Chapter One: Part Two

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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."

"Very good."

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.

Truth.

I do not wish to see you. You cannot expect my support when you behave so badly.

Opposite

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.

Truth

Are they lonely, do you think, these rooms that were once the scene of many a tryst?

Nonsense.

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.

Secret

I hope I will not feel lonely when I get there.

Wish

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.

Truth

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:

I cannot forgive such transgressions. 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.

Nonsense.

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.

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