic under ordinary circumstances. Ordinarily she would have returned sheepishly at dinner time, apologized, and then resumed French lessons. Today, however, circumstances had become far from ordinary.
Dr. Poole had lifted his head from the map of constellations and offered to fetch tea. He'd only been gone a minute when he returned with a smile twitching at his lips. “Constance, I believe I've seen your father's ship.”
A jolt of white heat had leapt into her heart.
She raced to Dr. Poole's front room, which had a view down to the estuary. There at the quayside was, indeed,
, a ninety-foot merchantman with a gold-leaf taffrail and elegant oriel windows, the red duster of the British merchant fleet flying proudly from the masthead. From this distance, Constance could see a few dark figures moving around on it. When had it arrived? Was Father already home, hearing from Aunty Violet how rude and willful she'd been that morning? Good grief, what if Mademoiselle Girard was there, pouring poison into his ear about what a bad student she was?
That's when she had started running.
Constance paused at the front path, panting. She strained her ears. Yes, that was Father's booming voice all right, though she couldn't make out what he was saying. Her stomach turned to water. He came to see her so rarely that he took on mythical size and power in her imagination. She hurried inside, caught her reflection in the glass at the entrance hall and realized immediately that she couldn't greet her father in this state: eyes wild, cheeks flushed, hair loose. Perspiration had soaked through her chemise and made the muslin of her dress almost see-through. She did not resemble even remotely the respectable merchant's daughter that her father expected to see. The only thing for it was to go upstairs, change and brush her hair.
But before she could turn towards the stairs, footsteps approached. She ducked into the morning room. Then, when the footsteps drew closer, she slid behind the heavily embroidered curtains, heart thudding, books still pressed against her chest.
Father entered the room, followed by Aunty Violet.
“What does it say?” Aunty Violet asked. “Henry, you've gone quite pale. What does it say?”
There was a rustle of paper, and Constance remembered the letter that had arrived for Father a week before, all the way from Ceylon. She had assumed it to be about tea, one of Father's chief trading stocks. But perhaps it contained other, more interesting, information. She listened, puzzled.
“It's from an old friend,” Father said gruffly. “William Howlett. I . . . he knew me before. . . .” He trailed off. Constance couldn't remember him ever sounding so uncertain, so vulnerable.
“Sit, Henry,” Aunty Violet said. “I'll get you a dram of rum. Then, when you've calmed yourself, perhaps you can tell me what that letter contained that upset you so.”
Minutes passed. Constance held very still. The heavy curtain prevented the heat leaving her skin, and the stuffy air clogged her lungs. Aunty Violet returned, and a moment later Father spoke.
“Howlett has lately taken up residence in a small port town called Nagakodi, in the north of Ceylon. He has heard news of Faith.”
Constance's breath stopped in her throat.
“The locals have stories about a woman named Blackchurch, who came into the port some years ago.”
Faith Blackchurch. Her mother. She had been gone for sixteen years. Constance had not noticed her mysterious disappearance initially, as she was only a baby at the time. But as she grew older, she had become fixated by the details, reluctantly related by Aunty Violet. Faith had complained of a headache, and went to sleep in the guest room on the garden side of the house. Sometime in the night there had been a wild storm, and when Father had awoken in the morning she was gone. The front door had been left open, and two sets of footprints had led away through the mud to the road. Despite the police's best efforts, despite the expensive private investigation Henry had ordered, nobody had heard from her again.
Constance's mind was electrified by the idea. For years she had dared to believe that her mother was still alive somewhere. And now it seemed she might be proved right. Her already hot blood warmed further. Behind the heavy curtain, she grew extremely uncomfortable.
“Some years ago?” Aunty Violet asked dubiously. “How many years? Who's to say where she went after that?”
“It doesn't matter,” Father replied hotly. “It's the first we've ever heard of her. We know she didn't die that night, that she lived long enough to get to Ceylon at least.”
“As soon as
is unloaded, I'll be taking her back out.”
“All the way to Ceylon? You're chasing a dream, Henry.”
Constance realized she was starting to feel dizzy. She tried to shift her weight, to lean herself against the window sill. As she did so, one of the books she was holding slid from her grasp, landing with a thump on the floor. Her heart stopped. Footsteps. The curtain was flung back, and she found herself gaze to gaze with her father.
It had long troubled her that she had inherited Father's coloring: brown eyes, olive skin, auburn hair. The only thing she had of her mother's was height: she was precisely at her father's eye level.
“Good day, Constance,” he said sternly. He bent to pick up her book, glancing at the cover before handing it back to her. “Astronomy, still?”
This was his wayâto treat her interests as though they were as trivial as a small child's. She railed. “The order and motion of the heavenly bodies is rather a large topic, Father. It may take some time for me to tire of it.”
“As I understand it, the language and grammar of France is also rather a large topic. And yet you've abandoned that prematurely. It's certainly a more suitable field of study for a young woman.”
Constance felt shame flush her cheeks, and glanced quickly at Aunty Violet, who offered an apologetic smile.
Constance and her father paused in that position a moment, head to head, the book offered across the tight, tense space. Then Constance took her book and nodded. “Welcome home, Father.”
“I will see you at supper, child. Forget what you heard, for indeed you were not intended to hear it.” He turned on his heel and left, with Aunty Violet scurrying after him.
Constance took a deep breath and sat heavily in the window sill, her mind ablaze with the possibilities. Did he really think it possible for her to forget what she had heard?