Chapter twenty-one

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"Why are you still here?" Toad asked. "Have you no occupation but shadowing me? Perhaps you should be studying."

"Piero received a message from the comtesse's maid to retrieve you," Bey told him, "and since the rest of us were in his rooms at the time, depleting his brandy, "

"Of course I did not succumb, nor would I tell you if I had. Which I did not. Not in the least. I am a man of honour. I said I would not dishonour Sally, and I will not." He had not. The comtesse had explained it all so well. He was unnerved that she had sent for Piero, however. "She treated my scratches. Nothing else."

"All night long?" Piero asked with a raised brow.

"I fell asleep."

"You stayed in her bed, at any rate," Bey snickered.

"I did not!" Toad blushed.

Zajac grasped Toad's wrist and pushed up his cuff. "All bandaged up, are you?"

Toad yanked his hand away. "They are scratches, so did not require bandages. Can we leave now, please, or would you prefer to interrogate me in the comtesse's mews until tomorrow evening?"

Zajac shrugged and opened the door to the coach. "We can interrogate you in the carriage just as well."

Toad climbed in, shaking his head. His friends followed, and Piero banged on the ceiling for the coachman to take them home.

"I am certain she treated him," Bey said, sincerely. "I am sure her ministrations meant he did not feel a thing... from the scratches." He and Zajac chortled.

"You have filthy minds," Toad snaps, looking out the window, thinking of the comtesse's ministrations.

It was quite a relief, he must admit, to know Sir Frogmore was not entirely incapable of proper functioning. As long as there was no blatant threat to his fidelity. Toad was sure he was missing some nuance, but what the comtesse said made perfect sense. As long as he saved those acts for Sal that only husbands and wives should share, there was no dishonour. He suspected Sally wouldn't see it that way, but the comtesse was right. As long as no one ever found out, Sal wouldn't be hurt by a meaningless dalliance.

"Is he blushing?" Bey asks. "Ah, if I had spent four hours with the divine comtesse, I, too, would be blushing."

"I am not blushing," Toad said weakly, feeling himself blush.

"He looks satisfied," Zajac commented. "It must have been an excellent... sleep."

"Her guest bedroom was quite comfortable."

His father and Uncle Haverford would agree with the comtesse. They had both said as much again and again over the years. What his mother would say was not pertinent.

"She is known for the comfort of her 'accommodations.'" Piero said gravely, which set Bey and Zajac laughing again.

Toad narrowed his eyes and wished he weren't so fair. "She is known for her salons."

"And for the comfort of the rooms in which she entertains," Zajac said.

"I wish she would entertain me." Bey sighed. "Abersham has all the luck."

Toad sighed and ran a hand over his face. "I am tired. I am going to close my eyes.

"I expect our friend is tired, even after sleeping the past ten hours," Zajac said to the others. "He has had a strenuous evening."

"I have not! It is early. I am not used to staying out all hours like you degenerates. I am going to sleep. Again. You may all make much of nothing as long as you like."

When he shut his eyes, visions of his evening ran, like stereopticon slides inside his eyelids. He opened them again rapidly, however, when Sir Frogmore chose to express his appreciation of the evening's events. "Are we not at my rooms yet? Ah. Excellent. We are. I shall leave you to your baseless speculation." Toad rose, bent in the closed carriage, and opened the door to jump down to the street.

"Surely, we should see you in, Abersham," Zajac said, snickering. "You are so tired. I would not like to see you fall into a dead faint in the foyer. Blakeley might not find you until morning."

"And your brandy is better than mine," Bey added.

"That, too," Zajac agreed.

In the darkened foyer, a footman in the livery of the comtesse arose from a shadowed bench at the approach of the young men. Toad looked back and forth between his friends and the footman, running a hand through his hair, wondering if he could pretend Lord Abersham wasn't at home.

"My Lord Abersham?" the man asks, looking right at Toad. "A message for you."

No. Clearly not. He held out a reluctant hand for whatever the man was there to deliver. A folded note reeking of jasmine and lavender. His friends all smirked at him.

"Open it, Abersham. Is she dismissing you so quickly? She must have been dissatisfied."

He shoved the note into his pocket and stormed up the stairs. His friends followed him, as he had expected, and he let them come up all eight flights, then raised his voice as much as he dared at this time of the morning, with neighbours to consider.

"Go home and study, you unconscionable, filthy-minded rogues, and leave me alone!" He took great pleasure in shutting the door in their faces.

On reading the note, his back to the door, the corner of his lips turned up. She hoped he might meet her in the darkened garden at the king's rout in three days. Excellent. And he was not being disloyal to Sally. Not at all. And she had promised to keep their — not an affaire; encounters, that was the word — she had promised to keep their encounters secret, so no harm would be done.

Bey and Zajac pounded on the door, shouting for Abersham to let them at the brandy, surely waking everyone in the building.

Toad had only to gesture to Blakeley in the hall before the butler opened the door, his foot holding firm behind it in case they tried to force their way in, and said gravely, "I'm afraid Lord Abersham is not at home. Would you like to leave a card?"

Piero laughed aloud. "Well played, Abersham. Come, gentlemen. The ladies of Paris are waiting, and I cadged a bottle of brandy from the comtesse's house before we left."

"Piero," Bey was heard to ask as they turn away, "now that the comtesse has had Abersham, do you think she might like to sample the rest of the group? I'm willing."

"Perhaps. She is known for her... appetite. And she prefers her men young."

Toad resisted the urge to throw the door open and growl at them to stay away from the comtesse. It was certainly not his place to be jealous. And he would be damned if he gave them the chance to push in, now that he had gotten rid of them.

Bey must have stopped on the stairs, for the next comment was just as clear. "I heard she prefers her lovers two at a time. But there are three of us. Should we try our luck?"

Toad snarled and turned away from the door.

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