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30 December 1829
An icy wind blew steadily through the poorly sealed post chaise, keeping its two occupants chilled in spite of their caped greatcoats and the hot bricks they'd installed at the posting inn. But it had been the best they could do at the time. The west country was not known for its luxuries. The newly returned Viscount St Just didn't mind. He'd been in far less comfortable situations over the past nine years and he was simply glad to be home.
'What are you smiling about?' Beldon Stratten, the young Baron Pendennys, groused, stamping his feet in a futile attempt to generate some body heat.
'Am I smiling?' Valerian asked. 'I was unaware of it.'
'You've been smiling since the inn at St Austell. I can't imagine what about.'
Beldon was right. There wasn't much to smile about. Their journey had become a comedy of errors. Nothing had gone right since they'd left London after celebrating the Christmas holidays in town. They'd hoped to sail down the Cornish coast to St Just-in-Roseland, Valerian's home on the peninsula, and avoid the roads. But foul weather on the Channel had scotched those plans. So they'd set out on horseback, hoping to make better time than a lumbering coach. Valerian had a yen to be settled in his home by New Year. But weather again played them false, turning too cold for safe passage on horseback. They'd abandoned the horses at St Austell and hired the only post chaise available.
It went unspoken between them that they'd get no farther than Truro today. If they wanted to try for St Just-in-Roseland by New Year, it would have to wait until tomorrow.
'Do you believe in serendipity, Val?' Beldon asked, stretching his long legs out across the small space between the seats.
Valerian looked at him queerly. 'I am not exactly sure what you mean.'
'You know, making valuable discoveries by accident.'
'Ah, coincidence,' Valerian corrected. 'You think it is merely a fortuitous happening that I ran into you in London.'
'Definitely luck since you'd sent no word ahead of your return.' There was a censorious note in Beldon's voice. Valerian did not miss it. He had not said goodbye to Beldon properly when he'd left London so abruptly years ago and he had not written over the long years with the exception of one short letter early on. It was a credit to the depth of their friendship that Beldon had felt his absence so keenly and forgiven him so readily.
Beldon's tone softened. 'Perhaps you will explain to me some day why you all but vanished into your uncle's household overnight. I am your friend. I would understand, whatever your reasons. We all missed you, even Philippa. I think she had always admired you from afar.'
Valerian started at that. Had Philippa kept their secret all these years? He'd expected her to blurt it all out. He'd imagined her crying on Beldon's shoulder in the garden that last night, sobbing out how her heart had been broken by her brother's cad of a best friend.
He'd known this moment was inevitable. Hearing her name would be just the first of many such moments. He knew in his heart that was why he hadn't written ahead to Beldon to tell him of his return. Of course, he hadn't known until the last moment that he would be assigned to the team of negotiators sent to London to pound out a peace treaty to end the latest conflict between the Turks and Russia. Even when he'd known with a certainty he'd be coming back, he still hadn't sent advance notice of his return. It was a stalling mechanism and a desperate one at that, designed to put off any encounter with Philippa until the very last.
His tenure on the Continent had not outlasted his own broken heart. He had stayed on in Europe as long as he could, volunteering for myriad diplomatic assignments that lingered in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon's efforts had left their mark on old and new regimes alike and Valerian had quickly learned that there was always someone to fight.
Treaties may have been signed, but Europe, particularly the Balkans, was not at peace. There was still plenty for Britain to worry over as countries fought to define themselves and empires sought to expand in the power vacuum left by Napoleon's defeat.
Valerian had watched modern history play out before his very eyes as Britain and the rest of Europe fought to corner the fledgling Balkan markets.
After years of pointless victories and disappointments, Valerian found he had no stomach for a fight motivated by greed and avarice, thinly cloaked in a facade of ideals, and he could not stay away from home indefinitely. He had gardens and an estate to manage. He could not rely on his steward for ever.
While a broken-hearted young man of twenty-one could be forgiven for impetuously leaving his inheritance, a grown man of thirty years, who knew his duty, could not continue to shirk it. Yet it was difficult turning for home when he knew it would mean facing Philippa and Cambourne. But duty and honour beckoned, two ideals he had always held dear even when his country hadn't.
'How is your sister?' Valerian inquired, hoping to sound casual.
Beldon nodded. 'She's doing well. I see her often. You just missed her in London. She spent the holidays with a friend in Richmond before heading out here. If I had known you were coming, I could have persuaded her to stay in town.' Beldon paused, seeming to consider his next words before speaking them. 'It's hard to believe she's twenty-seven and already through her first husband. Here I am at thirty and I haven't been married, not even close. It makes me feel "behind" somehow.'
Valerian felt his body tense. 'Through her first husband?'
'Yes, didn't you know? It was in all the papers, quite a newsworthy death.'
'I wasn't exactly holed up in Vienna the entire time,' Valerian said wryly, thinking of the rugged Balkan territories he'd journeyed through with their mountains and sparse populations. There were places in Europe the mails didn't reach, places with names like Voden and Negush. Places that didn't appear on a map unless you were a Turkish Pasha charged with keeping the Christian millet in line.
'Cambourne died three years ago in a mining accident. There was a cave-in while he was touring one of his tin mines. It was a freak incident. A shaft support gave way. The miners pulled him out, but he died of his injuries three days later at home.'
Philippa was a widow. The implications were not lost on him. Valerian's emotions ricocheted from a morbid elation that Philippa was free to a sadness that she'd had to bear the loss of a husband, set adrift in society as a dowager so early in life.
'I hope Cambourne left her well provided for,' he said quietly, knowing that the Pendennys's fortunes had rested so completely on Cambourne's welfare. Valerian didn't like to think that her marriage had come to naught.
'Absolutely. He had a cousin who inherited the title and the other estates, but Philippa has all she needs or wants. Of course, the principal estate went to his heir, but Philippa has the house in Cornwall where they spent their marriage. To my mind, she got the better end of the deal. Coppercrest is a much more hospitable dwelling. Even Cambourne himself preferred it.
'"The heir" isn't much on going up to town, so Philippa has free run of the town house. Cambourne also bequeathed her a substantial interest in the mines and the associate businesses. He owned a tin smelter and a small gunpowder works.'
Valerian only half-listened to Beldon's itemization of Philippa's situation. The first line had caught most of his attentiona cousin had inherited. Ah, there were no children. Another delicate question answered. Valerian wondered if Beldon had shared that information on purpose or if it had been accidental.
Beldon chuckled softly. 'I forget that you haven't seen her recently. She's much changed since you saw her last. She's not a budding débutante any more. She's a sophisticated woman now, as comfortable in town among the leading hostesses and politicians as she is in the country, tramping over the cliffs and riding neck-for-nothing at the hunt. When she's in town, her house teems with politicos. Everyone seeks her endorsement and asks her opinion. She's a leading supporter of mine reform these days, and with justifiable reason.'
Valerian smiled thoughtfully in the gathering gloom. The grey afternoon was turning towards evening. Truro couldn't be more than a few miles in the offing. Beldon's revelations were enough to fill the time. Valerian turned his mind inwards, pondering all Beldon had shared.
Philippa was free. In a fairy-tale world, he would have a second chance. But his world was far from a fairy tale. They had parted badly nine years ago. Philippa's final words to him were still achingly clear. And now there was all he had done during those years to contend with as well. His years in the Balkans had left him with another set of nightmares, another set of people he'd failed in their hour of need. Those failures hung like an invisible millstone about his neck, even when he was able to subdue the more physical reminders of his futile efforts.
He'd been surprised in London to know how much people had heard about his antics on the Continent. Of course, no one had known the depth of such shenanigans, but they knew the gist. He'd led a flamboyant lifestyle in Vienna during his brief time there, playing the role of a womanising diplomat. It had been the perfect foil for something darker that took him to the sinister underbelly of the rebellions popping up across Europe. He'd been nothing short of an expert spy and negotiator, engaging in the kind of diplomacy that never made the broadsheets.
'We'll stop tonight at Lucien Canton's place just outside Truro. It'll be much better than an inn. He has an excellent cook and an even better cellar,' Beldon broke into Valerian's ruminations.
Valerian nodded, only half-engaged in the conversation. 'It won't be an imposition, I hope?' He didn't remember this friend of Beldon's from their early days as young bucks on the town. 'I don't believe I know him.'
'He's Viscount Montfort's son and heir. He was close to Cambourne before his death. Since then, he's been Philippa's strong right hand.'
Valerian couldn't quite read Beldon's expression. It didn't seem that Beldon was precisely elated about the man's association with his sister, but had resigned himself to it. Beldon's conversation was moving on. 'It will be a party before the party, the three of us together again like old times. With luck, Philippa is there already. Lucien asked her to act as hostess for his New Year's gala since she's the best hostess in the neighbourhood and his sister couldn't come down from London to do it.'
Now Valerian was fully engaged. 'Philippa will be there?' Regardless of Beldon's assurances that Lucien Canton was a grand chap, Valerian doubted he'd like the man very much. He was inclined to dislike any man who had a claim on Philippa's attentions and this Lucien clearly did. No one played hostess for someone they didn't know well. They must be good friends indeed and perhaps something more.
Beldon grinned and leaned forwards in his growing excitement. 'Yes. She will be beyond surprised to see you.'
She would indeed, Valerian reflected wryly, although he and Beldon would likely disagree about her reaction to that surprise.
Philippa Lytton, the widowed duchess of Cam-bourne, glided down the curved staircase of Lucien Canton's Truro manor at half-past six, consciously aware that she would be the last one to the drawing room and that she'd be the only female present. What had started out as a small enfamille supper with Canton and the bachelor vicar from down the road had turned into a supper party with three unexpected guests.
One of them was her brother, Beldon, who had arrived unannounced just two hours ago and a guest he'd brought with him. Beldon's arrival was understandable given the terrible weather and the fact that she was already in residence. The third guest's presence was less clearly explained. Lucien knew him only through the acquaintances of others. He was a Mister Danforth, a well-to-do shipping merchant from Liverpool who hoped to start a provincial bank. He was not someone they would normally associate with. He was a rich Cit who'd made most of his money during the war, making his fortune somewhat speculative as to the legitimacy of its origins. But the underpopulated wilds of Cornwall in mid-winter and his tenuous connection to Lucien made it difficult to turn him away.
Philippa stopped at the foot of the stairs to draw a deep breath and square her shoulders. She stole a glance in the hallway mirror as a final check. She looked fine with her hair piled high and threaded with pearls. The heavy satin folds of her skirts fell neatly to her ankles into a deep Van-dyked hem. She liked the quiet shushing of the satin skirt as she walked.
Indeed, she loved this gown for its textures and feel as much as she loved it for its look. The cream skirt was set off by the deep blue velvet of the round bodice that fell low over her shoulders and into a plunging vee in the back. She fiddled with the simple choker of blue Kashmir sapphires that set off the expanse between her neck and the delicate cream-lace trim of her bodice.
She looked well. Not that she wanted to attract any attention. She wasn't dressing for a man's approval, not even Lucien's, although he'd readily give it. Being in high looks boosted her confidence, a security blanket of sorts. In a room dominated by the male species, one could never have too much confidence if one was going to hold one's own.
She stepped into the wide doorway of the drawing room, her eyes quickly assessing the gathering. Lucien stood at the carved-oak fireplace mantel, dressed in dark evening clothes, looking slender and elegant with his usual immaculate perfection. He was doing his host's duty by chatting with the unworthy Mr Danforth. Across the room in a little grouping of chairs situated beneath an expansive Gainsborough landscape sat her brother, the vicar and apparently the guest her brother had brought with him. The guest's back was to her, affording her only a glimpse of broad shoulders and dark hair, sleek in the evening light of candles.