“I should marry to save England?” Blake Montague asked, not hiding his sarcasm.
Standing with legs apart, hands clasped at his back, he revealed the military bearing of an experienced officer. The silver streak marring his thick dark hair since birth leant an air of authority that belied his youth—except he wore the tailored clothes of a civilian with a casualness bordering on the disrespectful.
Blake stood before Lord Castlereagh, Secretary of State for War, in the Duke of Fortham’s library while the rest of the house party played at spillikins and cards in the salon. The interview had not gone well.
Blake continued with hostility, “Without a position in the War Office, I have no other means to pursue decrypting this code except to buy officer’s colors and rejoin the army to obtain more examples. For that, I must marry money.”
“It’s just that kind of insolence and intolerance for the way things are done that holds you back,” the secretary retorted acidly. In his middle years now, Viscount Castlereagh had breathed the heady power of government for most of his adult life, and his impatience with this interview was plain. “For all your intellect, you could not even finish Oxford without waving the flag of your noble code of honor and getting yourself kicked out.”
“Without honor, we are not men,” Blake argued. “The dean gave the grade and the prize I deserved to his lover. If a dean cheats in choosing award winners, is he any more right than a student caught cheating on an exam? Are men of power allowed more leeway than others?”
In response to Blake’s righteous anger, the molting parrot perched in a cage in the corner woke with a start and cried, “Égalité!”
Blake fisted his fingers to prevent flinging an inkpot at the bird. His frustration oftentimes got the better of him. With his future riding on this audience, he couldn’t afford to vent his annoyance.
“Sometimes, yes,” Castlereagh said. “Men of power are in a position to know more than the common man. Had you obeyed your commanding officer in Portugal and not galloped down a hillside to save a damned enlisted soldier, you might not have taken a bullet to your leg, and you could have earned your colors and be working on your wretched code by now. Your behavior will not suit our office, Montague.”
“It cost me the price of a uniform, a horse, and transportation to volunteer as an officer, my lord. With all due respect, I cannot afford to volunteer again. I will have to enlist as cannon fodder in the front lines, with little chance of obtaining what I need.”
“If you do not want to be cannon fodder,” Castlereagh retorted impatiently, “then yes, I suggest you purchase an officer’s colors, join Wellesley, and learn to take orders, even if doing so means marrying for wealth. Or is that beneath your dignity also?”
“The future of England is at stake!” Blake retorted, ignoring the insult. “All I need is more examples of this code, and I’m certain I can break it. Wellington can stop Napoleon in his tracks if he has the ability to read French messages. I’ll work at home if I’m such an irritation to your office.”
“And if we do not provide sufficient copies of the code, will you shoot us as you shot Carrington? Don’t think we don’t know about your duels. It was only because you provided discreet witnesses and were not caught that you were not prosecuted.”
“Lord Carrington is a cheat and a fraud and a plague upon society. He is fortunate I chose not to kill him,” Blake said maliciously, aware he’d lost the argument and would get no sympathy in this quarter. Carrington was a viscount, a lord of the realm. As the youngest son of a mere baron, Blake was nothing but a thorn beneath a viscount’s aristocratic instep.
Castlereagh’s scorn was apparent. Blake did not flinch as the great man gestured dismissal. Throwing back his shoulders, he offered a mocking salute, turned on his heel, and marched out. Or rather, limped out. The bullet from his brief stint in Portugal had torn ligaments in his left leg that had not yet healed. The bullet may have ended his volunteer status and sent him home with the wounded, but he did not regret having saved a man’s life.
Physical frustration was as much a part of his fury as his indignation at the obstacles thrown in his way by those in power. Until the wound knit properly, he’d been ordered to stay off horses and forgo fencing. Without physical release, he had no means of venting the ire boiling inside him.
Avoiding the laughing company in the parlor, Blake aimed for the study, where the brandy was kept. Entering, he encountered a languid, elegantly tailored figure already occupying a wingback chair, his boots propped upon the desk. Nicholas Atherton held out the decanter to his old friend.
“Irish boy turned you down, did he?” Nick asked, without much sympathy. “Probably for the best. You would have punched his snout the first day at a desk.”
“I am not a barbarian,” Blake said crossly, finding a glass and adding a goodly portion of the duke’s finest. “I’m quite capable of carrying out a civilized argument when all else is equal. Castlereagh made it plain that I am not his equal and, therefore, my opinion is of no importance.”
“Men in power have been known to be wrong,” Nick said idly, swinging his glass and admiring the portrait of the voluptuous late duchess hanging on the far wall.
“If I thought that he would take the information I’ve given him about Jefferson’s wheel to someone in a position to work on this damned code, I’d let it go. But he won’t. Yet the fate of Wellesley’s army could depend on reading these ciphers.” Blake pulled a folded paper from his pocket and shook it open. It had come into his hands when he’d served briefly in Portugal. Deciphering puzzles was his expertise.
“You wouldn’t let it go,” Nick said with a laugh. “You never let anything go. You chew a problem to death until you decide whether to spit it out or swallow.”
“That’s a disgusting image.” The brandy didn’t mellow Blake’s humor. “I enjoy a good conundrum. Generally, however, they don’t affect the fate of armies and possibly the future of England. If the French are using a code wheel for communication, we’ll never decrypt it by our standard old-fashioned methods.”
“Chewing it to death,” Nick reiterated through a yawn. “You haven’t the blunt to volunteer again, and the War Office won’t have you. You know your only choice if you want to see more of that code is to marry wealth and buy colors. So either give up the problem or marry. A simple enough choice.”
Blake ran a hand through the silver hair at his temple and spoke through clenched molars. “What, precisely, have I to offer a wealthy wife?”
“Certainly not charm,” Nick said, amused by his own wit.
Blake knew he couldn’t throw a punch at his best friend, not in a duke’s study leastways. Besides, despite all his indolent manners, Nick had a punishing bunch of fives of his own. And he was right, confound it. Content with the freedom of his bachelor life, Blake had never cultivated charm.
“This party is a waste of time,” he said. “I’ll head back to London in the morning. Maybe I’ll have a better idea after I’ve cleared my head.” To hell with doctor’s orders. He’d ridden sedately earlier, but at the moment, he needed a bruising fight or a punishing ride.
“You’ll leave without telling your family farewell?” Nick lifted his golden-brown eyebrows skeptically.
Damn and blast. If he bade them farewell, they’d flutter and protest and ultimately wouldn’t let him leave at all. But sneaking away wasn’t an option. Setting down his glass, he stalked out. Agreeing to this house party had been a huge mistake. Only the presence of Castlereagh had tempted him out of his usual lairs.