Authors: Stephanie Laurens
A Gentleman's Honor
"a last bastion against the matchmakers of the ton"
Marquess of Dearne
Charles St. Austell,
Earl of Lostwithiel
Earl of Crowhurst
Baron Warnefleet of Minchinbury
#1 Leonora Carling
The Bastion Club
Montrose Place, London
March 15, 1816
E’VE A MONTH BEFORE THE
EASON BEGINS, AND ALREADY
the harpies are hunting in packs.” Charles St. Austell sank into one of the eight straight-backed chairs around the mahogany table in the Bastion Club’s meeting room.
“As we predicted.” Anthony Blake, sixth Viscount Torrington, took the chair opposite. “The action in the marriage mart seems close to frenetic.”
“Have you seen much of it, then?” Deverell sat beside Charles. “I have to admit I’m biding my time, lying low until the Season begins.”
Tony grimaced. “My mother might be resident in Devon, but she has a worthy lieutenant in my godmother, Lady Amery. If I don’t appear at her entertainments at least, I can be assured of receiving a sharp note the next morning, inquiring why.”
There were laughs—resigned, cynical, and commiserating—from the others as they took their seats. Christian Allardyce, Gervase Tregarth, and Jack Warnefleet all sat, then, in concert, all eyes went to the empty chair beside Charles.
“Trentham sends his regrets.” At the head of the table, Christian didn’t bother keeping a straight face. “He didn’t sound all that sincere. He wrote that he had more pressing engagements, but wished us joy in our endeavors. He expects to be back in town in a week, however, and looks forward to supporting the six of us through our upcoming travails.”
“Kind of him,” Gervase quipped, but they were all grinning.
Trentham—Tristan Wemyss—had been the first of their number to successfully achieve his goal, the same goal they all were intent on attaining. They all needed to marry; that common aim had spawned this, their club, their last bastion against the matchmakers of the ton.
Of the six of them as yet unwed, gathered this evening to share the latest news, Tony felt sure he was the most desperate, although why he felt so restless, so frustrated, as if poised for action yet with no enemy in sight, he couldn’t fathom. He hadn’t felt so moody in years. Then again, he hadn’t been a civilian, an ordinary gentleman, for years, either.
“I vote we meet every fortnight,” Jack Warnefleet said.
“We need to keep abreast of events, so to speak.”
“I agree.” Gervase nodded across the table. “And if any of us has anything urgent to report, we call a meeting as needed. Given the pace at which matters move in the ton, two weeks is the limit—by then, the ground has shifted.”
“I’ve heard the patronesses of Almack’s are thinking of opening their season early, such is the interest.”
“Is it true one still has to wear knee breeches?”
“On pain of being turned away.” Christian raised his brows. “Although I’ve yet to ascertain just why that would be painful.”
The others laughed. They continued trading information—on events, the latest fashions and tonnish distractions—eventually moving on to comment and caution on individual matrons, matchmaking mamas, dragons, gorgons, and the like—all those who lay in wait for unsuspecting eligible gentlemen with a view to matrimonially ensnaring them.
“Lady Entwhistle’s one to avoid—once she sinks her talons into you, it’s the devil of a job to break free.”
It was their way of coping with the challenge before them.
They’d all spent the last decade or more in the service of His Majesty’s government as agents acting in an unofficial capacity scattered throughout France and neighboring states, collecting information on enemy troops, ships, provisions, and strategies. They’d all reported to Dalziel, a spymaster who lurked, a spider in the center of his web, buried in the depths of Whitehall; he oversaw all English military agents on foreign soil.
They’d been exceedingly good at their jobs, witness the fact they were all still alive. But now the war was over, and civilian life had caught up with them. Each had inherited wealth, title, and properties; all were wellborn, yet their natural social circle, the haut ton—the gilded circle to which their births gave entrée and in which their titles, properties, and the attendant responsibilities made participation obligatory—was an arena of operations largely unknown to them.
Yet in gathering information, evaluating it, exploiting it—in that they were experts, so they’d established the Bastion Club to facilitate mutual support for their individual campaigns. As Charles had described it with typical dramatic flair, the club was their secured base from which each would infiltrate the ton, identify the lady he wanted as his wife, and then storm the enemy’s position and capture her.
Sipping his brandy, Tony recalled that he’d been first to point out the need for a safe refuge. With a French mother and French godmother intent on encouraging any and all comers to bat their lashes at him—both ladies were aware such a tactic was guaranteed to make him take the matter of finding a wife into his own hands without delay—it had been he who had sounded the warning. The ton was not safe for such as they.
Set on in the gentlemen’s clubs, hounded by fond papas as well as gimlet-eyed matrons, all but buried beneath the avalanche of invitations that daily arrived at their doors, life in the ton as an unmarried, wealthy, titled,
eligible gentleman was these days fraught with danger.
Too many had fallen on the battlefields of the Peninsula, and more recently at Waterloo.
They, the survivors, were marked men.
They were outnumbered, but they’d be damned if they’d be outgunned.
They were experts in battle, in tactics, and strategy; they weren’t about to be taken. If they had any say in it,
would do the taking.
That was, at the heart of it, the
of the Bastion Club.
“Anything more?” Christian glanced around the table.
All shook their heads; they drained their glasses.
“I have to make an appearance at Lady Holland’s soirée.” Charles pulled a face. “I gather she feels she lent Trentham a helping hand, and now wants to try her luck with me.”
Gervase raised his brows. “And you’re giving her the chance?”
On his feet, Charles met his gaze. “My mother, sisters, and sisters-in-law are in town.”
“Oh, ho! I see. Thinking of taking up residence here for the nonce?”
“Not at present, but I won’t deny the thought has crossed my mind.”
“I’ll come with you.” Christian strolled around the table. “I want to have a word with Leigh Hunt about that book he’s writing. He’s sure to be at Holland House.”
Christian glanced his way. “Are you still glorying in solitary state?”
“Yes, thank heaven—the mater’s fixed in Devon.” Tony resettled his coat with a graceful shrug. “I have, however, been summoned by my godmother to a soirée at Amery House. I’ll have to put in an appearance.” He looked around the table. “Anyone going that way?”
Gervase, Jack, and Deverell shook their heads; they’d decided to retire to the club’s library and spend the rest of the evening in companionable silence.
Tony bade them farewell; grinning, they wished him luck. Together with Christian and Charles, he went downstairs and into the street. They parted on the pavement; Christian and Charles made for Kensington and Holland House, while Tony headed for Mayfair
Reluctance dragged at him; he ignored it. Any experienced commander knew there were some forces it was wise never to waste energy opposing. Such as godmothers. French godmothers especially.
“Good evening, Mrs. Carrington. A pleasure to meet you again.”
Alicia Carrington smiled easily and gave Lord Marshalsea her hand. “My lord. I daresay you recall my sister, Miss Pevensey?”
As his lordship’s gaze was riveted on Adriana, standing a few steps away, Alicia’s question was largely rhetorical. His lordship, however, had clearly decided that gaining Alicia’s support was crucial to securing Adriana’s hand; while acknowledging Adriana, he remained by Alicia’s side and made conversation in a distant, distracted fashion.
That last, something Alicia viewed with amusement, was due to his lordship’s absorption with Adriana, talking animatedly with a coterie of admirers all vying for her favor. Adriana was an English rose gowned in pink silk a shade darker than that generally worn by young ladies, the better to exploit her luxuriant dark curls. Those sheened in the chandeliers’ glow, creating the perfect frame for her bewitching features, her large brown eyes set under finely arched black brows, her peaches-and-cream complexion and lush, rosebud lips.
As for Adriana’s figure, deliberately understated in the demure gown that hinted at rather than defined, it enticed. Even gowned in sackcloth, Alicia’s sister was a package guaranteed to capture gentlemen’s eyes, which was the reason they were here in London, in the very heart of the ton.
At least, Alicia was; Adriana was who she purported to be.
While making the appropriate responses to Lord Marshalsea, Alicia monitored all those who paid court to her younger sister. Everything to date had gone exactly as they, sitting in the tiny parlor of their small house in Little Compton, in rural Warwickshire, which along with the surrounding few acres were all they—she, Adriana, and their three brothers—jointly owned, had planned, yet not even in their admittedly unfettered imaginations had they envisioned that events, people, and opportunities would fall out so well.
Their plan, desperate and reckless though it was, might just succeed. Succeed in securing a future for their three brothers—David, Harry, and Matthew—and for Adriana. For herself, Alicia hadn’t thought that far; time enough to turn her mind to her own life once she’d seen her siblings safe.
Lord Marshalsea grew increasingly restless; taking pity on him, Alicia eased him into Adriana’s circle, then stepped back, effacing herself as a good chaperone should. She eavesdropped, listening as Adriana handled the gentlemen surrounding her with her customary confidence. Although neither she nor Adriana had had any previous experience of the ton, of the ways of society’s elite, since their appearance in town and their introduction to those exalted circles some weeks ago, they’d managed without the slightest hiccup.
Eighteen months of intensive research and their own sound common sense had stood them in good stead. Having three much younger brothers whom they’d largely reared had eradicated any tendency to panic; both jointly and individually, they’d risen to every challenge and triumphed.
Alicia was proud of them both, and increasingly hopeful of an excellent outcome to their scheme.
“Mrs. Carrington—your servant, ma’am.”
The drawled words jolted her from the rosy future. Concealing her dismay, calmly turning, lips curving, she gave her hand to the gentleman bowing before her. “Mr. Ruskin. How pleasant to meet you here.”
“The pleasure, I assure you, dear lady, is all mine.”
Straightening, Ruskin delivered the comment with an intent look and a smile that sent a warning slithering down her spine. He was a largish man, half a head taller than she and heavily built; he dressed well and had the manners of a gentleman, yet there was something about him that, even hampered by inexperience, she recognized as less than savory.
For some ungodly reason, Ruskin had from their first meeting fixed his eye on her. If she could understand why, she’d do something to deflect it; her ever-fertile imagination painted him a snake, with her as his mesmerized prey. She’d pretended ignorance of the tenor of his attentions, had tried to be discouraging. When he’d shocked her by obliquely suggesting a
, she’d pretended not to understand; when he’d later alluded to marriage, she’d feigned deafness and spoken of something else. To no avail; he still sought her out, increasingly pointedly.
Thus far she’d avoided any declaration, thereby avoiding having outright to refuse it. Given her masquerade, she didn’t want to risk an overt dismissal, didn’t want to draw any attention her way; the most she dared do was behave coolly.
Ruskin’s pale gaze had been traveling her face; it rose to trap hers. “If you would grant me the favor of a few minutes in private, my dear, I would be grateful.”
He still held her fingers; keeping her expression noncommittal, she eased her hand free and used it to gesture to Adriana. “I’m afraid, sir, that with my sister in my care, I really cannot—”
“Ah.” Ruskin sent a glance Adriana’s way, a comprehensive survey taking in the besotted lordlings and gentlemen gathered around her, and Miss Tiverton, whom Adriana had taken under her wing, thereby earning Lady Hertford’s undying gratitude. “What I have to say will, I daresay, have some impact on your sister.”
Looking back at Alicia, Ruskin met her eyes; his smile remained easy, a gentleman confident of his ground. “However, your concern is… understandable.”
His gaze lifted; he scanned the room, filled with the fashionable. Lady Amery’s soirée had attracted the cream of the ton; they were present in force, talking, exchanging the latest
, exclaiming over the latest juicy scandal.
“Perhaps we could repair to the side of the room?” Ruskin brought his gaze back to her face. “With this noise, no one will hear us; we’ll be able to talk, and you’ll be able to keep your ravishingly lovely young sister safe… and in view.”
Steel rang beneath his words; Alicia dismissed any thought of refusing him. Inclining her head, feigning serene indifference, she laid her fingers on his sleeve and allowed him to steer her through the crowd.
What unwelcome challenge was she about to face?
Behind her calm facade, her heart beat faster; her lungs felt tight. Had she imagined the threat in his tone?
An alcove behind a chaise filled with dowagers provided a small oasis of relative privacy. As Ruskin had said, she could still see Adriana and her court clearly. If they kept their voices low, not even the dowagers, heads close swapping scandal, would overhear.
Ruskin stood beside her, calmly looking out over the crowd. “I would suggest, my dear, that you hear me out—hear
I have to say—before making any reply.”