Lord Zachary Griffin lifted a glass of claret from a
passing footman. â€śFor Godâ€™s sake, hurry it up,â€ť he
muttered, gazing at the pair of dancers twirling halfway
across the room.
Thirty other couples swished about the
Tamberlake ballroom, but he scarcely noted them. Likewise
the half dozen single young ladies edging toward him along
the wall â€“ they occupied him only insofar as they kept him
on the move to stay ahead of the silk and lace-draped
Under normal circumstances he had no objection
to waltzing with pretty young chits; he enjoyed it, in
fact. However, the first order of business tonight was,
well, business. He could dance later.
Across the room his older brothers, Sebastian,
the Duke of Melbourne and Charlemagne, had also declined
to waltz. The pair of them were in deep conversation with
Lord Harvey, and were no doubt finalizing negotiations to
buy out the viscountâ€™s shares in their shipping business.
He wished them well, but just the thought of all the
damned numbers and percentages flying back and forth over
there made his head ache.
The waltz finally swirled to an end. Most of
the dancers headed back to their companions or toward the
refreshment table. The pair Zachary was after separated
in front of the chocolate cremes. With a last glance at
his brothers, he moved in.
â€śGlad to see you still in London, Major,â€ť he
said, putting a hand on the gentlemanâ€™s red-clad shoulder.
John Tracey turned around. â€śZachary,â€ť he
returned with a smile, offering his hand.
Zachary shook it. â€śYou look well.â€ť
â€śIs there a reason I shouldnâ€™t? Other than
your sister deciding she didnâ€™t want to marry me, that is.â€ť
â€śNone of us expected that,â€ť Zachary returned,
his own smile tightening. Damn Nell. He didnâ€™t need any
complications tonight. â€śExcept perhaps for Melbourne, of
course. He tends to know everything.â€ť
â€śHe might have let me know then, that Lady
Eleanor meant to marry the Marquis of Deverill before he
asked if I wished to join the family.â€ť
Zachary shrugged, not entirely certain how
genuinely perturbed Major Lord John Tracey was by recent
As much of a handful as his sister Nell had turned out to
be, he wouldnâ€™t have wanted to be leg-shackled to
her. â€śShe eloped with Deverill. We even caught up to
them once, and they still got away from us. After that,
there wasnâ€™t much we could do. Valentine and Eleanor
together are rather unstoppable.â€ť
â€śSo I gathered. What can I do for you, then?
It canâ€™t be marriage again. You donâ€™t have any other
female siblings to send in my direction, and Melbourneâ€™s
daughter is what, eight?â€ť
â€śPeep is six,â€ť Zachary returned. â€śActually, I
have a favor to ask of you.â€ť
With a deep breath Zachary stepped off the
cliff. â€śI intend to join a regiment and head for the
Peninsula with Wellington.â€ť
The major laughed. â€śOh, thatâ€™s . . .â€ť He
trailed off. â€śYouâ€™re serious.â€ť
â€śOf course Iâ€™m serious.â€ť Damn it all, nobody
believed him. Hence this secret conversation out of the
Duke of Melbourneâ€™s hearing. The laughter and teasing
from his family members was becoming bloody tiresome.
â€śMy apologies, then,â€ť Tracey said. â€śBut
Zachary, you do realize that once you join the army you
canâ€™t simply change your mind. Not without some dire
â€śIâ€™m aware of that,â€ť he returned, ignoring the
insult to his resolve. â€śIâ€™m not asking whether you think
I should join the army. Iâ€™m asking which regiment would
give me the best opportunity to see action. I donâ€™t
intend to end up in charge of lugging whiskey barrels
somewhere twenty miles behind the front lines.â€ť
â€śYou want my regiment, then. The 45th Foot,â€ť
the major answered promptly. â€śAnd if youâ€™re serious, Iâ€™d
be happy to put in a word with Major-General Picton.
Not that you need much of a recommendation with your
familyâ€™s name and reputation.â€ť
â€śI would appreciate if you would speak with
the general,â€ť Zachary said, otherwise ignoring the
familiar compliment to his family. As far as he was
concerned, he had the important qualities â€“ skill with a
weapon, and the desire to excel. But if money qualified
someone to be a competent soldier, well, he had that,
too. â€śIf you could arrange an introduction, I would be in
â€śIf you promise never to mention my name and
marriage in the same sentence again, I would consider us
Tracey said, smiling again.
Out of the corner of his eye Zachary noticed
the meeting breaking up across the room. He shook
Traceyâ€™s hand again. â€śThatâ€™s a promise. And my thanks.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll send word when I can arrange a meeting.
The general and I are both returning to Spain in another
fortnight, so itâ€™ll be soon.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll be waiting.â€ť
As the two of them parted, Zachary caught
Melbourne gazing at him. Favoring the duke with a lifted
eyebrow, he went to find a dance partner. Whether his
family in general, and his oldest brother in particular,
had decided to take him seriously or not, he was going to
decide his own future. And tonight heâ€™d taken a large
step in that direction â€“ which meant that now he could
find a chit and enjoy himself.
The next morning Zachary sat at the breakfast
table to read the missive Major Tracey had sent over. It
seemed Major-General Thomas Picton would be very
interested in adding a Griffin to his staff, and that both
men would be dining at Whiteâ€™s for luncheon.
Folding the note and sliding it into his pocket, he turned
his attention to the slightly wrinkled copy of The London
Times which waited for him. From its condition, either
Shay or Melbourne had had a tea mishap earlier. He would
wager it had been Charlemagne.
According to the latest printed reports,
Eleanor and Valentine were enjoying their honeymoon in
Nellâ€™s latest letter said the same thing, but he always
found it interesting to hear about the Griffin clanâ€™s
exploits from an outside perspective.
â€śGood morning, Uncle Zachary,â€ť six-year-old
Penelope said as she pranced into the breakfast room.
â€śHello, Peep.â€ť He leaned sideways to plant a
kiss on her cheek. â€śNell and Valentine went for a gondola
ride last week.â€ť
With the butlerâ€™s assistance Peep selected her
breakfast from the sideboard and plunked herself down at
the table beside him. â€śIâ€™m going to go to Venice.
You may come with me if you want to.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m meeting someone for luncheon at Whiteâ€™s
he countered, hiding a grin, â€śbut Iâ€™m available tomorrow.â€ť
â€śNot now,â€ť she protested, rolling her pretty
gray eyes at him. â€śWhen I grow up.â€ť
â€śOh. Iâ€™ll be available then, of course.â€ť
â€śGood.â€ť She bit into a peach. â€śBecause I
think Papa and Uncle Shay might be too strict.â€ť
â€śAnd I wonâ€™t be?â€ť
â€śUncle Zachary, you let me taste your glass of
Wonderful. â€śWe arenâ€™t ever going to mention
that again, remember?â€ť
â€śI forgot.â€ť She smiled, carefree and fearless
as only six-year-olds could be. â€śPapaâ€™s taking me riding
this morning on Buttercup. You may join us, if youâ€™d
Before he could decline, Peepâ€™s father
strolled into the room. Sebastian, the Duke of Melbourne,
looked like precisely what he was â€“ at age thirty-four one
of the most powerful, influential men in England, and the
head of a famously distinguished family. What he didnâ€™t
look like was a man dressed for going riding.
â€śI was beginning to wonder whether either of
you were going to appear at all today,â€ť Melbourne drawled,
moving around the table to kiss his daughter.
â€śLate night,â€ť Zachary said, declining to
mention in whose company it had ended. The waltz was only
one of Lady Amelia Bradleyâ€™s talents.
â€śI had to dress Mrs. Hooligan.â€ť Peep looked
up at her father. â€śShe wants to go riding, too.â€ť
The duke tugged one of her dark, curling
â€śMy apologies, Peep, but Iâ€™ve been called to Carlton
Penelope bounced in her seat. â€śAre you going
to see Prinny?â€ť
â€śI imagine so.â€ť Melbourne
straightened. â€śPerhaps Uncle Zachary will take you and
your doll out riding.â€ť
Zachary stifled a scowl. â€śWhat about Uncle
The dukeâ€™s gaze slid over to him. â€śShay would
suffice, Iâ€™m sure,â€ť he continued in the same easy
tone. â€śDid you have something else planned?â€ť
â€śHeâ€™s going to luncheon at Whiteâ€™s,â€ť Peep
supplied, starting on her honey and toast.
â€śReally.â€ť Melbourne nodded, turning for the
hall door. â€śThat reminds me. Do you have a moment,
Reminding himself that while Eleanor swore
their eldest brother could read minds, it had never been
proven, Zachary nodded and rose. â€śLeave my strawberries
be, Peep,â€ť he warned his niece, hearing her responding
giggle as he left the breakfast room.
Melbourne led the way into his office. Hm.
An office chat was never a good thing. Zachary headed for
the window; he wasnâ€™t going to sit in one of the â€śvictim
chairsâ€ť as he and his siblings called them, whatever the
duke had in mind.
The door clicked shut behind him. â€śI have a
task for you,â€ť Melbourne said.
â€śIâ€™ll take Peep riding tomorrow,â€ť Zachary
â€śAs I told her, I have a few obligations today.â€ť
The duke took a seat behind his massive
mahogany desk. Zachary kept his gaze out the window at
the Griffin House garden, reminding himself that however
much power Melbourne had over the rest of the world he was
still just an older brother.
â€śI donâ€™t care about your luncheon,â€ť his
brother returned dismissively. â€śAs I said, Shay can
escort Peep. I wanted to discuss a family matter.â€ť
That didnâ€™t sound too ominous. Nobody had
strayed from the well-delineated Griffin boundaries
lately â€“ not since Nell and Valentine had made their much-
reported run to Scotland. And Melbourne had somehow
managed to turn even that into a pre-approved romantic
escapade by the time the newspapers got hold of it.
Zachary turned around, leaning a haunch against the deep
window sill. â€śDiscuss away, then.â€ť
â€śAunt Tremaine has asked me to provide an
escort for her.â€ť
â€śShe wants to go to the races at Derby again,
doesnâ€™t she?â€ť Zachary cracked a grin. â€śThe last time she
â€ťHer gout is acting up,â€ť Melbourne cut
in. â€śShe wants to take the waters at Bath, probably for
the remainder of the Season. I told her that you would be
happy to accompany her.â€ť
Zachary took a moment to absorb that, though
his mouth had already formed an answer. â€śNo.â€ť
â€śI beg yourâ€“â€ś
â€ťSend Charlemagne. I have plans.â€ť
â€śI need Shay in Brighton to finalize the
purchase of another half dozen cargo ships. And you never
â€śI do now.â€ť
Melbourne sat back in his chair. â€śCare to
enlighten me about them?â€ť
â€śI did enlighten you,â€ť Zachary retorted,
trying to keep his voice level. He didnâ€™t need to fight
about it; heâ€™d already made his decision. â€śYou just chose
not to take me seriously.â€ť
For a long moment the room remained so quiet
that he could hear Peep chatting with the butler down the
hall. The duke didnâ€™t move, but Zachary knew Sebastian
was running past conversations through his mind,
calculating responses, deciding how to enter the
discussion at an angle that would give him the greatest
advantage. There was a reason Zachary never played chess
with Melbourne; he never won. Ever. But this wasnâ€™t
chess. This was his future. And as long as he remained
resolved, he couldnâ€™t lose.
â€śTell me then,â€ť the duke finally said, â€śwhy
you have the sudden urge to join the army.â€ť
So he had been paying attention. â€śItâ€™s not
Iâ€™ve been thinking about it for some time. I tried to
discuss it with you a month ago, and you werenâ€™t
â€śIâ€™m interested now.â€ť
â€śI thought you had a meeting at Carlton House.â€ť
â€śZachary, I donâ€™t want you to join the army.â€ť
Resisting the urge to shoot to his feet,
Zachary settled deeper into the window. â€śWhat do you want
me to do then? Chaperone Nell at parties? Wait, sheâ€™s
married now. Iâ€™m not needed for that, any longer.
Which leaves me with escorting Peep to her tea parties, I
suppose, and Aunt Tremaine on made-up journeys.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s not made up. And there are alwaysâ€“â€ś
â€ťBusiness concerns? Thatâ€™s you and Shay.
and selling things for no discernable reason makes me want
to lock myself up in Bedlam, anyway.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m certain thereâ€™s something youâ€™d enjâ€“â€ś
â€ťYou enjoy doing that,â€ť Zachary interrupted
again, willing his oldest brother to understand his
frustration. â€śYou and Shay. I donâ€™t. I want something
else. I want some damned responsibility, Sebastian. And
if some excitement and some glory comes with it, so much
The butler scratched at the door. â€śYour
â€śWhat is it, Stanton?â€ť Melbourne called,
irritation edging his voice.
â€śThe coach is ready, Your Grace.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll be there in a moment.â€ť
Zachary straightened, pushing away from the
â€śI believe weâ€™ll have to finish this conversation later,
then,â€ť he said, taking Melbourneâ€™s usual parting line.
And after luncheon with Major-General Picton, heâ€™d have
considerably more ammunition â€“ and perhaps even a
â€śWeâ€™ll finish it now.â€ť
â€ťNo, now itâ€™s my turn,â€ť Melbourne countered
â€śWhat about when you were going to take your orders?â€ť
Zachary frowned. â€śI never really wanted to
join the priesthood. Thatâ€“â€ś
â€ťThatâ€™s why that scheme only lasted a week.
And then there was training race horses.â€ť
â€śThat is not fair, Sâ€“â€ś
â€ťYou sold off your interest in that after two
months,â€ť his brother cut in again. â€śWhat about taking up
Straightening, Zachary aimed a finger at his
â€śThat was your fault. Bromley Hall is the least
significant property you own. It was dull as damned door
knockers there, Seb.â€ť
â€śThe irrigation channel was a good idea â€“ or
it would have been, if youâ€™d finished it.â€ť
â€śSo Iâ€™m useless. Is that what youâ€™re saying?â€ť
â€śIâ€™m saying you have no patience for
anything. If it immediately satisfies your requirements
then youâ€™re done with it. If itâ€™s something that takes
work, you lose interest. So if you want responsibility,
get a dog. If youâ€™re bored, take up painting. You donâ€™t
need to parade about the Peninsula in a bright red uniform
so some bloody Frenchman can blow a hole in you.â€ť
â€śThank you very much for your faith in my
stupidity and utter incompetence.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s not a lack of intelligence, but you know
how you are,â€ť Melbourne countered. â€śAnd a lack of
patience wouldnâ€™t serve you in the army, either. You
arenâ€™t going to buy a commission, Zachary. I wonâ€™t permit
it, and you know I can prevent it.â€ť
Zachary glared at him, his jaw clenched so
tightly the muscles trembled. â€śIâ€™m a third-born son in a
noble family, Seb. My opportunitiesâ€“â€ś
â€ťAre more than sufficient, if you would make a
choice and abide by it.â€ť
â€śI have made a choice. Thank you for the
Turning on his heel, he strode for the office door.
â€ťI what, Sebastian? Weâ€™re at an impasse. And
while you might have the ability to prevent a Griffin from
joining the military, I can pretend to be someone else.â€ť
He stopped, taking a breath and hoping he hadnâ€™t just
foiled his own plans. He really needed to learn when to
stay silent and just leave the room. â€śI know what youâ€™re
afraid of,â€ť he continued anyway.
â€śAnd Iâ€™m sorry Charlotte died. I know how much you loved
her. But youâ€“â€ś
Melbourne shoved to his feet with enough force
that his chair went over backwards. â€śEnough!â€ť he roared.
â€śMy wife has nothing to do with this.â€ť
â€śShe has everythâ€“â€ś
â€śYou will escort Aunt Tremaine to Bath,â€ť
Melbourne snapped, his gray eyes glinting with barely-
suppressed anger. â€śWhen you return and if you have proven
to me in the meantime that you can show some patience and
restraint and a reasonable level of responsibility, and if
youâ€™re still determined to join the army, we will continue
Zachary took a deep breath. Christ. As usual
heâ€™d gotten angry and said the wrong thing, and now that
Melbourne had handed down his proclamation, he couldnâ€™t
take it back. â€śI apologize, Sebastian,â€ť he said anyway.
â€śDonâ€™t.â€ť His oldest brother strode to the
door and back, obviously in an attempt to regain his
usually even temper. That in itself was unusual;
Melbourne rarely let anyone see him out of countenance.
â€śAll I meant to say was that you canâ€™t keep
all of us safe in glass cabinets and expect us not to try
to get out,â€ť Zachary said more quietly.
â€śI suggest you go pack a trunk,â€ť Melbourne
returned in the cool voice his siblings dreaded hearing.
â€śYouâ€™re leaving in an hour.â€ť
â€śVery well. One day though, Melbourne, youâ€™re
going to give one order too many, and youâ€™ll find that all
of your troops have deserted.â€ť
Damn it all. They both knew that the threat
was empty, but at least his brother didnâ€™t laugh at him.
He had his own generous monthly income, but it had all
been set up by Melbourne. If he pushed too hard, the duke
could simply cut the purse strings â€“ which would ensure
that his next career choice would be the one he stayed