Loyal to the Duke – Wendy Soliman

‘Not to put too fine a point on it, he’s still burying his head in the sand.’ Zachary Sheridan, the Duke of Winchester, let out an expansive sigh as he cast his gaze around the gathering of gentlemen in his library, assured of their sympathetic understanding. The King, they all knew, was becoming more eccentric and demanding by the day. ‘Despite the change in prime minister, he continues to interfere in affairs of state that he doesn’t properly understand.’ ‘We know he bickered continuously with Liverpool and is probably pleased to see the back of him,’ Zach’s brother Vince pointed out. ‘But I’d have thought that now his hero Wellington is prime minister he would leave politicking to those who have at least some vague idea of what it’s about.’ Clarence Vaughan, the Earl of Romsey, let out a snort that implied Vince was being naïve. ‘He still spends as lavishly as ever,’ Zach continued. ‘And remains in favour with large swathes of the populace, despite his extravagant lifestyle.’ ‘He knows how to talk to the common man,’ Adam remarked. ‘Always has and they forgive him anything.’ ‘Some of the time,’ Clarence said. ‘Last winter was exceedingly harsh, and the tolerance of the hoi polloi is not limitless.’ ‘We were aware of George’s foibles before you were summoned to court,’ Amos, the closest brother in age to Zach, pointed out. ‘So why were you really needed? Did he tap you for a loan again?’ Every man in the room was a trusted member of Zach’s family—his brothers Amos and Vince, Adam Pengelly, a former diplomat now married to Zach’s sister Portia and Clarence Vaughan, as firmly attached as ever to the diplomatic service and the husband of Anna, Zach’s other sister.

Only Nate, Zach’s youngest brother, was absent, but he and his family were expected for the Easter celebrations. Adler, Zach’s emissary and trusted friend upon whose sound intelligence Zach depended absolutely, was also present. Since he was married to Zach’s duchess’s cousin, he now also qualified as a family member. ‘My support, obviously,’ Zach replied, absently tugging at the ears of Marley, one of his mongrel dogs. Marley and his brother Mungo had taken up their usual position on the rug in front of the fire. They alternately dozed and looked up at Zach through adoring eyes, thumping their tails against the rug in expectation of his attention. ‘He’s used his influence to have the man he wants to assume Basingstoke’s position.’ Only Clarence seemed unsurprised by that revelation, but then there was little that happened in the corridors of power that didn’t reach Clarence’s ears. Lord Basingstoke, Zach’s closest aristocratic neighbour, had been a persistent thorn in Zach’s side, undermining his authority at every turn and refusing to help him and Clarence to police Hampshire against the rising tide of lawlessness and desperation brought about by poverty. In fact, he had encouraged insurgency in an attempt to usurp Zach’s position and make it appear as though the duke himself was the cause of local unrest.

Basingstoke had been caught out in a people smuggling operation a few months previously, thanks in no small part to Ariana Sanchez-Gomez, who had herself been subjected to Basingstoke’s machinations but had managed to escape through Amos’s timely intervention. Basingstoke’s estate and assets had been seized by the state, and Zach had been waiting since then to see what would be done with them. He and Clarence needed someone reliable in the area to help with their peacekeeping activities. Clarence had been attempting to influence the eventual choice through his position in the diplomatic service. ‘Are you going to give us the name of our new neighbour or leave us to guess?’ Amos asked. ‘Noah Coleridge.’ ‘Never heard of the man,’ Amos and Vince said together. ‘No more had I until George introduced us. He’s Sir Gordon Coleridge’s son.’ All eyes turned towards Clarence, who made a poor show of seeming unaware.

‘Please explain,’ Amos said curtly. ‘Even I have heard of Sir Gordon. He’s something important in the cabinet office, I think.’ ‘And a man who makes constant allowances for George’s extravagance. He has persuaded his masters at the treasury to listen to his case for Basingstoke’s replacement,’ Clarence told them. ‘George and Coleridge are old allies and friends.’ ‘Nepotism is apparently alive and in good working order,’ Adam muttered, rolling his eyes. ‘What did you make of the man, your grace?’ Although Adler had been invited several times to address Zach informally, he never did so in company—not even when that company was made up of other family members. ‘I liked what I saw, and he spoke intelligently of the need to enforce law and order in these parts, despite the fact that it will be a challenge for him. He has no previous experience but I feel confident that I will be able to work with him.

’ ‘He served with distinction during the conflict with Napoleon,’ Clarence added, ‘which of course makes him a favourite of Wellington’s. His father has a private income, and one assumes some of that has found its way into George’s coffers, which in turn persuaded him to support Coleridge’s claim to the estate. He’s to be appointed Lord Lieutenant of the area, which I assume is why your approval was needed, Zach.’ ‘One assumes he stuck his nose into diplomatic affairs whilst serving with said distinction, Clarence,’ Adam remarked. Clarence lifted one hand and waggled it from side to side which, Zach knew, was all he would say on that particular subject. ‘A man of many parts then,’ Vince said. ‘Is he married?’ ‘Apparently not.’ ‘Basingstoke Hall is a barn of a place for a single man to rattle around in,’ Amos remarked. ‘No doubt his new duties will keep him fully occupied and he won’t notice.’ Clarence spoke with deliberation.

‘Our paths have crossed once or twice. He’s an educated fellow, very diligent and keen to impress.’ Zach nodded, wishing he didn’t have to involve himself in so many areas and could spend more time enjoying his growing family. His beloved wife Frankie had given birth prematurely to a second daughter in February after a difficult confinement. Zach, beside himself, had been convinced that he’d aged ten years over the course of a single night. Amos and Vince were at his side, endeavouring to keep his spirits up, but even they couldn’t share in his deeply personal anguish. Except that Amos probably could. His own wife had been killed, murdered by a bullet intended for Frankie, and he had still not completely recovered from the devastation of his loss. He likely never would and Zach suspected that a part of him would always belong exclusively to Crista. Zach’s daughter was so small that she wasn’t expected to survive, but little Evie had proved herself to be a fighter and was now thriving.

As was her mother, who constantly chastised Zach for his over-protectiveness, reminding him at regular intervals that she had not created their fifth child without his participation, and that he had appeared enthusiastic enough during that part of the process. He wanted to be with them now, ensuring that Frankie didn’t exert herself. Despite what she appeared to think, she had still not fully recovered her strength. Instead, he was obliged to sit here discussing law and order and attempting to second guess the antics of a deranged king and his new prime minister. ‘I think you will find Coleridge a fair-minded individual,’ Clarence said. ‘I am not that well acquainted with him, but I know his father quite well and approve of his integrity. Bear in mind though that there is a lot of resentment in Basingstoke’s part of the world and it will be directed against the man who’s taken their erstwhile favourite’s place—especially if he proves to be a man of principle.’ ‘Angry men willing to rebel against the ruling classes as a matter of course,’ Amos said. ‘Men whom Basingstoke treated generously in return for their loyalty.’ ‘I’m aware of that,’ Zach said.

‘But the situation requires diplomacy rather than a heavy hand.’ ‘Bear in mind that Fortescue will be anxious to influence the new lord lieutenant,’ Amos said, referring to one of Zach’s arch enemies who had married Fiona Eustace, the woman whose mother had tried to force upon Zach through an invented debt of honour. ‘Without Basingstoke, Fortescue will be feeling exposed, living so close to us here and with no one to plot against you with. He is not overburdened with intelligence, but it wouldn’t do to underestimate a dangerous man. I gather he’s short of funds, which implies that Basingstoke kept his coffers topped up when he was still around, aware that he needed powerful allies to stand against your authority.’ ‘I have not overlooked Fortescue, or his mother-in-law’s scheming ways,’ Zach replied. ‘She is the more dangerous of the two because she still hasn’t recovered from my dismissal of her daughter. She will do anything within her power to harm us, if only to salve her wounded pride and recover from the fact that her daughter has had to settle for third best, which is putting it generously. Fortunately, there is little that she can do. Even so, I shall not relax my guard in that respect.

’ ‘When is Coleridge moving in?’ Vince asked. ‘As we speak, so I understand,’ Zach replied. ‘Then you could do worse than invite him to dine. It’s often easier to get the measure of a man in a social situation. Besides, the ladies will be less circumspect than us and pepper him with questions regarding his situation. In which case, you can be sure that we will know everything there is to know about him before the first covers have been removed.’ Clarence chuckled. ‘Vince makes a fair point, especially if my wife is the one doing the questioning.’ ‘Invite him over Easter when the house is full,’ Vince suggested. As well as his siblings, four out of five of Zach’s cousins would be in attendance with their families.

‘Don’t want to frighten the poor man off,’ Zach added. ‘We’re quite a force to be reckoned with when hunting as a pack.’ ‘I dare say he’s made of stern enough stuff,’ Clarence replied mildly. ‘He will need to be if he intends to referee the warring factions in Basingstoke.’ ‘I’ll mention it to Frankie.’ Zach knew that the moment he did, she would insist upon issuing the invitation. She took her position as the leading local hostess seriously, stepping effortlessly into his dead mother’s shoes in that respect. She took an interest in the activities of all the family’s children, exclaimed over their smallest achievements and never forgot any of their birthdays. She enjoyed matchmaking as well, and since their new neighbour was a single gentleman she would simply assume that he required a wife. Zach smiled to himself, well aware that Frankie would find him a suitable candidate in the blink of an eye, claiming that she wanted everyone else to be as happy as she and Zach were.

He had yet to convince her that would be an impossible ambition to achieve. ‘Whispers have reached my ears about a planned uprising. A protest against Basingstoke’s treatment.’ Adam’s remark guaranteed him everyone’s attention. He lived fifty miles west of the Park, well away from Basingstoke’s territory, and if he’d heard rumblings of that nature then it was a genuine cause for concern. ‘It was a mistake to send Basingstoke abroad and seize his property without giving an explanation for his fall from grace,’ Amos said, rubbing his chin. ‘I advised against it at the time but no one ever listens to my views.’ ‘Nor mine, dear boy,’ Clarence replied when Amos glared accusingly in his direction. ‘Don’t make the mistake of thinking otherwise. By covering up Basingstoke’s crimes the government of the day created more problems than they resolved, leaving the agitators with a golden opportunity to stir up more unrest—creating a martyr if you like, and pointing the finger of blame in Zach’s direction.

’ Zach grunted but refrained from comment. ‘The government of the day didn’t want to admit to our friends across the channel that some of their daughters had been smuggled into this country for disreputable purposes.’ Clarence stared out through the window to the grounds beyond, where the iron grip of winter was loosening its hold. ‘But since the truce that followed the war is still so fragile and there are elements that would seize upon any opportunity to re-instigate hostilities, I suppose I can see the politicians’ point of view, regardless of how misguided I believe it to be.’ ‘Either way, it seems we must befriend our new neighbour at the earliest opportunity. I’ll ride over later this week and introduce myself,’ Amos said, stretching his arms above his head and yawning, ‘since I have nothing better to do with my time and you clearly have.’ He indicated the pile of papers awaiting Zach’s attention and offered him a sympathetic look. ‘Much obliged, little brother,’ Zach said, standing. ‘Now, if there’s nothing else, shall we rejoin the ladies?’ Frankie smiled at the ladies gathered in her drawing room, enjoying the prospect of a family reunion over the Easter period. Doing her best to hide her fatigue, she poured the tea and asked Anna to pass the cups round.

She would never make the admission to Zach in a thousand years, but she was still very tired following the ordeal of Evie’s arrival. Her physicians had doubted that she would conceive again after Louis’s birth, which had been complex. Complex but simple compared to the difficulties that had attended Evie’s introduction to the world. Frankie had lost a great deal of blood and been feverish for a week following the delivery. Zach had insisted upon a top London surgeon being present for the confinement. She had gone into labour long before her due date and by the time he arrived it was too late for him to do anything other than to shake his head and admire the skill of the country doctor who had attended Frankie and saved her life through his quick thinking. There would definitely be no further children now, and Frankie was secretly relieved. Five was quite enough. ‘What has Zach told you about your new neighbour?’ Anna asked, stirring her tea. ‘When can we expect him?’ ‘He hasn’t told me anything,’ Frankie sighed.

‘Whenever I ask him, he changes the subject and I can get very little out of him regarding his summons to Court. Honestly, you would think that a woman had never had a baby before. He treats me as though I’m made of porcelain.’ ‘The men in this family are all like that,’ Portia said, rolling her eyes. ‘I suppose we should be grateful that they don’t insist upon knowing what is best for us when it comes to bearing their children.’ ‘They wouldn’t dare!’ The light of battle shone from Anna’s pretty eyes. ‘No,’ Portia agreed, ‘Adam knows better, but even so, it can be frightfully trying when they insist upon fussing.’ ‘One learns to circumvent their controlling ways,’ Nia said, smiling. ‘Quite,’ Frankie and Anna concurred simultaneously. ‘Well, in fairness, Zach has only been back from London for two days,’ Portia reminded them all, ‘and he probably has a lot to occupy him.

I am sure he will tell us who is to succeed Lord Basingstoke before we all die of old age.’ ‘The gentlemen are gathered in the library, having a council of war about something that they prefer not to inflict upon our delicate ears,’ Anna pointed out, pouting. ‘I’ll wager they’re discussing Lord Basingstoke’s successor. I am absolutely sure Clarence knows who has been chosen, and I fail to see why we shouldn’t all hear about him, no matter how frequently Clarence makes me feel like a wallflower.’ ‘Anna, you know very well that you can run rings around him,’ Portia said, smiling. ‘True enough,’ Anna replied with a careless little wave, ‘but sometimes I think I only manage to do so because he indulges me. It is infuriating to be married to such an astute politician. One is never really sure if one has the upper hand, or if he simply wants one to think that way in order to keep the peace.’ ‘How is Amos?’ Portia, who wasn’t a frequent visitor to the Park, had only arrived a few hours previously. Frankie knew that she worried about her brother’s state of mind since his wife had been so cruelly taken from him.

‘In much better spirits,’ Frankie replied. ‘He is healing, and Ariana certainly helps in that respect. She refuses to allow him to wallow in self-pity and frequently reminds him that his children require him to be strong for their sakes.’ ‘Good for her,’ Anna said, nodding her approval. ‘Now that Ariana’s brother and sister are both married and settled, what are her plans?’ Portia asked. ‘She continues to help care for Amos’s children,’ Frankie replied. ‘And, of course, we treat her as one of us. She joins in local society and seems perfectly content.’ ‘What Frankie is so diplomatically not saying,’ Anna replied, grinning, ‘is that we all have high hopes that Amos will finally realise it’s perfectly all right for him to continue living. Once he reaches that conclusion, he will also realise that Ariana is just the person to bring him fully back to life.

’ ‘He certainly enjoys her company,’ Nia agreed. ‘He probably doesn’t realise that he gives himself away in all sorts of little ways, particularly in the manner in which he looks at her, especially in company when single gentlemen are in attendance. I am fairly sure that she returns his regard, but Amos probably feels that he’s letting Crista down by even thinking along those lines. He’s wrestling with his conscience, in other words.’ ‘Which is too ridiculous for words. Crista would be the first person to encourage him to take another wife,’ Anna said briskly. ‘True, my dear,’ Frankie agreed, ‘but we cannot shake sense into Amos. He must come to his own decision in his own time.’ ‘Just so long as Ariana doesn’t get another offer,’ Portia remarked. ‘She might get tired of waiting for our brother to stop dithering and cut her losses.

After all, she is exceedingly lovely and now that she no longer feels responsible for her sister and has no worries about her brother’s wellbeing, perhaps she will finally put her own interests first.’ ‘An alternative suitor might be just what’s needed to bring Amos to his senses,’ Anna said, with a calculating little smile. ‘Stop it, Anna!’ Frankie flapped a hand at Zach’s sister but couldn’t help laughing. No one could ever accuse Anna of passivity. ‘Let the poor man run his own life.’ ‘Bah!’ Anna seemed unimpressed. ‘Men never know their own minds when it comes to affairs of the heart. If I’d waited for Clarence to declare himself without first giving him a little…’ She smiled mischievously. ‘Well, a lot of active encouragement, I would have died an old maid.’ ‘Hardly,’ Frankie said.

‘I seem to recall that you had a dozen suitors at any one time.’ ‘None who were worthy of my regard,’ Anna replied with another of her dismissive waves, ‘but then we always want what we cannot have, I find.’ ‘When do Nate and Katrina arrive?’ Portia asked. ‘We expect them as soon as tomorrow,’ Frankie replied. ‘Actually, Katrina and I have been in correspondence regarding a mutual acquaintance from my first marriage.’ Frankie was aware that she now had the attention of all the ladies since she seldom spoke to anyone other than Zach about that unhappy period in her life. ‘Well actually, a child of a former acquaintance. Lord Leighton’s daughter.’ ‘I know the name,’ Anna said frowning, ‘although I don’t believe I have ever met the gentleman. Presumably he is engaged by the Diplomatic Service, given that your first husband and Katrina’s father both were.

’ ‘That’s right,’ Frankie said. ‘I met them at diplomatic affairs and got along well with Lady Leighton. They had a daughter who could only have been seven or eight at the time but must be twenty now. Farrah.’ ‘What a very pretty and unusual name,’ Portia said. ‘Arabic in origin, if I am not mistaken. It means joy.’ ‘You are much better read than all of us, Portia,’ Anna replied. ‘So us lesser mortals must take your word for it.’ ‘Lord Leighton died in the service of his country over a year ago,’ Frankie said.

‘Yes, that’s it. I overheard Clarence in heated conversation with someone and that name was mentioned several times. We were at a reception in London and I don’t think Clarence realised that I happened to overhear.’ ‘Happened to?’ Nia asked, smiling at the other ladies. ‘It’s the only way to find out what’s going on,’ Anna replied airily. ‘Honestly, our men are so annoyingly protective that I sometimes feel like a mushroom, constantly kept in the dark.’ Frankie smiled. ‘All I know is that Lord Leighton died under questionable circumstances. Lady Leighton passed away several years ago and Farrah had remained with her father in France, doing whatever diplomats do to restore détente following Napoleon’s defeat. Farrah returned to England after her father’s death and has taken up residence with a distant aunt close to Nate and Katrina.

’ ‘She isn’t anxious for London society?’ Nia asked. ‘Most young women of that age think of little else.’ Frankie shrugged. ‘I have absolutely no idea, other than that Katrina hinted at some dark secret that makes Farrah content to hide away in the country.’ ‘How delicious,’ Anna said, her eyes gleaming. ‘Perhaps she has been disappointed in love, or something equally enthralling.’ The other ladies laughed, accustomed to Anna’s lively imagination.

.

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