Cavendish Square, London, Spring 1828
Clutching a portmanteau in one hand, a bandbox tied with string in the other, Lady Cordelia Armstrong crept down the main staircase of her father’s townhouse. It was late afternoon, and her Aunt Sophia was taking a nap. Cordelia had been pledged to attend an expedition to Richmond Park. She had been at pains, when the invitation was first issued, to inform her aunt that the company would include at least one rake, one notorious fortune-hunter, and the young lady who was competing with Cordelia in a wager – registered by one obliging gentleman in White’s betting book – to amass the most offers for her hand in one Season.
Lady Sophia had, as Cordelia anticipated, forbidden her to go. ‘If you are seen in an open carriage in such company,’ she had said, her face turning the most alarming shade of puce, ‘I have no doubt whatsoever that your vouchers for Almacks will be withdrawn.’
‘And all poor Papa’s plans to marry me off to one of his minions will be in tatters,’ Cordelia had been unable to resist retorting.
‘I do not understand you. Don’t you want to make a good match?’
‘One that is good for me, yes indeed. Sadly, that rather precludes it being a man whom Papa has selected.’
Her aunt had looked genuinely shocked, a reaction which had quite taken Cordelia aback. Having seen for herself how miserable trying to please their father had made Cressie, and how very changed poor Caro had become since marrying the man chosen for her, Cordelia had a very low opinion indeed of Lord Armstrong’s ability to pick a husband for her, but it seemed Lady Sophia did not agree. It was true, Cordelia had originally pretended to go along with her father’s plans for her, but she had assumed that her aunt, who was no fool, understood this was simply a ruse to ensure she was not, like Cressie, confined to the country until she agreed to do his bidding. Papa did not like open defiance. Keep your enemies close, was one of his maxims, and Cordelia had paid it great heed.
The moment was now ripe to strike, for her father was en route to Russia with Wellington. Sadly, it seemed the wool must also be pulled over Aunt Sophia’s eyes too, for the time being. So Cordelia had said defiantly that she would go to Richmond Park no matter how low the company, ensuring that no other invitation could be accepted on that fateful date, and that her sadly-abused relative would be too relieved to question her, when informed upon the day that her niece, having thought the matter over, was of the opinion that the expedition would be a mistake. Which was exactly what had happened this morning, as a result of which Aunt Sophia was sleeping soundly in her bedchamber, under the illusion that her apparently contrite charge, with an engagement-free afternoon, was resting in hers.
The house was silent, with not even a footman attendant in the marbled hallway to impede Cordelia’s departure. Placing the brief missive on the polished half-table beside the silver salver upon which callers to Lord Armstrong’s abode left their visiting cards, she felt a twinge of guilt. Though her ambitious and scheming papa deserved not a whit of loyalty or consideration in her opinion, she did not feel comfortable deceiving Aunt Sophia, who might look like a camel, may even upon occasion bray like one, but had in her own way always done her best by her nieces.
Biting her lip, Cordelia stared at her reflection in the mirror. Nature had given her the dark-golden curls, the cupid-bow mouth and soft curves which were deemed by society to be beautiful – this Season, at least. At one-and-twenty, combined with an adequate dowry, her lineage and her connections, she was under no illusions about her value on the marriage mart – indeed, she had already amassed enough proposals to prove it.
‘And not a single one of them could care less what goes on behind this pretty façade,’ she said aloud, her lip curling with contempt. ‘Within five years, perhaps less, when I’ve done my duty and produced the requisite heir or two, I’ll be retired to the country to grow fat and miserable like poor Bella. Or worse, if I fail, forced into hiding in the shadows like Caro.’
Turning away from the mirror, she picked up her luggage with renewed resolve. Soon, she would be married to a man of her own choosing. A man who derided politics and her papa equally. A man who paid her no pretty, facile complements but talked to her as if she had a mind of her own, and made it very clear that he desired her not as a matrimonial conquest but as a woman. A man whose kisses made her pulses race. A man who could heat her blood just by his very presence in the room. A man whose body and bed she longed to share.
‘Gideon,’ she whispered. Heart thumping, Cordelia slid open the heavy front door of her father’s house, closing it carefully behind her. The next time she returned, she would be a married woman. ‘And for once, Papa shall dance to my tune, for the one thing he can abide less than disobedience is scandal,’ she thought to herself as she tripped down the stone stairs into Cavendish Square and hailed a hackney cab which was most fortuitously passing. Taking it as a good omen, she clambered in with her luggage and gave her direction.
The carriage rumbled off and Cordelia settled herself for the journey to the posting house where they were to meet before setting out on their journey. Of course, the Honourable Gideon d’Amery had not specifically mentioned marriage, but that was a mere detail. Papa and Aunt Sophia would tell her that no gentleman would propose an elopement to a lady, but Papa and Aunt Sophia had not a romantic bone in their bodies between them. Cordelia was of age, and Gideon was a man of the world who would see to whatever details were required to formalise their union. Not that she had any idea what such details comprised, though she was hazily aware they required some sort of special licence unless they were headed to Gretna Green
She didn’t care and it mattered not a whit. Gideon would see to it. Cordelia would concentrate on the important thing, such as his smile and his kisses and the heated look in his dark-brown eyes when he gazed at her, and the delicious frisson that ran through her when he grazed her breasts with his fingers in that shocking manner through her gown, and the even more shocking and even more delicious frisson when he pressed the evidence of his desire against her as they danced.
She touched her gloved hands to her heated cheeks. How perfectly lovely it was to be in love and to know that she was loved in return. When she came back to London on the arm of her husband, glowing with happiness, Papa would have no option but to acknowledge that Cordelia, and not her father, knew what was best for her. A month, perhaps three, if they made their marriage trip to the Continent. Rome. Venice. And Paris of course, for she would need new gowns, having been forced to leave most of her Coming-Out wardrobe at home.
‘Six months at most,’ she said dreamily, ‘and then I shall return, the Prodigal Daughter, and Papa shall be forced to kill the fatted calf.’ On that most satisfying image, Cordelia closed her mind to the troubles she was leaving behind her, and turned instead to the night of passion which lay ahead.
Cavendish Square, London, Spring 1837
Though he wore the familiar livery, the footman who opened the door was a stranger to her. The name inscribed on her visiting card would mean nothing to him, so she did not place it on the silver salver he held out – the same one as had always been used, she noted. ‘Please inform Lord Armstrong that Lady Cordelia is here,’ she said, ‘he is expecting me.’
The startled look the servant gave her informed her that he knew her by reputation if nothing else, but he had been trained well, and quickly assumed an indifferent mask. Cordelia had no doubt, however, that she would be the topic of the day in the Servant’s Hall, and that every inch of her appearance would be recounted within minutes of her arrival.
The marbled hallway had changed surprisingly little in the nine years since she had last been here, but instead of ascending the grand central staircase that led to the formal drawing room where visitors were received, Cordelia was ushered through a door directly off the reception area. The book room. A choice of venue which spoke volumes.
‘I shall inform his lordship of your arrival.’
The door closed behind the footman with a soft click, leaving Cordelia alone, suddenly and quite unexpectedly shaking with nerves. The walnut desk before her was as imposing as ever. Behind it, the leather-bound chair held the indent of her father’s body. In front of it, as ever, two wooden chairs whose seats, she knew from old, placed the person who took them at a lower level than the man behind the desk. The scent of beeswax polish mingled in the air with the slightly musty smell from the books and ledgers which lined the cases on the walls. From the empty grate came the faint trace of ash. No fire burned, though there was a nip in the spring air. Another trick of her father’s. Lord Armstrong never felt the cold – or at least, that was the impression he liked to give.
Nine years. She was thirty next birthday, and yet this room made her feel like a child waiting to be scolded. There was a similar room at Killellan Manor, where she and her sisters had been reprimanded and instructed in their duties as motherless daughters of an ambitious diplomat and peer of the realm.
Memories assailed her, things she had not thought of in years, of the pranks they played, and the games. In the days before Celia married, they had been a tight-knit group. She had forgotten how close, or perhaps she had not allowed herself to remember, in the Bella years. She smiled to herself, remembering now. Unlike Cressie, who had always been too confrontational, or Caro, who had always been the dutiful sister, Cordelia’s strategy had been to give the appearance of compliance while going her own way. It had worked more often than it had failed. Rarely had her father perceived her to be the ring-leader – that honour fell to poor Cressie. Cordelia had thought herself a master manipulator by the time she arrived in London for the Season. So naïve she had been, thinking that her father was the only man in her orbit with a game to play.
The clock ticking relentlessly on the mantel showed her that she had been standing before the desk for almost fifteen minutes. Another of her father’s favourite ruses, to keep his minions waiting, ensuring that they understood their relative unimportance. She felt quite sick. Her stomach wasn’t full of butterflies but something far more malicious. Hornets? Too stingy. Toads? Snakes? Too slimy. Cicadas? She shuddered. Revolting things.
She checked the time on the little gold watch which was pinned to the belt of her carriage dress. By her reckoning, her dear father would keep her at least another ten minutes. Not quite the full half hour. She would be better occupied preparing herself for the ordeal that lay ahead, than making herself ill.
For a start, she should not be caught standing here like a penitent school girl. Cordelia peeled off her gloves and laid them on the polished surface of the desk. Her fringed paisley shawl she folded neatly over the back of one of the wooden chairs. The high-crowned bonnet she had purchased, as she did most of her clothes, in Paris, was next. The wide brim was trimmed with knife-pleated silk the same royal blue as her carriage gown, a colour she favoured for not only did it suit her, it gave her a deceptive air of severity which she liked to cultivate simply because contradictions had always amused her. The expensive bonnet joined her shawl on the chair. Pulling out a hand mirror from her beaded reticule, Cordelia shook out the curls which had taken the maid she had hired an age to achieve with the hot tongs. Far more elaborate than the style she normally favoured, her coiffure, with its centre parting and top knot, was the height of fashion and in her opinion the height of discomfort, but it added to her confidence, and that was, she admitted unwillingly to herself, in need of as much boosting as she could manage.
A quick mental check of the latest statement from her bank and an inventory of her stocks helped. The knowledge that her father could have no inkling of either made her smile and calmed the roiling in her stomach a little. She had no need to read the missive which had been his reply to her own request for an interview, but she did anyway, for those curt lines were a salient reminder that despite all her sisters’ assertions, her father had not changed. She would need every ounce of her resolution and backbone if she was to have any chance of succeeding.
I have granted this interview in the hope that sufficient time has passed for you to have regretted your gross misdemeanour, and for mature reflection to have inculcated in you the sense of duty which was previously sadly lacking. While the pain of your wilful disobedience must always pierce my heart, I have concluded that my own paternal duty requires me to permit you a hearing. Your self-enforced exile has wounded others than myself. Your brothers scarce recall you. Your youngest sister has never met you. You should be aware too, that my own sister, your Aunt Sophia, has been made decrepit by the passing years and has likely very few left to her on this earth. Sincere contrition and unquestioning obedience in the future will restore you to the bosom of your injured family. If you come to Cavendish Square in any other frame of mind, your journey will have been pointless. On this understanding, you may arrange a time convenient to me with my secretary. Yours etc.
Cordelia curled her lip at the reference to his heart, which she was fairly certain her father did not possess. Not that it precluded him tugging on the heartstrings of others. He knew her rather too well. The stories Caro shared with her, of their half-brothers and -sister, were bittersweet. She had missed so much of their youth already, she would be a stranger to them. She even harboured a desire to become reacquainted with Bella, whose many foibles and viciousness of temperament she thought she understood rather more – for who would not be twisted by the simple fact of being married to one such as the great Lord Armstrong! Her feelings for Lady Sophia were both simpler and more complex, for while she had wronged her aunt, she could not help feeling that her aunt had wronged her too. And as to her father…
Cordelia folding the letter into a very small square and stuffed it back into her reticule. Neither salutation nor signature. He thought he was summoning an impoverished and contrite dependent. She wondered what penance he had in mind for her, and wondered, with some trepidation, how he would react when he discovered her neither contrite nor in need of financial support but set upon reparation. In her father’s eyes, she had committed a heinous crime. His punishment had been extreme and it had taken Cordelia, her own fiercest critic, a very long time to realise that it was unmerited. Longer still to face up to the consequences of this, for of all things, she abhorred confrontation. Focusing her decided will on achieving independence and defying convention had alleviated the pain of her exile, but success, she discovered, instead of putting an end to her grievance, allowed it to grow. Becoming reacquainted with Cressie and Caro forced her to acknowledge the huge chasm which the rift with her family had created, though it was not until that strangest of days, last year, that she faced up to the fact that in order to heal it she would have to face up to the cause of it.
Her father. Were she a man, he would be impressed by her business acumen. Though were she a man, she would not be in this position in the first place. Which made her wonder what on earth she was doing here anyway, because she didn’t need his permission to contact her own family. They were her family just as much as his.
Cordelia sighed heavily. Truth. How she hated the truth. Despite everything, despite the fact that he was far more in the wrong than she, what she wanted was his forgiveness just as much his acceptance of who she was, and the fact that she would never be the daughter he expected her to be. It was ridiculous and irrational and most likely unattainable, but there it was, that was what she really wanted from today.
The hand she held was slim. She would have to play it with skill. Lord Armstrong must be made aware from the outset of this interview that his daughter was no mat for him to wipe his feet upon. She considered seating herself behind the desk, but her father’s imprint on the leather chair made her feel squeamish. Instead, she spread the silk skirts of her carriage dress out and endeavoured to look as relaxed and comfortable as she could on the hated wooden chair. Her gown, with its wide leg-of-mutton sleeves and tight cuffs, was deceptively simple. The scalloping on the bodice and collar was subtle but intricately worked, continuing down the front panel to the the hem. The belt of the same royal blue which cinched her waist was held with a gold buckle. Her outfit was elegant and so a la mode that it screamed Paris to anyone who cared to notice. Her father, however, had little time for women and things feminine. It gave her a little kick of satisfaction, knowing that the evidence of her success, displayed in full view, would be quite lost on him.
The sound of a footfall outside the door alerted her to his arrival. Cordelia put a hand over the heart which threatened to jump out of her chest, and sternly quelled the instinct to rise from her seat.
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