Bastion Club Prologue
(From the LADY CHOSEN)
The Pavilion, Brighton
"His Royal Highness's straits must be dire indeed if he needs must summon His Britannic Majesty's best simply to bask in the reflected glory."
The drawled comment contained more than a little cynicism; Tristan Wemyss, fourth Earl of Trentham, glanced across the stuffy music room, packed with guests, sycophants and all manner of toadies, at its subject.
Prinny stood in the center of a circle of admirers. Decked out in gold braid and crimson, with epaulets high and fully fringed, their Regent was in genial and expansive good humor, retelling heroic tales of derring-do drawn from the dispatches of recent engagements, most notably that of Waterloo.
Both Tristan and the gentleman standing beside him, Christian Allardyce, Marquess of Dearne, knew the real stories; they had been there. Easing free of the throng, they'd retreated to the side of the opulent chamber to avoid hearing the artful lies.
It was Christian who'd spoken.
"Actually," Tristan murmured, "I'd viewed tonight more in the nature of a distraction--a feint, if you will."
Christian raised heavy brows. "Listen to my stories of England's greatness--don't worry that the Exchequer's empty and the people are starving?"
Tristan's lips quirked downward. "Something like that."
Dismissing Prinny and his court, Christian surveyed the others crowding the circular room. It was an all male company primarily composed of representatives from every major regiment and arm of the services recently active; the chamber was a sea of colorful dress uniforms, of braid, polished leather, fur and even feathers. "Telling that he chose to stage what amounts to a victory reception in Brighton rather than London, don't you think? I wonder if Dalziel had any say in that?"
"From all I've gathered, our Prince is no favorite in London, but it seems our erstwhile commander has taken no chances with those names he volunteered for the guest list tonight."
They were talking quietly, out of habit disguising their communication as nothing more than a social exchange between acquaintances. Habit died hard, especially since, until recently, such practises had been vital to staying alive.
Tristan smiled vaguely, indeed through a gentleman who glanced their way; the man decided against intruding. "I saw Deverell at the table--he was seated not far from me. He mentioned that Warnefleet and St. Austell were here, too."
"You can add Tregarth and Blake--I saw them as I was arriving--" Christian broke off. "Ah, I see. Dalziel has only allowed those of us who have sold out to appear?"
Tristan caught his eye; the smile that was never far from his mobile lips deepened. "Can you imagine Dalziel allowing even Prinny to identify his most secret of secret operatives?"
Christian hid a smile, raised his glass to his lips and sipped.
Dalziel--he went by no other name or honorific--was the Foreign Office taskmaster who, from his office buried in the depths of Whitehall, managed His British Majesty's foreign spy network, a network that had been instrumental in handing victory to England and her allies both in the Peninsula campaign and more recently at Waterloo. Together with a certain Lord Whitley, his opposite number in the Home Office, Dalziel was responsible for all covert operations both within England and beyond its borders.
"I didn't realize Tregarth or Blake were in the same boat as we two, and I know of the others only by repute." Christian glanced at Tristan. "Are you sure the others are leaving?"
"I know Warnefleet and Blake are, for much the same reasons as we. As for the others, it's purely conjecture but I can't see Dalziel compromising an operative of St. Austell's caliber, or Tregarth's or Deverell's for that matter, just to pander to Prinny's latest whim."
"True." Christian again looked out over the sea of heads.
Both he and Tristan were tall, broad-shouldered and lean, with the honed strength of men used to action, a strength imperfectly concealed by the elegant cut of their evening clothes. Beneath those clothes, both bore the scars of years of active service; although their nails were perfectly manicured, it would be some months yet before the telltale signs of their unusual, often ungentlemanly erstwhile occupation faded from their hands--the callouses, the roughness, the leatherlike palms.
They and their five colleagues known to be present had all served Dalziel and their country for at least a decade, Christian for nearly fifteen years. They'd served in whatever guise had been required, from nobleman to streetsweeper, from clerk to navvy. There had, for them, been only one measure of success--discovering the information they'd been sent behind enemy lines to acquire, and surviving long enough to get it back to Dalziel.
Christian sighed, drained his glass. "I'm going to miss it."
Tristan's laugh was short. "Aren't we all?"
"Be that as it may, given that we're no longer on His Majesty's payroll"--Christian set his empty glass down on a nearby sideboard--"I fail to see why we need stand here talking, when we could be much more comfortable doing the same elsewhere..." His grey gaze met the eyes of a gentleman clearly considering approaching; the gentleman considered again and turned away. "And without running the risk of having to do the pretty for whichever toady captures us and demands to hear our story."
Glancing at Tristan, Christian raised a brow. "What say you--shall we adjourn to pleasanter surrounds?"
"By all means." Tristan handed his empty glass to a passing footman. "Do you have any particular venue in mind?"
"I've always been partial to the Ship and Anchor. It has a very cosy snug."
Tristan inclined his head. "The Ship and Anchor, then. Dare we leave together, do you think?"
Christian's lips curved. "Heads together, talking earnestly in hushed and urgent tones--if we make for the door unobtrusively but determinedly, I can see no reason we shouldn't walk straight through."
* * *
They did. Everyone who saw them assumed one had been sent to summon the other for some secret but highly significant purpose; the footmen rushed to get their coats, and then they strode out, into the crisp night.
Both paused, drew in a deep breath, clearing the stultifying stuffiness of the overheated Pavilion from their lungs, then, exchanging faint smiles, they stepped out.
Leaving the Pavilion's brightly lit entrance, they emerged onto North Street. Turning right, they walked with the relaxed gait of men who knew where they were going toward Brighton Square and the Lanes beyond. Reaching the narrow cobbled ways lined with fishermen's cottages, they dropped into single file, at every crossroads changing place, eyes always watching, searching the shadows...if either realized, realized they were now at home, at peace, no longer fugitives, no longer at war, neither commented nor tried to suppress the behavior that had become second nature to them both.
They headed steadily south, toward the sound of the sea, soughing in the darkness beyond the shore. Finally, they turned into Black Lion Street. At the end of the street lay the Channel, the border beyond which they'd lived most of the past decade. Halting beneath the swaying sign of the Ship and Anchor, they both paused, eyes on the darkness framed by the houses at the end of the street. The smell of the sea, the brine on the wind, the familiar tang of seaweed reached them.
Memory held them both for an instant, then, as one, they turned. Christian pushed open the door and they went inside.
Warmth enveloped them, the sounds of English voices, the hop-infused scent of good English ale. Both relaxed, an indefinable tension falling from them. Christian walked up to the bar. "Two pots of your best."
The landlord nodded a greeting and quickly pulled the pints.
Christian glanced at the halfclosed door behind the bar. "We'll sit in your snug."
The landlord glanced at him, then set the frothing tankards on the bar. He shot a quick glance at the snug door. "As to that, sir, you're welcome, I'm sure, but there's a group o' gen'lemen in there already, and they might not welcome strangers, like."
Christian raised his brows. He reached for the flap in the counter and lifted it, stepping past as he picked up one tankard. "We'll risk it."
Tristan hid a grin, tossed coins on the counter for the ale, hoisted the second tankard, and followed on Christian's heels.
He was standing at Christian's shoulder when Christian sent the snug door swinging wide.
The group gathered about two tables pushed together looked around; five pairs of eyes locked on them.
Five grins dawned.
Charles St. Austell sat back in the chair at the far end of the table and magnanimously waved them in. "You are better men than we. We were about to take bets on how long you'd stand it."
* * *
The others stood so the tables and chairs could be rearranged. Tristan shut the door, set down his tankard, then joined in the round of introductions.
Although they'd all served under Dalziel, they'd never met all seven together. Each knew some of the others; none had previously met all.
Christian Allardyce, the eldest and longest serving, had operated in the east of France, often in Switzerland, Germany and the other smaller states and principalities; with his fairish coloring and facility for languages, he'd been a natural in that sphere.
Tristan himself had served more generally, often in the heart of things, in Paris and the major industrial cities; his fluency in French as well as German and Italian, his brown hair, brown eyes and easy charm, had served him and his country well.
He'd never crossed paths with Charles St. Austell, the most outwardly flamboyant of the group. With his tumbling black locks and flashing dark blue eyes, Charles was a magnet for ladies young and old. Half-French, he possessed both the tongue and the wit to make the most of his physical attributes; he'd been Dalziel's principal operative in the south of France, in Carcasonne and Toulouse.
Gervase Tregarth, a Cornishman with curling brown hair and sharp hazel eyes, had, so Tristan learned, spent much of the last decade in Britanny and Normandy. He knew St. Austell from the past, but in the field they'd never met.
Tony Blake was another scion of an English house who was also half-French. Black-haired, black-eyed, he was the most elegant of the group, yet there was an underlying sharpness beneath the smooth veneer; he was the operative Dalziel had most often used to intercept and interfere with the French spymasters' networks, a hideously dangerous undertaking centered on the northern French ports. That Tony was alive was a testament to his mettle.
Jack Warnefleet was outwardly a conundrum; he appeared so overtly English, startlingly handsome with fairish brown hair and hazel eyes, that it was hard to imagine he'd been consistently successful in infiltrating all levels of French shipping and many business deals as well. He was a chamelon even more than the rest of them, with a cheery, hail-fellow-well-met geniality few saw beyond.
Deverell was the last man Tristan shook hands with, a personable gentleman with an easy smile, dark brown hair and greenish eyes. Despite being uncommonly handsome he possessed the knack of blending in with any group. He had served almost exclusively in Paris, and had never been detected.
The introductions complete, they sat. The snug was now comfortably full; a fire burned cheerily in one corner as in the flickering light they settled about the table, almost shoulder to shoulder.
They were all large men; they had all at some point been guardsmen in one regiment or another, until Dalziel had found them and lured them into serving through his office.
Not that he'd had to persuade all that hard.
Savoring his first sip of ale, Tristan ran his eye around the table. Outwardly, they were all different, yet they were, very definitely, brothers beneath the skin. Each was a gentleman born of some aristocratic lineage, each possessed similar attributes, abilities and talents although the relative balance differed. Most importantly, however, each was a man capable of dicing with danger, one who would accept the challenge of a life and death engagement without a flicker-more, with an inbred confidence and a certain devil-may-care arrogance.
There was more than a touch of the wild adventurer in each of them. And they were loyal to the bone.
Deverell set down his tankard. "Is it true we've all sold out?" There were nods and glances all around; Deverell grinned. "Is it polite to inquire why?" He looked at Christian. "In your case, I assume Allardyce must now become Dearne?"
Wryly, Christian inclined his head. "Indeed. Once my father died and I came into the title, any choice evaporated. If it hadn't been for Waterloo, I would already be mired in issues pertaining to sheep and cattle, and no doubt leg-shackled to boot."
His tone, faintly disgusted, brought commisserating smiles to the others' faces.
"That sounds all too familiar." Charles St. Austell looked down the table. "I hadn't expected to inherit, but while I was away, both my elder brothers failed me." He grimaced. "So now I'm the Earl of Lostwithiel and, so my sisters, sisters-in-law and dear mother constantly remind me, long overdue at the altar."
Jack Warnefleet laughed, not exactly humorously. "Entirely unexpectedly, I've joined the club, too. The title was expected--it was the pater's--but the houses and the blunt came via a great-aunt I barely knew existed, so now, I've been told, I rank high on the list of eligibles and can expect to be hunted until I surrender and take a wife."
"Moi, aussi." Gervase Tregarth nodded to Jack. "In my case it was a cousin who succumbed to consumption and died ridiculously young, so now I'm the Earl of Crowhurst, with a house in London I haven't even seen and a need, so I've been informed, to get myself a wife and heir, given I'm now the last of the line."
Tony Blake made a dismissive sound. "At least you don't have a French mother--believe me, when it comes to hounding one to the altar, they take the cake."
"I'll drink to that." Charles raised his tankard to Tony. "But does that mean you, too, have returned to these shores to discover yourself encumbered?"
Tony wrinkled his nose. "Courtesy of my father, I've become Viscount Torrington--I'd hoped it would be years yet, but..." He shrugged. "What I didn't know was that over the past decade the pater had taken an interest in various investments. I'd expected to inherit a decent livelihood -- I hadn't expected to succeed to great wealth. And then I discover the entire ton knows it. On my way down here I stopped briefly in town to call on my godmother." He shuddered. "I was nearly mobbed. It was horrendous."
"It's because we lost so many at Waterloo." Deverell gazed into his tankard; they were all silent for a moment, remembering lost comrades, then all lifted their cups and drank.
"I have to confess I'm in much the same straits." Deverell set down his tankard. "I'd no expectations when I left England, only to discover on my return that some distant cousin twice removed had turned up his toes, and I'm now Viscount Paignton, with the houses, the income--and just like you all, the dire need of a wife. I can manage the land and funds, but the houses, let alone the social obligations--they're a web far worse than any French plot."
"And the consequences of failing could drive you to your grave," St. Austell put in.
There were dark murmurs of assent all around. All eyes turned to Tristan.
He smiled. "That's quite a litany, but I fear I can trump all your tales." He looked down, turning his tankard between his hands. "I, too, returned to find myself encumbered--with a title, two houses and a hunting box, and considerable wealth. However, both houses are home to an assortment of females, great-aunts, cousins and other more distant connections. I inherited from my great-uncle, the recently departed third Earl of Trentham, who loathed his brother--my grandfather--and also my late father, and me.
"His argument was we were wastrel-ne'er-do-wells who came and went as we pleased, traveled the world, and so on. In all fairness, I must say that now I've met my great-aunts and their female army, I can see the old boy's point. He must have felt trapped by his position, sentenced to live his life surrounded by a tribe of doting, meddling females."
A frisson, a shudder, ran around the table.
Tristan's expression grew grim. "Consequently, when his own son's son died, and then his son as well, and he realized I would inherit from him, he devised a devilish clause to his will. I've inherited title, land and houses, and wealth for a year--but if I fail to marry within that year, I'll be left with the title, the land and the houses--all that's entailed--but the bulk of the wealth, the funds needed to run the houses, will be given to various charities."
There was silence, then Jack Warnefleet asked, "What would happen to the horde of old ladies?"
Tristan looked up, eyes narrow. "That's the devilish heart of it--they'd remain my pensioners, in my houses. There's nowhere else for them to go, and I could hardly turf them into the streets."
All the others stared at him, appreciation of his predicament dawning in their faces.
"That's a dastardly thing to do." Gervase paused, then asked, "When's your year up?"
"So you've got next Season to make your choice." Charles set his tankard down and pushed it away. "We're all in large measure in the same boat. If I don't find a wife by then, my sisters, sisters-in-law and dear mother will drive me demented."
"It's not going to be plain sailing, I warn you." Tony Blake glanced around the table. "After escaping from my godmother's, I sought refuge in Boodles." He shook his head. "Bad mistake. Within an hour, not one, but two gentlemen I'd never before met approached and asked me to dinner!"
"Set on in your club?" Jack voiced their communal shock.
Grimly, Tony nodded. "And there was worse. I called in at the house and discovered a pile of invitations, literally a foot high. The butler said they'd started arriving the day after I'd sent word I'd be down--I'd warned my godmother I might drop in."
Silence fell as they all digested that, extrapolated, considered...
Christian leaned forward. "Who else has been up to town?"
All the others shook their heads. They'd only recently returned to England and had gone straight to their estates.
"Very well," Christian continued. "Does this mean that when next we each show our faces in town, we'll be hounded like Tony?"
They all imagined it....
"Actually," Deverell said, "it's likely to be much worse. A lot of families are in mourning at the moment--even if they're in town, they won't be going about. The numbers calling should be down."
They all looked at Tony, who shook his head. "Don't know--I didn't wait to find out."
"But as Deverell says, it must be so." Gervase's face hardened. "But such mourning will end in good time for next Season, then the harpies will be out and about, looking for victims, more desperate and even more determined."
"Hell!" Charles spoke for them all. "We're going to be"--he gestured--"precisely the sort of targets we've spent the last decade not being."
Christian nodded, serious, sober. "In a different theater, maybe, but it's still a form of war, the way the ladies of the ton play the game."
Shaking his head, Tristan sat back in his chair. "It's a sad day when, having survived everything the French could throw at us, we, England's heroes, return home--only to face an even greater threat."
"A threat to our futures like none other, and one we haven't, thanks to our devotion to king and country, as much experience in facing as many a younger man," Jack added.
"You know..." Charles St. Austell poked his tankard in circles. "We've faced worse before, and won." He looked up, glanced around. "We're all much of an age--there's what? Five years between us? We're all facing a similar threat, and have a similar goal in mind, for similar reasons. Why not band together--help each other?"
"One for all and all for one?" Gervase asked.
"Why not?" Charles glanced around again. "We're experienced enough in strategy--surely we can, and should, approach this like any other engagement."
Jack sat up. "It's not as if we'd be in competition with each other." He, too, glanced around, meeting everyone's eyes. "We're all alike to some degree, but we're all different, too, all from different families, different counties, and there's not too few ladies but too many vying for our attentions--that's our problem."
"I think it's an excellent idea." Leaning his forearms on the table, Christian looked at Charles, then at the others. "We all have to wed. I don't know about you, but I'll fight to the last gasp to retain control of my destiny. I will chose my wife--I will not have her foisted, by whatever means, upon me. Thanks to Tony's fortuitous reconnoitering, we now know the enemy will be waiting, ready to pounce the instant we appear." He glanced around again. "So how are we going to seize the initiative?"
"The same way we always have," Tristan replied. "Information is key. We share what we learn--dispositions of the enemy, their habits, their preferred strategies."
Deverell nodded. "We share tactics that work, and warn of any perceived pitfalls."
"But what we need first, more than anything," Tony cut in, "is a safe refuge. It's always the first thing we put in place when going into enemy territory."
They all paused, considered.
Charles grimaced. "Before your news, I would have imagined our clubs, but that clearly won't do."
"No, and our houses are not safe for similar reasons." Jack frowned. "Tony's right--we need a refuge where we can be certain we're safe, where we can meet and exchange information." His brows rose. "Who knows? There might be times when it would be to our advantage to conceal our connections with each other, at least socially."
The others nodded, exchanging glances.
Christian put their thoughts into words. "We need a club of our own. Not to live in, although we might want a few bedchambers in case of need, but a club where we can meet, and from which we can plan and conduct our campaigns in safety without having to watch our backs."
"Not a bolthole," Charles mused. "More a castle..."
"A stronghold in the heart of enemy territory." Deverell nodded decisively. "Without it, we'll be too exposed."
"And we've been away too long," Gervase growled. "The harpies will fall on us and tie us down if we waltz into the ton unprepared. We've forgotten what it's like... if we ever truly knew."
It was a tacit acknowledgement that they were indeed sailing into unknown and therefore dangerous waters. Not one of them had spent any meaningful time in society after the age of twenty.
Christian looked around the table. "We have five full months before we need our refuge--if we have it established by the end of February, we'll be able to return to town and slip in past the pickets, disappear whenever we wish..."
"My estate's in Surrey." Tristan met the others' gazes. "If we can decide on what we want as our stronghold, I can slip into town and make the arrangements without creating any ripples."
Charles's eyes narrowed; his gaze grew distant. "Some place close to everywhere, but not too close."
"It needs to be in an area easily reachable, but not obvious." Deverell tapped the table in thought. "The fewer in the neighborhood who recognize us the better."
"A house, perhaps..."
They tossed around their requirements, and quickly agreed that a house in one of the quieter areas outside but close to Mayfair yet away from the heart of town would serve them best. A house with reception rooms and space enough for them all to congregate, with a room in which they could meet with ladies if necessary, but the rest of the house to be female-free, with at least three bedchambers in case of need, and kitchens and staff quarters--and a staff who understood their requirements...
"That's it." Jack slapped the table. "Here!" He grabbed up his tankard and raised it. "I give you Prinny and his unpopularity--if it weren't for him, we wouldn't be here today, and wouldn't have had the opportunity to make all our futures that much safer."
With wide grins, they all drank, then Charles pushed back his chair, rose and lifted his tankard. "Gentlemen--I give you our club! Our last bastion against the matchmakers of the ton, our secured base from which we'll infiltrate, identify and isolate the lady we each want, then take the ton by storm and capture her!"
The others cheered, thumped the table, and rose.
Charles inclined his head to Christian. "I give you the bastion which will allow us to take charge of our destinies and rule our own hearths. Gentlemen!" Charles raised his tankard high. "I give you the Bastion Club!"
They all roared their approval and drank.
And the Bastion Club was born.