Chapter Twenty-Nine, Part 1

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Piero jabbed Toad in the ribs with his elbow and gestured with his head toward a woman parting the crowds in the State Rooms at the Tuileries.

Toad groaned. "Only one night of freedom in Paris. Must I see her? I was told she wouldn't be here."

"Miss a party at the palace? Perish the thought," Piero laughed as the Comtesse de Lodève made her way toward them.

The blasted woman would not leave Toad alone. Her footman had appeared at his front door three times while he had been in Italy to inquire about whether Lord Abersham would be back in Paris for the holidays, Blakeley had told him, and was, of course, turned away.

But now, here she was, at this ridiculous party, which he would not be attending at all if his mother didn't insist he pay his respects to the king each time he visited Paris. In fact, he would not even be in Paris if Bechand hadn't brought Toad and Piero with him to watch him negotiate a large contract for parts for the shipyard refit, and force them to do the same with a handful of smaller suppliers. Then, miraculously, since they had saved the shipyard money, Bechand allowed them one night to do whatever they liked before they all returned to Marseilles at first light.

Linette sidled up to them as they mingled among the crowds, Toad hoping maybe the festivities would forestall the need to make his usual bow to the king.

Toad nodded shortly at his former paramour, turning away to peruse the other ladies in the ballroom. Not because he was interested—he wasn't in the least—but because it might finally anger her enough to stay away. He had hoped the pitched battle before he left for Marseilles would have done the trick, and she would find another willing victim in almost six months, but she was apparently one of those women who wanted most what she couldn't have.

"Abersham. I do hope you will disregard our little tiff and pay a call while you are in Paris."

"Sadly, I will not be in Paris long, so I will not be able to attend you before I must leave again. I do hope you will forgive."

With a hand on his arm, sure to give the impression they had resumed their affaire, she chided, "Abersham... you must pardon a lady for her little foibles. It is the gentlemanly thing to do."

Yanking his arm away with the broadest possible gesture, he hardened his face and replied. "You threw the contents of your dressing table at my head with the clear intent to brain me. I hardly think that a 'foible,' Madame."

Narrowing her eyes, not deigning to respond when she clearly could not win, and with a bare nod at him, she slithered over to Piero, tracing a fingertip down his shoulder.

"Madame le Comtesse. You are looking beautiful, as always." Piero took her fingers and kissed the air above them, keeping her at arm's length, and when he dropped her hand, stepped back.

"My Lord Piero, it has been so dull in Paris while you have been off learning to be a stevedore." Glancing at Toad, who would be pleased to be completely ignored, she snapped, "What a pity you needed to take your friend with you when you left, Abersham."

Toad sipped his drink and refused to be baited. He didn't think she would cause a scene in the middle of a party, but he hadn't thought she would throw things at him in a fit of pique, either.

She edged closer to Piero, twisting a finger into his curly hair, as he leaned back to pull himself away. "Have you not missed me, my lord?"

"I have longed to return to Paris, madame la comtesse." He turned away from her hand running over his shoulder and down his arm.

"I do hope you will pay a call, my lord."

"While I am honoured at the invitation, madame, I would not like for anyone at Court to suffer an incorrect impression of our relationship."

Piero grasped her hand and once more bent over it, subtly pushing her back. With her lips fallen open in shock, she yanked her hand away. "You have been listening to Abersham."

"No, Madame. Not at all. Lord Abersham has never said a word about you, but to deny any rumoured affaire."

"I find that difficult to believe." Her glances were now beginning to singe Toad's hair.

"Nevertheless, it is true."

"I do not understand what has changed, Lord Piero."

"That is simple, Madame. I have." Piero executed a neat bow and walked away, Toad following behind, resisting the urge to look back and smirk at her.

Before they could get far enough away to lose her in the crowds, a footman appeared to call Toad and Piero to present themselves before the king.

Given the livery of their escort, they did not even have to push through the crowd to make it to Louis Phillipe's throne. The elderly king greeted them with a nod and a small smile. Toad had learned very young, as a favored godson of King George IV, how to keep royalty amused, and Piero had the natural ability to amuse everyone. They both made the lowest possible bows, and Toad began, "Votre Majesté, as always, you honour me, and I bring the best of wishes from the Duke and Duchess of Wellbridge."

"Ah, yes, Abersham," Louis Phillipe said with the slightest smirk. "Our marquis who will become a common sailor. Some of my nobles want me to scold you for diminishing your father's name and the entire nobility of Europe by embracing the morals of a shopkeeper?"

"Surely Your Majesty would not wish me to dishonour my father's own command by leaving the school he has chosen?"

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