Chapter Forty Six: Part 3

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Picking up the next note, his forehead drew tight. His father's secretary.

My Lord Abersham:

Well, that was a promising start, though, in all fairness, his father might not yet know he'd dropped the courtesy title.

His Grace asks me to convey his desire you return home forthwith, where you will serve as escort to Lady Almyra at her ball, be given access to your properties in trust, and be married to Lady Sarah Grenford as soon as it is practicable. Her Grace asks I assure you she is preparing Toadstone Hall for your occupancy, and reminds you of your upcoming duties in Parliament.

Toad felt a bit lightheaded at seeing Bey's assurances written in a familiar hand on ducal stationery. He blinked a few times to make sure the words didn't magically transform into something else entirely—the opening lines of the Magna Carta or a long-lost poem by Lord Byron.

Lady Sarah is waiting, so you will be expected to arrive no later than three weeks hence, as correspondence and travel allow.

Apparently, the art of the English understatement was alive and well in his father's secretary. Ecstasy and fear warred in his gut, foremost the certainty Haverford would find a way to yank joy from his hands once again, with each incarnation of his enmity a step closer to Sally being taken from him forever.

Haverford would have less than no patience in this situation—and rightly so, inopportune as that might be for Toad. His future wife did not deserve for the whole of London to speculate about whether Toad was coming or not, and Toad was not there to protect her, so could hardly object to someone else doing it in his stead. Poorly as Haverford carried out that duty. Haverford would marry her to the nearest fortune-hunter without a gambling problem, if Toad didn't appear.

Toad had thought he felt the weight of marriage settle onto his shoulders in Paris, when he decided to come to Italy before London, to secure housing for Sally before taking her from everything she had ever known. He had felt himself more adult than ever before, ready to be a husband, considering the needs of his wife and choosing her security over his own impatience.

Now he felt ten kinds of fool. His wife had paid a terrible forfeit purely due to Toad's absence. While he was grateful beyond measure that any circumstances had won his parents' support, and, if he read correctly between the lines, Haverford's reluctant compliance, he wished it hadn't been this. And besides, it rankled a bit to be told, after three years of waiting and banging his head on the wall of the dukes' tempers, that he was to be wed without delay, like it or not. But he could not take exception at being given his heart's desire, only at the cost to Sally and the irksome nature of being forced to the ducal will.

Her Grace hopes you have kept the family frigate in port wherever you are, but has also sent a ship to Marseilles, if you are still in France, and another to Livorno, on the assumption you might return to Florence with Lord Piero. She suggests if you can find a more direct way home, you use that mode of transport instead.

Your most humble and obedient servant...

Not-Toad's-Father signed the note, but Toad's eye was drawn down the page to that elusive artefact: the Duke of Wellbridge's handwriting. Well, no. Not exactly. It was his writing, but shaky, the lines inconsistent, in the manner of someone whose hands are no longer entirely under his control. Toad touched the ink as though it might cut him.

Please, Abersham, do not argue. Simply accept you've won, and come home to re-join your family and marry the woman you love. Lady Sarah needs the protection of your name and title—or someone else's—as fast as can be arranged. You may berate me at length for my presumption, once in London.

— W

As long as he could get there in time, before Haverford lost patience and married her to the closest man in a Savile Row suit. He did, in fact, have the family frigate docked at Livorno, and the moon would be full tonight. He would ride straight through and be on the open sea the moment the tides turned in his favour. More information was better, however, when plotting.

The next letter was from Etcetera.

Abersham,

Society is whispering of your betrothal, and Sal insists she will marry no one else, but none of us have yet heard from you. The rumours after Sal's incident are enough to keep her from London and Court for a lifetime, if someone does not act with all due haste. Bey says we should stall for your return, but Sal's other cousins are not convinced that is your plan. It is said you have an understanding with the Conte d'Alvieri's sister and have taken up residence on his land, and they do not all believe Bey's assurances.

make a false betrothal of it and stand down in your favour, but Sal will not agree. She fears her father would use any public agreement to force her hand. How long she can hold out, I do not know.

You MUST return WITHOUT DELAY. I can give you a fortnight, at most, before we must act to redeem her.

Niko

A fortnight. So, Stocke and Niko must have already begun whatever campaign they would use to wear Sally down until she married one of them, and they were a sennight more impatient with Toad than even her father, which boded ill for the social situation; ducal relations heard rumours no one would ever think to tell the duke. The other unmarried cousins either said or implied much the same thing as he sifted through their missives, frequently couched in insults on his honour and good sense, the marriage proposals and false betrothal offers not limited to Etcetera and Stocke.

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