About This Book
A new chapter posted every Saturday.
David “Toad” Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah “Sal” Grenford, daughter of the once-profligate Duke of Haverford, will always hold his heart. But when the two teens are caught in bed together by their horrified parents, he is sent away to finish school on the Continent, and she is thrown into the depths of her first London Season.
Can two reformed rakes keep their children from making the same mistakes they did? The dukes decide keeping them apart will do the trick, so as the children reach their majority, Toad is put to work at sea, learning to manage his mother’s shipping concern, and Sal is taken to the other side of the world, as far from him as possible. How will Toad and Sal’s love withstand long years of separation, not to mention nasty lies, vicious rumors, attractive other suitors, and well-meaning parents who threaten to destroy their future before it has begun?
© 2016 Mariana Gabrielle and Jude Knight
Table of Contents
About This Book
Chapter Twenty coming next week!
Nick Northope, Duke of Wellbridge, paced the floor in a receiving room of Haverford House, waiting nervously for his oldest friend. He and his wife had been shown to the Duke of Haverford’s family wing, where the rooms were as opulent and gargantuan as the public spaces, but a few touches showed that this space was for living rather than show. A workbasket stood by one chair, angled toward the fire, and a small stack of well-thumbed books sat within easy reach of another.
On a couch that favored comfort without sacrificing elegance, Wellbridge’s duchess, Bella, clucked over little Davey, the new Marquess of Abersham, not quite half a year old, ensconced in Nurse’s lap. It had been more than two years since the Wellbridges had married and left England to live on her frigate in his Venetian lagoon, In two days’ time Davey would be christened, with King George IV for a godfather. After all they had been through with His Majesty, the dinner he was throwing in their honor on the morrow might prove the most trying of all their joint experiences thus far—even considering their previous ordeals had included kidnap, murder, penury, and exile.
“Do light somewhere, my love,” Bella said. “You are wearing a hole through the Aubusson. Surely your friend will be along shortly.” She distracted the baby with a silver rattle.
“It’s not that…. it’s… good God, Bella, it has been five years since I have seen my oldest friend, and so much has changed.” Not least, Wellbridge had followed Haverford into matrimony, a state both men had sworn to always avoid, and between them, the two couples had logged an enormous amount of time in various ports abroad, adventures they had only shared in occasional letters. “I cannot believe he has yet to meet you, even after all this time. And though I have met his duchess, I cannot say we took to one another. But she makes him happy, or so his letters say. It is like I am to be introduced to a man I have never known, not one who knows me nearly as well as you do.” With a half-smirk, he added, “Better, on a few topics.”
Bella crossed to the decanter of brandy and poured for her husband, pressing it into his hand, gently pushing him to a seat in her inexorable way, her smile the only license she needed to manhandle him. “Calm yourself; you are vexing Davey. Haverford has invited us, so you need no longer fret he will bar the door to you, and after tomorrow, you not be able to fuss about having dinner with the king. And Haverford shall be there for that, too, so you are assured more friendly faces than just mine, so that fear may also be laid to rest.”
Nick scowled slightly at Bella, even as he did her bidding. “I do not fret or fuss, and I am not afraid.”
“No?” Bella gestured for him to drink. “I shall wager a guinea the next thing you say will be in the very language of fussing.”
“I do not a fuss, Your Grace.” His eyes narrowed, but his lips turned up. “You must be cautious of Haverford. He is quite charming, and the greatest rakehell in all the British Empire, to hear the tabbies tell it.”
“And here I believed you to be the greatest rakehell in all the British Empire,” she teased, reaching into his purse for a guinea, transferring the coin to her reticule with a brow that begged him to suggest his comment was not the purview of a worrywart.
With a sardonic chuckle, he explained, “It is not that I do not trust him. I do. With my very life.”
“Just not with your wife.”
“Is he not reformed? I heard in Paris that he has been tamed these eight years.”
“Haverford will never be entirely tamed, though given I can be so ensorcelled by you, I must believe it is possible for Haverford, too. I did not understand that when last I met Her Grace, and so she did not regard me with favor. Damn and blast!” Nick snapped. “I wish to Heaven he would hurry!”
Nick jumped up at the sound of the door opening, and set down his glass on the table. Bella looked up from calming Davey, who had become momentarily fussy at his father’s outburst. The Duke of Haverford bore a slight resemblance to Wellbridge, if only in the greying blond hair, noble bearing, and perfectly tailored suits that needed no padding. The way he stooped and shortened his stride to give his lady his elbow was also reminiscent of Nick while Bella had been increasing.
The Duchess of Haverford was unremarkable in looks, brown-haired and brown-eyed, and shorter, by far, than her husband. She would be slender under other circumstances, but now moved with the cautious gait of the very pregnant. When they entered the room, she narrowed her eyes at her husband, and gestured for him to greet his friend. “Go on, dearest. You know you want to see your old friend. I have stood on my own two feet nearly forty years. I assure you, I will not fall without your arm.”
Without a word, the two men rushed at each other and embraced. They had been the closest of friends for more than twenty years, two wealthy dukes’ sons with an eye for the ladies and more money than sense. When Haverford had still been the Marquis of Aldridge, before he inherited his father’s title and just down from university, Wellbridge had, at the marquis’ father’s request, escorted the boy to the appropriate clubs and gaming hells and brothels, setting up his accounts with Weston and Hoby and Tattersall’s and making sure he got the right sort of town bronze.
Eventually, their exploits had expanded past London, and they had spent a full year traversing the byways of England before a spot of trouble led their fathers—and the Prince of Wales—to banish them for a time. After that, though, they racketed about England—and indeed, the rest of the world—as though they had no cares, until each had, finally, been given a noble title he could not avoid, and discovered a love and a woman they had both insisted for years just did not exist.
“Cherry, my love,” Haverford said, drawing the woman forward to his side, “you remember my dear friend, His Grace, the Duke of Wellbridge? Nick, my duchess, Charlotte.”
Nick made the politest bow he could muster, which was quite deferential indeed. “Your Grace, I am delighted to meet you again and to make known to you my wife, Bella, the Duchess of Wellbridge.” Bella tried to give Davey to the nurse to rise and make her curtsey, but the little boy raised a fuss and grabbed on to her hair. “And, as it seems he has need of his mother, my heir, David George Northope, the Marquess of Abersham.” He gently disentangled the tiny fingers from Bella’s hair, caressing the nape of Bella’s neck as he did so, and dropping a kiss on the little boy’s curls.
“Normally, we would not have brought Davey, but your note did say…” Bella blushed a bit, settling Davey into her arms again, once he was satisfied he was not being handed away.
Cherry disengaged herself from her over-protective husband and sank onto the couch beside Bella. “Oh,” she breathed, “he is beautiful, Your Grace.”
Bella’s smoldering look beneath lowered lashes set Nick’s mind tripping off into directions better not explored in mixed company, but his libido was set aside in a wave of paternal pride when she said, “He looks exactly like his father.” Nick stood a bit straighter, and Bella continued, “Call me Bella, please, and the duke always prefers Nick.”
Cherry rested her hand on her belly and blushed herself. “Normally, I would not be entertaining guests to dinner—I’ve naught but a month more before I am called to childbed, but I could not wait all that time to meet you, and I could not bear you to think I will miss the dinner tomorrow out of malice or ill intent. It is only that I am unfit for broader company at present. Anthony insisted that Wellbridge is like family, and so it shall be. You must call me Cherry, and Haverford will be hurt should you call him Your Grace. We will dine en famille tonight and speak deeply, from our souls, of ghosts long forgotten.”
Bella spoke softly, so as not to be awaken Davey, who seemed to be nodding off as she rocked him. “I am grateful Haverford will be there when we make our return to court, for Nicky especially, though I am sorry the timing is such that you cannot attend. Nick is more nervous than he will say, which is still only half as anxious as I.”
“Prinny is excited about Wellbridge’s return and proud to be asked to stand as godfather,” Haverford said. “He has missed Nick, though he would never say so and will pretend otherwise. You hurt his feelings when you wouldn’t let him arrange your lives for you, but a little flattery and a purse dropped in a card game will mend all. Let him poke his fun and take his pound of flesh, and all shall be as it should.”
Cherry dimpled at Bella. “Largely because the king admires Wellbridge’s wife, it is said.”
“At which, one cannot wonder,” said Haverford, with a courtly bow, earning himself a scornful glare from both women and an assessing glare from his old friend.
Bella frowned. “I am not flattered by the king’s interest. I would rather avoid this entire debacle. His Majesty is quite the worst part of marrying Nick. He has kicked us both in the teeth, and now the duke will crawl back and act as though all is well again. I am not so pleased to put on my Court smile. Especially not when the newspapers have finally, obligingly, forgotten our existence. There is no chance that will continue with His Majesty making much of us in all quarters. We shall be back in the gossip columns again in no time.”
“My sovereign has decreed that all is well, my dear,” Nick chided, “and so it must be.”
“Wellbridge has the right of it,” Haverford agreed. “If one has the opportunity to smooth rough patches with one’s monarch before one loses one’s lands—or one’s head—it behooves one to do so. And not the gossip columns, surely. Wellbridge will star, along with his bride, in the Society news.”
“I leave the gossip columns to you, Haverford.”
“No more, Nick. Not for many years. The papers are not interested in one’s personal life when one lives it in domestic harmony with a veritable angel.” Haverford possessed himself of his wife’s hand, and kissed it, a smug smile at his old friend, who they all knew would garner Fleet Street’s unwelcome attentions once again in a matter of moments.
Under her breath, Bella muttered, “Just because one speaks in the ducal register, does not mean one’s pronouncements have been sent from on high.”
Cherry’s lips twitched, but Nick and Haverford both laughed aloud. “My wife finds the ducal disposition more trying than the papers, Haverford.”
“I daresay I have never met a duchess who does not, from time to time,” Cherry offered.
“Time to time?” Bella asked archly.
“Minute to minute,” Cherry conceded. “But, if we can forgive our esteemed husbands their innate arrogance, then surely, you can forgive Prinny, when a king’s self-worth must be exponentially larger than a mere duke.” She shrugged. “And while it is true, he is the king and so holds much sway over all of us, he is not the whole of England. I hope you will find some compensations in raising this lovely little boy in his own land, among his family and your friends. We are honored, by the by, to stand as godparents to him. Anthony was so pleased to get your letter.”
“I am pleased my husband is so happy to be back in England,” Bella said, without any conspicuous happiness reaching her eyes from her wan smile. “And for the chance to meet his dear friends, though Nick has promised we will return to Italy before the winter.”
“Before the winter?” Haverford asked, leaning forward in his seat. “Nick? I say, London is a dead bore without you here. Stay through the Season, at least. It cannot be so bad without enduring the marriage mart, surely?”
“I hope you will consent to remain at least until…” Cherry rested her hand on her distended abdomen again, and her mouth curved in a soft smile. “I know Haverford wishes you and Wellbridge to stand up for our baby, as we will for little Lord Abersham.”
“Oh!” Bella exclaimed, her hand covering her mouth, blinking away the beginnings of tears. “I… well…” She looked over at Wellbridge.
“Of course,” he said immediately, slapping his old friend’s shoulder. “Of course we will. I am so pleased to think our families will be so joined. If I must commandeer the ship wherever we are and sail back to England myself, I will return to stand up for your heir.”
“No need to ask if you wish a boy or a girl,” Bella said to Cherry, “with a dukedom in the balance.”
Cherry’s eyes clouded. “Haverford says he will be delighted with a daughter, but I have had so much trouble… We have been wed eight years, Your Grace. I have only once before carried so close to term and—” she stops short at the admission, and to blink back a tear, then looks from Bella to Nick. “Nick, Anthony will have told you, I suppose, of our sorrowful loss. I can only hope this is a boy, and healthy.”
Haverford cut in, with a sharp edge to his pronouncement, “My brother Jon’s eldest will be Archduke of Erzherzog after his mother, but Jon has four more sons. If this is a girl, I will petition the king to name one my heir presumptive and foster him here in England. I will not risk my lady’s present-day health in pursuit of posterity.”
“Davey is a miracle, truly, after many similar losses with my first husband,” Bella said, “but I admit to being much relieved I provided the requisite heir when we hadn’t thought to be blessed at all.”
“I am overjoyed to have an heir,” Wellbridge said, “but were Davey a girl, I could be no less pleased.”
Haverford adjusted the curtains to keep the late afternoon sun from shining in his wife’s eyes, then pushed a cushion behind her back and draped a blanket over her knees. He stroked a hand across the crown of her head as she bent over his friend’s baby, tucking a curl behind his tiny ear. He grinned, leaning over them to drop a kiss on her shoulder. “I am quite decided. Cherry, my love, you shall give me a daughter, and we will marry her to little Lord Abersham here.”
Cherry smiled at his whimsy. “Really, dearest? They may have something to say to that, themselves.” She turns to Bella, and said, “But I do hope they will have the opportunity to grow up as friends. My little one will be so much younger than my sister’s children, or the children of our other friends. And a duke’s eldest son—to have a friend his own age, in the same circumstances, would be a treasure to our little boy, I think.”
“Or girl,” Haverford insisted.
“I make no promises to stay in England,” Bella said, “but I am in complete agreement that our children should, at the very least, be friends.”
“As to that,” Cherry smiled up into her husband’s warm hazel eyes, “they may be friends in Venice or Paris or Alexandria as easily as in Margate or Cornwall or London, can they not? We shall simply have to make an effort that our children should know each other, wherever life might take us all. Should that lead to shared grandchildren, we will rejoice, but I think, my lord dukes…” Her glance took in both Haverford and Wellbridge and caressed them with a loving scold, “the two of you must cease your meddling before it begins, lest you have your hearts broken when your children do not bow to the ducal will as easily as the rest of the world.”
Toad Northope, Marquess of Abersham, leaned his head back against the tub, adjusting a towel behind his neck. He shut his eyes against the dim light of the oil lamp in his dressing room and willed away the headache that threatened. He had drunk enough brandy to feel mildly ill, but not enough to be thoroughly sotted. Not nearly enough to be the friendly, charming, dissolute rogue he knew himself to be. He was hungover before the evening even started.
And unacceptable. Only one more night to enjoy himself before he was called to account for being sent down from school—again—and after that, he would surely be confined to Dalrymple House until his father, the Duke of Wellbridge, decided how to punish him this time. He might as well make the most of his freedom. Toad rather hoped that as a college man, he was getting too old to be disciplined like a schoolboy, but he wasn’t sure His Ducal Highhandedness would see it that way. The situation was so very like the one that had seen him sent home from Eton two years ago, and sent off to university early. Only twice as bad.
He groaned. God, I hope no one tells my mother.
If his parents hadn’t been at Wellstone, and Toad hadn’t been sharp enough to come directly to London when the incensed Cambridge don had packed him into one of the College’s carriages, he would already be under house arrest, and would have heard hours upon hours of lectures on his honor and position by now. As it stood, though, Parliament wouldn’t open until the day after tomorrow, so while his father would appear for that, until then, presumably, no one knew he was in London at all until he showed himself.
Three days of silent censure from his father’s ancient factotum, Blakeley, was testament to what he could expect when His Royal Imperiousness arrived to have his say. If the duchess was with him, so much the worse, for Toad’s mother’s disappointment cut in a way his father’s rancor never could. But for the moment, their certain condemnation could be ignored as easily as the sentiments of the servants. He reached out a hand for the brandy waiting on a table nearby. Taking a long draught, finishing the glass, he sighed at the sheer quality and flavor of his father’s best.
He refilled his tumbler, wondering whether or not he should arrange for a woman later, and whether any of his friends were in Town. Certainly, that would be a better way to spend his evening than enduring the disapproval of the help, and he hadn’t been to a London gaming hell or brothel since last spring. He tugged at the bell pull to summon someone to heat more water for the cooling bath, then adjusted the towel behind his head again and took another sip of his drink. When he was master of this house, there would be hot and cold running water, gas lighting, and central heat, and the servants would be trained to keep their opinions to themselves in word and deed.
When the door opened, he didn’t even open his eyes, just said, “I need more hot water, if you please, and have someone send up a tray.”
The voice that materialized made him jump.
“What you need is a spanking, it seems, since the little boy has not yet learned what it is to be a man.”
“Father!” The Duke of Wellbridge—not, at this moment, Toad’s indulgent father, but rather his demanding liege lord—loomed over the tub and his errant son. “I thought you were at Wellstone.”
At the clearing of a throat, Toad finally noticed a second person had trailed his father into the dressing room: the Duke of Haverford, Toad’s godfather and his father’s oldest friend. This could be good or bad, depending on how they had come to find out about his disgrace, and whether the information could be kept from the duchesses. Their wives would be rightly outraged but, as ladies, need not be made privy to every excess of a gentleman.
Both men had told Toad that themselves, separately and together.
Toad had to physically restrain himself from shrinking and grasped the edges of the tub with both hands. He was a man now, and should act the part, even if two dukes had barged into his dressing room. He couldn’t keep the quiver out of his voice, however. “Er… Your Graces?”
“You have a good explanation for being here in London, not at Cambridge, Sirrah?” his father demanded.
“Er… no?” He had been trying to think of one for three days.
Uncle Haverford repressed a snort of laughter, which gave Toad some hope of leniency.
“No, I do not imagine you do.” Wellbridge threw a towel at his son’s head. “Cover yourself and come into the sitting room.”
It might be an easy discussion; the old reprobates, now thoroughly tamed by their respective duchesses, loved to live vicariously through Toad and his exploits, especially with women. They had been teaching him the ways of the bed over brandy and cigars since he was fourteen, when the interest of a willing chambermaid at Haverford Castle led him to seek his godfather’s counsel before trying his luck for the first time. Uncle Haverford always tried to look stern on occasions like this, but his own son was too young to act the rake yet, and he was too proud of Toad to scold.
But clemency didn’t seem likely, with the tone of things so far. His father did not do him the courtesy of leaving the room, just waited with arms crossed, his spotless boot holding the open door.
Toad stood, without hiding an inch of his newly lean and muscled physique. He was well aware that fencing and boxing and rowing and riding, not to mention less mentionable exercise, had made a man’s body of a boy’s, and he would certainly not hide himself from anyone who had pushed into a marquess’ dressing room uninvited. He casually wrapped a towel around his hips and stepped out of the tub, reaching for the thick silk banyan.
“Hurry up, boy,” Uncle Haverford called through the door to Toad’s private sitting room. “It won’t be easier for delaying it.”
Toad loped past his father, tying the sash, rubbing the water out of his hair with the towel, as he entered the other room.
“Yes, Sir. I’m here.” He sidled to the drinks cart and poured three brandies, then handed one to both his father and godfather.
Uncle Haverford nodded his thanks and continued to try to suppress a grin. Toad risked a grin back, and Uncle Haverford’s face went stiff and cold. No, he would not get off lightly this time.
Wellbridge took the glass from Toad’s hands. “The last thing you need is more drink, you sotted wastrel.”
“You were drunk, I take it?” Uncle Haverford asked, deceptively softly.
Toad shrugged. “Not entirely. It was mid-afternoon.”
“Stupid, then,” Uncle Haverford said, and shrugged.
“That is the truth,” Wellbridge said. “Unbelievably stupid! What in the name of Hades were you thinking? A million places you could make up with two chambermaids, but you choose your don’s desk? Have you run mad?”
“Perhaps,” Uncle Haverford said, with a restraining hand on Toad’s father’s arm, “he could explain it to us in his own words, Nick. It was an odd choice of venue, Abersham.”
Toad looked away, heat rising in his cheeks. “It was where they turned up. None of us were doing anything more interesting. And he wasn’t supposed to return for three more hours.”
Uncle Haverford turned to look out the window, his shoulders heaving. Clearly, he had been warned not to let Toad see him laughing, but he couldn’t contain himself. He was probably laughing at Toad’s restraint. Before he ascended to his title, Uncle Haverford had once carried out a wager with Baron Overton, documented in every gossip column in London, wherein they had two women each, per day, for seven days, each time in a different position. Toad’s chambermaids would have been an appetizer for the Merry Marquis before an orgy, when he was Toad’s age. He had heard the stories a million times.
“I had plenty of time to play with the maids and still get his annotating done. If he had stayed away like he said he would.”
Wellbridge stared at his son, dumbfounded. “You would blame the man for returning to his own study? Rather than place it where it belongs—on your shoulders? What kind of man have I raised? Have you no sense of decency?”
“Of course I shouldn’t have done it there and then. I know that. Of course I know that. I’m not an idiot.”
“Truly? That is your defense? ‘I am not an idiot’?”
“You are, in fact, an idiot,” Uncle Haverford informed him, kindly, but with a sardonic chuckle. “The evidence is in.
“And likely to remain so,” Wellbridge snapped, “if you keep getting yourself sent down. Twice now! Both my alma maters have sent down my own son, both times for playing games with the maids. Do you have any idea what it cost to keep Eton from expelling you outright? And what favors I had to call in to convince Cambridge to take you, after naught but rumors of your poor conduct? I do not understand it, Sirrah. Is there some problem with the buttons on your falls? You needn’t try to match our exploits, boy, for it cannot be done, and should not. Not by you, especially.”
Uncle Haverford nodded, but his lip quirked and his voice choked a bit on his ruthlessly curbed laughter. “I trust you cleared the manuscripts you were working on from the desk before you…” He stopped talking and spun to stare again out the window, his shoulders heaving.
Toad muttered, bitterly, “Of course I did. I’m not a heathen.”
Uncle Haverford pulled himself together without too much ado, though Wellbridge was not even close to a hint of amusement. He merely seethed, his canines showing and his fierce anger plain.
“You are a heathen,” Uncle Haverford said, “or you would not have had your pants down in another man’s study. Take the lesson, my boy. You cannot control the comings and goings of other people, especially in their own homes. Keep your clothes on unless you are paying for the room you are in.”
“And keep in mind, young man, you pay for nothing at the moment. Not in Cambridge, not in London, for every penny in your pocket is mine.” Wellbridge yelled, his temper finally breaking the leash, “I suggest you do not remain comfortable here, for you and I and a large bank draft will be leaving for Cambridge in the morning to buy your way back into school. Your money, not mine. Your barony does well enough, and I have done with paying to clean up your messes, Abersham!”
“That’s fair,” Uncle Haverford mused, once again placing his hand on Wellbridge’s arm. Toad imagined he did so a lot in the House of Lords. “And let it be a lesson to you, Abersham. Your Auntie Cherry is very disappointed in you.”
Of course. The mothers had found out and made life miserable for Wellbridge and Haverford, who, in turn, would make Toad’s life miserable next. “You told her? And Mother?” He felt himself blush at a sudden thought and turned away from them. “You didn’t tell Sal, did you?”
Uncle Haverford frowned. “Sally? Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.” Suddenly, he was not the indulgent uncle remembering his rakish youth, but the stern father of a young girl. “Lady Sarah knows nothing about such goings on. The idea.” Uncle Haverford shuddered.
Toad nodded. Exactly. And as it should be. He hated to think what Sally would think of him, if she knew what he had been up to.
“She does not know you have been sent down,” Uncle Haverford added. “Nor will she, until you have left London.”
Toad’s shoulder twitched and he ground his teeth. “I will be sorry to miss her.”
“You might consider what your mother and aunt would think,” Uncle Haverford said, “and Sally, too, if she knew, before you do these things, Abersham.” He must have heard that line from Aunt Cherry. It had her voice written all over it.
“Your mother is horrified at your behavior, and rightly so!” Wellbridge picked up his tirade again. “I cannot think what you can do to earn her trust again. I will leave you now to ponder it, and the consequence to your purse and your honor. Be prepared to leave at first light. I will have your word you will not leave the premises, as I will not have you embarrass me further this day. Need I post guards?”
“Very well. I will take you at your word as a gentleman. I will have Blakeley bring up a tray.”
Toad was surrounded by growing things, hidden in a corner masked by a row of bay trees in large urns, and surrounded by soft feathery ferns and the spiky leaves and purple flowers of agapanthus. This area of the conservatory, with an old but comfortable sofa and cushions purloined from the house, had long since been his retreat when escaping a scolding. He and his friend, Sal, Haverford’s daughter, had also created a similar spot in the conservatory at Haverford House, a short walk across Mayfair, and their parents had always entered into the conspiracy that the two children were all but invisible in their chosen corners.
Not so his father’s butler, apparently, who entered on silent feet to stand over Toad sprawled across the sofa, ever-present glass of brandy in his hand. With nothing else to do, he would deplete his father’s supply as much as he could before the duke returned.
“Yes, Blakeley?” he slurred.
“My lord, a message was delivered.” The butler held out a silver tray until Toad plucked up the folded paper. He stood, the tray at his side, staring at the wall, until Toad said, “Thank you. I’ll ring if I need anything else.”
He waited until the servant had left and closed the door before opening the letter. Sal’s hand was as familiar as his own, having seen it at least three times weekly, unless he was seeing the lady herself, since he left for Eton at age twelve.
Dear Lord Abersham,
I was surprised to hear you were in Town again during Cambridge term time and under circumstances of which my parents will not speak.
The word Town was capitalized in the first sentence, a flower drawn into the o, and the “n” contained a tell-tale flourish, a curlicue that almost added an “s” on the end of the word. That was to tell him to read the letter in their old code. TOWNS—Truth, Opposite, Wish, Nonsense, Secret. Sure enough, he ran a finger along the edge of the page, and she had cut notches and drawn pictures in the margin, as though for decoration, that would tell him how to read every line. To start, her first line was an Opposite—she wasn’t surprised, and her parents were talking about it, which meant his parents were talking about it, too.
He had come home from his first term at Eton secure in the knowledge that his letters home would probably be read by someone, somewhere, besides their intended recipient, so he and Sal had spent the Christmas holidays at Wellstone devising a code by which he could tell her what was happening in his life, without anyone else learning the truth of things.
By the number of notches he cut in the edge of the paper, and which relevant pictographs he doodled in the margins, among many that were irrelevant, she would know how to interpret each sentence. His efforts had always been rudimentary, but Sal, on occasion, had brought out her watercolors and made art of it. They could tell any secrets of their hearts this way, without risking their mothers or fathers, or any of his schoolmasters or mates, knowing what they were truly thinking. He traced his fingers down the stars, hearts, flowers, spirals, and squares that added so much meaning to her short note. After all these years, Sally was the only one who knew what was truth, what was lies, and what was purely wishful thinking.
I suppose you are in disgrace again.
I do not wish to see you. You cannot expect my support when you behave so badly.
I daresay the heir’s wing here at home could tell worse tales, if the walls could talk. I walked the halls of my father’s old apartments only the other day, when I inspected the monthly clean, and it is as though ghosts of Haverford’s misspent youth live there still. No one goes there now, but once a month to dust and preserve the furniture until such time as my brother is old enough to warrant his own establishment.
Are they lonely, do you think, these rooms that were once the scene of many a tryst?
And it made him smile. Uncle Haverford had once been so notorious a rake that the main bedroom in the heir’s wing at Haverford House had been dubbed the Fornicatorium.
I think I will try to visit them more often, perhaps around eight in the evening, when the shadows are lengthening, but the ghosts of my father’s notorious past have not yet had time to congregate en masse.
I hope I will not feel lonely when I get there.
Eight in the evening? Was she asking him to meet her alone at night in a trysting spot? He straightened in his seat. Sal? That cannot be right. Not Sal. She would not ask him to meet her alone. At least, not in the city. If they were at Margate or Wellstone, or if Sal weren’t almost a grown woman, or if Toad hadn’t just given his word to his father that he would stay home, it would be the most natural thing in the world to slip out of the house and meet his best friend. But not in London.
But I ramble. You must think me shatter-brained, dear Abersham. Please assure me that you will amend your ways.
He winced. Even Sal would lecture him over this, if she knew what he had been about. His finger touched the three notches and the star that meant Opposite applied to the next paragraph, and was unaccountably grateful when he read the corresponding words:
You cannot expect my support when you behave so badly. I have nothing important to say to you, and I do not wish to see you. Indeed, I need nothing from you I cannot ask a dozen other friends to help me with.
She would not hold his misdeeds at Cambridge against him, which made him strangely comforted by the idea she might have overheard her parents discussing the events that had seen him expelled. Furthermore, she had some problem that only he could help her with, which infused a sense of pride in him. He might be a rake, but he was still a man that a woman—and a friend—could depend on in a time of need. She did not wish her parents to know, or she wouldn’t have written in code, nor asked to meet him in an abandoned part of the house, which dovetailed rather nicely with Toad’s need for His Magnificent Ducalness to believe he remained under house arrest.
Do not bother to reply until you have made recompense for your transgressions.
He folded the letter and tucked it into the pocket in his coat, then poured another brandy and considered which of the half dozen escape routes he would use to leave Dalrymple House without being caught, and how long he could keep drinking, but still appear sober when he met Sal at eight o’clock.
Lady Sarah Grenford made her way down the abandoned servants’ passage to the heir’s wing of Haverford House, holding the skirts of her dress out of the dust that had accumulated since the last monthly clean. Once, these apartments had been witness to carnal excesses such as London had never seen or heard, when her father was young, still the Merry Marquis of Aldridge, before he married Mama. Or so the gossip columns said.
Now that Sally was approaching seventeen, she knew more than she used to about the ways of the world, in part because her parents overlooked her advancing age and never considered that a child would understand their conversations.
She often dined with her parents now, even when they had guests, especially family friends, as was the case tonight. Aunt Bella and Uncle Wellbridge exclaimed over the grown-up gown, newly arrived from the modiste, and the way Maud had dressed her hair high on her head, with just a few curls cascading down her neck to touch her white shoulders.
But it had been a dismal meal, the adults preoccupied and avoiding the one topic on their minds. Toad Northope, her best friend in the whole world, was in deep disgrace with his parents and godparents alike, and the nature of his crimes was such that they were loath to sully a maiden’s ears with it. Aunt Bella had glanced over at her with such sadness in her eyes, again and again, throughout the meal, even as the conversation stuttered and started, when she thought Sally wasn’t looking.
For most of her life, Sally had assumed she would one day grow up and marry Toad. When she was little she looked forward to living night and day with the friend who always understood her. As she grew older, and he became the most handsome man she knew, she trembled at the thought of being his to touch.
If he wanted to marry her.
The parents thought Sally did not know he was here in London, and they would be horrified if they realized she had heard them discussing why. But they wanted to talk about it again. She had counted on that, had expected Papa to dismiss her immediately after dinner was over. It was a simple matter to give Maud leave to go to bed, declaring that Sally wanted to feel like a princess for a little longer in her grown-up gown, and would take down her own hair.
A princess. In her father’s old quarters, she lit every candle she could find and twirled in front of the gilt-framed mirrors lining every wall of his former bedchamber. She used to think this a room for a princess, and the draped painting of the mysterious woman on the wall seemed proof, for she was surely the most beautiful of any of the many portraits in her family’s houses.
Sally’s dress, striped in yellow and cream, which had seemed very grownup at dinner, looked suddenly insipid against the ornately painted and carved walls, the richly upholstered furniture—all red and gold. And it seemed childish next to the decadent gown worn by the lady in the painting, that bared her breasts, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Sally tried not to look at the enormous bed with yet another mirror above it on the ceiling, but it was reflected from every angle. Thinking about the use to which her father had put that bed and all these mirrors was making her nearly as red as the velvet spread she had once thought so fine. She retreated to the sitting room next door, just barely managing not to run from her own lust, and seated herself on one of the powder-blue fireside chairs.
No. The dark blue sofa would be a better contrast with her gown. Should she lie down on it, stretching herself out like the women in the pictures Toad had sent? Her eyes turned to the shelf that held The Scrapbook.
The Scrapbook was Sally’s and Toad’s deepest secret. When first she had overheard the stories about the young rake’s escapades with the wrong dairymaid—when Eton strongly suggested Uncle Wellbridge withdraw him to avoid expulsion—she had complained to him about her ignorance of such matters and demanded Toad teach her what he was learning. She had been a silly little girl then, only fifteen.
And Papa was wrong when he said Toad had no restraint, for he had not bedded her when she asked, but instead had promised to send her ‘the finest examples of literature and art and scientific treatise on the subject.’ Papa, Toad had said, would castrate him if the dukes or duchesses ever found out, so Sally kept The Scrapbook here, tucked among Papa’s own collection of such literature and art.
Papa’s examples had been more illuminating than Toad’s, but even in them, Sally found it hard to tell what was going on. Tonight, she intended to find out.
Sally had overheard her mother’s stories and those of other women often enough to know the heartache of loving a rake who was not ready to settle. And being sent down from Cambridge for yet another bedroom scandal was just the last in a long line of incidents that showed Toad was quite clearly not ready to settle.
Tonight, she would try to change his mind. Papa sometimes told Mama that once he’d had a taste, he could not look at another woman. Tonight, Sally would give Toad a taste.
She had two purposes. Toad was the only person with whom she could imagine satisfying her burning curiosity. And perhaps, after he had made love to her, he would be as keen to marry as she was, so they might indulge themselves any time they wanted, in whatever it was he was doing with dairymaids and opera dancers, and would one day do with his wife
If not, she would have to find someone else to marry. If she waited for Toad to grow up, she would be an old woman, so she could not allow him to ruin her. However, her research suggested they could do a number of things without completely destroying her marriageability. She was not quite sure what, but Toad would know. She could trust Toad to know, because she trusted her father and godfather had taught him well.
In the silence of the deserted wing, she heard someone approach. Toad. Swiftly, Sally draped herself along the sofa like Madame Recamier, and stared into the bare cold fireplace, trying to look as if she were lost in thought.
“Sal… you are…” She turned her head just enough to see him in the dark doorway, his amused smile belied by an intent gaze, such as she had never seen on his face before. Had he grown even taller in his months away? His voice, when he spoke, was husky, as if his throat were as dry as hers.
“When did you become such a beauty? I pity the poor men of the ton when you are unleashed on the marriage mart. They will be able to do naught but fall at your feet.”
Sally blushed, for once speechless. She knew Toad was handsome, but somehow today, with what she had in mind, he was breathtaking, leaning casually against the doorframe. Her gaze caressed the long lean limbs, the broad shoulders, neatly and tightly encased in the most elegant of fashions. Could she persuade him to remove that exquisitely tailored coat, those tight pantaloons?
But his own troubles must take priority. She mustn’t let him think she was so unfeeling as to ignore his plight. “Were they very hard on you, Toad?”
“Not as hard as they will be if they find I have escaped Dalrymple House to come to you. But you said you needed me, and His Ducal Magnificence decrees I leave London again at first light.”
Her eyes glowed, and she held out both her hands. “You defied them for me?”
“Minx.” He pulled himself upright and crossed the carpet in two long strides, to tug at a lock of her hair falling from its pins. “You are just the type who wishes knights to fight duels to the death for her, are you not?”
So much for him seeing her as an adult. “I would not wish you to be hurt for me even a little bit, Toad. Perhaps you had better go.”
He smirked as he tucked the stray hair behind her ear, caressing the lobe as he pulled his hand away.
“After I have risked all to get here? I think not. Come and tell me what plan you have. Of course, I will do whatever I can to help.” He grasped her hand and helped her sit up so there was room for him to sit beside her.
Sally was silent. Now that it came to it, could she really ask him? But if she did not, he would return to Cambridge tomorrow and her chance would be lost.
Once she began her come out, she would be hedged around with chaperons and restrictions. She was not to have her Season until next year, but her skirts had been let down, her hair put up, and she was to begin attending private dinners and dances as a young lady. At the thought of it, she leaned into Toad, seeking the comfort he had always given her. But Toad shrank away.
“You, my beauty, should not be here with me alone.”
He slid a bit farther from her on the sofa. “I am… er… not entirely sober and a known rake. You should not be caught alone with me.” His body moved away from her, but she took heart from the way his hand remained entwined in the fabric of her gown.
She followed him along the seat. “Am I a beauty, Toad? I shall be, I think. I shall fascinate the whole ton, and have heaps of proposals, and shall turn them all down.”
He laughed and moved back a few more inches, until he hit the arm of the sofa. With wild eyes, he chucked her under the chin, as though she were still in the nursery. “You are a diamond of the first water, and you shall secure the greatest match in all of Christendom. Heaven help the poor sod.” He winked and pinched her cheek.
This is not going to work. He had all the woman of England panting to fall into his bed. And he clearly didn’t want her to be one of them. She retreated a little and frowned at the empty grate.
Toad cleared his throat. “Has it really been more than six months since we have seen each other? I never feel so far away from you as I do with the others, since we write so often.”
Their letters were her greatest comfort: at least three a week since he had left for school at age twelve, but most often, they wrote each other daily.
Sally took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh, then did it again when she realized the heaving of her breasts had drawn Toad’s eyes. “It has been forever, Toad. I do wish I could be a man and have adventures, like we planned when we were young. We could take one of your mother’s ships and go fight the Barbary pirates!”
Toad laughed again. “God help me if you intend adventure! Given all the hidings I took for you when we were children, I can only imagine what scrapes you would get me into now. We would end in a Moorish prison. One does not wish to imagine what your parents and mine would do to me, if you got us both locked up in a Moorish prison, Monkey.”
Monkey, indeed! Surely no man alive ever allowed himself to be seduced by a woman he called Monkey.
“Do not call me that, if you please.”
He arched one brow. “Must I remind you that you constantly call me Toad?”
“It is your nickname, you know,” she said, breezily, “given to you by a king along with your barony. It is hardly my fault you are master of Toadstone Hall.”
But while those things were all true, her words were not the truth. If she were to be honest, she thought of him as David when she read The Scrapbook and tried to imagine him doing to her what the pictured men and gods and other beings were doing to females of varied classes and species. And that is why she tried always to call him Toad, as the rest of Society did, even though she knew he disliked it. Lest she blush at his real name and he ask why.
“If I call you ‘David,’ will you kiss me?”
Sure enough, she was blushing. Sally chewed her lower lip and refused to meet Toad’s eyes.
She looked up to see him staring at her. No. Staring at her lips, his mouth open. His eyes met hers, then dropped again as if magnetized, and his tongue slipped out between his own lips to moisten them. He made a husky sound, almost a groan, then licked his lips again. His voice was so low she could feel it vibrate in her… in the place she wanted to touch after looking at The Scrapbook.
“Sally, did you just ask if I would kiss you?”
This was so embarrassing. Sally controlled her squirm and bounced to her feet. She crossed to the brandy decanter that she had stolen from the butler’s pantry, filled with her father’s best brandy from the decanter in his library. He would not notice. She had replaced the missing alcohol with water.
Pouring Toad a brandy meant she did not have to look at him while she made her case. “You will grow up to be the duke and keep opera dancers and fall in love with fascinating widows, and do the things in the pictures you sent me.” She was blushing. She knew she was.
Toad accepted the brandy, but put it down immediately and grabbed her hand before she could walk away again. “Monkey. If your father knew I was here with you, let alone thinking about kissing you…”
Sally’s heart leapt. He was thinking about it! “Someone shall give me my first kiss, Toa– David. I would as soon it was you.”
He shifted uneasily and she seized the advantage, sitting beside him on the sofa so close that her skirts washed over his legs, and she could feel the heat of his thighs even through her petticoats. “I am not unpleasing to look at, am I? And I am well-connected, and very rich. Will I not be a temptation to a rake, David?
He reached out and cupped her cheek with his hand, not taking his eyes from hers. “You are, my sweet. You are.”
She swallowed the lump that tried to block her next words. “I look at the pictures you send me and I lie awake in the night. And think about what it must feel like.” She dropped her voice to a mere thread of a whisper, and he leaned closer to hear; so close his breath warmed her face. “I try to imagine if it was me. And you, David.” Any moment. If she stretched her face towards him, their lips would touch, and…
Toad drew back, with a suddenly indrawn breath. “Sally. We cannot. I cannot. How can I despoil you? I mean to be your defender, your knight, your husband one day. When I do marry. I will never give my heart elsewhere, no matter what I do with my other body parts. It is just… We are still young, my Beauty.” As if without his volition, the hand that still cupped her cheek stroked downward, the thumb tracing the bow of her lips.
She leaned into the caress, veiling her eyes with her lashes lest he see the indignant flash. ‘Mean to marry,’ indeed. As if he had but to beckon and she would sit up and beg!
She would, it was true. But how arrogant of him to believe it! Her own pride made her voice cold.
“Do you mean to marry me, David? I know our fathers spoke of it when we were children, but I am to have my Season soon, and I cannot wait forever. You cannot expect me to.”
“You have held my heart since before I was breeched. Surely you know that? How could I ever love another? Only… I am not sure how to love a wife yet. I should hate to be a bad husband to the only woman I can ever love.” He frowned. Long experience told her that, when he looked so adamant, he was on the point of succumbing to her coaxing. “And I will not despoil you, however much you tempt me.” But still he continued to gently stroke her lip.
“I am not asking to be despoiled,” she coaxed, “but to be kissed. A kiss may be stolen safely, I know that, as long as no one knows. I can trust you, David. I would trust you with my life.” Her mouth tingling from his touch, she lifted her chin, and half closed her eyes.
He did not disappoint, curving his hand around her waist and pulling her in closer, leaning in to brush his lips against hers. When he shifted as if to pull away, she opened her mouth to protest, and his tongue suddenly slipped between her lips; between her teeth.
Sally molded herself to him, learning the dance of lips and tongues, feeling herself melting. From her lips, he moved along her jawline to her ear, leaving soft kisses and nibbles in his wake.
She threw back her head to give him full access. “David, that makes me shiver right down my body. Oh, David, it makes me ache!”
Suddenly, he pulled away again, his face uncertain.
“Don’t stop. It feels so good!”
“Er… I say… you only want to know what kissing is like…? You aren’t hoping to… er… that is to say… if I were to marry anyone, it would be you, but I’d hate to be… er… Of course, if I had to, I would never leave you to face a scandal without the protection of my name, but I would rather not be forced into marriage by circumstance.”
Sally was deeply indignant. “Toad! How can you think I would try to…”
In fairness, some girls might do such a thing. She had heard her father and Uncle Wellbridge warning Toad on more than on occasion. She gave his shoulder a consoling pat. “Do not worry, Toad. I know what you want to say. ‘One must never trifle with a lady’s affections.’ ‘You are too young to marry.’ ‘You esteem me highly, but…’ Et cetera, et cetera. I want you, Toad. David. You have set me aflame. Never mind about our fathers’ lectures.”
He kissed her again, just a brief brush of lips. “Please do not think I mean offense. As I say, I mean to be your husband one day. But I have so many years yet before I must take on responsibility for someone else’s life.”
She smiled, doing her best to look cheerful. Did he really think she would be allowed to wait ‘many years’? Stupid boy. But he was her stupid boy, and she, for better or for worse, was his, heart and soul. And body, too, if she had her way tonight. “And that is why you must not ruin me, David. But there is a great deal we can do before we reach that point, is there not?”
Perspiration stood out on his head and he pulled at his cravat, whimpering. “You will be the death of me.”
That struck Sally as funny. She looked down demurely, then up through her lashes. “Will it be a nice way to go, David?”
He groaned and pulled her to his chest again, tugging her hair loose from its careful coiffure, and using one hand to make short work of the buttons on her bodice.
“My beauty, death is a cheap price for what you offer.”
“David…” His name was a sigh on her lips. She was on fire again, her mind fogged with desire, but not so much that she forgot the room waiting next door. She intended to watch while he… did whatever he would. Watch and store up memories for the lonely nights to come.
She struggled in his arms, and David instantly released her enough that she could slide his coat from his shoulders, unbutton his waistcoat, and pulled his shirt up from his breeches. She slid her hands up beneath the white linen, curling her fingers into the hair he had unaccountably grown since last she saw him shirtless. He pulled her to him again, just the cloth between her face and the hot skin of his chest.
“Not here,” she whispered.
David had finished with her buttons. If Sally stood now, the gown would fall to the floor. She took a deep breath and pulled back again, this time rising to her feet, keeping her hands under his shirt so that he rose with her.
One by one, she pulled a hand out from under his shirt, shook the gown free of that side, and slipped the hand back into position. Her lips curved as his gaze riveted on the breasts pressed into high mounds by the corset.
As if mesmerized, he reached out a hand to cup each one, and then, with a flick of his thumbs, brought the aching nipples up and out of their confinement.
“Aaaaahhh.” She felt his sigh of satisfaction quivering through his chest, and as he bent his head to kiss one pert breast, she slid her hands around to his back, glorying in the hard muscles within the silken skin.
Kiss? That was not a kiss. He was sucking, licking, nipping, and her knees were buckling. Any moment, and she would be on the hearthrug. “This way,” she told him, urgently, forcing her knees to hold her up a few moments more as she backed into her father’s former bedroom, David following after as surely as a kitten after a knotted ribbon.
The mirrors kept her from tripping as she backed across the gaudy room until she fetched up against the bed, and David closed the gap between them to capture her lips again. Sally stood on tiptoes and, when that was not enough, tried to hook one leg around his hips, but her petticoats defeated her, and she tugged at their ties, almost sobbing with relief when his hands came down to help her. He made short work of the knots, all the while teasing at her lips and her chin, her throat and her nipples, with his roving mouth.
“My corset…” she groaned. It was too tight. She could not take a deep breath and her skin had grown so sensitive that the soft fabric hurt. He came to her rescue, unsnapping the hooks with one hand while caressing one breast with the other.
Sal had clawed her hands up David’s shirt to reach his hot skin. But she stopped when she saw the look in his eyes as her corset fell away.
“God, Sal, you utter beauty.” He held her breasts in his hands, gazing at her before dipping his head forward to feast on them.
Gracious. No wonder debutantes were guarded so carefully!
“I cannot believe…” David mumbles, in between wet, suckling kisses “You honor me so, sweeting.”
“Shirt!” she commanded, trying to tug it over the head that was engaged at her breast.
She wanted to look on him as he had looked on her, the reverence in his eyes melting her more even than the wonder of the sensations he had unleashed.
He helped her to tug his shirt over his head, and then lifted her onto the edge of the bed, and slid one hand up her leg, under the cotton of her pantaloons. Her… unmentionable place felt strange. Full, and hot, and damp. And pierced with a sharp sensation that was somehow sweet.
His fingers did something magnificent and Sally fell back against the pillows, moaning, all of the words in every language she had ever been taught flown from her mind.
She had thought it could not feel more wonderful, but she was wrong. The piercing sensation increased manifold, and the edges of her vision dimmed, the mirrors forgotten. Everything narrowed to the spot, the multiple spots, where David was touching her and rubbing her, and… She did not know what except that something was just out of her reach and she had to have it or she would die. Her head thrashed back and forth on the pillows.
She could not help but call out, a wordless demand for… something. She was thrusting herself against David’s wonderful ministrations, and the pressure was building, and building, and building, and at any moment she would break apart.
And she fell, with a keening cry. A million separate pieces drifted softly down from the mighty heights of the mountain David had driven her up. For a moment, she was blind, and deaf, and speechless, and every bone in her body had dissolved.
David gently disentangled her legs from his shoulders, cradling her body close to his as he crawled back up the bed.
“My beauty, you are so… I cannot even express it.”
“Gracious, David. I think I had better allow no kisses at all. If all rakes are as talented as you, I shall never be able to resist.” She snuggled closer, deeply content.
David growled. “You mustn’t be taken in by rakes, just because they know how to make you feel… heated.”
“No, indeed,” she said pacifically. She was too languid to fight with David at the moment. Too languid, and too grateful. Even if this never happened again, even if it meant nothing to him and he went back to his chambermaids and whores, she would treasure this memory her whole life. “This was the whole point of asking you to kiss me, David, if you recall. I just meant that I can now see how an unscrupulous rake might take a maiden in. Not you, David, for you are not at all unscrupulous, and were very firm about not marrying me. Other people, though. Other gentlemen, if one uses the term loosely.”
She smiled at him, sleepily. “I suppose I should get dressed again now.”
He ran his hands over her warm, soft skin. “I wish you never needed to get dressed again.”
She smiled, and patted the side of his face. “You are my best friend in the whole world, David, and I am glad you are the one to … do whatever it was.” She frowned. “I can quite see the attraction, but it didn’t happen for you, did it? Isn’t it meant to? Can you teach me how to make it happen for you, too?”
He smiled. “La petite mort, the French call it. An orgasm. And no, sweeting, it did not happen for me, but that is of no moment. You need not concern yourself. I can… take care of matters later on.”
“The little death. Yes, exactly so. I want you to feel it, too, David. I know you have had many org-orgasms before, but I have never given you one, and it does not seem right that barmaids and opera dancers and people of that type have pleased you when I have not.”
David kissed her, not one of his hot fevering assaults, but a gentle blessing. “No, Sally. It would be wrong. It would be dangerous. I might not be able to control myself, and I will not ruin you, dear friend. I will not.”
In a sudden movement, he rolled off the bed.
“Stay here, Beauty. Rest for a moment. I will be right back.”
Sally lay on the bed, looking up at her reflection, idly wondering where he was going. She looked debauched, her careful coiffure a ruin, her bare breasts showing red marks from David’s loving, her legs flung carelessly apart so that a few dark curls showed in the gap of her pantaloons.
David would be right back. Sally wondered if they could do it again.
So deep was the ache of his unrelieved arousal, Toad’s stride was uneven all the way from the bed to the dressing room, trying to subtly adjust himself in his tight pantaloons without being so obvious as to take his bollocks in hand in front of Sal. He managed to survive the walk across the room with his dignity intact, but as soon as he cleared the room, he crouched to cradle his poor, neglected manhood in one hand, unbuttoning his falls with the other, leaning against the locked door to ease the desperate craving with three quick strokes of his hand.
With a groan, he spilled his seed into the handkerchief from his pocket, grateful beyond words—beyond thought—he had, just barely, managed not to defile his best friend in her father’s bed. The smell of her on his body, now combined with his own raw desire, made him hungry in a way he had never before experienced and could not explain.
His orgasm eased the physical pain, but did nothing to stem the need. The pull to her was like a different kind of umbilical cord, one that couldn’t be severed, perhaps even by death, and might provide nourishment to the end of his days. At the same time, he felt the reins his mother and father held slipping out of their hands. He might break his traces before the night was through.
I should marry Sal, and soon. I am old enough to establish my household. What need have I to play the field and hedge my bets, when the best woman in the world is offering herself to me in the next room? I should go to the Archbishop and get a special licence and marry her tomorrow, instead of going back to school.
He could have her. If he turned back around and went back into her father’s Fornicatorium, he could have her. His cock rose again, as though he had never relieved it, and his groan was more in the line of a whimper.
You cannot go back in there and ruin her. This. Is. Sal. You randy poppycock. You cannot use Lady Sarah Grenford like a common doxy, no matter your intentions.
He made certain his falls were securely fastened with no buttons askew, took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and ran a hand through the hair on his chest. Finally, he turned the latch and opened the door, with one last, comforting stroke of his hand along the length of his erection. He muttered to his suffering manhood, “No, Sir Frogmore, you shan’t have to wait forever.”
At her giggle, he flushed, wishing he hadn’t spoken aloud. But he could not identify or control the noises that came from his throat when he saw her studying her debauched, half-dressed form in the mirror above the bed, her tongue caught between her teeth, fingers dancing in her tangled tresses, the other hand idly running up and down her hipbone, the barest hint of soft curls peeking from the slit in her pantaloons. Her expression suggested she was dreaming up some mischief and considering how to drag him in. Heaven help him if she ever discovered she need only crook her finger.
Eyes bright with amusement, Sal asked, “Sir Frogmore? You’ve named it after a royal residence and knighted it? Did you have it invested by the queen?”
Eyes narrowing at her teasing, he muttered, “One of her ladi… Never mind. It does not signify.”
With another giggle that turned into a guffaw, she said, “Well, I shall call it Froggy, for does it not jump at every pretty girl it sees?”
Not when they laugh at it, Toad thought, desire waning in the face of her naïve mockery. Instead of snapping at her, however, he only said, in a faintly injured tone, “There is no need to make fun. I am not the degenerate I am said to be.” Feeling the heat rise in his cheeks, he added, “Not entirely, at any rate.”
She sat up on her elbows, stroking her fingertips along her waist. “Well, that is a blessing, to be sure. Can we do it again, David?”
The quickly diminishing craving for her touch rose again with a vengeance. It took all of his strength, courage, and dubious honor to say: “No, Beauty, we cannot. There is not time, for one thing, before my parents come looking for me at home.”
She flopped back onto the pillows, and he sucked in a breath at the undulations of her perfect body. “I suppose you are right.” Leaning up on her elbow, her breasts swaying, inviting his touch with each movement, she added, “You have given me all I asked and more, and I shall miss you terribly when you return to school.”
She seemed to be fishing for something, but he had no idea what. “I miss you every minute I am away, Monkey. It has been so all my life.” He was drawn over to her once more, as if by sorcery, and the feel of her coal-black hair under his hand brought back the ache in his groin.
She tilted her head into his hand, and he brushed his fingertips along her cheek. “Soon enough, I will have my Season,” she continued, “and your lessons will be of great help as I navigate the rogues of the beau monde.”
“Sal!” He barked, jumping back. “Never say so! I shall unleash the fires of Hell on any man who makes sport of you.”
She had to marry him. He could not bear the thought of losing her to another man, especially not one who might use her and toss her away. But she wanted her Season and the attentions from gentlemen that would come with it; it was painfully obvious. Did he have the right to ask her to forgo it?
She slapped at his chest and the touch of her fingertips felt like a brand. “Do not be so silly. I meant only that I will not fall prey, now that I know I must stop them before they begin.”
“Indeed you must. If not, I will run them through for taking liberties. If your father does not reach them first.” At that, he looked over his shoulder, suddenly even more aware of the depravities Uncle Haverford had told him about when first he showed his godson the Fornicatorium.
He handed her the petticoat and her corset, adding a scowl to underscore his plans for any man that touched her. Once she had adjusted it to her waist, she said, “Will you help me with this, please?”
He used both hands to refasten the corset hooks, unable to stop caressing her in every motion, with his fingertips, his nails, the palm of his hand. His lips traced her shoulder and the nape of her neck, beneath her tangled tresses.
By the time her dress was back on, she was making the same breathy whimpers as she had when he drove her to climax, and he was even more aroused, the ache more poignant, than before he relieved himself.
“Oh, David, I wish we could do it again.”
He choked out. “A million times.”
“At least,” she said, turning into his arms and pursing her lips for a kiss. He obliged with one last passionate embrace, but then pulled back. He toyed with her hair and stroked her shoulder, memorizing her features for the coming months he would be away at school.
Should I ask her? kept running through his mind as he twirled one of her curls around his finger. He could feel her heart beating in time with his, both running fast, and her soft exhalations of breath against his chest and stomach were sending shivers through his entire body.
Should I ask her? Not without a ring, surely. But if he didn’t, it would be too late only hours from now, perhaps too late forever, if she found someone she liked better while he was stuck in Cambridge.
Should I ask her?
“Sal, I wonder if you would consider—” He stopped at the sound of a door closing, and they both sat up straight.
“Did you hear that?” Toad whispered.
“Yes, it is the outside door,” Sal whispered. “Did you not lock it when you came in?”
“I…” He could not remember anything he had done before he had tasted her. “I think I did.”
The footsteps grew closer and closer; whoever was coming made no effort to remain unnoticed. As the steps drew nearer, Toad twisted his shoulders and wrapped his arms protectively around Sal, covering her face from anyone who might see her. He shifted even further and pushed her behind him when the intruder pushed the bedroom door open and showed himself. Toad flinched, anticipating the blows when Sal’s father beat him to a bloody pulp.
There being no good way to also hide his own face at this late juncture, he brazened it out, grimacing.
“Uncle Haverford. It is a… surprise to see you.”
The duke’s amusement was patent. “A surprise to see me in my own house, Abersham? Much like it was a surprise to find your don in his own study?” He arched one brow in sardonic question. “Did I not tell you only hours ago not to take your clothes off in a room you haven’t paid for?”
“I would ask what you are doing here, but it is quite obvious, isn’t it? My bed, Abersham? You couldn’t find a place in your own house to take your wench? Did you not just give your father your word you would remain home?”
Haverford sighed and rubbed his temples, shaking his head. “I apologize for the interruption, young lady, but you are going to have to leave. I will have our coachman take you wherever you wish to go.”
At first, Haverford didn’t seem to hear it when Sal said weakly, muffled behind the blanket and Toad’s chest, “I live here, Papa.”
Toad cringed again, waiting to be hit.
Haverford’s mouth dropped open, then closed with a snap, as though he were taking a bite of Toad’s throat.
“Sally?” The duke’s face lost all its color. “My baby girl?”
Sally sat up. “It’s not what you think, Papa.”
“What in the name of God are you doing in bed with this scum-sucking, bottom-dwelling encrustation?”
Haverford’s temper exploded more spectacularly than Toad had ever seen. From the look on her face, more than Sally had ever seen as well.
At the top of his voice—loud enough to be heard in every corner of a very large house—Haverford yelled, “WELLBRIDGE! I am going to kill your heir!”
Oh, dear Lord, were his parents here? Now? He hadn’t thought to ask where they would be this evening, happy only to know they would be going out. Toad scrambled to his feet, keeping Sally behind him. As he grabbed his shirt off the back of a chair and tugged it back over his head, he tried to talk his way out of trouble as fast as he could.
“Uncle Haverford, I swear, it isn’t as bad as you think.”
Haverford ignored him; didn’t appear to even hear him. “I am going to choke the life out of you, you miserable dunghill.”
“Nothing happened, Papa,” Sally says, looking around Toad’s shoulder.
“Get away from him, Sarah,” Haverford ordered, dropping his voice, the soft contemplative hiss somehow more threatening than his former roar. “I am going to rearrange his pretty face.”
“No, Papa.” Sally pushed her way under Toad’s arm and stamped her foot. “You must not hurt him. You will not. Nothing happened.” She stamped her foot again, reaching behind her to pull Toad against her back as if she would shelter him.
“Nothing happened? You will argue ‘nothing happened’ when you were lying in bed—in that bed…” Haverford glanced at the painting of the bare-breasted woman, closed his eyes against some memory, and shuddered. “…with a known rake, he all but naked, looking as though you’ve been tumbled twice-over? Do you take me for a fool, Lady Sarah Grenford?” His voice was rising again. “For I am not one. And I know better than any man—certainly better than this boy—why he would bring a girl here, to these rooms. Why he would bring an innocent here.” He shuddered again, and his voice dropped. “You have no restraint, Abersham; you prove it time and again. But this is beyond the pale.” Showing rather less restraint than normal, Haverford grabbed for Toad, the movement arrested only when Sally shifted to place herself between them. The tendons in his neck distended as he once again bellowed, “WELLBRIDGE!”
“I tell you, nothing happened,” Sally insisted. “I am not ruined. I am still a maid.” Toad and Haverford both startled when her voice took on the exact tone of her mother: “And I will not be ruined as long as you keep your voices down.”
In a lower tone, Toad likewise vowed, “Nothing irreparable happened, Uncle Haverford. I swear it. I swear it. She is still a maid. I swear. And I will… I will do the honorable thing, Sir. I swear that, too.” Toad put an arm around Sal and tightened his grip on her shoulder, as though to reassure her.
Haverford sneered. “Of course you will, Abersham, and quickly, too. Tomorrow, if my word holds good with the Archbishop.”
“Yes, Sir. Tomorrow will be fine.” Tomorrow would be wonderful. Tomorrow Sally would be his, and no-one would ever part them again.
“No, Papa,” Sally said again, pulling away from Toad and separating herself from both men, taking up a position across the room, near the blazing hearth. “I will not marry Lord Abersham.”
No? What did she mean, no?
“You cannot refuse me, Beauty,” Toad begged.
Turning to him, reaching out to take his hand, she said, “David, I am conscious of the honor you do me, but I refuse your proposal.”
“Do not dare call this princock by his Christian name,” Haverford snapped. “He is Lord Abersham to you. And what do you mean, you refuse?” Haverford growled.
“I certainly refuse. You and I know I am yet a maid. Only you and I and Papa know that… that appearances are against us. You told me yourself only an hour ago that you did not wish to be wed. I refuse absolutely, and if Papa drags me to the church, I shall go on refusing.”
“When I would give up all to make you my bride?” Toad reached towards her, but checked himself at her father’s sudden movement. “You must let me make things right, my sweet.”
Sally lifted her chin, proudly. “I’ll not have you give up anything for me, David. Not when the scandal might still be contained.”
“No.” Haverford’s quick rage is passing into mere anger. “No, Sally has a point. Abersham. You will be an appalling husband and will cause my little girl naught but heartache, and that will not do. Have I your word as a gentleman that you did not…” he shoots a worried look at his daughter. “Did not complete the act?”
“You have my word, Sir, as a gentleman.” Well, that might be a bit over the top. He wasn’t looking very gentlemanly currently, painfully aware his father had cited his ‘word as a gentleman’ only hours ago, when not setting guards on his rooms at Dalrymple House, where he was meant to be yet, contemplating the depth of his depravity—not furthering it.
His father was going to kill him, if Haverford didn’t do it first. There was not even the remotest chance of Toad living through this debacle. He would be dead in a matter of minutes.
As if on cue, the sound of his worst nightmare appeared: his father’s voice. “Haverford? Are you quite all right? Have you found an intruder and been killed?”
Haverford had located and pasted on his usual amused drawl, but Toad could hear the tempered steel beneath. If his father did not kill him, Uncle Haverford still might. “I have found two intruders, Nick, and have not yet killed either, but the moment of truth approaches.”
The Duke of Wellbridge appeared at the door, walking stick in hand, ready to do battle. Sally shifted to place herself between her friend and both fathers.
“Good God in heaven, what are you doing here, Abersham? You are supposed to be at Dalrymple House!” Taking in the two young peoples’ state of dishabille, he sucked in a breath between his teeth. “And with Sal! Good God, man! Is this…? I cannot believe… Haverford?”
Haverford took a step toward Toad, crowding him, and bared his teeth in a growl until Toad stepped back. “I suppose you would prefer me not to disembowel your heir, Wellbridge?”
Sally had either decided the moment of imminent danger was over, or she was afraid her father was serious and could not be talked around, for she said nothing. Toad wished she would stick up for him again. He wished anyone would.
Wellbridge held out his walking stick between Haverford and Toad. “I had better hear the rest of the story before I decide how to answer that. Disemboweling might be just what he needs.”
“Sarah assures me ‘nothing happened.’“ Haverford snorted. “You can see what sort of nothing for yourself.”
“Indeed, I can. David George Northope, I am at the end of my rope with you!”
Toad fastened his cuff links, keeping his eyes on those, rather than his father’s incisive stare.
“I will not marry him, Papa,” Sally said, returning to the point that Wellbridge interrupted. She insinuated her hand into Toad’s behind his back. He could tell by the trembling she was more frightened than she wished anyone to know. He rubbed his thumb against her palm.
Wellbridge pointed a finger at Sally. “You will marry him if we tell you to, young lady.”
Toad gripped her hand tighter.
“I’ll not ruin my best friend’s life, Uncle Wellbridge. I will not.”
“No, Wellbridge. I’ll not force the issue,” Haverford held up a hand, “nor allow the scandal free rein, if they agree to my terms.”
“If?” Toad asked with an indignant sneer. “You would make on dits of your own daughter?”
“Shut up, Abersham,” his father growled, “before I pin you down, so he can cut out your heart.”
“If I agree not to force a marriage—” Haverford said, without the slightest acknowledgement Toad had spoken, “—and I can force a marriage. Do not doubt it. I can. If I have to take you to the altar gagged, Lady Sarah, you shall marry the pernicious weed, if I say so. If, instead, I agree to hush up your disgrace, there will be three conditions.”
Sally paled, but her snarling query gave him no quarter. “What conditions?”
“Yes,” Toad asked, “what conditions?” He rather hoped they would all be highly unacceptable and lead Sal to agree to marry him in the morning.
“First, your mother and your Aunt Bella need to know exactly what you have been up to, and they must agree a marriage is not needed. You know, Nick, they must have their say,” he casually tossed over his shoulder to Wellbridge, “or we shall never hear the last of it.”
Toad shrugged, attempting insouciance. He hadn’t expected to be allowed to get by without his mother being told. But the smug look on his father’s face told him he hadn’t managed the required nonchalance. Sarah squeezed his hand in their age-old gesture of comfort. Both duchesses were going to give their errant offspring The Disappointed Look.
“Second,” Haverford continued, recalling Toad’s attention with the barest movement of his hand, “you do not come near my daughter again, Abersham. You do not even breathe the air of the same town as Sarah. If she is in London, you are not. If you are in Cambridge, she will never go there. She will not visit Wellstone, and you will not find your way to any of my homes.”
Toad reflexively grabbed her hand tighter. “But—” He wasn’t sure what he should argue. He must argue something, however. “Surely, such a drastic measure cannot be needed. I swear, on my honor, I would never disgrace Sally.”
“You have no honor, Abersham, or you would not be here alone with my daughter, for the express purpose of disgracing her.”
Toad looked away from Haverford’s stare, and Sally’s question came out in a pleading whine. “For how long, Papa?”
“As long as I say.” Haverford looked over at Wellbridge and amended the statement. “Rather, for as long as both sets of parents say. I will not have this unfortunate friendship ruining Sarah’s opportunity to form an attachment to a more suitable man.”
A more suitable man? If Toad had any color left, that blanched the last of it. He forgot his audience—forgot everyone and everything but his dearest friend—and dropped to one knee, grasping her hand in both of his.
“Marry me, Sally. I beg you. Marry me. I cannot lose you.”
Her hand convulsed in his, squeezing his fingers, but as she opened her mouth—he was sure to finally agree—Haverford cut her off.
“The choice is not hers, Abersham. It is mine.” he said coldly, as he dragged Toad up off the floor and away from Sal. “And you will not come near her.”
“I agree,” his father said. “You are a danger to this sweet girl’s chances.”
“Third,” Haverford resumed his list, holding on to Toad’s forearm with a vice-like grip, jabbing his fingertip into Toad’s chest as he continued, “If I find you have lied to me, and my daughter is with child, or if a servant has noticed this incursion and word gets out, the marriage goes ahead. And I will have no argument from either of you.”
“I will marry her tomorrow,” Toad objected. “I want to.”
“The devil you will!” Wellbridge yelled, slamming his walking stick into the floor so hard it left a mark in the parquet. “You are not going to marry that girl and break her heart a million times.”
“No, David,” Sally whispered, her head bent at his shoulder. “You said yourself you are not ready to marry.”
“And…” She took a deep breath and held up a hand to stop him speaking. “Neither am I. If we wed now, we shall always regret our…” she looked past him to the bed and blushed. “Go and finish your degree, my dear,” she said, laying her hand against his cheek, looking into his desperate eyes with a depth of sadness he never wished to see again. “And you shall always be my very dearest friend.”
“Dearest friend? No, Sal, You mustn’t—”
“Nick,” Haverford said to Wellbridge, pulling Toad further from Sal and pushing him closer to his father, even as he dug in his heels, “I suggest you put Abersham in your coach with his mother to face the music. Sarah, I assume you can find your way back the way you came without being seen?”
Seemingly chastened, Sal ducked her head without even looking Toad’s way and said, “Yes, Papa.”
“I shall expect you in the drawing room in thirty minutes, suitably attired for the schoolroom child you still are.” The heat of his glare slid away from Toad to burn Sal. “And if you do not wish to be married, my lady, I suggest you take considerable care not to remind me you are quite old enough to be wed.”
Toad yanked his arm away from Haverford and strode across the room to her. Touching her cheek, gazing into her troubled face, he murmured, “I will write.”
“I will, too; every day,” Sal promised.
“You will not,” said Haverford, striding after him. “Neither of you. The idea!”
Toad raised one brow, hoping Sal would take the clue that he would write, whether or not Uncle Haverford allowed his letters to make it to her. “And you mustn’t marry a prig or a dandy. Only a man worthy of you.”
Sally smiled, one tear trembling on her lashes. “I promise, David.”
“His name is Lord Abersham!” Haverford yelled, but Sally ignored his ire once again, yelling back at him, “If you do not let me write, I will do it anyway.” She turned on her father just as he reached out to pull Toad away again, her own temper flashing, “We have been friends since the day I was born, Papa, and yesterday you saw nothing wrong in it. You franked my letters yourself until the new penny post. And I assure you, Papa, I have plenty of my own pennies to buy stamps.”
Haverford frowned forbiddingly. “We shall see about that.”
Nick, meanwhile, grabbed his son by the back of his shirt and frog-marched him out the door. “You will not write to her and ruin her prospects. You will leave her alone to get on with her life. Haverford, you will forgive me if I decline the port you offered, so I might take this miscreant back home and lock him in a broom cupboard until I can send him away.”
Toad had stripped down to his shirt sleeves, after a miserable coach ride from Haverford House listening to his father scream until Toad’s ears were ringing. He hadn’t been forced to explain himself to his mother, for his father had not let up the diatribe from the moment the carriage door closed until he was thrown unceremoniously into his rooms at Dalrymple House and the doors locked.
Now pacing his two-room suite from end to end, sipping his third brandy in a quarter-hour, he was plotting what his next move might be. He could not allow Haverford’s edict to stand. He could not allow Sal to be married to some jackanapes whose only recommendation was not being the Marquess of Abersham.
He stopped pacing at a knock on his sitting room door and the turn of the key. Blakeley waited in the hall, stiff and unyielding, not looking Toad in the eye as he passed on the message that he must present himself to his parents in his mother’s sitting room before bed. He had been hoping to put off the discussion until morning, but his mother was nothing if not efficient. She had to be, to double the size of the largest shipping empire in England in twenty years.
His father might be a wealthy and influential duke, but his king had died two monarchs ago; the days when he could command the ear of the Crown for the price of a card game were long since over, and his tolerance for the games of Society was short. But all around them was evidence of his mother’s continued consequence; power and influence she had earned entirely independent of her marriage.
Bella had a natural affinity for a queen, after the hideous betrayal for which she had never wholly forgiven Prinny. But as former envoy for King George IV and majority owner and operator of Seventh Sea Shipping, she had years of experience, information, and contacts to provide service to a female sovereign. After all these years, she had far more influence at Court than her husband.
In every crevice of the bookshelves, which abounded in every room she called her own, were keepsakes and trinkets from all over the globe—a collection of wooden tiki carvings from the South Seas, a set of animals of blown Murano glass, a delicately embroidered Oriental kimono hanging behind glass, an ancient Viking drinking bowl on a pedestal, dyed and appliqued hangings on the walls from her travels in Africa.
The matched set of dueling swords hanging above her fireplace, and the jeweled katar blade in the glass case on her desk, offered testament to the fact she could best most men with a dagger or foil—most certainly her husband. The fact he sat so comfortably in this room was because he had long since given up the need to win.
Toad had never been stupid enough to challenge her, after being taught everything she had learned from the soldiers and sailors with whom she had traveled for the fifteen years of her first marriage. Most of his friends struggled with paid fencing masters, any of whom Bella could blood as easily as she had Henry Angelo himself some ten years back, in a demonstration match she staged for charity, when the gossip about her skill had reached such a fever pitch that no one would speak to her of anything else. She had decided to make the most of the commotion and earned a thousand pounds for the poor box at St. George’s.
“I was never such a degenerate!” the duke was yelling as Toad walked in. “Sal, Bella! This is Sally under discussion, not just some maid with no name and no significance.”
“Husband, you will keep your voice down, or I will ask you to leave my sitting room. You were at least as degenerate, if not more so, and if you add Haverford into the balance, there is no contest. And I beg you not encourage our son to believe any woman insignificant.”
The Duchess of Wellbridge poured tea from the Russian samovar from her place behind the tea table, as though it were midafternoon, not nearly eleven o’clock, and as serenely as if she were pouring for a vicar and his wife, not managing an indignant husband and recalcitrant son. The duke paced in much the same manner as Toad had been doing for half an hour, muttering, mumbling, and occasionally bursting out with some accusation he could not help but bellow. Both of Toad’s parents turned to glare at him the moment his foot crossed the threshold, and kept up the inspection of his rumpled suit of clothes, hastily donned for this interview, as he crossed the room.
Taking the brandy decanter right out of Toad’s hand before he could pour, his mother snapped, “David, pray, leave a drop of brandy in the house for medicinal purposes. Here,” she pushed a cup of strong tea at him. “Drink this.”
When he took the cup, she pointed him to a seat. She next handed a cup dosed identically—two lumps of sugar, no cream—to the duke, seated on a twin to Toad’s Chinese lacquer chair, on the opposite side of the table. “You, too, have had enough brandy this day with Haverford. This discussion cannot be made easier by drunkenness. I care not what titles you hold. I hold the titles ‘your wife’ and ‘your mother,’ and I will not have you imbibing more spirits this night in my presence.”
Some evenings, the duchess’s teetotal tendencies were more annoying than others.
The duke sat forward as though to speak, and his duchess held up her hand. “Wellbridge, I have heard your version of the story five times at volume in the carriage, and twice more since we have been home. The one I have not heard from is David, who has done naught but seethe and sulk since his disgraceful behavior necessitated an early end to an evening with my dearest friends.” Wellbridge’s shoulders tightened, but he did not speak.
She held up her other hand when Toad opened his mouth. “I would not be too fast to wade in, my boy, for I have a fair piece to say to you before you have the right to a defense. If I decide to grant you one at all.”
Toad snapped his jaw shut and rose to pace the floor before the fireplace. The duke sat back and crossed his leg at the knee, smiling a bit smugly.
“To begin, my Lord Abersham, there is gossip in the servant’s hall about your excesses since you have been home, and I have assured the housekeeper my maids need not fear your inappropriate attentions. Should I find they do have reason, you will never again—and I do mean never—set foot on any property I own, on land or at sea. I’ll not have you show your sister by word or deed that such behavior is acceptable in a nobleman.”
Toad objected, “Almyra won’t be presented for four more years, and she is away at school most of that time. I’ve never let her see—”
The duke spoke over his son, “Nor will you be welcome at any property owned by the duchy, until the day you inherit.”
A scathing glance at her husband made it plain the duchess did not want his help, and he would feel her ire as soon as they finished putting up a united front. Her Grace stared so expectantly at her son that the weight of her gaze arrested his pacing, and he couldn’t help but look over at her, though he had been avoiding her eyes since they left Haverford House.
“Do I make myself understood, David?”
He shuffled his foot against the carpet and gave up arguing. “Yes, Your Grace.” Picking up his teacup, he muttered into it as he took a sip to have something to do besides engage with her. “One does not dally with servants in one’s own house.”
“One does not dally with servants at all!” Bella retorted, her temper finally unleashed. “In fact, my wanton, reckless son, I cannot say I approve of any of your dalliances. I am mortified at the behaviors I see in you! Even knowing you have been urged on in the worst dissipations by your father and godfather and the least worthy of the aristocracy, I am distraught you have not yet learned what is right or good or honorable. First sent down from Eton for a dairymaid, now Cambridge, too, and for twice the indiscretion? And David… Sally? You would make sport of Sally when you love her so? Can you not see the danger you placed her in?”
Toad put down his cup, sat back down on the edge of the sofa, hung his head, and stared at the carpet.
“I am ashamed to have raised a young man to whom no father should marry his daughter. I have failed you, and I have failed your eventual wife and children, may the Lord watch over them in the absence of a decent husband and father. And I am terribly afraid I have failed Almyra, simply by allowing her anywhere near your impropriety. I certainly cannot recommend to my goddaughter, whom I pledged to God to offer guidance, that she marry a man who would treat her with so little regard.”
“But—” he started, but his mother spoke over him.
“You are thinking only with the head that resides in your falls, and—as you might have learned from your father’s and godfather’s terribly flawed example—that head is not very smart. Rather the opposite, little man. It has just led you into trouble such as you have never known.”
“But—” he repeated, determined to have his say. He was willing to marry Sal and be the most faithful husband alive, if only she would let him speak to say so.
Bella held up her hand again. “I will not have you ruin that poor girl’s chances at a decent match with a man who will treat her more respectfully. As such, your father and I have decided you will finish your degree in France, rather than returning to Cambridge.”
Toad stared at his mother, unable to form words adequate to this pronouncement. Finally, he managed to choke out, “France?”
“Precisely. You will attend L’Ecole Supérieure de Commerce. That should limit the damage you can do to her reputation and keep you from imagining you may act the rake with her again.”
Toad’s mind stopped and started, tripping over itself trying to make sense of this. He grasped for any thread of the puzzle he could follow to any logical conclusion that wasn’t also a disaster.
“Business school? You would make me into a bourgeois?”
His mother glanced significantly about the room, at the souvenirs surrounding them. “I would prepare you to take on management of two enormous fortunes, along with more noble titles than any human being needs. I will not have you lose the shipping empire my former husband gave his life to build, nor lands and properties that have been in your father’s family for generations. You have no care for anything but your own pleasures, but in a few years’ time, you will be a man. It is time you find the wherewithal to act like it.”
Toad scowled, brow furrowed, finally looking up at his mother for a brief moment, but at the first sign of The Disappointed Look, he turned his pugnaciousness toward his father instead. “Why should I do as you say? I am a man now, and old enough to decide my own fate. What if I decline?”
Wellbridge’s glower was set in precisely the same lines as Toad’s, but the creases in his face were four decades deeper. “You certainly may decline. In that event, you and your belongings will be removed from all my houses, and your quarterly allowance will be terminated.”
Toad’s mouth opened, then closed. It would not be a good idea to say anything too quickly right now. But he probably did need to say something.
“How will I live?”
“You will live as I tell you to until such time as you are in command of your own affairs. I count seven years until then.”
“That is not fair!”
“Fairness is not my concern; only your compliance.”
“If I marry, you cannot stop me from taking control of my own life. The king made me Baron Harburn in my own right, and gave me Toadstone Hall and its lands. You have no right to keep them from me. And Sally brings her own trust to our marriage.”
“Is that why you wish to marry Sally?” his mother asked. The Disappointed Look was replaced by shock, dismay, and disapproval, in quick succession, then went cold in a way he had only seen on a few occasions before. “To take possession of her dowry?”
“No! Mother! How can you say such a thing?” Of all people, the duchess should never think that, for she was the only one with whom he had ever shared his certainty that he would marry her someday. “But—”
His father stood and towered over him, driving his fingertip into Toad’s chest. “You will cease this ridiculous notion of destroying Lady Sarah’s life with a forced marriage and go to France without causing an upset. You cannot marry without my consent for three more years; if you marry Lady Sarah without her father’s agreement, you will not see a penny of her funds; and even after you reach your majority, you cannot collect your trust until you are twenty-five.” With a smug smile designed to irritate, his father added, “Though I cannot guarantee Haverford will allow you to reach that milestone.”
“Uncle Haverford is not going to kill me,” Toad scoffed. “He would have challenged me already, if he were going to.” Toad stood and turned his shoulder toward his father, striding to the brandy and pouring, glaring at his mother’s censorious look. “And I will marry Sal. Before you can do anything about it.”
Wellbridge grasped Toad by the shoulder and spun him until his eyes were only a few inches from the hard, cold ducal stare. “Do not underestimate me, my boy, or the Duke of Haverford. You will not win this, and the longer you try, the worse the result for you. Your quarterly allowance is dropping like a stone with every word you utter.”
Toad sputtered as his father removed the snifter of brandy from his hand and passed it to the duchess, who placed on the tea tray to be removed with the empty cups.
“If you have a problem with the terms of your trust,” his father continued, “you may take up the delay with Prinny, for he was the one who consigned your lands to me until you are twenty-five.”
“Make a complaint to a dead king. Brilliant,” Toad mumbled.
“I rather agree,” his father said. “Perhaps you should not have broken the Athenian vase his daughter gave him before her death.”
“I was six years old!”
“Old enough to learn the hazards of living in the pocket of a monarch.”
The duchess clapped her hands to recall the attention of the two men glaring nearly identically at each other. They each turned toward her, but kept the other man in his peripheral vision.
“If you will attend me, please. I have sent word to Captain Hawley to arrange passage on the Seventh Sea ship leaving Dover in two days’ time. It is a cargo ship, so you will not be travelling in the luxury to which you are accustomed, but nonetheless, I will expect you to comport yourself with dignity and offer the utmost respect to anyone in my employ. A carriage is being packed now with your things, and you will leave at first light to sail with the Captain to Dover.”
“My things? How do you know what things I wish to take with me?” He tugged at his cuff and looked away. “If I choose to go.”
The tendons in his father’s neck looked like they might snap, and Toad was suddenly afraid the duke might have apoplexy. “There is no question of you going, Abersham; the only question is whether you go to a pied-a-terre in Paris or the streets of St. Giles. Should you choose the former, your new valet has things well in hand. If you choose the latter, I will grant you half an hour to choose what you can fit into a satchel.”
This was it; Toad had heard this tone before. This was his father’s last offer before every option was taken but the least attractive.
“Yes. I have pensioned Meath.”
“Meath has been with me since I was twelve!”
“Exactly. He is entirely too comfortable making excuses for your behavior. While I recognize and value the loyalty he has shown to my heir, I have listened to him lie to me for the last time. I have told him I will allow him a quarter-hour to say goodbye before you take your leave, during which, you will open your own pocketbook to provide him a gratuity equal to his time in service—recognizing the worth of his willingness to dissemble.”
Toad flushed, searching his mind for all of the lies he had ever asked Meath to tell, wondering how many his father had guessed.
Without illuminating his son, the duke continued, “Blakeley’s nephew—also Blakeley—will attend you in Meath’s absence.”
“You are sending me to France with a spy in my pocket,” Toad surmised.
“Exactly,” his father agreed. “And may he constantly remind you I see and hear everything you do. I will not have you drag my name through the mud on the Continent or anywhere else, and the moment you do, I will close the borders of England to you. If you ever wish to return home, I suggest you recall who holds your purse strings.”
“Wellbridge…” Bella admonished.
The duke rose and began pacing, running his hand through his hair in a restless pattern.
“No, Bella! I have cleaned up his messes since he was fourteen, and I have had enough! I will no longer pay your gaming debts, Abersham, or smooth things over when you find yourself in trouble, and you may not use my name in extracting yourself from difficulties. It is long since time you began acting like a gentleman, not a little boy, and if it requires you starve in a Parisian prison, so be it!”
“You will not starve in a Parisian prison, David,” his mother corrected with a sidelong glance at the duke, “but neither will you be allowed to run amok, for you will be there in pursuit of a degree, not more everlasting pleasure, and your allowance will reflect the change in priorities. Your compensation for our intolerable cruelty in forcing an education upon you will be the deed to my eight-room pied-a-terre in Saint-Germain-des–Prés, to do with what you will—after you graduate.”
Toad had always loved the Paris apartment, had spent many months there in his childhood, during those times his mother had convinced his father to live outside England, often enough that Toad’s French was near-fluent, as were his Italian, Spanish, and Greek. The Paris apartment was where he always imagined taking Sal for their honeymoon, followed by a sojourn in the duchy’s Venetian palazzo. And his mother was the only one who knew it.
She gave him a pointed look behind his father’s shoulder. Was she intimating she might help in his pursuit if he acquiesced? It was so unexpected he started, and the duke glanced over at his wife. She smiled serenely at her husband, but when he turned back to Toad, her right brow raised and she tipped her head to question whether he would take her offer. He wasn’t sure he was reading her correctly, but she was far more likely to help him than his father, and there would be time enough to talk to her before he was removed from England.
Toad took a deep breath and stepped back from his father and made the minutest of nods at his mother. “It seems I have no choice but to comply.”
“None. At. All,” his father said, punctuating the words with a fingertip into Toad’s chest.
Toad stepped back, bowed curtly, and said, “I shall take my leave, then. First light will come early.”
After he pulled the door shut, he stayed in the hall outside a few more minutes, merely to have the pleasure of listening to his father be lectured, too. There was no doubt it would happen. It had been written on his mother’s face since the first minutes in the carriage.
“You and Haverford have utterly spoiled David! You have turned a dear, sweet little boy into a man of no honor, and I will not allow you to place all the blame on him, nor punish him to the ends of the earth. You have already taken that which means most by forbidding his marriage to the girl you chose for him before he was old enough to speak.”
“We agree he must be separated from Sally, lest she be ruined by naught but the heat when they look at each other. We agree he absolutely must finish a degree and travel outside the Courts of Europe before he inherits anything, and we cannot allow him to make a runaway marriage—nor any marriage before he can treat a woman respectfully. And he cannot be allowed to corrupt his sister or her chances in four years. The very idea he cannot see the dishonor in what he has done, nor consider the impact to Sarah or Almyra… That I have to pray my daughter does not learn to romanticize a man like her brother… It breaks my heart to think how we have failed.”
“It is not—”
“But Husband, you and Haverford quite brought this on yourselves—on all of us—teaching him all of your techniques for seducing women, sending him to brothels and gaming hells and paying for mistresses, introducing him to opera dancers, helping him find postcards and pornographic books at every stop in our travels… He has grown into a young man with no purpose, no discretion, and no more thought than he can fit into his trousers, and for that, I blame you and Haverford entirely. You two have turned him into a caricature of what a nobleman should be, quite the worst amalgamation of all your ducal faults.”
“Do not speak of it, Wellbridge. I am not in the mood for your excuses, any more than David’s.”
Well, then. At least Toad wasn’t the only one to have his ears blistered.
Sally followed her father’s instructions to the letter, and dressed in last year’s clothes, so as not to remind him she was marriageable. Not out of respect, but because she could not get her own way if he were too angry to comply, she changed into a white schoolgirl dress, short enough for ease of walking, and to show off the tops of her high-top boots. She directed her maid to plait her hair in two long braids, one over each shoulder, their green ribbons bouncing as she walked. She looked as if she was still in leading strings, which offended her, but pretending to be her daddy’s little girl would serve her purpose better than defiance. At least to start.
Sally paused just outside the drawing room. The door was shut, but if one held the handle just so, one could ease it open just a little, and observe without being detected.
Papa was still white with fury, and as she watched, he tipped up his brandy glass, which he had assured her many times was a crime. “Brandy is to be sipped and savoured, Sally, not guzzled.” Papa was guzzling, and as she watched, he reached for the decanter again.
Mama spoke. “Perhaps save the next until after we have spoken to Sally, my love.”
Papa looked at the glass and decanter as if he had no idea how they came to be in his hands, then carefully poured a single finger of brandy and set the glass on the table by his usual chair before turning away with a sudden jerky stride vastly different from his usual graceful pace.
“How could he do it, Cherry? I could not have loved him more had he been my son, not just my godson. And there, of all places? My own daughter, in the bed where I…”
Sally wondered if Papa would have felt better if he had caught them in her bed or in the Conservatory or at Dalrymple House. Not that she would say so to Papa, as long as she could control her own temper. How dare Papa separate them? Had he not taught David everything he knew? Had he not done ten thousand things more sinful than anything she and Toad had done out of an abundance of love?
Sal couldn’t see her mother behind the door, but there was no mistaking the soothing tone she used to try to calm Haverford in a rage. “I have very pleasant memories of that bed, my love, and of your inappropriate behaviour in it.” Sally grimaced. She had no wish to think of Mama and Papa… How disgusting.
If Mama intended to give Papa’s thoughts another direction, she failed. He said grimly, “You were not a child, still in the schoolroom, beloved. I should have killed him. I could have, you know. I am getting old, Cherry, but Abersham does not have his full growth yet, nor a fraction of my skill. I could have killed him, and Nick would not have denied my right.”
“You cannot assume a win against anyone trained to weaponry by the Duchess of Wellbridge. Besides, neither your old friend nor your daughter would have forgiven you. Even if Nick and Sally did absolve you, you would never forgive yourself. You love him, Anthony. And he is not the only one to blame, you know. Sally was there, too. Truth be told, it was probably her idea.”
Sally nodded. Mama knew her well. But Papa protested. “How can you say that? She is only seventeen, an innocent. He is a rake, Cherry, of the worst kind.”
“He is thirteen months her senior. More experienced, certainly, without any semblance of good judgment. You and his father have seen to that. But he is still a child in many ways. Sally is seventeen, and if she were married and a mother within the next twelve months, no one would think it at all strange.”
“She may well be. Should we make them marry?”
No! Sally’s thought chimed with her mother’s words. “No! No, Sally is quite right. Abersham is not ready to settle, and would be an execrable husband. And if you and Nick force husbandly behaviour on him, he would soon come to resent it, and Sally.”
“She will marry him if there is a rumour, or a babe,” he warned.
A cleared throat warned Sally, and she turned to see their butler frowning, but not without sympathy. She lifted her finger to her lips, and he allowed the ghost of a smile, then glided forward to open the door fully.
Both parents turned as Sally entered the room, facing her father defiantly. Mama would be reasonable; Papa in a rage was as unpredictable as Sally herself. She had seen the ducal transformation many times, though seldom en famille, and never before against her. The warm, loving family man, always ready with a smile and support, was suddenly gone, leaving the cold, unapproachable nobleman.
“Sit down, Lady Sarah,” he said, his use of her formal title an indictment in itself. He handed Mama to a seat, took the place beside her, and waited for Sally to obey. After a moment, she thought better of starting her rebellion with such a small matter, and took the chair opposite them.
“Your mother and I are deeply disappointed in you.”
Sally looked down at her hands and chewed her bottom lip. She could meet her father’s anger with her own, but his disappointment was harder to bear.
“I cannot comprehend how this happened, Sarah. I do not speak of Lord Abersham, but your behaviour, which is unconscionable. You have been told, many, many times that you must never be alone with a man, and you are not unaware of Abersham’s reputation. And yet you go off into a deserted building, where you cannot call for help against his inappropriate advances.”
He remained silent, then—a trick he used to encourage others to fill the silence. Sally had seen him try it many times, and was not fooled. She continued to examine her hands.
Haverford spoke first, giving her a second chance to lay the blame at David’s feet. “I cannot imagine how he inveigled you to go apart with him.”
She felt the heat rise in her cheeks, but she merely traced the pattern of the painted India cotton of her gown.
Finally, Haverford tried once more, any trace of patience wiped clean from his voice. “How did he coerce you, Lady Sarah? Did he… take you against your will?”
At that, she had to speak. She could not allow him to think David would… “He did not, Papa. It was not his idea, but mine. I sent him a note.” She had intended to sound calm, dignified, and grown up, but her voice shook a little when she saw the anguish show for a moment under the ducal mask.
He hid it again, so quickly she was unsure what she had seen, his voice cold and hard. “I do not excuse him, Sally. He is older than you. He knows better than to come at your note, especially when his father had, not two hours before, in my presence, told him to remain at Dalrymple House.”
Sally lifted her chin, jutting it at her father with as much force as he put into his glower. She could not allow his attack on David to stand.
“I begged him not to fail me, Papa. David would never abandon me when I ask for his help. It has ever been so.”
Haverford frowned. “His help with what?”
She bit her lower lip, a bit unsure of herself, even as she did what was best for David, and what was right, by all moral codes. She told the truth.
“It was only a kiss, Papa. I asked him to kiss me. I wanted to know what it felt like. And at first he would not, but I persuaded him.”
“Only a kiss? Do you expect me to believe that? The boy was unclothed to the waist!” Papa sounded more bewildered than angry.
“I wanted to know, Papa. I hear the stories, and see the…” Sally fell silent. That was a step too close to The Scrapbook. She turned her hands over and scrutinised the other side.
“See the what?” It was the steely growl that Papa never used with Sally, and she shivered despite herself. Time to distract him.
“It was not what you think, Papa. Toad did not…” She blushed at the thought of saying such things in front of her parents. “He would not even let me…”
The ducal mien fractured again, and he turned to take Mama’s hand. “I am sure I do not wish to hear this.” Papa always said one should not ask a question if one did not wish to know the answer, and sure enough, he did not pursue the direction.
“Whatever the reason for your shameless behaviour, Abersham is very much at fault in this. He should not have come to see you, especially not against his father’s express instruction. He should have left as soon as he found he would be alone with you. He should certainly not have kissed you, nor anything that followed.”
“You and Uncle Nick would have kissed any girl who asked when you were eighteen, Papa. You cannot deny it. And Toad is the better man, for you would have despoiled the girl, if you didn’t think you’d get caught.”
Mama protested. “Sarah. That is quite enough.” But Sally ignored her.
“I heard you, you know. Two years ago when Toad was sent down from Eton, you took him to the library for a scold, and I was sitting on the window seat behind the curtains.”
“Sarah,” Mama said, again.
But Sally continued. “Uncle Wellbridge was cross, and you said, ‘What is a man to do when a girl insists he take her virtue? It would be ungentlemanly to decline.’ You all laughed and laughed, and you told him how to do it so she would not feel as much pain, and Uncle Wellbridge warned him not to try it with a noble daughter. You said he should make the parting gift reflect her selfless sacrifice. Did you not?” Haverford blanched, and she pushed her advantage. “I would have let him, you know. I would have done anything he wanted. But he refused, utterly. He would not even—”
“Stop right there.” Papa was white and his voice and hands shook. “I really do not want to hear this. Cherry?” He turned to his wife, and she took both of his hands in hers.
“Sarah,” Mama told Sally, coldly, “it is not for you to criticize your father, nor is his behaviour under discussion here.”
She was going to support Papa? That wasn’t fair. From what she had heard before she entered the room, Sally had thought her an ally.
Papa took a deep breath and took in, seemingly for the first time, the child-like dress he had insisted she wear. “You are no longer a child, Sarah, but if you must behave like one then I can only assume you are not yet ready to leave the schoolroom. You understand, I trust, that you will be punished?”
He stood then, towering over her so thoroughly that she shifted back in her chair, torn between fear and defiance.
“You will be sent home to Margate to think about what you have done. “
As if she cared. If David was to be sent away, then she would rather be at Margate, where she could think about him, and write to him, and not be forced to pretend to be happy.
But Papa was not finished. “You will make your come out next year, and you will choose a husband worthy of you from those who present themselves, or else I will choose one for you. And none of the candidates will be the future Duke of Wellbridge. Wipe that defiance off your face. Do not think to oppose my will in any way, Lady Sarah, for you shall be closely watched until I am convinced you can be trusted. I tell you now, young lady, you will have to earn my trust, for I have been deeply disappointed in you.”
Sally avoided her mother’s returned glower. If Papa thought she could be forced to give her consent to a marriage, he was much mistaken. She would write to David, and he would find a way to rescue her, as he had promised.
Papa stopped his pacing and met her scowl with his own. “Do not think, either, that you will continue your correspondence with Wellbridge’s heir. That is at an end. No more daily letters. No letters at all.”
Sally’s mask of indifference dissolved, and she leapt to her feet.
“Papa! No! Papa, you have to let me write. You have to.”
“And have you further defy my authority? Make a scandal from which I cannot extract you? Pant after Wellbridge’s son like a shameless…” He caught himself, leaving Sally to wonder what word he had been about to utter. “No letters.”
“But Papa, he is my best friend in the world. It was only a kiss, Papa. And only to show me. He was helping me, Papa, truly. I was curious, Papa.” She had to convince him, to coax him. He had never refused her before.
“No letters,” her father repeated.
“But I have to be able to write to Toad,” she whined, her voice shaking, on the verge of a gale of tears. She could not live without David’s letters, without sharing everything with him in her own. She could barely live without him, even after all these years he had spent away at school, but also his letters…? She could not. On a sob, she insisted, “If you send me off to exile in Margate and don’t even let me write to my best friend, I will die, Papa.” Mama would understand. “Mama, make him see!”
“What a pity you are a duke’s daughter, Sarah,” Mama said, her voice icier than ever. “You could otherwise be very successful on the stage.”
Sally flushed red and shot her mother a black look. She could not bear to be here any longer. She was halfway to the door before the manners drilled into her for a lifetime forced her to turn and give a reluctant and foreshortened curtsey. “May I be excused, Papa?”
“You may,” Papa said gravely. “Go to your room and think on your sins, Sarah. Your meals will be served there until I can arrange passage to Margate.”
She gave him a final glare, and flounced from the room.
She would run away. She would escape this very night, and go to David before they could send him back to Cambridge, and if she were killed by a footpad crossing London alone in the dark, Papa and Mama would be sorry, and it would serve them right.
But when she got to her room, she found her maid had been ordered to put a pallet on the dressing room floor and stay with her.
How could they! She begged Polly to run away with her, or at least to let her go without telling the duke and duchess. But Polly would only say, “I dare not, my lady,” until Sally could have screamed.
In the end, she allowed herself to be prepared for bed, but she lay awake, waiting until Polly was deeply asleep. Lock her up with a jailer, would they? She would see about that.
Toad paced in his bedchamber, his steps muffled in the thick Persian carpet at the end of his bed. His mother had signalled him in her sitting room; he was sure of it. He just wasn’t sure what she meant, and he was locked in his room with no means of finding out.
Toad’s father was clearly losing his reason, and his mother had followed along in a manner entirely unlike her—irrational like a female—which was wholly inconvenient at a time like this. The sensible, logical, ducal thing to do was to compel Sal to marry him. Their parents should be toasting the new Marchioness of Abersham and fulfilling a promise they had made amongst themselves years ago. Lady Sarah should not be acting as though he was only doing a duty—he would make her understand that at the first opportunity—but the Dukes and Duchesses of Wellbridge and Haverford should be ecstatic at the joining of these two wealthy dukedoms. His mother, his father, and the Haverfords should be backing him in his offer for Sal, no matter how shockingly it had been accomplished. Toad should, by rights, be signing marriage settlements right now. And even if no one else did, his mother should absolutely be insisting on it.
This was not to say his mother gave him his way or spoilt him. Quite the contrary; that was his father’s purview. At least it had been until a few years ago when the duke became obdurate about Toad’s “sense of responsibility.” His mother made him defend himself and his actions, sometimes at the tipped point of a foil, which, admittedly, most people might not perceive as rational in a duchess. But if she would only do that today, he could make his case to the parent who might listen to him.
Toad had fought “duels of honour” three separate times with his mother as challenger. year ago, when she discovered he had dallied with a married woman in Brighton during his school break. A half year before that, when she heard him comparing the maids at a house party with other gentlemen. And another half a year earlier, the first time, he had been sent down from Eton for swiving a willing dairymaid—caught by the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, one too many times. His mother had limited her censure to The Disappointed Look until she discovered—to his father’s chagrin—that Toad had left without telling the girl, she had lost her position and been asked to leave her family’s house, and he hadn’t had enough time to provide a parting gift.
His mother had heard it from Aunt Cherry, who had it from Haverford, who had it from Wellbridge, who had already sent the girl payment enough to keep her for ten years. Only the first time the Duchess of Wellbridge would appear dressed in her boys’ clothes with the tipped duelling foils and gave him the chance to explain himself. While he fought for his proverbial life.
All three times she challenged him, she had symbolically cut out his heart for the injustice he perpetrated, then told him what he had to do to get back in his mother’s good graces. All three times, he had made amends to the women and felt a better man for it. The married woman still made overtures from time to time, but Toad had resolved to abstain unless she were widowed.
His mother had cautioned him for years not to follow the example of his father and Haverford, but the gentlemen had offered the more enjoyable avocation. Everything they missed and loved about being single gentlemen of leisure—the clubs, the drink, the gambling, and of course, the women—was given to him, hand over fist, from the time he was twelve. Toad wasn’t unconscionable. He did act with honour. He just did so in whatever way was also the most pleasurable in any given moment.
But now it had lost him Sal. He had followed the advice of the wrong parent; it was clear now. He should have listened to his mother all along. Perhaps if he told her so, she would help him.
For now, when it meant the most, His Grand Impiousness had turned her thoroughly against him. He hadn’t let Toad speak a word in his own defence, and had conflated this evening with every sin of Toad’s history, making him appear the wickedest of men, when his father had been twice the reprobate at Toad’s age. For Heaven’s sake, Wellbridge and Haverford had been banished from England by the Prince of Wales himself, after an episode with twelve women! By comparison, Toad’s time with Sal—or any other woman—was relatively innocent. Besides which, he meant to ask for her hand, before Haverford had broken in and ruined things.
And now even his own mother wouldn’t speak for him.
The precautions his father thought to take to keep Toad from escaping Dalrymple House were laughably easy to elude. He had posted two footmen in the hall outside each door to Toad’s rooms, but none beneath his window or at the gate in the back garden. As long as no one was in the solarium, directly below Toad’s bedchamber, he could climb down the brick wall and trellis next to his balcony. He had done it countless times before, and with far less reason than he had tonight.
For tonight, he must reach Sally and steal away with her, or he would lose her to some other man by the time Toad was finished with school. He pulled his jacket on, but eschewed his Hoby boots in favour of sailor’s deck shoes. He would have to change for a long ride, but for escaping on foot, he could do without heavy heels. He set aside his greatcoat with his boots.
He found a bag in the back of his armoire and began to fill it: the contents of his wall safe, which included two thousand pounds in gold and the deed to a ramshackle, 100-acre estate he had won for the best-of-seven games of backgammon a year ago; his letters of introduction from the Queen to the European Royal Courts, which his mother had arranged as his eighteenth birthday gift; a good suit and a set of sailor’s togs; two sets of smallclothes; his combs and brushes and pomades; his watch box with enough jewelled timepieces, cufflinks, and fobs to keep himself and a wife in a modest fashion for the next ten years. His father would leave him with what he could fit in a satchel? Toad would take his chances.
The sound of a key turning in the lock was fortunately in the next room, and he had just enough time to throw the bag underneath the bed before his mother said, from outside the bedchamber door, “David, I shan’t ask if you are decent, for I know the answer all too well. I would have you join me in your sitting room directly. I’ve come alone.”
“Yes, Mother. Give me a moment.”
He stripped off his jacket, waistcoat, shoes, and shirt, and threw on a banyan, so it would appear he had been on his way to bed, not on his way out the window, and let himself into his sitting room.
The Disappointed Look. Of course. But he could endure it for the chance to plead his case. Unfortunately, she was in the same dinner gown she had been wearing all night, and there was no sign of foils for a fencing match.
“Mother, you have to make him see, I must marry Sal. You cannot deny me. It isn’t fair.”
She raised a brow. “Must?”
“No, not must must. Though I now wish I could say otherwise. I chose a damned inconvenient time to forswear my father’s teachings and take a stand on my honour.”
“Forgive me, Mother, but it is true. Of course I left her a maid. Sally? I could never… But if I hadn’t restrained myself? If I had taken my—our—pleasure, I would be on the way to the archbishop now, not packed off to the Continent, and Sally and I would both have had at least the smallest bit of what we want, with more to come.”
“David! You will cease your vulgarity and your defiance! This is precisely why I am dead set against the idea of you as a match for my goddaughter. Your appalling view of marriage, your complete disregard for the young woman you wronged tonight, the fact you do not consider Lady Sarah or your sister when you regularly invite social censure… You have done naught but complain about your own denial, and with every word you utter, you set me more firmly upon the course your father and I have chosen. I have not come to litigate the fairness of our decision. You have growing to do, and it will do you good to focus your attention on your education, not on Lady Sarah.”
He turned his back on her so she wouldn’t see the tears welling up. “Why have you come then? To gloat?” He swallowed hard and pretended she was his Latin master at Eton, trying to get him to lash out in order to punish him. He blanked his face ruthlessly.
“Gloat? Do you not know me at all, my son?”
“No, Mother, tonight, I do not think I do.”
She walked around him and looked up into his eyes, her hand on his cheek. “You ridiculous boy. You have destroyed your own chances. If you wished to marry Lady Sarah, you should have applied to her father over brandy in his study. You should never have seduced her in the bed where Haverford seduced half of London—even kept his mistress. He could only react badly.”
Toad didn’t pull away, but he turned his eyes from hers. “I didn’t know I wished to marry her until she asked me to kiss… I mean… I told her I did not wish to marry yet, that I had many years before I needed to take a wife.”
“Could you not see she has loved you since you both wore dresses? You did not need kisses to know that.”
He shrugged, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes. “I thought she saw me as a… chum. Someone to write her secrets to, who would take pleasure in her successes and not judge her harshly for her… occasional lapses in propriety.”
His mother shook her head and pursed her lips. “I am heartened you are honourable enough to keep her secrets, but have you learned so little of women after all of your paramours?”
“I know quite enough to be getting on with,” he muttered, but before he even looked to see the raised eyebrow staring at him, he returned to his point, “By the time I realized I did—do—wish to marry her, we were interrupted. I had decided it and was asking her when Haverford broke in and ruined it.”
She sighed and shook her head. “Haverford did not break into his own house. You were the interloper. Did you learn nothing from the debacle at Cambridge? No, David, this conversation has convinced me as nothing else had. You are not prepared for marriage, and you cannot ask Lady Sarah to wait. She will not be allowed to wed in her own time; spoilt ducal daughters are not afforded the same luxuries as spoilt ducal sons. And it is right she be permitted to survey her choices without you nearby to compare to every man who presses his suit.”
“You cannot mean you support Haverford in this? Against your own son?”
“Perhaps you will one day grow into a man she can be proud to marry, and who I will be proud to recommend to her—and her father. Perhaps she will be a widow by the time you are ready to be a husband. But that is the best you can hope for, my boy. You’ve made all the wrong choices, and you will reap the consequence. The kindest thing you can do for Lady Sarah is let her go.”
He didn’t know how to ask, but this would be his last chance. “Will you… will you help convince Haverford to allow us to write?”
She shut her eyes and sighed. When she opened them again, she looked at him with such sadness in her gaze that it choked him.
“I had thought I might, but now? I think it the worst idea imaginable. No, I will not help you in your pursuit of her. I will help her mother plan her come-out ball, and I will help her sort through her choices when Haverford begins entertaining offers.”
“Make a life for yourself in France, my son. Lose yourself in wine and women if you must. But let Lady Sarah go.”
He would get no help from her. He had only one option left. “I give in, Mother. You and His Imperial Rakishness have destroyed any chance I have at happiness, but you hold all the cards. I give in.”
With a heavy hand on his shoulder, she said, “I’m afraid that was inevitable. You will survive this, my son. You will. And you will be a better man for it.” She reached over to the tea table, where she had set a portfolio and a leather pouch. “I came to give you this. Letters of introduction for my colleagues at the embassy in Paris.” She looked him in the eye as she added, “With whom you will not disgrace me.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” He tucked the portfolio under his arm.
“Here are the funds for your travel,” She said, hefting a surprisingly heavy pouch into his hand. “I’ve added to your father’s idea of a stipend, for Wellbridge is too angry with you to think clearly. I will make certain of a reasonable compromise by the time your quarterly allowance is due—though you may expect to feel this episode in your purse—and you may trade on my name, if not your father’s. I am better known in French government and at Court than Wellbridge, in any case.”
Toad glanced at the door. “Where is Father?”
“He has gone to White’s to commiserate with Haverford—until dawn, if the history of hostilities with his son can be relied upon.”
Toad snorted. “Commiserating over the wrongs done them by unruly children who should be more deferential to two dukes.”
“Assuredly.” She placed the pouch in his hand and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I do love you, my boy, and wish you well.”
“I find that hard to believe, Mother.”
“I know,” she said, and slipped out the door.
Toad waited until the light from the solarium no longer shone across the expanse of lawn, and until he heard his mother checking in with the guards on his door on the way to his parents’ suite down the next hallway. He watched out his window for half an hour to make certain his father hadn’t set a roaming guard on the house, stables, or grounds, threw his satchel over his shoulder, and climbed to freedom.
Wait to marry Sal until she was a widow? If anyone were being ridiculous, it was his mother.
Ten minutes later, Toad surveyed the guards patrolling beneath Sal’s bedchamber window, but the two dukes were clearly far too enamoured of their own consequence. Wellbridge must have told Haverford he would keep Toad under lock and key, and Haverford, bless him, believed it. Their guards were watching Sal’s balcony for signs of escape, not looking for a man trying to break in.
He waited until they turned the corner to the other side of the mansion. With luck, they would circle the whole house, but he could not count on it. He crouched down, stole across the garden, and shimmied up a pillar to her balcony. Keeping low behind the wall of her terrace, he tapped quietly on the door. He heard the guards return below him, but they hadn’t seen him. He waited until their voices drifted away again, then tapped a bit harder.
The curtain shifted slightly, then the door cracked open and an arm dragged him inside, throwing him off balance. He had to steady himself and regain his feet, and by then, Sally had shut the door and locked it, hissing, “Polly is asleep in the dressing room,” before throwing herself into his arms, shoulders heaving with silent sobs.
Stroking her hair and holding her head on his shoulder, he murmured as quietly as he could while still making himself heard, “I’ve come to take you away with me tonight, before our fathers can act. I have hired two horses at a livery a few streets over.”
She drew back so she could look at his face, and for the first time since he entered, he took in what she was wearing; clearly, one of the new purchases for the adult wardrobe, for the trim, military-braided jacket, atop the fashionable riding habit, was shaped to accentuate her curves, and the skirt was short enough to show her trim ankles and bare feet.
Her trusting gaze firmed his resolve, as she said. “I was coming to you, of course. Where will we go? What will your father do?”
“First Gretna Green. After that… I do not have time to explain everything, Sal. The Duke of bloody Wellbridge will stop us if he gets the slightest hint I’ve gone.”
“And Haverford,” she agreed. “But David…” In the lamplight, he could see her eyes narrow, red and bruised with crying, as she shook her head, hastily pinning up her curls. “You do not have to marry me. I set you free. Remember?”
“Sal, I do not wish to be free. I want to marry you. I’ll not allow my father to exile me to Paris and yours to marry you off to one of his fat, old cronies. We are all but adults. It is time for us to take our destiny into our own hands.”
She burrowed back into his arms.
“I will come with you. But you do not have to marry me, David. Truly.”
“Of course I will marry you. If I do not, I will regret it all my life. Now, pack quickly. I’ve enough money to buy you new dresses once we have crossed the border, so you needn’t bring every gown in your armoire.”
“My clothes are all in the dressing room, and Polly is asleep in there. But can we not catch the train, at least partway? We will be in Scotland that much sooner, and I can manage like this until then.”
He nodded. “Part of the route, yes. And we can buy what you need along the way. But we cannot be seen catching a train. Once we have left Town, we can find an out-of-the-way station where the dukes will not think to ask questions. Put your boots on and we will be off. Hurry. “
She hurried, picking up the half-boots and sitting on a small footstool by the fire to put them on. “David, are you certain this is what you want?”
He crossed to her and kissed the back of her neck, relishing her shiver. “Hurry, Monkey. We don’t have much time.” Toad wanted to soothe her doubts and fears, but he had too many of his own, namely that her father would catch them and kill Toad with his bare hands.
She was pulling her boots onto her bare feet.
“Sal, you need stockings, or you’ll come up in blisters.”
“They are in the dressing room,” she protested.
“Let me look. I’ll be quiet.” But there was no need for silence when he pushed the door open. The pallet was deserted, the covers thrown back, and the maid gone.
Frantic, Toad grabbed the first stockings he could lay his hands on. “Polly is gone, Sal, and you know your mother’s way with servants. We have to hurry.”
He knelt down before her and slipped on her stockings, then began lacing the first boot as fast as his trembling hands could move, so nervous now he barely noticed he was caressing her ankle and calf.
“Abersham!” Aunt Cherry stood in the doorway, the treacherous maid peeking over her shoulder. “You unconscionable scoundrel! Get away from her, now!”
He jumped up and backed away from Sal, his face losing all its colour.
“Aunt Cherry. It isn’t… I mean…”
He stepped between Sal and her mother, preparing to take all the blame and as much of the punishment as they would pile on him instead of her.
Sally was just as pale, even a bit green around her jawline, but she straightened up and popped her head around his arm. “David and I are going to be married, Mama.”
“Without delay,” Toad added.
Aunt Cherry managed to keep most of the shock off her face; only her eyes widened. Nostrils flaring, she said, “Your father will have something to say about that, young lady. And yours, too, Abersham. Polly, help your lady remove her boots, as she will not be leaving tonight.” She gestured to a chair. “Abersham, sit.”
Toad remained standing, squaring his shoulders and guarding his love from her incensed mother, spoiling for the fight to come. He would comply with nothing until he was assured he could marry Sal. “I will not be denied, Aunt Cherry, no matter how many fathers you throw at us.”
Sally shifted away from her maid, who was trying to snatch the remaining boot, and slipped her hand into Toad’s. “Mama, please let us go. Please, Mama?”
Aunt Cherry ignored her daughter. “Denied what, Abersham? Is she your property, then?”
“No! She is not my property. What a thing to say.” He snarled at the implication. “But I’ll not leave her here to be married to some fat, old nobleman who will mistreat her, when I can do the right thing and make her my wife in truth, as she already is in my heart.”
“Perhaps she is the wife of your heart, though your recent behaviour gives me cause to doubt it, and your heart will not feed or house her. It seems you would rather she be miserable with you than happy with someone else. I had thought better of you, Abersham.”
Sally hugged his arm. “I will never be happy with anyone but David.”
“I will make her happy! I will spend my life making her happy,” David promised.
Aunt Cherry met her defiant daughter’s eyes, then examined Toad with precisely the expression she had used when he was ten and attempting to explain why he and Sally had flooded her sunken garden.
“Less than one week ago, you were engaged in amorous congress with two chambermaids in your don’s study, Lord Abersham, so I find it difficult to believe you have suddenly developed the means to be a faithful husband.”
Toad was gratified Sal didn’t react, nor pull away from him. She must have overheard the details when the parents were talking. He grasped her hand tighter.
“Besides which, you even now reek of your father’s brandy and yet rely on him for your entire income, so you will forgive me if I find your alternative plan for my daughter’s happiness less than compelling.”
Toad insisted, “I risk everything by coming here tonight. Is that not proof of my intent?”
Aunt Cherry arched one brow, a trick she had learned from Uncle Haverford. “Proof you intend to make such a scandal that my daughter will not be able to show her face in Society again. A runaway marriage, Lord Abersham? You would put her through that? She would never be received at Court.”
Sally stamped her foot. “I don’t care!”
His mouth opened and closed. “But… surely if we…” He put as much of his father’s tone into his voice as he could muster. “I will be a duke one day. No one will malign my wife. I’ll not allow it.”
Aunt Cherry’s voice was deceptively amiable. “I assume you are willing to find work to support a wife and children, Abersham? You could perhaps find a position as a valet.” She looked him up and down. “You are fond enough of clothes, and I am unsure of any other marketable skills.”
“I am willing to dig ditches, if need be.” No need to let her know his plans. Their parents would only find a way to foil them.
“But…” Sally stood where he had left her, looking more bewildered than angry. “You would cut us off? Without an income?” Aunt Cherry nodded. “As will Wellbridge, unless I am much mistaken. Living on love sounds well and good, children. But think long and hard before you try it.”
He wished he could explain that he had a plan, a house, and enough money for at least a few years. If only he’d had more time before Aunt Cherry turned up. If only he had dragged Sally out of this house with or without shoes, before anyone was the wiser.
“We are not children. And I will take care of you, Beauty. I swear it,” Toad said, pleading.
The pounding of running feet was the only warning before the door crashed open and Haverford burst into the room, Wellbridge at his shoulder. Aunt Cherry must have sent for them as soon as the maid had informed her. Toad let out a small whimper before he straightened his stance once more, trying to make himself large enough to stand as guardian to his future wife, wishing someone were there to stand as guardian to him.
Haverford pulled up short at the sight of Toad, swaying a little, and Wellbridge came to rest leaning against his knees, breathing heavily.
“Uncle Haverford. Father.” Toad nodded curtly and stayed between Sal and her parents.
“Haverford,” Aunt Cherry said with a roll of her eyes, “Lord Abersham begs leave to pay his addresses to your daughter.”
“I beg nothing,” Toad snapped, finally fed up with the need to defend himself when he was doing the right and honourable thing, by all the rules his parents and godparents had instilled. “I mean to marry Sal as soon as it can be accomplished, and I do not require any permission but hers.”
Haverford turned scarlet, and everyone else in the room took one step back, including Sally, who tugged at him so insistently he uncoupled their hands and stepped forward to meet Haverford’s stare. He would be damned if he let his own godfather intimidate him, no matter how powerful the man might be.
Before he could make it across the room, Uncle Haverford spat, “Name your second, you cur.”
Toad stopped in his tracks, his mouth dropped open, and he remained slack-jawed for several long moments. “Second?”
“Your second, man!” Aunt Cherry was holding on to Haverford’s arm, whispering urgently into his ear, but he shook her off. “If you are old enough to defile a man’s daughter, you are old enough to answer for it.”
Toad recovered himself instantly at the insult to Sal. He stepped up to the mark, proving himself at least six inches taller and broader than his godfather, to say nothing of being forty years younger and faster. Snarling at Haverford, he argued, “I never defiled Sal and do not now offer to defame her, and I will meet you for maligning her so.”
Wellbridge, having regained his breath after seemingly running all the way from White’s to Haverford House, stepped up next to his friend and stared down his son. “You will need to send your second to speak to me.”
“Father!” Toad yelped at the response. “You would stand with a man who challenges your own son?”
“I would stand against any man who threatens my goddaughter’s virtue, as I know Haverford would stand against anyone who so endangered your sister.”
“Quite right,” Haverford said.
“Threat… You believe me to be a threat to Sal? Me? You offend me more with every word. But if my own father is against me, so be it. I choose swords over pistols. I’ll send Prince Nikolaus to make arrangements in the morning.”
Haverford blanched. Niko had been Toad’s best mate at Eton, was currently in London, and would stand with him against anyone, without question. And he was also Haverford’s favourite nephew, a royal prince sent from Erzherzog, where Haverford’s brother, Jonathan, was consort to the Archduchess.
Toad had been the one to give Niko his nickname at Eton—Etcetera—after being introduced to His Serene Highness Prince Johannes Wilhelm Nikolaus Victor von und zu Elchenberg. Toad had shortened it to “Your Serene Etcetera,” and they had been fast friends since.
“You would set my own blood against me, Abersham?” Haverford asked, and had the decorum to flush when Toad glanced at his father and back again.
Toad turned to Wellbridge. “I must be off to locate my second and secure a room for the night. Do give Her Grace my regrets when you explain why I will no longer set foot in your home.”
“No!” Sally was crying again, forcing herself between Toad and his persecutors. “No. Stop it. You cannot do this.”
“Gentlemen.” Aunt Cherry spoke so sharply all three men started. “I am ashamed of you all. Is your pride so important you would ignore those who love you, the estates that depend on you, the law you are sworn to uphold?”
Toad took one step back and folded his arms across his chest. Wellbridge’s stance and defiant look mirrored his son’s.
Haverford would have none of his wife’s interference. He slashed his hand across the cutting words, saying, “I do not care, Cherry. He has wronged me and wronged my daughter, and I will not stand for it!”
“Yes, he has behaved badly,” Aunt Cherry argued. “I am the first to say he is too young to wed and not fit to be anyone’s husband. But he, at least, has the excuse that he has been tutored by two of the worst scoundrels in all of England.” Her raised brow was directed at Haverford and Wellbridge this time, both of whom had the grace to offer the slightest look of chagrin.
With a glance at Toad’s resultant smirk, she added, “I do not absolve you, Abersham. You are an immature, spoilt, drunken skirt-chaser, and my daughter deserves far better. If I blame your father and hers as much as I do you, that does not change my opinion of your suitability.”
Toad narrowed his eyes, but didn’t answer the charges, watching Haverford carefully.
“Cherry,” Haverford said, gathering his resolve once more, “You cannot interfere in a matter of honor.”
“I concur,” Toad agreed. “I’ll not allow Haverford to put it out I am a coward.”
Aunt Cherry grabbed Sally by the wrist and dragged her towards the door, collecting her boots on the way. “Honor? What honor is there in slaughtering the boy for behaving as you taught him, Your Graces? Or in fighting the father of the girl you claim to love, Abersham? I tell you, I am disgusted with all three of you.”
Sally broke free and ran, not to Toad, but to her father. Hanging on his arm, she begged, “Don’t do it, Papa. Promise me you will not do it.”
With a foolish defiance, Toad exclaimed, “You need not debase yourself in my defense, Sally. I care not one whit if Haverford means to kill me.”
Sally turned drenched eyes to him and held out her hand. “But I care, David. He is my father. You are my… my dearest friend. Will you not reconsider this for me?”
Taking her hand in both of his, he replied softly, “Only for you, my darling, but the die has been cast.”
Haverford snarled. “Get your hands off her.”
At the same time, Aunt Cherry said, “Bella, I’m so glad you received my message.”
“What in heaven’s name are you doing here, David? What is going on?”
Toad paled again at his mother’s voice, but stepped closer to Sal, even though it brought him within arm’s reach of Haverford.
Toad intertwined his fingers with Sal’s and his look dared her father, and his, to try to separate them.
“I am going to marry Sally, Mother, as soon as we can cross the border. Provided, of course, I survive Haverford’s formal challenge.”
“Do you run mad, Abersham? Have you heard not one word I have said to you this evening? And Haverford, you have challenged my son? What are you thinking? Have you not promised before God to protect him?”
“I cannot talk sense into any of them, Bella,” Aunt Cherry said, her voice suddenly weary. “And if Abersham is bundled out of here by half-a-dozen footmen, we’ll have exactly the scandal we are trying to avoid. Or if our ridiculous husbands press ahead with this bone-headed idea of a duel.”
Haverford was shifting a little uncomfortably under his wife’s stern gaze and his daughter’s pleading, and Wellbridge followed suit under his duchess’s stare. When Bella turned to Toad, however, he gave not an inch, only glaring back, folding his arms more solidly around Sal’s shoulders.
“I see the problem,” his mother said. “I suppose it had better not be your footmen who take him away, then. Captain Hawley is in London, planning to leave on the morrow for a ship departing Dover in two days. He can be trusted not to tell tales. Wellbridge, can you please send for the captain and a few of his sailors?”
“Gladly,” Wellbridge agreed and stepped out of the room.
Cherry nodded, thoughtfully, but Sally threw her arms around Toad and hung on with a vice-like grip that threatened to cut off the blood supply to his torso. “No! I will not let you take him away!”
Bella looked down her nose at the hysterical girl. “You have no say in this, Lady Sarah. Step aside.”
Sally shook her head, and held on tighter, while Toad wrapped himself around Sal in return.
“I’ll not go, Mother. Not without Sal. I do not care if I am forced down a mine shaft to buy her daily bread.”
His mother grabbed his arm and dragged him away from Sal. “You may yet be, for I cannot think your father will continue supporting you after tonight.”
Aunt Cherry enfolded Sally in both arms, but to prevent her from following Toad, rather than to comfort her.
Haverford pursed his lips and announced, “Lady Sarah, I have changed my mind about sending you to Margate. I clearly cannot trust you to have a care for your own reputation while you remain unwed. And I will not allow you to bring scandal on our name.”
He held the attention of everyone in the room, and Toad’s glance at Sally shared a desperate hope.
“You will begin your Season forthwith, and be closely guarded until I choose a husband for you.”
The two duchesses exchanged startled glances, and Aunt Cherry said, “But Haverford—”
“My mind is made up, Your Grace,” Haverford told her. “She needs taming, and Lord knows I have not done it. It will be up to her husband to provide the necessary discipline, God help him, and Abersham cannot even control himself, much less a wife.”
Sally wept and struggled in her mother’s arms as Toad’s father returned with no fewer than six rough-and-tumble sailors, headed up by Captain Hawley of his mother’s flagship.
Hawley was not an entirely unknown variable, as he had captained the family frigate the family travelled on throughout Toad’s childhood. However, this sailor had been his mother’s most loyal retainer since she was nineteen years old, the first day she set foot on a ship, and would forever do anything she asked, up to and including murder.
The Duchess of Wellbridge handed him over to Captain Hawley and his men, who secured his hands and feet with rope.
“We talked about the remedy for your problem, Missus Bella.” his mother’s right-hand man said, with a look at Toad that told him everything he didn’t want to know.
“Will you cease calling her that?” Nick snapped. “She is a duchess, not a fishwife.”
Hawley shot Nick a disdainful glance but said nothing. It was Toad’s mother who replied, “He will not. He will address me as I have asked of him for thirty-five years, and as a duchess, I may surely choose any title I wish.”
“I wish I could kick Huntleigh for that,” Nick muttered, and Hawley straightened, apparently ready to brawl with a duke over the commands of his former shipmaster.
“And yet, you cannot.”
With one last scornful look at Nick, Hawley turned back to the duchess. “He got any bags, Missus Bella, or are you givin’ ’im to us with naught but the clothes on his back?”
Wellbridge had opened the satchel Toad came with, in part to avoid the ongoing controversy of Bella’s address at her shipyard. Pulling out one pouch of coin after another, then the watch box, flipping through the portfolio of documents and correspondence, he said, “No, he will not be taking this with him. I will send his belongings with his valet within the hour. You may feel free to assign his valet a cabin if you have one available, but you needn’t be so particular for my heir.”
“Yes, Yer Grace.”
“I expect him to leave London before dawn,” his mother insisted.
“Sooner,” Haverford demanded.
“With the tide, Yer Graces, just as we planned when I thought he would walk on board, not be carried. Just a change in timing and delivery. Don’t fret ye, Missus Bella. I can take care of your boy. I pressed snottier swells than him in my day.”
As they carried Toad away, shameful tears fell from his eyes, and he repeated endlessly, even after they threw him none too gently into an unmarked coach, “I will write to you, Sally. I promise you I will write.”
Sally struggled to follow Toad.
“Let me go. Bring him back. Please, Aunt Bella! Mama!”
Mama had wrapped her in the tightest of embraces, and when the sailors came, and she struggled harder to come to Toad’s aid, Aunt Bella had added her own strength, her arms around Sally and Mama both, so Sally had no chance of escape. The dukes kept themselves firmly between the females wrestling Sally, and the men binding and abducting her love on the other side of the room.
“You cannot take him! This is kidnap! Don’t hurt him!”
“Now, young lady…” Papa began.
“Go away, Anthony,” Mama told him with a frosty snap in her voice that brooked no argument. She was patting Sally’s shoulder and stroking her hair, as if she were a baby with a skinned knee, and not an adult woman whose heart was being bound and torn from her chest.
“You cannot take him!” she sobbed, as Aunt Bella’s boat captain threw Toad over his shoulder.
“Yes, Haverford, leave Sarah to us,” Aunt Bella insisted.
David shouted again and again that he would write, his cries fading as Aunt Bella’s sailors carried him away.
The kitchen door slammed in the distance. He was gone. It was over.
No. She could not just give up. He had risked everything to rescue her. She must at least try to rescue him. She had until the tides changed. She had only to let the mothers believe her defeated, then escape when they were not watching. And Uncle Wellbridge had left the satchel with all that money when he followed the sailors out. She could hire someone to help her. Perhaps one of her Wakefield cousins would…? No. She could not involve family. They would tell Papa.
Her mind racing, reviewing and discarding a dozen ideas one after the other, she stopped struggling and let Mama hug her, as opposed to merely keeping her in check.
“He is gone now, isn’t he?” She asked, in as conquered a voice as she could muster, when she heard a carriage drive along the side of the house.
“He is gone,” Aunt Bella said, with some degree of compassion, but no sympathy. “It is late, Sally. Let us put you into bed. Everything will look brighter in the morning.”
Indeed, it would, for she would be on the way to Scotland with David by then, once she figured out which boat he was on in Aunt Bella’s shipyard. And if she were killed by a footpad going to the docks alone at night, it would serve them all right.
“Nothing will ever look bright again. You have torn out my heart, all of you. It is all your fault, and I hate you!” She devolved into sobs at the thought of all the people she loved most keeping her from the only man she would ever wish to marry.
“I know you are angry, Sally,” Aunt Bella told her, “but truly, darling, we want only to save you the heartache of a man who is bound to hurt you.” She helped Sally remove her jacket and undid the buttons on the skirt.
“He wants to marry me.”
Aunt Bella and Mama exchanged looks. “What?” Sally asked. “He came to get me. He said he wanted to marry me.”
“It is to his credit,” Mama said thoughtfully, “that he was prepared to do the right thing.”
“If only I could believe it were for the right reasons.” Aunt Bella shook her head, sadly.
“He said he would never hurt me,” Sally insisted. “He promised.” She stepped out of the skirt. They would take it away, but it did not matter. She had others. She would go in her shift if need be.
“He would not mean to, Sally,” Mama agreed. “But hurting women is what rakes do. Abersham is far from ready to marry. He has no idea what to do with a wife.” She began undoing the buttons on the shirt-waist.
“No.” Sally shook her head, trying to dislodge the feeling that Mama was right; wishing she had never heard the words Toad had said spare hours before.
‘I am not sure how to love a wife yet. I should hate to be a bad husband to the only woman I can ever love…’
Polly came in from the dressing room with her nightgown, and Sally recovered herself enough to slap the traitor’s face. “Get out. I do not want you near me. I will not have you in this house, and you will get no character.”
“Sarah!” Mama gasped, but sent Polly to the kitchen.
“Sarah, that was a mean act, and Polly will not be dismissed. I am ashamed of you. She had only your best interests at heart. You will apologize when you are feeling more yourself.”
Sally shook her head. Polly was her mother’s spy, and Sally would not have her in the house. If Sally was not the Marchioness of Abersham and mistress of Toadstone Hall by evening tomorrow, Polly would answer for it.
“He wants to marry me,” she repeated.
“He wants to defy his father. He wants control of his own money. Do you think I have not heard every last one of his reasons?” Aunt Bella’s words stung like a lash. “Sally, I love you like my own Almyra. I am mortified to say it, but I could not bear to see you married to my son. Not now. Not until he grows out of this terrible attitude toward women.” They put Sally’s nightgown over her head, and she moved her arms obediently into the sleeves.
“You both married rakehells,” she told her persecutors, thinking but not saying, And he didn’t ruin me. Doesn’t that mean he loves me?
Again, they looked at one another, and then at Sally, with so much pity that she felt the tears welling up again. She choked them down.
“Your Papa was approaching forty when he was ready to be married, Wellbridge still older.” Mama sighed. “It is such a pity, dearest. He was the sweetest little boy.”
Don’t speak of him as if he were dead, Sally thought.
She let them put her to bed, let them plant a kiss on her forehead, one after the other, let them pretend she was still a child. Aunt Bella took David’s satchel with her as they left the room, and Sally lay there in the dark, revising her plans to be accomplished with only the last of her pin money, waiting for the house to be silent.
He didn’t ruin me. He wants to marry me. I will rescue him, and we will be together.
But when she tried the dressing room door, it was locked. The door to her sitting room, too. Locked and guarded, for she could hear people murmuring.
Her balcony, then. No. Two men stood directly below. “Go back inside, my lady,” one of them said, his voice kind, but firm. “You will take cold.” Two more men stood under the window on the other wall.
Back in bed, she put her head under the pillows and covers and wept. David was going away to Paris, where the opera dancers were more beautiful than in London, and more wicked, too, or so everyone said. He’d had had his taste of her—dear Heavens, how he had tasted; even miserable as she was, she shivered to remember—and it hadn’t worked. He hadn’t wanted her. He had refused to let her pleasure him, had made excuses for not repeating what they’d done, and had not suggested marriage until Papa’s entrance obliged him.
He came to rescue me. He said he wanted to marry me.
She tried to convince herself that he meant it.
He spoke of making things right, of defying our fathers. He never spoke of love.
The long night finally turned to morning. Her breakfast was delivered, and later her lunch, but she had no appetite. It would serve them right if she starved herself. No. I will need my strength to escape. She managed a few mouthfuls, but everything tasted dry and dull, and her throat closed when she tried to swallow.
He does love me. He must. He wants to marry me.
She sat in her window seat staring sightlessly across the gardens. Where was he now? If she could not run away and reach him, he would find someone else and do those things to her. The disgusting trollop. Sally hated her, and all the others who would succeed her.
After lunch, Mama informed her that David’s ship had left London and was out of reach.
She had more tears. How surprising. She thought she had cried them all.
Mama was inclined to be cross: something about not throwing a tantrum, and acting with dignity. Sally couldn’t follow it; thoughts of David filled her head, leaving little room for anything else. After a while, Mama said, “You must accept the inevitable,” and Sally began to weep again. Her best friend was gone forever, and her life was ruined, and her Mama and Papa hated her.
Mama went away.
The second day was much like the first, except Mama stopped scolding, and David was farther away.
Papa arrived with dinner, growling that she must eat. She tried, but even the smell made her retch. The maid who had replaced Polly took her plate away while Papa consulted furiously with Mama in the corner.
“Do not be ridiculous, Anthony,” Mama said. “It has been less than two days!”
Two days! Two days ago she had been a child. And now her life was over.
He said he wouldn’t ruin me. But he has. He has. I will never be able to stand anyone else’s touch again.
Toad stared through the skylight windows set at an angle above his new bed, listening to the night-time street sounds of Paris, ten stories below the pied-a-terre, the top two floors of a building in Saint-Germain-des-Près. He couldn’t stop ruminating about the state of his life now, wishing he hadn’t allowed his parents to force this intolerable trade: an apartment for his entire lifetime of happiness.
But it was rather too late to be thinking now. If he had engaged his brain when it mattered, not just reacted in haste to His Pompous Magnificence and the Duchess of Double-Cross, he would have found a way to escape Captain Hawley’s ship instead of screaming and crying and fighting his captors, banging his head against the confines of the brig until they were halfway across the English Channel.
Now, he was stuck here, two continents away from the woman he loved, with no chance of returning to England before she was wed.
Eventually, he removed himself from the bed, where he had been thinking on the folly of not thinking ever since he had arrived six hours earlier. He stripped off his rumpled clothes, reluctant to call in Blakeley, lest he be subjected to more forced positivity about the opportunities that awaited him in Paris.
Positivity, Toad assumed, was easier to muster when one was sleeping in the ambassadorial suite, just visiting the miserable slag in chains in the hold. Captain Hawley’s idea of justice; putting Toad’s valet in the duke and duchess’s old quarters, and leaving Toad to his regrets belowdecks, living on hardtack.
At least until he gave in and agreed to do whatever his mother said. His word had been required, as an honourable gentleman, with his new valet the final arbiter of how well he complied. In the end, it was easier to capitulate to the captain than Toad had thought, under pain of slow, torturous death by the man who had taught his mother bladeplay.
Staring out the roof windows at the cloudy night sky and across the chimneys of his new neighbourhood, he thought about all his options, always landing back on the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce, which provided the best chance—probably the only chance—to protect his properties and inheritance. And it would please his parents, otherwise known as Lord and Lady Purse-strings.
Opening the window, he breathed in the cool, but fetid, night air. Even ten stories from the street, the smell of garbage and horse droppings pervaded the room, no worse than London, but not quite the same. The sounds of music and laughter tempted him, but he had already undressed. Still, he was restless, nowhere near sleep, nor had he been for more than a few hours at a time since they left London five days ago, instead tossing and turning even more than boats or carriages mandated, ruminating on his enormous loss.
Tonight, his father’s voice echoed in his head, followed with his Uncle Haverford, not in their most recent incarnations, but years ago, the night of the family dinner before he left for Eton at twelve:
“Women are better companions than other men when one is lonely, Abersham.”
Uncle Haverford had added, “You’ll find a willing one soon enough. Just don’t choose an innocent from the upper classes, talk to your father before you suggest marriage or negotiate for a mistress, and don’t be daft enough to turn it down when she offers. And never be stingy with gifts.”
Perhaps he should have discussed marriage with his father first; Sal’s father assuredly. But he had been impetuous, wishing only to solemnize a lifetime bond that had seemed unattainable, but suddenly felt inviolable—and the most luscious kisses he had ever imagined. It had been romantic. It had been. He was sure.
At yet another thought of her kisses, Sir Frogmore rose again. He turned and punched the pillow.
Women are better companions than other men when one is lonely.
Sal was the only companion he wanted. But here he was, a continent away, and she would be married to an honest-to-goodness toad in no time at all, warts and all. He would remain true to her until all hope was lost; he had no plans to seek relief with whores or engage a mistress when he had a perfectly good hand and the fondest of memories. But he needed to make friends in France. He had to talk to people.
Women are better companions than other men when one is lonely.
At a knock on the bedchamber door, he pulled on the dressing gown Blakeley had left out. “Yes?”
“I heard you up and about, my lord. Is there anything I can provide? A meal, perhaps? You have not eaten anything since we left the ship yesterday.”
Toad wished his father had allowed him to bring his own valet. “No, but perhaps you can help me put together a suit of clothes. I think I will go out.”
Tugging the watch from his pocket, Blakeley said, “Now, my lord? It is almost three o’clock in the morning.”
“It is, isn’t it? Go to bed, Blakeley. I will manage.” He crowded the man out of his bedroom, shut the door in his new valet’s face and did, in fact, dress himself in the nearest clean clothes.
He descended to the ground floor, striding past the concierge, the little old lady with her eye to the keyhole to see who was wandering the halls at night. He, by God, was the Marquess of Abersham, and would wander any halls he liked, especially halls he owned. He went out to the street and looked around.
“Get lost in Paris,” had been his mother’s advice. He doubted she meant in the middle of the night, but there was no time like the present. He would have to arrange a club in the days to come, along with entrance exams and presenting himself at Court and to his mother’s former colleagues at the Ambassador’s office. But for now, any coffee house or pub would do.
The street was yet hectic with music and people reeling drunkenly from one entertainment to another. He made his way to a café, where he took a seat and ordered coffee.
He wasn’t sure how to go about meeting people, exactly. He would in his classes, he assumed, as he had at Eton, then Cambridge, but there, he had known many of the students for years before they all entered school. There would be supper clubs, certainly, to keep him fed—there always were in cities where noblemen converged—and assuredly, expatriate noble Englishmen at the French Court found ways to band together. But tonight, right now, he was lonely and homesick and wanted someone to talk to, and he couldn’t stomach a brothel or a cheap imitation of his Sal.
Over his shoulder, he heard a British accent, and the sounds of a young lady in increasing distress. Her voice was rising in pitch and volume, her French so fast he could barely catch it all.
“Monsieur, I do not wish to accept a commission from you. Not last night. Not tonight. Not next week. I do not wish to model for you, with my clothes on or off.”
He turned toward the conflict, preparing himself to defend her. When he saw the source, his lip curled and he charged, throwing himself across the room, jamming his hand into the man’s chest to try to shove him away from the girl, but he held tight to her arm, even as she fought against his grip.
“Crowhurst, you pig. Leave women alone when they tell you to.”
Cameron Crowhurst had been scratching at Toad’s temper for years. Even before they had both attended Eton at the same time, Crowhurst’s father was the cit who had bought Toad’s mother’s vineyard after she married the duke. Subsequently, Toad’s father had entered into business with Crowhurst Senior, and the duchess had insisted on taking her whole family to see her former property at least three times, starting when Toad was only five or six and Almyra was just a baby, to visit her former husband’s gravesite.
Two years older, ten years meaner than Toad, at school, Cameron could always be counted on to goad other boys into trouble and then escape the blame. Toad had been a special project from the first day, when Crowhurst made all the upperclassmen aware of Toad’s hated nickname. He had, in turn, dubbed the other boy Crowbait. Toad and Etcetera had fought Crowhurst and his friends on more occasions than he cared to count, and won more than half the time—but not much more.
When the girl finally yanked her arm away, Toad motioned with his head for her to go while he had Crowhurst distracted. The other man snarled, but only made token objection when she scurried off, muttering, “No reason to scare off a man’s quarry.”
“That fact you view her as quarry is reason enough.”
Crowhurst gave an insouciant shrug and said, “So, Toad Northope. Of all the people to turn up in Paris. Banished or running from debt?”
“Lord Abersham to you, Crowbait.”
“Of course, Your Lordly One.”
“Better. And you? Banishment or debt?” Toad asked without answering the same.
“The former when my father grew weary of paying the latter. Are you in school, or will you spend your days wenching and gambling, as you do in England?”
Toad shrugged. “As long as I pass the entrance exams next week, and I see no reason why I would not, I will attend L’Ecole Supérieure de Commerce.”
Crowhurst laughed aloud. “A duke’s son, to be educated into the lower orders. Thankfully, I will not have to see you in classes then, for I am at the University of France.”
“There is a blessing,” Toad smiled.
“Quite. But then, my parents wish me to advance myself, not be made into another merchant. Surely, I will see you among the expatriates of our mutual acquaintance. We have a supper club.”
He would join no club that would accept Crowhurst. “You might see me at Court, were you welcome there,” Toad sneered, “but I am certain you are not. And I imagine any clubs I join will be designed for noblemen, and probably French-speaking. One wishes to stay true to one’s class, of course, but shouldn’t miss the opportunity to speak with natives while one can.”
“Bloody miserable tongue. Degenerate, just like the people who speak it. We should have forced the Frogs to speak English after Waterloo.”
“One needs a good grasp of one’s first language to understand a second. Or in my case, a seventh. As I recall, grammar was never your strong suit.”
Crowhurst stood and narrowed his eyes. “I needn’t accept insult from you, simply because our fathers do business, and I do not care to whom you are related. Do not cross me, Toad.”
Toad waved his hand at his old adversary made new. “Go away, Crowbait, you jumped-up, lowlife scum. Go find other people to bother, but do show some refinement and leave unwilling women alone. I will not be able to avoid you forever, but I shall do my best.”
“Likewise, I’m sure.” Crowhurst made an insolent bow and stalked away.
Turning back to his coffee, Toad stared into its inky depths, the beverage the exact colour of Sal’s ringlets. The ceramic cup was the same rich, chocolate brown as her eyes. About a quarter-hour passed while he watched people passing and thought of all he had lost, when the girl he had saved from Crowhurst slid into a seat across from him. “Vous êtes un artiste?”
“Non,” he replied, with a sheepish grin, “Un marquis. Anglais. L’université.” He spoke near-perfect French, and still sounded like a child. She had hair the same colour as Sal’s, though her eyes and her face were much darker and her figure lithe, while Sal had luscious curves.
He looked around to see if Crowhurst would reappear to cause a scene, but she bit her thumb and gestured toward the door, saying, “He has gone to a brothel, which is where he belongs. He is no artist, that one.”
She let her fingertips trail across the back of his hand. “Do you need a model, cher?”
He pulled his hand back slowly, so as not to offend. “I’ve said I am not an artist.”
“That is not all there is to do with a model.” She let her hand follow his and teased the button at his wrist. He pulled away again.
“I’m afraid I’m… spoken for. At least… in that way.” He cleared his throat. “That is not to say… er… I am new to Paris, and I know few people. I have no objection to making friends, and do not wish to be rude. It is only…”
“You are in love with someone.”
“Very well. Have you wine at your lodgings?”
“Because I plan to become very drunk, and if you did not have wine, you would have to buy some before you take me home.”
“But, I’ve just said…”
“You said you do not wish a lover, but that does not mean we cannot drink together, does it?”
“No, I suppose not.”
Women are better companions tan other men when one is lonely.
“Then come, monsieur le marquis, let us celebrate our youth and freedom until the dawn.”
The days blurred. Mama came and talked about clothes, and a date for Sally’s Court presentation and her ball. Sally had been imagining her ball for years. She would dance first with Papa and then with David. But David was gone, and it was Papa’s fault.
She started to weep again, her tears staining the fine silk samples her mother had brought.
A week passed, and they fetched a doctor, who said she was hysterical, and suggested a treatment in whispers to Papa. Papa got white around the lips, and the tips of his ears pinked, and he had the man escorted from the house.
After that, Mama insisted Sally come out of her room. The new maid dressed her several times a day. A day gown to go to breakfast and listlessly follow Mama as she met with the household staff and kept up her correspondence. An ensemble to walk in the park, or ride in the carriage, attempting to smile at friends and acquaintances. A more subdued walking dress for accompanying Mama on her visits to the charities she took a personal interest in: an orphanage, a school, a home for women who had been rescued from the street. An evening gown for dinner, where she shifted her food around her plate in an attempt to disguise the fact she was not eating.
Mama did not insist on taking her into company. Perhaps she feared that Sally would subside into weeping if anyone mentioned David. Certainly she cried when Mama and Aunt Bella explained to her that he was too young to know what he was doing, and that he only decided to marry Sally because the grownups gainsaid him.
She waited for a letter, but no letter arrived. Were the mothers right? Sally could not forget that David had said himself that he did not wish to marry. No. Not David. Toad. He has left, and he does not love me as I love him. I will never call him David again. Toad.
Sally was out of patience with her own tears, but did not seem to be able to control them.
Then, at last, the Duchess of Winshire came, chased everyone out of the room, and folded Sally in her silken embrace.
“Tell Grandmama about it, Sarah.” Her soothing voice opened the floodgates.
“He has gone, Grandmama. Toad has gone.” The last word was a wail.
“To school in Paris, my dear. Is that such a cause for grief? He has been away to school before, and will return.”
Sally pulled back to see the duchess’s face. Did she not know? “Papa says he will not be allowed near me again. So does Uncle Wellbridge.”
Grandmama coaxed the whole story from Sally, more even than Mama or Papa knew. Sally blushed to admit she had hoped to bind Toad to her, but somehow she told her grandmother nearly everything. Not exactly what Toad had done. Not that. But everything else.
The telling seemed to exhaust the tears. At the end, she waited patiently for Grandmama’s verdict, her heart calm for the first time since that night.
“Hmm,” Grandmama said. “It is not to be denied, dear Sally, that you have been very foolish. Young Abersham, too. As have all in this sorry situation, even your Mama and Aunt Bella; my son and Wellbridge perhaps most of all. Now, what to do?”
“Will you help us, Grandmama? Will you help us to marry?”
Grandmama patted her hand. “One day, my dear, when you and Abersham have both matured a bit, if you still want it. Not yet. You both have some growing up to do. But one day.”
Sally shook her head. “But I told you. Papa says he will choose a husband for me. I would rather die, Grandmama.”
Grandmama gave her a hug. “Do not worry, child. I will talk to Haverford about this ridiculous notion of marrying you against your will. And you barely out of the schoolroom. No. There shall be no forced marriage. Now. Wash your face, my dear, while I go and talk to your mother.”
Several years ago, Papa had installed a heating system, such as those used in factories where cold fingers might lead to mistakes that damaged the work. A series of brick stoves in the basement heated air that passed up through ducts into the rooms above. Sally had quickly realised that the duct feeding hot air into her sitting room ran past her mother’s private parlour on the floor below. If she lay on the floor next to the opening with the damper fully open, she could hear all that was said.
“I hope Mother Winshire can talk some sense into the child.” That was Aunt Bella.
“Heaven knows she will not listen to me or Anthony.” Mama, heaving a sigh.
“Ah. Bella. I am glad to find you with Cherry.” Grandmama had arrived. “I can say this once, and to both of you.” Last time Sally had heard that tone, she and Toad had just broken a vase in the drawing room at Wind’s Gate, after stealing Uncle Sutton’s fencing foils for a practice match while they thought the adults otherwise occupied.
“I am deeply disappointed in you both. My granddaughter is upstairs fading away because she misses her dear friend, and that sweet boy of yours is in Paris, undoubtedly throwing himself into every dissipation the city can offer because he misses her.”
Sally’s brow creased as she thought about that. She had been trying not to think of what Toad might be doing with other women. Because he missed her? That reason had not occurred to her.
The senior duchess continued. “I blame the two of you very much for allowing things to come to this pass. No, Bella, you will have your opportunity to speak, but you shall not interrupt. That the two fathers behaved like idiots goes without saying. Men can be fools when they are upset. But really, Cherry? Bella? Split them entirely? Refuse them any contact or any hope? Do you want them to imagine themselves star-crossed lovers, united against a cruel world? For undoubtedly, that is what you have achieved.”
Sally, her ear against the vent, could not easily nod, but Grandmama was right. She and Toad were alone and without allies. She heaved a sigh. It was so very sad.
“And as for this threat from my son to choose a husband for Sally, it is intolerable. You should have put a stop to it, Cherry, and since you have not, I will. To hand Sally off to another man when her heart is fixed on Abersham? Ridiculous.”
Cherry’s voice was more uncertain than Sally had heard it. “I have told Anthony so, Mother. He is concerned that Sally will behave with another man as she did—”
“I trust you told him he should be ashamed of himself. Thinking such things of his own daughter. She loves Abersham, of course, or she would never have invited such liberties as he would take.”
“He should not have taken any liberties,” Aunt Bella insisted. “I am ashamed of him.”
“He loves her. Loves her enough, I gather, to leave her a maid. Would you tell me Wellbridge took no liberties with you, Bella? Or Haverford with you, Cherry?”
“They are barely more than children, Eleanor,” Aunt Bella protested. “It is not the same thing.”
“I was fifteen when I fell in love with Winshire,” Grandmama said, her voice going soft with memory, “and seventeen—just Sally’s age—when my father and his conspired to exile him overseas and marry me to Haverford’s father.” Her tone sharpened. “I shall not see my granddaughter suffer as I did.”
“Should we have let them marry, then, as they demanded?” Mama protested. “Mother, they are not—
“No, no. I agree they are not ready to wed. Either of them. But to leave them without hope? That is not acceptable, my dears. Let them lead their separate lives for a while: Abersham at his studies, Sally in Society making her debut. Let them learn a little, grow a little. And if they are still of the same mind in a few years? If their feelings have not changed? Well. It is the match you always wanted, you cannot deny it.”
A few years. Sally would have fought that two weeks ago, but now it felt like a gift.
“Where is my son? I have a scold for him, too.”
“He is in his study with Wellbridge,” Mama said.
“Excellent. Come, ladies, we shall present a united front, bring these stubborn men into line, and then discuss what is best to be done.”
The room below fell silent as its occupants left, and Sally sat up from her uncomfortable position by the wainscoting. Hope. She could feel it taking root, spreading peace. She would not change, she was certain. She could not be so sure of Toad. David.
But if she were just allowed the right to refuse her suitors, there was hope.
Chapter Twelve coming next week!
Toad’s hand shook as he fastened a new steel nib to the pen, preparing to write the first letter to Sal that he knew would make it to her, For Haverford had relented! Toad had sent half a dozen before she sent word, but four had been returned at Haverford’s direction, his bold hand crossing the front of the missive in block letters: Return to Sender. There had been no response at all to the other two.
For the first time in months, this afternoon, he had received a letter from Sally in her own hand. Seeing her copperplate calligraphy on the envelope had brought tears to his eyes. The short note had been stilted, not referencing his letters, not even utilizing their code, but rather, the most banal and uninteresting small talk he had ever read. Just the tone of the thing was evidence Haverford was reading every word. How Toad was to write a similarly insipid note without gagging at the deception, he did not know. How could he write a letter to his Sally and not bare his soul to her?
But he hadn’t expected to be allowed to write at all, and he had been dying to share his impressions of Paris with her. Or at least, most of them.
The wooden handle of his pen was covered with teeth marks he had left while he studied day after day, alone and with his study group, often late into the night
He steadied his fingers as he penned the opening to the message he would send to Sal by return post, last night’s debauchery with his friends foremost in his mind, directly beneath the pounding headache.
Dear Lady Sarah,
Please do pass on my sincere thanks to Haverford for allowing you to write. It would be a cold world indeed, were I cut off from my dearest friend.
It galled to thank Haverford for a scrap of courtesy after the man had seen him exiled. By rights, he should have welcomed his godson to the family and forced his stubborn daughter to comply. Still, the duke would be reading this. Might as well make it good.
I cannot remember a day I have spent away from home when I haven’t eagerly awaited the post to hear your news. I am jubilant that the ritual will continue and promise to remain the same faithful correspondent I have always been (which is to say, I will write often and post scads of letters infrequently).
And he did plan to write often, if only because he hadn’t much else to entertain him. The workload, combined with an allowance cut to a quarter of its former size, meant he spent less time in dissipation than he had in England. Few and far between were his forays into the fleshpots of Paris.
His intention to remain true to Sal had been upheld more by necessity than his own resolve, for from the first night in Paris, as soon as his willpower against the model had waned with wine, beneath the weight of hopeless longing, he found he could not perform with a woman unless he imagined she was Sal, and in so doing, saddled himself with guilt of a magnitude previously unknown. The poor model who had tried so hard to distract him had left in high dudgeon after he opened his eyes halfway through and wrenched himself away as though she had burned him, his erection shrivelling before her eyes. She had thrown one of his mother’s Canton vases against the hearth and woken his neighbours with her screaming.
Since then, when he was alone and not immersed completely in his studies or in brandy, he was all but priapic. At home at night, if his mind turned to Lady Sarah, he could not take himself in hand often enough. He wanted—needed—to drive his manhood into opera dancers and actresses and widows with abandon, detached from the act, from the women. He wanted to employ the same distraction from the raw aching of her absence that he always had before, at Eton and Cambridge and in all his travels with his parents during school breaks. If he didn’t do something to manage the constant yearning for Sally Grenford, he would go mad.
Sir Frogmore was clearly in Sally’s thrall, and as such, Toad decided, he would save for her that act which belongs between husbands and wives. He would limit himself to entertainments a gentleman only asked of his mistress.
Once decided, he found himself free of the heaviest guilt, once more able to flatter and flirt, and enjoy the pleasures allotted to a man who eschewed intercourse, and keep his male friends convinced he was as hot-blooded as they. But other women never quite engaged his full attention, his mind always comparing them to Sal, and few and far between were those who engaged the interest of his phallus. Every last one of those looked like Sally.
But Sal would be presented and marry in a matter of minutes; he owed her no fidelity. They had no understanding. Exactly the opposite. If Toad hadn’t been packed off to his mother’s ship, she would have rejected him, if only because their parents had made her believe he had no plan or prospects to support her. Surely that must mean he could cast his net as wide as he liked.
However, he would prefer she not contemplate that too deeply. It wasn’t as though he had thrown himself into pleasure with complete abandon, and he now limited his interactions to women who had no reason to give him a second glance.
On nights he took away from his studies, he made up for the lack of amorous entertainments with an excess of French wine and frequent attendance at Paris’ many gaming clubs, though always now conscious that he could not apply to his father or godfather to supplement his allowance if he played too deep. Perhaps, one day, he would seek out a paramour again, but for the moment, he entertained himself tolerably well without one, and besides, he had studying to do and letters to write.
Though clearly, his missives would be less honest and not so demonstrative than in the past. Lady Sarah, indeed. He had never addressed a letter to her thus in their lives. He inked his pen, struck through the formal salutation, and boldly wrote, “My Dearest Monkey.” Let Uncle Haverford make what he will of it.
Though you, more than any other, have heard me bemoan the years of language lessons my parents forced upon me, I must retract my censure. You cannot imagine how grateful I am now. If I weren’t as fluent in French, I would be in a poor way indeed, as the French are supremely unhelpful to Englishmen, particularly noble ones. It is only by virtue of my mother’s legend, and most likely a word from the Ambassador I have not yet met, that I was matriculated, as there is a long tradition of hating the English at ESCP. And make no mistake; the French king and his courtiers react much as English kings do, in the matter of going into trade.
Sitting back, he took a sip of his brandy and thought about what he might write next. He swirled the tumbler in his hand and spent a long few moments giving over his mental acuity to the question of annoying Haverford without drawing his ire on to Sal’s head. He was resolved she would never feel her father’s wrath.
Do you remember my mother’s pied-a-terre? I cannot recall the last time you were here; ten years ago? Twelve? The visit when your father caught us hiding under the table during my mother’s party? Now, so many years later, that table, and the rest of the furnishings, must be as old as my mother’s first husband—grandfather to Methuselah, to hear my father tell it. I wish you were here to redecorate, for you know how tiresome I find such things.
He hoped she would read this for the code it was: wives decorated men’s houses. He couldn’t say outright he wished to marry her, for fear Haverford would rescind his agreement to the correspondence. But at the very least, he could give her the barest reassurance that his intentions remained. He didn’t want to use their true code until Haverford grew lax in reading every word, to increase the chance it would make it through without arising his suspicions.
Ah! He had it. A way to irritate Haverford that the duchesses would never allow him to express aloud.
I know that you (like my mother) would love meeting and socializing with the artists and writers who frequent the area. When my mother lived here, as both baroness and duchess, she held salons where she introduced starving artists to wealthy patrons from the French court, but of course, that was years ago, and I would have no idea where to begin to revive the practice. I wish you were here to lend your talent for entertaining, and for charming noblemen into doing your bidding.
He tapped his pen on a scrap of paper. He wouldn’t tell Sal everything, but that had been true since the first time he had tumbled a chambermaid at Haverford Castle when he was fourteen. Some things, one didn’t wish one’s future wife to dwell upon, especially not when the results called his virility into question. Surely gossip would not travel so far as Paris to London, and it wouldn’t do to worry her only a few weeks after he had left.
I have been overwhelmed by the richness of the cultural offerings in Paris; I was blind when our parents brought us here as children. Theatres, museums, concert halls. The Paris Opera makes the Royal look like a Punch and Judy show. I’ve engaged a box for the Season.
No need to tell her he had paid for the box to make his search for opera dancers less cumbersome. Nor that he no longer attended performances, now that he had embarrassed himself with one of the dancers, sure she would make his shame known to all the others.
By the time you receive this, you will have made your bow to the queen, and I am certain you are now the talk of London, the most Incomparable Diamond in ten generations. I expect you danced your slippers through at your ball, and I know that, between your mother and mine, your ball will have been a spectacular success.
More’s the pity, as she now probably had suitors ten-deep outside her father’s study door, all begging for her hand. And his mother—his traitorous, disloyal, faithless mother—had helped. He expected such perfidy from his father, who would do as he ducally desired in every instance, but his mother had always been more understanding and willing to listen. She should have given the Haverfords the cut direct for the insult to her son, not helped the silly chit make a splash in the ton.
You must heed your mother’s and grandmother’s advice in looking over the options for your future, my dear, and wait a year—if not two, or even more, if your father allows it—for you are young yet and have decades within which to be a wife and mother. Please do not act with haste or an excess of emotion, for I should hate to come home to find you have married a man who causes you even the least sadness.
On second thought, he scratched out the hated nickname, and replaced it with David, hoping she would read the implications as easily, quickly, and thoroughly as she read the erotic books he had sent her over the years. If she thought of him as David when she remembered him making love to her, then he would never again refer to himself as anything else, especially not while she was entertaining offers from other men.
“Ready?” Papa said, his gloved hand patting hers where it rested in the crook of his elbow.
She smiled up at him. “Ready, Papa.”
She had been furious with him for weeks, but tonight, the last of her resentment had melted away as she looked into his anxious eyes. Had he grown years older in a scant two months? And surely he was thinner than before the– before everything changed?
Three days ago she had been presented at Court by her mother, in the presence of her godmother and her grandmother: three duchesses and no room for a duke or two.
Tonight, the night of her presentation ball, the Duke of Haverford waited for her at the foot of the stairs, with tears in his eyes as she descended.
“Darling girl, you are so beautiful.” The eyes he turned to his friend the Duke of Wellbridge, who was there at his side, were a little wild. “Nick, old friend, she is all grown up. My baby is all grown up.”
Sally forbore to suggest he might have guessed that two months ago, and Wellbridge just said, “I hope you have set aside a dance for your old godfather, sweetheart.”
She made a show of checking her fan, a gift from that same godfather. “Why, Uncle Wellbridge, your name is written here,” she said, with feigned surprise.
Wellbridge smirked, looking for a moment so like his son that her breath caught. She covered the sudden lurch of her heart by broadening her smile and fluttering the fan. She was not going to let Toad spoil her evening. He was certainly not letting her spoil his, him and his opera dancers. She turned her face from the two men who knew her best under cover of arranging her skirt, the silk soft against her fingers.
Two weeks ago she had overheard Papa and Uncle Wellbridge talking about Toad’s exploits, and had demanded the truth from her cousin Redmond, who had recently been in Paris. Redmond told her she should not know anything about such things, but agreed that Toad was quite a fellow.
Sally smiled, making sure that her eyes crinkled in the corners. “Shall we go in, Papa?” she asked. She would give no one the satisfaction of seeing her less than delighted with her debut. She planned to be a reigning beauty and break hearts. Let that be a lesson to the perfidious scoundrel off enjoying himself in Paris. The evening began with one hundred people to dinner. “Just close friends,” Papa assured her, but she was glad of his arm, and of Uncle Nick hovering protectively on her other side, when they walked into the Grand Parlour, where a glittering crowd turned as one, suddenly silent, to watch her enter.
After a frozen moment, she began to see faces: Mama with Aunt Bella, Grandmama and Uncle James, Lady Overton and her husband, and the dowager Lady Overton, Uncle David and Auntie Prue, Mama’s sister Aunt Sarah and Uncle Miles: so many relatives and friends. Papa began to conduct her around the room, presenting her to ladies she had known her entire life, and presenting the gentlemen to her. She smiled, she nodded, she curtseyed, she murmured a few words. She thanked gentlemen for their compliments, many of which employed the term ‘moonbeam’.
She managed not to snort. Just because she was dressed in white, with pearls and silver lace. She was not foolish enough to discount her assets. She was pretty, and had the funds to dress herself in a way that hid her faults and enhanced her better features. Her gown tonight must have cost Papa more than her maid’s wages for several years. Undoubtedly her dowry and her connections, more than her looks, would win her the interest that she hoped for. Not from those present of course, most of whom were cousins. Toad would not be jealous of her cousins.
Papa squeezed her hand and whispered, as they moved between groups, “You are doing well, my dearest.”
Dinner was easier. She had been allowed to attend the occasional formal dinner at home this past two years, especially in the country, and the rules helped. She need only concentrate on one conversation at a time; first with Henry Redepenning, youngest son of her father’s cousin, who sat to her left, and then after her mother turned the table, with Viscount Elfingham on her right. He was the oldest son of her mother’s cousin, Lord Sutton.
They were both handsome men, and eligible, and Elf would be a duke one day. Why didn’t they make her quiver inside as Toad did? All through the meal, she kept thinking, “I should tell Toad about this,” or “Toad will laugh when he hears that,”
As if she had conjured him up, Henry asked, “Is Abersham not coming? I know he is in Paris, but I thought he would return for your ball. I rather thought you and he were…”
She laughed, proud of herself for sounding as if she did not care. “I daresay he is very busy.”
Henry turned a snort into a cough. Had he, too, heard the rumours about Toad and his opera dancers? Beyond a doubt, and probably more than Sally had, since Papa and Uncle Nick had stopped talking as soon as they knew she was there.
Since that day, she had thrown herself into the preparations for her debut with an enthusiasm that had delighted her Papa. “See,” she had heard him say to Mama, “we were right to separate them. He has lost no time in… ahem… exploring Paris, and she has already recovered her spirits.”
Now, Sally burned to ask her cousin exactly what he had heard. But she would not so demean herself. She smiled, and chatted, and smiled some more, and lowered her eyes demurely to the left when Henry flirted, then again to the right when Elf did the same.
After dinner, the remaining guests began to arrive, and she stood with her parents to receive them, curtseying and smiling until the faces blurred. The reception line wound on and on, until her smile was beginning to turn into a headache that pounded behind her eyes.
At last, her father led her out for her first official dance as a debutante. They had planned it all, she and Toad. She would dance with her father, and then with his father, and then with Toad. Only then would she turn her attention to the army of suitors Toad assured her would be queuing for the privilege of turning her around the floor.
And there they were, waiting when the Duke of Wellbridge escorted her back to her mother—not just the nine unmarried male cousins who happened to be in town, and who had signed her dance card before dinner, but their friends. And other men, too, who had been presented to her only this evening, all hoping for a dance with the pretty daughter of the powerful Duke of Haverford. Dozens of handsome, charming men, many of them wealthy, most of them titled.
But none of them were Toad.
When it chimed at five, Toad looked up at the clock from the head of his table for thirty, chewing on the end of his pen. His Accountancy textbook and stacks of reference books and papers covered four place settings on both sides of the host’s chair: geography and history, writing, accountancy, international trade regulations, and by his mother’s request direct to the administration, diplomacy. A table-top globe took up the space usually occupied by one of his mother’s three candelabra.
He had but one more week to study before his exams. He had hoped to meet his friends later this evening, his first night out in days, but until he mastered double-entry bookkeeping, he would not be able to enjoy the opera, the view of the opera dancers, or the rest of the evening. He would have had to make an early night of it anyway, since Bey would want to get home to his new mistress, and Toad needed to get through six more chapters before the morning.
He tugged at the hair now standing on end, his back straightening at the sound of footsteps coming up the building’s endless flights of stairs, then a knock. He made no move. Blakeley would take care of it.
Moments later, the butler cleared his throat at the dining room door, but before he could get a word out, “Clear the way, Blakeley. He should know better than to send regrets on a night like this.”
The speaker was a lithe, dark-haired fellow with a neat black beard. Nartay Muhadow, called Bey after the word for Lord in Turkmen—Bey-Bey when his friends or his older brothers wished to tease—stopped in the doorway at the sight of Toad at his books. When he drew up short, someone else lurched into his back, tossing him forward, revealing the head and shoulders of his newest mistress, Ninon Blanc, a young opera dancer in an extremely low-cut gown.
“You are still studying?” Bey sighed. “We all agreed the study group would take a much-needed break this evening.”
“We agreed the group would not meet; I never said I wouldn’t study.”
“You had to know we would come to drag you off. You cannot miss Ninon’s last night.”
Ninon’s breathy, tittering voice behind him added, “Abersham, you said you would let me introduce you to the soprano before I move into the new apartments. She has traded a favour for it, and I mean to collect.” Her melodious giggle played counterpoint to three others, much deeper.
Another man, tall, thin, and blond—Karl—stuck his head up from behind them. “You are a dull dog, Abersham.”
Piero, a burly man with wiry, coal-black hair followed behind them all. One could tell he was a gentleman by the cut of his coat, but his countenance and frame most closely resembled a prize fighter. “Dull as a dumbwaiter.”
Toad lurched to his feet, his legs and back stiff from long hours in the chair. “None of you will be running your own mother’s shipyard, and if you wish to join me in Marseille for practicum, I suggest you study more than you do.”
Piero waved away the objection. “Precisely why I need not. They can hardly fail you when your mother gave them a shipyard for us to play with, and will hold them accountable, not us, if we do not make money with it. And of course we will go with you. Bechand will deny you nothing, so happy is he with your mother’s largesse. We are heroic by association.”
Blakeley interrupted with a discreet knock on the door jamb, holding out a calling card. “My lord, you have another visitor.”
Toad stared at the pasteboard card for a full minute before he stammered, “The Duchess of Winshire is here? Now?”
Bey’s mouth dropped open, shaking his head in denial. “The Duchess of Winshire? Oh, no.” He looked around the room as though for a window to climb out. Toad wanted to follow him, but alas, they were eight stories from the street.
“She is going to flay me alive, Abersham! I was supposed to go to London to meet her and my grandfather four months ago. She has written three times.”
Toad stepped over to the brandy and drank down a full measure before pouring another. “I rather think, Bey, if she is here to see me, you might get off scot-free. She is Sally’s grandmother, too.”
Bey stepped away from Toad like he had warts. “That’s right. She is. I shall pray she saves her ire for you, and that my grandfather hasn’t come with her.”
“What is she doing in Paris?” Toad asked Blakeley.
To scold him, or she would have sent word of her arrival. But he had no idea what she knew, how, or who had her ear, nor for what he might be called to account in the next few minutes.
“I cannot say, my lord. Shall I show her in, then, or make your excuses?”
Toad looked around the room at his friends; he and Bey exchanged uncomfortable glances and a mutual shrug and nod, and he reached for his jacket. “Show her in, please. The drawing room, I think.” Turning to Bey’s new mistress, he said, “Take that door to the library and stay out of sight.”
“There is no need for the young lady to remove herself,” Toad heard from the doorway, where Blakeley had stepped aside.
Bey froze; Ninon giggled and grasped Bey’s elbow with both hands. Piero and Karl both took a step back from the formidable aura of power that radiated from the duchess, and Toad rubbed a resigned hand across his face.
“Aunt Eleanor. It is… a surprise to see you.”
“I daresay,” she said with a hint of mischief playing about the corners of her mouth, but the rest of her face as hard as he had ever seen it. “Blakeley, please bring tea,” Eleanor instructed.
As Blakeley left the room, Bey backed toward the doorway. “We should… We shall leave you to your guest, Abersham…”
“Oh, good heavens, no,” Eleanor objected. “You need not interrupt your plans on my account. I will not keep you long. We can take a seat at the table, can we not?”
Toad offered Her Grace a chair near the foot of the table, a seat she had probably never occupied in her entire life, and with a tilt of his head, indicated his friends should follow suit. Toad sat across the table from her; Bey, Piero, and Karl took chairs as far away as they could without being obviously rude, and if Ninon were any closer to Bey, she would be on his lap. Eleanor showed nothing of her thoughts apart from one elegantly curved eyebrow.
She eyed the piles of books on the table. “May I assume, Abersham, this is your study group?”
He blushed and ran his hand through his hair. “Yes, Aunt Eleanor. Er… the gentlemen, anyway.”
“Of course. Will you not present your little friends, dear?”
They were as dissolute, at least this evening, as he had been in England, evidenced by the strong smell of spirits that had wafted in with them, and the fact that Ninon’s breasts were all but spilling out of her gown. It could be worse only if she had also caught them dicing.
But she had left him no choice. With a wave of his hand, he indicated the highest-ranking of his associates, who stood and came closer to make a bow.
“Your Grace, may I present Lord Piero d’Alvieri from Florence? He is the younger brother of the Conte d’Alvieri. Piero, the Duchess of Winshire, a family friend come to Paris for a visit.”
“Buonasera, Lord Piero,” Aunt Eleanor offered when Piero took up her hand to kiss the air above it.
Before Piero could begin flirting with Aunt Eleanor, an inevitability since she was female, Toad turned to the blond man, whose blush might have been embarrassment, but more likely an excess of wine. “Mr. Karl Zajac hails from Mother Russia; his father owns several textile factories.”
Karl was clearly the drunkest of the three, for he nearly fell over when he attempted the few steps from his chair to hers, followed by a court bow the others had drilled into him before introducing him to Piero.
“Dobriy vyecher, Mr. Zajac,” Aunt Eleanor offered in heavily accented Russian, her lips twitching as he righted himself.
“Good evening, Your Grace,” Karl returned, steadying his balance against a Chippendale chair.
“And finally,” Toad said, “I do not believe you have met Mr. Nartay Muhadow, late of the Kopet Dag mountains north of Persia.”
Perhaps her husband’s grandson would keep her distracted from Toad’s failings. Bey cast him a look of deep betrayal and his dark eyes danced towards the door as if his feet might follow to escape. Instead, he made an elegant bow to the duchess.
“Nartay is here, too. Excellent,” Aunt Eleanor said, an inscrutable smile on her face. “It is so good to finally meet you, dear boy. When the duke and I heard the two of you had struck up a friendship, it seemed providential, as we had business with both of you. Your grandfather will be delighted, as he is in search of you at this very moment.”
Bey stammered, speaking to the wall to his right. “His Grace is here with you?” He retreated a step. “In Paris?” Bey flushed. “I have not been home in several… er, I have not been home to receive him, Your Grace.”
Bey squared his shoulders, but his eyes flicked to Toad with more than a hint of accusation, as if this encounter were Toad’s fault.
“I must pay my respects to my grandfather at the earliest opportunity. Will you tell me where you are staying, Your Grace, so I may pay a call?”
She answered while pouring tea from the pot that Blakeley set before her, “We are staying at Le Meurice, dear, though the duke is most likely leaving a card at your residence. Perhaps you would like to have breakfast with us tomorrow at eight o’clock? The duke prefers to eat early.”
“Breakfast. Tomorrow. Yes. Thank you, Your Grace.” Bey swallowed, but nodded, then stepped out of the duchess’s line of sight, pushing his mistress behind him. “Eight o’clock. Er… we should be going…”
“Nonsense. Will you not present your young lady to your grandmother?” The duchess beckoned the girl out from behind her grandson. “We have not been introduced.”
Bey stuttered through an introduction, his face nearly as red as Zajac’s. “This is… er… Ma’mselle… ahem… Blanc, Your Grace. She… uh… dances. At the Opera.”
Bey gave Toad a desperate look, which Toad ignored. Bey could extricate himself from his own mess. It served him right for pushing in.
“We plan to attend the Opera while we are in Paris,” Aunt Eleanor said. “I shall look forward to watching you dance, mademoiselle.”
Toad choked on his brandy and Zajac, now scarlet to the ears, pounded him on the back until he stopped coughing. Ninon Blanc was better known for a type of dancing that could not—should not—be discussed with grandmothers. And after tonight, she would be doing all her dancing in Bey’s bed.
“You are very kind, madame la duchesse,” the woman replied with a deep curtsey, her eyes downcast, managing a circumspection none of the boys would have expected. Nor could accomplish themselves while being subtly interrogated by the likes of the Duchess of Winshire.
“We must take our leave, Your Grace,” Piero volunteered in the same smooth voice he used with every woman on Earth, bowing as he backed toward the door, gesturing to Karl to follow. “We must study, and help Mademoiselle Blanc… rehearse.” Bey bowed again and followed Piero and Karl out of the room, dragging Ninon behind him. Blakeley appeared to shut the door behind them.
Toad sighed and resigned himself to his scolding from Aunt Eleanor. The miasma of their debauchery—so his, by association—hung in the room. To her credit, Aunt Eleanor made no comment but, “A most fortuitous meeting. It was… instructive to meet your study group, dear. I do look forward to breakfast with Nartay.”
Observing the piles of schoolwork on the table with a bemused smile, she gestured to the books and said, “I am sorry to disturb your studies. Were my time not limited, I would not intrude for the world, but I confess myself pleased to see your industry. It does not escape me that your friends interrupted you just before I did. To engage in what pursuits I shall not deign to speculate.”
Toad felt the heat rising in his cheeks. At eighty, Aunt Eleanor had an old woman’s tendency to truth-telling, which made her one of his favourites among Sally’s relations, but could be deuced uncomfortable.
“It is always good to see you, of course, Aunt Eleanor, but I am confused. How long have you been in Paris? Have we an appointment I have forgotten?”
“My, my, Abersham. Demanding an appointment of a duchess four times your age? Winshire and I realized we had similar problems to be addressed in France and popped over for a few days.” Eleanor took a sip of her tea. “As for my problem, I am dissatisfied with the information I have gathered about the liberties you took with my granddaughter.”
He stared at her with his mouth flapping, unsure what to say. “Haverford told you?” He flushed and stood to pace before the fire, running his hand through his hair in a gesture he shared with his father. “You? I cannot believe he would…” He stopped and stared at her in horror. “It hasn’t become generally known, has it? She’s not been ruined?”
“No, it has not, praise heaven. Most of my information comes from Sally herself. Haverford told me only what I could glean from monosyllables; Wellbridge still less, but at volume. Cherry and Bella were somewhat more forthcoming, but they naturally do not wish to make themselves or their husbands appear culpable, and they may well be. So, yours is the last viewpoint I must consider.”
Toad looked around and took his pacing to the fire, where he added a shovel of coal.
“How do you fare here in Paris, my boy? Are you well and happy?”
Toad opened his mouth to answer, then closed it, then opened it again, but still did not speak. He finally said, “I am well, Aunt Eleanor. You?”
She sighed. “A little tired, dear.” She patted his hand to reassure him. “Sally made her debut last week, and I find I do not recover from late nights as quickly as I once did.” At Sally’s name, his hand jerked as if burned, and she withdrew hers, watching him closely.
He stiffened and looked away. “I am sure it was… lovely.”
“It was and she was, which is what you most and least wish to hear, I expect.” He ran a hand through his hair as she said, in an annoyingly blithe tone, “I have launched debutantes before, of course, but few as fetching. These modern fashions suit her very well. In white, of course, which is a very hard colour to wear well, but Sally has the hair and complexion for it. She wore the Haverford pearl-and diamond parure, of course, and her gloves, fan, and shawl were all silver. She was a fairy princess, Abersham, all moonbeams and stardust.”
He smiled and swallowed hard, caught up in envisioning his beloved in a wedding gown. “I love to see her in white.”
Aunt Eleanor snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Abersham. Abersham! Are you addled, boy? I said… I wish to hear from you.”
“What do you wish me to say?”
Her exasperated look was tinged with affection. “Silly boy. The truth, of course, as you see it, about your unfortunate plans for the ravishment and elopement of my granddaughter.”
She had timed it to the sip of his brandy. She must have, so skilfully did she make him choke. Once finished coughing, he started, “I am surprised she spoke of it. Is she…”
He was so close to the information he sought that his heart beat faster. “Can you tell me; is she well? Does she think of me fondly, or have I hurt her irreparably? I cannot tell a thing from the letters she writes under Haverford’s eye.”
“She is certainly better than she was when I arrived back in London, but still not back to her old self. Of course, she is proud; she will put on a good show.”
Before Toad could respond, a knock at the door revealed Blakeley. “My lord, as you requested earlier, dinner will be ready in three-quarters of an hour, if it pleases you.”
He looked over at Aunt Eleanor with one cocked brow. “Will you stay for dinner?”
“Thank you, Abersham. I am not dressed to dine, but if you will not regard it, nor will I.”
Once Blakeley had gone and shut the door behind him, Aunt Eleanor began again. “I would have your side of the story, dear lad, before I am too old to comprehend it.”
He laughed a bit harshly. “I set out to make Sally my wife and was thwarted and exiled. What more is there to say?”
She finished her tea, put her cup back on the saucer, then examined him carefully. “That was why you met her, was it? You compromised her to force a marriage?”
He flushed and turned his eyes away. “No! I did not mean to compromise her. Nor to marry… not yet, anyway… not from the first… but… soon after.”
Eleanor held out both hands to Toad and when he took them, said, “Collect yourself, Abersham.”
He took a breath and pulled his hands back. “She sent a note and said she needed my help. I thought she was planning a prank, or escaping her governess for an afternoon, and of course, I would help her with anything of the sort she asked.”
Her lips twitched. “Of course you would. And instead of coaxing you into a lark, she was curious about kissing.”
He gave a short nod, turning away from her incisive stare.
“And you agreed… Why?”
He stammered and rose to pace again. “She is… I had never thought she would… I mean…” He finally stopped and looked her in the eye. “She is everything to me, Your Grace, and has been since we were ten—before that, probably—and I hadn’t any idea she felt the same. I always thought she looked at me as… a friend… a brother. I thought we would marry. Our parents have talked of nothing else for years. But I wouldn’t think of seducing her. I just assumed she would… I assumed the love of a man and wife would grow from friendship… after we wed. After I could… show her my devotion without causing her dishonour.” He blushed and stammered the next words. “I agreed to kiss her because I could not resist the chance to kiss the woman I have loved since childhood.”
“Hmm.” The duchess looked at him thoughtfully. “If that is so, it seems odd you have always bedded any willing woman who came near enough.” She held up a hand to his incipient objection. “No, I believe you believe you love her. You told her you did not know how to love a wife, Abersham. How has that changed?”
What had changed between declaring himself a free man and declaring himself to Sally, was not a question he had stopped to ask.
“I had not thought myself ready to love a wife, no. But I cannot lose her, Aunt Eleanor.” He worked to keep the pleading out of his voice, but not successfully. “And I do love her. If she is my wife, I will love her the same way I do now, as I always have, but we will be allowed to… er… we will no longer live apart.
“That you can please a wife in bed, I have no doubt, given Wellbridge and Haverford. Can you be a good husband in every other sphere of your lives? What say you to the rumours you have not slept alone, or with the same girl twice, since you came to Paris?”
His hand shook as he poured. “I say they are much overblown.”
She lifted a dainty eyebrow. “Untrue? Or exaggerated?”
He downed the rest of his brandy in one gulp. After not having had a drink in several days, out of necessity as he studied for examinations, and now far too many in quick succession, it went to his head rather faster than he was accustomed to.
“Most likely both, as gossip always is. I will be faithful to Sal, if that is your concern. I have no interest in any other women if I have her. I cannot…” he blushed to the roots of his hair. “I have no interest. Must we speak of such things? You are practically my grandmother. It is not natural to discuss… marital relations with you.”
He took a gulp of his brandy, not waiting for it to warm.
“Do not prevaricate, Abersham. I am trying to decide how much help to give you.”
His head swivelled like it was on a spike. “You will help me?”
She did not answer directly. “I may help you. So far, we have established you will please her in the bedchamber, and I see your Continental education will further that pursuit.” She glanced toward the door and he looked away. “But many men are as well qualified to overwhelm her senses, any of whom might keep her just as sated. What qualifies you to be a good husband to my granddaughter? Are you in expectation of a house, food, and a regular income? For you have none of these to offer her now.”
“I had a house, and money!”
“Yes. In your bag. The old Brickdale estate, and the ten acres surrounding it. We detoured to inspect it on our trip here. A roofless house, believed to be haunted, and avoided by all within walking distance.”
Toad blinked, but rallied. “I had money to support her,” he argued.
“Two thousand guineas in gold, as I understand it?” With a twitch of her lip, she asked, “Cards or dice?”
“Backgammon,” he growled, “and at least eight thousand more in jewels and gold in my watch box. I could have supported her, Aunt Eleanor,” he repeated. “It wouldn’t have been like our parents’ houses, but it would have been… an adventure. Until I am given my own lands and trust.”
“An adventure. I daresay.” She handed him the teapot. “Another cup, Abersham, and you shall have one yourself.” He flushed again at the raised brow that was her only comment on the amount of brandy he had consumed in her presence, and took the delicate china teapot to the urn Blakeley had set on a sideboard. As he emptied the dregs, measured leaves from the tea caddy, and filled the pot with fresh water, she continued.
“Haverford and Wellbridge grew up much the same as you did, encouraged by their fathers in every debauchery and excess, and both grew to regret it. Yet, neither stopped to think such a course might be a poor choice for you. And neither of their wives reined in her husband.”
Did Aunt Eleanor just criticize both dukes and both duchesses? She had a lifetime habit of never allowing either Sal or Toad to speak ill of their elders.
He brought the tea service and placed it on the table, taking the chair to her left at her gesture.
“I shall have to be very stern with them, now that Sally’s brother is of an age to begin raking about. I’ll not watch it happen again. Not when the result is…” She winced and waved her hand at him, “such an infernal tangle. A fine mess you all made of things.”
“Not all, no. I take full blame for this entire episode. I should have left as soon as I found she was alone. I certainly should never have… well… I never should have done any of it.”
“No, indeed you should not. You were foolish, Abersham. Immoral, too, make no mistake, no matter your influences. Never more so than demanding she choose between you and her parents.”
“I made no such demand! Haverford challenged me! Had he just agreed, after twenty years of spinning tales of uniting the duchies, we would have had a wedding breakfast at Wellstone.”
“When you asked her to run away, you bade her cut herself off from her family and yours—there would have been no wedding breakfast at Wellstone. No Wellstone at all until the day your father dies. Nor Margate or Dalrymple House, or any of the properties owned by your families. Do you not see that, Abersham? Did you think you could return after such defiance, and all would be as it was?”
His mouth fell open and he sat, speechless, for a moment. Finally, he squared his jaw and snapped, “Our parents would have accepted it once the deed was done. It is what they have always wanted, and my father cannot disinherit me entirely.”
“Had you been told the story of your mother’s marriage contract, you might not be so quick to assume the Duke of Wellbridge cannot bend the law to his will.”
“They would not cast us out. They would not. And in any case, it is only a few years until I take possession of my barony, and I have enough money to keep us until then…. I had enough. No longer. Lord and Lady Ledgers have me well and truly hobbled now.”
Again, an arch of the elegant brows, her face unreadable. “So, it is at an end, then? You have given up?”
He sprang from his chair, unwilling for her to see his eyes filling with tears. “What can I do? Haverford has grown cruel, or mad. He will marry her to some old man and I…”
The duchess cut him off. “That plan is at an end. Sally will not be wed against her will, or at all this year. Do you think I would allow such a thing? Or that Haverford would demand it, once he came to his senses?”
That news hit him like a strike to the gut, and he had to take a moment to recover his breath, his hand hovering over the decanter. “He will not? I cannot… how did you…?”
“Come and be seated, dear. Pour me a cup of tea, please.” Toad sat before the tea service and poured out, serving her, then himself as she continued.
“Thank you, Abersham. The problem I have is that neither of you have any more idea of marriage than when you played at house in my conservatory. You are not fit to be a husband. Nor is Sally fit to be a wife. But she is growing up, I am pleased to say. Are you? That is what I am here to find out.”
He shrugged his shoulder. “I cannot know what answer will please you. I am older, certainly, and unhappier. If that is a mark of growing up, then I have.”
Eleanor patted his hand.
“You think me an interfering old woman. But if I will help you, I must know I am not placing Sally in danger of the sort of unhappiness I was afforded for so many years, with a man who will disregard her feelings and his marriage vows.”
Haverford never spoke of his father, who had died long before Toad was born. But London still whispered of his cold and ruthless pursuit of anything and anyone he desired. Toad had never considered how that behaviour must have affected his duchess.
“I would never, Aunt Eleanor.” The rest of what she said penetrated. “You will help us?”
“Perhaps. I am more sympathetic than you can know, dear boy.”
She took a sip from the cup Toad had poured, and he said nothing, watching her anxiously.
“Tell me… You have known a number of women, of course, but how many marriageable young ladies? If she is first in your heart, is it because she is ahead of others, or because there are no others?”
“There has never been another, nor will be. I have spent plenty of time… conversing… with ladies of my own class, in public and private. They are… lovely, of course, but none is my Sal.”
“If there will never be another, you have nothing to lose by waiting.”
“I have nothing to gain by it, either.”
“I think you are wrong, Abersham. I believe you are too young to marry, my dear, Sally too.”
“I take exception. She has been presented, so her parents think her old enough to be a wife, and I have been fending off matchmaking mothers since I was sixteen. No one in England would look at all askance if we were wed.”
“And no one would be at all surprised if a girl married at seventeen had four sons and a succession of lovers by the time she was twenty-three,” Eleanor responded tartly
“I intend Sal will never seek a lover, for she will have one living with her.”
“That is certainly the best prescription for preventing a wife from straying, Abersham. As long as said husband is not busy with his mistress or drinking at his club with his friends.”
“Why on earth would I need a mistress if Sally were in my bed?” He cleared his throat and grimaced. “My apologies, Aunt Eleanor. That was vulgar.”
“Then I shall be more vulgar still, my dear. You have shown no signs of the kind of self-control needed for those occasions when a wife is not available to warm one’s bed. She will bear children. She will be sick. She may stay in the country when you go up to Town. Your plan has flaws, Abersham.”
“I am not entirely without self-control.”
“I look forward to seeing some evidence of that fact. And to seeing the man you will become in the next few years.”
His whole body stiffened, and he stared into the fire.
“Sally, of course, has not had the same opportunities you have, to meet young men of her own class, discounting her cousins, of course. So, how can you know you will always come first with her?”
That set him pacing again.
“Her cousins…” He shook his head. Her cousins were, to a man, Toad’s equal—or better—worse—in pursuits with women. The only one he would trust with Sally for a moment was Etcetera, and he only because they had a long-standing agreement never to poach each other’s women. He took a deep breath and threw himself back into his chair before admitting to his deepest fear, the one that kept him awake at night, and seemingly, held control of his male organ.
“But what if she… what if… some rogue—some other rogue—sweeps her off her feet? I cannot live without her, Aunt Eleanor.”
“If you lose her to another between now and then, you never had her, and better to find that out now.” She put her hand on his. “My word will not bring your exile to an end, my dear, nor can I change Haverford’s mind about the marriage. And if I could, I am not certain it would be for the best. But I can do two things for you, my dear Abersham.”
He looked up then, a glimmer of hope in his torment.
Patting his hand, she said, “First, I can assure you I believe Sally. She is young and inexperienced, but she says you—and only you—hold her heart. And since I have my son’s promise he will not force her to accept any suitors for her hand, you may have hope she will wait.”
He nodded glumly. It was the slimmest of hopes, but a chance nonetheless.
“Second, I understand your reluctance to communicate under the eyes of my son.” He looked up, his eyes sharp. “I will act as a conduit for letters—the occasional letter, mind, perhaps… once a month? As long as you will promise to act as a gentleman should.”
“You will? What other conditions must I agree to?”
“I have no other conditions. I came to find out your mind in this, and had I not been satisfied, I would have said nothing. I have some advice, however.”
“Keep your mind on your studies, not on enjoying the pursuits of a gentleman at leisure. You are heir to two large fortunes, and another will come into your hands upon marriage to my granddaughter. You have years yet to choose a life of dissipation. But consider, many people will depend on you for their livelihood—for their very lives. Learn to be worthy of that trust.”
He shrugged again. “I am not doing poorly.”
“So I am given to understand. If you make your parents proud, they may talk Haverford around. But if not, if you must make a runaway marriage in the end, then you will need to support a wife. Be sure you are able to do so in an honourable way, and I will mitigate any damage with the queen.”
“You would do that? Even against Haverford? Truly?”
“If you both remain constant, you have my support. And I will not countenance keeping you apart only to serve my son’s stubbornness.”
“If anyone can make Haverford see reason, it is you, Aunt Eleanor.” Toad stared into his tea cup.
“May I suggest, then, that we leave what might have been? I will help you and Sally when you graduate, as I have promised, if you both still wish it. And meanwhile, you may send me letters to give to her, and she may give me letters to send to you. I shall tell her so when I return to London.” She put down her cup.
“When I graduate? Before I am twenty-five?”
“When you graduate, and certainly no later than Sally’s twenty-first birthday. If I am satisfied you are both ready. But you must demonstrate you can support yourself and a wife, for I cannot guarantee Haverford and Wellbridge can be talked down from high dudgeon.”
“I would do quite a bit for that much hope.”
“Good. Then we have a bargain. Ah. Here is Blakeley,” Aunt Eleanor said. “Perhaps you will tell me more about your studies over dinner?”
Toad stood and put his glass on the sideboard, then nodded at the butler to go ahead and serve dinner. “I will be pleased to. And I… I hope you will tell me of Sally’s come-out. I would like to hear the details, if you will indulge me.”
“Of course, my dear. I would be delighted. I shall begin and end with how very beautiful she looked.”
Today’s letter must perforce be short, for we were delayed at a dress fitting. Now that we are home, Mama has sent for me to come to meet my callers, which I will not do until I have penned a quick note to my dearest friend.
Sally was tempted to underline the last three words, since her father would read this letter before Toad ever saw it. But she would not give Toad the satisfaction. She had overheard her parents and cousins talking about his exploits at different times—and in very different tones—though they all hushed the moment they knew she was listening. She had heard frustratingly little, but it seemed he had lost no time in seeking his own pleasures among the artists and dancers of Paris.
But in his first letter, handed over by her father just this morning, he had suggested she might wish to decorate his home and be hostess in it. Didn’t that mean he still wanted to marry her? Was he speaking in a code of sorts to her, or was he merely trying to annoy her father?
What did he mean, then, by giving her advice on who to marry and how long to wait? Was he trying to say she should wait for him, or was he only acting the older brother and warning her against fortune hunters and rakes? As if he had any sort of authority to advise her on avoiding rogues who might steal her virtue.
How dare he give her instructions about finding a husband! It would serve him right if she did secure ‘the greatest match in all of Christendom.’ She could do it, too. How frustrating not to know whether he would care.
Sally wished she had more time to ponder his letter and her reply. But she expected afternoon callers to start arriving, and had promised to go driving with Elfingham later in the afternoon. It would be rude to put him off, and tonight, they had guests to dinner, then the theatre, and finally a soirée. Tomorrow would be even busier, with a special celebration planned for Papa’s birthday, and the following week would be no more peaceful. The Season was in full swing, and the Haverfords much in demand.
A fortnight after my ball, I think I am safe in saying your predictions have proved true. Your childhood playmate is an acknowledged success, with callers and suitors and even cards in the print shop windows (so my maid tells me). I have instructed her to purchase a set and will send you a copy of mine when next I write. They are called The Season’s Beauties and have captions rather than names, but everyone knows who the six ladies are. My caption says ‘The Duke’s Delightful Daughter.’
As if her illustrious parentage and attractively arranged features were her only assets. None of the men who offered for her hand showed any interest in the mind that came with it.
I wonder how many of the gentlemen who swamp this house with flowers and poorly written poems would bother were I not Their Graces of Haverford’s daughter? I daresay, too, my substantial dowry is well known to those who seek to marry me. Certainly better known than my personality or interests, which few have bothered to investigate.
Papa had received fourteen applications for permission to court Sally, all from men who barely knew her. They had stood up with her for a dance at a ball or sat with her at a musical evening or been assigned to the place next to her for the length of a dinner party. How could they possibly make a decision affecting their whole future—her whole future—on such slender information?
Papa had been true to his word and turned them away, saying his daughter would not be permitted to choose a suitor during her first Season. Some of the rejected swains had taken that as licence to haunt the house, and Sally had needed to be very firm when deflating their extravagant compliments and flirting.
Denied that outlet, and needing to pick topics suitable for a lady, most of them ran out of conversation or competed to tell stories designed to show them to advantage.
Elf was an exception. He talked with Sally, not at her. He had been to Paris and could tell her about the art galleries and the famous opera house and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where Toad was living amongst the Bohemians. Elf had even been to the Wellbridge’s pied-a-terre, but he had been nearly as young as she was, last time she had visited. She could imagine Toad in the box at the Opera he had hired for the season, carefully measuring the assets of the dancers. Sally very much doubted he bothered to notice their personalities or interests.
Elf was nice. So very kind and solicitous. Why did she not thrill to his dark, brigand looks, rather than the fair hair and blue eyes of the infuriating rakehell who disturbed her dreams?
I must admit, titles are not the only criteria for the Beauties Club. Another of the ladies is Henrietta St. James, my cousin Antonia’s daughter, and she is not titled (though anyone might guess she will have a respectable portion). I do not think you have met Henry, who has lived quietly in the country until this year. She was presented to the Queen by Grandmama, and we have become fast friends.
Last year’s gossip sheets had been full of the rivalries between the Season’s reigning beauties, and Sally was determined not to repeat that example. So, she had sought out each of the ladies featured in the card set and proposed they should, in public, at any rate, appear the dearest of friends.
And two of them, at least—Henry and Lady Emma Fenchurch—would be true friends in time. Both had brains and imagination, as well as beauty. Henry matched Sally in her trenchant complaints about the mob of suitors, and Emma’s soft heart tempered their sarcasm and reminded them of their manners.
“Sally?” Her brother Johnny, the Marquis of Aldridge, put his head around the door as if unsure of his welcome, but followed it with the rest of his body when she smiled. She felt a pang of conscience. He had left for his first year at Rugby School in January; she had been so sunk in misery, and then so busy, she had barely noticed. He was home this weekend by special leave, to attend the duke’s birthday celebrations.
“Come in, Johnny. What do you need?” He was six years her junior, too much a child to be a companion, when she had Toad closer to her in age and always ready for any adventure she proposed.
“What would Papa like for his birthday? I need something by tomorrow.”
Sally’s present was already wrapped; a miniature of herself, painted by the same artist as the debutante portrait Papa had commissioned. “Perhaps a fob for his watch?”
Johnny screwed up his nose, his level brows creasing together over the hazel eyes he’d inherited from their father. “He has lots of those. I went shopping in Rugby on my half day, and I saw nothing. Will you take me shopping, Sally? This afternoon?”
“Oh, Johnny, Mama expects me to be home to callers, and then I have agreed to go driving with Cousin Elf.”
Johnny’s face showed his disappointment, but he made no protest. “He just drove up in a phaeton with the most beautiful matched pair. The Winderfields have the loveliest horses, Sally. Are you going to marry Cousin Elf?”
“No, I am not. Whatever gave you that idea?”
They were interrupted by a maid, sent to let Sally know she had callers: “Miss St James, my lady, and Lady Emma, and also my lords Elfingham, Longford, and Dain, and Mr Westbrooke.”
“I will be down in just a moment, Willard. I need to finish my letter. Johnny, I will ask Elf if you can come with us on our drive, and if we can go shopping. I daresay he will have some excellent ideas for Papa’s gift.”
And her brother would be a useful foil to Elf’s growing interest in a marriage she wanted no part of. Actually, now that she thought of it, Elf might do for Henry. Yes. That was an excellent idea. Elf would make a very nice husband. Just not for Sally.
Johnny and Willard left, and Sally turned back to her letter.
Only one man would do for Sally, and he was off enjoying himself with every tart in Paris.
But he had signed himself ‘David.’ Surely, he intended to remind her of their lovemaking. The swine! As if she could forget it. As if she could ever let another man touch her the way he was undoubtedly touching his opera dancers and whores. ‘My dearest Monkey,’ indeed. Did he think she was still a child?
Some of my suitors are pleasing enough, but I will follow your advice about taking my time to choose a husband, Toad. I shall want to know them better before I make such a momentous decision. Will we rub along well together? Can we grow to love one another? Will he be faithful only to me? For I mean to have a marriage like my parents, and like Grandmama and Grandpapa Winshire. I mean for us to be friends, partners, and lovers, as well as husband and wife.
But I am only seventeen and intend to have some fun before I settle for a single lord and master.
Was that what Toad was doing? Having fun before settling down? What if some other respectable female sought his ‘help,’ as she had done? It would not do to assume he had learned his lesson that night in the heir’s wing, especially not after all the tales winging the way across the Channel. It would break her heart all over again if her sacrifice to save him from a forced marriage only led him to another.
Be careful yourself, my dear friend. Do not allow your enthusiasm for your pursuits to lead you into a situation where marriage is your only honourable course.
When you do come to choose a bride, as heirs of dukes eventually must, I counsel you to find out more about them than their looks and their dowries. You would not want a wife you found boring, Toad. Look for someone who reads the books you love, laughs at the things you find funny, and enjoys the same kinds of activities that give you pleasure.
Would he not be happiest with Sally, the girl he grew up with, who knew him better than anyone in the world, who had loved him her whole life? Sally sighed, and turned her head aside in time to stop a tear from staining the page.
On that note, I must end this missive. My fondest regards to you always, David. Always.
There. He need not think she was pining away in England waiting for him to claim her. If he could enjoy himself, so could she. And downstairs, she was keeping a room full of friends and suitors waiting.
But when she entered the drawing room, only the ladies were there, clustered around the window looking out over the courtyard. Henry made room for her, so she could see all the gentlemen below, admiring Elf’s horses, her excited brother in the midst of them.
Elf saw her at the window, and led the others inside. “Johnny tells me my services are required for shopping, Sally,” he said, once they’d settled around the tea trolley.
“Lady Sarah, I would be happy to take you driving while Lord Elfingham helps Lord Aldridge,” Mr Westbrooke offered, and the others talked over one another to make the same offer.
But Sally silenced them by thanking Elfingham for forgoing his drive to escort her and Johnny shopping, and then turned the conversation.
Thankfully, none of them outstayed their half hour, and soon, Sally, Johnny and Elf were crowded together in Elf’s phaeton, with Johnny in the middle, begging to be allowed to hold the ribbons.
Elf ruffled the boy’s hair, watching Sally over the top, as if for her approval. “Not in London’s streets, Johnny, but perhaps you can stay at the farm on your next holiday, and I’ll teach you to drive.”
If she could care for anyone but Toad, it would be a man who was kind to her brother, in preference to one who flattered and flirted.
“Behind your pair?” Johnny begged, and Elf laughed and said that might be a prize, if he did well behind calmer beasts.
Sally listened to the two of them chattering, and tried not to drift away in a daydream where she ran off to Paris and took a job dancing at the Opera, just to catch the eye of a certain handsome rogue.
Sally was in her favourite part of her favourite room in the house, the conservatory, a grand space that opened out on to the terrace that led to the lawn. Her little corner had been marooned by the extensions and alterations planned by past duchesses, and the planting schemes of past gardeners. She and Toad had discovered it when he was seven and she six, wandering away from their mamas and nursemaids, who were admiring Jonny when he was the brand-new Marquis of Aldridge, heir to the Haverford duchy, in the main part of the conservatory.
The two children had crept between two of the elephant palms, whose grove sheltered and hid the corner, and watched with glee as their caregivers hurried frantically past to search for them along the long conservatory walk that extended the length of the south face of the building.
It was not entirely a secret: the gardeners came here from time to time, and maids, too, presumably, since the place was not dusty. The furniture, once sized for small children, had been changed several times as they grew. But no one came when Sal and Toad were here, which was all that mattered.
Once the workmen charged with ripping out the old décor and redecorating had descended on the heir’s wing, Sally began bringing Toad’s letters to their conservatory sanctuary to read and reread. In the heir’s wing, being stripped of its mirrors and scarlet paint, she no longer felt close to Toad. But she had saved the Scrapbook, wrapped it in oiled cloth, and hidden it here in a hole the two children had excavated long ago under the shelter of an elephant palm.
She did not have a letter today; just her thoughts, her memories, and a deep melancholy, and though she could tell herself it was waving Johnny goodbye at the station, as he left for Rugby and school, she knew better. The rain drumming on the roof and streaming down the glass meant she had the entire vast conservatory to herself. Even if anyone had been there, the rain was too loud for them to hear Sally crying.
Toad would be thoroughly disgusted at what a watering pot she had become since he left. She was disgusted herself.
Every time it happened, she told herself she would shed no more tears for Toad, and then she would hear more evidence her heartless friend had given her little thought since his parents shipped him off to Paris, and she would have to find another hidden corner to sob out her anguish in private.
She had been having a pleasant evening. All the important people in her life, except one, had come to present Papa with their best wishes. Even Grandmama and Grandpapa, who had been away from London, had arrived back in time to join them for dinner.
Johnny had presented his gift: one of those new metal pens with a refillable reservoir in the handle, so the nib did not need constant dipping, nor near constant trimming. Papa had expressed enormous delight, and had insisted on using it immediately, and if the reservoir dribbled a little on his cuff? Well, any new instrument needs to be learned, Papa said.
Sally had been trying not to think of Papa’s birthday last year, when she and Toad had spent their own money on a silver desk setting, engraved with the significant fact Papa had turned sixty on that particular natal anniversary. It was money they had earned themselves, running errands and polishing silver and the like, since they both always ran through their quarterly allowance within weeks of disbursement. Their mamas and the household staff in both ducal establishments had entered into the conspiracy to find work they could do.
Toad’s absence was a gaping hole, not improved by the forced cheerfulness of his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Wellbridge. Sally would not disgrace herself or spoil Papa’s evening by letting anyone know how she felt, but she had needed a moment apart to compose herself.
In the small sitting room next door, she had escaped the celebrating crowd, which included several of her suitors—cousins who should have been safe escorts, but instead insisted on courting her, despite her father’s declaration that she would not choose a husband this Season.
She had recognised Lord Longford’s voice first, and hid behind a small screen in the corner. He was unlikely to make improper advances with his parents and sisters in the next room, but she had not wanted to fend off proper advances, either. Of all her cousins, he was the most unlikely to seek matrimony, but his flirting had a serious edge that worried her.
When she heard Toad’s name and her own, any impulse to show herself had disappeared.
“I tell you, when I think of that sweet girl, I want to go over to Paris and punch Abersham,” Longford had said.
His twin, Viscount Stocke, had commented, peaceably, “He’s not doing anything we haven’t done ourselves, Longford. We were much worse at that age. One opera dancer at a time? It’s almost celibacy.”
“We weren’t promised from the cradle. And who needs an opera dancer if they can have Sally Grenford?” From the clinking of glass, they had come in after the decanters, and then the voices had faded towards the door.
“Which is rather the point,” Stocke had argued. “He is in Paris; she is here. And the older generation are very tight-lipped. Did he blot his copybook with her, do you suppose?”
“Probably. I heard a story about why he was sent down from Cambridge, but who knows whether it is true.” The door to the sitting room had closed, shutting off any further remarks, leaving Sally in the silence she craved, but with her mind in turmoil.
Opera dancers. Opera dancer. Only one at a time. Was she supposed to be grateful for that? She hadn’t been able to get the thought out of her mind all night, or all day today.
Longford and his brother were right. Toad was in Paris, and she was here, and it was all her fault. If she had never tempted him, never offered herself to him, he would be back at Cambridge, or here in London for the Season. And if she had agreed to marry him when he asked, they would be together.
But for how long? If he could forget her so quickly, how long would he have been faithful to her had he stayed?
That did it. Now she was in tears again. Just the thought of Toad with anyone else made her want to smash things. Instead, she put her head down on the cushion next to her and howled.
“Ah, sweetheart, let Grandmama kiss it better.”
At the much-loved voice, Sally jerked up her head. “Grandmama? Are you looking for Mama?”
The Duchess of Winshire moved the damp cushion and sat on the sofa, holding out her arms. “I came to see you, my dear. Your Mama said you had the headache when you came back from the station.”
Sally rested her head against her grandmother’s shoulder. “I did have the headache,” she said. “A megrim named Abersham.”
Grandmama patted her back and made soothing noises, and Sally found herself blurting out the stories she had overheard. Not just last night, but at other events, and from Papa and Uncle Nick.
“I love him, Grandmama,” she confessed. “I love him so much, and I cannot imagine marrying anyone but him, but he does not love me. How could he love me and do… all those awful things?”
Grandmama sighed. “Men are odd, my dear, and do not think as we do. And Abersham is very young. He says he loves you, and I believe him, but whether it will last… He may fall out of love. Men do, and more easily than women, I think.”
“Then what am I to do, Grandmama?” She sat up and narrowed her eyes. “Wait. When did Toad tell you he loved me?
“I have been in Paris, and seen your young man.”
“You have seen Toad? How is he, Grandmama? Is he well? Does he miss m—everyone?”
“He is studying hard, he tells me, and certainly, his teachers seem pleased with him. I heard good reports, Sally. He is unhappy to be separated from you.”
Sally’s heart lurched. “Truly?”
“Yes, truly. I have told him what I told you. You are both very young, and I will not lift a hand to end this separation, even if I could.”
Sally protested. “You were no older than I when you fell in love with Grandpapa Winshire.” Grandpapa was also Elf’s grandfather, for he had married during his exile after he and Eleanor Creydon fell in love. He had been only a second son, and her family had promised her to the Duke of Haverford.
“And you loved him your whole life, Grandmama, and he you. Until, at last, you were able to marry when Papa’s father died.”
Grandmama shook her head a little. “Dear Sally, it was nearly forty years. Perhaps I still loved the boy who left England, and perhaps he still loved the girl who refused to run away with him. But we had both changed. We were different people. How fortunate we were, to fall in love all over again.”
The silly tears welled again. Would Toad go on thinking of her as little Sally, the child he played with? If he did not come home for five years, or ten, or—heaven forbid—forty, would she be a stranger to him?
“If you will not help, Grandmama, what am I to do? I cannot even write to him without checking every word with my father. And I am sure Toad will soon tire of having to censor his thoughts.”
Grandmama smiled and patted Sally’s shoulder. “I did not say I would not help. I will offer you what I offered young Abersham. If you are still of the same mind once you are of age, I will support you. And meanwhile, I will be courier for the occasional letter between you.
To read what Toad really thought; to write without having to censor every word… but, “Papa will never agree. At first, he would not let me write at all. He will never let me write unsupervised.”
“We shall not bother your Papa with the information. Men are not always right, you know. Now dry your eyes, Sarah, and make yourself cheerful. You will have your friends here before long, will you not?”
“The Beauties Club, yes. We six are going walking in the park with some gentlemen.”
“Including my grandson, Elfingham, beyond a doubt.”
The duchess pulled some papers from her reticule. Even as Sally’s heart lurched and she could not help but smile, she rolled her eyes at a letter addressed, in familiar handwriting, to ‘The Duke’s Delightful Daughter.’
“Meanwhile, my dear Sarah, go and read your letter from Abersham. And when you reply, bring it to me, and I shall send it to him.”
It didn’t change anything. Toad was still in Paris, still cavorting with scarlet women instead of with Sally as he ought, but suddenly, Sally felt a great deal better.
“Thank you, Grandmama,” she said, and hurried off to do as she was bid.
Chapter Seventeen coming next week!
“As often as you boast about your reception at the French Court, Abersham,” Zajac said, “I’d think you would be more amenable to overtures from the ladies.”
Toad kept his eyes on his textbook. They were all supposed to be studying. That was the point of gathering thrice weekly, away from the clubs where they spent many of their evenings. But as they had become closer friends, it became more and more difficult to marshal the whole group’s dubious concentration.
And here was yet another attempt to corrupt him, probably because he was the only one who wished they would all be quiet.
Not that their attempts would bear fruit. He had promised the duchess he would focus on his studies, and had been doing his best to keep his head down, eyes on the end goal—graduation as fast as possible. And with marks better than passing, so his father would have to admit Toad was a man grown, and his mother wouldn’t brain him for destroying her shipyard. And perhaps more important, he didn’t want word of any dalliances come to Sally’s ears, for he had hurt her enough for one lifetime.
Not to mention, given the relative incapacitation of those parts of himself that had once been interested, there was little point in amorous pursuits. Toad would certainly not mention it and would do anything in his power to ensure no one else did. His friends would never let him live it down, and if the information made it back to Wellbridge and Haverford, the story of his limp manhood would be told over port at dinner parties for the rest of his life.
“Piero needn’t even entertain the idea of paying a mistress,” Bey continued, still pouting at the loss of his mistress along with his allowance, unaware Toad’s manhood was in such a dire condition. “All he has to do is snap his fingers at the Tuileries.”
“Not true, my friend,” Piero argued. “I must occasionally give gifts.” He shrugged. “And it is never so simple in a royal Court. One must always be cautious not to step into the king’s domain—or that of any man more wealthy or powerful than oneself.”
“Which for you, means everyone,” Toad said.
“Just so,” Piero admitted with no shame. “At least until my brother relents.”
“Can it be possible all of us have had our allowances cut at the same time?” Bey mourned. “How will we buy brandy?”
“Mine has not,” Toad said, but amended, “Not since I came to France, at any rate. But I will not buy your brandy. I would go to the dogs in moments if I did. Perhaps if you studied more and made a fool of yourself less, the Duke of Winshire might be more forgiving.”
“Perhaps you are a prig, Abersham. And your allowance is not even enough to buy cheap wine,” Bey sniped.
“Ahem.” Piero cleared his throat, raising an eyebrow to allay the badgering before it became a larger argument. “Abersham’s caution has been to my advantage. I very nearly took one of the king’s favourites to bed—inadvertently, of course. Had Abersham not warned me, I might even now be in the Conciergerie.”
“You might end there yet,” Bey said slyly, “if you continue to bed any woman you see in a Court gown.”
“No,” Toad said, “He only beds the pretty women in Court gowns. And he talks them out of their dresses first.”
“Abersham leaves them in their gowns,” Bey observes, “eschewing their company to fence with chevaliers, thereby kindly allowing the ladies to escape his loathsome company, but depriving them of more attractive admirers.”
Toad made a rude gesture at Bey, one everyone at the table understood, regardless of cultural origins.
“You cannot truly have no interest, Abersham.” Piero gave him a sceptical smile. “Madame la comtesse de Lodève would tumble you without the slightest provocation. To say nothing of my leavings, who are so saddened by my departure that even you, Abersham, priggish as you are, might comfort them right into their beds.”
“But you are a rake, Piero, and Abersham a gentleman,” Zajac suggested, snickering. “He behaves himself admirably. For if he does not, the Duchess of Winshire will remove his bollocks.”
Toad flushed red. “I do not behave myself. I simply do not speak of my affairs with you.”
Piero grinned. “Abersham dislikes the smell of noblewomen, it seems, as far as he goes out of his way to avoid them.”
“Because Abersham is smart. They are like cats, those ladies,” Zajac said. He had visited the French Court on the coattails of his better-connected friends, but his one attempt at a liaison had ended with the lady laughing at him. “All soft, purring beauty, but what nasty claws.”
“Next Thursday is la comtesse de Lodève’s monthly salon,” Zajac observed, closing his textbook altogether, pouring himself another brandy and crossing his arms over top of the book.
Toad stood, stretched his legs, and removed the brandy to the sideboard, pointedly pouring a glass of lemonade.
“I will attend,” Piero said, “for I am yet in pursuit of that toothsome baronesse who so enjoys the chase, and I am determined the comtesse herself shall make good on her flirtations. Besides, there will be first-rate drinks, without requiring my allowance, and the comtesse keeps an excellent chef. Will you come, Abersham?”
Toad demurred and gestured at the piles of books no one else was attending to at all. “I cannot take the time for such frivolity. I have studying to do, and so do the rest of you.”
“One can always find time to pay tribute to beauty,” Bey said. “And with Ninon gone, I find myself in need of… comfort. I will come with you, Piero. And we can bring Zajac, so he will not be ejected as an interloper. You should come, too, Abersham. We shall keep the secret from my grandmother. You need not fear her.”
“I am not afraid. I simply have more important pursuits.”
“You and Bey are both afraid of her,” Zajac observed. “So am I. Anyone sensible would be. Piero is only unafraid because he does all his thinking with his bollocks.”
“I do not do all of my thinking with my bollocks,” Piero said. “Some, I leave for my cazzo.”
“And Abersham doesn’t do any thinking with his bollocks or his cazzo. I think all the stories he tells of his English conquests are bollocks,” Bey said.
“Why would I lie about such things?” Toad asked. “How would Sa—? No, Bey, I have turned over a new leaf. I shall be faithful to my future bride forevermore.” He had hurt Sal enough by being exiled instead of marrying her. He would not have her think his eye had strayed to another woman.
Bey looked at him blankly. “Why? You haven’t made your vows. You don’t have her in your bed. Why should you be a monk? It makes no sense.”
“He says he will be faithful…” Piero chuckled. “Until the comtesse de Lodève has her way with him.”
“I do not see the difficulty,” Zajac argued. “Keep your liaisons secret and no one is hurt. Or have no liaisons, but just come to enjoy the salon with us. No one is harmed if you spend an afternoon with some beautiful women.”
Bey sneered. “Abersham is afraid one of the cats will insist on being stroked, and he will be unable to resist, for all his fine words.”
Toad narrowed his eyes at Bey. “That is not so. I do have some self-restraint. And I wish you would all stop talking about it entirely.” The last thing Toad needed was to be reminded his self-restraint was reinforced by such calamitous circumstance as a recalcitrant penis.
“Prove it,” Bey suggested. “You have so much willpower? Come with us and show us how much.”
“No, no,” Zajac said. “I have a better idea. Abersham has no interest in the comtesse or any of her guests? All the cats will be in one place. Let him put all of them off him entirely.” Zajac grinned.
Toad asked, against his better judgment, “What would you have me do? And what is in it for me if I comply with your plan?”
“Cats for the cats,” Zajac said, cryptically, but with great enthusiasm. “Take some real cats to the salon—half a dozen or so—to let loose amongst the ladies and gentleman, whenever they will cause the most chaos. See them defend their silk stockings.” He became eloquent in his eagerness. “Picture it. All those fine ladies, and the most disreputable alley cats you can find.”
“She cats, of course,” Piero snorted, and elbowed Bey in the ribs. “It would be unseemly to bring a randy tom into company with so many ladies.”
“Ninon likes to feed alley cats,” Bey suggested. “I know where her new protector keeps her. She might help us catch some.” Bey constantly made plans for how he would win back Ninon, none the only plan that could succeed: have his allowance reinstated, preferably doubled, and never again trundle his mistress down the Champs-Élysées in a wheelbarrow and let his grandfather hear about it.
“You are mad, the lot of you!” Toad protested. “I cannot take mangy cats into the comtesse’s salon.”
“Ah. So now the truth comes out.” Piero examines his fingernails. “The English milord does wish to bed the lady, and fears to offend her.”
“No! That is not what I mean at all!” Toad shut his textbook. “What if Sal—er—what if my mother were to hear about it? Do you imagine such gossip won’t wing its way from Court in Paris to Court in London? It is difficult enough to survive on a quarter of my former allowance. Do you think His and Her Grumpy Grace will hesitate to leave me with nothing like the rest of you? There will be no brandy then, I assure you.”
He crossed back to the sideboard and poured out drinks for everyone.
“Why should they care?” Bey pointed out, taking the brandy, downing it in two gulps and passing the glass back for more, which Toad granted without delay. “It is not as though you are letting them loose in the throne room in front of the king. And it is just a joke. Your parents will be pleased you are at a salon, not a debauch.”
Piero added, “Everyone knows your mother adores the intelligentsia.”
Zajac downed his drink as Bey had and was similarly refilled. “If Abersham is afraid, there is nothing more to say to it. As gentlemen, we must respect his refusal.”
“As gentlemen, you must leave me a drop of brandy for bedtime,” Toad said sardonically, shaking the dregs in the decanter at them, crossing to the bell pull to summon Blakeley to bring more.
“If I do this—and I am not saying I will—it will not be for the fun of it. I must have assurances from each of you that should I successfully accomplish the task, you will forevermore leave off any speculation into my love life. No more innuendo, no more discussion of my bollocks or cazzo, no more matchmaking at Court, no more having prostitutes delivered to my door. And Sally. You may no longer make sport of me about Sally, Lady Sarah to every one of you.”
“I assure you, my dear Abersham, I have no interest in your love life,” Bey announced, loftily, spoiling the effect by scoffing. “You have none.”
Without a moment’s thought, Zajac snapped, “We all agree,” and put out his hand to seal the deal.
“Do we?” Piero asked imperiously.
Bey punched him in the arms and said, “Of course we do, you beshoor khar. You just hate it that a commoner made a bargain for you without asking.”
Piero gave a long-suffering sigh. “I suppose I can agree to such a thing, if only to see the look on the comtesse’s face.” She flirted with Piero constantly, then repeatedly rebuffed him, asking for an introduction to his friend.
Bey laughed aloud and clapped his hands. “It will be a famous prank.”
“It had better not be famous enough to call the Dull Duke and Dreary Duchess down on my head. Neither of them has the sense of humour for it.”
Chapter Eighteen next week!
Sally begged off the afternoon treasure hunt the fourth day of an interminable house party, claiming she had letters to write. Which was not untrue. Currently, she was sitting at the table under the window in the bedchamber she had been assigned, her little travelling desk open and a fresh sheet of paper headed with her name and direction and the date, followed by the familiar salutation:
Dear David, what?
I am bored to death with ceaseless house parties populated by handsome men who claim to be slain by my very ordinary eyes (though they breathe quite well for cadavers) and shallow people who talk of nothing but fashion and flirting and frivolities. I am so bored, I could scream.
At least dear Emma and Henry were here to suffer with her, though suffering more than Sally, whose ducal forebears protected her from the snobbery of others, for neither of their backgrounds were so illustrious, nor dowries so impressive. Lady Tarrington had not invited any of Sally’s cousins. Undoubtedly, she thought them competition for her two younger sons, one of whom was attempting to court Sally, with Henry as his second choice, and the other, whose first choice was Henry, Sally the fall-back.
Thank goodness three of her favourite cousins—Elf, Longford, and Stocke—were only half an hour’s ride away at Longford Court, though when they called every afternoon, they showed a distressing tendency to behave like the rest of the preposterous flirtatious gentlemen.
Perhaps she should write:
How can I, this side of good manners, tell a young man who has not declared his intentions that I have no interest in him, and he should turn his attention elsewhere? My supposed suitors can all go to the Devil. Except you, David.
Sally grinned at the thought of her snooping father reading that statement, but then sighed. She wasn’t even quite sure he was a suitor anymore, given his unsavoury activities. His exams were in six weeks, but Aunt Bella said Uncle Wellbridge was not inclined to allow him home for Christmas. Instead, Toad would leave Paris immediately for Marseilles, to begin the practical part of the course, running Aunt Bella’s shipyard there.
Surely they couldn’t deny him the house at Christmas. Uncle Wellbridge had to let him come home for the holidays. Perhaps Sally should remind Uncle Wellbridge of the story of the prodigal son, and suggest he fatten a calf. Yuletide was eleven long weeks from now, but she could far more easily bear the rest of this house party, and the blasted little Season in London, if she knew she would see Toad at the end of it.
She could even bear her suitors, and the ones who flirted with no business doing so: the married men, or the ones with no interest in marriage.
Men like Lord Athol Soddenfeld, Aunt Bella’s niece Julia’s husband, whose drunken remarks were just a hair this side of insulting. What a pig that man was. And poor Lady Athol, who covered her misery and embarrassment with an air of ennui, sneering condescension toward anyone less well-born, and fervent attention to whatever card game she was losing. She was very aware of being the Marquess of Firthley’s daughter, the Duke of Wellbridge’s niece, and the Marquess of Prestwood’s sister-in-law, even if she had been compromised by a fortune-hunting sot in her first Season.
Lady Athol was not the only member of the party to look down on Emma and Henry, and their chaperone, Henry’s mother, Antonia, Lady St James, who had charge of all three girls. Though the widow of a baronet, her antecedents were far less illustrious than suited this socially conscious crowd.
Oh, for the power of Papa’s raised eyebrow! He would soon deflate any silly female—niece of his best friend or not—who dared snub any member of his broadly defined family, into which he warmly welcomed Lady St. James, her daughter, and Lady Emma.
The house party I am attending is rather flat. Emma, Henry, and I came with Henry’s mother, Lady St James, since Mama was not well, and it was not until we arrived that we discovered we knew few of those attending, and wished to know even fewer.
Fortunately, we are not far from Longford Court, and my cousins Elfingham, Longford, and Stocke ride over often, though Lady Tarrington is less than delighted to rely on the governess and the vicar’s two daughters to balance the table.
Your cousin and her husband are attending the party. I am sorry to say it of a relative of yours, David, but I find my own cousins far better company than Lady Athol Soddenfield. Lord Athol is—
Before she could answer the knock on her door, it opened to reveal Henry, half-supporting Emma, whose cheeks were wet and eyes red and swollen with crying.
“Emma, whatever is the matter?” Sally set her desk aside, and hurried to help her to a chair. Emma’s shoulders quaked under Sally arm and Henry’s comforting hand, long shudders wracking her body. Sally met Henry’s concerned gaze.
“What happened to her?”
“Lord Athol.” Henry nearly spat the name.
“Oh, Emma. No. Did he hurt you? Did he…”
Emma took a deep shaky breath. “That manoeuvre you learned from Lord Abersham works very well, Sally.” Her giggle was watery. “He showed no further ardour.”
“Indeed,” Henry agreed. “When Mr Tarrington and I heard the scream and came running, Lord Athol was curled up on the ground, clutching at his—er—his lower torso, whimpering.”
“It was Lord Athol who screamed, not I, I assure you,” Emma informed them, but her bravado dissolved the next moment. “He said no one would ever marry me because of my mother, and I would end up as someone’s mistress, so it might as well be him. Is that what everyone thinks, Sally?”
Lord Athol is a swine, David. Neither he, nor others like him, go beyond the line with me, for I am the only daughter of a powerful duke, call another duke Grandpapa, and claim still another as godfather. Even a drunken fool would hesitate to offend me. Nor do I have much to fear from Society’s cats; the equally powerful duchesses in my corner ensure I could dance in a fountain in my shift, and the arbiters of polite behaviour would call me ‘spirited’ and ‘creative.’
Even Henry, though much more bound to propriety than I, is safe from improper advances. Her Wakefield grandfather and uncles are rightly feared, if only for their knowledge of half the secrets in London, and the fact no one can guess which half. It is also well-known they will maim, even kill, in pursuit of criminals in the sights of their enquiry agency, and their targets do not all live in the slums. When they finished with any man who dared to touch Henry, my father would kill him, and her brothers would hide the body.
But dear Emma lacks such protections. No one could cavil at her bloodlines, but the scandal around her mother follows her yet. I do not know the whole, but I know Lady Fenshawe disappeared when Emma was five, and she has seen her father a bare three times in the intervening thirteen years.
Her maternal uncle, who is paying for her Season, has provided a useless elderly chaperone who finds a comfortable corner to sleep at every event. Once he arranged for a modiste and duenna, he lost interest in the whole matter, and his niece, and has attended not one event. He may as well have provided a sign that said ‘Ruin me.’
Gently born and gently raised, Emma had been besieged almost from her presentation by improper proposals, though she had not told even Sally and Henry until this afternoon. Her friends had now made a pact not to leave her alone with any man, under any circumstances. Certainly, Emma had nothing further to fear at this party, for Lady Tarrington had come straightaway after hearing from her son, Peter, and had been everything kind. It was far from sure Emma would not yet see ramifications from the interlude, most likely in the form of more indecent proposals, but possibly up to and including total ruin of all her chances. But for the moment, Lord Athol had been neutered, at least figuratively.
Antonia, too, had been on the case, and as a Wakefield daughter herself, was not without resources and resourcefulness. Either she or Peter or Lady Tarrington, or all three, must have spoken to Lord and Lady Athol, for the Soddenfeld coach was at the door within the hour, and packed with their baggage shortly after.
Lady Athol claimed she was hurrying to the side of her son, who had a fever—though no one knew how this news had been conveyed to her. Lord Athol did his best not to be seen, keeping his black eyes and bent nose turned from the company as he made farewells to his disapproving hostess, flinching when Mr Tarrington opened and closed his fists, likewise bruised.
We will look after her better from now on, you can be sure, and we all thank you most kindly for your lessons in discouraging ruinous rakes. You saved dear Emma today, David. Though I do not need to tell you the attack is, we all pray, a closely kept secret. Beyond a doubt, if any of this should become known more widely, Emma will be ruined in reputation, if not in virtue.
How awful that a woman, doing naught but obliging her hostess in a silly game, is required to partner a man she did not like, and be blamed for any vile act he chooses to force upon her.
For once, Sally was glad Papa was reading her letters. He could protect and promote Emma far better than Sally could. She would ask him herself, but then she would be obliged to beg a favour from the man who kept her from her beloved, and that, she had sworn not to do.
It is late, and the day has been trying. Tomorrow, my cousins are again riding over to join the party, and we are to picnic at some nearby ruins. I will send this letter in the morning, dearest David, and will write again soon.
Toad poked his head around the door, wishing he were anywhere else, hoping not to be seen by anyone who might call him over to talk. Piero was already halfway across the room on his mission: distracting the comtesse so Toad could release the cats without being seen.
Piero made a path through the assembly with a touch to his left, a compliment to his right, a laughing remark over his shoulder. Toad breached the doors, Bey behind him on one side, Zajac on the other, the better to mask the wriggling burlap sack. The half-dozen cats were starting to move again in the bag, after he had dosed them with laudanum to bring them to the comtesse’s hotel particulier. Soon enough, they would start yowling if he didn’t release them.
Bey was sulking. “Ninon would not even talk to me, Abersham. Just made cow’s eyes at you, and did everything you asked. It isn’t fair. It’s not my fault my allowance was cut.”
“It is not my fault I am a marquess, and the whole of Paris mistakenly believes I share in my parents’ enormous fortune.”
“My grandfather will reinstate my Kopet Dag stipend eventually. And I wouldn’t have let her starve.”
The bag started wriggling more forcefully, and Toad hissed, “It’s not important right now, Bey. We must release these animals before they start screeching. Do you see Piero and the comtesse?”
“Over there,” Zajac said, pointing. He was standing on the tips of his toes to see over the crowds of fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen who thronged the three rooms the comtesse used to entertain in the same fashion as Toad’s mother had, long before he was born, while she was still a baroness. The stories at Court about Lady Holsworthy and her salons had earned Toad his first invitation from the comtesse. “In the next room, near the piano.”
Piero approached their hostess, who was sipping coffee and arguing something, most likely politics and literature, with a court poet.
“Make haste, Piero,” Toad whispered, scratching an itch on his cheek, pulling away his fingers smeared with blood. “Hell. This wound keeps opening. Damned cats. I’m going to ruin my new coat, and I haven’t enough money to replace it. Give me your handkerchief, Bey.”
“I haven’t enough money to replace my handkerchief,” Bey objected. “Ask Zajac.”
“You and your eternal penury are a damned plague, Bey. Zajac, give me your handkerchief.”
Zajac obligingly pulled it from his pocket. “I am sorry, Abersham. It is not very clean.”
Toad let out a long-suffering sigh and took it, holding it against his cheek, over the scratch he’d received from the largest of the cats in the bag.
“Ah!” Piero exclaimed loudly enough to catch the attention of the room, falling to one knee. “How can you have grown more lovely since my last visit, madame la comtesse? I am captivated.”
As she always did when Piero appeared, the comtesse smiled broadly and made much of him. They could tell from across the room, by the way she smiled and touched his arm and cheek, traced one finger across the back of his hand, twisted her finger in one of his black curls before tucking it back behind his ear.
For the last three salons, she had flirted madly with both of them, but eventually spurned Piero, trying to catch Toad’s eye. So far, she had not succeeded, as Toad did his very best to pretend he didn’t see the offer of sex rising off her like a heat mirage.
While the comtesse was engaged with teasing Piero and stringing him along another day, Toad loosened the cord and opened the mouth of the bag, letting out the six cats, none too pleased to be transported from their alleyway behind a brothel to the crowded drawing room of the comtesse’s Parisian mansion.
Still reeling drunkenly, now yowling in earnest, all the felines scattered in different directions, biting and scratching anything in their way. Ladies screamed, gentlemen trying to calm them while avoiding the claws and teeth of the viscous monsters.
Piero prudently stepped out of the path of the cats, making his leisurely way to the drinks, securing a bottle of wine and four glasses. Bey made the mistake of attempting to protect a young lady, and received a long tear through his trouser leg and into his flesh-and-blood leg.
Zajac added to the chaos by chasing the cats, in a feigned attempt to fix matters. “Madame’s cats are escaping,” he yelled. “Catch them, quick!” He nudged Toad, a bit too delighted with himself.
Toad had been complaining all night as they prepared for this prank, but now, in the midst of it, he couldn’t stop laughing at the silly nobles running about like rats. Bey took up Zajac’s cry. “Catch them; catch them for the comtesse!”
Toad took a glass of claret from Piero, who had returned to watch the show with them.
And with one other person. Across the room, in one lone haven of peace amid the screaming, shoving, and struggling, the Comtesse de Soissons sat on a fainting couch, calmly observing the scene with an amused twitch to her lips, finishing her coffee. She met Piero’s eye, pointed to the claret and raised her brows as if to request a glass.
By now, some of the men and most of the women were leaving as fast as they could collect their cloaks. Of those who remained, at least half were trying to recapture the cats, the rest attempting to drive them out the doors and windows. Bey and Zajac changed sides to impede whichever group was gaining the upper hand.
The comtesse sauntered around the edge of the room and took the glass Piero passed her. Still watching calmly, her upper lip quivering more obviously, she made a calculated glance at Toad.
“My Lord Abersham.” The comtesse demanded Toad’s attention, and he flushed, wondering how much she had seen. “My lord, you are bleeding.”
He touched Zajac’s greying handkerchief to his cheek again. The comtesse took the handkerchief from him, wrinkling her nose. Setting it aside, she snapped her finger for a maid and instructed her to bring bandages and the medicine box. Taking up a linen serviette, she dabbed at the cut.
Spying more scratches on his neck and hands, she took him by the fingers and pushed his cuffs over his wrists. “You have suffered to ruin my party, have you not?” The comtesse’s bubble of laughter made him blush.
“Er… yes, my lady?”
“Hardly gentlemanly, Abersham.” She chucked him under the chin. “Sweet boy. You perhaps need better schemes to occupy your time.”
Piero, Bey, and Zajac snickered and elbowed each other, Piero pouring more wine all around. The maid returned with the bandages and the comtesse’s box of medicines, followed by a footman with a basin of warm water.
“Er, you needn’t fuss yourself, my lady.” Toad tried to pull away from her. “They are only scratches.”
“I have a scratch,” Bey offered. “I would accept your ministrations, Madame.”
“Come,” the comtesse said, ignoring Bey, as she always did. “I shall tend to my battle-scarred warrior away from this crowd.”
Toad gave his friends a look of desperation. Piero looked at his wine, Zajac turned to the drinks tray, and Bey smirked and held Toad’s gaze. Toad mouthed at him, “Do not let her do this,” but Bey refused to acknowledge him.
A click of her fingers as she passed them, and the footman and maid fell into line behind them. The more Toad tried to pull away, the tighter the comtesse held to his hand.
Three long halls later, the sounds of cats and screaming fading behind them, a second footman opened the door to her private boudoir, and a reluctant Toad followed her inside. She ignored him for the moment, as she instructed the servants to lay down their burdens by a comfortable couch, then turned.
Toad sensed a trap.
“Truly, Comtesse, you needn’t put yourself out on my account.” He immediately regretted his phrasing, but to correct himself would only call attention.
“Not at all, my dear marquess. Do be seated so I can tend to the wounds you gained for my entertainment. And to rid me of many boorish guests.” She grinned, wickedly, sliding a fingertip across the cheekbone that wasn’t wounded. “We will see to these scratches and never mention how they came about, hmmm?”
“Er… I would appreciate the discretion, madame.” The maid and footman stood to the side of the room, waiting to be dismissed.
“With the right inducements, Abersham, I can be very discreet.”
Toad backed away, looking at the expanse of carpet between him and the doorway. She waved the servants out.
“Now, Abersham,” she started as the room emptied, the door shut, and she turned the key. Sliding it into her corset, between her bountiful breasts, she purred, “Allow me to relieve your discomfort.”
“I am not… er… that is to say… I am quite comfortable.” He looked around for some alternate means of escape; even if he were willing to fish the key out of her bosom—which he was not; of course he was not—any footman outside the door might be instructed to stop him.
The comtesse was far too pretty and too exciting to be resisted. But resist he must. Had he not just vowed to remain faithful to Sal forevermore? How could he already be thinking of betraying her? His mother was right. He would be an execrable husband. He didn’t deserve Sally Grenford.
“I will do my very best to make certain you remain oh, so comfortable, Abersham,” she said, stalking him around the room. “For instance, I expect your life would be immeasurably more pleasant if word of your part in this escapade did not reach your Head of School or your parents. Now sit, monsieur le marquis, and tell me why you keep refusing me. Have I not made my interest clear?”
With no visible escape from the room or her blackmail, he finally sat in a chair across the room from her, rubbing a hand across his face.
“It is not…madame la comtesse, you are so lovely. So inexpressibly lovely,” he sighed. “It is only… I am promised. Or may as well be. I do not wish to dishonour my future wife. A year ago, madame, I would have… well. But now I am… I am holding myself chaste for her.” He flushed and dropped his head.
“The thought does you honour, Abersham. But if this almost-betrothed of yours knows nothing, where is the harm? I want to bed you, not marry you. I am no threat to her.”
He blushed at the sentiment. He had never known a lady to speak so frankly, though he had told himself exactly that dozens of times before. But it didn’t seem to work the same way now as it had at his last two schools.
“I have sworn my loyalty to her. My fealty.” Besides, the comtesse would be sorely disappointed when Sir Frogmore would not perform as she wished, and he would be needlessly humiliated once more.
“You may give her your loyalty. I want your body, monsieur; she may keep the rest. A loan, if you will, until she is yours and you are hers. But I forget myself. You are wounded. Coat off, monsieur. Shirt, too. I will wash your wounds while we talk.”
She knelt at his feet, a damp cloth ready in her hands. His eyes widened at the sight of her between his thighs. Sir Frogmore hadn’t any problem appreciating her décolletage. Running a hand through his hair, he argued, straining not to jump up and away from her. “I have been hers since we were children. It was only recently we… we were parted.”
“And yet a year ago, you were able to bestow your favours elsewhere?” She began to undo his waistcoat buttons.
“Er… a year ago, I did not know she felt… I hadn’t… promised myself to her.”
“And you promised to stay a monk until you could have her? You are how old, my lord? Twenty? Twenty-two?” She pushed his coat off his shoulders, hands caressing his muscles, breasts pressing against his groin.
He groaned at her touch, choking out his response, “Eighteen, madame la comtesse.” As she untied his cravat and unbuttoned his shirt, he clarified his position. “And no, I haven’t promised to abstain from all… I mean… we never discussed… only I do not wish to share those acts of a husband and wife with anyone but her. She is… I love her with all my heart, madame. I should hate her to be hurt by gossip and innuendo, when I intend to honour her.” His best intentions ended on a whimper as she tugged his shirttail from his waistband.
“That is lovely, Abersham. I admire it. Let us agree then, you and I shall not share the acts of a husband and wife. And, of course, we shall not behave like lovers in public, for your beautiful young woman must not have her heart bruised.”
“I have lived in a Court before, Madame. There is no means of avoiding the gossip inherent in an affaire.”
Toad had no idea how he was stripped to the waist when he had not participated in the least, but he gasped when her lips came so close to his stomach he could feel her breath. He held out his hands, hoping to push her away without pushing her.
“No penetration, then,” she said, tracing the damp cloth over the scratches and then up the inside of his arm, followed with her cool breath. It chilled and gave him shivers. He swallowed hard at the thought of penetration. His head reeled under the onslaught of all the justifications he had ever used to excuse his affairs.
“But what of other acts that might give us both pleasure?” she asked, taking her hair down and rubbing it on his chest, letting it tease his tensed stomach.
“Other acts?” Oh yes, he could easily imagine other acts.
“Let me demonstrate,” she said.
His lacerated hands fell to his knees, and he gasped as she unbuttoned his trousers, inserting her hand into his smallclothes.
“For example, monsieur, should I grasp you and rub my hand so, that would not breach your promise to the mademoiselle, would it?”
His head fell back. “Yes… no… no, I shouldn’t think so.”
The guilt rushed in as soon as he spoke, and Sir Frogmore reacted as he had for months. He yanked himself away and stood, buttoning his pants, grabbing for his shirt while staying out of her reach. “I… er… this is…” He felt the blush in his face again.
“Ah! He is faithful, your little gentleman. I see now why you look so lost in my salons while the ladies try to catch your eye. And you so young and innocent; it must seem the end of the world, but I assure you, my lord, this is not the tragedy you imagine. You must, on occasions like this, think only of the person in your arms. Perhaps… I have it.” She turned her back. “Play maid for me, please.”
His mouth fell open. “Er.. you wish me to…”
“Undo my buttons, yes. Now, if you please. I shall strip naked for you, and you shall think only of me, yes?”
He shut his eyes and moved toward her, as if drawn by a lodestone. Fumbling with her buttons, he did as she asked, keeping his eyes shut and head turned away.
“Do you find me unpleasant to look at, monsieur? I am hurt, I think.”
Stammering, he disagreed, opening his eyes just briefly to the sight of her bared shoulders. “No. No, I do not. Rather too exquisite for words, madame.” He ran a hand over her shoulder to push one sleeve down her arm. “Your skin is so soft, my lady.” He breathed deeply. “And your scent is so…”
“Jasmine and lavender.” And the underlying perfume of carnal desire and feminine arousal.
He took another deep breath, losing his senses. Sir Frogmore rose to the occasion again, though for how long, Toad could not guess. Probably until she came near to touching him.
She wriggled, and her frock fell to the floor, “The corset and the petticoat laces, monsieur.”
He choked, but his fingers worked double-time to loosen her laces.
“This is what I propose. You shall touch me, and I shall touch you, and if your little gentleman does not wish to cooperate, it is of no matter. I will give you pleasure, nonetheless. And he is not essential to my delight, monsieur, I can assure you. Indeed, since I am still young enough to have children, I prefer to touch him only with my hands and my breasts and my lips and tongue.”
When her petticoat dropped to the floor, he couldn’t keep his hand from following it from her waist to the back of her leg, falling to his knees behind her to leave a trail of kisses on the back of her thigh. “Madame la comtesse, I am… I am… I am beyond words.”
“You must call me Linette, monsieur. And you may touch me anywhere you please. Your lips on my breasts perhaps? Or here?” She grasped his hand resting on her hip and moved it to her minou.
He groaned and turned her, still on his knees, all but worshipping her, shuffling her backward toward the bed. Shockingly, Sir Frogmore did not lose his enthusiasm, for the first time since Toad came to France.
Pulling back suddenly as he crawled onto the bed after her, he confirmed, “You will not expect me to… to dishonour Sa… my lady? You will not change your mind? You will tell no one?”
“Of course, Abersham. How can you doubt it? You will keep your honour and this sweet interlude will be just between the two of us.” With that assurance, he trailed his lips down the side of her throat.