Chapter Twenty-Nine, Part 2

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With a wave of his hand, the king discounted Toad's words. "I shall praise Wellbridge for his foresight when next he appears before me. And his lady, too, for I know it must have been her mandate. Your father hasn't the nerve to defy his queen or his class so thoroughly, but all men should have a trade. How is Bella, Abersham? Is she well? Does that reprobate, Wellbridge, keep her happy?"

Though the king asked him the same thing every time he received Toad at Court, for the first time, Toad actually considered the response, instead of replying by rote, "She is both well and happy, Sire."

The truth was, he had no idea if his mother was well or happy, only that she did not seem unhappy in her frequent letters, other than berating Toad for not writing, and supposed worry over the duke's health. Toad was sure her concern was entirely invented to encourage him to write to his father. But why should he, when the duke could not be bothered to write his son, except brief quarterly notes from his secretary, sent with Toad's allowance? All he ever said was that Toad should not think to besmirch the noble House of Wellbridge, nor try to return home until after Almyra's presentation, preferably after her advantageous marriage, lest he be banned from England for good. His father was insupportable.

"She is both well and happy, Sire."

"Good. Good," the king said with a distracted air. "You will send my regards when next you write to her. And to your father, of course."

"I shall write with all due haste to relay your sentiment, Your Majesty."

"Excellent. And what of you, d'Alvieri?" the king asked, his face set in a manner he had never shown to Toad. "Has your brother armed his peasants and set them loose against his friends and neighbours?"

With another low bow, as though it might help him out of the conte's unpopular opinions, Piero answered, "My brother is well, Your Majesty. And our peasants contented with their lot."

The king grunted. "It is good to keep ones peasants contented. And to have a trade to fall back on if they decide against you, despite your best efforts on their behalf."

Piero bowed again. "I fear, Your Majesty, that our father, rest his soul, did not agree with your wisdom. Which might be why Arturo agrees with you. You will recall, of course, he shares my father's contrary nature."

The king laughed unexpectedly, waving his hand at Piero. "Yes. Yes, he does. I will not, then, hold your father's ill-advised opinions against you."

"I cannot adequately express my appreciation for your forbearance, Sire." Piero nodded and took a step back.

With suddenly sharp eyes, the king turned back to Toad, asking, "Will you offer for the hand of the Comtesse de Lodève? She is in need of a husband, before she tears my Court apart by her injudicious affaires."

Toad's mouth dropped open. He hadn't thought word of their interludes had travelled so far as the throne room, though he shouldn't be surprised. "Er... Your Majesty... while I have the utmost respect for madame la comtesse, we are not... that is to say..."

The king laughed. "You, too, have done with her? I cannot find a gentleman to overlook her insatiable appetites and unbearable temper." With a chuckle, he added, "I should not torment you at the thought. You are far too young to control her excesses... and too English."

With a raised brow, Toad explained, "Perhaps you are not aware I am... rather... promised. In a manner of speaking."

"Indeed? I had not heard. To whom?"

Piero choked on whatever he thought he would say, and Toad very nearly followed suit. Toad should not speak Haverford's name at Court. He should never, ever mention his godfather again, if he could help it, especially not in connection to a non-existent betrothal to Sally. But his father had impressed on him from childhood to never dissemble with a monarch, and the one time he had tried—to avoid punishment for breaking Prinny's vase when he was six— Prinnyt had ruined his entire life with that ridiculous codicil leaving his lands in his father's hands until he was 25. Still, Haverford would come to Paris to throttle Toad himself if he heard his godson had claimed Sally publicly before a king.

"While I do not wish to frustrate Your Majesty's curiosity, equally, I should not like to cause upset to the lady by revealing our... secret love."

"A secret love. How intriguing. So, that will be the reason the ladies at Court speak of you with such tortured longing?"

With just a bit of a self-satisfied smirk, Toad demurred, "Surely not, Your Majesty, when Lord Piero keeps them all so well occupied?"

Louis Phillipe guffawed at the obvious false modesty and at Piero's notorious exploits. "I shall leave you your privacy, Abersham, out of respect for the lady's honour, but I have marked your defiance." The king belied his chastisement with an ironic grin that removed ten years from his face. "Now, go, both of you. I have other matters to attend than your bedsport. Or lack thereof."

Toad bowed low once more and backed out of the throne room, Piero close behind. As they were leaving the palace, Linette tried once more to grasp his sleeve. "Abersham, wait."

He pulled away and raised his voice above the din of the crowds. "How dare you, Madame? I have not made you free with my person or my name, and you have shamed me before the king. I have nothing more to say to you." When she tried to grab at Piero next, he deliberately turned his back on her before the large crowd, and they both stalked away through the sound of yet more buzzing gossip. If he were lucky, the entire episode with Linette would get back to London and Sally as fast as word of the original affair.

"She will have her revenge, Piero."

"Because we do not wish to warm her bed? I think not. She will move on to the next man stupid enough to be taken in by her blandishments."

"You were taken in only a few months ago."

"Not so completely as you. And as I said, I have changed." With a sly smile, Piero added, "It is easy to leave off flirtations with a woman when one sees a friend foolish enough to fall victim."

"Hold your tongue, Piero, or I will throw you out of my apartment and let you stay on the streets tonight."

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