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'Hell's teeth, give it up, man. Can't you see how vulgar it all is?'
The weary censure had been directed at a gentleman who gave no more response than to deepen the furrow in his brow. He leaned forwards, resting his chin in his cupped hands, absorbed in his reading.
Viscount Blackthorne adjusted his neckcloth with nimble fingers but, when his friend continued frowning at the newsprint spread on the table, he turned impatiently from his ref lection to whip the offending paper out from under the fellow's elbows. Having efficiently folded the gazette, his lordship tossed it on to a wing chair.
Hugh Kendrick huffed in indignation, lolling back in his seat with a sulky expression. 'Well, something's got to be done, Alex. If I don't offer to pay Whittiker soon, the odious skinflint will dun me. Then everybody else will pitch in. Only needs one of 'em to start the ball rolling and my desk will be groaning under the weight of writs.' His glum face again sought the support of his hands. 'If I end in the Fleet my mother will have a fit, and Toby ' the mention of his older brother caused his mouth to twist in a grimace ' no doubt Toby will demand a dawn appointment on Clapham Common because I've sullied the family name.'
'Don't be so damned melodramatic.' Alex Black-thorne's lack of sympathy held a hint of amusement. A moment later he was once more contemplating his appearance, long patrician fingers dusting an immaculate broad shoulder encased in charcoal superfine. 'You're not the first man to have let a woman make a fool of him and bring him close to ruin.'
'You wouldn't let it happen to you.' A look of begrudging admiration shaped Hugh's features.
'No I wouldn't.' Alex grinned lopsidedly at the glass, but decided not to rub salt into his old friend's smarting wound by elaborating. He'd already given him his opinion, on numerous occasions, on the subject of idiots who allowed courtesans to fleece them.
Hugh sprung to his feet, snatching up the gazette. 'I reckon it's a sound idea and I'd found one that seemed just the ticket. Here, I'll read it to you '
A protracted muttering accompanied Alex raising his deep-brown eyes heavenwards.
Ignoring his friend's weary cursing, Hugh began, 'Lady Lonesome, desperate to free herself from the constraints of a cruel guardian, seeks kind gentleman to offer protection from.'
A snort of laughter curtailed Hugh's recitation. 'Me-thinks the lonesome lady is keener on a plump wallet than a kind gentleman.' Alex quirked an eyebrow. 'You should suit each other well. She's after the same thing you are.'
'Ah ha!' Hugh exclaimed in triumph. 'Well, that's where you're wrong. Had you let me finish ' He shook the paper in emphasis, then resumed, ' she seeks a kind gentleman to offer protection ' a dramatic pause preceded ' from fortune hunters as an income of two thousand pounds per annum is available to an applicant able to convince her he is in possession of sincerity and a desire and capability to be a caring husband and father.' Hugh looked up with an expectant smile. 'She sounds rather sweet and'
'And she sounds rather pregnant.'
Hugh's jaw sagged. 'You think because she requires the fellow to be a good father.?'
Alex shrugged. 'It wouldn't be the first time desperate parents attempted to buy back a girl's sullied virtue by getting a ring on her finger.' He chuckled at the astonished look his comment had provoked. 'Come on, Hugh,' the Viscount ribbed gently. 'If anyone should know that, it's you.' Alex watched his friend colouring miserably, but felt unremorseful. Hugh was a good friend, but it was high time he toughened up. Alex knew he might not always be around to save the fellow from his niceness and naivety.
A year ago Hugh Kendrick had been burdened with the task, and the cost, of salvaging his sister's reputation when she'd allowed a callous charmer to compromise her. Toby, her brother and legal guardian, had refused to chip in a penny piece to protect their widowed mother from the shame that would have besmirched them all had his sister's disgrace become common knowledge.
'Never mind, Lady Lonesome's cash will come in handy.' Alex patted his friend's shoulder. Despite his mockery, he was beginning to find it all quite intriguing. He relieved Hugh of the paper and read for himself her requirements in a mate.
'Why in heaven's name would she need to advertise for a husband if she's a modest heiress?' He shot his friend a darkly humorous glance. 'If she's not a fallen woman, perhaps she's way past her prime and has ample girth and greying hair.'
'I don't think I care overmuch either way,' Hugh responded mordantly. 'She can be as fat or faded as she likes. It's the colour of her money I'm interested in.'
'You and a hundred other fellows with pockets to let who've read that.' Alex returned the paper to his friend. 'You know I've said I'll lend you the money.' His tone quietened, growing serious. 'You've not yet come to such a sorry pass that you'll need to rear another man's bastard, or risk getting leg-shackled to an old crone with a few pounds in the bank.'
'And I've said I won't take your money not again.' Hugh turned his head to conceal his florid cheeks. Alex had paid off his debts once before. On that occasion he had been blameless for the mess he'd been in: a victim of his sister's folly. Sarah had since settled with a husband in Cheshire and Hugh thought his money Alex's money, he mentally corrected himself very well spent. But he'd sworn never again to take advantage of his friend's wealth or generosity, and he didn't intend to go back on his word.
Besides, he was twenty-nine, and for some while had been contemplating the benefits of settling down with a wife. He was the youngest son of a baronet and had few prospects and fewer responsibilities. For some months he had been feeling the lack and wondering whether a wife and children might fill a gap in his life.
'She might be personable and sincere,' Hugh insisted optimistically, having again studied the advertisement. Instead of considering a wife as a pretty appendage, he was beginning to properly value an advantageous match and a lifelong companion.
'True and I might be the Prince Regent ' Viscount Blackthorne intoned repressively.
Elise Dewey's complexion drained of blood till it resembled the colour of the parchment on which she'd been writing. She was used to her older sister's harebrained schemes to get rich or get wed, but so far Beatrice had put none into action. Whilst writing to her friend, Verity, Elise had been listening with scant attention to her older sibling's chatter. But then Bea had waved at her the proof that this plot was no idle boast.
'You are joking, of course,' Elise finally burst out in a hushed tone. She gazed aghast at the gazette that Beatrice had been flapping in the air.
'No, I'm not!' Bea retorted, dropping the newspaper back to the table. 'It's the only way to get away from here. It's not my fault our parents have got us in such a mess. I'm twenty-three soon and I want a husband before I get any longer in the tooth. With no portion, and no means for a social life in this dreary neck of the woods, it's the only way to do it. How are we ever to meet gentlemen if we can't afford to go out?'
'And how are you to explain away the fact you've not got two thousand pounds or even two hundred to offer any fellow?' Elise had jumped to her feet and marched over to Beatrice. Her eyes widened as she scanned the notice. 'You're mad! Utterly insane!' Her tawny gaze sprang to her sister's profile. 'Have you any idea what sort of villains or perverts you might entice to our door?'
'I'm not daft enough to give out our direction. Of course, any fellow who replies to the box number will be advised we are to meet somewhere.' Bea avoided her sister's angry stare and carelessly twirled a pearly ringlet about a finger in order to prove she was quite relaxed about what she'd done.
Elise could tell Beatrice wasn't as insouciant as she'd like to appear. 'And how does Lady Lonesome think such hardened fortune hunters will react when they find out she's lied and has nothing to offer?'
That comment prompted Bea to rise from her chair and peer at her face in the mantelpiece mirror. 'I wouldn't say I've nothing to offer.' She cocked her head. 'When he sees me he might forget about the money.' She smiled, proudly tilting her chin.
Elise allowed Bea her conceit. Her sister might be what society classed as past her prime, but still she was lovely to look at. Her eyes were cornflower blue, lushly fringed with long inky lashes, and her pale blonde curls always sat in perfect array about her heart-shaped face, whereas Elise's own darker blonde mop tended to resist any maid's attempts to style it. Of course now there were no maids, and only Mr and Mrs Francis, their faithful old retainers, remained with the Dewey family and acted as general staff to the best of their ability.
'If only Mama had taken me to live with her in London, I'd be married now.' Beatrice sighed. 'Some fellow would have offered for me. I wouldn't care who he was he could be old and ugly so long as he had enough standing to let me live a little before I die.'
'But she didn't take you,' Elise returned shortly. 'Mama didn't want us. She wanted her lover, and now she is dead,' she concluded, a catch to her voice. 'Papa has his faults, but at least he didn't abandon us.'
'I wish he had,' Beatrice hissed, spinning away from her reflection. 'I didn't want to be dragged to the sticks to moulder away and expire as a spinster. I'd rather have thrown myself on some rich fellow's mercy.'
'I don't think you mean that,' Elise replied, annoyed by her sister's hint that she'd rather be a gentleman's mistress than endure boredom.
Beatrice blushed, but her lips slanted mutinously, letting Elise know that she wasn't about to take back her outrageous comment.
'You'd better hope Papa doesn't find out what you're doing or saying!' Elise warned, her vivid eyes widening in emphasis. 'If he gets to know you've put in print he's a cruel guardian, and that you're touting yourself about, you really will end in a convent.' Mr Dewey's pet threat when exasperated by his daughters' behaviour was to send them to take vows.
'Even that might be better than living here,' Bea declared theatrically.
'Don't be ridiculous!' Elise swept up the gazette and with no further ado tossed it on to the flickering fire that had burned very low in the grate for want of fuel to nourish it.
Bea gawped at the blackening paper for no more than a few seconds before plunging downwards to try and retrieve it.
'Don't be so daft.' Elise pulled her sister back from the hearth as Bea sucked a scorched digit. 'At least we'll get some benefit from it if it burns for a while and keeps us warm.'
'You'll get every penny I owe you.'
'Oh, yes, indeed I will.' James Whittiker stalked about the card table his low-lidded eyes on the pot of money at its centre. 'I'll take it out of your hide else, Kendrick.' It was an unconvincing threat. Despite being in his mid-twenties James Whittiker was overweight and unfit, whereas Hugh Kendrick was a fine figure of a man, known to regularly attend the gymnasium. Unless Whittiker intended setting someone else on his debtor he would come off worst in a scrap. The assembly knew it and a few rumbles of mirth increased the redness veining Whittiker's cheeks.
'What I want to know is, when will you hand over what you owe?' James flicked a finger at the stake money. 'Is there any chance some of that will be yours? If so, I'll just hover in the vicinity and relieve you of it in a while, shall I?' His sarcasm drew another ripple of amusement; those who had been observing the play knew that Hugh was losing.
'You sound desperate, James.' Alex Blackthorne discarded a card on to the baize. He stretched his booted feet out under the table and settled his powerful shoulders against the chair back. 'Having a spot of trouble selling Grantham Place, are you?' He raised lazy brown eyes to a pink, jowly face. 'My offer is still on the table.'
'Take it back. I've no use for such a derisory sum,' James sneered.
'It's the best of the six you've had,' Alex answered evenly. 'That should tell you something about your expectations where the estate is concerned.'
'It tells me you're a cheat and a fraudster, just like your father before you.' Immediately Whittiker regretted having let seething frustration make him recklessly incautious. He glanced about to see a score or more pairs of eyes had swivelled his way, some viciously amused.
The clientele of White's Club were used to overhearing heated exchanges between its members; they were also used to the possible outcome if traded insults escalated and led to a dawn meeting in a misty glade. Several gentlemen no longer patronised this establishment, or any other, because they had fled abroad to escape arrest. They were the fortunate ones; other duellists no longer drew breath following an unsuccessful fight to protect their honour.
James knew that if Alex Blackthorne now got to his feet and challenged him to name his seconds a grovelling apology was his only option. The viscount was an excellent shot and his fencing skill had been likened to that of a professional. James wasn't prepared to risk being killed or maimed because of a moment of madness. He stabbed a poisonous stare at Hugh Kendrick. It was his fault. The viscount had only chipped in that comment about Grantham to take pressure off his blasted impecunious friend.
Alex was aware of the fomenting excitement in the room. Gentlemen reacted to a hint of a duel like a pack of hyenas scenting a carcase. He sensed several had already quit their tables to stealthily, determinedly, approach and gather behind his chair. Ancient Lord Brentley had seemed to be snoozing behind a newspaper on a sagging sofa. Now he was on his feet in a sprightly shove and ambling over.
Alex folded his hand and skimmed the cards over the baize before leisurely getting to his feet. He approached Whittiker and laid a large hand on one of his fat shoulders. The fellow's nervous quivering was quite tangible through wool. 'I don't think you meant to say that, did you, James?'
Whittiker licked his parched lips. The viscount was giving him a way out, but to take it would brand him ever more as a coward prepared to dishonour his family name to save his skin.
From his superior height Alex inclined his dark head to listen for Whittiker's response. The hushed atmosphere within the room seemed to extend into eternity.
Abruptly the sound of shattering glass splintered the silence. A steward had speeded into the room carrying a tray of decanters and crashed into a table whilst craning his neck to see what had made the club members congregate close to the fireplace.
'I apologise, Blackthorne; mouth ran away with me,' Whittiker muttered, using the ensuing confusion to drown out his words.
Alex was aware of the fellow's insincerity. Whittiker hadn't even met his eyes whilst speaking. Nevertheless, he gave his shoulder a pat before turning away.
Aware of a score or more pairs of despising eyes on him, James shoved through the throng of gentlemen towards the exit.