"Yes, he has behaved badly," Aunt Cherry argued. "I am the first to say he is too young to wed and not fit to be anyone's husband. But he, at least, has the excuse that he has been tutored by two of the worst scoundrels in all of England." Her raised brow was directed at Haverford and Wellbridge this time, both of whom had the grace to offer the slightest look of chagrin.
With a glance at Toad's resultant smirk, she added, "I do not absolve you, Abersham. You are an immature, spoilt, drunken skirt-chaser, and my daughter deserves far better. If I blame your father and hers as much as I do you, that does not change my opinion of your suitability."
Toad narrowed his eyes, but didn't answer the charges, watching Haverford carefully.
"Cherry," Haverford said, gathering his resolve once more, "You cannot interfere in a matter of honour."
"I concur," Toad agreed. "I'll not allow Haverford to put it out I am a coward."
Aunt Cherry grabbed Sally by the wrist and dragged her towards the door, collecting her boots on the way. "Honour? What honour is there in slaughtering the boy for behaving as you taught him, Your Graces? Or in fighting the father of the girl you claim to love, Abersham? I tell you, I am disgusted with all three of you."
Sally broke free and ran, not to Toad, but to her father. Hanging on his arm, she begged, "Don't do it, Papa. Promise me you will not do it."
With a foolish defiance, Toad exclaimed, "You need not debase yourself in my defense, Sally. I care not one whit if Haverford means to kill me."
Sally turned drenched eyes to him and held out her hand. "But I care, David. He is my father. You are my... my dearest friend. Will you not reconsider this for me?"
Taking her hand in both of his, he replied softly, "Only for you, my darling, but the die has been cast."
Haverford snarled. "Get your hands off her."
At the same time, Aunt Cherry said, "Bella, I'm so glad you received my message."
"What in heaven's name are you doing here, David? What is going on?"
Toad paled again at his mother's voice, but stepped closer to Sal, even though it brought him within arm's reach of Haverford.
Toad intertwined his fingers with Sal's and his look dared her father, and his, to try to separate them.
"I am going to marry Sally, Mother, as soon as we can cross the border. Provided, of course, I survive Haverford's formal challenge."
"Do you run mad, Abersham? Have you heard not one word I have said to you this evening? And Haverford, you have challenged my son? What are you thinking? Have you not promised before God to protect him?"
"I cannot talk sense into any of them, Bella," Aunt Cherry said, her voice suddenly weary. "And if Abersham is bundled out of here by half-a-dozen footmen, we'll have exactly the scandal we are trying to avoid. Or if our ridiculous husbands press ahead with this bone-headed idea of a duel."
Haverford was shifting a little uncomfortably under his wife's stern gaze and his daughter's pleading, and Wellbridge followed suit under his duchess's stare. When Bella turned to Toad, however, he gave not an inch, only glaring back, folding his arms more solidly around Sal's shoulders.
"I see the problem," his mother said. "I suppose it had better not be your footmen who take him away, then. Captain Hawley is in London, planning to leave on the morrow for a ship departing Dover in two days. He can be trusted not to tell tales. Wellbridge, can you please send for the captain and a few of his sailors?"
"Gladly," Wellbridge agreed and stepped out of the room.
Cherry nodded, thoughtfully, but Sally threw her arms around Toad and hung on with a vice-like grip that threatened to cut off the blood supply to his torso. "No! I will not let you take him away!"
Bella looked down her nose at the hysterical girl. "You have no say in this, Lady Sarah. Step aside."
Sally shook her head, and held on tighter, while Toad wrapped himself around Sal in return.
"I'll not go, Mother. Not without Sal. I do not care if I am forced down a mine shaft to buy her daily bread."
His mother grabbed his arm and dragged him away from Sal. "You may yet be, for I cannot think your father will continue supporting you after tonight."
Aunt Cherry enfolded Sally in both arms, but to prevent her from following Toad, rather than to comfort her.
Haverford pursed his lips and announced, "Lady Sarah, I have changed my mind about sending you to Margate. I clearly cannot trust you to have a care for your own reputation while you remain unwed. And I will not allow you to bring scandal on our name."
He held the attention of everyone in the room, and Toad's glance at Sally shared a desperate hope.
"You will begin your Season forthwith, and be closely guarded until I choose a husband for you."
The two duchesses exchanged startled glances, and Aunt Cherry said, "But Haverford—"
"My mind is made up, Your Grace," Haverford told her. "She needs taming, and Lord knows I have not done it. It will be up to her husband to provide the necessary discipline, God help him, and Abersham cannot even control himself, much less a wife."
Sally wept and struggled in her mother's arms as Toad's father returned with no fewer than six rough-and-tumble sailors, headed by Captain Hawley of his mother's flagship.
Hawley was not an entirely unknown variable, as he had captained the family frigate the family travelled on throughout Toad's childhood. However, this sailor had been his mother's most loyal retainer since she was nineteen years old, the first day she set foot on a ship, and would forever do anything she asked, up to and including murder.
The Duchess of Wellbridge handed him over to Captain Hawley and his men, who secured his hands and feet with rope.
"We talked about the remedy for your problem, Missus Bella," his mother's right-hand man said, with a look at Toad that told him everything he didn't want to know. "He got any bags, or are you givin' 'im to us with naught but the clothes on his back?"
Wellbridge had opened the satchel Toad came with. Pulling out one pouch of coin after another, then the watch box, flipping through the portfolio of documents and correspondence, he said, "No, he will not be taking this with him. I will send his belongings with his valet within the hour. You may feel free to assign his valet a cabin if you have one available, but you needn't be so particular for my heir."
"Yes, Yer Grace."
"I expect him to leave London before dawn," his mother insisted.
"Sooner," Haverford demanded.
"With the tide, Yer Graces, just as we planned when I thought he would walk on board, not be carried. Just a change in timing and delivery. Don't fret ye, Missus Bella. I can take care of your boy. I pressed snottier swells than him in my day."
As they carried Toad away, shameful tears fell from his eyes, and he repeated endlessly, even after they threw him none too gently into an unmarked coach, "I will write to you, Sally. I promise you I will write."
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...