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After hours of pouring over the figures of his much-diminished finances, Kevin Whattling pushed back one of the last three of his mahogany dining chairs, rose, and stretched. Giles Sloane and Sir Nigel Dillingham, his very best friends in the world, stared up at him, dazed. Nigel shook his close-cropped sandy blond head.
"Don't see how you can be so relaxed, old man," he murmured with a frown. Since Nigel's eyebrows were remarkably bushy and his nose singularly imposing, his frowns were known to curdle milk. Kevin merely shrugged.
"I agree, Kevin," Giles chimed in. "I've known you to face calamity with a laugh, but this ... this is something else entirely." With his round face under a thatch of red hair and equally round frame, Giles was more likely to be found consuming milk than curdling it. Nonetheless, his chubby cheeks, pale and quivering, had more effect on his friend than Nigel's heavy frowns.
Kevin clapped him on the shoulder. "Buck up, my lad. Things may look a trifle difficult..."
"A trifle!" Nigel rumbled. "Penury he calls a trifle!"
Giles snatched the cross-hatched piece of paper off the table and bent over it again, pudgy fingers running down the columns. "Perhaps we subtracted incorrectly. Is that it, Kev? Tell me you have other assets. Perhaps a rich uncle you never told us about?"
Kevin smiled ruefully. "Sorry, Giles. Everything I have is written on that sheet. And as you can see, I am completely penniless. The very furniture on which you sit will be auctioned off tomorrow. And that doesn't count the two thousand still owed to George Safton, not that I begrudge making him sing for it."
"Gads!" Nigel gasped.
Giles shuddered. "Ifonly we could help you. But my inheritance barely covers expenses."
Nigel eyed his friend's considerable bulk. "We all know where your funds go, old fellow. As I don't eat mine, I have a bit more to spare. I can spot you enough to keep up the rent on your rooms for a month or so, Whattling. Unfortunately, I don't have enough to pay off Safton, worse luck."
Kevin shrugged again. "You needn't bother, Nigel." Now that he knew the worst of it, he found it difficult to be morose. There was a strange sort of freedom not having to keep up appearances any longer. He reached to the center of the small table and poured three goblets of port from the decanter there. Passing them to his friends, he raised his own in a toast.
"Gentlemen, have no fear! As Napoleon was defeated so recently on the Peninsula, so shall we defeat this specter of poverty. To success!"
"Here, here!" Giles agreed. He dashed back the port, obviously carried away by Kevin's show of enthusiasm.
Nigel humphed and sipped his instead. "You're mighty cheerful for a man so deep in Dun Territory."
"That, my dear Nigel, is because I have a plan."
Giles poured himself another glass with glee. "I knew it! Trust Kevin to think his way out of any scrape."
Nigel eyed Kevin dubiously, gray eyes shrewd. "A plan, have you? You aren't exactly known for planning. Besides, what, pray tell, could you possibly plan that could raise the necessary blunt? I thought you'd sworn off gambling. Or did you give in to Safton's lures?"
Kevin raised an expressive eyebrow. "Do you think so little of me, Nigel?"
Nigel had the good sense to study his port while answering. "It isn't a matter of what I think. Giles and I both told you what a loose fish George Safton was, the manipulative, conniving wretch. There's a good reason the ton calls him 'The Snake.' But you weren't ready to pay us much heed until ... ". He shifted in his seat, twirling the cut-glass stem of the goblet between long fingers. "Sorry. Unsportsmanlike of me. Never mind."
"You needn't fear to say it," Kevin replied, fingering the black armband and making sure neither of his friends saw what an effort his nonchalance cost him. "If I had listened to either of you, Robbie might still be alive."
"Oh, Kevin, never say so!" Giles defended him, blue eyes wide. "You did what you could. You know I thought quite highly of your brother, but he simply couldn't turn down a wager. And Safton can't turn down an easy mark. They were the worst possible combination. But you mustn't see it as your fault that your brother was led astray."
"Only that I did part of the leading," Kevin reminded him. "I introduced him to Safton. I never thought to pass along your warnings. I paid his debts again and again with no more than a brotherly scold. I even went along with most of their ridiculous schemes."
"So did half of the ton," Nigel put in. "You have to give them this--they were an entertaining pair."
"Until the very end," Giles agreed, but he shuddered again.
"You don't have to wrap it up in clean linen, gentlemen," Kevin insisted. "I have nothing to say in my own defense. I've been an idiot and a dastard. I've lost my only brother, nearly ruined our family name, and run myself nicely into Dun Territory. In short, I've made a mess of my life, and now I have the ignominious pleasure of trying to get myself out of it."
"Which you'll do with style and wit," Giles assured him.
Kevin spread his hands. "Is there any other way?"
"This is getting us nowhere," Nigel grumbled. "You said you had a plan. Will you tell us about it, or not?"
Giles suddenly looked worried. "You didn't apply to those advertisements in The Times, did you, Kevin? I shouldn't think a gentleman could find suitable work that way."
"You'd be surprised what one can find in The Times," Kevin told him ruefully. "Unfortunately, all the responses I received indicated that there was nothing for which a failed Corinthian is suitable. You would hardly hire me for a companion, and I'm far past the appropriate age for an apprentice in any trade. Of course, I can always work below stairs. I'd make a strapping footman, don't you think?"
This time both Nigel and Giles shuddered.
"Do not fear, gentlemen," Kevin told them in consolation. "I have decided on a less onerous approach." He felt sure enough of himself to grin at both his friends, pausing dramatically until he was certain he had their full attention.
"Gentlemen, I plan to sell the last asset I own--myself. I will marry an heiress."
Giles choked on his port. Nigel gaped, but was the first to recover.
"Nonsense," he said with a snort.
"Oh, I say, a poor joke, Kev," Giles seconded, mopping wine from the broad front of his linen shirt with a linen handkerchief. He stopped his ablutions long enough to peer up at his friend. "Are you foxed?"
Kevin's grin widened. "Not in the slightest. I know exactly what I'm about."
"Can't be done," Nigel proclaimed. "Too much against you."
"Such as?" Kevin challenged.
Nigel ticked his reasons off on his long fingers. "One--you've no title, which the papas of most heiresses hang out for. Two--you've no fortune or estates, although I admit you had a respected family name, if they do not count this recent business. Three--it's well known you've been living beyond your blunt, not to mention your fondness for gaming, boxing, racing, and the muslin company. Four--"
"That's quite enough," Kevin said with a laugh, holding up his hands in surrender. "Your logic is flawless. I have only two small credits to counter your long list of debits. I understand the ladies consider me to be reasonably kind on the eyes, and I have been told I possess a certain amount of charm."
Nigel snorted again. Giles cocked his head thoughtfully. Kevin held his smile as they both looked at him with appraising eyes.
He knew the image he presented. At six feet, two inches tall, he towered over both of them, as well as most of the other men in his class. Unlike the thoroughly round Giles or the endlessly angular Nigel, his shoulders were broad enough, his waist narrow enough, and his legs powerful enough to carry off the latest fashion of cutaway coats and skin-tight breeches with polished style. His practices at Jackson's, although less frequent of late, guaranteed his muscular build. He had heard the rumor that his shock of honey-gold hair, which curled in natural artistic disarray, had once caused Lord Byron to sack his valet when that poor worthy failed to match it.
His eyes were a deep, warm shade of blue that seemed to invite the ladies to look closer and offer confidences. He thought his high cheek bones, long nose, and slightly pointed chin lent his face character when he was solemn, and they certainly seemed to encourage others to grin along with him when he was pleased about something. One of his favorite opera dancers had told him he could have played Oberon if he had been darker. The thought of playing King of the Fairy World amused him; surely there were worse entities to whom one might be compared.
Besides, good looks aside, he had a ready wit and an easy grace. Until the recent incident with his brother, most of his friends would have called him easy going by nature, which had made him the first person on many a hostess' guest list. Of course, it was that easy going nature that had landed him in the fix he was in, but he steadfastly pushed that thought aside.
"He has you there," Giles was saying with a nod to Nigel. "Devilishly attractive, that's our Kevin. Seen many a gel swoon at his feet."
Kevin flicked a speck of lint off the lapel of his black evening coat, trying not to show his relief that his friends' assessments matched his own. "Well, perhaps not swoon," he demurred with just the right amount of humility.
"I still say it takes more than good looks and a ready wit to sway an heiress," Nigel insisted.
Giles had clearly been won over. "Have you picked the gel yet, Kev?"
Kevin wandered to the mirror near the door of his small suite of rooms and made himself busy retying his cravat. He hadn't expected them to be won over quite this quickly. Perhaps his plan wasn't as lack-witted as he had first thought. The true test, however, would be their assessment of the woman he had chosen to pursue. He knew he'd have to face them sooner or later and decided the time might as well be now. "Yes, though I doubt either of you will approve of my choice."
"Fanny Brighton is tolerable," Giles offered.
"If you don't mind buck teeth and a laugh like a horse," Nigel complained. "Besides, she wouldn't have you. I have it on good authority that no less than a duke may be offering for her quite soon."
"Evalina Turnpeth, then," Giles suggested.
"Rusticating in the country until the summer," Nigel replied.
"What about that cit Sir John nearly wed?"
"A cit!" Nigel exploded. He threw back the last of his port. "Egad, man, are you mad?"
Giles sank lower in his chair.
Kevin turned to his friends with a rueful smile. "No, not a cit, Nigel, never fear. The lady I have in mind is a blueblood through and through. She also happens to be a bit of a bluestocking as well. I thought I'd try my luck with Eugennia Welch."
"Eugennia Welch!" his friends chorused, their faces awash in horror.
So much for their support. Kevin faced them with determination, refusing to be swayed so easily. "You see, I told you you wouldn't approve."
Again, Nigel recovered first. "I can see the attraction, old fellow. She's known to be quite odd, so you won't have to put up with a lot of nonsense about dresses and balls and the like. But who could stand her insane activities?"
"I don't see them as insane," Kevin protested with a smile. "What has she done--invited the Egyptian expedition to conduct a practice dig in her rear yard? That seems far more practical than trying to accompany them all the way to Egypt."
"That was nothing compared to the time she descended upon Weston to learn how a man's coat was cut," Nigel declared. "I can still see Lord Bellington's face as he stood there in his short sleeves with Weston pointing out the various tucks needed. Poor Bell hasn't been the same since."
"He was never all that bright to begin with," Kevin replied with a shrug. "Not much of a loss if you ask me."
"And don't forget," Giles put in wide eyed, "she was the one who convinced the printers to go out on the ice last year when the Thames froze. She claimed the crowds should have something to memorialize their visit to the Frost Fair, as if any of them could read or would know what to do with the paper in the first place."
"I notice you had your leaflet framed, Giles," Kevin pointed out.
"All that aside, Whattling," Nigel insisted, "it is well known she despises everything you stand for--gaming, pugilistic displays, horse racing."
"I'd like to think I stand for a little more than that, Nigel," Kevin chided.
"What else is there?" Nigel demanded.
"Not to mention that she's past her last prayers," Giles added.
"She can't be over six and twenty," Kevin responded. "Lord Davies threw her a quarter century birthday party--remember how the ladies gasped that anyone would be willing to admit her age in public? It was the same month Robbie arrived in town and that was nearly a year ago." The thought unnerved him for a moment, as any thought of Robbie was wont to do even three months after his brother's death, but he plunged ahead.
"I've thought this through very carefully, gentlemen. Eugennia Welch has a fortune of forty thousand pounds per annum. She purportedly has withstood offers from an earl and a marquis, so she cannot be hanging out for a title. Her father died six years ago, and she has no other male relatives, so I shall not have to fight a dubious family. She seems to prefer the town life, so my lack of a country seat should not dismay her."
He felt his grin reappear as he remembered the last time he had seen her. "Besides, I stood up with her at a country dance last fall, and I rather enjoyed the experience. Despite all your protests, she is a lady through and through. So, unless you have further suggestions, I plan to call on her tomorrow and begin my trip toward the altar."
Giles solemnly poured the last of the port into the three glasses.
"To success?" he offered hesitantly, handing them around.
"No," Kevin corrected, accepting his and raising it high. "To Miss Eugennia Welch. May she soon be the bluestocking on my knee."
"To Miss Welch," Nigel and Giles chorused, and this time all three glasses were enthusiastically drained.