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Peyton Ramsden, fourth Earl of Dursley, was doing what he did best—technically superior, emotionally removed sex with his mistress of two years. Certain of her fulfilment, he gave a final thrust and efficiently withdrew to make a gentleman's finish in the sheets.
His mistress, the elegant Lydia Staunton, raised herself up on one arm, letting the white satin of the sheet slide provocatively down her hip. 'So, you're giving me my congé,' she said matter-of-factly.
'Yes, I am,' Peyton answered evenly. There was no need to dress up the conversation, although he'd planned to bring up the issue after he'd got out of bed. For a man who liked to keep his life organised into neat compartments, there was something inherently wrong about discussing business so soon after coupling, even if it was the business of sex.
'How did you know?' He hadn't spoken of it or dropped the slightest hint at ending their arrangement since he'd come up to town three days ago, although he'd made it plain at the beginning of their association that he had no intentions of sustaining their relationship beyond two years.
'It was worse than usual tonight.' Lydia could always be counted on to speak her mind.
Peyton fixed her with an arrogant stare, one eyebrow raised in challenge. 'I highly doubt that, madame.' If there was one area the Ramsden brothers excelled at, it was in the bedroom arts. They'd been schooled at an early age about how to please a woman, part of their father's training regimen for a gentleman.
Lydia fell back on the pillows, ennui punctuating her words. 'It's not that. It's never that. You know you're exquisite in the bedroom, Dursley. You don't need me to tell you your skills are unsurpassed.'
Dursley. He hated being a title to everyone, especially someone he'd shared conjugal relations with. Peyton rolled out of bed in a single fluid motion and strode across the room to the chair where his clothes waited. He picked up his shirt to put on. Perhaps he'd demand his next mistress call him 'Peyton'. And perhaps not. Forced intimacy wasn't true intimacy and he required honesty above all else.
'Well, thank goodness. For a moment I was starting to doubt.' His tone conveyed the exact opposite. There was no misunderstanding the real message. The Earl of Dursley did not doubt himself in the least, in any aspect of his life.
Lydia sighed. 'Skills aren't everything, Dursley. It takes more than prowess in bed to be a good lover. Some day, you're going to have to feel something.'
This was an old discussion. Lydia had accused him of being detached more than once during their association. Tonight, Peyton chose to ignore the comment. Arguing at the end of their association would resolve nothing. He pulled on his trousers and shrugged into his coat. He walked to Lydia's dressing table and pulled a slim box from the inside pocket of his coat. He didn't need to tell Lydia what it was. She was experienced enough in these dealings to know the box contained an expensive parting gift; something she could choose to flaunt or sell, depending on her circumstances. He placed a calling card on top of the box.
'Peter Pennington, Viscount Wyndham, has suggested he is in the market. I offered him the lease to this house if you're amenable.' Lydia would know exactly what that meant. He'd found her another protector. Her financial security would not lapse in the wake of his exit.
'Bravo, very nice, Dursley. You've wrapped up all the loose ends in two sentences.' Lydia got out of bed and slipped her long arms into a silk robe, one of his many gifts to her over the years. She belted it at the waist. 'Tell me, do you ever get tired of being in control?' The words were not kind.
Ah, the usually unflappable Lydia was piqued. Peyton sensed it was time to make an expedient exit before a quarrel cast a pall over their parting. He understood her discontent. For all the physical pleasure he gave her, Lydia wanted something more from him, something he was unwilling to give. 'I know what you want, Lydia. Wyndham is better suited to give you the illusion of romance than I am.' He made a short bow in her direction. 'I wish you the best. Goodnight, my dear. I have other business to attend to before my evening is through. I will show myself out.'
Once outside in the cold evening, Peyton sent his coach home, choosing to walk instead. The night air was bracing and he suddenly found himself in possession of a burst of energy begging to be spent. It was just as well—a walk would give him time to think and there was plenty to think about. Giving Lydia her congé was only one of the situations he'd come up to town to resolve. The other item involved a summons from an old friend at Whitehall regarding a colleague who had recently passed away.
Peyton reached for his pocket watch and flipped it open. Nine a.m. That gave him a half an hour to make his nine-thirty meeting with Lord Brimley. It was Whitehall business they were to discuss. Brimley had made that clear in his letter. But they would discuss it at White's in a private room.
He had plenty of time to travel the few streets to St James's and White's Gentlemen's Club, but his pace increased none the less. There was a certain excitement in the prospect of the upcoming meeting and he'd acknowledged weeks ago he needed something to keep him occupied.
His youngest brother, Paine, and Paine's wife, Julia, had taken up residence at the family seat, deep in the idyllic heart of the Cotswolds, to await the birth of their first child not quite a year after their marriage. He was, of course, thrilled to have his brother under his roof. But the birth of Paine's son four weeks ago had made Peyton restless in a most uncomfortable way.
He adored his new nephew without question, having been shamelessly caught on numerous occasions in the nursery with the infant in his arms—a sight most of London would have been shocked to see, given his reputation towards sombre decorum. Yet, watching Paine and Julia together with their new son had filled him with disquiet and a sense that his life, for all his accomplishments, was incomplete in his thirty-eighth year.
Logically, the assumption that his life lacked something was ludicrous. He'd come into his title at the young age of twenty-three when he had years ahead of him to maximise the earldom's prosperity and take advantage of all the technological advances open to agriculture. Maximise them he had. While others struggled with outmoded notions of estate management and agricultural depression, Dursley thrived. It was no small thing to accept responsibility for the Dursley holdings and the people attached to them. His successes were their successes.
Additionally, he did his duty in Parliament, coming up to town when sessions needed him to lend his voice on weighty matters. And his devotion to country and king didn't end there. During the years following the Napoleonic Wars, he'd done his duty as a discreet diplomatic courier to Vienna when tensions over the future of the Balkans arose. He'd become a regular face in the drawing rooms of the New Europe in those days as nations negotiated new political boundaries and privileges.
Oh, no, although he was not one to need public acclaim for his efforts, he could personally acknowledge that his efforts had borne worthwhile fruits. His life had not been spent in idle pursuits of no account, but in the pursuit of building an empire that would far outlast his years on earth. A man could take pride in such achievement. Indeed, a man should take pride in such a life.
Which was why the internal unrest he'd suffered from lately was so distressing. It had sprung from nowhere and for no reason. Such an appearance was all the more disconcerting for a man of his ilk, who exerted control over all aspects of his life— demanded it, in fact. Imbalance was not a common or tolerated occurrence within his domain.
The façade of White's loomed across the street. Redemption waited inside. Soon, he'd appease the errant devils that plagued him and get his life back to normal.
He was expected. A footman whisked away his hat and outerwear while another one smartly led him upstairs to the private rooms. Brimley was already there. Peyton's anticipation grew. Brimley's early arrival suggested the man was anxious about the meeting.
Such concern seemed out of character for the context of the meeting. In his note to Peyton, Brimley had indicated simply that there were a few details to wrap up with Branscombe's passing. The only oddity was that Brimley had summoned him at all. He could count the times he'd met Sir Ralph Branscombe on one hand and still have fingers left over. If he remembered correctly, Branscombe had primarily been stationed in St Petersburg.
The footman opened the door to the luxuriously appointed room with its thick carpet and carved marble mantelpiece. The room would have done any grand home in Mayfair proud. But Peyton had scarcely a glance for the stately elegance of the décor.
Brimley rose from his chair by the fire and came forward to greet him. 'Dursley, so good of you to come. What's it been? Two years, now?'
Peyton nodded. Brimley looked tired and careworn beyond his fifty years, but his memory was clearly still sharp if he could recall the last time Peyton had worked for him. 'Nearly two years,' Peyton affirmed, taking time to carefully study Brimley's features, searching for a reason for the weariness that plagued him.
Brimley seemed to sense Peyton's scrutiny. He waved a hand. 'Come and sit, Dursley. You're a lucky man to have missed the last two years, after all.'
Brimley pushed a hand through his greying hair. 'I was disappointed to see you go, but I understood you had estates to run. You couldn't be hotfooting it off to Vienna or wherever else at my beck and call. Now, I wonder if I shouldn't have bowed out, too. The Balkans and the Eastern Question are enough to drive any man insane. One wonders what we really won when Napoleon was defeated—a pile of war debt here at home and a handful of cocksure pocket-tyrants in the Far East stealing access to waterways.'
Peyton gave a short laugh. 'You don't fool me for a minute, Brimley. You love the intrigue of this new world.' He settled in his chair, relaxing into its depths. Ahhh. White's knew the value of a comfortable chair.
Brimley opened the humidor on the table next to him and selected a cheroot. He offered the cherry-wood box to Peyton. Peyton declined with a mild wave. 'Well, I suppose I do like some of the game,' Brimley admitted, taking a long draw on the cheroot. 'But I don't like loose ends and that's what I've got with Branscombe's fiasco.'
'Fiasco?' Peyton felt his body tense. He certainly hadn't got that impression from Brimley's note. But then, Brimley was a master diplomat, never letting out more than he wanted anyone to know before he wanted them to know it.
'Branscombe had the bad taste to die while in possession of a list of Russian insurgents deemed dangerous by the Czar. Unfortunately, since his death, the list has not come to light. Our sources in St Petersburg are certain that the Russians have not found it. There's been no report of arrests or suspicious disappearances. However, we have not found it either.' Brimley gave a heavy sigh.
Peyton steepled his hands and studied the fire, digesting Brimley's news. He'd always known there was a fine line between espionage and diplomacy. Not every diplomat was a spy, of course. But some were. It seemed the mild-mannered Branscombe had crossed that line.
And why not? Diplomats had very little accountability to any authority once they were at their posts. Accounts of their deeds or decisions would take months to reach England, if at all. Often there was no time to waste in waiting for responses from home regarding how to proceed. One simply had to rely on instinct and do what one felt was best.
Peyton certainly understood the ease with which diplomacy and espionage could be mixed. What he didn't understand was why this particular list had Brimley edgy. He doubted Brimley was all that concerned about preserving the identity of Russian revolutionaries.
'What makes the list so important to us?' Peyton asked.
Brimley eyed him for a while. Peyton knew the man was weighing him up, assessing what could be told and what could be left out. 'This is strictly confidential, Dursley.'
Peyton smiled. Most of their conversations over the years had included that phrase. 'I assumed it would be.'
Brimley grimaced. 'An unstable Russia weakens Russia's power to influence Turkey and that's good for us. We need the waterway for our Indian trade routes.'
He was talking about the Dardanelle Straits, which Turkey controlled. A conquered Turkey, a Russian-controlled Turkey, would be an intolerable situation for Britain. Passage through the Dardanelles made it possible to cut weeks off the trip between London and Bombay, making passage around the dangerous African Horn unnecessary.
But this explanation would be commonplace to a man who'd been keeping up on current events. There was nothing confidential here. Such information was bandied about the House of Lords daily. Peyton shook his head. 'That's not good enough, Brimley. I know all that already. How does the list influence Russia?'
Brimley seemed to concede. 'All right. It has come to my attention that Branscombe compiled the list on behalf of some ambitious and wealthy businessmen who would be glad to fund an internal rebellion to overthrow the Czar. In exchange, they are asking for guarantees from the new government to leave Turkey, and the Dardanelles, especially, alone.'
Peyton let out a low whistle. Foreign involvement in plotting revolution was serious business. He didn't need to be told Branscombe had been well paid by these men to make the necessary connections and compile the list. Even after the disastrous 1825 December uprising in Russia, secret revolutionary societies still abounded. The promise of cash for weapons and munitions probably appealed to the most organised groups.
But where there were secrets, there were traitors.