Lord Zachary Griffin lifted a glass of claret from a passing footman. “For God’s sake, hurry it up,” he muttered, gazing at the pair of dancers twirling halfway across the room.
Thirty other couples swished about the Tamberlake ballroom, but he scarcely noted them. Likewise the half dozen single young ladies edging toward him along the wall – they occupied him only insofar as they kept him on the move to stay ahead of the silk and lace-draped gaggle.
Under normal circumstances he had no objection to waltzing with pretty young chits; he enjoyed it, in fact. However, the first order of business tonight was, well, business. He could dance later.
Across the room his older brothers, Sebastian, the Duke of Melbourne and Charlemagne, had also declined to waltz. The pair of them were in deep conversation with Lord Harvey, and were no doubt finalizing negotiations to buy out the viscount’s shares in their shipping business. He wished them well, but just the thought of all the damned numbers and percentages flying back and forth over there made his head ache.
The waltz finally swirled to an end. Most of the dancers headed back to their companions or toward the refreshment table. The pair Zachary was after separated in front of the chocolate cremes. With a last glance at his brothers, he moved in.
“Glad to see you still in London, Major,” he said, putting a hand on the gentleman’s red-clad shoulder.
John Tracey turned around. “Zachary,” he returned with a smile, offering his hand.
Zachary shook it. “You look well.”
“Is there a reason I shouldn’t? Other than your sister deciding she didn’t want to marry me, that is.”
“None of us expected that,” Zachary returned, his own smile tightening. Damn Nell. He didn’t need any complications tonight. “Except perhaps for Melbourne, of course. He tends to know everything.”
“He might have let me know then, that Lady Eleanor meant to marry the Marquis of Deverill before he asked if I wished to join the family.”
Zachary shrugged, not entirely certain how genuinely perturbed Major Lord John Tracey was by recent events.
As much of a handful as his sister Nell had turned out to be, he wouldn’t have wanted to be leg-shackled to her. “She eloped with Deverill. We even caught up to them once, and they still got away from us. After that, there wasn’t much we could do. Valentine and Eleanor together are rather unstoppable.”
“So I gathered. What can I do for you, then? It can’t be marriage again. You don’t have any other female siblings to send in my direction, and Melbourne’s daughter is what, eight?”
“Peep is six,” Zachary returned. “Actually, I have a favor to ask of you.”
With a deep breath Zachary stepped off the cliff. “I intend to join a regiment and head for the Peninsula with Wellington.”
The major laughed. “Oh, that’s . . .” He trailed off. “You’re serious.”
“Of course I’m serious.” Damn it all, nobody believed him. Hence this secret conversation out of the Duke of Melbourne’s hearing. The laughter and teasing from his family members was becoming bloody tiresome.
“My apologies, then,” Tracey said. “But Zachary, you do realize that once you join the army you can’t simply change your mind. Not without some dire consequences.”
“I’m aware of that,” he returned, ignoring the insult to his resolve. “I’m not asking whether you think I should join the army. I’m asking which regiment would give me the best opportunity to see action. I don’t intend to end up in charge of lugging whiskey barrels somewhere twenty miles behind the front lines.”
“You want my regiment, then. The 45th Foot,” the major answered promptly. “And if you’re serious, I’d be happy to put in a word with Major-General Picton.
Not that you need much of a recommendation with your family’s name and reputation.”
“I would appreciate if you would speak with the general,” Zachary said, otherwise ignoring the familiar compliment to his family. As far as he was concerned, he had the important qualities – skill with a weapon, and the desire to excel. But if money qualified someone to be a competent soldier, well, he had that, too. “If you could arrange an introduction, I would be in your debt.”
“If you promise never to mention my name and marriage in the same sentence again, I would consider us even,”
Tracey said, smiling again.
Out of the corner of his eye Zachary noticed the meeting breaking up across the room. He shook Tracey’s hand again. “That’s a promise. And my thanks.”
“I’ll send word when I can arrange a meeting. The general and I are both returning to Spain in another fortnight, so it’ll be soon.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
As the two of them parted, Zachary caught Melbourne gazing at him. Favoring the duke with a lifted eyebrow, he went to find a dance partner. Whether his family in general, and his oldest brother in particular, had decided to take him seriously or not, he was going to decide his own future. And tonight he’d taken a large step in that direction – which meant that now he could find a chit and enjoy himself.
The next morning Zachary sat at the breakfast table to read the missive Major Tracey had sent over. It seemed Major-General Thomas Picton would be very interested in adding a Griffin to his staff, and that both men would be dining at White’s for luncheon.
Folding the note and sliding it into his pocket, he turned his attention to the slightly wrinkled copy of The London Times which waited for him. From its condition, either Shay or Melbourne had had a tea mishap earlier. He would wager it had been Charlemagne.
According to the latest printed reports, Eleanor and Valentine were enjoying their honeymoon in Venice.
Nell’s latest letter said the same thing, but he always found it interesting to hear about the Griffin clan’s exploits from an outside perspective.
“Good morning, Uncle Zachary,” six-year-old Penelope said as she pranced into the breakfast room.
“Hello, Peep.” He leaned sideways to plant a kiss on her cheek. “Nell and Valentine went for a gondola ride last week.”
With the butler’s assistance Peep selected her breakfast from the sideboard and plunked herself down at the table beside him. “I’m going to go to Venice.
You may come with me if you want to.”
“I’m meeting someone for luncheon at White’s today,”
he countered, hiding a grin, “but I’m available tomorrow.”
“Not now,” she protested, rolling her pretty gray eyes at him. “When I grow up.”
“Oh. I’ll be available then, of course.”
“Good.” She bit into a peach. “Because I think Papa and Uncle Shay might be too strict.”
“And I won’t be?”
“Uncle Zachary, you let me taste your glass of whiskey.”
Wonderful. “We aren’t ever going to mention that again, remember?”
“I forgot.” She smiled, carefree and fearless as only six-year-olds could be. “Papa’s taking me riding this morning on Buttercup. You may join us, if you’d like.”
Before he could decline, Peep’s father strolled into the room. Sebastian, the Duke of Melbourne, looked like precisely what he was – at age thirty-four one of the most powerful, influential men in England, and the head of a famously distinguished family. What he didn’t look like was a man dressed for going riding.
“I was beginning to wonder whether either of you were going to appear at all today,” Melbourne drawled, moving around the table to kiss his daughter.
“Late night,” Zachary said, declining to mention in whose company it had ended. The waltz was only one of Lady Amelia Bradley’s talents.
“I had to dress Mrs. Hooligan.” Peep looked up at her father. “She wants to go riding, too.”
The duke tugged one of her dark, curling ringlets.
“My apologies, Peep, but I’ve been called to Carlton House.”
Penelope bounced in her seat. “Are you going to see Prinny?”
“I imagine so.” Melbourne straightened. “Perhaps Uncle Zachary will take you and your doll out riding.”
Zachary stifled a scowl. “What about Uncle Shay?”
The duke’s gaze slid over to him. “Shay would suffice, I’m sure,” he continued in the same easy tone. “Did you have something else planned?”
“He’s going to luncheon at White’s,” Peep supplied, starting on her honey and toast.
“Really.” Melbourne nodded, turning for the hall door. “That reminds me. Do you have a moment, Zachary?”
Reminding himself that while Eleanor swore their eldest brother could read minds, it had never been proven, Zachary nodded and rose. “Leave my strawberries be, Peep,” he warned his niece, hearing her responding giggle as he left the breakfast room.
Melbourne led the way into his office. Hm. An office chat was never a good thing. Zachary headed for the window; he wasn’t going to sit in one of the “victim chairs” as he and his siblings called them, whatever the duke had in mind.
The door clicked shut behind him. “I have a task for you,” Melbourne said.
“I’ll take Peep riding tomorrow,” Zachary countered.
“As I told her, I have a few obligations today.”
The duke took a seat behind his massive mahogany desk. Zachary kept his gaze out the window at the Griffin House garden, reminding himself that however much power Melbourne had over the rest of the world he was still just an older brother.
“I don’t care about your luncheon,” his brother returned dismissively. “As I said, Shay can escort Peep. I wanted to discuss a family matter.”
That didn’t sound too ominous. Nobody had strayed from the well-delineated Griffin boundaries lately – not since Nell and Valentine had made their much-reported run to Scotland. And Melbourne had somehow managed to turn even that into a pre-approved romantic escapade by the time the newspapers got hold of it. Zachary turned around, leaning a haunch against the deep window sill. “Discuss away, then.”
“Aunt Tremaine has asked me to provide an escort for her.”
“She wants to go to the races at Derby again, doesn’t she?” Zachary cracked a grin. “The last time she attended, th–“
”Her gout is acting up,” Melbourne cut in. “She wants to take the waters at Bath, probably for the remainder of the Season. I told her that you would be happy to accompany her.”
Zachary took a moment to absorb that, though his mouth had already formed an answer. “No.”
“I beg your–“
”Send Charlemagne. I have plans.”
“I need Shay in Brighton to finalize the purchase of another half dozen cargo ships. And you never have plans.”
“I do now.”
Melbourne sat back in his chair. “Care to enlighten me about them?”
“I did enlighten you,” Zachary retorted, trying to keep his voice level. He didn’t need to fight about it; he’d already made his decision. “You just chose not to take me seriously.”
For a long moment the room remained so quiet that he could hear Peep chatting with the butler down the hall. The duke didn’t move, but Zachary knew Sebastian was running past conversations through his mind, calculating responses, deciding how to enter the discussion at an angle that would give him the greatest advantage. There was a reason Zachary never played chess with Melbourne; he never won. Ever. But this wasn’t chess. This was his future. And as long as he remained resolved, he couldn’t lose.
“Tell me then,” the duke finally said, “why you have the sudden urge to join the army.”
So he had been paying attention. “It’s not sudden.
I’ve been thinking about it for some time. I tried to discuss it with you a month ago, and you weren’t interested.”
“I’m interested now.”
“I thought you had a meeting at Carlton House.”
“Zachary, I don’t want you to join the army.”
Resisting the urge to shoot to his feet, Zachary settled deeper into the window. “What do you want me to do then? Chaperone Nell at parties? Wait, she’s married now. I’m not needed for that, any longer.
Which leaves me with escorting Peep to her tea parties, I suppose, and Aunt Tremaine on made-up journeys.”
“It’s not made up. And there are always–“
”Business concerns? That’s you and Shay. Buying
and selling things for no discernable reason makes me want to lock myself up in Bedlam, anyway.”
“I’m certain there’s something you’d enj–“
”You enjoy doing that,” Zachary interrupted again, willing his oldest brother to understand his frustration. “You and Shay. I don’t. I want something else. I want some damned responsibility, Sebastian. And if some excitement and some glory comes with it, so much the better.”
The butler scratched at the door. “Your Grace?”
“What is it, Stanton?” Melbourne called, irritation edging his voice.
“The coach is ready, Your Grace.”
“I’ll be there in a moment.”
Zachary straightened, pushing away from the window.
“I believe we’ll have to finish this conversation later, then,” he said, taking Melbourne’s usual parting line. And after luncheon with Major-General Picton, he’d have considerably more ammunition – and perhaps even a commission.
“We’ll finish it now.”
”No, now it’s my turn,” Melbourne countered sharply.
“What about when you were going to take your orders?”
Zachary frowned. “I never really wanted to join the priesthood. That–“
”That’s why that scheme only lasted a week. And then there was training race horses.”
“That is not fair, S–“
”You sold off your interest in that after two months,” his brother cut in again. “What about taking up land management?”
Straightening, Zachary aimed a finger at his brother.
“That was your fault. Bromley Hall is the least significant property you own. It was dull as damned door knockers there, Seb.”
“The irrigation channel was a good idea – or it would have been, if you’d finished it.”
“So I’m useless. Is that what you’re saying?”
“I’m saying you have no patience for anything. If it immediately satisfies your requirements then you’re done with it. If it’s something that takes work, you lose interest. So if you want responsibility, get a dog. If you’re bored, take up painting. You don’t need to parade about the Peninsula in a bright red uniform so some bloody Frenchman can blow a hole in you.”
“Thank you very much for your faith in my stupidity and utter incompetence.”
“It’s not a lack of intelligence, but you know how you are,” Melbourne countered. “And a lack of patience wouldn’t serve you in the army, either. You aren’t going to buy a commission, Zachary. I won’t permit it, and you know I can prevent it.”
Zachary glared at him, his jaw clenched so tightly the muscles trembled. “I’m a third-born son in a noble family, Seb. My opportunities–“
”Are more than sufficient, if you would make a choice and abide by it.”
“I have made a choice. Thank you for the advice.”
Turning on his heel, he strode for the office door.
”I what, Sebastian? We’re at an impasse. And while you might have the ability to prevent a Griffin from joining the military, I can pretend to be someone else.” He stopped, taking a breath and hoping he hadn’t just foiled his own plans. He really needed to learn when to stay silent and just leave the room. “I know what you’re afraid of,” he continued anyway.
“And I’m sorry Charlotte died. I know how much you loved her. But you–“
Melbourne shoved to his feet with enough force that his chair went over backwards. “Enough!” he roared.
“My wife has nothing to do with this.”
“She has everyth–“
“You will escort Aunt Tremaine to Bath,” Melbourne snapped, his gray eyes glinting with barely-suppressed anger. “When you return and if you have proven to me in the meantime that you can show some patience and restraint and a reasonable level of responsibility, and if you’re still determined to join the army, we will continue this discussion.”
Zachary took a deep breath. Christ. As usual he’d gotten angry and said the wrong thing, and now that Melbourne had handed down his proclamation, he couldn’t take it back. “I apologize, Sebastian,” he said anyway.
“Don’t.” His oldest brother strode to the door and back, obviously in an attempt to regain his usually even temper. That in itself was unusual; Melbourne rarely let anyone see him out of countenance.
“All I meant to say was that you can’t keep all of us safe in glass cabinets and expect us not to try to get out,” Zachary said more quietly.
“I suggest you go pack a trunk,” Melbourne returned in the cool voice his siblings dreaded hearing.
“You’re leaving in an hour.”
“Very well. One day though, Melbourne, you’re going to give one order too many, and you’ll find that all of your troops have deserted.”
Damn it all. They both knew that the threat was empty, but at least his brother didn’t laugh at him.
He had his own generous monthly income, but it had all been set up by Melbourne. If he pushed too hard, the duke could simply cut the purse strings – which would ensure that his next career choice would be the one he stayed with.
back to booklist page