VALENTINE HAD stepped away from the counter to turn up the gaslights when the shop door opened with a jangle of bells. He turned to smile at his customer, wondering how many more would shuffle through his door before closing. Sleet and snow had been coming down heavily all afternoon, but it was the thirteenth of February, and every hopeful lad in Chester would be trying to woo his girl tomorrow.
By the cut of his coat, this one could afford to treat his ladylove to more than a paper twist of barley sugar, so Valentine stepped forward politely. “Good evening, sir. How can I help you?”
The customer was still hesitating just inside the door. He was a tall man, and his hat was pulled forward over his face. He wore an old, soft school scarf, wound high, and all Valentine could see of him was the tip of his nose. For a moment, Valentine felt worried. His day’s takings were in the register, which was old and could be easily forced by a strong man with a crowbar, and this was always one of the most profitable days of the year in a sweet shop.
The customer said, sounding politely bewildered, “There was an old man in charge when I was last here. I was hoping to speak to him.” His voice was soft, every syllable carefully enunciated, and it was undeniably posh, with none of the blunt vowels that fell out of Valentine’s mouth no matter how hard he tried to hold them back.
Valentine’s throat closed up for a moment before he spoke. “My grandfather, that would be. He died just over a year ago, I’m afraid. The Spanish influenza.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the customer said, sounding sincere. His shoulders fell, and he added, “I won’t trouble you any further. Good evening.”
“Wait, please!” Valentine protested. “I use all his recipes, and he taught me the craft. If there was some particular thing you were after, I’m sure I can supply it.”
“I was hoping for your grandfather’s advice,” the stranger said and then confided, his tone a little sheepish, “I’m afraid I’ve been wasting your time, Mr. Nugent. I had no intention of buying any confectionery.”
In that case, Valentine would do his best to change his mind. Rich patrons should not be easily dismissed. Besides, the man had piqued his curiosity. Quickly, he pulled forward the chair in the corner (designed for grandmamas and nannies, so they would be willing to let their charges shop longer), putting it in front of the fire. “The weather’s ghastly. Please, sir, sit awhile, and perhaps I can help you instead. May I take your hat?”
It was a polite question, but the man tensed up. Then, with an almost defiant swiftness, he reached up and plucked his hat from his head, exposing his face.
At once, Valentine’s heart hurt for him. It had been over a year since the armistice, and the war still haunted them. There were empty places in the church pews every Sunday, and he had many friends who had survived themselves but lost beloved older brothers and cousins. Then there were those like this man, who would never be able to forget, not while he owned a mirror. He must have been a handsome man before the war, and it still showed on the right side of his face. The other side was as stiff as a mask. He’d clearly had a good doctor, but there were some miracles even modern medicine could not perform, and his left eye still drooped at the corner, the edge of his mouth sloped, and the side of his cheek was puckered under newly grown skin. His left eye was glass and lacked the blue depths of the other.
Valentine realized he had been staring too long when the man’s mouth twisted down on the other side as well. Drawing a breath, he decided not to draw attention to it by apologizing. Instead, he took the proffered hat and said, “Please come and sit down, sir. Would you like a chocolate?”
“A chocolate?” the stranger echoed, but he made his way forward. He limped badly, and Valentine was glad he had moved the chair, especially when he caught the little sigh and the easing of the lines around the man’s mouth as he settled into it. Valentine busied himself bringing over the plate of samples from the counter.
“I recommend the violet creams,” he said, pointing them out. “Though they’re a little sugary for some tastes, in which case there are rum truffles or crystallized ginger.”
“How much are the truffles?”
He realized too late that it might sound as if he was offering pity, as he saw the man’s hand flinch back, so he added hurriedly, “They’re all misshapen leftovers. I give them away to customers as a sample.”
“How shrewd,” the stranger said but plucked a truffle from the edge of the plate anyway.
The bell jangled then, and a young lad slid into the shop, his hands tucked into his armpits for warmth. He looked both determined and a little terrified, and Valentine smiled at him as he stood up, blocking the boy’s view of his stranger. A few questions revealed that, yes, he did want a present for his sweetheart, that she was pretty and kind and good, and he didn’t know what she liked, no sir. Her name, though, was Rose, so Valentine packed him up a little bag of sugar roses.
“They’re pretty,” the boy ventured, cradling them gently in his big hands.
“Tell her that,” Valentine suggested, winking at him. “And then tell her she’s prettier.”
“I couldn’t do that, sir.”
“Give it a try,” Valentine said, taking his money and ushering him out gently. “Keep those dry now.”
“And a ladies’ man as well.” The comment was made in a quiet, amused tone as Valentine closed the door behind the boy. Valentine pretended not to hear. It was easy to flirt if you didn’t care in the least whether the girls would flirt back. Love, though, was a different matter. He’d begun to think he would never find it here. The town was too small and too sleepy. He didn’t want to leave, but the cities held more men of his type, and so a better chance to find what he wanted: just a sweetheart of his own, nothing more daring or illicit than that.
“So,” he said, heading back to the counter. “What did you want to ask?”
The man hesitated. “It’s a matter of discretion.”
“I’m discreet.” Valentine caught his doubtful look and held up his hand. “I won’t share your secrets. By my mother’s grave.”
“It concerns a lady’s reputation. I really don’t think I should….”
Valentine leaned forward, touching his arm without thinking. “You came here for a reason, Mr.…. What should I call you?”
For a moment, the man stared down at Valentine’s hand on his sleeve. His face showed more confusion than outrage, so Valentine didn’t pull back, even though he knew quite well he was being rude.
Without looking up, his stranger said, “My name is Jasper.”
“It’s my Christian name.” He looked up then. “I’m sorry to be familiar, but….”
“I understand,” Valentine said, belatedly taking his hand away in case it was a hint as well. “You are very welcome to call me Valentine.”
“Like the saint?”
“I was born on his feast day.”
“My felicitations. Dare I ask how old you will be?”
“Twenty.” He gave out an exaggerated sigh. “There’s my first score gone, and so much left to do.”
“‘Since to look at things in bloom, fifty springs are little room,’” Jasper murmured and then added soberly, “It’s a good day for it. I was on the Somme when I turned twenty.”
“I’m sorry,” Valentine said and reached for his hands again. This was a man who needed to be touched. Only four years between them, though he would have guessed more. “At the time, I was angry that I was too young, but I think now I was very lucky. I’m sorry you had to suffer it.”
Jasper’s hands were shaking under his, but he took a breath and said, “I have—had—a great aunt. She died last month and left me, well, the half of her estate that didn’t go to the RSPCA, and a box of letters.”
“Letters?” Valentine prompted.
Jasper cleared his throat. “Indiscreet letters.”
Valentine had worked out who he was talking to by now, and he felt his eyebrows go up. This must be the unexpected heir. Adeline Pritchard had been the wealthiest and most cantankerous old maid in Chester, and every gossip in the city had been twittering about her will. No one, however, had ever dared breathe any suspicion that Miss Pritchard was anything other the soul of propriety, no matter how much they had personally disliked her.
“She wanted them returned to the writer.”
“And you brought them here?” Grandpa had been a scoundrel, no doubt, but he was also the one Valentine had inherited his weakness for pretty boys from, so he wouldn’t have been sniffing at Miss Pritchard’s no doubt formidable petticoats.
Jasper shifted in his chair. “It was a slim hope. You see, none of them are addressed or signed with more than a doodle, which was no doubt very wise at the time but makes tracing the author damned hard. All I’ve got to go on is the tin my aunt kept them in.”
“One of our tins?”
Jasper nodded. “I know it could be pure coincidence, but I thought perhaps she kept the letters in that particular tin for good reason. I was hoping your grandfather might have a record of his sales around the time of the first letter.”
“Do you have the tin?”
Jasper reached inside his coat and drew out the tin. It was six inches deep and almost as wide, shaped like a heart, with patterned sides and a picture of an ice skater printed on its lid. Valentine reached for it, and Jasper’s fingers tightened.