Unmasked Heart by Vanessa Riley
Shy, nearsighted caregiver, Gaia Telfair always wondered why her father treated her a little differently than her siblings. 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.
Excerpt: Unmasked Heart by Vanessa Riley
Father moved toward the boxy pianoforte, his spindle legs drifting. "I wasn't aware, but it is of no consequence. The man doesn't look at you that way. Though he's good to his brother's household, I see him going to study in London. That's too far to watch over Timothy."
"I need a chance to convince him. If he could like me, I'm sure he will help in my brother's care."
He leaned on the instrument. "I can't be at peace if all my children are tossed to the streets. You owe this to me, to all the Telfairs."
Owe? "What do you mean, Father?"
"Don't, Mr. Telfair. She doesn't need to know. Gaia can be reasoned with without saying anything more."
The warning sent a chill down Gaia's spine, but she had to know. "Tell me why I owe my flesh and blood."
Father took her hand and pulled it to his pale face. "Do you think it's possible that fair Telfair blood could produce this?"
Her heart stopped, slamming against her ribs. "My mother's Spanish roots have browned my skin. That's what you've always said."
He dropped her palm as his head shook. "It was a lie to cover my first wife's harlotry. You're a Telfair because I claimed you."
Gaia couldn't breathe. She crumbled to the floor. Hot tears drenched her face as she wished for a hole to break open and swallow her. "A mistake. Please, say this is a mistake."
The man whom she'd called father, whom she’d worshipped, shook his head again.
She lifted a hand to grasp his shoe but stopped, missing the black leather.
Was this why she’d always felt as if she could never grasp a hold of his love? Is this why he treated her a little differently from the rest? "Then who am I? Whose am I?"
"Some traveling bard, some African poet who captivated her whilst I travelled. When you came out so close to white, with so little color, the ruse was borne; no scandal would befall my name. I'm just lucky you weren't a boy. Then, Chevron would fall to a mulatto. How would the Telfair line handle that tragedy?"
She waved her fingers, studying the light pigment coloring her skin. Mulatto. All this time she’d blamed her flesh on fate or heritage, not lust. She tugged at her elbows, feeling dirty. Glancing at him between tears, she silently begged for him to say it didn't matter, that he loved her still. "Father?"
With a grimace painting his silent mouth, he buttoned his waistcoat. "I'm going to lie down. Talk to her, Sarah; make her understand."
Desperate, Gaia's hand rose this time, but his back was to her in a blink as he plodded from the room. Her fingers felt cold and numb as they sank onto the thin rug. The breath in her lungs burned. Adultery, not a Telfair by blood – these thoughts smashed against her skull.
Sarah knelt beside her and stroked her back. "I'm so sorry. You should never have known."
Gaia shook her head and pulled away. "No more lies."
"Please, I'm not the enemy."
Rearing up, she caught the woman's beady gaze. "You want me to believe you don't want the almost-bastard to be a servant to Timothy? Would you wish one of your children be given this sentence, to become a governess to their own flesh and blood? Well, at least they can claim to be flesh and blood to Timothy."
Sarah reached again and wiped tears from Gaia's cheek then opened her arms wide. "You are his sister. You love him so. This is no failing of yours."
At first, Gaia fell into the woman's sturdy embrace, then she stiffened and pulled away. She needed to flee, to let her brain make sense of the emotions whipping inside. Her slippers started moving. "I must go."
Gaia shook her head and backed to the threshold. "Why? Is there something else you have to disclose to steal the rest of my dreams?"
Without a thought for a bonnet or coat, she rushed down the hall and out the front door.
Wham! She slammed into a man in fancy, sky-blue livery. The servant was tall and black. Black, like some part inside of her. Her eyes fixed on his bronze skin and wouldn't let go.
"Miss? I've come from Ontredale. Are you well, miss? You look pale enough to faint."
Not pale enough; never would be. "Sorry." She ducked her eyes and sidestepped him.
"Ma'am, I bear a note—"
"You want a Telfair. They are inside." She started running and kept going until not a cobble of Chevron Manor could be seen. Salty drops stung and blurred each step. She strode forward, deeper into the welcoming woods. A hint of spring blooms stroked her nose, but the streaks lining her wet face obscured them.
A fleeting thought to go to Seren's crossed Gaia's mind, but she couldn't let her friend see her like this. She was even more pitiful than normal. Would Seren even want to be her friend if the truth of her birth became known? "God, I have no hope."
As if her slippers bore a mind of their own, they led Gaia back to her special place. Heather grasses and lousewort danced about her mighty oak, like there were something to celebrate. Her dance card was now filled with pity. Her fortunes forever changed. Nothing good ever changed for Gaia. "God, spin back time. Let me be ignorant again - ignorant and meek and unnoticed. I won't complain this time."
Anything was better than what she was, a secret bastard. If not for the covering lies of the Telfairs, she would be a by-blow. She studied her shaking hands. If she'd been dark like the servant she'd collided with, would she have been tossed away?
Making a fist, she beat against her oak. The snickers of her friends, did they know, too? How many sly remarks were actually hints at her mother's infidelity? The village was small. Gossip burned like a candle's wick, bright and fast.
Did it matter with white and black, all trapped inside her limbs? Her stomach rolled. Nausea flooded her lungs. She lunged away, dropped to her knees, and let her breakfast flow out. Maybe the ugly truth could drain away too.
Wiping her mouth, she crawled back to her oak and set her wrist against a thick tree root. Her skin was light like butter, compared to the bark. The skin was almost like the Telfairs’, just a little tan, a little darker. Not good enough.
She wasn't good enough.
Now she knew she could never be good enough.
Envy of her sisters' fair, pretty skin, had it not always wrestled in her bosom? The English world said the lighter the complexion, the more genteel and the more one would be held in esteem.
But she should have envied their blood instead. They knew with certitude who their father was. Julia, the twins, each had a future that could include love. What did Gaia have?
She stood and wiped her hands against her skirt. The grass stains and dusting of dirt left her palms, but the off-white color of her skin remained. She brushed her hands again and again against the fabric, but the truth wouldn't disappear.
A light wind whipped the boughs of her tree, as if calling her for an embrace. Tripping over the gnarled root, she fell against the rough bark. Arms stretched wide, she held onto the trunk. Moss cushioned her cheek while the rustle of crunching leaves sounded like a hush, as if the oak knew her pain and tried to stop her tears.
More crackling of leaves made her lift her chin, but the strong sun shining through the jade canopy of leaves blinded her. She clutched the scarred bark with trembling fingers, and hoped whoever was near didn't see her. No one should witness her shame.
A white handkerchief waved near her forehead.
Gaia surrendered to the fact that she'd been discovered. Slowly, she stood, smoothed her wrinkled bodice, and turned. Nothing mattered any more, not even the opinion of a stranger. Shame mingling with tears, she took the fine lawn cloth from the man who'd caught her Sunday, praying aloud about Elliott.
( Continued... )
© 2015 All rights reserved. Book excerpt reprinted by permission of the author, Vanessa Riley. Do not reproduce, copy or use without the author's written permission. This excerpt is used for promotional purposes only.
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