Caro’s voice stopped Cordelia as she climbed the stairs of the house in the Rue du Belle Vue, candle in her hand. Caro stood on the first-floor landing, the light from the open door behind her outlining her disordered ringlets and the white gauze of her gown.
“You didn’t need to wait up,” Cordelia said.
“Stuff.” Caro took her arm. “You can lock up, Georges,” she called to the footman in the hall below, and then dragged Cordelia through the open door of the salon where she had been waiting. She flung her arms round Cordelia and hugged her hard. “Dearest. I’m so sorry.”
Cordelia clung to her friend for a moment. “Don’t Caro, or I’ll quite fall to pieces.”
Caro pushed her into an armchair, put a glass of brandy in her hand, and perched on the sofa beside her. “I looked in on Livia, and she’s sleeping like an angel, so you needn’t worry.”
It was a reversal of their usual roles. Normally it was Cordelia who held Caro’s hand, smoothed her hair, convinced her to eat or sleep through the ups and downs of her marriage and in particular the volatile days of her affair with Lord Byron.
Cordelia stared at the glass in her hand, seeing Johnny hunched over his brandy in his study. Nausea choked her. She set the glass on the table beside her, aware that her fingers were shaking.
“How was Johnny?” Caro asked.
“Devastated. Angry. And–“
Cordelia snatched up the glass and tossed down a sip. “I think there’s something he isn’t tell me.”
Caro picked up her own glass. “You haven’t talked about the other part of the evening.”
Cordelia tossed down another swallow of brandy. “I knew I’d probably see him in Brussels.”
“Over my sister’s body.”
Caro’s eyes darkened. Before she’d left the ball to call on Johnny, Cordelia had told her friend about Julia’s death and that Harry had taken her to see Julia’s body. Remembering now her clipped words, she thought Caro must have thought her mad.
Cordelia turned her glass in her hand. “Poor Harry. Marrying into our family seems to have led him from one coil to another. We had a beastly quarrel about Livia. He accused me of being unfeeling in bringing her to Brussels. I accused him of not caring about her at all. Not that there’s any reason he should be expected to.”
Caro tucked her feet up under her on the sofa and leaned toward Cordelia. “Cordy, you have every right to be–“
“I don’t have a right to be anything.” Cordelia clunked her glass on the table, so hard drops of brandy splashed onto the polished mahogany. “When it comes to Harry I long ago forfeited the right to anything.”
Caro’s eyes darkened in her thin face. Marriage was a difficult subject with her. “Harry wasn’t–“
“Harry was a fool. But he didn’t deserve what he got when he married me.” Fragments of memory chased through her mind. The candle doused in their alien bedchamber, awkward touches. Uncomfortable silences across engraved silver and gilt-edged wedding china. Bending over a book in the library, her hair brushing his own, a sudden moment of understanding. His gaze following her across the ballroom. Coming home alone from an entertainment and glancing into the library to see him hunched over his books.
She grabbed the brandy glass and tossed down a swallow that burned her throat. “I knew I’d made a mess of my life. I thought Julia had done better.”
“But you knew–“
“That her marriage wasn’t as perfect as it appeared on the surface? Whose is?”
Caro grimaced and hugged her arms across her chest.
Cordelia’s fingers tightened round the glass. “Perhaps the fools are the ones who actually expect fidelity.”
“Cordy, that’s dreadful. You sound like William. My husband was always much more of a cynic than I am.”
Cordelia smiled at her friend, against the memory of scandals and tantrums and hysterical outbursts. “You’re an incurable romantic, Caro. I often think life would be much easier for you if you weren’t.”
“Just because Harry wasn’t–“
“Oh, for God’s sake. Blame my affairs on boredom or lust or the need to provoke. But they aren’t motivated by a search for my one true love.” Except for the beginning, and she wasn’t going to let her mind dwell on her youthful folly now.
Caro wrapped her arms round her knees. “I was in love with William when I married him.”
“I know.” Cordelia reached over and touched her friend’s hand. She had a vivid memory of Caro’s bright face on her wedding day. She’d been trembling when she hugged Cordelia before she climbed in the carriage outside Melbourne House for the wedding journey, but the gaze she had turned on William Lamb had burned with adoration. “You married for much more honest reasons than I did.”