A Lord Apart – Jane Ashford

A steeple clock chimed as Daniel Frith, Viscount Whitfield, walked into St. James’s Square in the heart of fashionable London. He was early, as he often tended to be, and that would not do for the odd dinner engagement that lay before him. So despite the filthy March weather, he slowed his brisk stride and took a turn about the square. Tendrils of icy fog beaded on his greatcoat and tried to work their way down his neck. He pulled his scarf up and his hat brim down. It was an unpleasant time to be in town, but he had business here. The long list of tasks that thronged his mind these days came rushing back like a swarm of stinging insects. He’d been back and forth to the metropolis from his home in Derbyshire several times in recent months, as the responsibilities of his estates had descended upon him in a most unexpected way. With a thousand things to do, he’d been tempted to refuse this mysterious invitation. But the Earl of Macklin was a greatly respected figure. Not a friend or even, strictly speaking, an acquaintance, but a power in society and an age-mate of Daniel’s father. Daniel’s mind shied away from that subject as a sudden clatter of hooves brought his head around. A high-perch phaeton careened into the square from the direction of Pall Mall, going far too fast for London streets, particularly in the growing dusk with the cobbles damp and slippery. One tall wheel came off the ground as the vehicle barely made the turn. The driver’s exultant shout led Daniel to believe that the young sprig was drunk. When his companion laughed uproariously, Daniel concluded that he was, too. The driver plied his whip, urging his team to an even more ridiculous speed. At the same time, his passenger pointed at Daniel and laughed again. The phaeton veered and raced toward him. For an incredulous moment, Daniel thought they meant to hit him. He leapt back as the equipage loomed, swerved, and swept through a large puddle at his feet. Daniel only just managed to throw up an arm in time to save his face from the sheet of icy water raised by the wheel. Like a frigid slap from a giant hand, it sluiced over the sleeve and shoulder of his greatcoat, splashed his torso, and ran down to drip from the hem. His immaculate top boots were spattered with mud.

Daniel’s shouted curse was lost in the thunder of hooves. Drunken laughter floated back to him as the phaeton barely made it onto King Street and clattered out of the square. Daniel shook his fist, in its sodden glove, as the sound faded. He hadn’t seen their faces clearly enough to call them to account when he saw them again—sapskulls who ordered many-caped driving coats from their tailors and then fancied themselves absolute nonpareils. Idiots! Jug-bitten, bird-witted croakers. Cold water soaked through his coat sleeve, and he shivered. He was flecked with mud from shoulder to toe, in no state to meet the illustrious earl. Daniel pulled out his handkerchief and tried to wipe his boots clean. There was nothing to be done about the spatter on his greatcoat. Rubbing at it would only smear the stains. He’d just have to shed the garment as soon as he reached the club. Which he could not delay any longer; he was dashed cold. Stuffing his soiled handkerchief into a pocket, he started walking. Stepping into the warm brightness of White’s was like entering a different world. The rich wood paneling and golden candlelight of the gentlemen’s retreat replaced the icy fog. There was a buzz of conversation and a clink of glasses from both sides of the entryway. Savory smells rode the air, promising a first-rate meal. That was something to look forward to, Daniel thought, whatever else this occasion might bring. Surrendering his wet coat, hat, and gloves to a servitor, and ignoring the fellow’s raised brows at the state of them, Daniel followed a waiter to a private corner of the dining room, where he found Arthur Shelton, Earl of Macklin, awaiting him. Though the man was at least twenty years Daniel’s senior, he hardly looked it. His dark hair showed no gray. His figure—inches taller than Daniel’s medium height—remained muscular and upright. Daniel knew that his own snubbed-nosed face, dun-brown hair, and dark eyes might be judged commonplace beside his host’s square-jawed, broad-browed visage, but a gallery full of family portraits back home assured Daniel that he more closely resembled the hardened warriors who’d followed William the Conqueror across the Channel. He offered his host a polite bow. Lord Macklin’s face showed few lines, and those seemed scored by good humor.

“I’m delighted to welcome the first of my guests,” the older man said. Daniel was glad to learn that there was to be a party. He wished he wasn’t the first to arrive. Did he dare ask what the deuce was going on? “And here are another two approaching, I believe.” Wasn’t Macklin certain? Didn’t he know them either? Daniel turned to see who it might be. The newcomers appeared closer to his own age than his host’s near half-century. “Daniel Frith, Viscount Whitfield, may I present Roger Berwick, Marquess of Chatton,” said the earl, nodding to the first man. Chatton was thin, with reddish hair and choleric blue eyes. His greeting was clipped, and he looked even more puzzled than Daniel as to why he was here. “And Peter Rathbone, Duke of Compton,” said their host. He didn’t look much more than twenty, Daniel thought, and seemed a chancy sprig. Compton had black hair, hazel eyes, and long fingers that tapped uneasily on his flanks. “And here is the last of us,” said the earl after further mystified greetings had been exchanged. “Gentlemen, this is my nephew, Benjamin Romilly, Earl of Furness, the last of our group.” The new arrival resembled his uncle in coloring and frame. Anyone, seeing them, would have known them for relations. This earl looked glum rather than hospitable, however. Indeed, Daniel had rarely seen a glummer face. Furness looked as if he’d eaten something sour and was on the lookout for a place to spit it out. “And now that the proprieties are satisfied, I hope we can be much less formal,” their host added. They stood gazing at each other. An ill-assorted group, Daniel thought. Chatton, with his red hair, looked like a dyspeptic fox, Compton a greyhound having an attack of nerves. Furness and his uncle were rather leonine, the skulking prowler and the benevolent king of the beasts. How did they see him? Daniel rather fancied himself as a badger—stocky and elusive and deceptively fierce.

The idea amused him enough to divert his thoughts from his wet coat sleeve. Had it begun to steam a bit in the warmth of the club? Probably his imagination. “Sit down,” said their host, gesturing at the waiting table. As they obeyed, he signaled for wine to be poured. “They have a fine roast beef this evening. As when do they not at White’s? We’ll begin with soup though, on a raw night like this.” The waiter returned his nod and went off to fetch it. The hot broth was savory and warming. Daniel enjoyed it. The wine could be nothing but good, at White’s. But Daniel was hard-pressed to make conversation when all he wanted to know was why they were here and how long this strange dinner was expected to last. “Vile weather,” he said finally. The rest of them agreed that it was a filthy night. Compton praised the claret, and then looked uneasy, as if he’d been presumptuous, which was rather odd behavior for a duke. The rest merely nodded. After a bit, the ruddy marquess scowled, leaned forward, and opened his mouth. Daniel braced for an irritable remark, but the man grabbed his glass and downed more wine instead. All their glasses were being emptied and refilled more rapidly than usual. Steaming plates were put before them, a relief in more ways than one. Eating reduced the necessity of talking, for one, and secondly, Daniel was dashed hungry by this time. His muscular frame required a good deal of stoking, and he liked to do it with fine food when he could. The beef was tender and perfectly cooked, with a piquant seasoning that added to its appeal. The roast potatoes had just the right combination of crunch and savor. Clearly, the kitchen had used goose fat in their preparation, as was proper. There was a pungent horseradish sauce that made his eyes water and a variety of tempting side dishes.

He fell to with gusto. Compton might pick at it, and Furness mope, but Daniel knew how to enjoy a well-prepared meal. He’d nearly finished when Macklin spoke again. “No doubt you’re wondering why I’ve invited you—the four of you—this evening. When we aren’t really acquainted.” Here it came at last then, the explanation. Daniel joined the others in turning to their host. Faces showed varying degrees of curiosity and relief. Was the earl going to ask them to contribute to some sort of charitable enterprise? Daniel wondered suddenly. Macklin had the look of a reformer. Having eaten the man’s dinner, he supposed he’d have to cough up a reasonable sum. “You have something in common,” Macklin went on. “We do.” He looked around the table. “Death.” Had the man actually said death? Daniel checked his companions and saw astonishment and impatience on their faces. Surely this was among the oddest social engagements he’d ever had. The older man nodded across the table. “My nephew’s wife died in childbirth several years ago. He mourns her still.” Furness looked more furious than grief-stricken as the table’s attention shifted to him. He was clearly startled, and outraged, at having this information shared with strangers. The earl turned to Daniel. “Whitfield’s parents were killed in a shipwreck eight months ago on their way back from India,” he continued. Given the way things had been going, Daniel wasn’t completely surprised by this unauthorized sharing of his private affairs.

He called on the stoicism that had sustained him through this period and replied, “Quite so. A dreadful accident. Storm drove them onto a reef. All hands lost.” He looked around the table and shrugged. “What can one do? These things happen.” He met curious glances and deflected them. He didn’t intend to discuss the sudden upending of his life with these strangers. Why would he? There was no point. Railing against fate changed nothing. “Chatton lost his wife to a virulent fever a year ago,” Lord Macklin said. “I didn’t lose her,” the gentleman exclaimed, his thin face reddening further. “She was dashed well killed by an incompetent physician and my neighbor who insisted they ride out into a downpour.” He looked like a man who’d suffered an intolerable insult rather than a bereavement. Daniel considered a hasty exit. He could legitimately plead a press of business and lack of time. It would be rude, but he could live it down. He braced to rise. The earl’s bluegray gaze shifted, caught him, and somehow kept him in his chair. “And Compton’s sister died while she was visiting a friend, just six months ago,” their host finished.


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