Secrets of the Heart – Candace Camp

Rachel leaned back against the soft velvet squabs of the carriage seat and stifled a sigh. She glanced across at Gabriela, who was curled up in a corner of her seat, asleep. She envied the girl the easy sleep of youth. Rachel had not been able to fall asleep, despite the monotonous rumbling of the coach. She could not dismiss the odd feeling of ennui, even sorrow, that had plagued her ever since they’d left Westhampton yesterday morning. When Michael had handed her into the carriage, she had felt a distinct urge to turn back and say that she had decided to delay her trip for a few more days. But, of course, that had been impossible. She had already put it off three days longer than she had planned. She had to get Gabriela back to her guardians; they were waiting for her at Darkwater. A shout outside the carriage startled Rachel from her reverie, and she lifted a corner of the curtain to look out. She could see nothing but the dusk of evening, the branches of the nearby trees a darker shape against the grayness. Then there was a shout from the coachman, and the carriage lurched forward. In the next moment, Rachel heard the sharp report of a gun. She dropped the curtain with a gasp. The coachman’s voice rang out, calling to his horses, and the carriage jerked and jolted to a halt.

Rachel grabbed the leather loop beside her seat and held on. Across from her, Gabriela let out a squeak of surprise as she tumbled unceremoniously to the floor. The girl scrambled back up onto the seat and turned to look at Rachel, wide eyed. “What is it?” Gabriela whispered. “What happened?” “I don’t know.” Rachel tried not to let her fear show. She could think of no good reason for the sound of gunfire or the coachman yanking his animals to a stop. What came to her mind was highwaymen, although it seemed bizarre to find them this far from London. She heard voices and turned toward the door, her fingers curling into the palms of her hands. She would be brave, she thought, reminding herself that she had Gabriela now to look out for, and she tried to envision what her redoubtable sister-in-law Miranda would do—or her friend Jessica, with her soldier’s daughter’s courage.

But she could not help a brief, desperate wish that Michael had decided to accompany them to Darkwater. The door opened, and a black-clad figure stepped inside. Rachel struggled to keep her expression neutral. He was a smallish man, she told herself, and it was only the black attire and the scarf across the bottom of his face that made him seem sinister. She would give him her money and he would leave, and the incident would be over with no harm to anyone. The man’s eyes above his mask looked startled, and he glanced around the carriage, then returned his gaze to Rachel. He looked, she thought with some astonishment, puzzled. “’Ere, now,” he said somewhat plaintively and jerked down the scarf to reveal his entire face. “Where’s the guv’nor?” Rachel’s fear subsided dramatically as she looked at his face, almost comical in its dismay. “I beg your pardon?” she asked, pleased at how calm her voice came out.

“The lord,” the man went on. “This is ’is carriage, ain’t it? I saw the sign on the door.” “This is Lord Westhampton’s carriage,” Rachel replied, rather puzzled herself now. “His coat of arms is on the door, if that is what you mean.” “Aye, that’s the one. Westhampton. It’s ’im I’m wanting.” “I am afraid that you are in the wrong place, then. Westhampton is back at his estate.” Their visitor was silent for a moment, digesting this news.

Finally he asked, “Are you the missus, then?” “I am Lady Westhampton,” Rachel admitted. “Right. Well, I’m thinkin’ you can deliver the message to the guv’nor, then.” “The message?” Rachel felt as if she had stepped bizarrely into a scene from a play, one where everyone knew the lines except her. “Aye. Tell ’im Red Geordie sent it. Tell ’im he needs to watch ’is back. There’s some ’un wishes ’im ill.” Rachel stared at the man. “Excuse me?” “’E’s gettin’ too close, I’m thinkin’ and there’s them as don’t like it.

Word’s out that there’s those as wants ’im taken care of.” He stopped, then gave a short nod, seemingly satisfied with his words. Rachel blinked, unable to think of an adequate reply. The man grinned then and said, “Sorry. I’ll be needin’ to take somemat—you know, for the boys.” He nodded toward Rachel. “Them earbobs’d do nicely.” Rachel gasped, her hands flying up to cover the emerald studs in her earlobes. “No! Not these. Michael gave them to me.

It was a wedding present.” He paused, considering this information. “Oh. Well, I wouldn’t want to cross the guv’nor, that’s a fact.” “How about money?” Rachel offered, digging into her reticule and pulling out a small purse of coins, which she offered him. The small man grinned and took the purse, opening it to peer inside. “Aye, that’ll do it, my lady.” He gave a respectful tug of his cap toward her, still grinning. “I can see you’re a cool ’un, just like his lordship. Pleasure doin’ business with ye.

” He nodded toward Gabriela. “Miss. Good evenin’ to ye both.” He pulled up his scarf to cover his face again and turned, opening the door and springing lightly down from the carriage. Behind him, Gabriela and Rachel gazed at each other in stunned silence. There was the muffled sound of voices outside the carriage, then the whinny of a horse, followed by the noise of hoofbeats. “What in the world—” Gabriela began, her eyes round as saucers in her face. “I have no idea,” Rachel replied frankly. The door was jerked open again, but this time it revealed the worried face of her coachman, who peered up into the carriage. “Are you all right, my lady?” “Yes, we are fine, Daniels.

No harm done.” “There were four of them, ma’am, with pistols. Jenks and I thought it best not to challenge them, what with you and the young miss in the carriage. His Lordship’d have my hide if anything happened to you.” “You were quite right,” Rachel reassured him, though she knew that his statement was more hyperbole than fact. Michael was the most reasonable of men, not one to blame his servants for something out of their control. “Westhampton would not want you to risk your lives or ours that way. You did well. Let us drive on to Darkwater, if you please.” “Aye, my lady.

” The coachman gave her a respectful nod and shut the door. They could hear him climb back onto his high perch, and a moment later the carriage started forward again. Rachel looked over at her charge. “Are you all right, Gabriela?” “Oh, yes!” The girl nodded emphatically. “But it was terribly exciting, wasn’t it?” “Rather too exciting, I’d say,” Rachel replied dryly. “Yes, I suppose,” Gabriela said, sounding unconvinced. “But I’ve never seen an actual highwayman before.” “Nor I.” “Did you not know him? He seemed to know Uncle Michael. Isn’t that strange?” “Very,” Rachel agreed.

“I cannot imagine how he could know Michael….” Michael was not the sort of man who had a passing acquaintance with highwaymen. Now, if it had been her brother Dev the fellow had claimed to know, Rachel would have had little trouble believing it. Until he had married Miranda and settled down, Devin had known his share of unsavory characters. But Michael? The idea was absurd. Michael was a quiet, scholarly man, kind, responsible, reliable and generous—the very epitome of a gentleman. His title was one of the oldest and most respected in the land, and, unlike his father, Michael had never done anything to tarnish it. He was happiest on his estate in the country, overseeing the various renovations of the house and outbuildings, and experimenting with the newest innovations in agriculture and land management. He corresponded with men of like nature and interests, ranging from gentleman farmers on vast plantations in the United States to men of science and letters at universities here and on the Continent. He was hardly the sort of man to have met a highwayman, let alone have one deliver vague warnings about danger to him.

What was it the man had said? That Michael was “getting too close.” That some vague personage “wished him ill.” Too close to what? And who was this enemy? Rachel could not imagine Michael having an enemy. Whatever disagreements he might have with anyone, they were courteous and usually concerned some scholarly subject that few people had even heard of. The worst that she had ever heard anyone say about him was that he was too respectable, bordering on dull. Hardly the stuff of threats to do him bodily harm. “It’s ridiculous,” Rachel told her companion firmly. “Michael doesn’t have an enemy in the world. The man must have made some sort of mistake.” She looked at Gabriela, who was still looking a little troubled.

The poor child had experienced too much death for such an early age. Gabriela’s parents had died when she was only eight years old, and she had been raised by her great uncle until he, too, had died last year, leaving her in the care of a guardian who had been friends with her father many years before. It was through this guardian, the Duke of Cleybourne, that Rachel had come to meet the fourteen-year-old girl. The duke had been married to Rachel’s older sister, Caroline, who had died, along with their daughter, in a tragic carriage accident. Rachel had remained close friends with Cleybourne and often worried about his descent into a black pit of grief in the years after their deaths. Then Gabriela had come to Castle Cleybourne last Christmas, and with her, her governess, Jessica Maitland, a flame-haired beauty with a tragic scandal in her own past. Jessica and Cleybourne had fallen deeply in love, but even that happy time and the security it brought Gabriela had been marred by the ugliness of violent death. A killer had struck at the castle, doing away with one of the other guests and even almost murdering Jessica herself. It was little wonder that Gabriela’s fears would be roused by the stranger’s threats, however vague and absurd they were. Gabriela had spent the past two months with Michael and Rachel, for they had taken her home with them after the wedding in order to give the duke and his new duchess a honeymoon, and she had grown quite fond of them both.

Rachel reached across the carriage to take one of Gabriela’s hands in hers and squeeze it gently. “Don’t worry, Gaby. I am sure that it is all some silly mix-up. He can’t have meant Westhampton. No one would wish Michael ill. It’s clearly a mistake, this talk about his getting ‘too close’ to something. To what? A political theory? A scientific discovery? Some new method of crop rotation? Those are scarcely the sort of things one kills over.” Gabriela had to smile, and the worry receded from her eyes. “You are right. Who could have anything against Uncle Michael?” She squeezed Rachel’s hand in return.

“You must be very glad to be married to him.” There were many, Rachel knew, who would say the same thing to her. Her husband was titled and wealthy, the descendent of one of the best families in England. That in itself was enough for her marriage to be considered a success. But Michael was also thoughtful and kind. He provided her with a generous clothing and household allowance. Though he preferred life in the country, he did not try to impose it upon her. She was free to live as she chose, to spend her time in their elegant house in London, giving the parties she was justly known for, paying calls and in general living the life of a Society hostess. She had a large circle of friends and admirers, and was adjudged one of the reigning beauties of the Ton. In short, her life was perfect…as long as one did not mind the fact that her marriage was a sham.

There was no love in their marriage. They lived apart, had never shared a bedroom, never even spoken words of love or passion. And it did not help matters a bit to know that it was all entirely her own fault. Rachel gave her young companion a smile, hoping the girl would not notice the brittleness of it. “Yes,” she agreed, settling back into her seat. “I am very lucky to be Lady Westhampton.” * * * Torches burned in front of Darkwater. It was a beautiful house, named for a nearby tarn that was black as night, not for the house’s limestone walls, which were pale, almost golden in the Derbyshire sunlight. At night one could not see its graceful lines or centuries-old mullioned windows, only grasp the vague outline of its considerable hulk. But Rachel had grown up here, and she knew it without having to see it.

She flung open the carriage door as soon as the vehicle rolled to a stop and leaned out to look at the house. Jenks scrambled down from the top of the carriage to pull down the steps and help Rachel and Gabriela out. Even as they emerged, the front door of the house opened, and two footmen came out carrying candles to light the ladies’ way into the house. “Lady Westhampton!” A middle-aged man, dressed in the formal attire of a butler, hastened out the front door, smiling broadly. “I am happy to welcome you to Darkwater again! We have been expecting your arrival any time this past day.” “Hello, Cummings.” Rachel smiled warmly at the man who had been the butler here since she was a child. “Allow me to introduce Miss Gabriela Carstairs. Miss Carstairs is the ward of the Duke of Cleybourne.” The man bowed gravely to Gabriela.

“May I welcome you to Darkwater, Miss Carstairs? The Duke and Duchess have been waiting eagerly for your arrival. Ah, here they are now.” Foregoing formality, the members of the household were hurrying out the opened front doors despite the chill of the night air. In front were a tall, stunning red-haired woman and a man of dark mien, both smiling broadly. Slightly behind them came another couple, a pretty pregnant woman and a devastatingly handsome man, followed by a young girl of about Gabriela’s age. “Gaby!” The redhead, who was the new Duchess of Cleybourne, threw her arms open wide to her charge. She had been the girl’s governess for six years before marrying Gabriela’s guardian, and she looked upon her almost as her own child. “Miss Jessie!” Gabriela flew into her arms and hugged her tightly. When she was at last released, she turned to the man beside the duchess, smiling up at him a little shyly. “Your Grace.

” He smiled, lighting up his dark face. “Have you forgotten, Gabriela?” he asked lightly. “I thought we agreed we were not to be so formal.” “Uncle Richard,” she corrected with a smile, and when he, too, held out his arms to her, she went into them quickly for a heartfelt, if somewhat less energetic, hug. The duke and duchess turned to Rachel, who had been caught up in hugs by the other couple, her brother Devin, the Earl of Ravenscar, and his wife, Miranda, who was several months along with child. There were more greetings all around, with Richard introducing his new ward to the earl and countess. “And,” Richard went on, with a smile to Gabriela, “there is someone else who has been eagerly awaiting your arrival. Lady Ravenscar’s sister, Miss Veronica Upshaw, is here visiting, and she is just about your age, fifteen last month. Veronica…” The girl stepped forward, smiling at Gabriela. She was a pretty thing, with light-brown hair and blue eyes, though there was little about her that resembled her sister Miranda.

She was, Rachel knew, Miranda’s stepsister, rather than any blood relative, the daughter of the woman whom Miranda’s father had married when Miranda was in her teens. Mr. and Mrs. Upshaw lived much of the time in London, Miranda had told Rachel, but all had agreed that Devin’s country estate was the best place for the young girl. There would be time enough for London in a few years, when she had her coming out. Rachel smiled a little, thinking that these two girls would probably have their coming out in the same year. The Ton, she thought with unabashed delight, would doubtlessly reel under the joint assault upon it by the formidable team of the duchess and the countess. Rachel intended not to miss a party that Season. Laughing and talking, the group went inside. The girls retreated to Veronica’s room upstairs, both of them thrilled at finally having someone their own age to talk to, while the adults returned to the music room, where the two couples had been wiling away the evening before Rachel’s arrival.

Their conversation turned first to polite inquiries as to Rachel’s trip. With studied calm, Rachel replied, “It was all right, really, except for being stopped by a highwayman.” The four other people in the room stared at her speechlessly for a long moment. Then Devin sprang to his feet, his ready temper rising. “What? Are you joking?” “No. Not at all. It was the most peculiar thing.” “Peculiar!” Dev exclaimed. “That is hardly how I would describe it.” “Oh, yes, you would, if you had been there.

” “Rachel! Why didn’t you tell us immediately?” Miranda cried, getting up a little awkwardly and coming over to her sister-in-law. “Are you all right? You weren’t hurt, were you?” “No. I just lost a few coins, that is all. He did not threaten me at all.” “What the devil was he doing all the way up here?” Cleybourne asked. “Have you heard anything about this chap before, Dev?” “No, not a bit. I can scarcely think it would be profitable patroling the byways of Derbyshire.” “I’m not at all sure that profit was his primary motive. He indicated that he was taking the money mostly for show—so his men would not suspect.” “What? Suspect what?” Dev looked at Rachel suspiciously.

“Are you sure you aren’t having us on?” “No, I promise you. I told you it was most peculiar. He seemed—well, he apparently thought Michael was in the carriage. He said he saw the coat of arms on the door. I’m not sure if he meant he was lying in wait for his carriage—I cannot imagine how he would know that it would be coming by any time soon—or if he was traveling to Westhampton and just stumbled upon us.” “A highwayman was meeting Michael?” Miranda asked. “Whatever for?” “He said he wanted to warn Michael. So he told me to give Michael this message—that someone wishes him ill, that Michael is ‘too close,’ and there are people who mean to stop him.” Her words were met with another stunned silence. “Are you sure you heard him right?” Dev asked finally.

“Yes. Ask Gabriela. She witnessed it all. That is what he said. Then he said he was sorry, but he would have to take something to make it look right, or something like that. And he wanted my emerald studs, but I protested and said they were a bride’s gift from Michael, and he took a purse full of coins instead. Then he left.” “I’m sorry,” Jessica said tentatively. “I don’t know Lord Westhampton as well as the rest of you. What did he mean?” “I don’t have any idea,” Rachel replied frankly.

“I was hoping Richard or Dev would have some idea—that perhaps there was some sort of male activity involved which you conspired to keep secret from us females. Or from me, at least—so I wouldn’t worry or be afraid or something.” “I haven’t a clue,” her brother responded, looking perplexed. “And if I were in on some male secret, you can be sure that Miranda would have wormed it out of my by now.” He cast a fond glance at his wife, who gave him a dimpled smile in return. “Maybe it is some sort of code,” Miranda mused. “I know Westhampton told me once that he had always been fond of puzzles and things like that.” “Yes, he is. “The fellow must have been mad, that is all I can think,” Richard added. “Best thing, I suppose, is to send a message to Westhampton, let him know what happened.

Perhaps he, at least, will understand it.” “Yes, I guess you are right,” Rachel agreed. “I will write him a letter tonight.” “I shall send one of the grooms up to Westhampton with it first thing tomorrow,” Dev assured her. “I’m sure there’s nothing to it, but best be safe, you know.” So later that night Rachel sat down at the small secretary in her room and dashed off a letter to Michael, telling him everything that the stranger had said to her and adding a few questions of her own. Dev entrusted the missive to his head groom, who would leave at dawn the next morning on one of Dev’s excellent horses, so that Michael would know as soon as humanly possible about the strange occurrence. But knowing that she had done all she could to warn Michael—if, indeed, there was any truth to the highwayman’s words—did not bring Rachel peace of mind. As she dressed for bed and took down her hair, her thoughts kept returning to the events of the evening, much as a tongue sought out a sore tooth. Suddenly everything connected to Michael seemed unsure and awkward.

She and Michael were not close in the way that Dev and Miranda, were. There was not that intimacy between them that seemingly only love and passion could bring. But she had thought that she knew Michael well. She knew the subjects that interested him, the foods he liked and disliked. She could have named the tailor and boot maker he frequented, and the clubs to which he belonged, the names of most of his friends and even those of some of the people with whom he corresponded. However, the encounter with the Cassandra-like highwayman had left her wondering how much she really knew Michael. The man “Red Geordie” had spoken of seemed to be someone altogether different from the Westhampton she knew—a person involved in something that threatened someone else, someone who needed to be warned. Someone who would be acquainted with a highwayman. She kept thinking that the odd man must have been mistaken, that he was talking of another man besides her husband. Yet he said that he had recognized the crest on the side of the carriage.

He had called him Westhampton—or had it been she who had offered the name and the man had simply agreed? Perhaps, as one of the others had suggested, the intruder had been quite mad. Or it was all some bizarre hoax. After all, neither Dev nor Richard had known what the man was talking about; they had been as much in the dark as she. And Richard had been friends with Michael since before Rachel herself had met him. Surely he would know if Michael was somehow involved with a highwayman. But Rachel could not escape the thought that a wife should not have to depend on someone else’s knowledge of her husband to be sure of him. Surely she, as his wife, should know him the best of all! Rachel felt sure that if Miranda had been in her situation, she would have known exactly what Dev was involved in. Rachel sighed as she sat down in front of the vanity and began to brush out her hair. She studied her reflection in the mirror as she did so. She was still an attractive woman, she told herself.

Her hair was thick and black, and moonstruck admirers still wrote odes to her green eyes. She had retained the slim figure of her youth, and no wrinkles marred her skin. She was twenty-seven, still young. She paused in her brushing for a moment, looking intently into the mirror. Had she changed since the day Michael had met her? But she knew the answer to that question—the change had all been inside her. Her hand tightened involuntarily on her brush. She had married as she was supposed to, as Society expected and her father had demanded. But in doing her duty, she had given up her hopes and dreams. She had denied the longings of her heart. Rachel could still remember the awful pain of her decision.

There had been nothing else she could do, she knew. Her father had been right; had she not married Michael, it would have been scandal and ruin for her family and herself—as well as for Michael, who had been entirely innocent in the whole matter. She had done what she had to do, but in doing so she had condemned her heart to despair. She had married Michael and had said goodbye to the man she loved.


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