The Untamed Heiress

The Untamed Heiress

November 2006

Untutored. Untouched. Until…

Imprisoned as a child by her spiteful father, Helena Lambarth vowed upon his death to never again live under a man’s rule. But to honor her mother’s last wish, she journeys to London to enter society—and finds herself a reluctant houseguest of the dashing Lord Darnell.  Adam, Lord Darnell, has little time to oversee the bedraggled hoyden he’s agreed to sponsor. Saddled with his father’s debts, he knows his one hope is to win the hand of wealthy Priscilla Standish. If only she weren’t so ordinary compared to the unconventional Helena—and if only his waiflike ward hadn’t suddenly transformed into a bewitching young woman…  The desire they spark in each other is undeniable.

But can the love they try to resist conquer Helena’s demons and free them both?

"Justiss rivals Georgette Heyer in the beloved The Grand Sophy (1972) by creating a riveting young woman of character and good humor... The horrific nature of Helena's childhood adds complexity and depth to this historical romance, and unexpected plot twists and layers also increase the reader's enjoyment."

~Lynne Welch, Booklist

The shrieking wind whipped her tangled black hair into her eyes as the sea crashed and foamed onto the rocks behind her. Ignoring both, Helena Lambarth kept her face turned inland toward the two laborers in the field beneath the cliffs, digging steadily into the stony soil.

The grave was almost ready.

Euphoria sent her spirits swooping like gulls on an updraft. A joyous burst of laughter trilled from her throat as she finally let herself believe it.

He was truly dead. She was free.

Though she knew any sound she made should have been lost in the cacophony of surf and cawing seabirds, one of the gravediggers paused to glance up. As he raised his arm to point, the second man saw her. A look of fear passing over his face, he crossed himself and batted his companion’s hand back to his shovel. An instant later, the two men went back to their task with renewed vigor.

Did they think her a ghostie? Helena wondered, her lips curving in a wry smile. Or did they remember her from that grim morning nine years ago when she’d managed to escape Lambarth Castle and flee to the village, only to have a group of townsmen, deaf to her pleas for help, quickly return the “poor, mad girl” to her father.

For a moment, the memory engulfed her: standing, barefoot and sobbing, within a circle of wary onlookers who murmured to each other as they took in her torn clothing, dirty face and disheveled hair. “Such a wee lass…” “Mind’s completely gone, her papa says…” “Her mother’s fault, running off like that…”

Her lip curled as a familiar fury coursed through her. Papa’s lies would keep her a prisoner no longer. Today she would leave this accursed place and search for the mother from whose side she’d been ripped just as they were about to leave her father’s land. The mother who, Helena believed with all her heart, had never stopped loving her.

A movement in the distance brought her attention back to the present. The gravediggers stood, shovels in hand, as the funeral procession picked its way down the narrow track from the castle to the small graveyard. Its listing markers and barren, windswept grounds a picture of neglect but for this new grave and one other, just inside the rusted iron gate.

A pang pierced Helena’s chest as her gaze rested on that still-unsettled mound of dirt hugging the boundary wall, its occupant an interloper in death as she had been in life. If “Mad Sally,” the old hermit medicine woman dead two months now, had not lived in Lambarth’s woods, Helena mused, she probably would not have survived her captivity.

Would Sally have been happy for her today? Helena wondered. Though the old woman babbled nonsense most of the time, in her occasional lucid moments, she’d displayed a shrewd perception. Along with some of the villagers, who crept into the woods begging Sally’s help when the local doctor’s efforts failed, Helena had also prized the woman’s uncanny talent as a healer.

Others believed the chanting crone possessed dark powers and avoided her—which was why her father, ever the coward, had let the woman live on his land undisturbed. Helena, though, had never known Sally to use her skills except to succor and heal.

Another pang squeezed her heart. Vacant-headed or not, “Mad Sally” had been her only friend, and Helena still missed her keenly.

She took a deep, steadying breath. With the demise of her father, Helena hoped that the patrol he’d set to monitor the perimeter of Lambarth land would also have departed. But whether or not she met resistance from armed guards, she vowed, only her own death would keep her another night at Lambarth Castle.

Thus sworn, she watched the funeral procession file into the graveyard. Two farm workers carried the coffin, followed by a man whose flapping black robes identified him as the vicar and Holmes, her father’s baliff.

Not expecting any other mourners, Helena was surprised to discover another person trailing the coffin. A man, Helena realized as the muffled figure drew nearer. Someone she’d never seen before.

The vicar’s assistant, perhaps? Since she’d not been off Lambarth property in nine years, there were probably several newcomers to the village she hadn’t met.

The man’s odd demeanor, though, held her attention. Rather than focusing on the preacher, whose moving lips over the open prayer book indicated he’d begun the funeral service, the man’s gaze roved up, down, around the barren graveyard, as if he were searching for something.

Or someone. A moment later, his questing eyes met hers. Defiantly Helena held his gaze. After regarding her steadily for several minutes, he nodded.

Curious now, she nodded back. The stranger gave her a brief smile, then turned back to the preacher.

While Helena watched the minister continue to read the service, her mind raced back to something “Mad Sally” had told her shortly before her death. Not daring to place any credence in so unlikely a possibility, Helena had dismissed as another of the old woman’s crazy mutterings the claim that Helena’s mother had sent someone to watch over her. Someone who’d been waiting in the village for years for her father to grow ill or incapacitated enough for it to be safe to approach her.

Could Sally’s message have been true? Might this man be the one?

She mustn’t let excitement carry her away, she told herself, trying to rein in her rioting imagination. However, since she intended to set off in that direction anyway, it wouldn’t hurt to trail the man back towards the village—assuming her expectations were correct and no armed guards remained at their posts to prevent her leaving.

The service concluded, the minister waited only until the two mourners had each tossed a handful of stony soil over the coffin before wrapping his robes about him and hurrying out of the graveyard, shoulders hunched against the wind. Without glancing at her again, the stranger followed, leaving the two gravediggers to their work.

Watching from her rocky perch as the group dispersed, Helena hugged her thin arms around the worn bodice of her outgrown dress. Since she’d long ago grown inured to the cold of the coastal wind and mist, the shiver that passed through her frame must be hope.

“I’m so sorry, my dear.”

As if the words made no sense, Helena sat staring over the desk at the kindly visage of Mr. Pendenning, Mama’s London solicitor. Except he wasn’t Mama’s solicitor any more. Mama was dead.

The man at her father’s funeral, Jerry Sunderland, had not known, the lawyer told her. He’d been sent to the village years earlier, after her mother’s attempt to rescue her failed, with instructions to settle quietly, pursue his trade and wait until such time as he judged it safe to approach Helena with Mr. Pendenning’s message.

Somehow, all through the long journey from the coast to London, she’d sensed it, though she’d forbidden her mind to even consider the possibility. Along with the lawyer’s note, Jerry had given her money enough to make the trip in easy stages, but that amorphous, unnamed fear in her heart had driven her to travel night and day without rest. Oblivious to wind, rain and chill, she’d ridden much of the way on the roof of the mail coaches, unwilling to wait and reserve an inside seat on a later run. With that inner cadence pounding in her ears—hurry! hurry!--she’d done little more than numbly note the marvelous variety of terrain and the many occupations being practiced by the folk they passed on their route.

Exploring the wonders of the world now open to her was for later. Ignoring the pain in her ankles from the stiff shoes and the scratch of the rough wool cape Jerry had provided, she had clutched in her hands the slip of paper with the solicitor’s address, her mind fixed on a single imperative: get to London. Find mama.

But Mama would not be found, in London or elsewhere. For more than a year, Mr. Pendenning had just told her, Mama’s brilliant smile and joyous laughter had been entombed on a small Caribbean island half a world away. The place where Gavin Seagrave, the man she’d loved and fled to, had settled after being forced to leave England.

There would be no reunion. The goal that had sustained her through beatings and isolation and deprivation, that had given her hope and steeled her to persevere, had vanished like snow in a hot noon sun.

For the first time in her life, Helena felt truly alone.

“What am I to do now?” she whispered, unaware she’d spoken the words out loud.

“Live your life, my child,” Mr. Pendenning said gently. “I corresponded with your mother for years and can with confidence, I believe, offer you the advice she would have given. After her health began to fail and she accepted the painful fact that she would probably not outlive your father, it became her single goal to arrange her affairs so that once you were free, you would have the means to do whatever you wished. And though I haven’t yet received the particulars from your father’s attorneys, as his sole heiress as well as your mother’s, you will find yourself an extremely wealthy young woman.”

Helena had been listening listlessly to the lawyer’s recitation, but at this, her head snapped back up. “I want nothing to do with anything that was my father’s.”

The lawyer ran a sympathetic glance over her thin form. “Though you did not hold him in affection, that does not alter the fact that you are still his legal heir. In addition to cash reserves, there is—“

“No!” Helena interrupted with such vehemence the lawyer fell silent. “I want nothing that belonged to him. Not one handful of earth from any property he owned; not a penny of his wealth. I’d rather live in the streets.”

The lawyer smiled. “There’s no chance of your having to do that. However, you must consider that part of your father’s estate consists of the land and capital that was your mother’s dowry. The rest of his assets you could sell, perhaps, and invest the proceeds.”

“Whatever was Mama’s I will keep,” Helena replied. “But nothing of my father’s. Nothing. Do you understand?”

Though he gave her a dubious look, the lawyer nodded. “As you wish. But what of Lambarth Castle? It was your home and your mother’s. If you do not wish to live in it, remote as the property is, I expect a buyer can be found.”

“I should like the books from the library shipped to me. As for the castle itself,” Helena said, turning the full force of her dark-eyed gaze on the lawyer, “I wish it to be torn down, stone by stone and beam by beam, and the rubble cast into the sea.”

The lawyer’s face blanched and he swallowed hard. “I…I see. And the servants?”

“By the time Papa died, only Holmes and his wife remained.” Helena recalled with loathing how the two had delighted in enforcing her father’s cruelty. “I suppose I cannot negate any bequests made to them in my father’s will? Then they may have whatever Papa left them and not a penny more. I am a wealthy woman now, you said?”

“Extremely wealthy.”

“And I may spend this wealth as I choose?”

“Your mother named me as trustee to advise you, but otherwise you may spend as you will.”

“Then I should like to do one more thing at Lambarth Castle. Erect a marble monument in the burial grounds.”

“To mark the grave of your father, I expect?”

Helena gave a harsh laugh. “Certainly not. The crows are welcome to him. No, the marker is for an old woman, Sally—I don’t know her last name. She was a healer, and my…my friend,” Helena concluded, her voice breaking.

The lawyer’s face softened. “I know this must have been a terrible shock to you, leaving the only place you’ve ever known and traveling so far, only to find the one you were seeking forever lost to you. We’ve spoken of financial matters, but nothing specifically of what you will do today, tomorrow, and in the coming weeks. Will you allow me to make some suggestions?”

Suddenly Helena felt the weight of the long hours of travel with little sleep and less food. Swaying, she put a hand on the lawyer’s desk to steady herself. “I…I would be grateful,” she murmured.

Mr. Pendenning poured a glass of wine from a crystal decanter on his desk. “Here, sip some of this. I’ll touch briefly on what I think you should do, and then you must rest.”

Helena took the glass with trembling hands. “Thank you. I should be glad of some rest.”

“Your mother left quite specific instructions, should all the personages she mentioned be living and amenable to her wishes. After so many years confined by your father, she wanted you to be able to travel. To study with the best tutors whatever subject you wished—music, dance, art, literature. But most especially, she wanted you to reclaim a place in society as part of a loving family, the sort of family your mother remembered from her own childhood.”

Helena’s throat tightened. “While Mama was with me, we were a loving family.”

The lawyer smiled. “From all that your mother wrote me and the tender regard she displayed for you all these years, I am sure you were. She would like you to have that closeness again. And so she wished for you to go live with her cousin and childhood friend, Lillian Forester.”

Helena’s eyes brightened. “Cousin Lillian! I remember Mama speaking of her when I was a little girl.”

“She felt she could entrust her cousin—she’s Lady Darnell now, by the way—to advise you on the purchase of a suitable wardrobe, to arrange whatever tutoring you might wish and in general, to smooth your way into society as the cultured, independent young woman she knew you would be.”

To have a home…with a woman who had been dear to her mother, had known her growing up… Helena blinked back the sudden burn of tears. It would never fill the awful void left by her mother’s loss, but the terrible loneliness that had devastated her when she learned of her mother’s death eased a fraction.

“I think I should like that. However, what if…if Lady Darnell does not wish to take me in, or we find we do not suit?” She gave the lawyer a small smile. “I have been alone so long, I may not make a…comfortable guest. In that case, do I have funds enough to set up my own household?”

“Should it come to that, you have funds enough to set up a household in every city in England! But I don’t think that shall be necessary. I took the liberty of notifying Lady Darnell that you were on your way to London. After we finish chatting, I shall send her another note letting her know you’ve arrived. I expect she’ll immediately dispatch her stepson, Lord Darnell, to welcome you into the family.”

Helena stiffened. “Lord Darnell? Why would cousin Lillian not come herself?”

The solicitor sent her a cautious look. “I expect you will not be pleased to learn this after your experiences, but in English law and custom, nearly all matters relating to wealth and family are handled for ladies by the masculine head of their household. In Lady Darnell’s case, that would be Lord Darnell, the eldest son of her late husband. She resides with him.”

Helena’s rosy vision of a congenial family unit faded. “In that case, I should like you to advise me on setting up my own establishment. I do not wish to be part of any man’s household ever again.”

The lawyer nodded sympathetically. “Though I can appreciate your caution, I assure you Lord Darnell is an excellent young man—a well-respected former army officer who served during the Peninsular Wars and at Waterloo, where he performed with great gallantry. You should at least meet him before refusing out of hand the possibility of living with your cousin. It is what your mama wanted.”

But for that fact, Helena would have rejected the suggestion without further consideration. She sat in silence for a long moment, frowning, torn between the wistful hope of recapturing something of her mother—and the hard-earned dread of being under any man’s control.

“If I meet him, even agree to live under his roof, and later change my mind, I will be free to leave at any time?”

“Of course. From now forward, you are mistress of your own life.”

After a moment, Helena nodded reluctantly. “I suppose I can at least meet him, since that was what Mama wished.”

“Excellent.” Mr. Pendenning nodded his approval. “Now, I’ve saved the most special part for last. All the years of your separation, your mother wrote you frequently. Knowing your father would likely destroy the letters if she sent them to you, she forwarded them to me for safekeeping.”

From a drawer in his desk, the lawyer removed a wooden box. “I have them all here, kept for you just as she wished. On top is her last letter, written when she knew she would never have the joy of seeing you again. In her final note to me, she asked that you read that one first.”

He reached beside him to ring the bell pull. “My assistant will show you to a room where you can be private. I’ll rejoin you with Lord Darnell when he arrives. Now, can I offer you anything else?”

Numbly Helena shook her head. “No, thank you. You’ve been very kind. May I have them?“ She held out her hands.

Smiling, Mr. Pendenning handed her the box. “Enjoy them, my dear. Your mother loved you very much.”

The precious box clasped in her hands, Helena followed the young man almost without seeing him, her heart too full of anguish, joy and confusion to speak.

Mama was lost to her forever…but her voice had not been silenced. In her hands Helena held tangible proof of the never-failing affection she’d believed in with all her heart through ten long years of separation. A priceless treasure trove of love, enclosed in a simple wooden box.

She could scarcely breathe for the emotion weighing on her chest. Tears threatened, but she held them back.

She had a story of devotion to read and she wanted to see every word clearly.

Once alone in the room to which the clerk directed her, she sat in a corner chair by the window, set the box on a table nearby and drew out the topmost letter.

“My dearest Helena, I can hardly write this for the grief I feel, knowing most likely I shall never again set eyes on your precious face, clasp you in my arms, or feel the beat of your heart against my breast. But I must stem my distress and persevere, for as great a burden as it is to know I will be forever parted from you, my dearest child, still more terrible would it be for you to win your freedom and have no word from me to ease your sorrow when you discover that I am gone. And so, my darling, let me tell you what I would say now, if we could be together…”

By the time Helena reached the end of the letter, the words were blurring on the page and her hands shook too badly for her to refold the sheet. Somehow she managed to place the note back in the box on top of the others, stacks and stacks of letters tied in bunches with string.

Only then did she allow the anguish to wash over her in a flood of the tears she’d suppressed for so long. She wept until, limp, exhausted and desolate, she craved only rest. After tugging the curtains out of their holders, in the quiet of the now-darkened room she tucked her feet up under her skirts, buried her face under her arm, and slept.

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