Chapter Twenty Seven: Part 2

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An hour and a half later, they arrived in the city center.

"I wish only to drink," Arturo said, climbing down from the carriage. "But if you insist upon a brothel as the reward for your performance, Piero, I will take you and your friend to one you will never forget. They have first-rate liquor for me, and clean beds for you, and the girls will do things you never knew you wanted."

Piero's grin reached from ear to ear now. "You will take us to the—"

"Yes. Turn left there."

Toad's smile was slower, warier. "I think I'd prefer to drink with you, Arturo. I have no need of a woman tonight."

Arturo took a step back. "You will not partake when I am paying?"

Piero sniggered, "Abersham has been ruined for all women by the Comtesse de Lodève."

With a smirk, Toad only offered, "Ruined for all women, at any rate, although I will never claim Linette had a hand in it."

"Her hand," Piero chucked, "her lips, her fine, white—"

Arturo smacked his brother in the back of the head, and Toad punched him in the arm at precisely the same moment, stifling the rest of his observation. To Arturo, Toad said, "I will let you buy my drinks."

Arturo laughed. "So, I shall, while you explain yourself." He reached over at the next doorway, using his sword-cane to arrest Toad's and Piero's steps and rap against the door. It took Piero less than three minutes to choose a woman, make her giggle, and escort her to a bedchamber. Arturo and Toad remained in a small study, alone, with as fine a selection in the decanters as the conte kept at home—very fine indeed.

"There are dozens of women out there for hire, Abersham. You can have any of them. Hell, you can have two."

Toad filled a glass. "No need."

"Why not? You are a young man. You have not taken vows." Arturo chose a different decanter and poured for himself.

"Nor have you. Why have you not chosen a harlot for the evening?"

"Pah. I am the conte. I can do whatever I like."

"Who is the girl you hope you have not lost, Arturo? The one who has your heart?"

His friend looked up sharply.

Toad held up a hand. "I ask because I have one, too. I should have eloped with her a year ago, though admittedly, I would not be here now to enjoy your company." Toad tossed back his brandy on one swallow and poured another. "You said you wanted to get drunk tonight. You have not even made a start. I imagine you will need more than one before you can speak of her."

"Dona Chiara Fratini. I have no trouble speaking of her." He downed his drink. "It is a matter of keeping myself sober after I do. And since I do not mean to end the night sober..." He poured another drink and held up his glass. "I should have run away with her five years ago, the night we... promised ourselves."

With an ironic twist to his mouth, Toad said, "Certainly it cannot be gentlemanly to suggest we might have promised ourselves in similar fashion? Were you caught, same as I?"

Arturo chortled. "Forgive me, my friend. It should not be something to amuse me, but have you never learned to lock a door?"

Toad narrowed his eyes and sipped his drink.

Finally, with a last chuckle, Arturo answered Toad's question. "Nothing so dramatic as in flagrante delicto. The marriage contract was made between our fathers when we were but children, to join our lands. We were much older, of course, when we fell in love. My father has been gone a dozen years, and hers died two years ago, so I am now negotiating to marry my oldest friend's sister. But, my views on unification are out of favor with the nobility, you might imagine, so her brother has taken me for an enemy and does not believe he must honor an agreement he did not make."

"My father is a reformer. It causes him no end of trouble in The Lords."

"It would." Arturo shook his head and poured another drink, refusing to take the conversation into the uncomfortable territory of Toad and the duke.

"To the unfortunate Chiara," Toad toasted to break the silence, "who is deprived of your love and comfort."

"To my Chiara." Arturo drank down his third glass and poured a fourth, and wandered to a seat. "Who is your young lady? Have you drunk enough to say her name?"

Toad lifted his glass. "Lady Sarah Grenford; my Sally."

"Is she beautiful, your Sally?"

"She is; she has made such a mark in Society she is immortalized on cards in the print shop windows. But if she were not, it would make no matter. She is everything to me." He dug in the pocket of his coat and pulled out a copy of the card in question.

"The Duke's Delightful Daughter?" Arturo asked with a raised brow.

"Haverford."

"Haverford?"

"You know him?"

"I know of him. What nobleman in Europe does not? You are in love with Haverford's daughter? And planned to steal her away? You are a braver man than I had considered."

Looking down at the card, Arturo added, "Though it is easy to see why."

"And it isn't even the best likeness." He pulled a watch fob from his pocket and pressed a hidden fastening to open the secret locket, revealing a miniature he'd had made just before he left for Cambridge, and passed it to Arturo. "I have loved her since we were children. I admit, I am terrified her father will marry her to another man before I can return to England."

Arturo handed the locket back. "I understand." With a sigh, he added, "You are right. She is very beautiful. Nearly as lovely as Chiara." He forced a grin with a sardonic twist and raised his drink, clinking his glass against Toad's. "To Sally and Chiara, to whom we should now be wed. May their guardians see our devotion in a new light in the coming year."    

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