He shook his head. “She looked female to me, ma’am.”
“Hmph.” The queen looked unimpressed. “You know what happens when common people have grand ideas? Chaos. Chaos happens. Just look at France.” She all but whirled on her heels. “Those are tomorrow’s concerns, however,” she said. “Today there are more pressing matters.”
Sebastian tensed. Pressing sounded promising. She had something that belonged to him, or her nephew did, and he would get it back only if he could offer her something she would want more. In his sixteen years as Montgomery, there had never been such a thing. He understood. It was easier to control a duke, even a dutiful one, when one held his eight-hundred-year-old family seat hostage.
The queen lowered herself back into her armchair with such gravitas one could imagine it were her throne.
“You are a rare sort of man, Montgomery,” she began. “You assess, you decide, you execute, very efficiently and, remarkably . . . modestly.” She fingered the diamond-encrusted crucifix that dangled from her necklace. “And I so favor modesty.”
He gave a modest nod, when in fact he wasn’t modest at all. He did things in moderation because it yielded results, but she was not the first to misread him on that account.
And then she said: “I want you to be the chief strategic advisor for the election campaign of the Tory party.”
Ducal breeding kept his expression completely bland, but his mind screeched to a halt. “For the upcoming election?”
The queen frowned. “Yes. Something has gone awry. The Liberal party has gained a surprising lead.”
Not that surprising, if one looked at the country through the sober glasses of reality instead of Disraeli’s rose-tinted party ideology. But the queen had an absurd soft spot for the prime minister, upstart that he was, and now she was asking him, Sebastian, to keep the man in power?
The German cuckoo clock on the mantelpiece ticked away strategic seconds as he scanned the facts. The election was in March, little more than five months from now. Hardly enough time to turn things around, not when one had ten estates, policy work, and one unruly brother to manage. The question was, how much did she want him in particular to turn this election? Very much. He was one of her most trusted advisors at only thirty-and-five because he was good at what he did.
He locked eyes with her. “I’m honored, but I’m not a politician, ma’am.”
She stiffened. “Leave us, Lambton,” she commanded.
The scowl on her face deepened as soon as the door had clicked shut. “You are a politician in all but name and no one can contest your leadership,” she said. “Your public endeavors have an unbroken record of success.”
“I’m presently too occupied to do the task justice, ma’am.”
“Regrettable,” she said coolly, and, when he did not reply, “pray, is there something that would allow you to change your priorities?”
She wasn’t asking as much as she was daring him to make demands on the queen of England.
His gaze didn’t waver. “I spend a lot of my time convincing Hartford to sell me back Montgomery Castle,” he said. “If someone convinced him to return the house, I would be free to advise the Tories.”
Her eyes narrowed. “To sell you back the castle? And there we had been under the impression it was never properly purchased in the first place.” Below her impenetrable skirts, a small foot was tapping rapidly. “Remind us, Montgomery, how did your family seat come into my nephew’s possession?”
He supposed he deserved it. “My father lost it to the marquess in a card game, ma’am.”
The queen’s brows rose in mock surprise. “Ah. That’s right. You see, one would think a castle deserves to be lost, if it is held in such low regard as to be staked in a hand of cards, would you not agree?”
“Unreservedly,” he said, “but then, I am not my father.”
The tap-tap-tap of her foot ceased. The silence that ensued was rife with an oddly personal tension. She had watched him for years as he tried to piece his family’s legacy back together, never quite hindering him, never helping him, either. Except once, he suspected, when he had rid himself of his wife and the consequences had been surprisingly manageable.
“Indeed you are not,” she said. “Hence, I want you to take over the campaign.”
Her hand snapped up. “Very well. Hartford will make you an offer after the election.”
His muscles tensed as if he had been slammed to the ground, making his next breath difficult.
“Is the offer contingent upon the election outcome?” he managed. One needed to be clear about such things.
She scoffed. “It certainly is. The final say over the victory is of course in the hands of higher powers, but would that not be all the proof we need that the castle was truly meant to return to you?”
His mind was already steps ahead as he stood and made his way toward the doors, rearranging his schedule for the upcoming months . . .
He turned back slowly.
The queen was reclining in her chair, a mean gleam in her blue eyes. “If this campaign is to succeed,” she said, “your comportment has to be exemplary.”
He suppressed a frown. His comportment was so exemplary, all the lines so skillfully toed, that not even a divorce had managed to ruin his standing.
“Some people rumor that you are turning into an eccentric,” she said, “but eccentricity is so unbecoming in a man not yet forty, agreed?”
“And yet you are hardly ever seen at parties. You do not hold dinners, you are veritably unsociable, when everyone knows politics is made over a good feast. And there was no New Year’s party last year, nor the year before.”
And the year before that only because there had been a duchess to manage the whole affair.
He gritted his teeth. There was no mistaking where this was going.
“The Montgomery New Year’s Eve party was famous across the continent when I was a girl,” the queen continued. “Your grandfather hosted the most splendid fireworks. Granted, back then it all took place at Montgomery Castle, but Claremont should do.”
“You wish for me to hold a New Year’s Eve party.” His voice was dry as dust.
She clapped her hands together with a cheerful smack. “Why indeed. You are running late with the invitations, of course, but people will change their plans. No one will want to give the impression of not having been invited to the event of the year. So do your duty, Duke. Host a party. Make merry.”
* * *
Make merry. The words bounced around him mockingly as the train rumbled back toward Wiltshire. Sebastian dragged his stare away from the darkening horizon.
Ramsey had just finished laying out his notebook, fountain pen, and ink blotter on the narrow table before him and made to withdraw to the servant corner of the coach.
“Ramsey, draw up a list of people needed to put together a New Year’s Eve party.”
Well-trained as he was, the valet couldn’t stop his eyes from widening with surprise before schooling his features.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“There will have to be fireworks; expenses are of no consequence.”
“Understood, Your Grace.”
“And a ball,” Sebastian added darkly. “I need a concept for a winter ball by next week.”
“Of course, Your Grace.” Ramsey reached inside his jacket and produced the slim silver case with the cigarettes. He placed it next to the ink blotter and retreated.
Sebastian took up his pen. The queen’s retaliation had hit its mark. Hardly a punishment, a house party, but then, she knew how they annoyed him: the stomping crowds, the inane chatter, the stuffy air, the intrusion on his home and his work—and there was no duchess to bear the brunt of the organizing and socializing. He stilled. Was that the queen’s true intention, making him feel the absence of a wife?
He put the pen down and reached for the cigarettes. He did not need reminding. A man his age should long have a duchess running his house and an entire pack of sons underfoot. And every single society matron knew that, too. They thrust their debutante daughters at him whenever he did make a show—seventeen-year-old girls, all vying to be the next Duchess of Montgomery. All of them too frightened of him to even look him in the face. His mouth curved into a sardonic smile. They would have to bear a whole lot more than look at him if they were his wife.
Unbidden, a clear green gaze flashed across his mind. The woman on the square. She had looked him straight in the eye. She had talked back at him. Ladies of his acquaintance had yet to dare do such a thing, but women as far below his station as her? Inconceivable. And yet Green Eyes had dared. She had split from the herd, from that faceless crowd that usually just milled at the fringes of his life, and had stepped right into his path . . . Presumptuous wench. Possibly unhinged.
He flipped open his notebook, and as he set pen to paper, all vanished but the task at hand. Castle Montgomery. Given to the first duke for services rendered during the Battle of Hastings, lost by the eighteenth duke in a hand of cards. He would get it back, even if it was the last thing he did.
You seem distracted, Miss Archer.”