Unmasked Heart

Unmasked Heart: A Challenged of the Soul Novel

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Summary: Shy, nearsighted caregiver, Gaia Telfair always wondered why her father treated her a little differently than her siblings, but she never guessed she couldn't claim his love because of a family secret, her illicit birth. With everything she knows to be true evaporating before her spectacles, can the mulatto passing for white survive being exposed and shunned by the powerful duke who has taken an interest in her? Ex-warrior, William St. Landon, the Duke of Cheshire, will do anything to protect his mute daughter from his late wife's scandals. With a blackmailer at large, hiding in a small village near the cliffs of Devonshire seems the best option, particularly since he can gain help from the talented Miss Telfair, who has the ability to help children learn to speak. If only he could do a better job at shielding his heart from the young lady, whose honest hazel eyes see through his jests as her tender lips challenge his desire to remain a single man. Unmasked Heart is the first Challenge of the Soul Regency novel.

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March 1819, Devonshire, England

Mud seeped into Gaia Telfair's slippers as she slogged to the old church. Out of breath, she clutched the rough-hewn rail of the cemetery's fence. A heavy shake of her foot didn't keep the wetness from leaching through the kid leather or the peeling satin lining. If there had been more time, she'd have grabbed her sister's sturdy boots or begged for the cook's stilt-like pattens.

Yet there wasn't time. Her heart beat hard as she tried to imagine her brother's sweet smile. Two miles of fruitless searching between here and home had worn her to a thread. How could he vanish?

Something must've upset him and made him run. Unlike her younger sisters, the incorrigible twins, Timothy wouldn't grieve her like this.

A heavy sigh fell from her lips. If Gaia hadn't been glorying over Elliot's broken engagement, she'd have paid more attention to the six-year-old.

Balling her fist, she rapped the top of the fence, stinging her knuckles. This wasn't Elliot Whimple's fault. It was hers. If Elliot knew of this trouble, the gallant scholar would lead a search party. Such a dear man.

She cleaned her fogged spectacles against the edge of her short spencer, her best jacket, and then shoved the lenses onto the bridge of her nose. Straining, she scanned the graveyard. Everywhere were puddles and soggy earth, thick like cold porridge. Anyone lost in these woods would be soaked to the bone. Poor Timothy.

She swiped at her eyes and leaned her full weight against the crossed timbers. The tang of rainwater perfumed the air. Lil' Timothy loved spring showers.

Something small and dark fluttered the bushes edging the corner. Was it her imagination, or did a blur knock against the lone elm? Timothy?

Fingering the oak rail for a splinter-free patch, she swung her legs over the fence. Lord, let him be well.

Pulse pounding, she cupped a hand to her mouth. "Timothy!"

Her voice echoed then disappeared in the breeze. No response, no crowds or foolish talk or repetition of the silly teases from her friends. The tweaks of how the afternoon sun would further darken her skin stung something deep in her chest. The sunshine could do no more damage to her olive-like complexion; well, no more than the blood in her veins or the luck of her birth. Her father called it a pagan inheritance. Why did she have to be the one to show their Spanish heritage and none of her sisters?

Gaia uncurled her tight fingers. She'd accepted she'd never be as pretty as any of the other fair Telfair girls, but it didn't lessen the pain arising from unthinking words, even those made in jests. With a breath, she swallowed the ache and moved forward.

Toes clenching, she trudged past her older brother's marker. The memory of mopping his brow as he succumbed to his war injuries piled more sadness upon her heart. The pressure increased as she stared at his stone and the one shared one of the stillborn twins of her late mother. Shivering, she glanced away to the flattened grass path. How could she tell Father his last son was missing? Would the man's poor health sustain the news?

Slipping to the elm, Gaia hung her head. No Timothy; just a fleeing rabbit and the lone marker for the old vicar. High blades of grass nearly covered the etched limestone. Set apart from the other graves, the caretaker must've missed this it.

The afternoon sun filtered through the high stained-glass window of the chapel, casting a scarlet glow upon her snug sleeves and thinning knit gloves. If only the light could wrap about her and somehow spin time in reverse. Then, she would pay more attention to her dear brother, not her dearest friend's gossip and wild encouragement of chasing Elliot Whimple's love.

Gaia whipped her head to the road and spied the approach of her running confidant, Serendip Hallow.

The lovely girl, inside and out, waved. "Have you found Timothy?"

"Not yet." The words caught in her throat, almost bringing forth a sob. She edged in Seren's direction. "Crowds scare him. He's so easily disoriented."

"I've put a footman and a groom out to search; and to do so quietly. My brother's going to look on the moors. He'll do anything for pin money," Seren shook her head and tilted her bisque bonnet. A raven pin curl fell and skirted her vibrant green eyes. "Timothy might have wandered there, like before when Elliot found him."

A stamp of Gaia's foot produced a splash of mud, further saturating her skirt and damp petticoat. Her shoulders sagged as she seized the rail. "No, more talk of that man. If I hadn't been so engaged with my own foolishness, I'd have kept Timothy. Our father will be so disappointed in me."

"He's always so stern with you."

True. Father was hard to please. If she were prettier, more like her beautiful elder sister, he might be easier. Stomach twisting, Gaia nodded. "But this lecture will be so deserved."

"It's not. You have too many responsibilities. You deserve happiness." A bright smile spread across Seren's small oval face as she waggled her trademark charm, a four-leaf clover. "Listen to me; your brother will be found. Fortune is headed your way."

Linking hands, Seren guided Gaia's climb over the railing, but, instead of letting go, she pulled her into a deep embrace, mashing her cheek against a fine rose shawl of rich Mechlin lace. "You matter. Tomorrow, when Timothy's safe, do something for Gaia Telfair. Work up the courage to tell Elliot Whimple your heart."

Straightening, she put a finger to Seren's mouth. "Not now; I must find my little brother."

With a half-step backwards, Seren shrugged. "Of course. Where haven't you looked? Maybe he's back at Chevron Manor."

"He's not home, but..." With a final hug, Gaia pivoted toward the woods. "My oak; I took him to it last week. Pray he's there."

Sprinting, Gaia didn't look back.

One button, two, three. She ripped open the bone fobs of her short jacket to allow her arms to swing with greater speed. Elms and pines all blended into a blur of jade. The smell of peppery heather filled her lungs. Soon she'd be at her spot; the crag overlooking the moors 'neath the largest oak in England.

Hopping across a pebble-infested stretch, Gaia stepped to her special place. Through the last few difficult years, this was where she’d sought comfort. Here, she prayed and cried and danced with the wind.

She parted the bushes and stepped on to the clearing.

Wiping her eyes, pushing at her spectacles, she squinted at the reddish-brown locks, the coloring so close to her own. Timothy? Nestled on a limb, perched high in the tree's canopy, lay her brother, a small lump in a dark blue coat. Not wanting to startle him, she crept closer.

"Thank you, God." With one foot on a gnarled root and clasping a thick branch, she lifted close enough to stroke the boy's hair.

Her slippers gave way, and she dropped onto a patch of wet leaves. Pea-green blades of garlic-smelling ransoms stroked her jaw. Cool air rushed her temples. Her bonnet had come loose and lay a few feet away. The brim bore mud stains. She sighed, more things to explain to Father.

Lifting an arm and then a leg, she tested each limb. Nothing seemed hurt but her pride. "Timothy, you had me so afraid."

"G-A-Ya?" The boy's soft blue eyes were swollen red. He clenched the branch as if he'd fall. "H-elp."

"Stay put." She stood and swatted the stains from her dress. "Oh, how am I going to get to you?" At twenty, she was too old to climb trees. Definitely against the ladylike protocol her stepmother and aunt had tried to ingrain, but how else would she retrieve the scared boy?

Lifting up the hem of her ruined skirt, she set her slippers again on the root and craned her neck, searching for a better place to grip. "This is punishment for listening to gossip and praising the end of Elliott's engagement. God, I shouldn't have rejoiced at his unhappiness, no matter how right it is to spare the world another bad match. Probably shouldn't have prayed for the break, either. Let Elliott Whimple not regret—"

"I've heard young women pray for husbands, but I'd never thought one capable of praying for misery," the deep voice transitioned to laughter.

Twisting to see, she fell again, but this time strong arms caught her and placed her on solid ground.

"Now, what do we have here?" The tall man with the curious blue-green eyes handed her the reins of his pewter horse and wandered closer to Timothy. "Can I help you down, young man?"

"Wait," her voice warbled, "he fears strangers."

"Nonsense; a stranger's just an unknown friend to a daring lad." He reached near the branch.

Her brother rocked his head and tried to scoot away. His low heel caught on the branch and Timothy teetered.

Before she could blink, the stranger grabbed Timothy. His large hands swallowed the boy's middle as he stalked over to Gaia. "Does this brave adventurer belong to you?"

She opened her arms to receive Timothy, but the man turned and put her brother atop his gelding. "I only let brave young men on Magnus. You must be so, for climbing such a big tree."

A smile set on Timothy's lips as he gripped the leather harness on the well-muscled horse, but Gaia still trembled. She wouldn't calm, not until the boy was in her arms. "Sir, we are grateful, but I need to take my brother home."

"Let him get his bearings back. We don't want him to become fearful of heights. My father once... Well..." He tipped his top hat and led Magnus in a circle around Gaia. "A young man needs to believe in himself."

Timothy's high cheekbones held a dimpled smile. Who wouldn't on such magnificent horseflesh? The huge gelding pranced. The gorgeous creature towered. It was as tall as she. Stroking Magnus's onyx mane, her brother looked very comfortable, so different from the frightened boy from moments earlier.

Yet Gaia's stomach knotted. Her little brother was her responsibility, one she cherished when she wasn't swept away in thoughts of Elliot or trying to appear unruffled by polite ridicule. She bit her lip for a second, wondering who this stranger was and when he would leave them. From the cut of his fine grey coat and the shine of his boots, this was a wealthy stranger, someone who wouldn't ordinarily associate with the Telfairs. The sooner Timothy and she returned home, the better. "Please, sir; we can't trespass upon your favor any longer."

The fellow stopped in front of her. His wide shoulders blocked the sun shining through the leafy canopy. A hint of sea air, fresh and salty, hung about man and steed. "Be at ease. I'm enjoying the moors and the coast; so beautiful this time of year. But grant me one token of goodwill as the boy takes a few trots on old Magnus."

Her tongue felt thick, and she fidgeted with the faded ribbons trimming her bodice. "What... would that be?"

"Explain why you've prayed for misery. Hearing the tale seems a fitting hero's reward."

His tone sounded too merry to be sinister, yet her knees wobbled. Only Serendip knew of her unrequited feelings for Elliot. Now a stranger did.

She took a deep swallow. "I spoke... out of anguish. My brother looked as if he'd fall."

"Yes, but such a curious intercession." He patted the horse and tugged the grinning Timothy from the saddle, putting him into Gaia's embrace. "One wonders what you'll ask for next."

With the man's dark hair and solid build, he could've been an older version of Elliot, but scholarly Elliot had manners. He'd never press, and her natural shyness kept her from offering opinions. Leveling her shoulders to portray an air of confidence, she cleared her throat. "Sir, my prayers are for my Lord's ears."

"Then I'm not worthy to hear. Still, my curiosity is not lessened. Have you prayed for anything else?" His baritone bore thick chuckles and a sense of elevation. "A plague or more hostilities with France won't do."

"Horse. Horse." Timothy squirmed and knocked her spectacles askew.

She squeezed him tightly. Righting her lenses, she caught the man's gaze. He was more handsome in focus. Nonetheless, wouldn't the stranger spread this tale at the local pub or wherever men told their stories? Whispers flew through the small village faster than falling rain.

And when Father heard, he'd think her wanton and be so disappointed in her character. Fear squeezed her chest; with her brother's tiny hand secured in hers, she put him to the ground and pivoted back to the path. The sooner they made it home, away from strangers, the better. "Thank you again, sir."

"My pleasure, but please don't option for another war. No relationship is worth the bloodshed."

His mirth fell upon her, picking at the scab covering her battered pride.

She had half a mind to leave without uttering another word, but she turned. "Laugh, if you must, but more people should pray against ill-suited matches. I believe there would be a lot less unhappiness in the world."

Tucking his fist onto his hip, as if he ferried an invisible hat like a shako the militia wore, he marched out of the shadow of the oak. A frown covered his face, his chiseled jaw set into grim lines. His gaze whipped up and down then seemed to settle on her countenance. "So, lass, what makes you an expert?"

"I have eyes, four of them." She tweaked her lenses. "And I use them." Stabbing a few loose pins back into her chignon, she gaped at his polished boots and traced the expensive silver threading of his greatcoat to his thick cravat. She'd just insulted a very rich man; someone Father would try to placate in public, and then complain about ad nauseam at home. "They must also make me forget myself. Sorry."

She bit her lip and loosened the iron grip she had on Timothy's fingers. "I shouldn't be dismissive of the man to whom I'm indebted."

"Such large hazel eyes." He reached close to her ear and plucked a muddy spear-shaped leaf of lousewort from one of her dangling curls. Examining his gloved fingertips almost as much as her locks, he arched his brow. "Very fine. I suppose you see things others miss. I've heard the eyes are a window unto the soul. I think I know now what that means."

He leaned to the side and retrieved her bonnet, wiping off the mud, further soiling his gloves. "Here, misery prayer warrior."

Stepping away, he returned to his horse and swung his mighty legs over the top. "Young man, be kinder to your sister. The lovely lady is becoming quite tanned in this afternoon sun."

With her mouth dropping open, Gaia tried to inhale. She didn't know what to react to first: that the stranger thought her lovely or that he assumed it was Timothy's fault her complexion wasn't snow-white. Maybe it was the combination, which made her pulse race, dull appearance and all. If she spoke her mind to Elliot, perhaps he, too, could see her this way. Hope burned inside.

With a flip of his brim, the stranger set off. Man and horse soon blended into the tree line. Who was he and would he mention her prayers to others?

She blinked, as if the action would push away her questions. None of it mattered. Timothy was safe. She took him in her arms and twirled him. Her quarter-step fell in rhythm to the sway of the oak's limbs.

Gaia hugged the boy again. "Don't run away ever again."

Timothy dropped his head. "Mean boys. Sl-ow wit."

She kissed his forehead. "You're full of wit, no matter the speed. You are so dear. Let's go home." Hopefully, the scolding she'd receive for losing Timothy wouldn't tamp Father's strength.

#

William St. Landon, the Duke of Cheshire, left his dapple grey at the stables and started to the main house; nothing he enjoyed more than a day-long ride in his native Devonshire. Spring with the spice of pine and freshly-turned soil had to be his favorite season.

The topper of his adventure? Finding a saucy tree sprite praying for misery. Ah, to be young and headstrong. At the late age of thirty-six, he was above such games.

Oh, Ontredale Lodge. He scanned the pinkish-grey stones, a country home to his lineage, and marveled at the place. Smaller than his estate in Cheshire, it was still very large and grand. As a boy, he only visited once, that awkward day his father informed him he was heir to all this. The man never liked the money or prestige, but he didn't like much. Shrugging off the bad memories, William pounded up the limestone steps.

With a blackmailer after his family, he had more serious things to fill his mind than bad memories. Resigned, he pounded up the limestone steps.

His breathing hitched as he entered the main hall. Little Mary's cries wrapped tightly about his heart; another nightmare for the poor girl.

How was he to help the child? What could replace the love of a mother, even an awful one?

"Your Grace, you've returned." His housekeeper, Mrs. Wingate, shook her head. "Lady Mary won't sleep. Her new maid has been unable to soothe her."

He removed his coat and hat and dropped them onto the close table. "The surroundings are unfamiliar; that must be upsetting her."

If only it were true. He ripped off his smudged leather gloves and handed them to Mrs. Wingate, the principal guardian of Ontredale. "I trust that the house will be fully staffed soon."

She nodded her head, fluttering the frill of her perfectly- starched mobcap. "Yes; it's been difficult to meet your needs so quickly, but it shall be done. If I'd had more notice of your arrival, all would've been in place."

Raising a brow at the inflection in her voice, the light admonishing tone, he swallowed and chose to sympathize with the woman clad in stark ash skirts. It wasn't Mrs. Wingate's fault no one could be alerted to his arrival. When his carriage arrived in the middle of the night, the old girl greeted him with a head full of curl papers in her greying hair.

"Sir, don't doubt my dedication," her tone softened, almost absorbed in the ocean of marble lining the entry. "Though the late duke visited often, I thought you'd be more like your father, and seldom come."

To be like him was a curse William wanted no part of. "Mrs. Wingate, I know you will do as well for my family as you did the late earl."

She nodded, and her gaze rose to the top of the stairs as Mary's cries ceased. "What else may I do, Your Grace?"

Absent the blackmailer's head on a platter, nothing. He sighed, thankful his child had calmed. "You will guide us with grace through the transition."

A smile peeked for a moment then disappeared in the aging crinkles of her heart-shaped face. "Should I get a doctor for Lady Mary, my lord?"

"No, she is healthy; physically healthy." What was the best way to ask? He studied the quizzing brown eyes glaring at him. The woman had to know there was a problem with his daughter. "Is there any in the village familiar with caring for a child... with difficulties?"

She looked down at the show table and picked at a pleat on her apron. "The Telfairs; their youngest can now speak, even talk with his hands. With so many daughters, one might need the position of a companion or governess. The quiet one, the one who minds the boy, she definitely has the makings of a governess."

Communicating with hands? That would be better than nothing. He tapped his chin. "Draft a note to start introductions, but, Mrs. Wingate, I'd like to be the final say on any position instructing Mary. And make it plain that my only desire is a governess, not a sly companion hoping for elevation. I'm not looking for a wife."

She nodded, but a wide frown thinned her lips. "Of course, my lord; the quiet one is the one you want. Her hopes couldn't be for more."

There was something ominous in her words, but he'd let the notion fall away. Mary was the only female he needed to puzzle out. In matters of running the house, the stern housekeeper was knowledgeable, but not with concerns to his baby. He marshaled to the stairs to check upon Mary, but pivoted. "Did any correspondence come today?"

"The usual invitations, Your Grace." Wide eyes framed the woman's portly face. Her chin lowered as if to hide them. Those windows to her soul were the only things showing a measure of compassion or feeling from the stoic woman.

Surely she recognized a devoted father. His fingers tightened on the banister. "Anything from Mr. Stelford?"

"None, sir." She brushed at the mud stain on his glove. "Been a quiet day until now."

No word from his confidant?

Or the blackmailer?

William took a cleansing breath; another day of borrowed peace from the blackguard threatening to expose his late wife's infidelity.

He should fall upon his knees and thank God for this respite, but he and God weren't on the best of terms. Maintaining a truce with the Holy Father must be best.

He smoothed his damask waistcoat, splaying its silver button between his fingers; might as well resign himself. "No, I think it will be another late night for me in the nursery." He plodded up to the first landing.

Before he could take a step, a fever-pitched sob descended, bellowing.

Mrs. Wingate didn't flinch, as if immune to the child's misery, but a father's heart could never be so hard; at least not this father's heart.

"Will you have anything to eat, sir?"

How could he, with Mary suffering? "No."

"But you can't sit up with her again. You'll wear yourself thin, catch all manner of ailments. You should let her flail and outgrow this." Mrs. Wingate picked up his hat and coat and headed toward the kitchen, her dark skirts flapping behind her.

He rubbed his jaw. He'd forgive the woman's cruel advice. When Mary felt secure, she'd not be so easily upset. Trudging the final stairs to the nursery, he tried to soften his boot heels, but they banged against the treads. The drumbeat further soured his mood. Except for his father's strict rules, Devonshire with its greenery and rugged coast meant escape, a sanctuary created by God. Mary should love it here.

The babe was all he had left of his wife, Elizabeth. He must do everything in his power to keep the little girl safe from the evils of this world. If he'd kept better care of his wife, given her a reason not to stray, things would've been different. He rubbed his temples.

The babe's shrieks vibrated the threshold, warbling the grain. It was almost as bad as the bellows of dying men on the fields of Zadorra. Images of the river of death, the battle of Vitoria he fought, filled his head. Yes, no one should pray for more wars with France.

He shook his head. Those memories woke him up at night, but what would make a child of four scream in terror? Why would a God in Heaven make her mute, except for these cries? Where was His mercy?

The late Reverend St. Landon would preach his son's fate, widowed with a hurting child, was judgment. Why not, after disappointing his father and his wife? William straightened his shoulders and pushed open the door to the darkened room. Reaching at the top of a chest of drawers, he lit a candle.

As her incompetent nurse paced back and forth, screeching shushes at his daughter, Mary stood in the middle of the crib, tears dribbling down her chin, her face cherry-red. She must've caught sight of him, for she held her arms up.

Rushing to her, he shuttled across the thick puce carpet, the noise of his heels absorbed in the padding. "You are dismissed, woman!"

The nurse backed from the room, half-curtsying, half-running. The door slammed on its hinge.

Mary leapt at his embrace and wound her chubby arms about his neck. Her moans subsided when he snuggled her close. What an unthinking nurse to let this precious girl scream.

He stroked her sandy-brown curls and wiped tears from her sea-green eyes. This little bonbon held his heart within her tiny palms, perhaps the only person to love him unconditionally. "Papa's here. You're safe. We're both safe."

With the child clinging to his lapels, he moved to the rocking chair in the corner of the buttercream-colored nursery.

Mary burrowed deeper into his arms and played with the buttons of his waistcoat. What he wouldn't pay to hear her voice given to words and not terror.

He lifted his legs to the child's chestnut trunk and scanned the carved duck and other small toys on the oak bookcase of the glazed-pear cultured room. "Isn't this a pretty place? I had all your things put in here, just as they were in Cheshire."

The little girl knocked two buttons together, as if they were a gong.

Loosening the metal from her fingers, he held her palm. His wide thumb covered the small soft middle. "Would you like to hear of how I led my forces in the battle of Assaye? My regiment spread across the plains of India."

Wide-eyed, she grinned a toothy sigh.

"Say 'Papa', as you once did."

She smiled again and grabbed his nose.

He hugged her tight to his breast. With everything he had, he'd keep the mother's sins quiet. None of the ugliness would fall on Mary's head. No one would question the child's paternity and ruin her chances.

If someone had prayed for his marital happiness, he'd never have wedded Elizabeth, but then he'd never have this joy. "Rest assured, my girl, I'll keep the nightmares at bay."

A short knock assailed the nursery threshold.

Mrs. Wingate entered. "This just came by post," she waved a letter in her hand.

It wasn't written on paper cream, so it wasn't the blackmailer's handiwork. He released a pent-up breath.

Without another word, Mrs. Wingate set it on the dresser, curtsied, and left the room.

Benjamin Stelford's large garnet seal seemed to glow on the blue tinted stationary. It was unmistakable, even at this shorter distance. If William's friend hadn't discovered the blackmailing blackguard, hiding in Devonshire wouldn't conceal the horrid scandal.