The Suitor

Philippa Dean was sitting sideways on the padded window seat in her bedchamber, her very favorite spot in the townhouse her father had leased in London for the spring months so that she could make her come-out in society. Her feet were drawn up before her, her right hand, in which she held one of her opened letters, draped over her knee. The other letter lay forgotten in her lap. She was gazing out through the window into the garden below, though she was not really seeing either the flowers or the grass and trees.

She was seeing a future filled to the brim with happiness.

And this, now, this moment, was the beginning of that future. This was the happiest day of her life.

She raised her hand and looked at the letter again, though she had it by heart already after at least a dozen readings.

Julian was coming to London.

He would be here in a week's time, perhaps a little longer. Certainly no more than two.

And when Papa saw him again, he would discover the changes two years had wrought, and he would have no further objection to him as a suitor for her hand. Julian would be allowed to court her openly, and after a decent interval he would offer for her and then marry her, and they would live happily-ever-after.

For a moment she felt a twinge of anxiety, for this desirable outcome had not yet been achieved, of course, and, as her grandmama was fond of saying, there was many a slip 'twixt cup and lip. But she refused to allow a silly old adage to lower her spirits. She had waited two long years for this moment, or rather for the moment that was now within her reach.

Nothing—surely!—could or would go wrong.

Julian had changed. He was also undeniably eligible. And she was eighteen now rather than sixteen. She was of marriageable age. Indeed, she had been brought to London for that very reason. It was the Season, and she had been brought here to find an eligible husband.

Papa loved her, as did Mama. They wanted her to make a good marriage, of course. She was the eldest of five children, all of whom would need to be suitably settled within the next few years, and Papa, though comfortably well off was not vastly wealthy. But equally important to her parents was that she make a marriage in which her affections would be engaged, a marriage in which she would be happy. They had said so repeatedly.

Philippa tipped her head sideways to rest her temple against the glass of the window. She sighed deeply and happily.

Julian was coming--all the way from Cornwall. She would see him again. She closed her eyes and pictured his tall, lithe remembered figure, his handsome, vital face with the slightly crooked smile, his dark, often intense eyes, his brown hair always attractively disheveled as though he had just been running in a wind. Had she remembered him as he really was? She sometimes wondered. Two years was an awfully long time. Had he changed? What did he look like now?

Would he think her changed? She hoped so, for she had grown up since he saw her last. She had been a girl then. She was a woman now.

She looked down at his letter, read it once more, and folded it small, as it had come to her inside Barbara's letter. Barbara Redford, Philippa's closest friend in Bath, was Julian's cousin on his mother's side. It was through her that the two of them had met and then kept up a correspondence for two years, a clandestine, guilty exchange between a single gentleman and a single young girl who was not even out of the schoolroom when it started.

Philippa hoped that when she was the mother of daughters grown beyond childhood but not yet quite to adulthood, she would remember that it was possible to fall in love with a steadfastness of devotion that she knew would continue unabated through her lifetime. Her love for Julian had not wavered in two years. Neither had his for her. He had written to her faithfully every month for the two years, though everyone knew that men were not the most constant of letter writers—or of suitors.

She drew her feet a little closer to her body and clasped her arms about her knees. She gazed down at the spring flowers blooming in the garden with a more conscious appreciation.

Her court appearance two weeks ago had dazzled her with its splendor, and her come-out ball had been wonderful beyond imagining. She had danced every set, and she had received no fewer than eight bouquets of flowers the morning after. It could only have been more perfect if Julian had been there, but he had thought it wiser to wait a short while before coming. Mama and Papa might be a little suspicious if he appeared too soon, he had written. Indeed, they might not even have invited him to her ball since Papa had been very vexed with him two years ago.

That would have been horrible. Quite disastrous, in fact.

Now he was coming—before any of her admirers could turn into serious suitors for her hand and complicate matters.

She wondered which ball he would choose to attend first after his arrival. She considered which of her gowns she would wear for the occasion and how she would have her hair dressed.

But these happy thoughts were interrupted by a tap on her bedchamber door. Her mother came inside without waiting for an invitation. Philippa smiled at her as she folded Barbara's letter around the smaller one and slid them beneath the cushion on which she sat.

Her mother paused before she came closer.

"Oh, Philippa," she said, "you are in such good looks. You look quite radiant even though we did not get home until after two o'clock last night. You are enjoying yourself, are you not?"

"I am, Mama," Philippa assured her. "More than anything in the world."

"You are looking happy now," her mother said, smiling archly at her. "But just wait until I tell you what the morning post brought your papa. Philippa, how would you like to be a viscountess? Viscountess Darleigh."

Philippa stared back, her smile frozen as she searched her mind.

"I do not even know a Viscount Darleigh."

Her mother came across the room and seated herself on the end of her daughter's bed. "He lives at Middlebury Park in Gloucestershire," she explained. "It is quite famous, both for the magnificent mansion there and for the vast, landscaped park. And his fortune is said to be very large indeed. He is Mrs. Pearl's grandson."

Mrs. Pearl was a friend of Grandmama Dean in Bath. Though she had moved away a while ago, Philippa remembered, to live with her daughter at the home of her grandson.

Who was blind.

"He is blind, poor gentleman," her mother said, dispelling any possibility that she was mistaken. "He lost his sight in battle in Spain or Portugal, where he was an artillery officer. He is still very young. His mother believes it is time he married."

Philippa licked lips turned suddenly dry.

"Mama—"

"Your father has received an invitation for us all to spend a week or two at Middlebury Park," her mother said. "The poor gentleman is unable to come to town, and he cannot be overwhelmed by too large a house party. We are to be the only guests. Mrs. Pearl sent a letter with the invitation. She assured Papa that, despite his affliction, the viscount is both handsome and personable."

"Mama—"

"Philippa." Her mother leaned eagerly toward her. "This is a wonderful opportunity for you. A dream come true. You could be betrothed within a month of your come-out, married before the Season ends. Think what a coup that would be. We could let the London house go early and return to Bath. You could be Viscountess Darleigh, mistress of Middlebury Park, wealthy and influential beyond your wildest dreams. You would have influence, you know. Doubtless your husband would depend upon you in all things. It is unfortunate, truly unfortunate, that he is blind. But if he is handsome and personable, Ido not doubt you will come to care for him. You have always been a girl with tender sensibilities. You are kind and gentle. This would be a dazzling match for you. I scarcely believe it can be true."

"But I have just made my come-out." Philippa was almost whispering. "I have just begun to make friends here. We have accepted invitations for almost every day for the next month. Mama, I am happy here."

"Of course you are," her mother agreed. "You have taken extremely well, and I do not doubt that were we to remain here, Papa would be in receipt of more than one eligible offer for your hand before the Season is out. Probably not, however, one that goes with a title and large estate and fabulous fortune. You are of excellent birth and lineage on both Papa's side and mine, of course, and Papa can offer a respectable dowry with you. And you are very pretty. But without being either a peer's daughter or in possession of a large fortune of your own, you know, you cannot aspire to a title or any great fortune in a husband. Or could not in the ordinary way of things. But now opportunity has fallen into your lap and those things and more can be yours. Will not such a triumph be worth the sacrifice of a couple of weeks of the Season? Perhaps all the rest of it too if you are successful? And I cannot see why you should not be. We have been invited for the specific purpose of presenting Lord Darleigh with a prospective bride."

"I would far rather stay here," Philippa said. "Mama—"

"Philippa." Her mother got to her feet and took a few steps closer to her. Some of the brightness had gone from her face. "You have always been such a good girl and such a dutiful daughter and loving sister. Think of your papa now. He does not say a great deal, even to me, but I know he worries about the future, about not being able to provide as he ought for you girls and for Everett and Oswald. Everett talks about a military career after he has finished school, and of course he has his mind set on a prestigious regiment, and it has always been assumed that Oswald is for the church and therefore a few years at Oxford or Cambridge first. Think of what you could do for your sisters as Lady Darleigh. Think of how sad it would be for them if they were unable to have a Season like yours, if they could not have the opportunity to meet eligible husbands. Philippa, please. For Papa's sake. He is so pleased at this flattering opportunity for you. And so relieved too."

Philippa felt physically sick.

Julian should have come at the start of the Season after all. He was eligible. He was the grandson of the late Duke of Stanbrook and the nephew and heir presumptive of the present duke, his uncle, who had lost his only son in the wars and his wife soon after and had assured Julian that he would have no other sons. Julian had a more than comfortable fortune even apart from his future prospects. He had a sizable estate and farms in Cornwall, and they were prospering at last.

He was more than eligible if he could only convince Papa that he was no longer the wild, rakish young hellion who had gone to rusticate with his uncle in Bath two years ago when London grew too hot for him. The same hellion who had been discovered sitting in Sydney Gardens one gala evening, holding sixteen-year-old Philippa's hand.

But that was two years ago. An eon ago. Julian was perfectly eligible now, and he was coming to London to court her and offer for her.

How could she tell her mama that, though? As far as her parents knew, she had neither seen nor heard from him in two years. And even if she should tell her mother that Barbara had mentioned in this morning's letter that he was coming to London, Mama would be displeased more than anything, for she would remember him as he was, or as he apparently was, when Papa had sent him packing and she had been sent to her room for two days of quiet reflection. And even if Mama was not displeased after all this time, she would nevertheless not understand that he was coming because he had loved her unwaveringly for two years and loved her still and because he was going to persuade Papa that he was a worthy suitor for her hand, that two years had made all the difference to his character and position and means.

Her mother would not understand either that she had loved him all that time without wavering—even during the past two weeks when she had been surrounded by handsome and charming and eligible young gentlemen who might easily have turned her head.

She could not tell her mother any of all these things.

Whatever was she to do? Whatever was she to say?

There was nothing, of course. Absolutely nothing.

"When must we leave?" she asked.

Perhaps it was an invitation for the summer.

Her mother beamed at her again.

"Within the week," she said. "Oh, my love, I am so happy for you. And Middlebury Park is not even so very far from Bath. We will be able to come and visit you there after your marriage. I do not think Mrs. Pearl would have described the viscount as handsome and personable unless he were really so, for we will know for ourselves as soon as we get there, will we not? I daresay he will love you, for you are very sweet and he is very much confined to his own home. And you will grow fond of him. I know you will. It is easy to love people who are dependent upon us, you know. We love our children for that very reason, as you will no doubt discover for yourself within the next year or two."

She leaned down and hugged her daughter, who hugged her back—and was filled from the top of her head to the tips of her toes with misery and utter despair.

This was suddenly the very worst day of her life.

© Mary Balogh