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 punctuated 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 pornographic postcards and 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.
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Mariana Gabrielle and Jude Knight.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...