For many years, the exploits of the Merry Marquis of Aldridge enlivened discussion whenever gentlemen gathered over a brandy or a game of cards. Those of a delicate mind might think the ladies above such matters as discussing his activities amongst themselves. One would be wrong. Indeed, much of the gentleman’s success with the fair sex came from word of mouth recommendations from a bored wife to an adventurous widow and vice versa. Indeed, any lady with yen to wander a little experience under her belt used to be able to count on the Merry Marquis as a partner in amorous delights.
In recent times, all that has changed. He has become the stern guardian of his mother’s wards and a model of propriety. Or has he?
For a brief period towards the end of last year, rumours abounded that the merry marquis not only attended that riotous palace of physical gratification known as Heaven and Hell, but absconded therefrom with two of its loveliest Cyprians. Furthermore, there are those who claim to have seen his lordship in his carriage leaving town with those same Drury Lane Vestals.
Christmas came, the marquis did not return, and gossip died away.
But with a new Season come new, and even more titillating, stories. A certain widow and her dearest friend, from whom she is seldom parted, claim to have had an encounter with his lordship in the Heir’s Wing of his father’s London mansion. An encounter that was interrupted by a damsel of such probity that no-one would dare to question her virtue, were there not credible witnesses against her.
Given the propensity of her relatives to reach for their swords, we hesitate to name the damsel in question, even though she was seen entering the Heir’s Wing last night and leaving again this morning.
Has the Sinner conquered the Saint? And if so, will the feud between two of the highest ducal houses in the land erupt once more into fury?
To Claim the Long-Lost Lover
The beauty known as the Winderfield Diamond hides a ruinous secret. Society’s newest viscount holds the key.
Sarah’s beloved abandoned her eight years ago, leaving her to face the anger of her family and worse. And now he is back, more compelling than ever. Sarah is even lovelier than when she was a girl, but what did she know about her father’s revenge on Nate: forcible enlistment into the navy and years of servitude?
In the morning, Anthony showed Charlotte to the door by the duke’s offices and from there the footman Mullins, anonymous in his Haverford livery, escorted her along the facade of the house to the main portico. Anthony had said goodbye in his own private suite, where he was free to give her another of those knee-melting kisses. “I should see you safely to your coach, Cherry, but people might take note and wonder whether you were visiting me and not Jessica.”
“I can walk 100 yards across a private courtyard on my own, Anthony,” she told him, but he said he would worry if she went out into the open alone. “Take a footman, Cherry, to stay with you until your own guard arrives.”
As it happened, her carriage and guard were coming through the gate as she and Mullins reached the front steps. “Thank you, Mullins,” she said to the footman. He stopped to watch as her guard handed her up into the carriage, and she lifted a hand in half a wave—not to Mullins, but to those windows of the duke’s suite of offices that looked out onto the courtyard.
Perhaps Anthony had forgotten about her already. But no. He would be watching. She had underestimated his feelings for her, but last night he had showed her in a thousand ways that he truly cared. His reverent care of her. The private memories he shared. The heat and love in his eyes when she woke from a deep sleep to find him watching her.
Which had prompted a third round of amorous congress before they fell asleep again. They enjoyed one another’s convivial society a fourth time this morning, and Charlotte could feel the effects of the night’s pleasure. Not soreness, exactly. A certain tenderness in the places that were still soft and puffy. And an ache deep within that she now knew was her body yearning for his.
Aldridge looked around the unfamiliar room of a club
patronised by the son and heir of the Duke of Sudbury. He soon spotted the
distinctive white-blonde head of hair. Glenaire was dining alone at a table set
apart from the others. Aldridge strolled over, catching up a chair on his way.
“Good evening, Glenaire. Would company go amiss?”
It was a comedy they enacted for the audience. Glenaire had offered this as a
meeting place when Aldridge asked for a private conversation.
Glenaire looked up from the pamphlet on which he focused to
the neglect of his plate. “It would be my pleasure.” He hooked a
finger at a passing footman. “A place setting for Lord Aldridge.”
As the footman hurried away, Glenaire went straight to the
point. “Forgive if I’m assuming, Aldridge, but I gather this is about your
Aldridge grimaced. “In a sense, Glenaire, though it touches on your particular interests. Let me be blunt. My ‘family matter’ as you call it is out of my hands and into those of men like your esteemed father. I shall need to trust they make the right decision, for what else can I do? Meanwhile, I am doing my best to contain the mischief my own progenitor can cause, as quietly as possible, for my mother’s sake and the sake of the duchy.”
Glenaire’s somber expression deepened. Unlike Aldridge,
Glenaire had withdrawn from affairs of the Sudbury duchy and thrown himself
into government, becoming highly influential in foreign affairs. His sharp
disagreement with the duke his father made working together impossible and,
unlike Haverford, the Duke of Sudbury remained very much in control. He
understood, however, the frustration of watching his family heritage poorly
managed while lacking power to intervene.
The footman arrived to serve a bowl of rich oyster soup.
Aldridge thanked him with a smile, and took his first sip while waiting for the
man to leave. “With your sister supporting this event my mother is
sponsoring, I take it we shall be seeing you at the auction?”
“Of course,” Glenaire agreed. “Chadbourn and I have
been working on similar issues for a few years. I will support the ladies’
efforts any way I can.”
“I was somewhat surprised to see your sister at
Haverford House and joining in the committee’s activities. My impression has
been she prefers to remain in Oxfordshire.”
Glenaire shook his head. “Georgiana is much too much a
recluse. One worries. I urged her to come down for a few weeks while our
parents are not in town.” A small movement at the corner of his lips hinted at
amusement. “Your mother recruited her rather quickly. Now she has moved to
Chadbourn House. She and the earl’s sister Lady Flora are partners in this
Aldridge grinned. “Chadbourn already has a special
interest in the Society’s cause. The Chadbourn House servants are an
interesting lot.” (Chadbourn
recruited many of his servants from among disabled veterans and war widows.)
The footman finished pouring the wine to go with the soup course, and left. Aldridge leant forward and lowered his voice. “Glenaire, I’ll get straight to the point. It has come to my attention that a certain crime lord in the London slums has smuggling interests, and that the implications may touch on the security of the King’s realm. If… and I pose the question hypothetically… if a prominent Devon landowner gave safe haven to such criminals, and someone presented the government with information about the places and times of meeting, could the landowner’s name be kept out of it? The family would, of course, guarantee to deal with the matter in their own way. Indeed, steps are already being taken.”
Glenaire nodded. “Ah, but the government would have a strong interest in assisting the family in this matter. Confidentially, Aldridge we both know there are smugglers one winks at (your boyhood shows that) and ones that mean us harm. I assume these are the latter and can ensure the full force of the border enforcement—riding officers and military aid if it came to that. Unless, of course, you prefer I keep them out of it.”
Aldridge frowned. “It’s a tricky matter, Glenaire. It needs to be handled by someone with a bit of discretion. Yes, running with the smugglers in Devon is almost a rite of passage for Haverford sons. My brother and I both did it when we were schoolboys, and I still know some of the men I met then. They wouldn’t touch these London thugs with an extremely long barge pole.”
He looked down at his soup spoon, but it was clear his mind was far away. “I can’t stand by and let a man’s second childhood, and his resentment of a romantic rivalry from before I was born, put England at risk. But I don’t want — can I be blunt? — I don’t want the fool attained for treason, either.”
“Are we back to a “family” matter?”
Aldridge nodded, cautiously. “Hypothetical, again?
Imagine a man whose excesses have rotted his brain, and who has always thought
he was one step up from God. If he needed to pay a villain for an assassination
attempt, and the payment demanded was free use of smuggler sanctuaries, would
his conscience bother him, do you think?”
Glenaire leaned forward. “I think it would not bother him
one whit.” He bit his lip, choosing words cautiously. “Let’s assume,
hypothetically, a prominent individual has so taken leave of his senses as to
put his duchy, locale or indeed England at risk. Dear God! He must be stopped.”
“Agreed.” Aldridge spread his lips in a travesty of a grin, as if Glenaire had said something amusing. “At any cost, Glenaire. Any cost. But I’m selfish enough to wish to limit the cost to something I can afford to pay.”
“Care for the impact of such a thing on a mother and her wards — not to mention the wellbeing of the duchy — is not selfish. No one gains by the scandal of a trial for treason. With the cooperation of close individuals — his heir for example — the man in question might be dealt with quietly. Some sort of confinement could be arranged. Do you anticipate difficulty from his peers? A duke for example, hypothetically?”
Another nod. This one more emphatic. “Indeed. A duke
whose own heir might be very close to you.”
“Precisely. I have little influence with my father,”
Glenaire acknowledged, “but this… no, I don’t suppose you want him to know
Aldridge inclined his head. “I am grateful for your understanding. He is not the only man on the panel for the Competence Hearing, so I do not despair of an appropriate outcome. If not — I have servants loyal to me. Something will be contrived.”
“A positive outcome there would make all this easier. You
may be sure the Regent will agree with a finding in favour of the truth,”
Glenaire assured his fellow heir, then his brows shot up. “One thing, Aldridge.
You said, ‘an assassination attempt…’ but you don’t name the victim. Surely
not the Regent! A high ranking official? We’ll need to organize protection.”
Aldridge responded with a wry quirk of the eyebrows. “The man in question has his own very efficient protection. You will have heard of the footpad attack more than a year back on the town carriage of a certain duke? Five of twelve scoundrels left dead in the streets? The next two attempts have been kept quiet, but have resulted in a similar body count.”
“Ah,” Glenaire said knowingly. “A man with a private army
A small smile. “No noble is permitted a private army, Glenaire. This personage has only the number of retainers permitted by law. That they are unusually skilled, men and women alike, is to their advantage in this case. I am not concerned for their safety and wellbeing. Though for all their prowess, if this Devil’s Acre fellow is allowed to continue, he might get lucky.”
Aldridge opened his jacket and pulled a slim package from an
inside pocket. “A report from David Wakefield, the investigator. Use it as
you need to, Glenaire.”
Glenaire accepted it and put it away in his own jacket. “Thank you for the warning. I’ll send the support the hypothetical heir needs, alert certain influential individuals. Ah yes, and speak to you again at the ladies’ auction. Our sisters will insist on it.”
Aldridge laughed. “I expect it to cost me a
pretty penny, one way and another. My mother tells me it is my duty to purchase
the baskets of any lady who may be left behind. I trust I can content myself
with driving up the bids of others.”
Glenaire allowed himself a slightly broader smile. “I fear I
lack your patience for the latter but I’ll try to do my duty by the first.”
“One must have patience to be a success with the ladies, Glenaire.” Aldridge smiled warmly at the footman who replaced his soup bowl with a plate of roasted beef and finely cooked vegetables. “Thank you. Will you see the doorman and fetch the bottle I left with him? Glenaire? May I treat you to a fine Italian red?”
The event the Duchess of Haverford is organising, and some of the other matters touched on in this discussion between Jude’s Marquis of Aldridge and Caroline’s Marquess of Glenaire, are featured in Fire & Frost, due for publication on 4 February. Click on the link to find out more about five wonderful stories, set in the winter of 1813-14, when the weather was so cold the Thames froze over, and all five stories converge at the Frost Fair. And come back to check out the tour around the Belles’ blogs on release day your own personal guided tour of five Frost Fair booths, with a large helping of scandal and five micro stories written just for the blog tour. (The link will be added when the tour opens.)