Chapter Thirty-Five: Part 1

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Toad and Piero sat comfortably silent in the lounge of their supper club in Paris, nursing after-dinner port, smoking and daydreaming. It had been more than four months since they had spoken, just before Toad had left for his shipboard rotation, then taken his family frigate from Paris during the August break from school. The ship had been captained by Hawley, tasked by the duchess to keep Toad from trying for a quick run to England, and he told all and sundry he was vacationing in the Greek Isles.

In reality, he was investigating an opportunity he had been asked to keep close to the vest until he decided on his course. And now he had, with only two days left of their break before they would return to Marseilles and the shipyard for one more term.

"My uncle, the Marquess of Firthley, has written to me, which was the purpose of my trip, with all due apologies for keeping it from you until now. He wishes to build up his family's shipping concern, which has been deserted for twenty-five years, and plans to buy a fleet while I finish school. He has made a wager with my father that he can overtake my mother's business in the Mediterranean. If he is serious, there is money for all of us."

"If your uncle is serious," Piero replied, "he is taking a ridiculous chance on a bet he cannot win. Your mother will crush him. She already crushed him, twenty years ago, before he even thought to buy the ships."

"To be fair, Firthley has been thinking of reorganizing his family's shipping line since Napoleon commandeered it in 1802."

Piero dug his pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket. "Bey and Zajac should be here soon, if you do not wish to repeat yourself. They spent every evening of the break gaming or wenching or both, while you have been hard at work securing your future, and I have been stuck at the castello."

"And you have not lost a penny at the tables, nor seduced a maiden in my absence?" Toad teased. "I thought you wished to defy your brother, not please him."

Piero tipped his hand back and forth; some, not all his evenings had been spent in dissipation. "People change, Abersham. If I wish to be free of my brother, saving my money is more prudent than losing it to degenerates or spending it on foppish attire. And I have sworn off maidens. You will never repeat this to Arturo, but my brother is right. It is inexcusable to steal their virtue and leave them unmarriageable, no matter what recompense I offer."

"I am sure Arturo appreciates your newly minted restraint."

"I am receiving my full allowance again. For now." With a sidelong glance, Piero opined, "This is why your father and my brother are trying to mend things, you know. The more we manage our own lives, the more they will press an allowance upon us. Reward and leash."

"Excellent. I can take the duke's money as recompense for the tether, and leave his advice about my life to rot."

"Just so. But do not mistake their generosity. My brother pays me an allowance so he can cut it when my mother gives him trouble over me inheriting without children, and that cannot be long, since he continues to refuse her command he marry and provide her grandchildren. Your father wishes to keep you from attaining English shores and to punish you for defying him."

"Then it makes more sense to have my own income than to rely upon His Supreme Stateliness."

"You should show more respect for your father, Abersham. You would have more money if you did."

Toad couldn't argue that point, so he just ignored it. "Firthley has not wanted to spend the time away from his family to return to Greece; my Aunt Charlotte would make his life miserable if he did. His letter said he does not wish to leave this undone when he reaches the end of his life. He is almost seventy, and he has the means—more than the means—so what is the harm in helping him? But he requires a plan from me, which is why I went to Greece, to see what is there and what will need to be rebuilt. I only kept it from you at his request, so he would not face undue competition if I decided against it."

"It is your right to keep any secret you like, but you are only considering this to put yourself in competition with your parents."

"Two birds, one stone." He had to prove he could independently support a wife. And if it annoyed Wellbridge into the bargain, what was the harm in it?

Toad refilled Piero's glass and offered him another cigar. While Piero lit it, Toad continued, "I've written to Arturo; he will invest if you do."

"My brother is a manipulative stronzino."

"It goes with the title; just wait until I am a duke."

Piero laughed. "I shudder to think."

"Will you join me? I am not certain I can manage the enterprise without you. Bey and Zajac, too. I hope to write you all into the plan. You can invest with your brawn, not with your purse, and Arturo cannot consider it working for a wage if you are an owner."

Piero shrugged and poured more port from the decanter on the occasional table between them. "Arturo will consider it anything that paints me in a poor light."

Toad reached over and punched his friend in the shoulder. "He will not. Your attitude about your brother is outdated. He is proud of you; can you not tell by your reinstated allowance? You must give over your antipathy for Arturo."

"When you give over yours for the duke."

Toad ignored that, too. If Wellbridge stretched out a hand, he'd take it, but all he'd extended so far was a stick. "Arturo is trying to mend things between you."

"And I shall let him. As soon as he stops trying to run my life."

"Would this opportunity not tweak his nose a bit? Would it not provide more freedom? It would give you something to do after we graduate that does not involve Arturo, and does not require you sit around the castle listening to your sisters talk of fashion and suitors."

Piero shuddered. "Mama will begin the husband hunt for Maddalena next spring." With a smirk, he glanced over at Toad. "You will wish to avoid the whole of Italia until she is married, for you are at the top of Mama's list."

"Delightful."

"Yes, well, I have given you fair warning. And you may stop turning up your nose at my sisters. They are not your Sally, but they are lovely girls, and you would be lucky to be wed to one."

Once finished amusing himself at Toad's expense, Piero said, "I think I will take your uncle's offer, but only if Arturo will not be an investor. I prefer to make my own way."

Toad agreed, "Very well. Not your brother, nor the Dreadful Duke and Demanding Duchess." 

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