From the expressions on the faces of the troop of soldiers who marched up from the Horse Guards, someone was in for a bloodbath. With a silent curse Sebastian Griffin, the Duke of Melbourne, galloped past them, reaching his destination a half mile in front of the soldiers. Not much distance, and not much time.
He pulled his bay stallion to a halt and swung to the ground. “Who’s in charge here?” he yelled into the wall of noise before him, scarcely noting his two younger brothers and his brother-in-law riding up behind him.
“That would be me,” a guttural voice came from the front of the angry crowd. A stout man dressed as most of his fellows were in the worn clothing of farmers and other members of the working class pushed his way through his way through to Sebastian on one side of the crowd. “What d’you want, boy?”
Boy. No one had called him a boy in seventeen years, since he’d inherited the dukedom at the age of seventeen. He lifted an eyebrow. “I want to know why you think that battering down the gates of Carlton House will gain any of you either food or sympathy for your cause.”
“And who the bloody hell are you, to ride up on your fancy horse with your fancy friends?” the fellow demanded.
Sebastian ignored the question, instead turning to face the second group of riders just arriving. “Buy every food item in the market at Picadilly,” he instructed his secretary. “Have it delivered to Westminster Abbey.”
Rivers nodded, turning his gelding. “Right away, Your Grace.”
“Jennings, go with him. I want blankets and a selection of clothing for any who might need them.”
“Fast as the wind, Your Grace.”
When he faced the large fellow again, a portion of his belligerent expression had been replaced by confusion. “So you think you can give us some bread and a shirt and we’ll go away? That is not–“
”There are what, three hundred of you?” Sebastian broke in, taking a moment to look at the dirty, hungry, desperate faces in the crowd and resisting the urge to check over his shoulder for the soldiers. “Go to Westminster, and I’ll meet you there. We will sit down like gentlemen and discuss how to keep your people well and fed until your fields can be replanted and the irrigation situation improved.”
”If you persist in attacking the Prince Regent’s residence, he will be forced to summon soldiers for his own protection.” He held the man’s gaze for a moment. “You have children here, sir. Do not make this worse. Not when I give you my word to help you make it better.”
“I still don’t have your name, sir . . . Your Grace. Don’t know that I trust a nobleman.”
“I am the Duke of Melbourne. If you know anything about me, you know that when I give my word, I do not break it.”
The fellow took an abrupt step forward. Both Shay and Zachary moved in, but Sebastian motioned his brothers back. These people were desperate, and looking for someone on whom to take out a season’s worth of frustrations. Damn Kesling for ignoring the plight of people whose farms bordered his estate. With a measured breath he held out his hand.
The muscles of his jaw jumping, the farmer shook it. “I’m Brown, Your Grace. Nathan Brown. And I have heard of you.”
“I will meet you in the Abbey in two hours, Mr. Brown.”
Brown nodded. “I’ll be there.”
At Mr. Brown’s encouragement, the crowd began to move east, in the direction of Westminster Abbey. Several of them grabbed his hands, and he smiled and nodded at them as they passed. As the last of them left the Carlton House gates, he took a deep breath.
“Well done, Seb,” his youngest brother, Lord Zachary Griffin, commented. “Considering that I only had one pistol with me, that might have been a bit sticky.”
“Mm hm. Shay, go tell the Rector of St. Margaret’s that the Abbey will have guests for a day or two.”
His middle brother turned for the Abbey. “On my way.”
Sebastian swung back up onto Merlin. “So am I. I have a meeting in two hours.”
His brother-in-law, Valentine Corbett, Lord Deverill, flashed him a grin. “What do you do on mornings when you’re not rescuing the monarchy and feeding the poor and the destitute?”
“I feed Zachary, which can be nearly as perilous,” he returned, trotting over to have a word with a shaken-looking secretary of Prinny’s as the man appeared on the far side of the gate, flanked by a half dozen equally unnerved royal guards. “The rest of you go back to whatever you were doing. Green will stay with me.”
His groomsman nodded, and the rest of his group departed, Zach and Valentine last. Though he pretended not to, he could hear their muttering about the chances he took and what might have happened if Mr. Brown had been armed with more than righteous indignation. As far as he was concerned, though, as a duke, and in particular as the Duke of Melbourne, he was doing no more and no less than his duty to the Crown, and to the people of England. And that was how he spent every morning. And afternoon. And evening.
Once he left Carlton House, passing the soldiers less than a street away from the Regent’s residence, he slowed the bay to a civilized trot more suitable for navigating Mayfair. Three streets down they turned onto Grosvenor Square and then up the gated drive of Griffin House. Sliding out of the saddle, Sebastian flipped the reins to Green and strode up the front steps as the groom took Merlin around the house to the stable.
As he reached the front door it opened. “I trust you were successful, Your Grace?” the butler asked, stepping back to allow Sebastian entry.
“Thankfully, Stanton. Is my daughter awake yet?”
“I don’t believe so, Your Grace. Shall I send for her?”
“Yes. I want to see her before I leave for Parliament. When Rivers returns, please inform him that we’ll have to reschedule our luncheon meeting for tomorrow. I need to be at Westminster Abbey today.”
“Very good, Your Grace.”
Handing over his hat, gloves, and caped greatcoat, Sebastian strolled into the breakfast room. On the sideboard generous piles of bread, fruit, and sliced meats awaited his selection, while the London Times had already been ironed flat and set by his place at the head of the table. He chose his meal and then seated himself to read about the latest tariff agreements reached between Britain and the United States, averting any possible renewal of hostilities between the two countries. According to the news writers, apparently His Grace, the Duke of Melbourne, had pressed the government until it came to its senses.
“For the moment, at least,” he murmured to himself, gesturing for coffee. One of the pair of footmen hurried forward to pour a steaming cup. Sebastian inhaled deeply before he took a sip. Thank God for the Americas.
“I was awake, Papa,” an lilting young voice came from the doorway, and he looked up.
“Good morning, Peep,” he said, grinning. “You look very pretty.”
At nearly eight years of age, Lady Penelope Griffin had begun to develop her own sense of fashion, and this morning she wore a bright yellow muslin dress dotted with white flowers, and a matching yellow hat covered with a profusion of white daisies. She curtsied to him before she pranced up for a kiss. “I am very fetching, aren’t I?” she returned, adjusting her hat.
“I take it you and Mrs. Beacham are attending Mary Haley’s birthday party, then?”
“Yes. I’m giving Mary a matching white hat with yellow daffodils.”
“You will be the loveliest young ladies in London, then.”
She took a peach and two toasted slices of bread from the sideboard, then sat at his elbow. “I think we will be. Might I invite Mary over to tea tomorrow?”
“I thought you were having luncheon with your aunties tomorrow,” he said, covering his slight frown.
“Oh, yes. I forgot. My schedule is frightfully busy these days, you know.”
For a moment Sebastian gazed at his dark-haired, gray-eyed daughter. It physically hurt to think that in ten years or so her schedule would include outings with beaux and evenings at soirees where he would watch her dance with eager young men.
“Vauxhall has acrobats tomorrow evening,” he said a little abruptly. “Why not ask Mary and Lord and Lady Bernard if they’d care to join us there?”
Peep bounced in her chair. “Acrobats? And jugglers?”
“I believe so.”
“Yes, please!” She took a large bite of peach, then looked at him sideways. “But you know that Mary’s aunt is visiting, and she’ll want to join us, and then she’ll want to marry you.”
Wonderful. “Well, in that case, perhaps we–“
The breakfast room door opened. “Good morning, all,” his youngest brother, Zachary, said, sauntering into the room and heading directly for the sideboard.
“When I said you should go home, I meant your home,” Sebastian observed, smiling at his brother’s back. Obviously Zach had been designated to make certain the family patriarch had returned home in one piece.
“Caroline has a morning sitting with the Duke of York. She said my presence would remind him of you, which would remind him that he’s not very well liked in the House of Lords.”
“Is that because he had favors from that chit, and she made him promote all those soldiers?”
Good God. “What do you know of that, Peep?” Sebastian asked his daughter, sending an annoyed glance at Zachary as his brother took the seat opposite her.
“Uncle Shay said that the Duke should learn to keep his trousers buttoned, and he wouldn’t owe women favors. Did she sew up his trousers for him?”
“Exactly,” Zach put in, chuckling. “The end result of all this being that I get to come to Griffin House and have breakfast with my favorite niece.”
She shook her dark curls. “You shouldn’t say that. What if Aunt Nell and Uncle Valentine heard you? They would be hurt that you don’t like Rose as much as you like me.”
“Yes, Zachary, how would you ever explain to your sister that her daughter is inferior to mine?” Sebastian prompted, lifting an eyebrow and for the moment pretending that he wasn’t supremely grateful to have a bit of adult company about for other than preventing riots. Since Shay had married last summer, things had been . . . He shook himself. None of that, now.
“Well, Rose is lovely, of course, but she’s only five months old. You have to admit that her conversation isn’t terribly sparkling.”
Penelope laughed. “That’s because she doesn’t have any teeth yet.” She reached across the table and patted her uncle’s hand. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll like her better when she gets a bit older.”
Zachary smiled back at her. “I’m sure I will. And I appreciate your discretion.”
“Of course. I don’t want Uncle Valentine to punch you in the head.”
“Thank you. Neither do I.”
They chatted about nonsense until Sebastian pushed away from the table. “Do you have a moment, Zach?” he asked.
His brother stood. “Certainly. Peep, I’ll give you a shilling if you put marmalade on that slice of bread for me.”
“Two shillings,” she said, reaching for the jar.
Sebastian stepped across the hallway to the morning room and half-closed the door as Zachary joined him. “Peep wishes to ask Mary Haley to Vauxhall tomorrow night. Her aunt, Lady Margaret Trent, will likely be joining us.”
Zach made a face. “I thought you were going to ask me to help you with Mr. Brown and his very annoyed friends. Of course Caro and I will join you at Vauxhall.”
Sighing in relief, Sebastian clapped his brother on the shoulder. “Mr. Brown is simple. Lady Margaret I want to keep my distance from.”
“As if any of us want old pinch face added to the family.”
“Hm.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Not likely to happen regardless of your chaperoning services.”
His brother reached back to close the door the rest of the way. “Are you well, Seb? I mean . . . aside from your occasional morning acts of heroics, with just you and Peep living here now, it’s–“
”I am not having this conversation.” Sebastian clenched his jaw. “So whatever you’re implying, don’t trouble yourself.”
“I see. My apologies. Are you still bringing Caro and me to the Elkins soiree, then, or shall we fend for ourselves?”
“I’ll be by with the carriage at eight.” Sebastian studied the view out the front window. “And I’m well. I’m adjusting to a smaller household. Again.” To anyone outside of his family, he never would have admitted that much.
Zachary cleared his throat. “It’s just . . . Don’t bite my head off, but within the past two years Nell, Shay, and I have all married. You . . . I don’t wish to see you sad when we’ve all found such happiness.” He shrugged. “I know I’m not saying it well, but I do remember, you know. I remember you four years ago when Charlotte died. Just because we’ve moved out doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned you. The–“
”For God’s sake, Zachary,” Sebastian retorted, using every ounce of his infamous self-control to keep his voice cool and level, “I’m not an invalid. Don’t try to put yourself in my boots. I’ve been the head of this family for the past seventeen years. Once you’ve held that responsibility for even a day, then you can empathize. Until then, you’ll have to take me at my word.” He took a step closer. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to leave for Parliament, then take luncheon with three hundred angry farmers and their families.”
Without another word he brushed past his brother, pulled open the door, and returned to the breakfast room. “Peep, my love,” he drawled, putting a smile back on his face, “promise me that you’ll tell me all about the party today when I return.”
She stood up, and he squatted down to hug her. “I promise. You’ll be home for dinner?”
“I should be home well before that.”
“And then you’re going to that ball with Uncle Zachary and everyone.”
“I have to, Penelope.” He hugged her tighter. “When I give my word to be somewhere and then don’t make an appearance, it hurts peoples’ feelings.” That didn’t even begin to explain it, but his daughter still had plenty of time to learn the nuances of being a Griffin and a duke’s daughter.
“Very well,” she said with a deep sigh, releasing him. “I love you, Papa.”
“And I love you, sweetling. Be good.”
“I will try.”
“Bloody, short-sighted, penny-pinching–“
Drawing his frayed temper back under hard control, Sebastian slowed his exit from the hallway outside the House of Lords. In all the years he’d been attending Parliamentary sessions, he could only recall a handful of times he’d escaped the building without being hounded for some reason or other. After the way he’d spent the luncheon break, though, he was almost eager for this one. “Yes, Kesling?”
The viscount trundled up the hallway, stopping two feet in front of Sebastian and reeking of some kind of French cologne that did little to disguise his over-ripe body odor. He tightened his control further to keep from taking a step backward.
“Melbourne, I thought you were more progressive-minded than that.”
“You claim to care about the welfare of the common people, and yet every time Prinny asks for funds for one of his follies, you vote to support him. I don’t underst–“
This conversation again. “Perhaps you could explain to me, Kesling, why it is that every time a vote arises which places a tax on property, the resulting government income to be used for public relief, you vote it down. And that doesn’t even begin to explain the callousness with which you treat the people who live on your own land.”
“Why should the burden be placed on us, simply because of an accident of birth? It’s hardly–“
”Ah, that’s the problem, then,” Sebastian cut in. “My birth wasn’t an accident. I’ll explain it to you – once. In order for the United Kingdom to remain a power in this growing world, we must be able to progress. For that we need citizens who are educated and content. And in order for the rest of the world to see us as a power, our government must appear to be healthy. This government, therefore, supports its monarch and its people. Or it will, for as long as a Griffin remains in the House of Lords. Good day, Kesling.” He turned on his heel.
The front door of Griffin House opened the moment his coach stopped on the drive. “Stanton,” he said, stepping to the ground, “has Lady Peep returned yet?”
“Not yet, Your Grace. But you have a note from Carlton House.”
The duke lifted it off the silver salver and opened it in the doorway. “When did this arrive?”
“Twenty minutes ago, Your Grace.”
He turned around again. “Tollins, wait there,” he called, stopping the coach before it could head around to the stables. Sticking the note in his pocket, he reclaimed his hat and gloves. “Please let my daughter know where I’ve gone, and that I’ll return as soon as I can.”
The butler inclined his head. “Of course, Your Grace.”
With a sigh Sebastian headed back into the streets of Mayfair. He had a good idea what Prinny wanted; whatever the events of the morning, the Regent continued to be obsessed with finishing his pavilion at Brighton regardless of how empty his coffer might be. And today had been the preliminary vote in the House of Lords
Somewhere along the way Sebastian had moved from being a staunch supporter of the monarchy to being Prince George’s confidante and advisor. Despite the occasional inconvenience, it did give him some additional control over the course of the country. And it let him into what seemed to have become a secret: If one could overlook his occasional tantrums and frequent, theatrical dramatics, Prinny was a bright fellow with exquisite taste.
As soon as he arrived at Carlton House one of the attendants ushered him into the formal white room, which was odd. The white room was for guests, and he’d long since ceased being anything that formal. Obviously Prinny had something in mind, though, so Sebastian walked to the window that overlooked the garden and waited.
He was still standing there five minutes later when the door opened again. “Melbourne!” Prinny’s familiar voice came, “I hadn’t realized you were here. No doubt you have some pressing matters to discuss with me.”
Sebastian faced the Regent, masking his confusion with a smile as he realized Prinny had a dozen people following him into the room. Ah, so now he was an ornament for tourists. “I do, Your Highness,” he agreed, bowing.
“I’ll be with you in just a moment, then,” Prinny returned. “First, I would like to present His Majesty Stephen Embry, Rey of Costa Habichuela. Also his wife, Queen Maria. Your Majesties, His Grace, the Duke of Melbourne, one of my closest advisors.”
The man standing at the forefront of the entourage stepped forward and offered his hand. “Very pleased, Your Grace,” he said, in an accent that sounded distinctly Cornish.
Hm. As far as Sebastian knew, Cornwall had not seceded from England and altered its name. “Your Majesty,” he returned, shaking hands.
In addition to his accent, the rey was tall with yellow hair, a golden moustache, and decidedly English features despite his Hispanic title. He wore a striking black military-looking uniform, as did the four men who surrounded the group. His was differentiated by a narrow white sash over his left shoulder and tassled at his right hip. Several obvious military decorations adorned the sash, all of them dominated by a simple green cross at his breast.
Unlike her escort, the lady with her hand on the rey’s arm was clearly of Spanish decent – tall, black-haired, olive-skinned, and brown-eyed. Queen Maria, undoubtedly.
“May I ask where Costa Habichuela is located?” he asked after a moment, focusing on the rey.
“Ah, glad you asked,” Embry returned, smiling. “We’re on the eastern coast of Central America. A wondrous place, really. I was greatly honored when the Mosquito King deeded it to me and my heirs.”
This was the third country to be formed in South or Central America over the past year and a half, then. “The Mosquito King,” he repeated. “That would put your territory along the Mosquito Coast.”
“Yes, very good, Your Grace. You know your geography.”
“It’s a much less well-known fact, however,” a soft, feminine voice slid in from the left of the rey, “that the area is named after a group of small islands known as the Mosquitos rather than after the insect.”
Sebastian turned his head. Brown eyes gazed into his. Deep brown, like rich, newly-turned soil in the springtime, set into a face the color of fresh cream, smooth and flawless. And her hair, long and loose with a hint of curl, the flowing mass as black as raven’s wings.
“Your Grace,” the rey’s voice broke in, “my daughter, Princess Josefina Katarina Embry.”
Blinking, Sebastian mentally pulled himself back. He felt distant, off balance, as though he’d been staring for an hour – but it must have been less than a minute. “Your Highness,” he intoned, bowing.
She returned a shallow curtsy, her eyes glittering as though she knew precisely the effect she’d had on him. “Your Grace.”
“The rey and his family are here to secure some loans,” Prinny put in. He clapped his beefy hands together. “You know, Melbourne, you would be the perfect contact for that. I’m appointing you British liaison to Costa Habichuela. How do you like that?”
Not much at all. “I’m honored, Your Highness,” Sebastian said aloud, setting a cool smile on his face. “I’m not certain how much actual assistance I’ll be able to provide, but I’m happy to lend my advice – such as it is.”
“Splendid. You’re attending the Elkins soiree tonight, are you not?”
“I had planned to.”
“Then you’ll escort our new friends there. Unfortunately, I have a previous engagement, or I would do so, myself.”
For a moment Sebastian wondered whether Prinny considered just how much legitimacy he was granting this new country by involving the Duke of Melbourne in their introduction to London Society, but in almost the same instant he knew the answer. What Prince George saw was an opportunity to impress a few foreigners with his generosity and influence.
“It would be my pleasure,” he said, because at the moment he didn’t have any alternative.
“I’m afraid Queen Maria and I also have a previous obligation,” the rey said with an apologetic look.
Thank God. “I’m sorry to hear th–“
”Princess Josefina, however, will do a fine job of representing Costa Habichuela in our stead.”
“Yes, it would be my pleasure,” the rich voice came again.
A responding shiver ran down Sebastian’s spine. “Then tell me where you’re staying, and I shall be by at eight o’clock.”
“Josefina, please see to it,” the rey said, turning to ask Prinny about one of the many white marble figures lining the room.
“We’re presently lodging at the home of Colonel Winston Branbury, until we find a suitable consulate,” the princess said, taking Sebastian’s arm.
“Branbury. I know it.” He didn’t want to stand still, so he walked them away from the others, toward the nearest window.
“Good. I would be incapable of providing directions,” she continued with a smile, “being a stranger to London, myself.”
He found himself staring at her mouth, at her full lips with their slight Spanish pout. “Don’t worry yourself,” he forced out. “My coach will arrive at Branbury House promptly at eight.”
Her smile deepened. “I do like a prompt gentleman. Rumor has it, Your Grace, that you performed some heroics this morning.”
Sebastian shook his head. “I performed by duty. That’s all.”
“Ah. Gallant and modest.”
Attractive – mesmerizing – as she was, Princess Josefina conversed in the same way, and seemed impressed by the same things, as any other woman of his acquaintance. But those eyes . . . “My gallantry has yet to be proven,” he said, freeing his arm from her fingers and glad she wore gloves. He had the distinct feeling that her flesh would burn his. He backed to the door. “Until this evening.”
Out in the corridor, Sebastian leaned back against the wall to catch his breath. He felt abruptly as though he’d run all the way from Marathon. What the devil was wrong with him?
Firstly, he should have realized what Prinny’s intentions were and excused himself from participating. Secondly, he was not some fresh-faced schoolboy. He was four-and-thirty, for God’s sake. And he’d set eyes on pretty chits before. He’d married one. And he hadn’t felt as . . . off-kilter since then. Even ordinary conversation with her felt unique.
Shaking himself, he pushed upright and headed for the front entrance of Carlton House. He’d been put in an unfortunate position, but he would deal with it in the same way he did everything else in his life – swiftly and efficiently. As for the rest, he’d turned ignoring anything other than family and business into an art form. Putting Josefina Katarina Embry aside would be no challenge at all. He wouldn’t allow it to be.
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