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The Dowager Duchess of Charney's drawing room was noticeably cool on that morning in early January. Wind drifted in around the ill-fitting window frames and rustled the draperies. A sluggish fire smoldered in the grate, emitting more smoke than heat, till she felt some fear of being kippered alive. Though the duchess was bundled into a stout shawl, she was chilled to the marrow and was impatient, waiting for her guest to arrive.
"It seems to me that Belami might make some effort to be on time when he comes to visit his bride-to-be," she told her niece with a scowl from her close-set eyes. "I should never have allowed the match. I can't imagine what possessed me to do it after his behavior at Beaulac," she added, tugging at the ends of her shawl to block out an errant breeze.
"Now, Auntie, we've all been through that," her niece replied calmly. It was easy to be calm now that she was, indeed, betrothed to the only man she had ever loved. Nothing could dampen Miss Deirdre Gower's spirits. Not her mean-spirited chaperone, not the faded Mustard Saloon in which they sat, not the dreary view of snow turning to slush beyond the window, not even Dick's tardy arrival. "He could hardly tell the Prince Regent to hurry, as he has an appointment with his fiancée," she said to remind her aunt that Dick was late for such a royal reason.
It was quite an honor for Belami that the prince wished to consult with him on a personal matter, and the magical words Prince Regent always managed to bring a smile to the raddled countenance of the duchess. When she spoke again, however, her tone was irritable. "If it weren't that he is with the prince, Ishould bolt the door and not let him in."
Really, it was only impatience and curiosity that jangled her nerves so. She was on thorns to learn what scrape Prinney had fallen into that he required the services of Lord Belami, sometime investigator into criminal matters for his friends. Prinney had been settled down with Lady Hertford as his flirt anytime this past decade. As the lady's husband was entirely agreeable to the arrangement, it was unlikely that Lady Hertford was the cause of it. Blackmail, Belami had mentioned. After women and drink, spending inordinate sums of money was Prinney's little weakness. Had he borrowed privately and found himself unable to pay up? The cent-percenters might be nipping at his heels, threatening some dire revenge or revelation.
But Belami would fish him out of hot water. He had just rescued his own reputation and the duchess's diamond when the latter--and much more important in the lady's view--had been in jeopardy. A clever rascal, Belami, but she did not care for that proclivity for dabbling in criminal matters. After he rescued Prinney, whom she could not abandon in his hour of need, she must either persuade Belami from his avocation or persuade Deirdre from marrying Belami. Neither course would be easy. Her thin lips assumed the unnatural position of a smile to contemplate the challenge.
While the duchess schemed and Deirdre sat in a happy daze, dreaming of her honeymoon in Italy, Lord Belami was led through the sumptuous rooms and passages of Carlton House, the prince's London residence. The private chambers were situated at the back of the south side, to afford a view of St. James's Park and perhaps to necessitate passing through the rest of the house to admire such treats as the Blue Velvet Closet, the Crimson Drawing Room, the Chinese Parlour, and the Library. Belami bit his lip to control the wayward smile that wanted to peep out. Such vulgar opulence, with gold upon gold everywhere, quite overwhelmed him. His own preferred mode was understated elegance.
Colonel McMahon, the prince's private secretary, was Belami's guide. "You've met the prince, of course," McMahon said as they walked briskly along.
"Only at public gatherings," Belami replied. Though he would sooner have lost his hair than admit it, he was nervous.
"He's easily pleased. Pretend you're amazed with his banalities and he'll love you forever."
"Can you give me any idea what's troubling him?" Belami asked.
McMahon wore a worried frown. "Truth to tell, Belami, what's troubling him isn't what's troubling the rest of us. When he finishes discussing the blackmail with you, try if you can to urge him on to the subject of a certain Mr. Smythe. It won't be difficult," he added grimly.
"Who is Mr. Smythe?" Belami asked, already thinking it sounded like an alias.
"God only knows. Some American who turned up at Brighton and has been more or less added to the royal retinue, but in no official capacity as yet. It would be appreciated if you'd do a little looking into the fellow's background--see if you can learn who he is and what he's up to."
McMcMahon stopped at a pair of high, broad doors embellished with gilt and panels. A page in dark blue livery, trimmed in gold lace, opened the door, revealing the Prince Regent. His Royal Highness sat alone with a glass in his hand, smiling sadly into it. He had not yet dressed for the day. He wore a mauve silk dressing gown with an embroidered pocket and looked like an overaged, overweight satyr. He looked up and made a beckoning gesture with one graceful hand. Belami followed the colonel into the very hot chamber, wishing he had worn a summer jacket. It must be above ninety degrees, he thought.
"Kind of you to come, my dear Belami," the prince said in weary but cultivated accents. He made a sort of nominal motion of rising, but his corpulent body didn't actually leave the chair.
Though the prince was only in his early fifties, a life of indulgence had not been kind to his appearance. Despite, or perhaps because of, the various ointments and unguents he lavished on his face, it had assumed a waxy quality. His gray eyes were bleary and his chins sagged, to be caught up and concealed in the immaculate folds of a high neckcloth. He wore this device even with his dressing gown. His brown hair was artfully brushed forward to conceal time's ravages on the hairline.
"You may leave us now, McMahon," the prince said, motioning Belami to the chair beside him. A flick of the royal wrist sent the page boys hopping from the room, hastened forward by the colonel.
"How can I be of help, sir?" Belami asked.
The prince looked at the lean, young face before him and felt an awful pang of envy. Once he himself had been known as an Adonis. Really, Belami was not so much an Adonis as a Corsair, out of a poem by Lord Byron. There was a whiff of danger in those coffee-black eyes and of romance in the exaggeratedly long lashes that a girl might covet. It was a marvel how the skin sat so tightly against the classical bones of the lad's face. And he wore a fine jacket--Weston, of course--upon a fine set of shoulders. Damme, but time was a traitor.
"A mere trifle," the prince replied indolently. "McMahon feels it would be best handled by an objective third party whose discretion could be counted on, and he suggested you. Can I offer you a glass of wine?"
"Thank you," Belami said, accepting the glass. The warm, sweet Madeira being poured into it would do nothing to assuage the glaring heat of the room.
"It will involve a jaunt to Brighton," the prince continued.
Belami did not betray by so much as a blink that this was dismal news for him. He was newly engaged and wanted to be with his fiancée, wanted to get on with the marriage and to plan the honeymoon in Italy.
"You're welcome to stay at the Pavilion, if you wish," the prince added.
This was a rare favor, and one to be avoided at all costs. Belami dodged the invitation by saying, "What is to be handled at Brighton? McMahon mentioned blackmail...."
"That is a harsh word. Pressure, perhaps, is closer to the mark. There is a young lady who wishes to sell me certain objects of a personal nature. She has set an inflated price on them, as she appears to think she can exact a high sum from the newspapers," he said, his florid complexion deepening with anger or embarrassment.
"Letters, I take it?" Belami asked, showing no censure.
"A few notes written in a sentimental mood after a lonely spell in which I sought solace from a glass of wine," the prince explained. "I met the woman--Lady Gilham she calls herself--one afternoon at St. Ann's Well last autumn. My--better friends"--Belami quickly translated this into Lady Hertford--"were in London at the time, and the woman invited me to call upon her if I happened to be passing nearby. A man gets so desperately lonely," he said with a quick peep to see if he was eliciting sympathy. He saw none on the impassive face before him. The young were all brutal. Lady Gilham was brutal. Who would have thought that that sweet-faced chit would betray him?
"I quite understand, sir. All I shall require is the lady's address and your instructions. Do you wish to purchase the letters or have you something else in mind?" Pay, you fool! he said to himself and feared for a moment that he had said it aloud. The prince was looking at him oddly, with a dissatisfied expression. Belami felt he was doing well by wiping all emotion from his features, not knowing he was expected to simulate sympathy as well.
"She must be silenced. Five thousand pounds she's asking for the letters. Out of the question. See her and tell her one thousand is what she'll get, not a penny more. There's nothing salacious in them, Belami. Nothing of the sort. I believed at the time she was a lady and was very proper," he said earnestly.
"Five thousand does seem very high," Belami agreed, frowning. "There must be something incriminating if the newspapers have offered her five thousand."