Read an Excerpt
'Have you heard the latest?' The voice came out of nowhere.
Christabel Tallis, aimlessly fanning herself, stopped for a moment and glanced at the mirror which hung on the opposite wall. She knew neither of the women reflected there. Perched uncomfortably on one of the stiffly brocaded benches that lined the Palantine Gallery, she had been wondering, not for the first time that morning, why she'd ever agreed to her mother's suggestion that they meet Julian here. Lady Harriet had insisted they attend what was billed as the show of the Season, but for Christabel the delights of London society had long ago palled. The salon was overheated and far too crowded, and her delicate skin was already slightly flushed.
'About the Veryan boy, you mean?' one of the women continued.
The name hovered in the air, menacing Christabel's shield of calm detachment. The buzz of inconsequential chatter faded into the distance and every fibre of her body became alert.
'He's hardly a boy now, of course.'
'Indeed no. How long has it been? Lady Veryan must be overjoyed that he is returning home at last.'
Suddenly Christabel longed to be far away from this conversation, away from this room. A shaft of sunlight streamed through the gallery's long windows, breaking through a lowering sky and burnishing her auburn curls into a fiery cloud. The warming light was gone almost as soon as it appeared, but to her it seemed to beckon escape. Escape to where, though? To a country of grey slate and blue seas, a landscape of moor and rocks? To Cornwall, to home? But that could not be; she knew well that her future lay elsewhere.
'One can only hope that he actually arrives,' the woman opined in a hushed voice.
The other shuddered theatrically. 'I understand the journey from Argentina is very long and most dangerous.'
'My dear, yes. You must remember The Adventurer just a few years ago. It sailed from Buenos Aires '
The women moved away and she heard no more. That was sufficient. Richard's name reverberated through her mind. After all these yearsfive, six it would behe was coming back. Her deep green eyes stared into the distance and saw only memory.
She was seated on a stone bench in the garden of the Veryan town house, the lush fragrance of rose blossoms tumbling in the air. Richard was standing straight and tall in front of her, his mouth compressed and his face white and set. She had just told him that she could not marry him and was offering his ring back. She could not marry him because she was in love with Joshua. And Joshua just happened to be one of Richard's closest friends. What a wretched business that had been. She and Richard had drifted into an engagement, more to please their parents than from any passionate attachment, and Joshua was the result. The family estates bordered each other and she'd known Richard all her life. It felt natural to be planning to spend the rest of it together. But her visit to London to buy bride clothes had vouchsafed a different perspective: Cornwall and their shared childhood vanished in a sea mist. Instead there was a thrilling round of parties, balls, picnics, assemblies and, at the end of it, Joshua. No, she couldn't marry Richard. She was too young and too passionate and friendship was not enough.
'Miss Tallis, please accept my sincerest apologies for arriving so late.'
A well-dressed man in a puce tailcoat and fawn pantaloons stood before her. He took her shapely hand in his, kissing it with elaborate courtesy, and bowed politely to Lady Tallis, who had broken off her conversation with a chance-met companion just long enough to smile benignly at the man she hoped would become her son-in-law.
Sir Julian Edgerton's pleasant face wore a rueful smile. 'I fear the Committee took longer than expected. There is always such a deal to do for the Pimlico Widows and Orphans. I hope you'll forgive me.'
'Naturally, Sir Julian, how could I not? You lead a truly benevolent life!' Christabel's musical voice held the suspicion of a laugh, but her face was lit with the gentlest of smiles.
'Now that I am here, may I get you some refreshment?'
'What a good idea! It's so very hot in this room. Lemonade, perhaps?'
'It will be my pleasure,' he said gallantly, 'and when we are once more comfortable, would you care to make a quick tour of the paintings with me? I am anxious to hear your views. You have such a refined sensibility.'
She sighed inwardly, but nodded assent while her mother beamed encouragement. She knew Lady Harriet was counting on Sir Julian's proposal. At nearly twenty-five Christabel was already perilously close to being on the shelf and she could no longer delay the decision to marry. Sir Julian might not be the most exciting man of her acquaintance, but he was solid and dependable and would make a restful husband. More than that, he would be an adoring one. And she could trust him. After the bruising experience of her girlhood, such a man was surely worth any amount of excitement.
If she made this marriage, it might help repair some of the destruction she'd wreaked all those years ago. Her parents had loved Richard as a son and his dismissal had hit them very hard. As for Richard, she was sure he'd remained heart whole. He'd never loved her with the passion she had craved. Instead he'd been angry and humiliated. It was the gossip he had loathed, being on everyone's tongue, the jilted suitor. Within a sennight he'd escaped England and was on a boat to Argentina. Lord Veryan had told the world it was needful that his son administer the family's growing estates in South America, but the world had known the real reason for Richard's sudden departure. So he'd escaped, but she'd paid the price for her indiscretion. Jilting a man three weeks before the wedding was the height of bad ton and scurrilous gossip had swirled around her head for months. It was difficult to recall six years later just how vulnerable she'd felt. Today she was an acknowledged leader of fashion, an ice-cold beauty who'd remained impregnable despite countless suitors. But then she'd been a raw, passionate girl, in the throes of a thrilling infatuation, and unable to dissemble.
'I'm afraid the lemonade is as warm as the salon.' Sir Julian had emerged from the crush and was at her elbow, proffering the glass he'd procured with some difficulty.
For a moment she looked blindly up at him. Past distresses were crowding in on her and, for the second time that morning, she looked for escape. She needed distraction, needed to be on the move.
'I think I would prefer to view the pictures after all, Sir Julian.'
She rose from her seat as she spoke and, smoothing the creases from her amber silk walking dress, took her suitor's arm. They began slowly to stroll around the gallery. As always her elegant figure drew glances of frank admiration from those she passed and Sir Julian, feeling pride in his possession, held her arm even more tightly. While they walked, he spoke sensibly about the paintings they inspected and she tried hard to conjure interest in his carefully considered opinions. He was a good man, she told herself severely, and she must not hanker for more. That way lay disaster. She had learned that lesson well. It had taken little time to discover that Richard was worth twenty times the man who'd displaced him. The relationship with Joshua had petered out, destroyed by her guilt and his inevitable betrayal.
'I must say that I find these colours a little too forceful. They jangle the nerves rather than soothe.'
Sir Julian was standing before a group of canvases whose landscapes pulsated with lurid crimsons and golds, an anarchic depiction of the natural world.
'What do you think, Miss Tallisam I being old fashioned?'
'Not old fashioned precisely, Sir Julian, but perhaps a little traditional? One needs to open one's mind to different possibilities,' she hazarded, thinking that just one of the pictures on her bedroom wall would be enough to keep her awake at night.
'As always you are right. I will look with your eyes and endeavour to see these canvases anew.'
Why did he always have to agree with her? Richard would have mocked her pretensions, laughed openly at her and they would have ended sharing the joke together. But Richard's companionship was long gone. How strange to think that he would soon be in England, but this time returning as the new Earl Veryan. It was three months since Lord Veryan's life had been brutally cut short by a riding accident. Richard would have left for home the minute he'd received the dreadful news, but a long and treacherous journey meant his father had been buried while he was still on the high seas. At the funeral Lady Veryan had been beyond grief; it was certain to be a very sad homecoming for her son. Her escort continued to talk, but Christabel's thoughts were elsewhere, straying inevitably towards a lone man adrift on a distant ocean. With a great effort she forced herself to return to Sir Julian and his enthusiastic recital; the small successes of Pimlico's deserving poor had never seemed less riveting.
A few hundred miles away, the new Earl Veryan gazed blankly over the sea as it threaded itself swiftly past the ship. He was deep in thought and not all of it was pleasant. The last image of his father played through his mind, the stocky figure waving from the dockside, a bright red handkerchief in his hand, growing smaller and smaller as the ship made its way to the open sea. He had been away from England for too long; he had not been there for his father when he needed him. Now at last he was returning home, but to an unknown life. The Great Hall would no longer echo to Lord Veryan's greeting and the task of administering a large estate was now his. He knew himself well capable, but he was sorry to be leaving Argentina behind. The country had been good to him. A rugged outdoor life had taught him authority and decisiveness. It had honed him physically and created an inner strength he'd not known he possessed. And life there had not been all hard work. The social round was lively and largely free of the stifling conventions of London society, and the tall, handsome Englishman was a popular guest. There had been music and laughter and plenty of beautiful women happy to engage in a light flirtation or more. He'd enjoyed their favours freely and indifferently, determined to consign love to the vault of history and simply enjoy the physical pleasures of the moment. It had become a way of life for him, demanding little emotion and no commitment.
The moon cut a path across the surface of the small waves so bright that it made him blink. His eyes focused on the expanse of ocean, at the different shades of silver and black stretching to the horizon, then to the lanterns which hung above him, swinging comfortingly to the rhythm of the ship. The crew were engaged elsewhere and he had the deck to himself. He wondered if he dared to smoke a cigar, a disastrous habit he'd contracted in Argentina, but decided that he'd better keep that delight for later. Dinner would be served soon and he did not want to escort Domino to the table smelling of tobacco.
The boat gave a louder creak than usual with the sudden swell of the ocean, but the vessel soon recovered its peaceful passage. A sailor appeared from the deck below and waved a greeting.
'Fine weather, sir, and the forecast's good. Should be a quiet landfall, I'm thinking.'
It had not always been so calm; they had suffered tempests aplenty since leaving Buenos Aires and there had been times when he'd wondered if they would ever make it to land again. But it was tranquil now and he had leisure to think. The grey eyes were expressionless, his dark straight brows furrowed. The meeting with his mother would be painful, he knew, but there would be joy too. To be home again; to feel Cornish air on his skin once more and to awake to the sound of Cornish surf breaking on the rocky cove below Madron Abbey. He saw in his mind's eye the winding path from the house across the green headland and then the sudden dramatic fall of cliffs tumbling into the wild seas. He'd walked that pathway so many times in memory. In just a few weeks he would be walking it in reality.
Immediately the ship berthed in Southampton, he would post up to London and ensure that Domino was safely consigned to the care of her aunt. The sooner he could do this, the sooner he could travel on to Madron.
'There you are, Richard. I've been looking everywhere for you.'
The speaker was a diminutive brunette who barely came up to his chest. She raised a pair of soft brown eyes to his hard grey ones and smiled sweetly. Richard smiled back in response.
'Not quite everywhere, it seems. I'm not exactly invisible.'
'I didn't expect you to be behind the lifeboats! Were you thinking of leaving the ship without telling me? Or, more like, you were just about to smoke one of those noxious cigars of yours.'
He looked guilty and she crowed with delight, clapping her hands together and doing a little dance around him.
'You see, I know you so well.'
He doubted that, but it would hardly be surprising if she thought so. They'd been cooped up together in this small vessel for nigh on a month. When he'd first been asked to escort the Spanish ambassador's daughter to London, he'd been aghast. His mind was beset with worries over his mother and grief for his father and he had no wish to assume the responsibility of a seventeen-year-old girl.
But Senor de Silva had been persuasive. Domino had been invited by the English branch of her family to spend a Season in London and then to make the journey on to Spain and her paternal home in Madrid. Alfredo de Silva was insistent that his daughter should experience something of European society.
'Argentina is pioneer country, you know, Richard, not the place for a young girl.'
'She seems to have thrived on life in Buenos Aires,' Richard protested, trying to escape the fate he saw coming.
But Senor de Silva was adamant. Domino must be launched on society and not in a rough-and-ready place like Buenos Aires. As a considerable heiress, and charmingly pretty, his daughter could look to the highest for a husband.
'It's a very long journey for a young girl. There are dangers.' Richard made a last attempt, but to no avail.
'Yes, yes, I have considered well,' Senor de Silva reassured him.