Chapter Ten: Part 1

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Toad stared through the skylight windows set at an angle above his new bed, listening to the night-time street sounds of Paris, ten stories below the pied-a-terre, the top two floors of a building in Saint-Germain-des-Près. He couldn't stop ruminating about the state of his life now, wishing he hadn't allowed his parents to force this intolerable trade: an apartment for his entire lifetime of happiness.

But it was rather too late to be thinking now. If he had engaged his brain when it mattered, not just reacted in haste to His Pompous Magnificence and the Duchess of Double-Cross, he would have found a way to escape Captain Hawley's ship instead of screaming and crying and fighting his captors, banging his head against the confines of the brig until they were halfway across the English Channel.

Now, he was stuck here, two continents away from the woman he loved, with no chance of returning to England before she was wed.

Eventually, he removed himself from the bed, where he had been thinking on the folly of not thinking ever since he had arrived six hours earlier. He stripped off his rumpled clothes, reluctant to call in Blakeley, lest he be subjected to more forced positivity about the opportunities that awaited him in Paris.

Positivity, Toad assumed, was easier to muster when one was sleeping in the ambassadorial suite, just visiting the miserable slag in chains in the hold. Captain Hawley's idea of justice; putting Toad's valet in the duke and duchess's old quarters, and leaving Toad to his regrets belowdecks, living on hardtack.

At least until he gave in and agreed to do whatever his mother said. His word had been required, as an honourable gentleman, with his new valet the final arbiter of how well he complied. In the end, it was easier to capitulate to the captain than Toad had thought, under pain of slow, torturous death by the man who had taught his mother bladeplay.

Staring out the roof windows at the cloudy night sky and across the chimneys of his new neighbourhood, he thought about all his options, always landing back on the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce, the ESCP, which provided the best chance—probably the only chance—to protect his properties and inheritance. And it would please his parents, otherwise known as Lord and Lady Purse-strings.

Opening the window, he breathed in the cool, but fetid, night air. Even ten stories from the street, the smell of garbage and horse droppings pervaded the room, no worse than London, but not quite the same. The sounds of music and laughter tempted him, but he had already undressed. Still, he was restless, nowhere near sleep, nor had he been for more than a few hours at a time since they left London five days ago, instead tossing and turning even more than boats or carriages mandated, ruminating on his enormous loss.

Tonight, his father's voice echoed in his head, followed with his Uncle Haverford, not in their most recent incarnations, but years ago, the night of the family dinner before he left for Eton at twelve:

"Women are better companions than other men when one is lonely, Abersham."

Uncle Haverford had added, "You'll find a willing one soon enough. Just don't choose an innocent from the upper classes, talk to your father before you suggest marriage or negotiate for a mistress, and don't be daft enough to turn it down when she offers. And never be stingy with gifts."

Perhaps he should have discussed marriage with his father first; Sal's father assuredly. But he had been impetuous, wishing only to solemnize a lifetime bond that had seemed unattainable, but suddenly felt inviolable—and the most luscious kisses he had ever imagined. It had been romantic. It had been. He was sure.

At yet another thought of her kisses, Sir Frogmore rose again. He turned and punched the pillow.

Women are better companions than other men when one is lonely.

Sal was the only companion he wanted. But here he was, a continent away, and she would be married to an honest-to-goodness toad in no time at all, warts and all. He would remain true to her until all hope was lost; he had no plans to seek relief with whores or engage a mistress when he had a perfectly good hand and the fondest of memories. But he needed to make friends in France. He had to talk to people.

Women are better companions than other men when one is lonely.

At a knock on the bedchamber door, he pulled on the dressing gown Blakeley had left out. "Yes?"

"I heard you up and about, my lord. Is there anything I can provide? A meal, perhaps? You have not eaten anything since we left the ship yesterday."

Toad wished his father had allowed him to bring his own valet. "No, but perhaps you can help me put together a suit of clothes. I think I will go out."

Tugging the watch from his pocket, Blakeley said, "Now, my lord? It is almost three o'clock in the morning."

"It is, isn't it? Go to bed, Blakeley. I will manage." He crowded the man out of his bedroom, shut the door in his new valet's face and did, in fact, dress himself in the nearest clean clothes.

He descended to the ground floor, striding past the concierge, the little old lady with her eye to the keyhole to see who was wandering the halls at night. He, by God, was the Marquess of Abersham, and would wander any halls he liked, especially halls he owned. He went out to the street and looked around.

"Get lost in Paris," had been his mother's advice. He doubted she meant in the middle of the night, but there was no time like the present. He would have to arrange a club in the days to come, along with entrance exams and presenting himself at Court and to his mother's former colleagues at the Ambassador's office. But for now, any coffee house or pub would do.

The street was yet hectic with music and people reeling drunkenly from one entertainment to another. He made his way to a café, where he took a seat and ordered coffee.

He wasn't sure how to go about meeting people, exactly. He would in his classes, he assumed, as he had at Eton, then Cambridge, but there, he had known many of the students for years before they all entered school. There would be supper clubs, certainly, to keep him fed—there always were in cities where noblemen converged—and assuredly, expatriate noble Englishmen at the French Court found ways to band together. But tonight, right now, he was lonely and homesick and wanted someone to talk to, and he couldn't stomach a brothel or a cheap imitation of his Sal.

Over his shoulder, he heard a British accent, and the sounds of a young lady in increasing distress. Her voice was rising in pitch and volume, her French so fast he could barely catch it all.

"Monsieur, I do not wish to accept a commission from you. Not last night. Not tonight. Not next week. I do not wish to model for you, with my clothes on or off."

He turned toward the conflict, preparing himself to defend her. When he saw the source, his lip curled and he charged, throwing himself across the room, jamming his hand into the man's chest to try to shove him away from the girl, but he held tight to her arm, even as she fought against his grip.

"Crowhurst, you pig. Leave women alone when they tell you to."

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