The Duke of Ware needed an heir. Like a schoolyard taunt, the gruesome refrain floated in his mind, bobbing to the surface on a current of brandy. Usually a temperate man, His Grace was just a shade on the go. It was going to take more than a shade to get him to go to Almack’s.
“Hell and blast!” Leland Warrington, fifth and at this point possibly last Duke of Ware, consulted his watch again. Ten o’clock, and everyone knew Almack’s patronesses barred its doors at eleven. Not even London’s premiere parti, wealth, title, and looks notwithstanding, could gain admittance after the witching hour. “Blasted witches,” Ware cursed once more, slamming his glass down on the table that stood so conveniently near his so-comfortable leather armchair at White’s. “Damnation.”
His companion snapped up straighter in his facing seat. “What’s that? The wine gone off?” The Honorable Crosby Fanshaw sipped cautiously at his own drink. “Seems fine to me.” He called for another bottle.
Fondly known as Crow for his anything-but-somber style of dress, Fanshaw was a studied contrast to his longtime friend. The duke was the one wearing the stark black and white of Weston’s finest evening wear, spread over broad shoulders and well-muscled thighs, while Crow Fanshaw’s spindly frame was draped in magenta pantaloons, saffron waistcoat, lime green wasp-waisted coat. The duke looked away. Fanshaw would never get into Almack’s in that outfit. Then again, Fanshaw didn’t need to get into Almack’s.
“No, it’s not the wine, Crow. It’s a wife. I need one.”
The Tulip slipped one manicured finger under his elaborate neckcloth to loosen the noose conjured up by the very thought of matrimony. He shuddered. “Devilish things, wives.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Ware said, and did. “But I need one nevertheless if I’m to beget the next duke.”
“Ah.” Crow nodded sagely, careful not to disturb his pomaded curls. “Noblesse oblige and all that. The sacred duty of the peerage: to beget more little aristocratic blue bloods to carry on the name. I thank heaven m’brother holds the title. Let Virgil worry about the succession and estates.”
“With you as heir, he’d need to.” Crow Fanshaw wouldn’t know a mangel-wurzel from manure, and they both knew it.
The duke’s friend didn’t take offense. “What, ruin m’boots in dirt? M’valet would give notice, then where would I be? ’Sides, Virgil’s managing to fill his nursery nicely, two boys and a girl.. I’m safe.” He raised his glass in a toast. “Condolences, old friend.”
Ware frowned, lowering thick dark brows over his hazel eyes. Easy for Crow to laugh, his very soul wasn’t engraved with the Ware family motto: Semper servimus. We serve forever. Forever, dash it, the duke unnecessarily reminded himself. His heritage, everything he was born and bred to be and to believe, demanded an heir. Posterity demanded it, all those acres and people dependent upon him demanded it, Aunt Eudora demanded it! God, King, and Country, that’s what the Wares served, she insisted. Well, Leland made his donations to the church, he took his tedious seat in Parliament, and he served as a diplomat when the Foreign Office needed him. That was not enough. The Bible said be fruitful and multiply, quoted his childless aunt. The King, bless his mad soul, needed more loyal peers to advise and direct his outrageous progeny. And the entire country, according to Eudora Warrington, would go to rack and ruin without a bunch of little Warringtons trained to manage Ware’s vast estates and investments. At the very least, her annuity might be in danger.
Leland checked his watch again. Ten-ten. He felt as if he were going to the tooth-drawer, dreading the moment yet wishing it were over. “What time do you have, Crow?”
Crosby fumbled at the various chains crisscrossing his narrow chest. “I say, you must have an important appointment, the way you keep eyeing your timepiece. Which is it, that new red-haired dancer at the opera or the dashing widow you had up in your phaeton yesterday?” While the duke sat glaring, Fanshaw pulled out his quizzing glass, then a seal with his family crest before finally retrieving his watch fob. “Fifteen minutes past the hour.”
Ware groaned. “Almack’s” was all he could manage to say. It was enough.
Fanshaw dropped his watch and grabbed up the looking glass by its gem-studded handle, tangling ribbons and chains as he surveyed his friend for signs of dementia. “I thought you said Almack’s.”
“I did. I told you, I need an heir.”
“But Almack’s, Lee? Gads, you must be dicked in the nob. Castaway, that’s it.” He pushed the bottle out of the duke’s reach.
“Not nearly enough,” His Grace replied, pulling the decanter back and refilling his glass. “I promised Aunt Eudora I’d look over the latest crop of dewy-eyed debs.”
Crosby downed a glass in commiseration. “I understand about the heir and all, but there must be an easier way, by Jupiter. I mean, m’brother’s girl is making her come-out this year. She’s got spots. And her friends giggle. Think on it, man, they are, what? Seventeen? Eighteen? And you’re thirty-one!”
“Thirty-two,” His Grace growled, “as my aunt keeps reminding me.”
“Even worse. What in the world do you have in common with one of those empty-headed infants?”
“What do I have in common with that redhead from the opera? She’s only eighteen, and the only problem you have with that is she’s in my bed, not yours.”
“But she’s a ladybird! You don’t have to talk to them, not like a wife!”
The duke stood as if to go. “Trust me, I don’t intend to have anything more to do with this female I’ll marry than it takes to get me a son.”
“If a son is all you want, why don’t you just adopt one? Be easier in the long run, more comfortable, too. M’sister’s got a surplus. I’m sure she’d be glad to get rid of one or two, the way she’s always trying to pawn them off on m’mother so she can go to some house party or other.”
The duke ignored his friend’s suggestion that the next Duke of Ware be anything less than a Warrington, but he did sit down. “That’s another thing: No son of mine is going to be raised up by nannies and tutors and underpaid schoolmasters.”
“Why not? That’s the way we were brought up, and we didn’t turn out half bad, did we?”
Leland picked a bit of imaginary fluff off his superfine sleeve. Not half bad? Not half good, either, he reflected. Crow was an amiable fribble, while he himself was a libertine, a pleasure-seeker, an ornament of society. Oh, he was a conscientious landowner, for a mostly absentee landlord, and he did manage to appear at the House for important votes. Otherwise his own entertainment—women, gaming, sporting—was his primary goal. There was nothing of value in his life. He intended to do better by his son. “I mean to be a good father to the boy, a guide, a teacher, a friend.”
“A Bedlamite, that’s what. Try being a friend to some runny-nosed brat with scraped knees and a pocketful of worms.” Crosby shivered. “I know just the ticket to cure you of such bubble-brained notions: Why don’t you come down to Fanshaw Hall with me for the holidays? Virgil’d be happy to have you for the cards and hunting, and m’sister-in-law would be in alt to have such a nonpareil as houseguest. That niece who’s being fired off this season will be there, so you can see how hopeless young chits are, all airs and affectations one minute, tears and tantrums the next. Why, if you can get Rosalie to talk of anything but gewgaws and gossip, I’ll eat my hat. Best of all, m’sister will be at the Hall with her nursery brood. No, best of all is if the entire horde gets the mumps and stays home. But, ’struth, you’d change your tune about this fatherhood gammon if you just spent a day with the little savages.”
Ware smiled. “I don’t mean to insult your family, but your sister’s ill-behaved brats only prove my point that this whole child-rearing thing could be improved upon with a little careful study.”
“Trust me, Lee, infants ain’t like those new farming machines you can read up on. Come down and see. At least I can promise you a good wine cellar at the Hall.”
The duke shook his head. “Thank you, Crow, but I have to refuse. You see, I really am tired of spending the holidays with other people’s families.”
“What I see is you’ve been bitten bad by this new bug of yours. Carrying on the line. Littering the countryside with butterstamps. Next thing you know, you’ll be pushing a pram instead of racing a phaeton. I’ll miss you, Lee.” He flicked a lacy handkerchief from his sleeve and dabbed at his eyes while the duke grinned at the performance. Fanshaw’s next words changed that grin into so fierce a scowl that a lesser man, or a less loyal friend, would have been tempted to bolt: “Don’t mean to be indelicate, but you know getting leg-shackled isn’t any guarantee of getting heirs.”
“Of course I know that, blast it! I ought to, I’ve already been married.” The duke finished his drink. “Twice.” He tossed back another glassful to emphasize the point. “And all for nothing.”
Fanshaw wasn’t one to let a friend drink alone, even if his words were getting slurred and his thoughts muddled. He refilled his own glass. Twice. “Not for nothing. Got a handsome dowry both times.”
“Which I didn’t need,” His Grace muttered into his drink.