Chapter Fourteen, Part 2

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But she had left him no choice. With a wave of his hand, he indicated the highest-ranking of his associates, who stood and came closer to make a bow.

"Your Grace, may I present Lord Piero d'Avalos from Rome? He is the youngest brother of the Conte d'Alvieri. Piero, the Duchess of Winshire, a family friend come to Paris for a visit."

"Buonasera, Lord Piero," Aunt Eleanor offered when Piero took up her hand to kiss the air above it.

Before Piero could begin flirting with Aunt Eleanor, an inevitability since she was female, Toad turned to the blond man, whose blush might have been embarrassment, but more likely an excess of wine. "Mr. Karl Zajac hails from Mother Russia; his father owns several textile factories."

Karl was clearly the drunkest of the three, for he nearly fell over when he attempted the few steps from his chair to hers, followed by a court bow the others had drilled into him before introducing him to Piero.

"Dobriy vyecher, Mr. Zajac," Aunt Eleanor offered in heavily accented Russian, her lips twitching as he righted himself.

"Good evening, Your Grace," Karl returned, steadying his balance against a Chippendale chair.

"And finally," Toad said, "I do not believe you have met Mr. Nartay Muhadow, late of the Kopet Dag mountains north of Persia."

Perhaps her husband's grandson would keep her distracted from Toad's failings. Bey cast him a look of deep betrayal and his dark eyes danced towards the door as if his feet might follow to escape. Instead, he made an elegant bow to the duchess.

"Your Grace."

"Nartay is here, too. Excellent," Aunt Eleanor said, an inscrutable smile on her face. "It is so good to finally meet you, dear boy. When the duke and I heard the two of you had struck up a friendship, it seemed providential, as we had business with both of you. Your grandfather will be delighted, as he is in search of you at this very moment."

Bey stammered, speaking to the wall to his right. "His Grace is here with you?" He retreated a step. "In Paris?" Bey flushed. "I have not been home in several... er, I have not been home to receive him, Your Grace."

Bey squared his shoulders, but his eyes flicked to Toad with more than a hint of accusation, as if this encounter were Toad's fault.

"I must pay my respects to my grandfather at the earliest opportunity. Will you tell me where you are staying, Your Grace, so I may pay a call?"

She answered while pouring tea from the pot that Blakeley set before her, "We are staying at Le Meurice, dear, though the duke is most likely leaving a card at your residence. Perhaps you would like to have breakfast with us tomorrow at eight o'clock? The duke prefers to eat early."

"Breakfast. Tomorrow. Yes. Thank you, Your Grace." Bey swallowed, but nodded, then stepped out of the duchess's line of sight, pushing his mistress behind him. "Eight o'clock. Er... we should be going..."

"Nonsense. Will you not present your young lady to your grandmother?" The duchess beckoned the girl out from behind her grandson. "We have not been introduced."

Bey stuttered through an introduction, his face nearly as red as Zajac's. "This is... er... Ma'mselle... ahem... Blanc, Your Grace. She... uh... dances. At the Opera."

Bey gave Toad a desperate look, which Toad ignored. Bey could extricate himself from his own mess. It served him right for pushing in.

"We plan to attend the Opera while we are in Paris," Aunt Eleanor said. "I shall look forward to watching you dance, mademoiselle."

Toad choked on his brandy and Zajac, now scarlet to the ears, pounded him on the back until he stopped coughing. Ninon Blanc was better known for a type of dancing that could not—should not—be discussed with grandmothers. And after tonight, she would be doing all her dancing in Bey's bed.

"You are very kind, madame la duchesse," the woman replied with a deep curtsey, her eyes downcast, managing a circumspection none of the boys would have expected. Nor could accomplish themselves while being subtly interrogated by the likes of the Duchess of Winshire.

"We must take our leave, Your Grace," Piero volunteered in the same smooth voice he used with every woman on Earth, bowing as he backed toward the door, gesturing to Karl to follow. "We must study, and help Mademoiselle Blanc... rehearse." Bey bowed again and followed Piero and Karl out of the room, dragging Ninon behind him. Blakeley appeared to shut the door behind them.

Toad sighed and resigned himself to his scolding from Aunt Eleanor. The miasma of their debauchery—so his, by association—hung in the room. To her credit, Aunt Eleanor made no comment but, "A most fortuitous meeting. It was... instructive to meet your study group, dear. I do look forward to breakfast with Nartay."

Observing the piles of schoolwork on the table with a bemused smile, she gestured to the books and said, "I am sorry to disturb your studies. Were my time not limited, I would not intrude for the world, but I confess myself pleased to see your industry. It does not escape me that your friends interrupted you just before I did. To engage in what pursuits I shall not deign to speculate."

Toad felt the heat rising in his cheeks. At eighty, Aunt Eleanor had an old woman's tendency to truth-telling, which made her one of his favourites among Sally's relations, but could be deuced uncomfortable.

"It is always good to see you, of course, Aunt Eleanor, but I am confused. How long have you been in Paris? Have we an appointment I have forgotten?"

"My, my, Abersham. Demanding an appointment of a duchess four times your age? Winshire and I realized we had similar problems to be addressed in France and popped over for a few days." Eleanor took a sip of her tea. "As for my problem, I am dissatisfied with the information I have gathered about the liberties you took with my granddaughter."

He stared at her with his mouth flapping, unsure what to say. "Haverford told you?" He flushed and stood to pace before the fire, running his hand through his hair in a gesture he shared with his father. "You? I cannot believe he would..." He stopped and stared at her in horror. "It hasn't become generally known, has it? She's not been ruined?"

"No, it has not, praise heaven. Most of my information comes from Sally herself. Haverford told me only what I could glean from monosyllables; Wellbridge still less, but at volume. Cherry and Bella were somewhat more forthcoming, but they naturally do not wish to make themselves or their husbands appear culpable, and they may well be. So, yours is the last viewpoint I must consider."

Toad looked around and took his pacing to the fire, where he added a shovel of coal.

"How do you fare here in Paris, my boy? Are you well and happy?"

Toad opened his mouth to answer, then closed it, then opened it again, but still did not speak. He finally said, "I am well, Aunt Eleanor. You?"

She sighed. "A little tired, dear." She patted his hand to reassure him. "Sally made her debut last week, and I find I do not recover from late nights as quickly as I once did." At Sally's name, his hand jerked as if burned, and she withdrew hers, watching him closely.

He stiffened and looked away. "I am sure it was... lovely."

"It was and she was, which is what you most and least wish to hear, I expect." He ran a hand through his hair as she said, in an annoyingly blithe tone, "I have launched debutantes before, of course, but few as fetching. These modern fashions suit her very well. In white, of course, which is a very hard colour to wear well, but Sally has the hair and complexion for it. She wore the Haverford pearl-and diamond parure, of course, and her gloves, fan, and shawl were all silver. She was a fairy princess, Abersham, all moonbeams and stardust."

He smiled and swallowed hard, caught up in envisioning his beloved in a wedding gown. "I love to see her in white."

Aunt Eleanor snapped her fingers in front of his face. "Abersham. Abersham! Are you addled, boy? I said... I wish to hear from you."

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