Chapter Seven: Part 1

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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 irrational 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. A 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.

The Duchess of Wellbridge heard it from the Duchess of Haverford, who had it from Haverford, who had it from Wellbridge, who had already sent the girl payment enough to keep her for ten years. This was only the first time the Duchess of Wellbridge would appear dressed in her boy's clothes with the tipped duelling foils and give 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. Even more so after the married noblewoman became a widow. She still made overtures from time to time.

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 it 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 he eschewed his Hoby boots in favour of sailor's deck shoes. They looked ridiculous with trousers, and 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, 10-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."

"David!"

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