Chapter Forty, Part 2

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"I would have told my father, Sir. This and more; so many things I have done to try to prove myself and make them—make you, all of you—proud of me. I wanted to... But... he was... we were... we each bring out the other's worst traits."

"You each bring out exactly the same awful traits in each other and bludgeon yourselves with them until you bleed. And he is fifty years better at it than you, and holds the purse strings." Haverford knew exactly what had happened. He had known it after only the first few words of Nick's diatribe after he returned from Abersham's club.

Nick had been breathing steam even before he left the hotel, had ignored his wife's entreaties to let her see their son alone first, and Cherry's admonishment not to ambush Abersham at his club when he clearly wanted to maintain his distance. He had dismissed Haverford's suggestion that Nick meet his son in a public venue, preferably with his mother and sister in attendance. Firthley had only blackmailed the d'Alvieri pup at Nick's insistence, against everyone else's better judgment, after Almyra had broken down in tears.

"Your father felt you were neglectful, not attending your mother and sister when they first arrived in Paris."

Abersham flushed. "Yes, Your Grace. He said."

Haverford pushed a bit harder. "I agree with him."

Abersham swallowed hard. "Yes, Sir. You agree with him, because he is right. I was wrong. I–" he bit his lip again, and looked down at his feet. "I lost my temper, Uncle Haverford, like I always do with him."

Haverford had not expected complete capitulation. "So I heard," he said, managing to maintain his frown.

"I wish to make amends if I can, but I can't think how. Any overture I make will seem as though I am begging for my quarterly income, and it is not that. I swear it. I can support myself. He... he isn't well, Uncle Haverford, is he?"

Haverford could not ignore the boy's concern. He motioned for him to sit down. "He has had several bad turns, Abersham. Your mother fears for him, as do I. She said she told you so in her letters."

"I thought she was just meddling... And I was hurt... he never wrote me; only his blasted secretary, and never even a personal message. I thought it was spite."

"It was spite. But also, his eyes are failing him, Abersham, and his hand shakes. He doesn't write anything now, if he can order it done. He is ashamed of it, and didn't want you to know he was diminished. And it is easier to be angry with you than whatever outside forces are influencing his ill health."

"I should have been more... I am sorry."

"Yes, you should have. But you have made a start, and that is something. We have won larger battles against your father than this one, you and I, have we not? Pray, recall who convinced him to buy you a curricle for your sixteenth birthday? And we may never know how much worse it might have been when you were sent down from Eton, had I not interceded. Your father loves you, Abersham. And he is proud of your achievements at school. I shall speak to him when he returns and send a message to your apartment. If you hurry, you might catch your mother."

Abersham continued to twist his hat in his hands.

"Yes? Is there something else?"

Abersham visibly gulped and his face lost all its colour. "I believe, Uncle Haverford, I think Sa—Lady Sarah—is still in expectation of an offer of marriage from me, Your Grace, and I do not wish to disappoint her... if you consent, of course."

Haverford sat back, shifting from Abersham's sympathetic godfather to his overprotective prospective father-in-law in an instant.

"I see. And I should give this consent because...?"

Abersham cleared his throat. "The way we—the way I—went about things before was.... unfortunate, Your Grace."

Unfortunate?! Ruining Haverford's daughter in Haverford's own bed was unfortunate?!

"I was... precipitous and... presumptuous. But I have learned my lesson, Sir, so very well. I will be a good husband to Sal—Lady Sarah—Your Grace. I've spent these past years preparing myself to be worthy."

The only lessons Abersham had learned, if even half the rumours were true, were how to hone his debauchery to a fine art and make mistresses of higher-ranking women.

Still. He had come here today and fronted up like a man, taken his share of the blame for his trials. And he didn't seem to be dissembling about an appropriate income, though heaven knew from whence it came. Haverford hadn't heard any rumours of card sharping, but Abersham had been taught well how to support himself with nothing but a pair of dice and a deck of cards. It was practically a rite of passage in his mother's family. Wasn't that how he had won the Brickdale estate?

Haverford stood. "I am not unsympathetic, Abersham, truly. But rumours of your dissolute lifestyle have entertained the ton for years, even from afar, and every single story revives the tales you debauched my daughter. Which you and I both know to be true, or near enough true, do we not?"

Abersham hung his head and nodded just slightly.

"Every scrape the two of you have dragged each other into since the nursery has been recast as suspicious—and there have been ever-so-many, Abersham. Did you know you were seen caressing the back of Lady Sarah's neck behind a carriage in Hyde Park when she was but fifteen? For I had no idea until I read about it in a newssheet this month past, or you would have been separated from her much sooner."

"I... but... that was—"

Haverford raised a brow, and was pleased to see the boy pull himself together and stop himself trying to excuse the inexcusable.

"Yes, Sir. You are right. I have never been the sort of gentleman I should with Lady Sarah. It's just... she was my best friend before she—before I ever—we were never so... formal—we were chums..." He trailed off into a deep blush. After another deep breath, he said, "I have been living like a monk for months, Your Grace. Working, studying, saving my money, preparing to provide for my wife. You can ask Blakeley. Or Hawley. Monsieur Bechand. You can ask anyone."

"Months, is it? And Sally mourning your absence for years." Haversham snorted.

With another flush, Abersham admitted, "I admit to... falling into old habits as I established myself on the Continent. But it has been months since I..." Abersham added, with a false indignation designed to keep his godfather from examining his 'habits,' "And my temper is no worse than my father's, with whom you never find fault."

That was true. "Your father isn't seeking to ruin my daughter."

Abersham's jaw tightened and he swallowed whatever he thought to say. Tears welled up in the young man's eyes.

"I am not seeking to ruin your daughter, Uncle Haverford, but to marry her. Please. Please do not deny me. Do not deny Sally. We love each other, Your Grace. I am begging you. I will do anything you ask, Your Grace. Anything at all. If only you will let me marry Sa–Lady Sarah."

Cherry would tell him to give his blessing. Bella, too. Nick would wish to throw Abersham from the Pont Neuf until his temper had run its course, but Bella would set him straight, right enough. Haverford softened still more. After all, it was not only the dearest desire of his daughter's heart, it was what all of their parents had always wanted, and there was no denying they loved each other deeply, perhaps irrevocably.

"I will consider the matter, Abersham. The way you have treated your mother and father gives me great pause, but you seem to be making an effort to get past that. I may have taught you to be more of a rogue than is good for you, but I never, ever taught you to display such flagrant disrespect for your father, or anyone else."

"Yes, sir." Abersham was back to looking at his shoes.

"Never fear, young man. We shall see what can be done about your father. I will speak to him."

"And you will consider my proposal, Your Grace?"

Haverford nodded. "Come. Shake my hand and be on your way. You will need to hurry if you are to catch your mother at your apartment. I shall send you a message later this afternoon."

And before Nick returned to the hotel, Haverford would have a word with Penchley and see if he could get to the bottom of the worst of the rumours.

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