Chapter Seven, Part 2

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"Forgive me, Mother, but it is true. Of course I left her a maid. Sally? I could never... But if I hadn't restrained myself? If I had taken my—our—pleasure, I would be on the way to the archbishop now, not packed off to the Continent, and Sally and I would both have had at least the smallest bit of what we want, with more to come."

"David! You will cease your vulgarity and your defiance! This is precisely why I am dead set against the idea of you as a match for my goddaughter. Your appalling view of marriage, your complete disregard for the young woman you wronged tonight, the fact you do not consider Lady Sarah or your sister when you regularly invite social censure... You have done naught but complain about your own denial, and with every word you utter, you set me more firmly upon the course your father and I have chosen. I have not come to litigate the fairness of our decision. You have growing to do, and it will do you good to focus your attention on your education, not on ."

He turned his back on her so she wouldn't see the tears welling up. "Why have you come then? To gloat?" He swallowed hard and pretended she was his Latin master at Eton, trying to get him to lash out in order to punish him. He blanked his face ruthlessly.

"Gloat? Do you not know me at all, my son?"

"No, Mother, tonight, I do not think I do."

She walked around him and looked up into his eyes, her hand on his cheek. "You ridiculous boy. You have destroyed your own chances. If you wished to marry Lady Sarah, You should never have seduced her in the bed where Haverford seduced half of London—even kept his mistress. He could only react badly."

Toad didn't pull away, but he turned his eyes from hers. "I didn't know I wished to marry her until she asked me to kiss... I mean... I told her I did not wish to marry yet, that I had many years before I needed to take a wife."

"Could you not see she has loved you since you both wore dresses? You did not need kisses to know that."

He shrugged, but he wouldn't meet her eyes. "I thought she saw me as a... chum. Someone to write her secrets to, who would take pleasure in her successes and not judge her harshly for her... occasional lapses in propriety."

His mother shook her head and pursed her lips. "I am heartened you are honourable enough to keep her secrets, but have you learned so little of women after all of your paramours?"

"I know quite enough to be getting on with," he muttered, but before he even looked to see the raised eyebrow staring at him, he returned to his point, "By the time I realized I did—do—wish to marry her, we were interrupted. I had decided it and was asking her when Haverford broke in and ruined it."

She sighed and shook her head. "Haverford did not break into his own house. You were the interloper. Did you learn nothing from the debacle at Cambridge? No, David, this conversation has convinced me as nothing else had. You are not prepared for marriage, and you cannot ask Lady Sarah to wait. She will not be allowed to wed in her own time; spoilt ducal daughters are not afforded the same luxuries as ducal sons. And it is right she be permitted to survey her choices without you nearby to compare to every man who presses his suit."

"You cannot mean you support Haverford in this? Against your own son?"

"Perhaps you will one day grow into a man she can be proud to marry, and who I will be proud to recommend to her—and her father. Perhaps she will be a widow by the time you are ready to be a husband. But that is the best you can hope for, my boy. You've made all the wrong choices, and you will reap the consequence. The kindest thing you can do for Lady Sarah is let her go."

He didn't know how to ask, but this would be his last chance. "Will you... will you help convince Haverford to allow us to write?"

She shut her eyes and sighed. When she opened them again, she looked at him with such sadness in her gaze that it choked him.

"I had thought I might, but now? I think it the worst idea imaginable. No, I will not help you in your pursuit of her. I will help her mother plan her come-out ball, and I will help her sort through her choices when Haverford begins entertaining offers."

"Mother!"

"Make a life for yourself in France, my son. Lose yourself in wine and women if you must. But let Lady Sarah go."

He would get no help from her. He had only one option left. "I give in, Mother. You and His Imperial Rakishness have destroyed any chance I have at happiness, but you hold all the cards. I give in."

With a heavy hand on his shoulder, she said, "I'm afraid that was inevitable. You will survive this, my son. You will. And you will be a better man for it." She reached over to the tea table, where she had set a portfolio and a leather pouch. "I came to give you this. Letters of introduction for my colleagues at the embassy in Paris." She looked him in the eye as she added, "With whom you will not disgrace me."

"Yes, Your Grace." He tucked the portfolio under his arm.

"Here are the funds for your travel," She said, hefting a surprisingly heavy pouch into his hand. "I've added to your father's idea of a stipend, for Wellbridge is too angry with you to think clearly. I will make certain of a reasonable compromise by the time your quarterly allowance is due—though you may expect to feel this episode in your purse—and you may trade on my name, if not your father's. I am better known in French government and at Court than Wellbridge, in any case."

Toad glanced at the door. "Where is Father?"

"He has gone to White's to commiserate with Haverford—until dawn, if the history of hostilities with his son can be relied upon."

Toad snorted. "Commiserating over the wrongs done them by unruly children who should be more deferential to two dukes."

"Assuredly." She placed the pouch in his hand and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "I do love you, my boy, and wish you well."

"I find that hard to believe, Mother."

"I know," she said, and slipped out the door.

Toad waited until the light from the solarium no longer shone across the expanse of lawn, and until he heard his mother checking in with the guards on his door on the way to his parents' suite down the next hallway. He watched out his window for half an hour to make certain his father hadn't set a roaming guard on the house, stables, or grounds, threw his satchel over his shoulder, and climbed to freedom.

Wait to marry Sal until she was a widow? If anyone were being ridiculous, it was his mother.

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