Authors: Julia London
Tags: #Romance, #Adult
T he remains of the abbey at Eastchurch sat upon one of the rolling green hills of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire, England. Judging from the breadth of the foundation it had been quite a large abbey, but all that remained was a few walls, a stairwell that led to nothing, and heaps of rubble. Only sheep and cattle inhabited the abbey now, but one could imagine what it looked like when the hills had been dotted by white-robed monks working in the fields.
The abbey was emptied along with dozens of others in the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church, and its lands were leased to the king’s friend, Lord Lindsey, for only a few shillings per annum for as long as the Lindsey heirs survived. The abbey itself fell into ruin.
Yet it was not the ruins that were noted by denizens and visitors to the shire, but the house down the hill, a large, sprawling mansion situated in a dell, with a river and hills at its back, and fields and forests flanking it. It had been built sixty years ago with the grand confidence of a new earl.
Nor was it the mansion’s neoclassical architecture, the style favored by the venerable John Soane, or the mansion’s grounds, which were designed by the equally venerable Capability Brown, that captured the attention of people in the shire.
It was what went on inside.
Grayson Christopher had heard rumors in the last few years, and he heard them again at the public house where he’d stopped for a pint, having ridden all night from London to reach the abbey.
“You’ll not find your sort there,” the innkeeper told him as he placed the ale before him. “Not a fine lord like yourself, sir. There’s naught but women and drink at the abbey.”
Grayson smiled a little. “I have been known to enjoy women and drink, sir.”
“Aye, milord, but I’d wager not that sort of woman. Or that sort of drink, really. The Libertine of Lindsey is a congenial man, I’ll give you that, but what he allows to go on at the abbey?” He shook his head. “It’s not proper behavior for an earl, if you don’t mind me saying.”
Grayson knew that things had gone a bit awry for his old friend, Nathan Grey, the Earl of Lindsey. He assured the innkeeper he did not mind his remarks, paid his bill, and continued on to the abbey.
The road was remarkably clear, given the rain. He rode past fields where cattle grazed and beneath towering pines and beech trees. He rode past the abbey ruins and the small lake Nathan kept stocked with carp. He rode past the small church where the tenants of Eastchurch Abbey attended services, and its small graveyard.
He rode through a massive gate, down the lane, and into the drive. A groomsman was quick to greet him and take his horse. Grayson’s knock on the door was answered only moments later. Benton, Lindsey’s longtime butler, stood just inside. He was a thin, nervous man, with a wide, round countenance and hair that was combed to frame his face, as was the style.
“My lord Darlington,” he said, bowing low. “Please do come in.”
Grayson swept inside, quickly shrugging out of his soaking cloak. The foyer smelled of tobacco smoke, he noted as he handed off his cloak and hat. “I regret calling without sending notice, Benton, but I must speak with Lindsey.”
“Of course, my lord. This way.”
As Grayson followed the butler along a corridor, he noticed the consoles that had once graced the halls and held vases of hothouse flowers were missing. The corridor looked a little barren.
Benton reached a door and opened it slightly; Grayson’s nose was instantly assailed by the stench of smoke. He walked in behind Benton; the smoke was hanging like a cloud over the room. Furniture was scattered haphazardly about, save a card table in the middle of the room, where one chair had tipped over.
Lindsey sat at the card table with his back partially to the door. Lord Donnelly, whom Grayson knew as well, was seated at the card table across from Lindsey. In addition, there were three women, clearly harlots, judging by the immodest way they were dressed and the way one smiled brazenly at him.
One of the women sat on Lindsey’s lap, idly watching the card game. Another sat on Donnelly’s lap and smiled saucily at Grayson. The third was lying on a settee, her feet dangling over the arm. She was sleeping.
“My lord?” Benton said.
Lindsey did not acknowledge his butler but continued to study his hand, chewing on the end of a cigar.
This time, Lindsey responded with a grunt of warning and a flick of his wrist—a signal that he was to be left alone. Donnelly seemed not to notice the butler either; he was as engrossed in his hand and the considerable pile of coins in the middle of the table as Lindsey.
Benton, a steadfast and loyal butler, was not to be deterred. “My lord,” he said, a little more forcefully. “There is a gentleman here to see you.”
“Benton, on my word I shall put you out on your arse today!” Lindsey groused. “There is always one gentleman or another here to see me. Show whoever it is to the salon or a bedroom, but leave me be—I am on the verge of divesting County Cork’s Donnelly of a considerable amount of money and I cannot be interrupted.” He looked up and grinned at Donnelly as he laid down his cards. He had three of a kind, and a cry of disbelief went up from his opponent.
“What?” Lindsey snapped as he raked the coins toward him. He glanced at Benton, then started upon seeing Grayson.
“Good morning, Lindsey.”
Lindsey pushed the girl from his lap and came to his feet. “Christy, I cannot believe you’ve come!” he exclaimed.
Donnelly looked up with surprise. “Darlington!” he said jovially. “Come, come, and have a tot of good Irish whiskey—”
“Lord no!” Nathan laughed. “That is widow-maker poison, Declan, guaranteed to fox a man at first sip, and the Duke of Darlington will not be foxed.” He grinned at Grayson, swaying a bit unsteadily. He looked like hell—his shirt was rumpled, his neckcloth nowhere to be seen, and his dark brown hair mussed from the fingers of a harlot.
“What time is it, Benton?” Lindsey demanded.
“Half past ten, my lord.”
“In the morning,” Benton added.
Lindsey glared at the butler. “Now that was hardly necessary, sir.” He looked at Grayson and smiled again. “Good God, Christy, what am I thinking? Come in, will you? Are you up from town to avoid the inconvenience of all the social engagements?”
“Were I to leave town to avoid society, my lord, I should choose a place more restful than the den of iniquity the Libertine of Lindsey presides over at Eastchurch Abbey.”
That earned an appreciative laugh from Donnelly.
“A den made by Wilkes, Donnelly, and that Scots scoundrel, Lambourne,” Nathan said jovially. “Were it not for them, I should pass each night at a warm hearth with a good Christian book, would I not, Benton?”
“Undoubtedly, my lord.”
Donnelly snorted; the woman Lindsey had dumped off his lap giggled.
“The three of them have been in residence at East-church for two months now…” Lindsey paused, thinking. “Or perhaps three?”
“Devil take me if I can remember,” Donnelly added cheerfully.
“What brings you so far afield, Christy? Are we at war? Have I lost all my money? Has my title been revoked?” Lindsey laughed at his jest.
Grayson did not. He was a man who took the responsibilities of his title and his position in society to heart. There was a time Lindsey had, too, but he had seemed to forget them the last few years. Donnelly, from Ireland, was far more interested in horseflesh than in his title. Specifically, the racing of horseflesh and the wagering on it.
Benton stepped forward and announced, “I shall have a bath drawn at once, my lord.”
Nathan looked surprised, but then waved a hand at the man’s swiftly departing back. “Bloody butler,” he said with a grin. “He’ll be sweeping floors if he’s not careful. Come, Christy,” he said, gesturing to the door. “To the study, where we may speak frankly while my bath is drawn,” he said, in a voice mimicking Benton.
“What, you’re going?” Donnelly asked idly, but his attention was on the harlot who was stroking his ear.
In the study, Grayson picked up a decanter.
“I’d have a care with that, were I you,” Lindsey said, gesturing to the decanter as he eased himself onto a settee. “Bloody Irish whiskey. The devil brewed it, I swear it. Come now, Darlington—what’s brought you to Eastchurch? I’m on tenterhooks! You must have very good reason to ride all night from London in this deluge.”
“I won’t deny that it is a matter of grave importance,” Grayson agreed as he poured a tot of whiskey and tossed it down his throat. “I heard something quite disturbing and thought you should know straightaway. You are aware of the Delicate Investigation, as it has been dubbed, into the conduct of the Princess of Wales?”
Lindsey shrugged. “Bits of gossip here and there. Why? What has it to do with you?”
“Not me,” Grayson said dispassionately. “Allow me to explain. As you may or may not know, Caroline, Princess of Wales, adopted a boy a few years past. There are some who swore that the princess was with child around the time the boy would have been born. Caroline did not deny it, and reportedly said to more than one person she would claim the pregnancy was the result of a night or two spent in Carlton House, thereby insinuating the child was the legitimate offspring of George, the Prince of Wales.”
Lindsey laughed at that—it was no secret the Prince and Princess of Wales had been estranged since the early days of their marriage in 1795. Their dislike for one another was so intense that it was thought nothing short of a miracle they had managed to produce Princess Charlotte from their brief but disastrous union in the marriage bed. Since then, both had been rumored to have had numerous adulterous affairs. The prince had sired more than one illegitimate offspring.
“Naturally, the allegations were cause for great concern,” Grayson continued, “for it appeared as though Caroline would put a bastard son on the throne ahead of Princess Charlotte.”
“You must be joking,” Lindsey said.
“Not in the least. The king had no choice, really, but to convene a commission from the House of Lords to look into the matter. If they were true, it was high treason.”
Grayson continued, “While the Lords Commissioners could find no evidence that Caroline’s boy is anyone other than an orphan the princess did indeed adopt, they did find quite a lot of evidence to suggest that the princess had often engaged in questionable and repulsive behavior with a number of men…and perhaps even women.”
“Good lord,” Lindsey muttered. “You surely didn’t come all this way to tell me this.”
“Not this precisely,” Grayson said. “Hear me out. Caroline’s behavior was such that she was removed from the king’s favor and the Prince of Wales believed he at last had his grounds for a parliamentary dissolution of his marriage, which, as you know, he has long wanted. The king has not as yet decided if the dissolution will be put forth. But Caroline is canny. If the king does not intercede on her behalf and restore her to favor, there is speculation she will publish her correspondence with the king during the investigation in order to prove her innocence. In publishing this volume, which some have taken to calling The Book of Scandal, she would reveal some of the prince’s more egregious behavior.”
“Accusations that are probably true,” Lindsey said wryly. “Or were true when we were members of his inner circle.”
“Yes,” Grayson said. Ten years ago, when they’d been young men. Even then the prince had been a glutton for food and drink and women. Grayson considered it a tragedy, really, for the prince was extraordinarily well educated and knowledgeable. But his talents were wasted by his lusts, and the public disapproved of his extravagant, debauched behavior. Now, there were many in Parliament who feared that a closer look into the prince’s life might lead to a call to bring down the monarchy.
“The princess has hinted at rather sensational scandals involving other members of the royal family, as well,” Grayson added.
Lindsey smiled. “The prince has fourteen siblings, so there is quite a lot of room for it, I suppose. What sort of scandal would she allege?”
“Secret births. Murder. General disloyalty and mayhem,” Grayson said with an insouciant shrug. “But the point of it is, Nathan, if Caroline publishes these letters, there will be a scandal the likes of which London has never seen.”
“Lindsey, listen to me. There are members of the haute ton who are expected to be named in the book as being witnesses or participants to scandal and potential acts of treason.”
Nathan laughed. “Are you implying me, Christy? Has the pastoral debauchery at Eastchurch Abbey suddenly become so important in London?”
“No, Nathan…” How could he say it? “Not you, but your wife.”
The smile melted from Lindsey’s face. “I beg your pardon?”
Grayson sighed and ran a hand over his head. “Shall I speak plainly?”