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September Awakening (The Silver Foxes of Westminster Book 4) by Merry Farmer (1)

Chapter 1

Winterberry Park, Wiltshire – September 1880

Lady Lavinia Prior had lived her entire life, twenty-six years of it, on the outskirts of London high society. She lived in a respectable townhouse around respectable people. While she herself was unambitious to a fault—in spite of her mother’s constant machinations—she’d managed to make a few friends who were important in the political world and far higher up the social ladder than she could dream of being.

So when she received an invitation from her dear friend, Marigold Croydon, sent from the grand country estate, Winterberry Park, owned by Marigold’s influential husband, Alexander Croydon, inviting her to a late-summer house party, she was astounded. The gentry threw house parties all the time, but this was Marigold’s first party and Lavinia’s first invitation to attend. Lavinia had spent weeks imagining the opulence of such a grand residence as Winterberry Park, but she hadn’t truly grasped how massive the Park was. Until now.

As the Croydon carriage that had picked up her and her mother, Lady Ursula Prior, from the train station in town rounded the bend, giving Lavinia her first full view of the estate, she was stunned. The Park was more of a palace than a house, with its three, commanding stories and elegantly shaped towers. The front garden was a masterpiece of landscape architecture, complete with a cheery fountain. And those were only the surface features. Who knew what wonders awaited inside? Lavinia had underestimated her friend’s good fortune in marrying a rising star of Parliament.

Her mother, on the other hand, let out a self-satisfied sigh and proclaimed, “It’s just as I thought it would be.” She added a giddy giggle to her statement and grabbed Lavinia’s arm. “This is your chance, my dear. I can feel it in my waters. This house party is the chance we’ve been waiting for all these years.”

“It’s my chance to visit with my closest friends,” Lavinia said, her voice barely above a whisper.

Whether her mother heard her or not, she went on as though Lavinia hadn’t spoken, as usual. “Mr. Croydon is sure to have invited a whole passel of eligible gentlemen to his house party. That must be why Mrs. Croydon wants you here. I’m confident that by the end of the month, we will have found you a baron or a viscount or even an earl to marry.” She clapped her hands together as the carriage rolled to a stop in front of the wide stairs leading to the grand front door of Winterberry Park. “This is it, my dear, this is it.”

Lavinia fought to keep her benign smile in place. This had been “it” a dozen times before. Every high society ball they were invited to, every musicale hosted by a duchess that she’d managed to wheedle an invitation to, all of the social events of London were Lavinia’s big chance to snag a titled husband. And yet, none of the gentlemen who had danced with her or engaged her in conversation were good enough for her social-climbing mother, and Lavinia certainly wasn’t good enough for the sort of men her mother set her sights on. The daughter of a baron who had fallen on hard times had no business being courted by a peer, or being addressed as “Lady”, but her mother insisted on both, much to Lavinia’s embarrassment. The only result of her mother’s machinations was a pickiness that had Lavinia convinced she would die a spinster.

Not that she minded. A spinster with good, powerful friends could be an independent woman, which was exactly what Lavinia wanted to be. A woman without a husband and children to tie her down could travel, could become involved in politics, and could be the beloved “auntie” to her friends’ children. The single life was precisely the future Lavinia had in mind for herself, in spite of her mother. As the carriage stopped at the base of the wide staircase leading up to Winterberry Park’s front door and Marigold rushed out to meet it, Lady Stanhope and Mariah deVere following behind, a thrill of excited possibility struck Lavinia’s heart.

“My,” her mother exclaimed as a footman in smart livery opened the carriage door for them. “Mrs. Croydon does look stylish in that frock.” She glanced over her shoulder to Lavinia as she scooted toward the footman. “Do stand up straight when you’re presented, dear, and don’t fidget with your trim.”

Lavinia pursed her lips to hold her temper in check. “Mama, I haven’t fidgeted since I was twelve. And besides, these are my closest friends.”

Her mother made a doubtful noise and turned her attention to the footman, who helped her alight. Lavinia stepped down after her, beaming at the sight of three of her closest friends together.

“I’m so glad you’ve made it here at last,” Marigold said, leading the pack as they hurried down the stone stairs to greet Lavinia with hugs and kisses.

“It was a trial of a journey,” Lavinia’s mother answered before Lavinia could. “But you are so kind to have invited us to such a splendid event.”

As soon as Marigold let Lavinia go so that Lady Stanhope and Mariah could hug her in greeting, she turned to Lavinia’s mother with a polite smile. “Welcome to Winterberry Park, Lady Prior. I’ve had Mrs. Musgrave prepare a special suite of rooms just for you.”

“A suite,” Lavinia’s mother exclaimed, eyes bright, a hand pressed to her chest. “Mrs. Croydon, you are too kind.”

“I wonder if she’ll say the same when she realizes the suite is in an entirely different part of the house than where Marigold’s put us,” Lady Stanhope said, hooking her arm through Lavinia’s in an almost sisterly gesture.

A wave of gratitude and admiration swept through Lavinia. Katya Marlowe, Lady Stanhope, was old enough to be Lavinia’s mother. She had three children of her own who were nearly grown. Her son, Rupert, the current Earl of Stanhope, stood on the verge of assuming the duties of the title that Lady Stanhope had carried out for a decade. Her daughters, Bianca and Natalia, were already being spoken of as the debutantes to beat once they had their coming out. And yet, Lady Stanhope considered Lavinia a friend.

“Marigold couldn’t possibly have given me a room in the same part of the house as the rest of you,” Lavinia said, her eyes wide in disbelief. “Surely she has me secured on some hall with the other single, young ladies invited to the house party.”

“Ah,” Mariah said, walking on Lavinia’s other side as they mounted the stairs and headed into the house. “As it turns out, you’re the only single lady in attendance this month.”

“Bianca and Natalia don’t count,” Lady Stanhope added. “No matter what they tell you about their level of maturity and sophistication.” Her expression hinted that her daughters were anything but sophisticated or mature.

Lavinia’s brow rose. Mariah was a newer friend, one she’d become close to thanks to her connections with Marigold and Lady Stanhope, so she didn’t think the young countess would tease her. On the other hand…. “Aren’t house parties designed to introduce eligible women and men to prospective partners?” she asked.

Lady Stanhope and Mariah laughed, their faces alight with mischief. “Not when the majority of the gentlemen invited are set to play vital roles in the new parliament this November,” Lady Stanhope said, flickering one dark brow. “Marigold told you Alex has been picked by Gladstone to be in his cabinet, didn’t she?”

“She did,” Lavinia answered, still in awe of how important her friends were.

Mariah leaned closer to her as they passed through the hall and into a large receiving room with tall, French doors that looked out into a garden courtyard. “The men are up to something,” she said. “Couriers have been in and out of the house since we arrived a few days ago. Mr. Croydon’s man of business, Mr. Phillips, has already been to London and back with special messages.”

“If you ask me,” Lady Stanhope said, “they’re plotting the fate of the Empire in the library as we speak.”

“Can they do that?” Lavinia asked, her eyes going round. She instantly cursed her show of naiveté.

“Whether they can or not,” Lady Stanhope answered, her handsome features making her appear downright wicked, “they are.”

“Oh.” Lavinia breathed out the single syllable in awe. It didn’t matter how long she’d been friends with Lady Stanhope and Marigold, she was constantly surprised by the power and influence the ladies and their husbands wielded. Particularly after the election in the spring. Their Liberal Party had won a definitive victory, and everyone across the nation was holding their breath and waiting to see what brave new era would be ushered in. Lavinia had high hopes that her circle’s particular cause, the rights of women, would be front and center in the new parliamentary session.

But there were other campaigns that needed to be set into motion besides those that would happen in the halls of Westminster.

“Tad, would you please escort Lady Prior and her things to the Rose Suite?” Marigold asked as a particularly handsome footman stepped into the receiving room.

“The Rose Suite,” Lavinia’s mother gasped, as though she were about to be given a treat. “Lavinia, come along.” She made a sharp gesture for Lavinia to come away from Lady Stanhope—whom she did not approve of one bit, in spite of Lady Stanhope being a countess—to join her.

“Oh,” Lavinia began, disappointed.

Marigold intervened. “The Rose Suite is especially for you, my lady. I’ve put Lady Lavinia in a lesser room.”

What would have sounded like an insult to uninformed ears made Lavinia smile, especially when her mother puffed herself up and said, “Yes, yes, of course. How very thoughtful of you, Mrs. Croydon.” To Lavinia, she said, “Do not wander off or go out frolicking in the garden, dear. You’ll spoil your dress. I shall return forthwith to instruct you in the ways and manners of house parties.” She turned to the footman and nodded, and within moments was led away.

Lavinia let out a breath, her shoulders loosening. “She’s been like that since Paddington Station,” she moaned.

Her friends circled around her, leading her out to the balmy sunshine of the garden courtyard. “She always was priggish and patronizing,” Lady Stanhope said.

“You should have heard her lecturing me on the chance I have to snag a husband at this house party,” Lavinia sighed as her group was seated in a lovely set of white wicker furniture surrounding a small table that a maid was setting with tea.

“Yes, well, we have other plans, don’t we,” Marigold said, a glimmer in her eyes.

“The foundation of the plan has already been laid,” Mariah added, equally mischievous. “I haven’t announced that I’m expecting again to anyone but you.” Her cheeks glowed as she smiled at her friends. “Once I make my condition known, I’ll begin dropping hints that I would dearly love my friend Lavinia to come stay with me in my confinement and to be a help and a comfort once the new baby is born.”

“Aren’t you concerned that my mother will remember you have your sister, Victoria, living with you at Starcross Castle and that she’ll question why you need me as well?”

Mariah lost some of her smile. “Victoria is still in a black mood, and her spirits are quite depressed. If your mother does mention her, I can say as much.” She blinked her way back into a broad smile. “In fact, I could say that you would be of great use in cheering poor Vicky up as well.”

“And if your mother attempts to object to that,” Lady Stanhope went on, “all we need to do is have Peter impress upon her how delighted he, an earl, would be to have you in his household.”

“And how many titled men that will give you a chance to meet,” Marigold said with a grin as she poured tea. “Thank you, Anne,” she said to the maid, who moved to the side, waiting in case she was needed.

“But the point is not to marry at all,” Lavinia said. “The point is to get out from under my mother’s thumb so that I can live my own life, for a change.” She took a teacup from Marigold and handed it to Mariah. “I’m more concerned that she will attempt to invite herself to Starcross Castle instead of letting me go on my own.”

“I will make very clear to her that the invitation is for you and you only,” Mariah said.

Lavinia huffed a wry laugh. “You don’t know my mother. I’m convinced that she will march up to the gates of heaven with me and demand St. Peter accommodate me as she sees fit, and then she’d sit on my cloud with me, instructing me how to play my harp for all of eternity.”

“We won’t let that happen,” Lady Stanhope said, plucking a biscuit from the plate on the table between them. “The only force on earth more powerful than a meddling mother is a determined group of friends.”

A deep feeling of affection filled Lavinia’s gut, causing her to blink away tears. She was the luckiest woman in the world to have such wonderful friends. The only thing that would have made the moment more perfect would have been if Elaine Bond, the new Countess of Waltham, could have been there with them. But Elaine and her new husband, Basil Waltham, had only just returned to Cumbria, and according to the copious and descriptive letters Elaine had sent to Lavinia through Lady Stanhope, they weren’t in any rush to head south when life in Brynthwaite was so satisfying.

The tea Marigold served was the best that Lavinia had ever sipped, and the conversation with her friends was some of the most relaxing and encouraging she’d had for months. She settled back in her chair, ready to face a future that was full of the hope of an independent life. The sun shone down, birds chased each other through the colorful garden beds, and all seemed right with the world.

She was on the verge of closing her eyes when someone opened a window halfway along the house, several yards from them. The stern face of Dr. Armand Pearson, now Viscount Helm, stared out into the garden for a moment. The sound of men’s voices discussing something with passion drifted out, mingling with the lighter conversation of the ladies. Dr. Pearson turned and met Lavinia’s eyes. She sucked in a breath and looked away, heat coming to her cheeks. There was something about the man that intimidated her to no end. Perhaps it was the frown he always wore or the restlessness that had enveloped him on every occasion when they’d met. She would have to do her best to avoid the man for the duration of the house party or else she feared she would do something to make herself look like a ninny.

“Ma’am.” Lavinia was shaken out of her thoughts as the footman, Tad, strode swiftly into the garden, a concerned frown on his face. He approached Marigold, but glanced to Lavinia as he did. “Ma’am, I’m afraid Lady Prior has been taken ill.”

Lavinia sat up straight, setting her teacup on the table. “So soon? We’ve only just arrived. She was fine on the train.”

“She seemed to be settling nicely. She was asking me who the gentlemen of the house party were. I only got as far as Dr. Pearson when she came over funny.” Tad glanced at her with a strange look that combined apology and irritation. “She says she’s quite ill now and that she needs a doctor.”

“Oh, dear,” Marigold said, standing. “Anne, fetch the doctor, please.”

Lavinia stood as well, the tea she’d enjoyed just moments before suddenly feeling like acid in her stomach. “She wouldn’t dare,” she breathed, stepping away from the chair and falling in by Marigold’s side as they followed Tad back toward the house. “We’ve only just arrived. She wouldn’t dare pull something like this so quickly.”

But as they hurried back into the house, Lavinia had the horrible feeling that her mother had already set her matrimonial machinations into motion.

“Gladstone’s directive is clear,” Alex Croydon said, stabbing his finger on the letter that lay open on his desk in the library. “In order to nip whatever opposition Disraeli’s gang throws at us in the bud, we need to come up with a plan of action for November.”

“Which is easier said than done, when you consider the monumental work ahead of us,” Malcolm Campbell answered as he paced restlessly in front of the desk.

Armand Pearson knew that kind of restlessness and then some. He’d felt it nearly constantly since receiving the news five years ago that his eldest cousin had died, leaving him the sole heir to the Helm title and estate and all that came with it. But instead of pacing, like Malcolm, Armand felt frozen to his spot, unable to move.

“We need to tackle the issues one at a time,” Peter deVere said, looming by the side of Alex’s desk, glancing at the letter. “Gladstone can’t expect us to write an entire agenda for the full spectrum of the Liberal Party’s aims.”

“Why not?” Malcolm asked with a shrug.

“Because outlining the entire course of action for a new government in secret could be considered a gross manipulation of power and undermining democratic process?” Peter suggested.

“I think he just wants us to come up with a course of action on women’s rights,” Alex said. “Especially since I’ll be too busy in the cabinet to put as much effort into it as I have been putting.”

“Which is why we’re all here, isn’t it?” Rupert Marlowe asked. “To take up your torch and continue to run?” He was the youngest of their group by three decades and likely only there because his indomitable mother had announced she had better things to do than steer the course of the British government. And yet, young Rupert—who was not even twenty—was not the odd man out in the room.

That honor fell squarely on Armand’s shoulders. He didn’t know what he was doing. Politics was new to him, as was being a viscount. He was a man of medicine, not a statesman. He was in so deeply over his head that he couldn’t even see the light above the water. For the thousandth time, he wished his family’s solicitors had untangled the Helm inheritance mess by choosing his cousin Mark to be viscount instead of him.

“The first order of our business should be to crush our enemies,” Malcolm said, his southern Scottish accent as sharp as his words. “We’ve already managed to wedge Turpin out of government and into prison. Denbigh has fled to his country estate with his tail between his legs, and word has it he won’t be returning to London for the new Parliament. Shayles needs to be next.” His voice dropped to a low, menacing growl.

Lord Theodore Shayles was the one bit of politics that Armand had been able to grasp since being forced to take up his seat in the House of Lords. “Last I heard, Shayles was in trouble with his creditors,” he said, the only information he had to add to the situation.

“Knowing Shayles, if one source of income dries up, he’ll squeeze one of his pimple friends until they burst into giving him whatever money he needs,” Malcolm grumbled.

“What a thoroughly disgusting metaphor,” Peter said with a smirk. “Apt, though. And what with the income I’m sure he makes from that so-called club of his….”

“What club?” Rupert asked when Alex fell silent and the rest of them merely winced.

“You’re too young to know about things like that,” Malcolm said, as though Rupert were his own son instead of Katya’s.

Alex sent Malcolm a flat look before turning to Rupert. “It’s the blackest sort of brothel, disguised as any other club. Most of its activities are horrifically illegal, but thus far, Shayles has managed to blackmail and bribe his way into keeping it open.”

“That’s horrid,” Rupert said, turning pale. “Surely, Scotland Yard could do something.”

“We suspect Scotland Yard is on the payroll,” Peter sighed.

“I want the Black Strap Club shut down,” Malcolm cut through the discussion, his growl feral. “I don’t care if it takes a parliamentary act closing all gentlemen’s clubs or the destruction of Shayles’s personal fortune, I want that man punished for the harm he’s caused over the years.”

“Yes, of course, we want the same thing,” Peter said with a vaguely uncomfortable pinch of his expression.

They all knew why Malcolm had made Shayles his nemesis. Malcolm’s deceased wife, Tessa, had been forced into an abusive and disastrous marriage to Shayles before Malcolm was able to help her escape and obtain a divorce. For Alex and Peter, neutralizing Shayles was a matter of principle and a way to remove the chief obstacle to their grander aims. For Armand, Shayles was the reason his life as he knew it was over. Peers were needed to cast votes in Parliament, not to treat the sick, and so his practice had come to a swift and thorough end. Shayles and his cronies were the reason Armand’s vote in the House of Lords had become more important than his skill at healing, a fact which had made every day since he inherited a misery.

“We’ll have to include the criminalization of prostitution along with our efforts to increase the rights of women, in our agenda for November,” Alex said with a sigh. “Though, much as it pains me to say it, I fear it won’t be popular.”

“Nothing we’re proposing to do will be popular until we provide thorough, well-thought-out arguments as to why it is necessary,” Peter added, steering the conversation back to the task at hand.

“Whatever it takes,” Malcolm snapped. “I’m tired of seeing women suffer needlessly.”

Armand walked away from the desk, his mouth pinched in a sour expression. He’d seen first-hand the ravages of the venereal diseases women had contracted through prostitution, and often through marriage to scurrilous husbands. When inheriting his blasted title had precluded him from practicing standard medicine, he’d turned to the only sort of medicine he could, the sort that wasn’t considered serious medical pursuit at all, the budding field of gynecology. Even then, he’d only been able to help with research, not treatment. But just a tiny dip in the waters of what women suffered through, without attention or acknowledgement, had increased his frustration. The world told him that being a viscount was more important than being a humble doctor, but he knew differently.

He reached the window at the edge of the room and pushed it open to gulp in a breath of fresh air. It didn’t do much to lessen the sensation that he was trapped—trapped in a gilded box labeled “Viscount” with no way to get out. There was so much in the medical world that he still wanted to do, so much more healing that he felt called to. But men with titles were supposed to go on shooting parties, ride horses, and make an idle nuisance of themselves. Peers were supposed to sit on a bench in the Palace of Westminster for days on end, listening to the maddening drone of self-important lords who were convinced they controlled the world. It was a terrible life. It wasn’t the life he knew he was born to lead.

Across the garden, a small group of his friends’ wives sat taking tea. They had more political influence than he did, even young Lady Lavinia Prior. He studied her for a moment, her perfect, pale skin and her auburn hair, caught up in the latest style under a jaunty hat. She glanced to him for a fraction of a second before looking away, color painting her cheeks. Yes, even timid Lady Lavinia had more of a place in the world than he did.

“Armand, what are you doing over there?” Alex called to him from the desk. “We need your input on these things.”

“No, you don’t,” Armand grumbled, stepping away from the window and walking back to his friends. “You never needed my input when I was just a physician, and you don’t need my input now.”

Alex sighed. Peter glanced politely in the other direction. But Malcolm glared at him. “Stop your winging and focus on the matter at hand,” he barked. “You’ve had five years to groan about losing your medical practice. Let it go and do your duty to your country by supporting our cause.”

“Easy for you to say,” Armand snapped back. “You’ve never done anything besides arguing and spitting in Shayles’s eye your whole life.”

Malcolm’s eyes went wide with indignation. “Oh, and you think that devoting my life to the causes of liberty and equality is beneath your high, medical standards, do you?”

“Liberty? Equality?” Armand sniffed. “What are you, French?”

“I’m Scottish.” Malcolm pulled himself to his full height.

“And I’m a doctor,” Armand said. He hesitated, debating sharing the news he’d been sitting on for weeks, but the visceral need to let his friends in on the joy he’d been keeping inside was too much. “I’ve been offered a chance to practice medicine again.”

“What?” Peter and Alex said simultaneously.

Armand let out a breath, turning to them. “It’s true. I’ve been offered a position in India. I was contacted by a Dr. Tahir Maqsood, who runs a hospital in Lahore. They need trained doctors there, and they’re not so stuffy about society’s rules that they faint at the thought of a viscount administering pills and setting broken limbs.”

“Dr. Maqsood,” Rupert said, tilting his head to the side. “Why does that name sound familiar?”

“Because he’s a renowned physician,” Armand answered, barely stopping himself from adding, “Like I once was.”

“Are you going to accept this position?” Peter asked.

“Very possibly, yes,” Armand answered.

“You can’t,” Malcolm said, frowning. “The duties of that title you inherited call you elsewhere.”

“I’m a doctor,” Armand insisted. “I was happy as I was, on the verge of opening a practice on Harley Street. I never asked for the title. They should have given it to Mark.”

“The judge determined your father was born ten minutes before his,” Peter said.

“The records were destroyed,” Armand fired back. “It could have been the other way around. They’re going off the word of a midwife in her nineties.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Alex cut in before he could take his argument any further. “I’m sorry that it meant you had to give up something you love, Armand, but the title and everything that goes with it was given to you. And right now, our nation needs healing. The law has no provision for reversing the court’s decision. Once a viscount, always a viscount. If you don’t take up your seat in the House of Lords, it will be vacant, which means one less vote for our cause when it counts. You’ve been called to help, so help where you are called.”

Armand clenched his jaw and stared off at the shelves of books lining the room. He had been called to help. And the cause his friends were fighting for was absolutely worthy. But it wasn’t the life he’d built for himself. It wasn’t what he wanted.

“All right,” he breathed, trying to let go, but only managing to quiet the roar of unfairness within him, not quench it altogether. “What do we need to do to make Gladstone happy?”

Before any of his friends could answer, there was a knock on the door. One of Alex’s footmen stuck his head inside.

“Yes?” Alex asked.

“If you please, sir,” the man said to Alex, then glanced to Armand. “A guest has been taken ill. Your help is needed.”

As if fireworks had lit the sky, joy blossomed in Armand’s heart. “Where are they?” he asked, marching toward the door without a second thought. “Take me to them.”

“Yes, sir,” the footman said, leading him on.

Finally, something Armand felt competent to handle.