Bound with Love (A Regency Reimagined Story)
A perfect life—until one letter threatens to unravel it all.
Lady Vanessa Cambury, Marchioness of Camburton, adores her life of bucolic contentment with her partner, acclaimed portrait painter Nora White. Together, they have raised two children from Vanessa’s first marriage and built a home filled with purpose, ease, happiness, and passion—always passion.
But when Nora receives word that the child she lost twenty years ago is alive and in England, ancient heartache threatens to destroy their idyll.
To salvage their love, they must come to a deeper understanding of who they are—in the world, and to one another. Nora must learn to overcome the dark shadows of her past. Vanessa must learn to put others’ needs before her own. And Nora’s stubborn daughter must find it in her heart to forgive the mother she thought abandoned her. This unconventional family must rely on the powerful links of love and mercy to bind them back together.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Camburton Castle, Derbyshire – July 1810
“The Dowager Duchess of Mandeville would like to commission a portrait of her son with his new wife and baby.” Vanessa’s voice held its usual businesslike tone as she read through their correspondence, but this particular bit of news was laced with a touch of humor.
Nora smiled as she loaded her paintbrush with the rich blue she’d just mixed to add depth to the satin folds of Eliza Courtney’s dress. “Poor Farleigh finally relented, has he? Given up the boys for good?” She applied the paint to the canvas and worked it lightly.
Vanessa hummed as she read the rest of the letter, half to herself, but also to let Nora know she was there. Would always be there. Nora adored the sound of that hum, for it embodied everything lovely about the life the two of them had built over the past twenty years. That hum promised a future, acknowledged the past. The hum was usually accompanied by a gentle hand on Nora’s shoulder or the back of her neck, but never when Nora was painting.
While the outside world lauded Nora as the creative force between the two of them—the accomplished painter, the prolific artist—if it were not for Vanessa’s faith in her abilities, Vanessa’s confident nature prodding her on, Nora would still be . . .
Well, it didn’t bear considering where Nora White would still be were it not for Vanessa Montagu Cambury, Marchioness of Camburton, Force of Nature. For Vanessa, life was full of promise and always had been. Even at her darkest moments, when her dashing young husband died at sea and left her bereft—with their new twins and his old money—Vanessa had peered through the mist of loss to the lifetime of possibilities that lay before her. A devoted single mother and successful independent businesswoman by the time she was twenty-five, Vanessa refused to be daunted by mere circumstances such as death.
For Nora, circumstances had always been far more . . . daunting. She tried to stop her mind from wandering into the darker moments of her past. The month of May had pitched her into a terrible spell of sadness—as always—and she wasn’t about to let herself get dragged back into that frame of mind on this beautiful July morning. What was done was done, she told herself, giving Eliza’s dress an extra swipe of the sultry blue.
Vanessa rested her palm against Nora’s nape.
“Darling, I beg you,” Nora huffed good-naturedly, “as much as I crave your touch, you mustn’t pet me while I’m working—”
“Put your brush down.” Vanessa’s voice bore no resemblance to the lighthearted cadence of a moment before.
“What is it?” Nora turned her attention from Eliza’s portrait, holding the brush aloft a few inches from the canvas. She only needed a few more strokes to make that bit of fabric fall precisely the way she wanted, and if the paint dried, the opportunity would be lost. “I’m working—”
“Farleigh has married a Spanish girl.”
A prickle of awareness traveled up Nora’s arms, and she had to hold the paintbrush tighter, lest she drop it on the extravagant carpet. Vanessa squeezed the base of her neck for moral support, and then massaged the skin with a few passes of her thumb.
“Put the paintbrush down, Nora.”
Nora did as she was told, moving in slow motion, her ears pounding, the air around her becoming thick and murky; she was drowning.
“Come sit with me, darling.” Vanessa helped her up and the two of them settled on the bright red satin chaise. It was an absurd purchase Vanessa had made in London a few years ago, insisting an artist’s studio simply had to contain a tawdry red satin chaise. Despite its egregious color and rococo gilt frame—or maybe because of it—the two of them spent many hours lounging against the luxurious fabric in one another’s arms.
Vanessa positioned Nora so they could both read the letter at the same time, with her petite frame settled in the familiar curve of Vanessa’s lap. Ever since Nora was eighteen, to Vanessa’s twenty-five, she had fit against the other woman like a delicate robin’s egg in its nest. Safe.
Even though the piece of paper was right in front of her, Nora’s eyes were already swimming and she wasn’t able to focus on the letters. “Please. Be a love and read it aloud for me.” She finally shut her eyes.
Vanessa took a deep breath and pulled Nora tighter against the protection of her body. “Well, here at the beginning, it’s all the usual charming blather about what a divine artist you are and how busy you must be . . . and then . . . yes, here it is, the duchess goes on to say: ‘Farleigh has finally fulfilled my greatest wish and provided me with a splendid grandson upon whom I may lavish all my undiluted love. He is a rascal already, at one year, very much like his father, creating mischief—and a devoted following—wherever he goes. I think this is the best time to capture him on canvas, and I also think you would enjoy meeting the rest of Farleigh’s family.’ She’s underlined that bit, you see,” Vanessa amended.
Nora tried to keep breathing. “What does she mean by ‘the rest of Farleigh’s family’? The wife?”
Vanessa inhaled and then continued, “Well, that’s the rub. Here’s the interesting part. ‘I hope you will not think me impertinent, and it is only because I was such a close friend of your Uncle Fitz and feel myself able to speak honestly about your circumstances, that I am taking such a liberty. Farleigh has married a lovely Spanish woman named Pia Carvajal. I believe they are quite in love with one another, as much as a mother can gauge such things, and as much as Farleigh can love anyone. They also live in very close proximity with another couple. They are two happy families who spend much of their time together, as far as the outside world is concerned. But I believe they are one family, if you take my meaning—which, again, only because I presume to know your own liberal beliefs on the subject, do I believe you will take . . . my meaning, that is. I would like all six of them in the portrait, you see. Farleigh, Pia, and their son, Teddy, along with Sebastian, Anna, and their daughter, Dolores. Perhaps at a picnic or by a river, something bucolic and natural, as they all seem to thrive in the outdoors. No drawing room, please. I’m sure Nora will envision something appropriate and divine without much prodding from me, as she did eight years ago for my late husband’s portrait, which hangs above the mantle in the room where I am writing this.’”
Nora’s breathing was shallow and her mind hazy, but she tried to follow the rambling nature of the old woman’s letter. “Please finish, Vanessa. I’m not sure I can tolerate much more.”
“I know darling, I’m sorry. Here’s the important part: ‘All of this must seem quite convoluted, and I suppose it is, but my memory has rarely betrayed me and I fear the arrival of one particular member of this extended family might bring a shock to Nora. I am probably being overcautious, but I wanted to be particularly careful rather than ever risk Nora’s discomfort. When you and your uncle returned from Spain twenty years ago with that poor girl in your care, Montagu confided in me regarding some of the details of her trials. For some reason, the name Floridablanca has always stuck in my mind’—”
Inhaling sharply, Nora stiffened in her lover’s arms. Leonor Medinacelli de Redondo, Condesa de Floridablanca, was put to rest in 1790.
Nora White came into the world the same day, fully formed at the age of eighteen.
“Shhh, sweetheart. He is dead. We saw the notice in the paper two years ago.” Vanessa kissed the side of Nora’s neck. “You are far beyond his reach now.” Nora settled somewhat, but her spine never fully relaxed. The mere mention of his name still caused her lungs to burn as if filling up with bile.
Vanessa kissed her again, at the back of her neck, and whispered more soothing nonsense about how much she loved her and how no one could hurt her and how all of it was in the past. Nora tried to feel some comfort, but it wasn’t possible. “Please. Stop coddling me. Do finish the letter. I must lie down in silence before the pain in my left eye blinds me.”
“Oh, Nora, no. Breathe, like we’ve practiced. Please don’t let him have this power over you—”
“Stop it!” Nora shouted, then started crying in pathetic heaving waves. “I’m sorry, Vanessa, but you must finish and then allow me to feel my feelings. Please.”
“Very well. Here is the rest of the letter: ‘I remember thinking how language could be so ironic, to give a cruel man such a pure and innocent name as “white flower.” Oh dear, I really am rambling. I do apologise. In short, when Farleigh’s friends arrived from Spain and decamped in London two years ago, I was immediately taken with Anna de Montizon, the young wife of Farleigh’s very particular friend, Sebastian. Anna is utterly vivacious, opinionated, strong-willed, and captivating. We continue to spend many hours together in joyful company now that summer is here and we are all on the property at Mandeville House. And now to the point: Anna does not look remotely Spanish. She is blonde and, well, I suppose I must simply say it outright, bears a striking resemblance to your dear husband and especially his brother, Dennis, and your son for that matter. To be frank, Anna has the Cambury birthmark at the base of her neck. Anna and Pia were raised in a remote convent in the north of Spain. She has never mentioned the Floridablanca name, nor, I confess, have I welcomed the opportunity to broach such a volatile subject. But Anna turned twenty last month, on the first of May, and I thought perhaps the date might suffice to prove my suspicions that she is related to your dearest Nora.’ Then she continues with the usual niceties about the weather in Cambridgeshire, et cetera, et cetera. Oh, darling—” Vanessa gripped Nora while she wept.
Crying silent tears, Nora pictured her daughter, grown and beautiful and already here in England. And a mother! She was overset with joy at the prospect of a granddaughter, a new life, a chance to start fresh. And then she simply wanted to toss up her accounts. Breathing had become difficult. She wanted to run away—from Vanessa, from all this history and information, from the truth and the shame of it all. She was suffocating under the pressure, the weight of her failure. What kind of mother abandons her baby? Even when beaten and cut with a jagged Moorish knife? Only a beast of a mother would leave her baby behind.
“Breathe, Nora,” Vanessa whispered, and then continued trailing the palm of her hand up and down the length of Nora’s arm. “You don’t have to see her. It’s not your fault. We all believed the baby was stillborn. I saw you that night, darling. You had no life to give. You were practically dead yourself.”
“Vanessa, please don’t.”
“Or if, by some bizarre coincidence, this Anna de Montizon—” Vanessa shook the parchment as if it were a piece of evidence in the high court “—if this is your daughter, you still don’t have to see her. If seeing her after all these years will be too upsetting, then we simply won’t do it. I’ll tell the dowager duchess there’s been some misunderstanding—”
“Of course, I will see her!” Nora stiffened in Vanessa’s arms and tried to pull away from the undeserved comfort she offered. “Are you suggesting I abandon her a second time? Run away like I did in ’90?”
“Stop it this instant.” Vanessa held her steady with one hand, then dropped the letter to the floor and pulled her hard against her with the other. “You did not abandon her!” The words were soft, but hot and fierce against the shell of Nora’s ear. “Your bastard husband left you for dead. Uncle Fitz saved you, hid you in the British consulate and brought you to safety in London. As far as Floridablanca was concerned, you were dead. He killed you! You did not run away, do you hear me? He killed Leonor that night. Nora was saved.”
Nora started tunneling out. That’s what she and Vanessa had always called it, early on, when they’d first met and Vanessa and her children were the only ones who could come near Nora without the shrieking and scratching that had all the young housemaids chanting phrases to ward off the evil spirits. It used to happen with regular frequency. The doctors never knew if it was a physical result of the beatings she had taken at the hands of her possessive husband, or psychological aftershocks from the way he had treated her for the duration of her pregnancy.
Of course, any doctor who implied it was simple female hysterics was summarily driven from the sick room. Valkyrie Vanessa refused to tolerate any such nonsense. Gradually, the episodes had become less and less frequent. Nora’s painting served as an outlet for her darker moments, and eventually her lighter ones as well.
She hadn’t tunneled out in years: the narrowing of her vision, the roaring surf in her ears, the sheen of boiling sweat that somehow left her frozen. It was almost welcome. “I can’t breathe. Vanessa, I can’t breathe—”
Casa de Floridablanca, Madrid – May 1790
I can’t breathe, she thought helplessly. Leonor knew she had to keep breathing or the baby would die. It was a thought unto itself, sitting in the corner of her brain like a lighthouse, the beam bright for a moment, then turning dim. Must breathe. Why did she have to breathe again? The blood in the back of her throat was curdling into thick, sinewy mucus. She could breathe around that for now, but it seemed to be filling her up from inside, as if she were drowning. And then another wave came. The pain was ferocious, but at least this time it was full of purpose; the pain of the delivery would amount to something.
She heard the clink of his large gold signet ring against the crystal tumbler holding his fine whiskey. “How much longer must I withstand this nonsense before we know if it’s a boy?” he drawled in his ancient, aristocratic Spanish.
The two nuns who had served alternatively as nurses and gaolers over the past nine months looked as though they might’ve finally come to realize that perhaps the wayward young wife was not the villain in this tragedy after all. Leonor reached for one of the nuns and pulled her close with what little strength remained. “Do not let him kill my daughter . . .”
“Shhh, Leonor. If you are lucky, it will not be a daughter. The count will turn a blind eye to your sins if you give him a boy child. You must pray very, very hard for a son.”
Leonor breathed through a lesser wave of pain. The gash on her shoulder made her feel like her arm wasn’t properly attached to her body. So many parts of her that he’d destroyed—she wasn’t sure anymore which pains had to do with her child’s birth and which ones had to do with her own impending death. Another colossal wave of pain roared through her, and Nora suspected it would probably be the last thing she experienced on this earth. The baby was wrenched out of her on the final push, and as soon as Nora spied the downy golden hair covered in the glistening wet evidence of the nine months it had spent inside her body, she closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the pillow. It was Cambury’s child. That gorgeous blonde hair. The mark on the neck. The flood of emotions was overpowering. Gratitude. Love. Terror.
It was definitely Cambury’s child.
She sighed and smiled weakly, and for a second—a few breaths—she gave thanks to the Lord in Heaven that goodness had prevailed. Despite all his attempts to defile her after he’d caught her with Cambury, Floridablanca’s seed had not taken root in her body.
“It’s a girl,” the older nun stated.
She might as well have said, It’s a bit of rubbish, for the way her tone proclaimed what she thought.
“And it doesn’t appear to be breathing,” the nun added.
“Throw it away. Throw them both away.” Floridablanca got up from the chair in the corner of the firelit room where he’d been observing the gory tableau. “And clean this up. It’s disgusting.”
He paused for a moment at the foot of the bed to stare down the length of Leonor’s bloodstained body, then he hurled the remnants of his drink across her. “Puta!” he spat, and strode to the door.
He grasped the handle and was about to leave when he turned back. “I want all of you out by dawn, especially that cheating whore. Remove her from this house, dispose of the dead infant, and then be off. If I learn you helped her in any way beyond carrying her to the gutter, I’ll tell the abbess you’re a pair of thieving trollops. And Leonor?”
She groaned and turned her face toward the voice.
“If by some work of Satan you survive on the streets, you are never to contact me, do you understand? If I hear even a whisper of your existence, I’ll have you killed.”
The nuns kept their eyes downcast, knowing better than to look at him directly and risk incurring the familiar back of his hand. The door slammed shut and the three women remained in shocked silence. The older nun recovered first. She finished cleaning the baby’s body and wrapped it tidily in a small blanket. Leonor was too confused to understand why she was cleaning up a stillborn baby—perhaps preparing it for a proper burial.
The younger nun was wiping down the floors and mopping up the blood that seemed to have coated the entire room. “Sister, there is so much blood. Is there anything we can do for her?”
“You heard the count. We are not to do anything.”
“But we can’t—”
“We can and we will. She will be dead within the hour anyway. Look at her. I’m amazed she survived this long. At least we won’t have the death of the child on our souls.” Leonor watched in a daze as the nun held the tiny infant with that telling blonde hair and those dark eyes. Nora was desperate to hold her, even with her soul already ascended to Heaven, but she didn’t have the strength to reach for her. “She was quite a beautiful little thing, actually.” The nun traced the arch of one golden eyebrow. Leonor’s soul was being torn from her body.
The younger nun’s attention went from the baby back to Leonor, who must’ve appeared entirely wretched, from the expression of horror that passed across the nun’s face. “I don’t see how we can simply abandon the mother . . .”
The older nun finished wrapping the stillborn baby then looked up, her face changing from tender caregiver to heartless judge. “She is a hopeless sinner. She made her choices nine months ago. These are the consequences. Now wrap her in these sheets and carry her out to the street, as the count instructed. Carry her a few blocks away through the alley. I’m going to the kitchen to see if I can find a footman to bury the child. You get this baggage out of here.” Leonor watched blearily as the old nun lifted her chin in her general direction, then turned to the door. She heard it shut with finality and realized that was the last she would ever see of her child. The briefest glimpse.
The young nun stared at the closed door and sighed. Leonor peered through swollen lids as the other woman busied herself around the room. It was difficult to form the words through her scratchy throat and chapped lips, but she pleaded nonetheless. “The rest . . .”
The nun returned to her side. “Yes, you will rest, dear.” She took Leonor’s hand. Eternal rest, Leonor thought vaguely. She had always suspected this nun was kindhearted but had been reluctant to show it in front of the older nun or, heaven forbid, the conde. For the past nine months, anyone in the household who showed Leonor the least tenderness was summarily dismissed.
Through another wave of piercing pain, Leonor repressed a cry. “No . . .” she whispered hoarsely, “the rest . . . is coming out . . .” The nun quickly understood and moved near the head of the bed, helping to raise Leonor’s shoulders so she could bear down and emit the afterbirth. Sometime later, the bleeding had finally abated and the nun cleaned up as best she could, then tossed all the bloody rags into the fire. The smell of her own funeral pyre wafted around Leonor’s head, a sickening relief. It was almost over, this horrible life of misery, deception, and cruelty.
Leonor was barely conscious when the nun wrapped her in one of the few remaining sheets and lifted her into her arms.
“Aren’t you a feather?” the nun asked lightly, as if Leonor was a small, sleepy child being carried to the nursery by her nanny.
“Please . . .” Leonor whispered near the woman’s ear.
“What is it dear?” She carried her down the stairs where a few sputtering torches cast menacing shadows along the stone walls. Leonor would never miss this dungeon-like mansion. She would miss very little from this world. She would miss Dennis Cambury. And their beautiful child. But the baby was already waiting for her in Heaven; she had seen the nun bless her. Yes, Leonor had prayed for her child to be spared a life of despair. Was this God’s cruel answer?
Leonor’s head bobbed against the nun’s sturdy shoulder. All the pain was starting to slip away. She could no longer remember what she’d been pleading for. They were passing through the alleys behind the splendid houses in the wealthiest quarter of Madrid.
“I am so sorry I must leave you,” the nun confided. “I have already gone far beyond what . . . ” Leonor drifted in and out of the words. The count demanded . . . every day of my life . . . God means for anyone . . . to suffer . . . creature . . . and then Leonor thought she heard a door knocker, perhaps announcing her arrival at the gates of Hell . . . then nothing but blissful peace, utter blackness, death.
Hell had a lovely smell: rosewater and fresh linen. Leonor rolled her cheek against the cool fabric and inhaled. Then gasped. Ow. That was more like it. Hell. Pain shot through the left side of her skull, as though she’d been smashed with a fire iron. Come to think of it, the conde had been using the fire iron recently.
At least her eyes were no longer crusted shut with dried blood. Hell was very clean.
Maybe it was purgatory, because the whole bit about angels singing was apparently true. And the language of angels happened to be English. The lilting tune mingled with the rosewater scent, fresh and sultry all at once. Leonor had always adored roses for that reason, the lovely balance of budding innocence followed by tawdry, blatant sensuality. As if the flower tried very hard to be contained and appropriate, but ultimately fell out into a burst of joyful display because it must.
Leonor sighed aloud. The velvety English rose stopped singing abruptly and a scurry of light footsteps came close. Too tired to be afraid, she turned toward the sound and slowly opened her eyes. Heaven indeed. An angel from on high looked down at her.
“You’re alive!” The blonde woman was so perfect, so smooth and unsullied. Leonor suddenly saw herself as this woman must: used and ugly; her face swollen and bruised, cut and horrifying. What a time to feel self-conscious about her appearance, when all she should feel was glad to be alive.
“Am I alive?” She tried to sit up, but the angel pressed a gentle but firm hand against her shoulder.
“Yes! Isn’t it wonderful? A miracle. You need lots and lots of rest. Do you remember who you are?”
Did she? She wasn’t sure, but she knew Leonor was dead and gone. She thought of the name Dennis had always called her. His Nora. She croaked out of her dry throat, “Nora?”
“Yes! You are Nora! Oh! Water. You need water. I am such a selfish thing, wanting to make you talk and tell me all about yourself.” The busy angel moved around the bed to pour a glass of crystalline water from the equally crystalline decanter. “You have caused so much excitement here in the house.” She came back around and helped Nora sit up so she could drink.
“Excitement?” Nora asked with a worried look, after the first delicious sip.
The other woman continued, “Oh, don’t you worry. We haven’t said a word to anyone untrustworthy. Of course my uncle only has the most devoted servants.” Then she whispered in a conspiratorial aside, “Because he’s a spy, don’t you know. So it certainly wouldn’t do to have servants of a hireling nature. That would be very bad for spying! But you must be exhausted. You’re still bleeding from the birth. You’ve been asleep for days. How do you feel anyway?”
Nora was . . . almost happy . . . if such a thing were possible when one’s entire body felt as though it’d been tied to the back of a carriage and dragged through the streets of Madrid for a fortnight. And then the angel’s words brought her back to the present.
“The baby . . .” she whispered distractedly, after refusing any more of the delectable water. It was so rich, she was nauseous after a few sips.
The angel’s head whipped around as she placed the glass down on the bedside table. “The nun who brought you to us told the kitchen maid the baby had died.”
“Yes, she was stillborn.”
The other woman’s eyes lowered in sympathy. “It is a terrible loss.” She reached for Nora’s hand and squeezed it gently. “We have all suffered so many losses this past year, but somehow we are meant to go on. I can’t help but feel you were delivered here by some divine stroke, that in some way—”
The rambling angel was interrupted by two small children of about six or seven barreling into the sunny chamber. “Mamamamamama!” they chorused.
The woman’s face bloomed in happiness. Well, perhaps the woman’s face never really bloomed, because she seemed to be in a perpetual state of full-blown happiness at all times. She whipped the boy and girl up into a fierce, twirling hug and blew raspberries into the crooks of their necks. They giggled, and she squeezed them tighter. Then both small heads swung toward the bed, and they wriggled out of their mother’s hold. “Is the angel awake?” The boy placed his hand around Nora’s wrist, as if he were the resident physician, checking her pulse. He appeared very serious about her condition.
“Is she improving, Mama?” the little girl asked, holding Nora’s other hand, equally concerned. “She looks very kind.”
The children’s faces were oddly familiar: amber eyes filled with tender curiosity, waves of unruly blond hair.
Their mother leaned against the side of the bed and stared down at Nora with something akin to awe. “Yes. Isn’t she beautiful? Like the painting Uncle Fitz showed us at señor Goya’s studio last week. Do you remember?”
The boy narrowed his eyes, keeping his attention on Nora as he tried to recall the information his mother requested. “Yes, Mama. Of the Madonna. And the Holy Family.”
“But she also looks like the tiny miniature painting,” the little girl hastened to add, wanting to show her knowledge too. “The one Uncle Fitz brought from London.”
“Yes, darling.” The woman smoothed the boy’s unruly blond hair against his head and turned lovingly toward the young girl. “Very much like that one too.”
Nora was being pulled under another tide of exhausting confusion. “You are both so kind,” she whispered to the children. “What are your names?”
“I am Georgiana Elizabeth . . . but everyone calls me Georgie. I am older by seventeen minutes.”
“Archibald William Cambury, at your service.” He glared at his sister for a second or two, then turned back to Nora. “And she may be older, but I’m still the Marquess of Camburton.” The little boy bowed formally at the waist.
At the mention of the Marquess of Camburton, Nora fainted dead away.
The next time she woke, it was dark except for a small fire burning in the grate across the room and a single candle that lit the blonde Englishwoman’s beautiful face as she sat reading in a chair very close to the bed.
Tilting her head slowly to take a better look around, Nora was immediately disoriented. Her head seemed to have cleared, but her senses were still confused: the street sounds and smells reminded her of Madrid, but the room’s decoration and the woman herself made Nora believe she was in England.
“Where are we?”
The blonde woman looked up quickly, snapping the book shut and putting it down on the bedside table as she rose to stand at Nora’s side. “Oh, I’m relieved you’re awake again. The physicians have been ever so worried your head was permanently addled or you had swelling or some such nonsense between your brain and your skull, and I told them I absolutely refused to let that happen. But it was probably too much to have Archie and Georgie come running in here and terrifying you this afternoon with all their raucous affection, and now I’m doing the same thing all over again, talking incessantly when you are probably overwhelmed and wondering where you are and how you came to be here and—”
She stopped abruptly when Nora reached out her hand and rested it over the other woman’s wildly gesturing one.
“What is your name?” Nora asked softly.
“Vanessa.” She smiled. “Yes, that is the best place to start. You’re quite right. My name is Vanessa Montagu Cambury, Marchioness of Camburton. You make me very nervous, you see, and I always speak too much and too rapidly when I’m nervous. So I apologize in advance, but you are really such a marvel and we are all quite smitten with you.”
“May I have another sip of water?” Nora was confused by the barrage of words. Even though the woman spoke in an elegant, aristocratic Spanish, her accent was distinctly British. It reminded Nora keenly of Dennis and the time they’d spent together.
“Oh dear. I am quite the worst.” Vanessa poured the water as she spoke. Nora suspected the woman never did one thing at a time when life was always providing the opportunity to do two or even three things simultaneously. “I promised my uncle I would be the best nurse—and, not to be overly self-congratulatory, which is a shortcoming of mine I suppose you’d best familiarize yourself with right away in any case—well, not a shortcoming, necessarily, because I don’t think I’m arrogant about it; in fact, I’m very factual about myself and my accomplishments—and I really have been quite attentive and helpful—”
Vanessa tipped the glass to Nora’s lips so she could drink and then continued speaking at that breakneck pace. “You were, well, quite nearly dead when you arrived, and I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say I was the one who brought you back to life.” She continued to hold the glass of water while Nora drank, then helped her sit up. “There’s been enough death around here, I informed Uncle Fitz, and I wasn’t about to let the Grim Reaper cross the threshold again this year. Don’t you agree?” When Nora widened her eyes to indicate she’d had enough water, Vanessa pulled the glass away and patted Nora’s lips with a clean napkin.
Nora’s eyes slid shut. “I’m awake, but the candlelight seems to add to my headache. Do you mind if we speak while my eyes are closed?”
“Oh, that’s a splendid idea.” She could hear the rustle of fabric as Vanessa settled in the nearby armchair. After a brief pause—that must have seemed an eternity to someone so eager—Vanessa said, “So, I’m sure you have a vast number of questions, and I am at your service to answer them. If my suspicions are correct, you are Leonor Medinacelli de Redondo, Condesa de Floridablanca, and you were in love with my husband’s younger brother, Dennis Cambury. Is that right?”
“Yes,” Nora whispered. “How is it possible? Where is he? Is Dennis here?” She turned her face away from Vanessa’s, too embarrassed to show the tears of hope that slid down her cheeks.
For the first time, Vanessa sounded less than glimmering. “I don’t wish to add to your misery, but I’m not one for mincing words. The Cambury brothers—my husband and your, well, lover I suppose—are dead. They were aboard the Susannah, and she sank last October off the coast of Scotland, in Ayr Bay. There were no survivors.”
Nora turned back to face her and opened her eyes slowly to get a better look at this strange woman who could be so matter-of-fact about her husband’s death. She must not have loved him.
Then she caught a glimpse of Vanessa’s eyes and saw the depth of the other woman’s loss. Vanessa was trying to smile, for Nora’s sake, she supposed, but her lashes were wet with unshed tears. “They were peas in a pod, those two.” She wiped at her eyes as if the tears were an annoyance. “After Dennis returned from Madrid in September, he told us all about you, what a beauty you were, how he’d fallen madly in love with a Spanish lady. How he was planning to rescue you from your horrid husband, petition the Pope if he had to. He would have done it, you know. If anyone could have done it, Dennis was your man.”
Nora smiled to hear the words. Her heart was pounding at the terrible news that Dennis was gone, but there was a strange peace to it as well. She would see him soon. And he had meant everything he had said to her the previous year.
Over the past nine months, Leonor’s husband had nearly convinced her that Dennis Cambury was a thieving, cheating, dastardly Englishman who’d used her body and cast her aside. Dennis had promised to return to Madrid by Christmas, to petition the church for an annulment, to help her escape from Floridablanca, to do whatever could be done. But he’d never come. She’d tried to write to him, but the conde always managed to intercept her letters. As the dreadful months of her pregnancy crept by, the conde’s accusations had started to sound plausible to her weakening mind.
“He said that?” Nora whispered, not caring that she sounded like a desperate schoolgirl.
Vanessa got up from the chair and situated herself cross-legged on the bed, petting Nora’s hair and speaking in a soothing tone. “Oh, my dear Nora. How he adored you. I’d never seen him like that, so consumed. He’d always been very stubborn and single-minded, I suppose.”
Nora had adored his methodical bookish ways, and what a contrast they were to his carefree, if determined, lovemaking.
“But you obviously made him see . . . a different side of things. He seemed to have come alive after he met you.” Vanessa smiled, a knowing woman’s smile, but very quickly her brow furrowed with sadness. “At least he wrote you all the time.”
Nora shook her head in confused silence.
“Did you never receive any of his letters? He thought you had a friend to whom he could send them in confidence.”
“No. I never received anything from him.”
“Oh, my sweet girl.” Vanessa hugged her gently—Nora thought she heard her mutter something that sounded like that bastard—then sat back on the bed. “Well, he did. And he left copies of them all in his letter book in London. You will get to read them, one day soon. Still—” Vanessa shook her head. “Such a waste. Such good men.”
Something inside Nora fluttered, something that had been broken, or beaten, or nearly destroyed. “His life was not a waste, Vanessa.” Her voice was still scratchy from little use. “He did save me, whether he actually came back to get me or not. Whether I received his letters or not. I believed in him. And he let me believe that life was not entirely awful. The month we spent together was the most—” Her voice cracked and more tears came.
Vanessa leaned down and pulled her into another hug. “I know, love. I know. Sometimes I get so angry with Martin for dying, for abandoning me and the children—as crazy as that sounds—and then I am so grateful that we had him at all. Men like that do not come along often. I feel like we were lucky to have known them, and we need to be grateful for that fact. But I feel robbed most of the time.”
Nora nodded and pressed her forehead against Vanessa’s shoulder. She offered the comfort of a friend, a sister, a nurse—her welcoming arms strong and kind. Nora was protected, nurtured. Perhaps she could recover. Perhaps she could reinvent herself. She fell asleep in Vanessa’s arms and drifted off to the sound of gentle humming. The sweetest sound she’d ever heard.
[T]ender and satisfying.
From the artist colony at Camburton to the delightful multiple layers and interconnections, along with the potent family tensions, this period piece is a distinctly rapturous experience that I definitively recommend.