Drew Barlow, Earl of Denmere, slouched on the brocade sofa and crossed his legs at the ankles. His highly polished Hessians gleamed in the light from the fire. He stared at the flames that danced and sent sparks flying up the chimney.
"What does an impoverished earl do?" He addressed his question to the portrait above the chimney piece. To restore the estates pillaged by his predecessor, marriage to an heiress with a considerable fortune and probably a father in trade was essential. While some members of the ton would look askance at his choice, his family had created enough scandals to make the taint of trade a mere blemish.
He groaned. His mother’s passionate nature, his father’s drunken behavior, the late earl’s obsession with gaming. All played a part in his need to wed and his antipathy toward marriage.
A log fell and sent a rain of sparks flying. The Dowager Countess of Denmere was the only woman he respected. His need to marry money was as much for her as for the estates and to pay the debts left by his distant cousin.
Aldora had rescued him from a drunk and abusive father. She had seen to his education, and thought not related to him other than by marriage, had treated him like a son. She deserved the comforts he couldn’t afford to give her.
The library door opened to reveal his host. Drew’s London house had been rented, and for the past two weeks, he’d been a guest in his friend’s Mayfair townhouse.
Tristan Atwell, Duke of Cairnton, strode into the room. Only a white shirt relieved the stark black of his riding clothes. He held a crop in one hand and leaned against the Adam’s mantelpiece to study Drew. "Town is a bit thin of company these days."
Drew nodded. "I should have come in March but I had a dozen problems to untangle."
"I have the acquaintance of a wealthy widow who would favor an earl as a second husband. Would you like me to arrange an introduction?"
Drew shook his head. "A widow is used to controlling her own fortune and bestows her favors where she will."
Tristan lifted a crystal decanter and filled a glass with port. "A loan? My pockets are deep."
Drew considered the essential purchases needed to put the estates in working order and shook his head. "They’re not bottomless. I didn’t come to town to drag you into my financial problems."
"Let me have your cattle. A team of grays might lighten my reputation."
"And ruin your image." Drew chuckled. "Why not one of whites?"
Tristan shrugged, "You make being a friend difficult."
Drew looked up. Would Tristan, who always had blunt to spare, understand the need to pull himself from the River Tick? With an infusion of a goodly sum, the farms and herds would bring a profit. "Tattersall’s will do the honors. Having me as your guest is enough."
Tristan shook his head. "Anyone who contemplates marriage is either a fool or desperate."
"I plead guilty to both conditions." Tristan’s raised eyebrow and sardonic expression made Drew laugh. "I do what I must. What do you hear from Michael and Niall?"
"From Niall, nothing."
"I’m sure he’s in the thick of action. He was always one to love a fight. And Michael?"
Tristan’s stance relaxed. "He’s awaiting the birth of his heir or heiress. Never thought he’d be the first caught in the parson’s mousetrap." He turned from the window. "What say you join me for an evening at Eugenie’s? Her charming cousin, the fair Janine, frequently asks about you."
"Another time." Drew followed his friend to the door.
While women looked on him with favor, he seldom accepted their invitations to dally. To surrender was to flirt with the loss of control, something he couldn’t afford. Too often, he’d seen what happened to a man who gave in to his passions.
A footman approached. "Your Grace, a message for the Earl has arrived. His man’s in the kitchen and awaits an answer."
Drew accepted the note. As he read the contents, he frowned.
"She wants me to come home. She has received a letter concerning something I must attend to at once."
"Another demand for money from some tradesman?"
Drew’s casual shrug belied a deep sense of frustration that threatened to drag him to the depths. In the year since his distant cousin’s death, there had been many such demands. "The note is vague and so unlike her. I fear the news has overset her. I’ll leave at once."