An Inconvenient Wife

By Constance Hussey

Romance, Historical fiction

Paperback, eBook

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523
5 mins

Chapter One

Chapter One

Hampshire, England, 1804

“No!”
Nicholas Blackwell, Viscount Westcott, scowled at his closest friend and folded his arms across his chest.
“Why not? I need you. England needs you. And this child needs you.”
Devlin St. Clair’s look of weary patience fueled Westcott’s anger and he slammed both hands down on his desk. “Dammit, Dev. Don’t spout that rubbish at me. You know very well I have a child right here that needs me and you are perfectly capable of carrying out this mission alone.”
St. Clair rose, walked across the room, and braced one hip against the desk. “Perhaps I can, but it will be far safer and go much faster with your knowledge and contacts,” he said in a quiet tone at odds with the grim set of his face. “I don’t want Juliette put to additional risk. Surely you can understand that.” He laid a hand on Westcott’s arm. “Three weeks, Nick. That’s all I ask. Sarah can come to Lynton and stay with my mother.”
Westcott stared at the broad fingers resting so lightly on his arm and thought about the invisible weight that strong hand carried. A friendship that went back to childhood, a staunch ally through boyish adventures, a steady presence during the nightmare of Camille’s death and Sarah’s terrifying illness.
“I will think about it.” Even so little a concession was difficult to get out. He would think about it—he was no liar, blast it—but whether he could step out of the safe fortress he had erected around his daughter was uncertain.
St. Clair’s mouth pulled back in a wry smile. “That’s all I ask.” His fingers tightened around Westcott’s arm before he released him and straightened. “Thank you.” His smile broadened into genuine humour. “I know the way out.” The earl strolled to the door and paused. “You might consider that a change of scene may be good for Sarah.” The door closed behind him with a quiet snick.
Westcott dropped into his chair and buried his face in his hands. He did not want to leave Westhorp, leave Sarah; step back into the world. It had proven to be a hazardous place which he wanted no part of. He had obligations here.
And that gives you the right to ignore everything else? Westcott raised his head, stood, and shoved back his chair with enough force to flip it over onto the floor with a muted thud. A few quick strides to the French doors leading to the terrace and he stepped out into the chill air. The garden below was a bleak landscape of leafless trees and shrubs under gray, leaden skies that held the threat of bad weather. Months yet to go before spring, when he could push Sarah’s chair along the flagged paths so she could enjoy the flowers, birds, butterflies and any other living creature they might stumble upon. For a moment, the picture of his daughter giggling at the antics of the squirrels lightened his mood. Sarah enjoyed new experiences. Maybe St. Clair’s suggestion had some merit.
Westcott clasped his hands behind his back and began to pace. Do you keep her too close, as St. Clair has implied more than once? Are you so caught in your own fear of hurting her that you are being selfish? But he couldn’t bear…and what does she bear, every day of her life because of your stupidity?
“You are an idiot, Westcott.” He stopped in mid-stride at the sound of his voice and grimaced. Now he was talking to himself—and damned unlikely to get a response!
But Portugal? In March? He hadn’t been there for years, and he hated sailing. Even St. Clair was a better sailor than he was.
Unsettled by the thought of leaving Westhorp, leaving his daughter, Westcott stomped out of the room. He had to speak to Sarah before he made a decision.
~* * *~
Sarah was deeply engrossed in a book when Westcott reached her bedchamber, and he halted at the door to watch her, something he never tired of doing. Her fair hair, so unlike his deep brown, was tied up in a blue ribbon and cascaded over her slender shoulders. She took after Camille in that respect, along with the straight little nose and rosebud lips. But not her eyes; they were all Blackwell, a changeable hazel with a curious little fold at the corner of the eyelid that gave her face a look of innocence. That same hint of naiveté, while more subtle on his adult face, had often been to his advantage.
She was sitting in her wheeled chair today, near the deep-set window that bowed out to allow a view of the garden and terrace below. A poor substitute for being outdoors as she preferred; winters were difficult for her.
Every day is difficult for her.
Alerted by some small movement, Sarah looked up and smiled. “Papa!”
“Hello, muffin. How are you feeling today?” Westcott strolled across the room, bent to place a kiss on her forehead, and sat on the wide window seat. He picked up her book and turned it to look at the cover. “What is this you are reading? I don’t remember seeing it before.”
She giggled and patted his hand. “Because Uncle Devlin gave it to me just today when he came to visit. It is a very good book and not stuffy at all.”
“And have you been reading stuffy books?” Westcott put on an expression of astonishment.
Sarah covered her mouth to hide her grin, but her eyes were bright with laughter. “I try not to, Papa, but sometimes it cannot be helped. Mr. Sloan does bring the dreariest sermons for me to read.”
He laughed and tugged at a wayward curl. “And you are too kind-hearted to put him off.”
“I daresay it is good for me,” she said with a sigh, and then took the book from his hand and opened it to one of the drawings. “But I much prefer stories such as this. You cannot imagine what marvelous adventures Mr. Crusoe had! It looks a wonderful island, doesn’t it?”
“I am pleased you are enjoying it.” Westcott put the book aside and tucked her hair behind her ears. “You look as if you are ready for a rest. Shall I take you back to bed?” He slipped a hand beneath her legs and gathered her into his arms. “Where is Nurse, by the way?”
“She went to find her knitting.” Sarah wrapped her hands around his neck. “Do you suppose the headhunters are still there? Perhaps we can go there someday, Papa.”
He settled her against the propped up pillows on the bed and laid a blanket over her legs. “I believe it somewhat far to travel. Perhaps we can visit an island closer to home.”
“Really? I would like to go somewhere.”
She leaned back and closed her eyes, with such a wistful expression on her face his heart ached. She should be going everywhere she wanted, not tied to this bed and a pushchair. It might be that Sarah would benefit from a change of scene. He could at least ask her.
Westcott sat on the side of the bed and took her hands in his. “It isn’t an island, but what say you to spending a few weeks at Lynton Hall with Uncle Devlin’s mama? He has asked me to go to Portugal with him and Aunt Juliette to take care of some business.”
Sarah’s eyelids sprang open and she sat up. “Really, Papa? You’ve never wanted me to go away before.”
“You haven’t been almost nine years old before and quite grown up,” Westcott said with a smile. “But if you wish, this time you may go.”
Sarah sighed loudly, flopped back onto the pillows, and beamed at him. “I do wish to go. When? When will it be?”
Westcott pulled his brows together in a mock frown. “You are altogether too pleased to escape me, I think.”
She patted his cheek. “I don’t want to escape you, silly Papa. I’m sure I shall miss you terribly. But this will be my own little adventure, just like Robinson Crusoe.”
“Not quite like that intrepid gentleman, who had some difficult times if I remember correctly.” Westcott stood and smoothed the bedcover around her. “In a fortnight or so. It hasn’t been settled as yet.” He looked up at the entrance of a pleasant-faced woman of middle age. “Now here is Nurse to scold me for keeping you from your nap.”
“As if I ever would, my lord,” Nurse chided, but humour gleamed in her eyes.
“I’m sure you should,” he said lightly, and then looked at his daughter. “I will be back to take supper with you, muffin.” Not expecting an answer, as this was routine for them, he stepped out, closed the door behind him, and leaned against it, shaken by the realization his darling child was so eager for new surroundings.
You wanted to keep her safe, protected from reminders that she was crippled, but might you have created a prison? Perhaps St. Clair was right, damn him. If so, you owe the man yet another thing for opening your eyes. Disturbed, Westcott shoved away from the door and traversed the passageway in swift, angry strides, reminded of the long hours Devlin had spent with him at Sarah’s bedside. A time when they were not sure she would survive, and then when the crisis passed, coaxing her back to health and some semblance of the high-spirited, active child she had been before the accident that had taken her mother’s life.
It is Sarah’s happiness that is important, not what you prefer, and what of this other child, a girl not all that much older than Sarah, who may be unhappy or even in peril? Can you live with that on your conscience, knowing you might have helped her?
Guilt riding his shoulder like some sharp-clawed nemesis, Westcott ran down the stairs and slammed out of the house. Blast it, he would go to Portugal, if for no other reason than to give Sarah her little adventure. But he’d be damned if he’d enjoy a minute of it.



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