* * *
Blayne MacNeil picked up his glass of Madeira and saluted his host. Nothing improved his mood as much as a meal at Windham House. The duke and duchess, Valentine Sterling and his wife Regina, had an incredible chef whose skill in the kitchen was second to none. Considerably different from what the two men had known in their nearly two-decade friendship in St Giles. But now that Val, once known as Carlton Guthrie, the Scoundrel of St. Giles, had taken his rightful place as Duke of Windham, he denied his new wife nothing, including incomparable food.
The sweet wine slid down Blayne’s throat, sending a warmth through his stomach. Truth was, sometimes he missed the old Guthrie—and the brutal force he and his friend had used to vanquish the vermin of the world. Now he himself was a businessman with a respectable tavern to run...well, a tavern, at any rate. And Guthrie still made sure justice was served, but it was done with more discretion now that he was a duke, and by accepting help from the authorities.
“I have been toying with the idea of hosting a ball,” Regina said. She glanced at her brother, Marcus, who also resided at Windham House, and then at Blayne. “If I do, I shall expect you both to attend so you can dance with some of the ladies the marriage mart has to offer.”
The comment was jovial – teasing even – yet it still caused Blayne’s lungs to strain against his next intake of breath.
Marcus snorted. “As if any well-bred woman would dare.”
Blayne met Marcus’s gaze and slowly exhaled. His insides eased and he forced a wry smile. “Even if one of the lasses cared to, I’m sure her parents would quickly step in to prevent it.”
“I could coerce them into compliance,” Guthrie murmured, a twinkle in his cat-like eyes.
“And into marriage, I’m sure,” Marcus said with a grin.
“Good lord,” Regina murmured.
“Without a doubt,” Guthrie told Marcus. “Shall I?”
“No.” Regina gave her husband a firm look. “There will be no coercing. I merely thought it might be nice to offer Blayne and Marcus the means by which to attend a social function.”
“To the horror and despair of the ton,” Blayne said right before he spooned more shortcake into his mouth. “I thank ye for yer thoughtfulness, Regina, but I think yer ball would be better served if I stayed away.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “You are a handsome man, Blayne. Kind, too, and hardworking.”
“Not exactly the qualities upper-class parents seek in their future son-in-law.” Blayne took another bite of his dessert. It truly was exceptionally good. “A yearly income close to five thousand pounds and un-calloused hands would be more desirable. Preferably a title or two as well. My income is modest though, my hands as rough as tree bark, and I’ve nae title to speak of.”
More importantly, he had a past he couldn’t in good conscience chain another person to. And he sure as hell couldn’t confide it in any woman. So if he did wed, his marriage would be a sham. He took another sip of Madeira.
“My situation is similar,” Marcus said. “Worse than Blayne’s, in a sense, seeing as I had a title and lost it because of our father. No man in his right mind would allow his daughter to be seen with me, Regina.”
The duchess huffed a breath. “In my opinion, a man’s character – his very own actions – ought to be of greater value than what a relation of his might have done.”
“I don’t think any of us disagrees with you there,” Guthrie said. He gave Blayne and Marcus a pensive look. “Perhaps I can help?”
“Thank ye, but no.” Guthrie had offered to give Blayne a handsome sum once before, and Blayne had turned him down then as well. He didn’t want handouts, not even from a friend who wished to disguise it as overdue wages. “There is something to be said for earning one’s own living.”
“I’m of a like mind,” Marcus said. “Although I might appreciate a loan for the sake of acquiring a profession.”
“Indeed?” Regina regarded her brother with a pensive mien. “And what profession do you have in mind, Marcus?”
“Well.” Marcus cleared his throat. “Medicine would be an interesting field of study. Certainly more so than law.”
“I think that would be marvelous,” Regina said with a smile. “Don’t you agree, Guthrie?”
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