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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 servants' 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 leatherbound 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 would be 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 had 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 ringleader-that honour fell to poor Cressie. Cordelia had thought herself a master manipulator by the time she arrived in London for the Season. She had been so naive, 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 schoolgirl. 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 highcrowned 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 re- grettedyour 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 selfenforced 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 half-sister, were bittersweet. She had missed so much of their youth already that she would be a stranger to them. She even harboured a desire to become reacquainted with Bella, whose many foibles and vi-ciousness 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 dependant. 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 confront 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.
She had thought herself prepared, but as the door opened and Lord Armstrong made his entrance, a lump formed in Cordelia's throat. There were, it seemed, some things which neither logic nor experience could tame. Here was her father, and she could not control the rush of affection which brought tears to her eyes, stemmed only by a supreme effort of will from falling. Foolish of her, but she had not expected him to look so much older. His grey hair was sparser, revealing tender patches of pink pate. Pouches had formed under his eyes, though the blue-grey colour of his irises was still disconcertingly the exact shade of her own. His face was thinner too, giving a beakiness to his nose and a translucence to his skin, though he was still a handsome man.
He still had presence too. Barely a falter in his step there was, as he nodded curtly, as if it had been a few days since last they had met. The atmosphere in the book room changed too, when he took his seat behind the desk. She had forgotten that about him. He was like a necromancer, conjuring moods at will.
She was already tense, her toes curled inside her kid boots, her shoulders straight like a soldier on parade, and it was too late to relax, because his eyes were upon her and he was drumming his fingers, his chin resting on one hand. But she was no longer a child, and had, for nine years, perforce, to consider herself no longer his daughter. He had not the right to judge her, and she was not inclined to permit him to do so.
Silence stretched. Another of his tricks, but it was one which Cordelia had also acquired. By the time he raised his brows after what seemed like an eternity, she had herself under control.
'You are looking surprisingly well.'
'Yes,' she replied with a cool smile. She waited, listening to the clock on the mantel ticking. It always seemed to tock much louder than it ticked, counting out the seconds like a measured, doom-laden tread towards eternity. She wondered, as she had so many times before, if he had had it adjusted to do so.
Finally, her father spoke. 'Almost a decade ago you absconded from these premises, leaving devastation in your wake. I shall never understand what I did to deserve such ingratitude, nor such a flagrant flouting of my will.'
'Your will!' The words were out before she could stop them. 'What about my will, Father? Did you ever stop to consider '
'Unlike yourself, I never act without a great deal of consideration.'
Lord Armstrong steepled his fingers and eyed her across the expanse of polished walnut. Furious with herself, Cordelia bit her lip, grateful that the layers of corsets and stiffened petticoats which her robe required, concealed her heaving chest. 'I did not request this interview to discuss the past, but the future,' she said.
'Indeed? You do not think the past pertinent, then? You do not feel it incumbent to explain how you have spent your years.'
'In exile? In the wilderness?'
'Outwith the shelter of your family,' Lord Armstrong concluded smoothly.
'No,' Cordelia said baldly. 'Caro and Cressie informed you that I was well,' she continued, unable to tolerate another lengthy silence. 'They also informed you that should you wish to contact me, you could do so through either of them. You did not, I must assume because you were not interested or did not care. Both most likely. So no, I don't think it either pertinent or-or incumbent upon me to explain myself,' she concluded hurriedly, realising that she was on the brink of doing just that.
She glared at him, defying the stupid, stupid tears to fall. He didn't care. It made it so much more humiliating to discover that she, after all, cared a great deal.
'You are thirty years of age,' Lord Armstrong said.
'Next month,' Cordelia replied cautiously, wondering where this new tack would lead.
'And still, I assume, unmarried?'
'May I ask why you make such an assumption?'
Her father smiled thinly. 'Though I am sure we would both rather the case were otherwise, you are my daughter, and I do understand you. You would not be here playing the supplicant had you any other means.'
'You don't think my sisters would support me?'
'I don't think you would accept their support,' Lord Armstrong retorted.
The truth of this made her determined to destroy that smug certainty of his. 'The possibility of my having a dependant of my own has not occurred to you, I suppose,' Cordelia said.
Her father looked fleetingly appalled, but his expression was quickly veiled. 'Even you, Cordelia, would not have the temerity to foist a bastard upon the family.'
Even she! Thinking of her sisters' various exploits, Cordelia was forced to repress a smile. Marriage, no matter how belated, had obviously mitigated their actions in her father's eyes, despite the fact that not a single one of those marriages had been of his making. How pleasant it must be, to bend the facts to one's perception, as he did. She doubted he ever had trouble sleeping at night, and wished fleetingly that she too, had the knack of looking at the world through a window of her own making.