“We will shortly be arriving at the village of Lavenham, which, as you know, is only two miles from the Ipswich estate.” Lord Julius Soames, the Earl of Andover, glanced at the young man dressed in the plan clothes of a valet, and seated opposite him in the carriage. “Is there anything else I need to know before I leave you to deal with the damage to the carriage while I ride to Ipswich Park?” Or rather, the damage which would shortly be deliberately inflicted upon the carriage they were currently traveling in, so as to give the appearance of Julius being stranded in the area for several days. He was hoping Adrian Metford, currently the Earl of Ipswich and in residence at Ipswich Park, would offer him somewhere more salubrious than the small local inn for his accommodation. Lord James Metford scowled across at him. “Is it not enough that you know my Uncle Adrian is the bastard who paid men to kill me ten years ago so that he could steal my title?” “And yet you are not dead, and we are here to gather information so that you might reclaim your title,” Julius reminded calmly. James glared. “It was pure happenchance I did not die that day those men attacked me and left me floating in the Thames.” “I am aware of those dire circumstances, James.” Julius accepted the rebuke. “Luckily, instead of dying, you were rescued by several young men residing in St Giles.” His frown of displeasure was for the fact that slums like St Giles still existed. He had brought the subject up several times in the House, with the result very few of his peers had backed him up. James nodded. “When they could just as easily have slit my throat for the clothes I was wearing.
” His grin was full of affection for the three men who, instead of killing him, had become his closest friends and associates in the ten years since saving his life. “That they could,” Julius acknowledged. “Nevertheless, I am pleased you were able to persuade them to remain in London rather than having them accompany us into Suffolk,” he added dryly. James’s friends could occasionally be overly exuberant in the protection they had shown since rescuing him. Twice. Once from drowning in the river, and a second time when they had hidden James from his uncle’s thugs after their employer had asked them to produce confirmation his nephew was dead. That protection had even stretched so far as providing a dead body for the authorities to find and release into the care of the new Earl of Ipswich, purporting it to be that of his nephew, James Metford. James assured Julius his gang of three had not killed anyone, and that the body had been “a floater” which had been in the Thames for the same number of days as James should have been. Time and tide, along with the frequency of river vessels passing to and fro, had ensured the body was too bloated and damaged to be recognizable. Julius was still slightly in awe of how James, badly beaten and homeless, and aged only sixteen, had turned his situation around.
Not only had he been taken in by those three ragamuffins from St Giles, but over time, he had become their leader. Occasionally, they carried out an illegal act, but more often than not, it was done as a means of helping one of the other families living in St Giles. Indeed, James and his friends had become known as a modern day Robin Hood and—in James’s case—his gang of thieves, stealing from the rich to help the poor. Most of the rich might not appreciate that sentiment, but Julius had only admiration for James and his gang of three. Probably because he knew he was subject to some of Society’s disapproval in regard to himself. Not openly, because his title and friendship with the Prince Regent prevented anyone from daring to do that. But in private, he knew many believed him to have spent the years of war between England and Napoleon taking advantage of his position and ignoring the fighting to instead enjoy social events and run his estates. Julius was not at liberty to tell them what he had really been doing during those years, which was acting as a spy for the Crown. “There is still the possibility I shall send for my friends if we cannot find any evidence and need to adopt a different…approach to the problem,” James warned. The younger man had recently been involved in an altercation having absolutely nothing to do with this situation, but which had resulted in severe bruising and a week of being confined to bed.
Those bruises had since faded, for the main part, and the perpetrator dealt with, but Julius had no doubt James’s friends would be eager for a scrap if the bogus Earl of Ipswich did not cede his position. “We need to approach this with calmness and a cool head,” he stated firmly. “To discover the lay of the land and find that proof before we even think of confronting Metford. Crashing in and making accusations, with very little to back up those accusations, will almost certainly get you or both of us killed,” he predicted. Adrian Metford already believed he had ordered his nephew’s murder once. Julius doubted he would hesitate to do so again. James’s breath left him in a heavy sigh as he slumped back against the carriage seat. “So?” Julius had still not received an answer to his earlier question. “Is there anything else I should know before we arrive?” Because of those years of acting as a spy for England, Julius knew better than most that forewarned was forearmed. Many an English soldier’s life had been saved because of the information Julius was able to garner and pass on to the necessary authority.
This campaign to oust the bogus Earl of Ipswich and put James back in his rightful place as that earl was, in Julius’s opinion, no different to the years he had spent spying on the French. The only difference with this enterprise was that Julius hadn’t had time to gather all the information on Adrian Metford, other than what he already knew of the man’s arrogance and snobbishness, before agreeing to travel into Suffolk with James. Julius was aware the reason he had been only too eager to make that agreement was because he was so utterly bored with his life, and had been for some time. England’s war against Napoleon had been over for several years, and things were now more settled with the French too and his services no longer required. So settled, in fact, Julius believed he might actually die from the stultifying affliction of ennui if he did not do something to occupy himself which did not include estate accounts or listening to the incessant babbling of his sister in regard to her upcoming spring wedding. He loved his sister dearly, and had been her guardian these past five years, but was it unreasonable of him to fail to see why the groom’s neckcloth needed to perfectly match the color of the dresses of the six bridesmaids his sister had insisted upon having? Mary seemed to think it was! Having recently returned from several weeks at his country estate in Cheltenham, after spending Christmas and the New Year holiday chaperoning Mary and her betrothed, Julius was more than ready to occupy his thoughts with something other than how many layers of lace would eventually make up Mary’s finished veil. He and James had discussed the situation in Suffolk extensively during their journey from London. Rather than confront Metford immediately with James’s existence, Julius had suggested, and the younger man had agreed, they should ascertain the situation in Suffolk before James, with Julius’s help, made any move to claim back the Ipswich title. James had assured Julius he had changed immensely in his appearance since the age of sixteen. Not only had he grown several more inches in height, and his shoulders and chest had become wide and muscular, but his countenance was now that of a man rather than a youth.
Even so, ten years ago, Metford had had several thugs in his employ who were more than happy to do his bidding, which had included the murder of his nephew. The fact James had not died meant they needed to know whether or not those same men were still in Metford’s employ. Julius was no coward, and he was proficient with his fists as well as a pistol and sword, but they could be seriously outnumbered, and he preferred to know the odds stacked against him before engaging in physical combat. James had not been old enough to enter Society ten years ago. With both of James’s parents recently dead of the influenza and the original household staff sacked by Adrian Metford, Metford had opportunity to dispose of his nephew during a visit to London, before he claimed the title and fortune for himself. Although, Julius had seen the other man at enough gambling dens over the years and knew of the lavish lifestyle the older man preferred. He doubted there was much of that fortune left. Julius had also noted, when he was out and about in Society, that Metford didn’t acknowledge the existence of anyone below the rank of lord. It was because of this snobbish pomposity they had decided James would enter Ipswich Park as Julius’s valet. A mere servant wouldn’t even merit a first glance from Metford, let alone a second one which might arouse suspicion.
James had decided to use the name of John Franklyn for this deception. He had also assured Julius it was not the Ipswich fortune he sought. It was regaining the title which was important to him, so that he might stand tall and proud when he made an offer of marriage for the sister of one of Julius’s close friends, Lord Benedict Winter. Benedict, having befriended James first, had already assured the younger man he had his blessing to the union. He had even offered to make James his estate manager, but James wished, if Beatrix accepted his proposal, to be able to make her his countess. The younger man’s feelings on the matter were to be applauded, but still, one did not march up to a man as powerful as Adrian Metford had made himself and accuse him of murder in order to usurp the Ipswich title without first having some sort of proof. Beyond Julius’s investigations into the matter, and James’s word as to who and what he truly was, there was no one to substantiate his claim. Consequently, they had come up with the plan of Julius claiming to be traveling through after visiting friends in Lowestoft, when his carriage hit a rut in the road and one of the wheels had snapped off. Hopefully, its need of repair was the means by which both Julius, and James as his valet, could enter the Metford household. It was far from foolproof, and— “—as long as we are able to ensure he does not have the time or opportunity to use my sister’s future welfare against me.
” James glowered. Julius’s thoughts were instantly halted, and he stared at the younger man. “I beg your pardon?” “I said we will have to act quickly if my uncle becomes aware of who I really am, so that he does not have time to use my sister’s continued well-being to control the situation.” “What sister?” Julius barely held his anger in check. “I am sure I have mentioned—” “I am sure you have not!” Julius snapped. “Are you telling me you’ve had a sister residing at Ipswich Park all this time?” Color crept into the younger man’s cheeks at the rebuke. “Bethany’s safety is the reason why I have never dared to challenge my uncle for my title before this.” “I had thought that was originally because of the seriousness of your injuries and then later because of how difficult it would have been to prove the truth.” “Partly that, of course.” James nodded.
“But also because my uncle was named as guardian to Bethany and myself upon our parents’ deaths. He is Bethany’s guardian still, and will remain so until she is aged one and twenty or I am able to establish myself as being the true Earl of Ipswich, and so discredit him.” “But—but how can you be sure he has not been as harsh a guardian to her as Lord Gordon was to Chloe?” The two of them had recently had opportunity to help rescue that young lady from her uncle’s cruel clutches. James’s eyes narrowed. “Possibly because I did not simply abandon my sister to her fate!” “I apologize.” Julius stiffly acknowledged the rebuke. James nodded tersely. “Once I was well enough to travel after my beating, I went to Suffolk to reassure myself of Bethany’s safety.” He smiled slightly. “She was a beautiful child and always could twist my uncle around her little finger.
I was relieved to observe that had not changed. Under the circumstances, I deemed it best to leave her to live that life of comfort and luxury rather than steal her away, only to drag her down into the life I was being forced to live. I also believed that while I attempted to prove to the authorities that he had no right to the title or estate, my uncle might counter that accusation by accusing me of kidnapping Bethany.” “Could Bethany not have refuted that accusation?” “I doubt that they would have listened to, or believed, a young child.” Julius stared at him. “How old is Bethany now?” “Nineteen.” Nineteen! Dear God, how that number had haunted Julius and his three close friends these past months, since one of them, Gabriel Templeton, the Duke of Blackborne, had learned he had a niece of that age living, born to the sister who had been disowned by their father twenty years ago. Gabriel had been searching for his sister for years, but had only recently received news of her death all those years ago during childbirth, and the incarceration in an asylum of her married lover after he went mad with grief. Gabriel was in France at this very moment, making enquiries as to what had become of his now nineteen-year-old niece.