Chapter Fifty: Part 1

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The Duchess of Wellbridge took quick choppy strides across the floor, her skirts swinging with her anger. "You are being ridiculous, Wellbridge! He will stay here with us, of course, in his rooms, and I will hear no more of it!"

Nick shook his head, elbows leaned across his knees, cane close at hand, warming himself before the fire. "Almyra is already too close to Sally Grenford. I love my goddaughter and wish Abersham beneath our roof as much as you do, but I cannot shelter the architects of the worst scandal in decades at the expense of my daughter's future. Abersham can stay at St James Place until after the presentation. Or better yet, until the gossip dies down. I won't object to him attending his sister's party." Nick looked down at his hands, his face grim. "I do not relish saying so to Haverford, but unless Abersham returns in time to marry her, we cannot have Lady Sarah at Almyra's ball."

"Wellbridge! You have truly lost your mind." Bella faced her husband, her fists clenched until the knuckles were white. "Do you not see how that fans the flames?"

"You need not fret, Bella," Haverford said from the doorway. "We will have the most excellent of reasons for not attending Almyra's ball, since we will no longer be in England."

Wellbridge flushed. He would have chosen his words more carefully if he had known his friend was on the other side of the door.

"What?" Bella exclaimed. "Surely that is not necessary. Abersham will be here in a matter of days."

"See if you can talk some sense into him. I have talked until I am blue in the face." Cherry spoke from the hall. Unusually for such a polite gentleman, Haverford had preceded her into the room, but he stepped to one side to allow her through. They stood there just inside the door, as if uncertain of their welcome, Nick's oldest and closest friend and his wife, as dear as a sister. Haverford had a large object tucked under his arm, and Cherry's knuckles were white where she gripped her reticule.

Her face lit with a measure of hope as she answered Bella. "A matter of days, you say? You have word from him? He is definitely coming?"

"No," Nick answered shortly, rising to his feet out of courtesy to the lady. "But I cannot imagine anything will keep him from his heart's desire."

Bella explained, "We know he left Paris, and we've heard rumours he's been at Grand Duke Leopold's court, so we assume he is in Florence with his friend Piero. But even so, our letters will have gotten there by now. I'm sure he is on his way."

"According to the Colonial Office secretary," Haverford said, "the Diplomatic Corps has it he is with d'Alvieri, and on the point of announcing his betrothal to one of the comte's sisters."

Wellbridge blanched. "I do not believe it. After all he has done to claim Sally as his bride? No. It is not possible."

Bella's spoke at the same time. "No. No, that cannot be true."

Haverford shook his head. "He is not coming, Bella, and I am not waiting for him, even without what I found today. I have taken the governorship of the Victoria and Albert Islands, as a temporary measure until they can find a replacement for poor Bortham, which will serve to remove my daughter from this toxic mess until the rumours have been addressed."

"But... the Victoria and Albert Islands?" Bella frowned, shaking her head. "You cannot take her so far away. The dangers of foreign travel cannot be overstated, Haverford, and the region is not entirely stable."

Haverford rubbed his spare hand up his forehead and across his hair, leaving it sticking in the air. "May we sit, Bella? Cherry is tired, and we have much to do if we are to leave in three days."

"Of course. Sit." Bella went to the bell pull to order tea.

"Running away does not seem like you, Haverford," Nick growled.

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