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Lord Spencer Perceval, serving as both Prime Minister and Chancellor of Great Britain during these troubling times, sank into his favorite tub chair in his private study behind the imposing ebony door of No. 10 Downing Street. He had just moments earlier successfully concluded his most important mission of the day: seeing the last of his dozen children off to bed.
They'd been lined up like proper little soldiers, to bow or curtsy before him, and to smile as he kissed them each square in the middle of their foreheads. His wife had then adjourned to their bedroom, a twinkle in her eyethe same twinkle that had caused him to convince her to elope with him so many years ago, when her father had considered a younger Perceval unsuitable matrimonial material.
A small silver tray was placed before the prime minister. "Your evening refreshment, my lord? And I must commend you. Quite the brood you have thereor is that clutch? No, that would be hens, or ducks, or some such fowl thing. A thousand pardons. Lovely children, all of them. Stellar, really."
Perceval relaxed the sudden death grip he'd clamped around the arms of the chair. "I should have known immediately it had to be a Redgrave. Although I would have been less surprised was it Salt-wood himself. How the devil did you get in here?"
"I'm quite certain the earl sends his regards, or would, if he'd known his rascally brother planned to, as it were, drop in on you tonight. As to the how of it? A valid question from your vantage point, I'm sure," Valentine Redgrave said, putting down the tray and taking up the facing club chair, quite precisely crossing one well-shaped leg over the other, his long-fingered hands folded in his lap. After all, he was in evening clothes, and it wouldn't be polite to slouch, comfortable though he was in his surroundings. "But if I told you, I'd be reduced to begging your starchy under-secretary to allow me a private audience, as has been the case these past two weeks. Have you by any chance been ducking me?"
"Absolutely not," the prime minster declared, although seemingly unable to look Val directly in the eye as he said it. "I've been otherwise involved."
"As have we Redgraves, not that you seem interested in our progress."
"Our meaning your? Now, why do I doubt that? As it is, Lord Singleton will soon be reporting to me."
Remembering the nearly giddy communication sent to him from Redgrave Manor by his sister and tucked in with Simon Ravenbill's official report, Valentine only smiled. "My soon-to-be new brother is otherwise engaged, I'm afraid, and forward his apologies. Behold me, his trusted messenger."
Ah, now the prime minister was paying attention.
"Egads, you must be kidding. You Redgraves have managed to corrupt the Marquis of Singleton? I wouldn't have thought that possible."
"Most anything is within the realm of possibility, my lord, if one simply applies oneself. But it wasn't all of us. Just the one, the pretty one. I'll be honored to pass along the delightful news that you wish them happy. But now, if we've finished with this amicable yet hardly germane chitchat, shall we get down to cases? We've got serious business to discuss."
"I know that, you insolent puppy, but this is no way to go about it. You mean to tell me Ravenbill's so besotted he put nothing in writing for me?"
"Not knowing friend from foe, would you have done anything so potentially dangerous? No, of course you wouldn't," Val rejoined smoothly, as there wasn't a Redgrave born who didn't know how to speak the truth in order to avoid lying through his teeth. Their sister, Lady Katherine, had rather elevated clever evasion of the truth to an art form, actually. "It's all those sweet children, isn't it? They've turned your mind domestic tonight, when you should be attending to business. Quite understandable, really. Very well, I'll recap."
"You do that. And then I'll have you clapped in irons for daring to accost me in my home. We're agreed?"
"That seems only reasonable," Val said, getting to his feet. He looked quite presentable, sitting. But standing? Ah. Few were more impressive than a tall, dark-haired Redgrave, standing, be it Gideon, Earl of Saltwood, or any of his trio of younger siblings, including Kate! The English in them seemed to recede then, and the Spanish side of them came out to play, to remind all of their mother's fiery blood singing through their veins. Their mother, who had so disgraced the family as to shoot their father in the back in order to save her French lover on the dueling field. One couldn't be faulted if one imagined a pistol in Valentine's hand; after all, it was in the blood.
And then, in the space of ten even, silently counted heartbeats, Valentine bowed, as if to acknowledge the prime minister's power over a lowly creature such as himself. "I can but humbly submit to your command. Only do be so kind as to make certain the irons are clean. This is a new jacket, you understand."
"Bah," said the prime minister, clearly immune to both Valentine's physical presence and his nonsense. "Sit down, Redgrave. I'm not to be taken in like some raw schoolboy. You're as cooperative as a room full of cats. What have you and our unexpected Romeo discovered?"
"Not me. Oh, no, not me, just as you so cleverly surmised. I'm afraid I was busy elsewhere, on a mission having much more to do with the simpler pleasures in life."
"A woman. Perhaps severalan entire clutch of fair females. Your reputation precedes you, carefully constructed as it is, to cover your occasional work for some high-ranking government idiot who actually trusts you. But friend to that someone or not, a dank cell awaits you if you don't soon drop this charade and come to the point."
Ah. Spencer Perceval wasn't stupid, and he knew about Val's occasional service, even if he didn't know the man or the department. Hell's bells, he probably didn't know the department even existed. Such was the amount of secrecy these days, what with spies everywhere from the low to the high, working for either political belief or pay, it didn't much matter. But a too-interested Perceval was a dangerous Perceval, and to be avoided at all costs.
"A thousand apologies, I'm sure, but I find myself totally at sea. Me, working? I hardly think so. That was the answer you expected, wasn't it?" When the prime minister smiled at last, Val neatly split his coattails and seated himself once more, this time leaning his forearms on his strong thighs and clasping his hands together between his knees, his posture all business. "All right, then, now that we're through dancing about, fruitlessly hoping for ripe plums of information to drop out of each other's mouths, let's get to it. Thankfully, I do have some progress to report."
"Spencer, darling, I thought you'd be Oh. I didn't realize
Valentine rose immediately and took his handsome, ingratiating self across the width of the intimate room, to bow over the lady's nervously offered hand. "How very good to see you again, dear lady. I vow, it has been an age. Too long
yes, yes, indeed. Wherever has this brute been hiding you?"
That is, our two youngest were ill with the measles, and I didn't wish to Mr. Redgrave, you can release my hand now, for I've been married to this good gentleman long enough to know not to quiz you on why you're here. However, Spencer, if I might see you for a moment?"
Perceval was already beside her, and glaring at Valentine. "I'll return directly. In the meantime, Redgrave, sit yourself down againand for God's sake, don't touch anything."
Valentine managed to look crestfallen, abashed and wickedly amused, all at one and the same time. It was also an art, this ability of his to play many roles at once for his audience, and if his brilliance didn't impress the crusty prime minister, it still worked wonders with his lady wife, who scolded, "Spencer, that was rude."
"Yet, alas, dear lady, a verbal spanking well deserved," Val said, bowing once more.
He waited until the pair had adjourned to the hallway before helping himself to the wine he'd first offered the prime minister and re-taking his seat as ordered, planning to use this unexpected interlude to align his thoughts. There were things Perceval knew, things he could never know and things he needed to be told. It was all a matter of carefullykeeping to the fowl theme of the evening thus farlining up his ducks in their proper rows.
Valentine began with a mental listing of things the prime minister knew: The Redgraves had "stumbled over," as Gideon had so obliquely put it, the existence of a group within the government plotting to assist Bonaparte and help overthrow the Crown. As proof of his words, Gideon had handed over evidence supposedly found near Redgrave Manor that supplies meant for the king's troops massing on the Peninsula were about to be diverted elsewhere. Gideon also had given the man two names: Archie Upton and Lord Charles Mailer, both employed by the government. Upton was dead now, Mailer was being watched. Perceval was also gifted with an entire bag of moonshine about both men being part of a "secret society" possibly operating in the area, and the prime minister had assigned Simon Ravenbill to go to the estate to investigate.
Perceval knew there was more to it than that, must be wondering about the depth of the Redgrave involvement, but had prudently not asked. Yet.
Then there was what the prime minister could not be privy to: this particular secret society could be traced back to the time of Valentine's father and grandfather. A hellfire club with a carefully concealed history of attempted treason mixed in among the seemly mandatory satanic rites and naughty sexual antics so in vogue with such groups of powerful and ambitious men. Men who believed themselves both entitled to such pleasures and immune to discovery and scandal (until they were proven wrong, on both counts). The Redgraves wanted to help, not be thrown into prison as likely suspects!
Then there was the news Simon and Kate had sent to him, which had to be told: information, gold coin, spies and quite a bit of opium made the crossing between the beach at Redgrave Manor and France
or at least it had done until Simon and a band of unnamed local smugglers had put a stop to this traffic a scant two weeks ago.
Unfortunately, the prime minister would also have to be told the Redgraves had learned nothing more about the identities of the current members. No names, no other locations had been found. The Society had definitely used the estate, its caves and handy beach, but they hadn't left their mark there.
There was one name, that much was true: one Society member who had acted as leader of the smugglers. But as the captured man had chosen suicide over confession, his body quietly disposed of at sea, Valentine had decided Perceval didn't need to know of that small failure, or of Simon's dire warning: "A leader who can convince others to kill themselves in order to protect him is a deadly dangerous man surrounded by worshipful fanatics. Be alert at all times, strike first and, for God's sake, don't bother attempting to capture any of them alive. If you hesitate, you'll die, and Kate will be exceedingly out of humor with you."
An unlovely thought all-around, Valentine believed, excluding the leavening remark about his sister, and advice he'd committed to memory. Perceval would scoff at such dramatics, being the coolheaded logical Englishman to his core, but the fiery Spanish blood in Val's veins believed nothing impossible when it came to his fellow man.
As to the Redgraves themselves, their own family history? Ah, much had been learned there thanks to Val's brother Gideon, their sister, Kate, and Simon Ravenbill, and even the dowager countess, who'd had the misfortune to witness the first two incarnations of the Society.
But none of that more sordid history would ever be shared with the prime minister. It was certainly true that, because of that family history, the Redgraves were better armed to defeat the Society
but they were also more vulnerable to having that salacious history made public knowledge. That would never do!
And so, with the Crown's helpand, truthfully, preferably without itthe Redgraves would put a stop to the Society, for reasons both patriotic and personal.
Gideon had done his part, uncovering the existence of the Society in the first place, and Kate and Simon had put an end to the smuggling. Now, with their brother Maximillien on the Continent, tracking clues on that end, it was up to Valentine to take up the trail that, once followed, could destroy the Society forever, protect the Crown from the greedy Bonaparte, and tuck the scandalous Redgrave history away once and for all.
One, two, three. As simple as that. Three paths, three goals. Except they also were three giant steps, none of them easily taken, and with deadly pitfalls strewn along the way to trap the unwary.
With scarcely any solid clues to follow, the main purpose of Val's visit tonight was to dazzle Perceval with news of the smuggling and then quickly gather information about one thing that had been bothering him. Hopefully, Perceval would be so happy to see the back of him he'd give it to him.
And so it was a scant few minutes later, after feeding carefully selected information from columns one, two and three to the prime minister, that Valentine asked: "Who ordered the construction of more Martello Towers along the southern coast? There were to be no more, the threat of French invasion long past. And yet now, amazingly, more are popping up. Why? Is there something you haven't told us? For shame, sir, for shame, when my brother has been so exceedingly honest with you."
"Only a fool would believe that last statement.
Besides, I'm certain I was asking the questions," Perceval said smoothly.
Val sat back at his ease, crossing one leg over the other once more, his forearms resting lightly on the arms of the chair, indicating he was now in charge. They were both actors on a private stage, with nothing said or done without careful thought. Politics was a battle of sorts, fought with innuendo
and sometimes great fun, actually. "You were. Now, having been so marvelously cooperative, it's my turn. Quid prowhatever the rest of that is. I'm the second of two younger sons, and not expected to be brilliant."