Chapter Fourteen, Part 3

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"What do you wish me to say?"

Her exasperated look was tinged with affection. "Silly boy. The truth, of course, as you see it, about your unfortunate plans for the ravishment and elopement of my granddaughter."

She had timed it to the sip of his brandy. She must have, so skilfully did she make him choke. Once finished coughing, he started, "I am surprised she spoke of it. Is she..."

He was so close to the information he sought that his heart beat faster. "Can you tell me; is she well? Does she think of me fondly, or have I hurt her irreparably? I cannot tell a thing from the letters she writes under Haverford's eye."

"She is certainly better than she was when I arrived back in London, but still not back to her old self. Of course, she is proud; she will put on a good show."

Before Toad could respond, a knock at the door revealed Blakeley. "My lord, as you requested earlier, dinner will be ready in three-quarters of an hour, if it pleases you."

He looked over at Aunt Eleanor with one cocked brow. "Will you stay for dinner?"

"Thank you, Abersham. I am not dressed to dine, but if you will not regard it, nor will I."

Once Blakeley had gone and shut the door behind him, Aunt Eleanor began again. "I would have your side of the story, dear lad, before I am too old to comprehend it."

He laughed a bit harshly. "I set out to make Sally my wife and was thwarted and exiled. What more is there to say?"

She finished her tea, put her cup back on the saucer, then examined him carefully. "That was why you met her, was it? You compromised her to force a marriage?"

He flushed and turned his eyes away. "No! I did not mean to compromise her. Nor to marry... not yet, anyway... not from the first... but... soon after."

Eleanor held out both hands to Toad and when he took them, said, "Collect yourself, Abersham."

He took a breath and pulled his hands back. "She sent a note and said she needed my help. I thought she was planning a prank, or escaping her governess for an afternoon, and of course, I would help her with anything of the sort she asked."

Her lips twitched. "Of course you would. And instead of coaxing you into a lark, she was curious about kissing."

He gave a short nod, turning away from her incisive stare.

"And you agreed... Why?"

He stammered and rose to pace again. "She is... I had never thought she would... I mean..." He finally stopped and looked her in the eye. "She is everything to me, Your Grace, and has been since we were ten-before that, probably-and I hadn't any idea she felt the same. I always thought she looked at me as... a friend... a brother. I thought we would marry. Our parents have talked of nothing else for years. But I wouldn't think of seducing her. I just assumed she would... I assumed the love of a man and wife would grow from friendship... after we wed. After I could... show her my devotion without causing her dishonour." He blushed and stammered the next words. "I agreed to kiss her because I could not resist the chance to kiss the woman I have loved since childhood."

"Hmm." The duchess looked at him thoughtfully. "If that is so, it seems odd you have always bedded any willing woman who came near enough." She held up a hand to his incipient objection. "No, I believe you believe you love her. You told her you did not know how to love a wife, Abersham. How has that changed?"

What had changed between declaring himself a free man and declaring himself to Sally, was not a question he had stopped to ask.

"I had not thought myself ready to love a wife, no. But I cannot lose her, Aunt Eleanor." He worked to keep the pleading out of his voice, but not successfully. "And I do love her. If she is my wife, I will love her the same way I do now, as I always have, but we will be allowed to... er... we will no longer live apart.

"That you can please a wife in bed, I have no doubt, given Wellbridge and Haverford. Can you be a good husband in every other sphere of your lives? What say you to the rumours you have not slept alone, or with the same girl twice, since you came to Paris?"

His hand shook as he poured. "I say they are much overblown."

She lifted a dainty eyebrow. "Untrue? Or exaggerated?"

He downed the rest of his brandy in one gulp. After not having had a drink in several days, out of necessity as he studied for examinations, and now far too many in quick succession, it went to his head rather faster than he was accustomed to.

"Most likely both, as gossip always is. I will be faithful to Sal, if that is your concern. I have no interest in any other women if I have her. I cannot..." he blushed to the roots of his hair. "I have no interest. Must we speak of such things? You are practically my grandmother. It is not natural to discuss... marital relations with you."

He took a gulp of his brandy, not waiting for it to warm.

"Do not prevaricate, Abersham. I am trying to decide how much help to give you."

His head swivelled like it was on a spike. "You will help me?"

She did not answer directly. "I may help you. So far, we have established you will please her in the bedchamber, and I see your Continental education will further that pursuit." She glanced toward the door and he looked away. "But many men are as well qualified to overwhelm her senses, any of whom might keep her just as sated. What qualifies you to be a good husband to my granddaughter? Are you in expectation of a house, food, and a regular income? For you have none of these to offer her now."

"I had a house, and money!"

"Yes. In your bag. The old Brickdale estate, and the ten acres surrounding it. We detoured to inspect it on our trip here. A roofless house, believed to be haunted, and avoided by all within walking distance."

Toad blinked, but rallied. "I had money to support her," he argued.

"Two thousand guineas in gold, as I understand it?" With a twitch of her lip, she asked, "Cards or dice?"

"Backgammon," he growled, "and at least eight thousand more in jewels and gold in my watch box. I could have supported her, Aunt Eleanor," he repeated. "It wouldn't have been like our parents' houses, but it would have been... an adventure. Until I am given my own lands and trust."

"An adventure. I daresay." She handed him the teapot. "Another cup, Abersham, and you shall have one yourself." He flushed again at the raised brow that was her only comment on the amount of brandy he had consumed in her presence, and took the delicate china teapot to the urn Blakeley had set on a sideboard. As he emptied the dregs, measured leaves from the tea caddy, and filled the pot with fresh water, she continued.

"Haverford and Wellbridge grew up much the same as you did, encouraged by their fathers in every debauchery and excess, and both grew to regret it. Yet, neither stopped to think such a course might be a poor choice for you. And neither of their wives reined in her husband."

Did Aunt Eleanor just criticize both dukes and both duchesses? She had a lifetime habit of never allowing either Sal or Toad to speak ill of their elders.

He brought the tea service and placed it on the table, taking the chair to her left at her gesture.

"I shall have to be very stern with them, now that Sally's brother is of an age to begin raking about. I'll not watch it happen again. Not when the result is..." She winced and waved her hand at him, "such an infernal tangle. A fine mess you all made of things."

"Not all, no. I take full blame for this entire episode. I should have left as soon as I found she was alone. I certainly should never have... well... I never should have done any of it."

"No, indeed you should not. You were foolish, Abersham. Immoral, too, make no mistake, no matter your influences. Never more so than demanding she choose between you and her parents."

"I made no such demand! Haverford challenged me! Had he just agreed, after twenty years of spinning tales of uniting the duchies, we would have had a wedding breakfast at Wellstone."

"When you asked her to run away, you bade her cut herself off from her family and yours-there would have been no wedding breakfast at Wellstone. No Wellstone at all until the day your father dies. Nor Margate or Dalrymple House, or any of the properties owned by your families. Do you not see that, Abersham? Did you think you could return after such defiance, and all would be as it was?"

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