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The Lady's Command

The Adventurers Quartet Volume 1
In E-book and print worldwide from MIRA Books
Mass-Market ISBN: 978-0-77-831861-3
Global e-book ISBN: 978-1-46-039188-4

 
 

How does marriage work? If convention is set aside and is no longer there to guide…what then?

#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens brings you THE ADVENTURERS QUARTET, a riveting blend of Regency-era high seas adventure, a mystery shrouded in the heat of tropical jungles, and the passionate romances of four couples and their unexpected journeys into love.

The instant Captain Declan Frobisher laid eyes on Lady Edwina Delbraith, he knew she was the lady he wanted as his wife. The scion of a seafaring dynasty accustomed to success, he discovered that wooing Edwina was surprisingly straightforward—not least because she made it plain that she wanted him as much as he wanted her.

Declan’s vision of marriage was of a gently-reared wife to grace his arm, to manage his household, and to bear his children. He assumed that household, children, and wife would remain safely in England while he continued his life as an explorer sailing the high seas.

Declan got his wish—up to a point. He and Edwina were wed. As for the rest—his vision of marriage…

Aunt of the young Duke of Ridgware and sister of the mysterious man known as Neville Roscoe, London’s gambling king, even before the knot was tied Edwina shattered the illusion that her character is as delicate, ethereal, and fragile as her appearance suggests. Far from adhering to orthodox mores, she and her ducal family are even more unconventional than the Frobishers.

Beneath her fairy-princess exterior, Edwina possesses a spine of steel—one that might bend, but will never break. Born to the purple—born to rule—she’s determined to rule her life. With Declan’s ring on her finger, that means forging a marriage that meets her needs as well as his.

But bare weeks into their honeymoon, Declan is required to sail to West Africa. Edwina decides she must accompany him.

A secret mission with unknown villains flings unexpected dangers into their path as Declan and Edwina discover that meeting the challenge of making an unconventional marriage work requires something they both possess—bold and adventurous hearts.

 THE LADY'S COMMAND is due to be released on December 29, 2015.

 
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What led you to dream up The Adventurer’s Quartet?

As always with me and my stories, it starts with characters – in this case, Lady Edwina née Delbraith, who appeared as a secondary character in The Lady Risks All, in which we learned a lot about her noble family and especially about the strength of its women. From that book, we knew Edwina was going to marry Frobisher, a seafaring adventurer. We didn’t know more, just that the wedding was coming up. So I started wondering what sort of marriage they would have – essentially what happened to Edwina. Which, of course, led to the question of who Frobisher was, what his family was like, what they did...and as they all turned out to be adventurers of sorts, and I’d wanted to do another quartet similar in feel to the adventure-romances of The Black Cobra Quartet, here was my chance. And so The Adventurers Quartet was born.

 

You’ve written an adventure romance quartet before - what draws you to the form?

Adventure-romances appeal to me – it’s the quintessential attraction of pirates, musketeers, buccaneers, privateers, smugglers, and so on – and in my mind adventure-romance is associated very strongly with the Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling movies of old. Also with more recent movies like the Indiana Jones series, and Romancing the Stone. While I occasionally have elements of adventure in my England-based romances, you really cannot deliver full-blown adventure-romance in such relatively tame(d) and civilized settings. The Black Cobra Quartet was my first foray into true historical adventure-romance – the four stories started in India, then ranged through the Middle East, northern Africa, and all of Europe, ultimately ending in England. With The Black Cobra Quartet, the four stories ran concurrently, each happening over much the same period of time, all ending in the same place at the same time. However, with The Adventurers Quartet, the four tales run one after another, much like a relay race to the end, with a single covert mission having to be run in four successive stages. Again, there’s a grand finale, and, yes, that occurs back in London, but much of the action takes place on the high seas, and in what was then British West Africa.

 

Why British West Africa? 

In the time period (1824), other than in India, the most likely place for illicit ventures to be set up by enterprising villains – the sort our adventuresome heroes might be sent in to disrupt and expose –was the emerging but barely established settlements in Africa. It took some research to narrow the prospects, and I was lucky enough to be able to consult mining engineers who had worked in the region over recent decades. From all I learned, I settled on Freetown as the location around which the story revolved – in that period it was the seat of the Governor of British West Africa, supported by the garrison at Fort Thornton, and it was also the base of the West Africa Naval Squadron, which patrolled the seas to enforce the anti-slavery laws. While the details of the particular illicit venture I use as the base of the story are entirely fictitious, such a situation could have occurred more or less as described. 

 

Did you need to do much research, and what did that involve?

I’ve written so much in the world of Regency-era England that I rarely need to do much research there, but the instant I step outside that sphere, then research is mandatory. In setting up this series, there were several aspects that required extensive background first – the narrowing of the location noted above was one. Once I’d decided on Freetown as the central location, I searched to find as much historical data as I could on the place in that time period, including maps, and details of the recently established settlement. But the largest amount of research went into what lies at the heart of this quartet – the ships! 1824 is in the period leading up to the Golden Age of Sail. Clippers as such were not yet properly on the scene, but the precursors to such ships were. More, there were two principal hotspots of clipper-development – Boston (America) and Aberdeen (Scotland). And I’d already made Aberdeen the home-port for the Frobishers – a little bit of serendipity there. In fact, the shipyards in Aberdeen, and their interaction with the Frobisher Shipping Company, plays a strong part in the final book of the quartet. That illustrates the circular nature of research – a story’s requirements directs research, but then researched details can in turn influence the story. Once I had the style of ships defined, I spent a great deal of time becoming familiar with the masts and the various types of sails, sailing speeds, and also all the various classes of officers, the watches, and so on – as well as the correct lingo! Like larboard, which in that time was the common British nautical term for port (left of ship) although the latter was also in use – so a sailor of the time would most likely use larboard, while a non-sailor would use port.

 

Can you explain the peculiar relationship the Frobishers have with the Crown?

I’ve long been fascinated with the notion of privateers, and their relationship with governments, and what the limits of that might have been. It all sounds rather romantic – or at least has the right seeds for adventure-romance. Privateers were captains who were licensed by a specific government to seize ships of other nations during times of war. There were fortunes to be made via seized cargoes, ransomed officers, and the sale of impounded ships. But obviously privateers, once licensed, could also be used for covert activities – for instance, in getting spies into and out of other countries. The Frobishers were conceived as a very old seafaring dynasty, hailing from at least the 1500s. As they were fiercely independent, and Scottish-based, it seemed most likely they would have elected to be privateers for the British government at various times, through various conflicts. But what if, in their case, their privateer’s license was never revoked, and that in return for running occasional missions for the Crown, the government steered lucrative diplomatic and trade voyages their way? I couldn’t see any reason that might not have happened, so in the time of The Adventurers Quartet, I have the Frobishers having previously sailed covertly for the Duke of Wolverstone, who as the legendary Dalziel had been in charge of all covert British operatives operating outside the British Isles during the latter Napoleonic Wars. And now, when Wolverstone calls on them again, the family is honor-bound – and license-bound – to respond.

  

What was the relationship between privateers and the royal navy?

It seems reasonable to assume that, at sea, there would have been significant tension between the navy hierarchy and privateer-captains, even when working for the same government. The latter were free to act on their own initiative, while the naval men had to adhere to a much stricter and more inhibiting chain of command. Privateers could take risks that naval officers could not. In addition, at least in the case of the Frobisher ships, the privateer’s vessels would be better equipped, newer, and with more recent outfitting and innovations – the sort navy men could only dream about.

 

Tell us about the romance in The Lady’s Command.

The romance in The Lady’s Command is not your standard romance in that the characters are already married at the opening of the story. As always, a romance is critically dependent on the characters involved, and in this case, we already know (from The Lady Risks All) that Edwina is going to marry Frobisher. Yes, they are in love, but for such strong characters, meeting and knowing that the other is the one, and then getting to the altar...that’s actually the easy part. The more difficult adjustment lies in what comes next, as this pair of strong, willful characters attempts to work out how to successfully join two until-now very different lives. Lady Edwina is a duke’s daughter entirely at home in the ton’s ballrooms. Declan Frobisher, the third of the Frobisher brothers, is much more comfortable on the deck of his ship. Edwina is set on an actively shared life. Frobisher assumes their marriage is going to follow conventional lines, and when he is unexpectedly called on to leave on an urgent secret mission, he assumes Edwina will happily remain at home in London waiting on his return. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen, and in what follows, Edwina and Declan work through what for them is the greatest challenge – figuring out how to have a happy marriage.

  

What can you tell us of the romances in the other three books in the quartet?

The four romances in the quartet are all distinctly different in tone. That was one of the elements that was clear to me from the first – and, again, arises out of the fact that each of the four books centers on the romance of one of the four Frobisher brothers and although each brother has similar attributes, their characters are quite distinct. Hence, their romances are all different. The romance in the second book (A Buccaneer at Heart) revolves about Robert Frobisher learning to embrace his true nature and all that life offers, including the heroine, Aileen. The third book (The Daredevil Snared) is about the youngest brother, Caleb Frobisher, growing up in many ways, including finding and linking with his fated bride. The last book, Lord of the Privateers, concerns the oldest brother, Royd, who has the most emotionally difficult row to hoe in finally coming to grips with a past love that has never died.

 

A feature of your books is that “old friends” often appear in secondary roles - which old friends can we expect to see in this quartet?

Quite a few past heroes and heroines make appearances in these works. As I’ve pointed out previously, the haut ton was a circumscribed society, one only so big, and those of similar thinking and disposition would naturally gravitate to each other. Initially, we have the Duke and Duchess of Wolverstone (from Mastered by Love), and others are gradually drawn in; Rafe Carstairs, Jack Hendon, and Christian Allardyce, Marquis of Dearne, appear in the second book. But the end of the fourth book - the grand finale which occurs back in London - draws together many more, including Cynsters and Bastion Club members who assisted in bringing the Black Cobra down a year before, plus others who missed out on that earlier excitement but who are determined to be part of the action this time.

 

As mentioned, the books in The Adventurers Quartet run one directly after the other. So once we’ve reached the end of The Lady’s Command, what comes next?

At the end of The Lady’s Command, Declan and Edwina return to London, to Wolverstone and Lord Melville, with information that proves that some serious, illicit, and dangerous scheme is afoot in Freetown, specifically preying on British men, women, and children. However, as they are now sure they have traitors in the upper echelons in control of the settlement, they can’t risk any open move – such as dispatching troops from the local fort – as that will alert the perpetrators who might well order those kidnapped killed to protect the traitors’ identities. There is a clearly defined next question that must be answered, and they need someone they can send down who can slip in, learn the answer, and then bring it back all in complete secrecy. It just so happens that Robert Frobisher is due to sail into London any day at the end of a typical voyage ferrying diplomats. Surely Robert might welcome a change of pace? Robert agrees – there is no one else immediately available and the matter is urgent – and from that flows the second book, A Buccaneer at Heart.

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CHAPTER 1

April 1824

London

Marrying the lady of his dreams had proved surprisingly easy. Forging the marriage of his dreams… That, apparently, was an entirely different challenge.

Declan Fergus Frobisher stood alongside Lady Edwina Frobisher née Delbraith—his new wife—and let the cacophony generated by the tonnish crowd gathered in Lady Montgomery’s drawing room wash over him. The chattering was incessant, like a flock of seagulls squawking, yet such exchanges were the sole purpose of a soirée. In a many-hued kaleidoscope of fine silks and satins, of darker-hued superfines and black evening coats, the crème de la crème of the haut ton drifted and shifted from one circle to the next in a constantly rearranging tapestry. The large room was illuminated by several chandeliers; light glinted on artfully twisted curls and pomaded locks and in the facets of myriad jewels adorning the throats, earlobes, and wrists of the many ladies attending.

One heavily burdened lady swept up in a dazzle of diamonds. “Edwina, my dear!” The lady pressed fingers and touched cheeks with Declan’s beloved, who greeted the newcomer with her customary sunny charm, yet the lady’s gaze had already shifted to him, traveling down and then up his long length. Then she directed a smile—a distinctly predatory smile—at him. “You must—simply must—introduce me to your husband.” The lady’s tone had lowered to a feminine purr.

Declan glanced at Edwina; he wondered how she would react to the lady’s transparent intent.

His wife didn’t disappoint; she smiled delightedly—the very picture of a cat who had savored an entire bowlful of cream and expected to indulge further shortly. Her expression radiated supreme confidence; the sight made him inwardly grin. As if sensing his amusement, she cast him a glance from her fine blue eyes and with an airy wave stated, “Lady Cerise Mitchell, my husband, Declan Frobisher.”

Hearing the subtle yet distinctly possessive emphasis she had placed on the words “my husband,” with his lips curving in a polite smile, he took the hand Lady Cerise extended and bowed. She murmured a seductive “Enchanté,” but he’d already lost interest in her. Although he devoted a small part of his mind and his awareness to the parade of people who came up to converse, to answering their questions and deflecting any he considered too prying, interacting with them wasn’t why he was there.

On Edwina’s other side stood her mother, Lucasta, Dowager Duchess of Ridgware, a handsome, haughty lady of arrogantly noble mien. Beyond the dowager stood Edwina’s sister, Lady Cassandra Elsbury, a pleasant young matron a few years older than Edwina. The rest of their circle was comprised of several bright-eyed ladies and intrigued gentlemen, all eager to claim acquaintance with the ducal ladies and, even more importantly, to learn more of the unknown-to-them gentleman who had captured the hand of one of the haut ton’s prizes. Declan did his best to meet their expectations by cultivating a mysterious air.

In reality, there was little mystery as to who he was. His family was ancient—the Frobishers had fought alongside Raleigh in Elizabeth’s time. They were well-born, with an unassailable entrée to the highest echelons based on their venerable lineage alone, yet from centuries past, the Frobishers had elected to follow their own esoteric, not to say eccentric, path, habitually eschewing even the fringes of the ton. While Raleigh had fought for personal glory first, Crown second, the Frobishers entered battles reluctantly and only at the Crown’s command. They were a seafaring dynasty, and battles cost lives and ships; they fought only when they needed to, which was only when they were needed.

They’d been at Trafalgar, but not under Nelson’s command. Instead, the Frobisher fleet had ensured none of the French fled north to regroup. Declan’s father and his uncles had used their swift ships to good effect, crippling and capturing many French frigates.

Consequently, among the ton, the Frobisher name was well known, easily placed. The mystery, such as it was, had always lain in who the current family members were and in what the family actually did. The manner in which they derived their fortune and the size of that fortune. The Frobishers had never had much interest in land, and what acres they held lay far to the north, close by Aberdeen—a very long way from London. The family’s assets were largely floating, which, for the ton, raised the conundrum of whether the otherwise acceptable family had descended into trade. The ton lauded those who lived off their acres, but had difficulty equating acres with ships.

In addition, many of those present had heard whispers, if not outright rumors, about the family’s more recent exploits. Most of those rumors—of explorations into the wilds and hugely profitable deals concerned with shipping—had their genesis in truth. If anything, the truth was even more outlandish than any tonnish speculation.

Of course, in society, unsubstantiated rumors only generated more interest. That interest—that barely veiled curiosity—shone brightly in the eyes of many of Lady Montgomery’s guests.

“I say, Frobisher,” a Mr. Fitzwilliam drawled. “I heard that one of your family recently talked the American colonists into accepting some new trade treaty. What was that about, heh? Was that you?”

That had been Robert, one of Declan’s two older brothers and the most diplomatically inclined. The treaty Robert had sailed from Georgia with would make the family even more wealthy and also contribute significantly to the Crown’s coffers.

But Declan only smiled and said, “That wasn’t me.” When Fitzwilliam showed signs of persevering, he added, “I haven’t heard that rumor.”

Why would he listen to rumors when he knew the facts?

He had no intention of gratifying anyone by explaining his family’s business. His entire interest in the evening—the sole reason he was there—was encompassed by the lady standing, scintillating and effervescent, by his side.

She affected his senses like a lodestone, gleaming like a diamond, sparkling and alluring—intrinsically fascinating. From the topmost golden curl to the tips of her dainty feet, she commanded and captivated his awareness. In part, that was a physical response—what red-blooded man could resist the appeal inherent in a tumble of pale blond ringlets framing a heart-shaped face, in bright blue eyes, large and well set beneath finely arched brown brows and lushly fringed by long brown lashes, in a peaches-and-cream complexion unmarred by any blemish beyond a row of freckles dusted across the bridge of her small nose, and in lips full and rosy that just begged to be kissed? Yet on top of that, those lips were mobile, usually upturned in a smile, her expression fluid, reflecting her moods, her thoughts, her interest, while her brilliantly alive, vibrantly blue eyes were a gateway to a keenly intelligent mind.

Add to that a petite figure that was the epitome of the notion of a pocket Venus, and it was hardly surprising that no other being could so easily fix his attention. She was a prize worth coveting; from his very first sight of her, she’d called to him—to the acquisitive adventurer at the core of his soul.

They’d been married for just over three weeks. A year before, having sailed from New York into London and having a month to wait before his next voyage, he’d surrendered to ennui and the entreaty of old friends and had accompanied the latter to a ton ball. Throughout the round-trip to New York, he’d been conscious of a needling, pricking restlessness of a sort he hadn’t previously experienced; entirely unexpectedly, his thoughts had turned to the comfort of home and hearth, to family.

To marriage.

To a wife.

The instant he’d laid eyes on Edwina at that very first ball last year, he’d known who his wife would be. With typical single-mindedness, he’d set about securing her, the sometimes-haughty daughter of a ducal house; at twenty-two, having been out for three years, she’d already gained a reputation for being no man’s easy mark.

They’d struck sparks from the first touch of their fingers, from the first moment their gazes collided. Wooing Edwina had been blessedly easy. Several months later, he’d applied for her hand and been accepted.

In his mind, all had been progressing smoothly toward the comfortable, conventional marriage he had—in those few minutes he’d spent thinking of it—assumed their union would be.

Then, three months before the wedding, Lucasta and Edwina had braved the winter snows to visit his family at their manor house outside Banchory-Devenick. When he’d learned the purpose of that visit, he’d initially assumed it had been Lucasta’s idea. Later, he’d discovered it was Edwina who had insisted that the Frobishers needed to be informed before the wedding, rather than after, of the secret her family had been hiding for more than a decade.

Utterly intrigued, he, his parents, and his three brothers had sat in the comfort of the large family parlor and listened as Lucasta had explained. Learning that her elder son, the eighth duke, had taken his own life because of mountainous debts, and that her second son, Lord Julian Delbraith, wasn’t missing, presumed dead, as all of society assumed, but instead was masquerading in plain sight as Neville Roscoe, London’s gambling king, had definitely been a surprise.

Not, as Edwina had clearly anticipated, a shocking surprise, but an infinitely intriguing and attractive one.

The possibilities every one of the Frobishers had immediately seen in the prospect of being connected with a man of Roscoe’s caliber—his power, authority, and assets—had elevated their estimation of Declan’s marriage from very good to unbelievably excellent.

Later, in private, his father, Fergus, had clapped him on the shoulder and exclaimed, “Gads, boy—you couldn’t have done better! A personal link to Neville Roscoe… Well, no one knew such a thing was there to be had! Such a connection will only make this family all the stronger.”

Fergus, Declan’s mother, Elaine, and his brothers had welcomed the match from the first, but that wholly unanticipated ramification had been the crowning glory.

In the days following the wedding, a large event held at the local church on the ducal estate in Staffordshire—days he, Edwina, and his family had spent at Ridgware with her immediate family—he, his father, and his brothers had had a chance to meet with the elusive Lord Julian Delbraith, known to the world as Neville Roscoe. Apparently, Roscoe’s recent marriage to Miranda, now Lady Delbraith, had forced him to overturn his long-held intention never to reappear under his true name. Julian and Miranda had attended the wedding, although they’d remained carefully screened and out of sight of all the other guests.

Edwina had been thrilled over her brother’s presence, and Declan had been pleased on that account alone. The subsequent private meeting between the Frobishers, Roscoe, and his right-hand man, Jordan Draper, had all but literally been the icing on the wedding cake. As a group, they’d explored all manner of potential interactions; it had quickly become clear that Roscoe viewed the match every bit as favorably as the Frobishers. All in all, that meeting had been a coming together of like minds.

That had been the immediate outcome of learning the truth about the Delbraiths, but like a stone dropped into a pool, subsequent ripples continued to appear.

Later, Declan and Edwina had followed his family north to spend a few weeks in Banchory-Devenick; several days after their arrival, Fergus had asked Declan to accompany him on one of his walks.

Once they were away from the house, his eyes on the ground before him, Fergus had stated, “It occurs to me, boy-o, that there’s a great deal we could learn from your Edwina’s family. I’m not talking about Roscoe, but the others—especially the ladies.”

Unsure just what his father meant, Declan had remained silent.

After several paces, Fergus had continued, “It’s been a long time since any Frobisher moved among the ton. It was never our battlefield, so to speak. But I look at the old duchess—the dowager—and her daughters, and the daughter-in-law, too, and I think about what they’ve managed to achieve over the last decade. Given what they had to hide, being capable of…not exactly hoodwinking the ton, but veiling the truth, and all so subtly and elegantly done… That takes talent of a sort we, as a family, lack.”

Fergus’s sharp, agate-y gaze had shifted to pin Declan. “You said you intend taking Edwina to town—that you’ve hired a house there and that Edwina and the dowager think the pair of you need to appear in society to establish yourselves, whatever that means. I’m thinking that might provide a useful opportunity for you to watch and see what you can learn of how they manage things.”

“Manage things.” After a moment, he’d said, “You want me to learn how they manipulate the ton into seeing what they want the ton to see.”

“Exactly!” Fergus had faced forward. “The Delbraiths might be a family led by women, the duke being so young, but none of those females are fools. They all know how to operate in the ton, how to bend ton perceptions to their advantage. They have skills we could use, m’boy. We might eschew the ton, deeming it irrelevant to us, but you can’t duck the weight of a birthright, and who knows what the future will bring?”

That conversation rang in Declan’s mind as he smiled and complimented a young lady on her beautifully carved oriental fan. He’d long ago learned to trust his father’s insights; Fergus Frobisher was widely respected as a canny old Scot. So as they had planned, he and Edwina had come to London and taken up residence in a rented town house in Stanhope Street. Lucasta had joined them in town, but she was staying with her eldest daughter, Lady Millicent Catervale, in Mount Street. Declan appreciated his mother-in-law’s sensitivity in giving him and Edwina their privacy.

Subsequently, Edwina and Lucasta, aided by Millie and Cassie, had put their heads together and come up with a list of events Edwina had declared she had to attend. She’d excused him from all the daytime entertainments, but had requested his presence at the evening events, a request to which he’d readily agreed.

They’d attended several balls, dinners, soirées, and routs over the past week. And tonight, as at those previous events, he was there to observe, to watch and learn how his wife and the females of her family “managed” the ton.

He’d initially studied Lucasta, reasoning that she had to have been the principal instigator in promulgating the non-shocking, acceptable-to-the-ton versions of her older son’s demise and of her younger son’s disappearance; only because he’d been watching closely had he noticed the difference between Lucasta in private and Lucasta in society. It was like a screen, a veil of sorts, but not something anyone observing her could pierce; even knowing it was there, he couldn’t see past it, not while she had it deployed. Lucasta’s screen made her appear more rigid, definitely colder, and more arrogantly aloof. It was an emotional screen that held others at a distance and allowed only the reactions Lucasta wished to display to show through.

Edwina’s veil was even harder to discern. Only because he’d known it had to be there had he managed to even glimpse it. Because her true nature was so very bright and glittery, her shield was almost like a mirror—something that reflected what others assumed they would see, not necessarily what truly lay behind the screen.

He’d studied Millie and Cassie, too; their veils were effective, yet less definite, softer and more amorphous—again, a reflection of their characters. While Lucasta undoubtedly possessed an iron will and a spine of steel—how else had she coped with the vicissitudes of fate over all these years?—of her three daughters, Edwina was the most alike, possessing a similar, pliable yet invincible, feminine strength.

That truth had dawned on him two nights before—and brought with it another ripple.

When he’d set his sights on Edwina, he’d assumed the Delbraiths, a ducal family, would be conventional, conservative, if anything rather stuffy. Instead, he’d discovered they were hiding a secret, one so outrageous and potentially socially catastrophic that it was crystal clear that in terms of being unconventional, the Delbraiths could give the Frobishers a run for their money.

Lucasta was a very far cry from the tradition-obsessed dowager he’d taken her for. As for Edwina…

His view of a predictable, ordinary, orthodox marriage had evaporated.

The lady he had married had an entirely different character from the lady he’d assumed he would take to wife.

Her small hand rested on his sleeve; he could feel the light pressure as if a bird perched there. Yet her presence held him so securely, captivated him so thoroughly, that he barely heard the comments of others enough to respond with the appropriate remarks. He wasn’t interested in those who gathered around them; he was interested only in her.

She’d explained that it was necessary for them to appear in society to “establish themselves.” He wasn’t sure exactly what she meant by that, but clearly she had some goal in mind. Being as inexperienced as she was experienced in this sphere, he hadn’t yet figured out precisely what her ultimate goal was, yet he understood and accepted that she had one…

And that said something all by itself.

It was a reflection of that ripple he’d only recently recognized: His delicate, fairylike wife had a decisive and definite mind of her own.

She formulated goals and planned campaigns—then executed them. She spoke of what amounted to strategy and tactics.

He was now fairly certain she would also harbor a definite view of how their marriage would work, but he’d yet to gain any insight whatsoever into what her view of that critical issue was. Were her putative rules of engagement ones he could smile at, accept, and fall in with? Or…?

As of that moment, he had no idea what their future on that front would bring. Yet he’d married her, and he wouldn’t change that for all the gold in the world. Having her as his wife had been his principal goal, and now she was his.

He glanced at her and saw her eyes sparkle, her face lighting with animation as she charmingly accepted congratulations on their marriage from some other couple.

All in all, he was beyond pleased over having her as his wife. The part he had yet to define was what it was going to take to be her husband.

Edwina stood by Declan’s side with her smile in place and her eyes firmly fixed on her prize. She, her mother, and her sisters had agreed it was vital that she and Declan present themselves to the ton in exactly the right light. How the ton viewed them, now and in the future, would depend entirely on the image they projected over these critical first weeks. That tonight, more or less from the moment they’d arrived, they’d remained fixed in the center of the room with a constant stream of intrigued guests jockeying to join their circle testified as to just how highly the ton now ranked them as acceptable acquaintances.

A sense of triumph rose within her; her first goal as a married lady was all but attained.

When Lady Holland stopped to chat and, when introduced to Declan, deigned to smile approvingly, Edwina had to work to keep her delight from too openly showing and her relief from showing at all. The ton could be a highly censorious sphere, but the blessing of such an august hostess was the ultimate seal of tonnish approval; they had, in ton terms, arrived.

Of course, Lady Holland had always had a soft spot for charming and handsome gentlemen.

Slanting a glance at Declan, Edwina allowed her gaze to dwell on his chiseled features—the distinctly aristocratic line of his brow, the long planes of his lean cheeks below high cheekbones, the firmness of his mobile lips, and the definitely masculine cast of his chin. The crinkling around his sky-blue eyes, set beneath angled slashes of brown brows, and his perennially tanned complexion spoke of long months at sea. His light brown, sun-kissed hair completed the image, appearing fashionably windblown with the bright streaks and tips burnished by the sun highlighting the effect.

The combination of his height and his broad-shouldered stance, the very way he held his long frame, both upright and yet fluid, always perfectly balanced and ineffably confident and assured, set him apart from well-nigh every other gentleman in the room.

As Lady Holland moved on, Lucasta touched Edwina’s sleeve, drawing her attention. “My dear, I see Lady Marchmain holding court by the wall. I believe it would be wise for me to join her and ensure she comprehends all the pertinent facts.”

Edwina followed her mother’s gaze to a coterie of older ladies gathered around a chaise. She nodded. “Thank you, Mama. We’ll come and find you when we’re ready to leave.”

Lady Marchmain was one of her mother’s bosom-bows and also one of the most active ladies in the ton; if one had a message to deliver to the upper echelons of society at large, then Lady Marchmain was an excellent courier.

Returning her attention to the gratifying number of ladies and gentlemen eager to make Declan’s acquaintance, Edwina wondered how much longer they needed to stay. Neither she nor her mother had made any estimation of how many evenings it might take to establish her new position as a married lady and, more critically, establish Declan as a member of recognized society, but their assumption had been that it would take considerably more days and nights—more at-homes, morning and afternoon teas, luncheons, balls, and soirées—to achieve their aim. They’d arrived in town only a week ago; they’d been waging their campaign for a mere six days. They hadn’t expected to succeed so soon.

Regardless, she was exceedingly glad that matters had gone as well as they had. Spending her evenings standing beside Declan—handsome, attentive, and suavely engaging as he’d been—had proved far less of a trial than she’d expected. She had thought she would have to rescue him from social traps, yet that hadn’t been the case; he’d seen the snares and sidestepped adroitly all by himself. For someone who had rarely moved within the ton, he’d handled it well.

While she continued to exchange comments and the usual social banter with those gathered about them, as with every word the reality of their social success was confirmed and sank in, she was increasingly aware of rising impatience. Given they’d succeeded on this front, it was time to advance to the next stage in forging their marriage into the union she wished it to be. And for that, she and Declan needed to be elsewhere—anywhere but in the middle of the ton.

* * *

Declan was quite happy to depart Montgomery House. At Edwina’s suggestion, together with Cassie, they crossed to where Lucasta was conversing with several older ladies. The dowager rose and introduced him to her friends. Once the inevitable exchanges were complete, the dowager settled her shawl, and together their party took leave of their hostess, then made their way downstairs. Somewhat to Declan’s relief, Cassie offered to take Lucasta up in her carriage, leaving him and Edwina to their own company as they traveled the short distance to Stanhope Street.

The instant the carriage door was shut upon them, Edwina’s social veil vanished. During the drive, she chattered, animated and intense, reviewing the comments made by several of those they’d met, explaining the significance of this observation or that connection. Her insights proved illuminating; he was struck by how familiar the moment seemed. As they rattled over the cobbles, he realized it was very like a debriefing after one of his covert missions.

The more he thought of it, the more apt the analogy seemed.

Edwina capped her comments with the statement “It appears that Mama had the right of it.” Through the shadows, she met his eyes. “She was quite sure that, when it came to our marriage, the ton would take its cue from me—from how I, and Mama, and Millie and Cassie and their husbands, too, reacted. Mama was convinced that all I had to do was to keep you beside me and openly show my delight in being your wife, and all would be well.” She sighed happily. Facing forward, she settled back beside him. “As usual, Mama was correct.”

He debated several questions, then voiced what to him was the most pertinent. “And are you truly delighted?”

Her small white teeth flashed in an ebullient smile. Through the enfolding shadows, she glanced at him. “You know I am.” She slipped one small hand into his and lightly squeezed. “I couldn’t be more happy over being your wife.”

Confident sincerity resonated in the words; he drank it in and couldn’t help a satisfied smile of his own.

The carriage rolled around a corner, tipping her against him.

She glanced up as he lowered his head.

Their eyes met; their gazes held.

He raised one fingertip and gently, slowly, traced the lush fullness of her lower lip.

Her lids lowered, screening her eyes as she tipped up her face, and he leaned closer.

The carriage slowed, then halted.

Her eyes opened wide. From a distance of mere inches, she studied his, then beneath the pad of his finger, her lip curved.

He heard the footman drop down from the rear of the carriage, and with a sigh, he straightened. “I believe, my lady, that we’ve reached our home.”

“Indeed.” Even through the dimness, he saw desire gleam in her eyes. As the footman opened the door, she murmured, “I suggest, dear husband, that we go inside.”

Anticipation flared between them, tangible and hot. With one last wanton look, she turned to the door. He rose and descended to the pavement, then handed her down.

Retaining his hold on her fingers, he escorted her up the town house steps.

The door opened before they reached it. Humphrey, their new butler, bowed them inside. “Welcome home, my lady. Sir.”

“Thank you, Humphrey.” Edwina slipped her fingers from Declan’s clasp and headed straight for the stairs.

He prowled in her wake.

Humphrey closed the door. “Will there be anything else, sir? Ma’am?”

“I think not.” Declan didn’t shift his gaze from his wife’s curvaceous hips, sleekly cloaked in pale blue satin. “You may lock up. Her ladyship and I are retiring.”

Without glancing back from her steady ascent, Edwina said, “Oh, and please tell Wilmot I won’t need her tonight.”

Wilmot was her lady’s maid. Declan smiled.

Edwina reached the door to the bedroom they had elected to share, opened it, and sailed through. On her heels, he crossed the threshold, paused to shut the door, then, his gaze locked on his prize, continued his pursuit.

Before she reached the foot of their bed—a large four-poster draped in blue silks—she abruptly swung around. One step from her, one stride from him, and they met.

Her head barely reached his shoulder; coming up on her toes, she wound her arms about his neck, pressed close as his hands fastened about her tiny waist, and raised her lips as he bent his head.

Their lips touched, brushed, then settled.

The kiss deepened, their lips effortlessly melding. She parted hers in wanton invitation, and he sent his tongue questing. Conquering and commanding.

She’d been a virgin on their wedding night, yet she’d been anything but reticent; she’d plunged into the whirlpool generated by their avid, greedy, too-long-denied senses with an eager enthusiasm that had stunned him. Her open and ardent desire to learn everything about passion had claimed him. Her utterly fearless adventurousness in this sphere continued to captivate him.

Comprehensively enslaving him.

He didn’t mind, not in the least. As he steered her back toward the bed, the sole remaining thought in his head was how to most effectively enjoy the fruits of his surrender.

Edwina felt awash on a sea of triumph. She wanted to celebrate what ranked as a minor victory—successfully establishing their union as entirely acceptable and, more, as distinctly desirable in the eyes of the ton.

Joy and delight bubbled and fizzed inside her. Effervescent excitement gripped her as she felt the bed at her back, then Declan’s fingers found her laces, and she sent her own hands seeking, nimble fingers deftly dealing with the large buttons of his waistcoat. He paused only to shrug off both coat and waistcoat, letting them fall where they would, and she eagerly set her fingers to the small, flat buttons closing his shirt.

This was one arena within their marriage in which she’d felt utterly confident from the first, and she knew she had his passion, his understanding, his honesty, and his expertise to thank for that. His own inner confidence in his manly attributes, too. He’d been so focused on her, so openly desirous, and so unwaveringly intent on claiming her—so committed and caught up in the moment—that he’d shown her all.

All he felt for her.

All she meant to him.

She’d sailed into passion with a questing heart, buoyed by confidence in her own desirability.

No woman could have asked for more on her wedding night.

And from that night on, they’d embarked on a joint exploration of what engagements such as this could bring them.

She’d devoted herself to learning all he would teach her and all she might of her own volition learn. And every night, although the destination remained blessedly the same, the journey was different, the road subtly altered, the revelations along it fresh and absorbing.

His lips supped from hers, his tongue teasing hers. She responded, using all she’d learned to tempt and lure. She hauled his shirt from his waistband and freed the last button closing it. Anchored in the kiss, in the heat and the passion that rose so strongly—with such reassuring hunger—between them, she blessed him for his innate elegance, which ensured he used a neat, simple knot in his cravat. The instant she unraveled it, she drew the long strip of linen free. With gay abandon, she flung it away.

Finally clear of obstacles, she pulled his shirt wide, set her hands to the sculpted planes of his chest and joyfully—greedily—claimed, then she pushed the garment up and over his shoulders. He refused to release her lips but broke from the embrace enough to open the shirt’s cuffs, strip the garment off, and let it fall to the floor, and she fell on him, fell into his embrace, and gave herself up, heart and soul, to learning what tonight would bring.

Shivery sensation. Heat.

Knowing touches that claimed and incited, that excited and lured and drew them both along tonight’s path.

The whisper of silk. The rustle of the bedclothes.

Fingertips trailing over excruciatingly sensitive skin.

Muscles bunching and rippling, then turning as hard as steel.

Incoherent murmuring.

Naked skin to naked skin, body to body, they merged and, together, fingers linked and gripping, lips brushing, heated breaths mingling, followed the path on.

Journeyed on through the enthrallments of desire, through passion’s licking flames, faster and faster they rode and plunged, then surged toward the glorious end.

To where a cataclysm of feeling ripped through reality and sensation consumed them.

Then ecstasy erupted and fractured them, flinging them into oblivion’s void…

Until, at the last, spent, hearts racing, blinded by glory, they sank back to earth, to the pleasure of each other’s embrace, to the wonder of their discovery.

When her wits finally re-engaged and she could again think, she found she was still too buoyed on triumph—on multiple counts—to, as she usually did, slide into pleasured slumber. She wasn’t sure Declan was sleeping, either; wrapped in his arms, her head pillowed on his shoulder, she couldn’t see his face—couldn’t be sure if he was sleeping or not without lifting her head and disturbing them both.

In that moment, she was at peace, sated and safe, and felt no need to converse. And, it seemed, neither did he; the slow rise and fall of his chest beneath her cheek soothed and reassured.

Her mind wandered, instinctively cataloguing—where they now were, where she wished them to go.

The path she wanted them to follow—the marriage she was determined they would have.

Her assumption that it was up to her, her responsibility to steer them in the right direction, wasn’t one she questioned. She had her parents’ marriage and that of her late brother as vivid examples of how terribly wrong things could go if a lady didn’t institute and insist on the correct framework. And putting that correct framework in place was much easier if one acted from the first, before any unhelpful habits became ingrained.

She knew what she wanted; she had several shining examples to guide her—her sisters’ marriages, Julian and Miranda’s marriage, and, more recently, what she’d seen of the relationship between Declan’s parents, Fergus and Elaine.

That from his earliest years Declan had been exposed to such a marriage, one that was founded on a working personal partnership—that he would have absorbed the concept, seen its inherent strengths, and, she hoped, would now expect to find the same support in his own marriage—was infinitely encouraging.

Throughout their teens, she and her sisters had spent hours in their parlor at Ridgware discussing the elements of an acceptable-in-their-eyes marriage. Both Millie and Cassie, each in their own way, had set out to achieve that ideal in their marriages and had succeeded. Both Catervale and Elsbury openly doted on their wives, were strong and engaged fathers to their children, and shared everything; they included their wives in all areas of their lives.

Edwina was determined to have nothing less. Indeed, with Declan, she suspected she wanted more. Compared to Millie and Cassie, she was more outgoing, more curious and eager to engage with life and actively explore the full gamut of its possibilities.

She wanted their marriage to be a joint venture on all levels, first to last.

With their position within the ton now established and their physical union so vibrantly assured, she could now turn her mind and energies to all the other aspects that contributed to a modern marriage.

On the domestic front, she had all in hand. Together, she and Declan had chosen this house to rent for the Season, and perhaps longer, but he’d ceded the tiller entirely to her with respect to selecting and hiring their staff. She’d been lucky to find Humphrey, and Mrs. King, their housekeeper, and the new cook were settling in nicely. The small staff met their needs more than adequately; other than deciding menus, she needed to do little to keep everything running smoothly in that sphere.

Which left her with one outstanding issue, that of how to merge the rest of their lives—how to align their interests, activities, and energies when they weren’t in the bedroom, or at home, or socializing within the ton.

All the rest.

Thinking the words brought home just how little she knew of the details of Declan’s business—how he occupied himself, what role he played within his family’s shipping empire, or any particular causes he espoused. He’d told her he didn’t expect to sail again until July, or perhaps later; that left her with plenty of time to question and discover all she needed to learn so that she could work out the details of how he and she were going to work together. How she could and would contribute to his career.

A working partnership such as his parents had was what she wanted, one where she contributed as she could, where appropriate—a partnership that allowed her to understand the demands made on him and the pressures those brought to bear. Despite her predilection for active engagement, such a partnership didn’t necessarily require her to be actively involved in each and every facet, but rather to always be in a position to understand what was going on. She was immutably convinced that such an arrangement was critical to them having the marriage she was determined they would have.

Sleep drew nearer; her already relaxed muscles lost what little tension they’d regained.

Even as she surrendered to slumber’s insistent tug, she sensed a nascent swell of eagerness, optimism, and determination. She was free to start her campaign to create the marriage they needed first thing tomorrow morning.

Declan didn’t succeed in summoning his wits—in being able to think worth a damn—until Edwina finally fell asleep. Until then, caught between worlds, he knew only the tumultuous emotion that welled and swelled within him. It had flared to life on their wedding night; he had assumed it would fade with time, that exercised daily—nightly—it would gradually lose its power. Instead, it had burgeoned and grown.

But, at last, the soft huff of Edwina’s breathing deepened, and she sank more definitely against him, and his senses finally ceased their fascination, withdrew from their complete and abject focus on her, and allowed his wits to resurface.

And that overwhelming emotion subsided, but the effects lingered, leaving him unsettlingly aware of just how much she now meant to him. He dwelled on that reality for a moment, then buried the understanding deep. The only consequence he needed to consciously grasp was that, now, putting her—or allowing her to put herself—in any danger whatsoever was simply not on the cards.

For several moments, the potential conflict between that consideration and her as-yet-undefined unconventionality—underscored by their recent activities—and how that might impinge on the way their marriage would work cycled through his mind. His only clear conclusion was that establishing the practical logistics of their marriage was shaping up to be significantly more complicated than he’d assumed. He would need to establish boundaries to keep Edwina separate from the other side of his life, to keep her safely screened from it.

He tried to imagine how he might achieve that, especially given the understanding that niggled deep in his brain—that given his own character, it was her adventurous soul that had from the first drawn him.

Yet adventuring of any sort invariably led to danger. How was he to suppress that aspect of her personality while simultaneously preserving it?

He fell asleep before even a whisper of a suggestion of a plan bloomed in his mind.

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CHAPTER 2

 

The following morning, her marital challenge in the forefront of her mind, Edwina swept into the breakfast parlor to find her handsome husband frowning over a letter. She halted. “What is it?”

He glanced up. His gaze rested on her for a second, then he shook his head. He folded the letter and tucked it into his coat pocket. “Just a note calling me to a meeting. Company business.”

The tip of Edwina’s tongue burned with the urge to press him for more; for a second, she flirted with the idea of offering to accompany him just to see how he would react. But… It was too early for that. Frontal assaults rarely worked with men like Declan; they instinctively resisted any pressure, which later made convincing them to change their stance all the harder. She needed to pave her way.

She turned to the sideboard, sent a smiling nod Humphrey’s way, and accepted the plate he handed her. As she sampled the various delicacies in the chafing dishes, then went to the table and slipped into the chair Humphrey held for her, she reflected on her glaring lack of knowledge of her husband’s business. While she might not yet be in a position to demand to know the details of an upcoming meeting, there were other questions it was patently time she started asking.

She reached for the teapot, poured herself a cup, then lifted it and sipped. Looking over the rim, she studied Declan; he appeared absorbed with making inroads into a mound of scrambled eggs. “I know you captain one of your family’s vessels, but I don’t know what you actually do.” When he looked up, she caught his eyes and arched her brows. “For what reasons do you sail? What tasks do you accomplish for Frobisher and Sons?”

Declan regarded her. He was happy enough to answer that query, if only to distract her from those facts he didn’t wish to share. Rapidly, he canvassed his options to most effectively—engagingly and distractingly—satisfy her. “In order to do that, I have to explain something of the structure of the family’s fleet.”

When she opened her eyes wide, indicating her interest and that he should continue, he smiled and complied. “The fleet has two principal arms. The first is comprised of traditional cargo vessels. They’re larger—wider, deeper, and heavier—and therefore slower ships that carry all manner of cargo around the globe, although these days, we concentrate on Atlantic routes. At present, our farthest port on routes to the east is Cape Town.”

He paused to fork up the last bite of his scrambled eggs, seizing the seconds to consider his next words. She took the chance to slather jam on her usual piece of toast, then lifted the slice to her lips and took a neat bite. The crunch focused his gaze on her mouth; he watched the tip of her tongue sweep the lush ripeness of her lower lip, leaving it glistening…

Quietly, he cleared his throat and forced his wayward mind back to the issue at hand. After remarshaling his thoughts, he offered, “It’s the other arm of the family business in which my brothers and I are actively engaged. We each captain our own ship, and it would be accurate to say that we still carry cargo. But our ships are by design faster and also, again by design, newer and better able to withstand adverse conditions.”

With a soft snort, he set down his knife and fork and reached for his coffee mug. “You might have noticed that Royd is somewhat obsessed with our ships’ attributes and performances.” Royd—Murgatroyd, although no one bar their parents ever dared call him that—was his eldest brother and, these days, more or less in charge. “He’s constantly redesigning and updating. That’s why The Cormorant has been out of commission over these past weeks. She’s been in dry dock in the shipyards at Aberdeen while Royd fiddles, implementing his latest ideas, which I’ll eventually get to test.”

Declan paused to sip, then wryly acknowledged, “I have to admit that the rest of us are usually very grateful for his improvements.” Often those improvements had tipped the scales between life and death, between freedom and captivity.

“When you say ‘the rest of us’”—Edwina brushed crumbs from her fingers—“who precisely do you mean?”

“The four of us—Royd, Robert, me, and Caleb—and several of our cousins. Still other cousins captain several of our merchantmen, but there’s a group of family captains, about eight all told, who sail for the other side of the business.”

“Last night, some gentleman mentioned a treaty your family had assisted with. Was that an undertaking you were involved with?”

“No. That was Robert. He tends to specialize in meeting the more diplomatic requests.”

She frowned slightly. “What is the nature of this other side of the business? What sort of requests, diplomatic or otherwise, do you undertake?”

Declan considered for a moment, then offered, “There are different sorts of cargoes.”

She arched her brows. “Such as?”

Fleetingly, he grinned. “People. Documents. Items of special value. And, most valuable of all, information.” He paused, aware that it would not be wise to paint their endeavors in too-intriguing colors. “It’s a relatively straightforward engagement. We undertake to transport items of that nature quickly, safely, and discreetly from port to port.”

“Ah.” After a moment of consideration, she said, “I take it that’s the motivation behind Royd’s obsession.”

He set down his coffee cup. He hadn’t consciously made the connection before, but… “I suppose you could say that the fruits of Royd’s obsession significantly contribute to Frobisher and Sons being arguably the best specialized shipping service in the world.”

She smiled. “Specialized shipping. I see. At least now I know how to describe what you do.”

And that, he thought, was as much as she or anyone else needed to know.

Before he could redirect the conversation, she went on, “You said that you only sail for about half the year. Do you sail at any time, or are your voyages always over the same months each year?”

“Generally, our side of the business operates over the summer and into the autumn months, when the seas are most accommodating.”

“But you don’t expect to set out on The Cormorant before July or thereabouts?”

He nodded. “There was no”—mission—“request falling between now and then that I, specifically, needed to handle. The others took it upon themselves to cover for me.” He grinned and met her eyes. “I believe they thought of it as a wedding gift.”

“For which I am duly grateful.” She set down her empty teacup.

Before she could formulate her next question, he swiveled to glance at the clock on the mantelpiece above the fireplace at the end of the room. As he had hoped, she followed his gaze.

When she saw the time, her eyes widened. “Great heavens! I have to get ready for Lady Minchingham’s at-home.”

He rose and drew out her chair. “I’ve this meeting to attend, then I think I’ll call in at our office, purely to keep abreast of what’s going on in the world of shipping.” The Frobisher and Sons office was located with many other shipping companies’ offices near the Pool of London.

Distracted now, she merely nodded and led the way from the room. “I’ll see you this evening, then.”

She stepped into the hall, then paused. “I had planned for us to attend Lady Forsythe’s rout, but I rather feel we’ve moved beyond the need.” She glanced at him and smiled, one of her subtly appraising—and frankly suggestive—looks. “Perhaps a quiet evening at home, just the two of us, might be a better use of our time.”

He saw nothing in that suggestion with which he wished to argue. Halting on the parlor’s threshold, he smiled into her wide blue eyes. “A quiet evening spent with you would definitely be my preference.”

Her smile blossomed with open delight. She stretched up on her toes, and when he dutifully bent his head, she touched her lips to his.

He locked his hands behind his back to rein in the impulse to catch her to him and prolong the caress; aside from all else, both Humphrey and the footman were within sight.

If the commiserating quality of her smile as she drew back was any guide, she’d nevertheless sensed his response; while the look in her eyes suggested she shared the temptation, her expression also stated that she approved of his control. She lightly patted his chest, then turned away. With an insouciant wave, she headed for the stairs.

He remained where he was and watched her go up. Once she’d passed out of the gallery in the direction of their room, he reached into his pocket and drew out the folded note that had been burning a hole there. His smile faded as he reread the simple lines of the summons. They told him little more than that he was expected at the Ripley Building as soon as he could get there.

Glancing up, he saw Humphrey waiting by the side of the hall. “My hat and coat, Humphrey.”

“At once, sir.”

As Humphrey helped him into his greatcoat, Declan reflected that his summoner wasn’t a man it was wise to keep waiting. Seconds later, his hat on his head, he walked out and down the steps. Lengthening his stride, he headed for Whitehall.

* * *

From Whitehall, Declan turned into the Ripley Building. When he presented himself to the sergeant on duty, he wasn’t surprised to be directed into Admiralty House. He was, however, surprised to be directed not downward to some undistinguished office on the lower level but upstairs to the office of the First Lord of the Admiralty. Then again, the war was long over, and as far as Declan knew, the gentleman who had summoned him was no longer actively engaged in managing their country’s defenses; presumably, he no longer maintained an official office to which to summon his minions.

A harried-looking secretary asked Declan’s name; on being supplied with it, the man immediately escorted him to an ornate door. The secretary tapped, then opened the door, looked in, and murmured something; he listened, then speaking more loudly, he announced Declan, stepped back, and waved him through.

Very much wondering into what he was strolling, Declan walked into the room.

As the door closed silently behind him, he scanned the chamber. Two men waited for him.

The Duke of Wolverstone—Declan’s summoner—had been standing by the window looking out over the parade grounds. He’d acceded to the title of duke shortly after the war, but Declan still thought of him as Dalziel, the name he’d used throughout the years he’d managed the Crown’s covert operatives on foreign soil—and on the high seas. As Declan walked forward, Wolverstone turned and came to greet him.

If becoming the duke, marrying, and having several children had in any way blunted Dalziel’s—Wolverstone’s—lethal edge, Declan couldn’t see it. The man still moved with the same predatory grace, and the power of his personality had abated not one jot.

Declan glanced at the only other occupant of the large room—Viscount Melville, current First Lord. Declan recognized him, but they hadn’t previously met. A heavy-boned, slightly rotund gentleman with a round face, a florid complexion, and the dyspeptic mien of a man who liked order but who was forced to deal with the generally disordered, Melville remained seated behind his desk, fussily gathering the papers on which he’d been working and piling them to one side of his blotter.

Literally clearing his desk.

The sight, indicating as it did Melville’s interest in meeting with him, did not fill Declan with joy. He was supposed to be on his honeymoon. His brothers and cousins had worked to clear his schedule.

Unfortunately, it appeared that the Crown had other ideas.

“Frobisher.” Wolverstone held out his hand. When Declan grasped it, Wolverstone said, “I—we—apologize for dragging you away from your new wife’s side. However, the need is urgent. So urgent that we cannot wait for any other of your family to reach London and take this mission.” Wolverstone released Declan’s hand and waved him to one of the pair of chairs angled before Melville’s desk. “Sit, and his lordship and I will explain.”

Although Declan had been too young to captain a ship during the late wars, through the closing years of the conflict he’d sailed as lieutenant to his father or one of his uncles, and had experienced firsthand, as had his brothers and cousins—those currently engaged in the other side of the business—the workings of the largely unwritten contract that existed between the Crown and the Frobishers. Alongside straightforward shipping, their ancestors had been privateers; in reality, those sailing for the other arm of the company still operated as privateers—the company’s Letters of Marque were active and had never been rescinded. In return for the company continuing, on request, to provide certain specialized and usually secret services to the Crown, Frobisher and Sons enjoyed the cachet of being the preferred company for the lucrative shipping contracts the government controlled.

The symbiotic link between the Frobishers and the Crown had existed for centuries. Whatever the request Wolverstone had summoned Declan to Melville’s office to hear, there was not the slightest question that Frobisher and Sons would, in one way or another, oblige.

Exactly how they responded, however, was up to them—and, it seemed, in this instance, the decision was in Declan’s hands.

He subsided into one chair. Wolverstone sat in the other.

“Thank you for answering our call, Mr. Frobisher.” Melville exchanged nods with Declan, then looked at Wolverstone. “I haven’t previously had reason to invoke the Crown’s privilege and call on your family for assistance. However, Wolverstone here assures me that, in this matter, asking Frobisher and Sons for help is our best way forward.” Melville’s brown eyes returned to Declan’s face. “As His Grace is more experienced than I in relating the facts of such matters, I will ask him to explain.”

Declan looked at Wolverstone and faintly arched a brow.

Wolverstone met his eyes. “I was at home in Northumberland when word of this problem reached me.” Declan was aware that Wolverstone’s principal seat lay just south of the Scottish border. Wolverstone continued, “I immediately sent word to Aberdeen. Royd replied, reluctantly naming you as the only Frobisher available. He wrote that he was dispatching your ship, The Cormorant, with a full complement of crew south at the same time as he sent his reply. Your ship should be waiting for you at the company berth in Southampton by the time you’re ready to leave.” Wolverstone paused, then said, “Again, let me offer our—and your family’s—regrets over disrupting your honeymoon. Royd, I believe, would have answered our call himself, but your father and mother have left on a trip to Dublin and are not available to take the company’s helm.”

Declan recalled his mother mentioning the trip.

“Robert, meanwhile, has recently set sail for New York and is not expected back for some weeks—and, as mentioned, our matter is urgent. Likewise, none of the others are immediately available”—Wolverstone’s lips twisted wryly—“while courtesy of your honeymoon, you are already here, on our doorstep in London.”

Resigning himself to the inevitable, Declan inclined his head.

“Royd also wrote that, as the mission involves our West African settlements, you are unquestionably the best man for the job.”

Declan widened his eyes. “West Africa?”

Wolverstone nodded. “I gather you’re familiar with the ports along that coast and have also gone inland in several locations.”

Declan held Wolverstone’s gaze. Royd might have mentioned Declan’s knowledge of the region, but his eldest brother wouldn’t have revealed any details, and Declan saw no reason to regale Wolverstone, of all men, with such facts. “Indeed.” In order to avoid further probing, he added, “Royd’s right. Assuming you want something or someone found in that area, I’m your best hope.”

Wolverstone’s lips curved slightly—he was far too perceptive for Declan’s peace of mind—but he obliged and moved on. “In this case, it’s information we need you to find.”

Leaning over his desk, Melville earnestly interjected, “Find—and bring back to us.”

Wolverstone flicked the First Lord a faintly chiding glance, then returned his dark gaze to Declan’s face. He imperturbably continued, “The situation is this. As you no doubt know, while Freetown is presently the base for the navy’s West Africa Squadron, we also have a sizeable detachment of army personnel stationed at Fort Thornton, in support of the governor-in-chief of the region, who is quartered there.”

“The governor’s currently Holbrook.” Melville caught Declan’s eye. “Do you know him?”

“Not well. I’ve met him once, but not recently.”

“As it happens, that’s advantageous.” Wolverstone went on, “An army engineer from the corps at Fort Thornton disappeared four months ago. As far as we’ve been able to learn, Captain Dixon simply vanished—he was there one day and not the next. Apparently, none of his colleagues have any idea of where he might have gone or that he’d been planning any excursion. Although relatively young, Dixon was an experienced engineer and well regarded. He was also from a family with connections in the navy. At those connections’ request, Melville authorized a lieutenant from the West Africa Squadron to investigate.”

Wolverstone paused; his gaze held Declan’s. “The lieutenant disappeared—simply vanished—too.”

“Bally nonsense,” Melville growled. “I know Hopkins—he wouldn’t have gone absent without leave.”

“Indeed.” Wolverstone inclined his head. “From what I know of the Hopkins family, I would agree. Subsequently, Melville sent in another lieutenant, Fanshawe, a man with more experience of investigations and the local region. He, too, vanished without trace.”

“At that point,” Melville stated rather glumly, “I asked for Wolverstone’s advice.”

Without reaction, Wolverstone continued, “I suggested a gentleman by the name of Hillsythe be sent to Freetown as an attaché to the governor’s office. Hillsythe is in his late twenties and had worked for me previously in covert operations. His experience is sound. He knew what he had to do, and, once there, he would have known how to go about it.” Wolverstone paused, then, his voice quieter, said, “Hillsythe has disappeared, too. As far as we can judge, about a week after he’d arrived in the settlement.”

Declan absorbed what it said of the situation that one of Wolverstone’s own had vanished. Imagining what might be going on, he frowned. “What does the governor—Holbrook—have to say about this? And the commander at Thornton, as well. Who is that, incidentally?”

“A Major Eldridge is the commanding officer at Thornton. With respect to Dixon, he’s as baffled as we are. As for Holbrook…” Wolverstone exchanged a glance with Melville. “Holbrook appears to believe the, for want of a better term, local scuttlebutt—that people who vanish in that manner have, and I quote, ‘gone into the jungle to seek their fortune.’” Wolverstone’s gaze locked on Declan’s face. “As you are someone who, if I’m reading between Royd’s lines correctly, has walked into those same jungles in search of fortunes, I’m curious as to what your opinion of Holbrook’s assessment might be.”

Declan returned Wolverstone’s steady regard while he considered how best to reply. Given he would be contradicting the stated opinion of a governor, he chose his words with care. “As you say, I’ve been into those jungles. No man in his right mind would simply walk into them. The roads are mere tracks at best and are often overgrown. Villages are primitive and few and far between. The terrain is difficult, and the jungles are dense and, in many places, impenetrable. While water is, in general, plentiful, it may not be potable. It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that you will meet hostile natives.” He paused, then concluded, “In short, any European venturing beyond the fringes of a settlement would need to gather a small company, with significant supplies as well as the right sort of equipment, and assembling all that isn’t something that can be done without people noticing.”

Melville humphed. “You’ve just confirmed what Wolverstone’s been telling me. That we—meaning the Crown—can’t trust Holbrook, which means we can’t trust anyone presently on the ground in Freetown.” Melville paused, then grimaced and looked at Wolverstone. “We probably shouldn’t trust anyone in the fleet, either.”

Wolverstone inclined his head. “I believe it would be wise not to do so.”

“Which,” Melville said, returning his gaze to Declan, “is why we have such urgent need of you, sir. We need someone we can trust to go out to Freetown and learn what the devil’s going on.”

Wolverstone stirred, reclaiming Declan’s attention. “We should clarify that, in part, our urgency is fueled by wider considerations.” Wolverstone caught Declan’s gaze. “I’m sure you’ll recall the case of the Black Cobra, which ended with a public hanging just a year ago.” When Declan nodded—who hadn’t heard of that episode?—Wolverstone continued, “The Black Cobra cult, controlled by a trio of English subjects, caused significant harm to our colonial peoples. That the cult was able to spread so widely, and act for as long as it did, was an indictment on the British government’s ability to manage its colonies.” Wolverstone’s lips thinned. “The government—the Crown—does not need another similar incident raising further questions about our ability to rule our empire.”

Declan didn’t need further explanation. He now fully understood that the pressure on Melville to find out exactly what was going on in Freetown, to resolve the matter and re-establish appropriate order, was coming from a great deal higher up the political pole. “Very well.” He glanced at Wolverstone. “Do you know when The Cormorant is due to reach Southampton?”

“Royd said it sailed…it would be the day before yesterday.”

Declan nodded. “They most likely left late, so the earliest into Southampton would be tomorrow morning, but allowing for the winds and the tides, it’ll probably be later. The crew will need a day to fully provision the ship from our stores there. I’ll use the next two days to see what information about doings in Freetown I can glean from the London docks, then I’ll leave for Southampton the following day and sail on the evening tide.”

“How long do you think it’ll take you to reach Freetown?” Melville asked.

“With favorable winds, The Cormorant can make it in fourteen days.”

“There’s one thing both Melville and I wish to stress. Indeed,” Wolverstone said, “you can consider it a part of your orders—an instruction not to be ignored.”

Declan arched his brows.

“The instant you learn anything—any fact at all—we want you to return and bring that fact back to us.” Wolverstone’s voice had assumed the rigid tones of absolute command. “We cannot afford to lose more men while continuing to have no idea what is taking place down there. We need you to go in, winkle out a first lead—but we don’t, specifically do not, want you to follow it.”

“We need you to come back and tell us,” Melville reiterated.

Declan didn’t have to think too hard to understand that the political pressure for some answers, any answers, would be mounting by the day.

Wolverstone’s tone was dry as he remarked, “I realize that, as a gentleman-adventurer, you would prefer not to operate under such a restriction. That is, however, what is needed in this case. The instant you learn anything—and especially if, subsequently, you sense any opposing reaction—you are to leave immediately and bring that information home.” He paused, then, in a quieter tone, added, “We’ve lost too many capable men already, and for nothing. That cannot go on.”

Although he hadn’t personally received orders directly from Wolverstone before, Declan knew enough of the man’s history to know that last stipulation was a very un-Dalziel-like stance. The man had been renowned for giving his operatives objectives as orders, allowing said operatives to execute their missions largely as they saw fit. Dalziel had always shown an appreciation for flexibility in the field. And an expectation of complete success.

Which, more often than not, had been met.

That he was being so very cautious—indeed, insisting on such rigid caution—Declan suspected was more a reflection of the seriousness of the situation rather than any indication that the leopard had changed his spots.

He didn’t like the caveat, the restriction, but… “Very well.” If all he was required to do was learn one fact, that would probably take him no more than a day. In effect, his unusual orders would reduce his time away from Edwina; he decided it behooved him to be grateful rather than disgruntled. He glanced at Melville, then looked at Wolverstone. “If there’s nothing else…?”

“I’ve penned a letter giving you the authority to call on the West Africa Squadron for any assistance you might need,” Melville said. “It’s with my secretary—you can pick it up as you leave.”

As Declan rose, Wolverstone, too, came to his feet. “Short of a compelling need, however, I would suggest you keep that letter to yourself. Use it only as a last resort.” He met Declan’s eyes. “Were I you, I would trust no one. Not with the details of your mission. Not with anything they do not need to know.”

The cool incisiveness in Wolverstone’s words told Declan very clearly that neither Wolverstone nor Melville trusted Governor Holbrook or Major Eldridge, or Vice-Admiral Decker, presently in command of the West Africa Squadron. And if they didn’t trust them, they didn’t trust anyone.

There was something rotten in Freetown, and it had spread and sunk its roots deep.

Declan exchanged a nod with Melville.

Wolverstone extended his hand, and Declan gripped it and shook.

“We’ll expect to see you in a few weeks.” Wolverstone paused, then, releasing Declan’s hand, murmured, “And if you’re not back in three weeks or so, I’ll send Royd after you.”

Declan grinned at the threat, which was no real threat at all; he and his big brother might butt heads all too frequently, but he couldn’t think of any man he would rather have at his back. “I’ll return as soon as I can.”

With a salute, Declan made for the door, already thinking of the preparations to be made—and the news he now had to break to his wife.

 

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"A solid, entertaining romance.” RT Book Reviews 

"The narrative smoothly transitions between high society’s sophisticated yet superficial pleasantries and the romance of stolen glances and tender intimacy between Edwina and Declan…. Edwina and Declan share the narration, and their sweet, humorous thoughts give readers pleasant guidance on this romantic journey." Publishers Weekly 

"Stephanie Laurens delivers a beautiful tropical mystery with this historical romance." Night Owl Reviews

“Laurens launches her new Adventurers Quartet on a high note, with a fast-paced tale that is jam-packed with dangerous intrigue and red-hot passion…..Readers looking for something a little bit different than the usual Regency historical will be delighted with the exotic African setting of the book as well as its swashbuckling plot...” Booklist

“Fans of sweetly sensual historical romance will likely swoon over the larger than life feel of the writing." The Romance Reviews

"Tender romance and the joy of family and friends. Definitely recommended." Harlequin Junkie

"If you are a fan of sweet and sensual romance, set in a time not so long ago, with a little bit of mystery and suspense then THE LADY’S COMMAND is a great way to start a new series." The Reading Café

"Stephanie Laurens shows the partnership that marriage can be and how a husband and wife can use their strengths to compliment the weaknesses of their spouse. I also liked that most of this story took place on a settlement in West Africa." Eye On Romance

 
 

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