Chapter Five, Part 2

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"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."

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