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Charles Alden, Viscount Dayle, sank into his favourite over-stuffed chair in the morning room at White's. It was early; the porters had not yet let down the awnings and bright light flooded through the floor-to-ceiling window. At his elbow sat a pot of coffee, a plate of muffins, and a pile of papers. He snapped open The Times, sank his teeth into his first, hot, buttery bite and let out a heartfelt sigh.
He revelled in the peace of the morning all the way through the first paper. Unfortunately, peace was a commodity hard to come by anywhere in England in the spring of 1817, even for a viscount. Charles first noticed something amiss as he set aside The Times and reached for the Edinburgh Review.
A space had cleared all about him. The morning room, usually full of gentlemen either beginning one day or ending another, was empty but for a few souls gathered in whispering knots along the walls. One man caught his gaze, blasted him with a look of utter scorn, and stalked out, calling for his hat. A wrench of foreboding seizing his gut, Charles looked up into the sympathetic eye of one of the porters, come to refresh his coffee.
'Well, Bartlett,' he said quietly, 'I can see you are not half so ignorant as I. Tell me.'
Bartlett cleared his throat. 'I have taken the liberty of adding a copy of today's Oracle to the stack of your usual papers, my lord. Perhaps you would care to peruse the editorial section?'
'The Oracle?' It was little more than a scandal sheet. 'Thank you, Bartlett.'
Charles picked up the paper with trepidation and turned a few pages until he found the item he sought, directly under a scathing response to Lord Sidmouth's call against 'seditiouspublications'.
Tory Darling or Wolf In Sheep's Clothing?
They do say that a Reformed Rake makes the Best Husbandbut what kind of Politician does he make?
Just such a man is Lord D, a Rakehell of the First Order, now converted into a Responsible English Peer. Or is he? Based on certain, recent Rumours, We wonder if he has changed pastures only in search of fresh prey.
Lord Dhas been seen often lately with the notorious Lady Aon his arm. Perhaps this is not so surprising when one considers his past taste for women of immodest character and her known taste for the rising young members of her husband's political party. What is surprising is that a man previously known for living on wit and instinct could have fumbled this situation so badly. No other explanation presents itself for yesterday's dramatic events, when Lord Areturned home unexpectedly only to find a dark-haired gentleman departing the house by route of Lady A's bedchamber window.
The lady has reportedly been duly chastised and banished to the country. But as for the gentleman?
It cannot be denied that Lord Dis a man of many talents. Indeed, it is rumoured he is to be groomed for High Office. We at the Oracle cannot help but wonder if the Tories should reconsider the notion. Surely a candidate exists who can demonstrate a higher standard of character. For if the Tories cannot trust Lord Dwith their women, then why should they trust him with the Nation?
For a long minute Charles sat rigid with anger. Bloody, damnable hell. Months of hard work.Weeks of toadying. Countless gruelling hours spent constructing a careful façade. All destroyed in a moment with the vicious swipe of an acid pen.
Normal, everyday sounds drifted in from the adjoining rooms: the rustle of freshly ironed papers, the soft clink of china, the low murmur of men whose lives had not just been turned inside out. Charles sat frozen, trying to wrap his mind about the disaster that had befallen him with the turn of a page.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when grizzled Lord Rackham paused behind his chair and thumped him soundly on the shoulder.
'Just so, my boy!' the old relic bellowed. 'Brazen it out. Don't let them see you with your head down, that's the wisest course! Tomorrow some bloke will get caught hammering his rocks in someone else's quarry and they'll all be talking about that. It will blow over soon enough.'After another encouraging cuff he stalked off to rejoin his friends, the whole pack of them muttering darkly as they crossed into the coffee room. nothing without his politi-
from one scenario to the next as he ap-scrambling to come up with some way Lost in his own whirlwind of thoughts, the rising wind and the increasingly own name. It wasn't until someone he came awake to his surroundings.
It was of the more degenerate hangers-'Sorry, chaps. Lost in the fog of my own thoughts this morning,' he said, striving for a light-hearted tone.
'A bit dense in there, eh?' laughed Matthews. 'I trust it's not as thick as the fog at Hyde Park this morning.' He leaned in and spoke confidingly. 'Blackmoor met Ventry at dawn. Ventry was shaking so hard his gun went off before he'd got his hand half-raised. Hit the ground not ten feet in front of him, the poor sod.'
Charles felt like shaking himself, in relief. Obviously they didn't yet know. 'Blackmoor didn't kill him, did he?' he asked with nonchalance.
'I should say not,' Henley drawled. 'Pinked him in the arm, which is far less than the upstart deserved, should you ask me.'He shot Charles a conspirator's grin. 'It's good to see you, Dayle. It's been an age since you've been out and about with us. Leave the debates to them what can't get a rise out of St Peter, if you catch my meaning, and come on with us. You're too young to bury yourself in the House.'
Matthews chimed in. 'We're off to breakfast, old man, before heading home,'he said. 'Been to the new bawdy house on Bentinck Street? Opens in the morning and lays out a breakfast buffet. Mrs Pritchett guarantees a bellyful and an armful to send you sweetly to your dreams. Care to join us?'
The desire to yield and go along with them was almost visceral. How easy it would be to forget, to lose the pain of the last year and the humiliation of the morning in the burn of good liquor and the hot sweet flesh of a woman. He could just let it all go. End the charade.
He shook his head to rid himself of the notion. No. Charles Alden was dead. Slain by the same wild round that had stolen his brother, buried by the despair that had seduced his father. There was no going back.
He went forward instead, resolutely and one footfall at a time. Good-naturedly refusing the offer, he saw Matthews and Henley into a passing hack before crossing over Piccadilly. By the time he passed Devonshire House and headed into Berkeley Square, temptation had been safely locked away. Viscount Dayle was once again in full possession of all his faculties and putting together a plan of action.
The wind had become quite forceful by the time Charles reached his Bruton Street townhouse, and the sunlight dimmed by fast-moving clouds. Perhaps fate had indeed meant to give him the backdrop for his drama, and had only missed her cue.
'My lord,' his butler gasped as the door swung in. 'Forgive me, we were not expecting you back '
'No need for apologies, Fisher.' Charles headed for the library. 'But could you please send round a man to fetch my brother? Drag him from his books, if need be, but tell him I need him now. And send some coffee in, too.'
'Wait, my lord!' the butler called as Charles stalked away. 'You have a visitor awaiting you.'
'At this hour?'
The butler had no chance to reply before the library door slammed open. 'Dayle!' The shout rang in the cold marbled entry. 'This time you will pay for your perfidy. Name your seconds!'
'Lord Avery, how kind of you to call,'Charles said, running a hand across his brow. 'Better make that something stronger, Fisher. Brandy will do. 'Now, my lord,'Charles spoke soothingly as he ushered the man back in the room and away from the staring eyes of the servants, 'we are a bit precipitous with this talk of seconds. But I would be happy to discuss the upcoming Poor Relief Bill, even at this early hour.'
'There's no distracting me, you philandering dog! I know what you've done with my wife, all of London knows!' The older man was nearly grey with fatigue and emotion. Charles guided him to a chair. The last thing he needed was for the fool to collapse in his study.
'You know no such thing. It's nonsense. I dined at the Clarendon, and stayed there talking most of the night. You will easily find a roomful of gentlemen to corroborate the fact. We can send for one or more of them right now.'
'I know what I saw, you young rakehell.'
'I don't know what you saw, my lord, but I know it was not me.' Charles's tone grew more firm.
'Do you think me a fool? I've seen you together with my own eyes! And all of London knows of your rackety ways.'
'I've never had more than a casual public conversation with your wife, sir. I own that she is charming, and exceedingly handsome, but whatever trouble lies between you has nothing to do with me.'
Charles saw the first sign of uncertainty in the man's face. He felt for him, but he could not let this go any further. He hardened his expression and said with finality, 'If you choose not to believe me, then I will indeed give thought to finding a second.'
Jack arrived just then, excited and fully ready to defend his brother's honour, but the fight had gone out of Lord Avery. He hung his head in his hands while Charles greeted his brother and while the brandy was brought in. He accepted a drink, threw it back, and held out his glass for another. Then he stood.
'I will accept your explanation for now, Dayle, but I shall check out your claim, and if I find it's a lie, I'll be back. Why would your name be mixed up in this if you weren't involved? Makes no sense.'
'You echo my own thought exactly,' said Charles.
Lord Avery bristled. 'This is no laughing matter! My honour, and my wife's, has been destroyed.' He looked thoughtfully at Charles. 'I know that there are those in the Party who believe in your transformation. The rake reformed.' He snorted. 'I know your history, and today's work smacks of it. Blatant. Insulting. Just like your soft-hearted politics. It's bad enough to side with the unwashed masses against your own kind in the Lords, but this! Unforgivable is what I call it, and so will many a Tory, after I am through with you.' He marched to the door and paused on the threshold. 'If your whereabouts last night are uncertain, then tomorrow morning's will be assured.'
The echo of the slamming door was much quieter on this side. Charles looked away and began to pace, from the sidebar to the crackling fire, then away to the full wall of books. He couldn't bear to look upon his father's portrait above the mantel.
'I'm sorry, Charles.' Jack's tone was quiet, careful. 'God knows I don't understand it, but I do know how important your political interests have become to you.'
Charles nodded again and drank. He crossed to the window and watched as the rain began to come down in sheets.
'Throw me a bone, would you? I'm trying to play the supportive brother here.'Jack rose and came to stand behind him. 'He'll check your story and find that it's true. After that it's only a piece in a scandal rag. Is it really so bad?'
Charles stared at his brother's reflection in the window. 'It's bad, and it couldn't have come at a worse time. The Board of Trade is looking for someone to head an investigative committee on distressed farming areas. My name has been mentioned. It could set me on a path to much higher places.' He scrubbed a hand through his hair. 'I've worked hard, and come so far. Take a good look around, little brother, this country is in an horrendous mess. I have finally got myself into a position where I can do something about it I could help.'
He slammed his fist into his hand. 'And now someone wants to use my past against me? No one will consider me seriously. I'll be just another ton wastrel who cannot keep his bodkin buttoned up. This could ruin me. My political career could be over before it has truly begun.'
'Would that be such a terrible thing?' His brother's hand was suddenly heavy on Charles's shoulder. 'Phillip is dead. You are not. Perhaps it is time to let all of this go. You could get back to your own pursuits, spend some time at Fordham with Mother.'
'No,' Charles barked. 'I could not.' He stared down into his drink, but there were no answers there. And no solace either, as he had good reason to know. How could he explain his desperation to his little brother? There were some things that Jack could never understand. 'I need this, Jack. I can't explain it, but I need to do this, and I need you to help me out of this mess.'
There was a moment's silence, and then Jack took his hand away and went to pour himself a drink. 'Is the situation salvageable? What do you mean to do?'