Chapter Thirty-Seven: Part 1

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Toad sat up in bed at the sound of Blakeley entering his room before the sun rose. "What's this?"

Setting a tray down on the table, Blakely explained in a lowered voice, "You have been working like a swabbie for weeks, my lord. It is your half-day today, and I believed you in need of a reminder of your station."

Toad snorted. His station, indeed. The only reason he was taking his half-day in the morning was that two ships would dock this afternoon, and all hands would be needed to help unload and inventory the cargo. He would be working a full day, well into the night.

Blakeley transferred a stack of letters to his breakfast tray. "You returned too late last evening to be bothered with your correspondence, so I took the liberty of bringing it with your breakfast. I've brought coffee and a selection of pastries with your eggs." Blakeley paused as he picked up a pair of trousers from the floor and folded them. "Your mother has written."

Toad groaned and rubbed a hand across his face. "So, that explains the indulgence. The carrot before the stick. Can you not burn it before I find out what torture she will inflict next?"

"If you wish the correspondence of the House of Wellbridge burned, my lord, I suggest you do it yourself." Blakeley dropped the trousers on a chair, turned on his heel, and stalked out. Toad really must do something about a new manservant who was on his payroll, not his father's.

Downing half a cup of black coffee at a gulp, he sorted through the letters. One from his banker, confirming an appointment, another from his solicitor, confirming receipt of Firthley's paperwork for Toad's signature. Finally, he poured another cup of coffee, shifting beneath the bed tray to stretch his hip, and tugged a sealed envelope from the bottom of the stack of papers. His mother's hand stared back at him.

He waved his butter knife through the candle flame and then slid it under the wax seal, popping open the weekly letter to which he had been sending perfunctory replies since Captain Hawley began to force him, and no reply at all for weeks before that. His father had stopped writing after two unanswered letters three years ago. Since then, he sent only curt dictates through his secretary about Toad's quarterly allowance, but the duchess still continued, growing testier by the week.

My dear, stubborn mule of a boy,

While I appreciate that Captain Hawley's intervention has resulted in more news of your daily life and the occasional note even to your father, I find myself exasperated by your refusal to discuss your plans upon graduation, which is far too close now to ignore.

Exactly as planned, Toad thought. He and his partners in the new venture had decided it would be unwise to speak of the Grecian shipping line to any of their relatives until they were in operation, or at least on the verge of it, lest they be stopped before they could start. With the exception of Uncle Firthley, of course, who agreed with the code of silence, especially from Aunt Charlotte or Toad's cousin Julia, both of whom would run to Toad's mother as fast as their feet could carry them. Not that his life was the concern of his parents, anyway. He was a man now, near fully educated, and entitled to his privacy. And if the Duke and Duchess of Disapproval wanted to know what he was about, they might have thought to ask before now.

You cannot think to return home immediately.

Of course not. Heaven forfend he be welcomed in his own childhood home. His eventual estate, in fact, as soon as he inherited.

Your father has decided to accommodate Almyra's constant appeals, and move your sister's presentation up one season, as he is feeling his years, and she displays the sort of maturity, dignity, and social awareness so lacking in his heir. As such, we cannot risk your notoriety returning from France with you to ruin her prospects altogether.

He was not even to be allowed to attend Almyra's come-out? They would let loose the rakes of London upon his sister without a man in the family equipped to defend her? But for a stubborn old guiser too aged and slow to meet an opponent, she would be helpless against every fortune-hunter and... virgin-hunter in England! He threw down the foolscap, downed the rest of his coffee, and shoveled half a croissant into his mouth, chewing as through he had his father's jugular under his teeth.

They could not keep him away forever without changing the laws of primogeniture, which even the Duke of Bloody Wellbridge could not accomplish. And even if he could, Toad was Baron Harburn, with his own seat in The Lords in a couple of months, and Toadstone Hall and the Brickdale estate were both his as soon as he turned 25. The Paris apartment would be deeded to him in a few weeks, which had been confirmed with his English and French solicitors, and he would be damned if he would welcome anyone to it—to any of his houses—who was loath to have him in theirs.

That said, you should know Haverford seems to be softening just slightly. He has consented, theoretically, to the idea of your eventual return, and has not entirely overruled the idea of you courting his daughter when that day comes—closely chaperoned at all times, of course, and with the caveat that the rumors we hear from France are proven untrue.

Toad rolled his eyes. Haverford could not be trusted for a moment where Sally was concerned. Nor could his parents, if it came to that. Haverford had likely just been trying to keep himself from a curtain lecture by Aunt Cherry or Aunt Eleanor. Or the Duchess of Wellbridge. How did they think he had achieved the results he had if he was so dissipated he could not be trusted near his own sister? Didn't they know that most of the scandal-broth was lies?

While I am certain such calumnies cannot truly be representative of your behavior, your father and Haverford are not so confident, especially since your incarceration and the unsavoury stories of your behavior with the Comtesse de Lodeve—and others.

Wincing, Toad cursed the comtesse roundly for her part in his continued exile. Linette was an intolerable bitch, and he was a deuced fool to have been taken in by her blandishments. It was time he wrote to Sally with an apology, instead of ignoring the subject altogether, as he had been. He should not have to be chided by his mother to do honour to his future wife.

I do not know if it will please you that Sally still pines for you, my dear boy, as you have so thoroughly refused to speak of her to me or your father, and no longer write to your Aunt Cherry. I am anxious for the day I can see you joined to her in truth.

Toad preened just enough to catch himself at it. Of course he was pleased she was still waiting, though he could have guessed it from her letters. But as for his mother's false sentiments, he would believe it when he received word that a Wellbridge ring had been given to his Sally, a betrothal notice had been placed in the Times, and he had been asked—politely—to come home.

However, that day will not be today, nor even this year.

"You begin to repeat yourself, Your Grace," he muttered.

I am positive we can find some time to speak of this further outside your father's company when he and I repair to Paris for your graduation ceremonies.

Perhaps. He could hardly ignore his own mother and sister, though he would gladly forgo the company of his father, and the inevitable lectures addressed to the boy he'd once been. Come to think, he should reserve rooms at his club while they were in France, so he could control and prepare for any meetings. The concierge downstairs would never keep out anyone ducal, but the doorman at his club could intimidate anyone—even The Most Noble Nicolas Nettlesome Northope. Toad would love to write and tell his father to keep his crooked Roman nose out of Toad's life, but it was likely have the opposite effect. In many ways, it would be better if they didn't come. He had to take the opportunity to convince at least his mother that he was a man grown, so that she would truly support his cause with Haverford, but he would be damned if he would let that man stay in his apartment, no matter how many empty rooms he had available.

We will not impose ourselves at the apartment, as it will then be yours, as promised, and I would rather make other arrangements than provide you the opportunity to turn your own father away to make some ridiculous point.

He narrowed his eyes at his mother .

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