Chapter Twenty-Three, Part 2

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Next in the stack of endless misery, the missive that had convinced him to send a note to Piero and his brother, accepting their invitation to celebrate the end of term, if not the end of exams. Dinner and drinks and whatever debauchery could be found, and two more messages to Zajac and Bey, inviting them to join the party. Exams in two days or not, he could hardly spend the evening studying once he had read his mother's answer to Toad's request that she use her influence to extend his break at Christmas long enough for him to celebrate with his family at Wellstone.

This would be the first Yuletide of his life without Sal. To accomplish an invitation from the duke, he had finally forced himself to respond to the duchess's regular letters, as much as he wished to keep ignoring her, and had worked like a madman to ensure marks—and shipyard profits—high enough to make such a request.

I am informed by Monsieur Bechand that he and your other professors are very pleased with your progress, and so, of course, am I. Your father is enormously proud, making much of you at his club and in the House of Lords, though I do recognize a cete of badgers will swim the English Channel before you believe it. Even Haverford has ceased his infernal complaints about your wickedness, for which your Aunt Cherry is duly grateful.

All of which meant nothing when she went on to refuse him. His Malicious Magnificence had denied the request, of course, and his mother had stepped between them to try to soften the blow. Not that she could.

Even so, my dear boy, I cannot think it wise for you to seek special treatment, nor absent yourself from your studies, when you have finally begun to show the sort of responsibility and attention to your duties that will serve you best as the man of honour I know you can be. And you may not blame this decision on your father, for I have not mentioned your request to him, for fear he would find a way to take it badly and rescind the order to send you one hundred pounds as a Christmas gift.

She went on to try to mitigate the damage his father had caused. The use of the family frigate, Blakely sent on leave and a temporary replacement who did not report to the duke, the suggestion that he travel to Florence with Piero for the holiday. None of it helped. He snorted at the last lines, and took an elbow from his unwanted neighbour, who swore at him in an argot so thick he couldn't understand it.

I wish you the best of holidays, sweet boy, and shall miss you sorely. I anxiously await the day you return a man grown, prepared to take on the rigors and triumphs of your life to come.

— Bella Wellbridge

His mother hadn't even mentioned Sally. She apparently wanted a clear field for Elfingham and Longford and Stocke... and Gildeforte! Gildeforte?!

So be it! It wasn't bad enough she could have given up any of four shipyards in France, but chose the one farthest from England. No, now she would ensure Sal was well and truly wed before Toad could set foot back in England. And Sal—if Lady Sarah wanted to dance her damned slippers through with Elf, that bloody troll—any of her ruddy unmarried cousins—she could have them.

Getting on a ship and sailing away sounded like an excellent idea, come to think of it.

In his continued—increasing—disgust at his mother's refusal to see reason, he ripped her letter in half, then half again, and crumpled the lot before he shoved the ball of foolscap back into his pocket.

Finally, slowly, with his head leaned back against the wall so he wouldn't have to look, he unfolded the letter that had sent him out for the evening hours before he finally met his friends, in search of as much brandy as he could drink and any entertainment he could find to distract him—any entertainment without come-hither eyes and plump, enticing curves.

Tears welled up when he finally looked down at the words he had read three times before he could believe they were real. Sally's familiar hand, giving him the news he least wished to hear: he had been right to assume his affaire with the comtesse could not be kept secret in a royal Court, and that the gossip would travel.

If you wish to have an affair with a woman old enough to be your mother, whose morals are no better than the alley cats you apparently introduced into her salon, you are free to do so. We have not exchanged vows.

"We might as well have exchanged vows, my love," he whispered, too softly to attract another blow. "I should have carried you away with me. I am so sorry, Sally."

And he was. Sorrier than he had ever been. He had repented of his decision only a few weeks into his interlude with Linette. The comtesse was exciting, to be sure, but far too demanding—jealous of his time studying and with his friends, frustrated by the limitations she had helped him design, and Sir Frogmore's response when she tried to breach them, and of any mention he made of Sally. He had used his imminent move to Marseilles to end things, which had resulted in a battle royale; the sort of Gallic tantrum Toad had always thought his father and godfather were exaggerating. How he wished they had been.

Thankfully, Sally's letter had continued:

Though these rumours are disturbing, David, and incongruous with the events you described in your last letter, I do not believe them, truly. For why would you mention the wager with your friends to me unless the cats were of the four-legged variety?

But that is not the story making the rounds in London. I will not dignify the lies with a more detailed description, but if that story is false, which it must be, I daresay the story about the comtesse is likewise invented.

He could kill whomever had told her about Linette. At least she didn't believe it to be true—or so she said. As he read the letter for the fourth time, though, he began to wonder if she were not so understanding as her words indicated. She had never acted like his exploits were anything but the larks they were. But he had never promised to marry her, then left her to the not-so-tender mercies of the London Season. He had never so sincerely asked for her trust, then betrayed it.

I feel I should congratulate you for throwing yourself into the Paris scene, even if I do not admire your choices. At least you have shown the London busybodies how little you regard their chatter and made your mark on two of the royal Courts of Europe, without your parents' interference. Now that you are in Marseilles, I daresay you will find entertainment there, even if you will not have the king and his hangers-on to try to impress with your performance.

He winced; now that he was sobering up, he could hear an edge to her tone that was most unlike her. He had caught it in the last lines the first three times he read the letter, but now he couldn't read a word of the rest without hearing her berating him for his callous decisions. He had hurt her, deeply, and he had been too drunk—on brandy or lust or relief his body hadn't failed him—to even notice. He was the worst man alive. He wished he weren't in gaol without a flask.

He dug in his pocket. "Does anyone have any brandy?" he called out. "I have two francs for anyone who will give me a drink."

No one answered except the lumbering fool who had threatened him earlier, who now made good with a kick to his thigh.

"Fermez la bouche, bâtard. Trying to sleep."

I cannot predict what the future may hold. I wish you well, Toad. I will try to hold to the hope, despite the comtesse and her like, that you will return to me and that I will be able to wait for you. No matter what happens, I will always be your friend.

As he read through the last paragraph a second time, unaccustomed tears rising to his eyes, but not spilling over, he heard, "Monsieur le marquis?" He jumped up and straightened his clothes in a futile attempt to make himself presentable. Someone had finally come to escort him out of here, and the man treated him with ever-so-slight deference, which soothed his bruised pride in a way that would make his father proud and his mother scold.

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