Chapter Thirty Nine

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Paperwork and ledgers sitting open on the table, Toad had stopped work momentarily when the porter brought dinner to his rooms at his club. His graduation ceremonies were still three days away, but he had tricked Captain Hawley into telling him which ship his parents would take, so he knew they had been in Paris two days, and he had managed to stay out of their sight thus far.

But, to his surprise, they had brought the Haverfords with them. Not Sally, worse luck. Now, added to the need to see his mother and sister, the imperative to argue his case with his godparents. Tomorrow. He would visit them in their hotel tomorrow, arriving without an announcement, so his father didn't have time to prepare an attack.

With any luck, the doorman at the club would remain vigilant tonight about keeping out non-members, especially after what Toad had paid him to bar the door to any random English dukes or duchesses wandering by.

Before he could do more than pour a glass of watered wine to drink with his supper, Piero knocked and slipped in the door, closing and locking it behind him. Toad raised a brow at Piero's sheepish look and uncharacteristic silence.

"I did not wish to... er... your uncle... he threatened to withhold funds..."

Toad let out a deep sigh. "Firthley is not so bad, but say you haven't brought my father."

Piero didn't reply, but the rising flush on his face was answer enough.

"I will not see him on his terms, d'Alvieri! I will not! We have discussed this!"

From behind the door, accompanied by a fist pounding against it so hard the lock rattled, his uncle's voice raised, as angry as he had ever heard Firthley. "Abersham! You will open this door this minute and admit me and your father, or there will be no boon from me upon your graduation! Do you understand me? I have lost all patience with you, boy."

At a whisper, Piero said, "You must allow him entrance, Abersham. All our plans are for naught if he declines to pay for them."

Gritting his teeth, squaring his jaw, and trying to singe Piero's hair with a look, Toad crossed to the door, growling under his breath, "You will regret this, d'Alvieri, if it is the last thing I ever do."

As soon as he unlocked and opened the door, Piero slid back out again as fast as he could, while Firthley and Toad's father stormed in, stiff-necked and scowling.

"I should not be forced to subterfuge to lay eyes on my heir," his father began, leaning on a cane as he stopped a few feet into the room.

"I should not be forced to subterfuge to avoid men who disdain me," Toad retorted.

Wellbridge had aged. His hair was fully silver and thinner, and his face was faded, his skin papery, wearing spectacles he had only needed for reading before. His shoulders were slightly stooped, and he was fully a half-head shorter than he had been when Toad left England, the top of his head reaching only as high as Toad's shoulder.

Toad experienced a moment's qualm when he realized his mother's concerns about his father's health had been well-founded, and not just a ploy to gain sympathy. But before he could rescind his rudeness, Firthley interrupted.

"Your father does not disdain you, Abersham. We've made an enormous effort to travel here to celebrate your many accomplishments, and we wish only to mark the occasion with you."

"Alas, I find I am too busy for celebration," Toad said, gesturing to the open ledgers and maps on the table. "I'm afraid my work must take precedence to parties, as I must shortly make my way in the world without such support as a nobleman's heir can typically expect."

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