Chapter Forty-One, Part 2

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"My lord?"

Toad had collapsed onto a loveseat as soon as Haverford took his leave. How long he sat, he had no idea. Staring into the fire, wondering what had just happened, he didn't quite hear Blakeley in the doorway. He didn't really notice the man until he was at Toad's shoulder, holding out a tray with a filled glass and decanter. Toad looked up at him blankly.

Piero slid into the seat next to Toad on the sofa. "Have a drink, Abersham." He plucked the glass off the tray and pressed it into Toad's hand. Of course, they had both stayed in hearing distance of the devastating storm that had just blown through Toad's study and swept his hopes and dreams away.

"I have behaved like a fool and a cad—both of you know that—"

"Yes, my lord."

Toad glared up at Blakeley. "You needn't be so quick to agree."

With a subtle smirk, Blakeley left the tray on the table and left.

"Surely, Piero, I am no worse than other men of my rank and age?"

"You are certainly no worse than I," Piero said. "Worse being a relative term, of course. And you have not touched a woman since you left Linette."

"I am no worse than Haverford himself! Or my father, for that matter. I have had dalliances, to be sure, but I have never crossed the line into the worst debaucheries. I have been invited; of course, I have. I am an English marquess in Paris, and the French believe us all degenerates. But I have never even set foot in a French brothel. What can he have heard, Piero?"

"I do not know, but he has heard it of all of us."

"Who hates me enough to tell such lies? Not Blakeley, surely. He has spied on me for my father, but..."

"Not Blakeley," Piero agreed. "Linette?"

They tried a couple of other names: people their team had defeated at school, women Toad had seduced or, more recently, refused to seduce, husbands and lovers; they tossed out conjecture for the length of a calming glass of brandy, but when Toad heard the door open behind him, he said, "You may as well remove yourself from the premises, Blakeley. I will not pay my father's spy for him. Especially not now."

The last thing he could afford was word of the plans he was about to make finding their way back to his father.

The manservant stepped into the room. "My lord, I believe it my duty to remain until you have set a course. I have been compensated handsomely these past years, and will be pleased to provide what service I may until we part company." Clearing his throat, he added, "Though, as I have been informed by courier I am no longer in the employ of the duke, you may be sure your activities will not 'wing their way to your father by pigeon post.'"

"Well, there is something, anyway."

"I plan to return to London when you leave France. Should you need any messages delivered, outside your normal channels, I would be pleased to oblige."

Toad stood. "Thank you, Blakeley. We shall see. Please bring us two more bottles of brandy."

"May I suggest something to eat?"

"No. The brandy will be sufficient, thank you." Heaven forfend he be made less drunk more slowly.

"I will have something to eat, if you please." Piero sat back and crossed his legs at the ankle, hands behind his head. "I started my drinking as soon as Abersham wanted to, while Haverford was still here." When Blakeley handed him the decanter, Piero asked, "So, what will you do about Haverford? Once you are finished making yourself stupid, I mean."

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