Chapter Seventeen

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"As often as you boast about your reception at the French Court, Abersham," Zajac said, "I'd think you would be more amenable to overtures from the ladies."

Toad kept his eyes on his textbook. They were all supposed to be studying. That was the point of gathering thrice weekly, away from the clubs where they spent many of their evenings. But as they had become closer friends, it became more and more difficult to marshal the whole group's dubious concentration.

And here was yet another attempt to corrupt him, probably because he was the only one who wished they would all be quiet.

He had promised the duchess he would focus on his studies, and had been doing his best to keep his head down, eyes on the end goal—graduation as fast as possible. And with marks better than passing, so his father would have to admit Toad was a man grown, and his mother wouldn't brain him for destroying her shipyard. And perhaps more important, he didn't want word of any dalliances come to Sally's ears, for he had hurt her enough for one lifetime.

Not to mention, given the relative incapacitation of those parts of himself that had once been interested, there was little point in amorous pursuits. Toad would certainly not mention it and would do anything in his power to ensure no one else did. His friends would never let him live it down, and if the information made it back to Wellbridge and Haverford, the story of his limp manhood would be told over port at dinner parties for the rest of his life.

"Piero needn't even entertain the idea of paying a mistress," Bey continued, still pouting at the loss of his mistress along with his allowance, unaware Toad's manhood was in such a dire condition. "All he has to do is snap his fingers at the Tuileries."

"Not true, my friend," Piero argued. "I must occasionally give gifts." He shrugged. "And it is never so simple in a royal Court. One must always be cautious not to step into the king's domain—or that of any man more wealthy or powerful than oneself."

"Which for you, means everyone," Toad said.

"Just so," Piero admitted with no shame. "At least until my brother relents."

"Can it be possible all of us have had our allowances cut at the same time?" Bey mourned. "How will we buy brandy?"

"Mine has not," Toad said, but amended, "Not since I came to France, at any rate. But I will not buy your brandy. I would go to the dogs in moments if I did. Perhaps if you studied more and made a fool of yourself less, the Duke of Winshire might be more forgiving."

"Perhaps you are a prig, Abersham. And your allowance is not even enough to buy cheap wine," Bey sniped.

"Ahem." Piero cleared his throat, raising an eyebrow to allay the badgering before it became a larger argument. "Abersham's caution has been to my advantage. I very nearly took one of the king's favourites to bed—inadvertently, of course. Had Abersham not warned me, I might even now be in the Conciergerie."

"You might end there yet," Bey said slyly, "if you continue to bed any woman you see in a Court gown."

"No," Toad said, "He only beds the pretty women in Court gowns. And he talks them out of their dresses first."

"Abersham leaves them in their gowns," Bey observes, "eschewing their company to fence with chevaliers, thereby kindly allowing the ladies to escape his loathsome company, but depriving them of more attractive admirers."

Toad made a rude gesture at Bey, one everyone at the table understood, regardless of cultural origins.

"But you are a rake, Piero, and Abersham a gentleman," Zajac suggested, snickering. "He behaves himself admirably. For if he does not, the Duchess of Winshire will remove his bollocks."

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