Cameron Crowhurst had been scratching at Toad's temper for years. Even before they had both attended Eton at the same time, Crowhurst's father was the cit who had bought Toad's mother's vineyard after she married the duke. Subsequently, Toad's father had entered into business with Crowhurst Senior, and the duchess had insisted on taking her whole family to see her former property at least three times, starting when Toad was only five or six and Almyra was just a baby, to visit her former husband's gravesite.
Two years older, ten years meaner than Toad, at school, Cameron could always be counted on to goad other boys into trouble and then escape the blame. Toad had been a special project from the first day, when Crowhurst made all the upperclassmen aware of Toad's hated nickname. He had, in turn, dubbed the other boy Crowbait. Toad and Etcetera had fought Crowhurst and his friends on more occasions than he cared to count, and won more than half the time—but not much more.
When the girl finally yanked her arm away, Toad motioned with his head for her to go while he had Crowhurst distracted. The other man snarled, but only made token objection when she scurried off, muttering, "No reason to scare off a man's quarry."
"That fact you view her as quarry is reason enough."
Crowhurst gave an insouciant shrug and said, "So, Toad Northope. Of all the people to turn up in Paris. Banished or running from debt?"
"Lord Abersham to you, Crowbait."
"Of course, Your Lordly One."
"Better. And you? Banishment or debt?" Toad asked without answering the same.
"The former when my father grew weary of paying the latter. Are you in school, or will you spend your days wenching and gambling, as you do in England?"
Toad shrugged. "As long as I pass the entrance exams next week, and I see no reason why I would not, I will attend L'Ecole Supérieure de Commerce."
Crowhurst laughed aloud. "A duke's son, to be educated into the lower orders. Thankfully, I will not have to see you in classes then, for I am at the University of France."
"There is a blessing," Toad smiled.
"Quite. But then, my parents wish me to advance myself, not be made into another merchant. Surely, I will see you among the expatriates of our mutual acquaintance. We have a supper club."
He would join no club that would accept Crowhurst. "You might see me at Court, were you welcome there," Toad sneered, "but I am certain you are not. And I imagine any clubs I join will be designed for noblemen, and probably French-speaking. One wishes to stay true to one's class, of course, but shouldn't miss the opportunity to speak with natives while one can."
"Bloody miserable tongue. Degenerate, just like the people who speak it. We should have forced the Frogs to speak English after Waterloo."
"One needs a good grasp of one's first language to understand a second. Or in my case, a seventh. As I recall, grammar was never your strong suit."
Crowhurst stood and narrowed his eyes. "I needn't accept insult from you, simply because our fathers do business, and I do not care to whom you are related. Do not cross me, Toad."
Toad waved his hand at his old adversary made new. "Go away, Crowbait, you jumped-up, lowlife scum. Go find other people to bother, but do show some refinement and leave unwilling women alone. I will not be able to avoid you forever, but I shall do my best."
"Likewise, I'm sure." Crowhurst made an insolent bow and stalked away.
Turning back to his coffee, Toad stared into its inky depths, the beverage the exact colour of Sal's ringlets. The ceramic cup was the same rich, chocolate brown as her eyes. About a quarter-hour passed while he watched people passing and thought of all he had lost, when the girl he had saved from Crowhurst slid into a seat across from him. "Vous êtes un artiste?"
"Non," he replied, with a sheepish grin, "Un marquis. Anglais. L'université." He spoke near-perfect French, and still sounded like a child. She had hair the same colour as Sal's, though her eyes and her face were much darker and her figure lithe, while Sal had luscious curves.
He looked around to see if Crowhurst would reappear to cause a scene, but she bit her thumb and gestured toward the door, saying, "He has gone to a brothel, which is where he belongs. He is no artist, that one."
She let her fingertips trail across the back of his hand. "Do you need a model, cher?"
He pulled his hand back slowly, so as not to offend. "I've said I am not an artist."
"That is not all there is to do with a model." She let her hand follow his and teased the button at his wrist. He pulled away again.
"I'm afraid I'm... spoken for. At least... in that way." He cleared his throat. "That is not to say... er... I am new to Paris, and I know few people. I have no objection to making friends, and do not wish to be rude. It is only..."
"You are in love with someone."
"Very well. Have you wine at your lodgings?"
"Because I plan to become very drunk, and if you did not have wine, you would have to buy some before you take me home."
"But, I've just said..."
"You said you do not wish a lover, but that does not mean we cannot drink together, does it?"
"No, I suppose not."
Women are better companions than other men when one is lonely.
"Then come, monsieur le marquis, let us celebrate our youth and freedom until the dawn."
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...