“Dash it, Kenley, it’s two in the morning and you’re in no condition to make a night of it. Let’s go on home.”
“You’re wrong, my friend. Home is precisely where I’m in no condition to be. Much too sober. One more club ought to do the trick.”
The two gentlemen were standing on the empty pavement outside Brooks’s, one of London’s exclusive men’s clubs. The shorter of the two looked up and down St. James’s Street, where a few sporadic street lamps lit the way.
“You’ve already sampled the brandy of every respectable place. Where would you like to continue the exercise?”
“Why, an unrespectable one, of course! You’re the London expert though, Perry, the compleat town buck. You lead on.”
“There’s Hazlip’s a few blocks away,” Perry answered, knowing it was hopeless to protest further. “Shall I call for my carriage?”
“For two blocks? Gads, man, stop fussing. Since when did you turn into a nursemaid anyway?”
“Since you forgot to duck, damn you, Chase! You’ve been wounded, near drowned, gaoled in a French warship’s brig till you almost died from the gunshot in your brain box, and now—”
“And now I am going to enjoy myself,” firmly declared Captain Kenley Chase, late of His Majesty’s warship Invicta, which was presently lying at the bottom of the sea. “I’ll grant you I am not ready for total debauchery,” he said, gesturing to his forehead, where the dim light barely showed the edges of the black eye patch he wore. “Women seem to prefer dueling scars, you know. But some heady wine, heavy wagers, and good fellowship are just what I needed, especially tonight.”
Perry cleared his throat, choking on the concern he’d almost displayed, obviously unwelcome to his companion and contrary to his own habitual Corinthian attitude of weary boredom. The two men had been friends since Eton, though, no matter how far apart their paths had wandered, and the emotion was there. Perry disguised it with a reminder that Chase had visited Hazlip’s on his last leave, nearly two years ago.
“The place ain’t White’s, of course, but the wine isn’t watered, and the dice aren’t weighted, and, well, I’ll stand by to carry you into the carriage for the ride home.”
The captain put his arm around the smaller man and chuckled. “You and how many footmen, bantling?” He squeezed Perry’s shoulder in silent appreciation as the two men walked down the nearly deserted street.
Chase’s slightly rolling gait, legs spread as if to maintain balance, was what one could expect from a man used to maneuvering on a pitching deck. Almost fifteen years at sea had left at least that mark on him. Otherwise the two comrades could have been any ordinary Regency gentlemen, slightly on the go, out for an evening’s amusement. It wasn’t till they reached the lamp’s glow in Hazlip’s entry way that the real differences showed between Kenley Chase and his friend Perry Adler, nay, between the naval veteran and most other gentlemen in the top ranks of London society.
Perry handed over his greatcoat, with ten capes at least, his gloves, his ornamental walking stick, and high hat, distributing smiles and gratuities alike with easy charm. His dress was totally a la mode, from his black coat and waist, to gleaming white starched cravat, to the one precise fob chain dangling at his somewhat stocky waist. He had thinning blond hair attempting a Brutus cut and a rounded face that kept him still boyish-looking at thirty-two, especially when he smiled, which he did now at Hazlip’s effusive greeting.
“Welcome, welcome, Mr. Adler. We’ve missed you. How are you on this fine night? It’s always a pleasure to see you young gentlemen here. Not like some, who don’t know their limits, heh heh.” The proprietor glanced worriedly at the back of Mr. Adler’s large, dark-haired companion, now struggling to extricate himself from his greatcoat. Not another foxed, belligerent nob, Hazlip prayed to himself. At least not the new chandelier, please Lord. Ah, he sighed in relief, recognizing the man who finally turned his way.
“Why, it’s Captain Chase, isn’t it? What a happy surprise! Sir, may I tell you how honored we are to have you visit Hazlip’s, and what a fine pleasure, yes, pleasure indeed, to see you back from the war alive and we…we…Welcome, Captain.”
Chase inclined his head the barest fraction in acknowledgment. He’d gotten rid of his greatcoat, which was serviceable, no capes, and handed over his gloves. He had no hat, no cane, and no smile for the bumbling toadeater. What he had was his dress uniform, adorned with gold braid and hanging loosely on his tall frame everywhere but at his broad shoulders. He had dark, curly hair, not combed into a Windswept or anything purposeful, simply allowed to fall forward over his forehead. He had a lined, weathered face from his career at sea, but instead of the swarthy complexion one might have expected from those years of exposure, his face wore an ashen pallor, making him look years older than Perry when, at thirty-one, Kenley was actually the younger man. The eye patch didn’t help, except that it covered most of an angry red gash that ran jaggedly up his forehead until lost in the forward-falling curls. His other eye was gray where it wasn’t bloodshot. The look he gave the proprietor, turning his head to do so, was glassy-eyed and cold. No one, not even an avaricious nodcock like the gaming hall owner, could have said he looked well.
“Clunch,” he muttered under his breath as he and Perry moved into the gaming rooms proper.
“I warned you this place mightn’t be up to snuff, Lee,” Perry reminded, helping himself to a glass from a passing waiter. He handed another to Chase.
The captain sipped some of the ruby liquid and grimaced.
“What, has it turned? We’ve had so blasted much to drink tonight I wouldn’t think you could tell Bohea from blue ruin.”
“No, no, the wine is excellent. French, unmistakably, and almost as certainly not under a revenuer’s label. Damn, how those dastards slip through the blockade!”