Chapter Five, Part 1

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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.

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