Chapter Fifty-Five: Part 1

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Back in the closed carriage after leaving the Dowager Duchess of Winshire, Toad directed the coachman to drive through Mayfair, then the park. He had thinking to do, and people to avoid, and both could be accomplished famously in a moving carriage. "I should like to remain undisturbed. If I change my mind, I will inform you."
On the briefest of reflections, he added: "Be sure to make a circuit through Grosvenor Square; you needn't stop, but signal when we get there."
He had to make his presence known eventually, if only to determine the best way to protect his sister from men like him. But he could manage a few days to get used to being in London again without anyone shouting at him. And Aunt Eleanor made a good point: if he wished to both hide from his parents and gather information, he would have to carefully plan whom he saw when and where.
Perhaps he should look up Stocke. Since he had been prepared to either marry Sally or step down for Toad's prior claim, he might be willing to speak first without beating Toad to a pulp for arriving too late. And Sutton and Longford had wives. Surely, if he turned up asking to speak to their countesses, they wouldn't intrude upon the drawing room with violence?
He also still had shopping to do, to appease Piero's sisters' never-ending obsession with fashion, and to satisfy Piero's mother and Lena that he was paying enough attention to the appointments in the home where he would bring his bride. They in no way trusted Blakeley, or any man, to provide a comfortable house for Lord and Lady Harburn, and had given Toad a list of things he had to install before he brought Sally home.
He also needed to meet with his banker and visit his tailor while he was in London. To start, he had to determine how much he could afford to pay on the note Arturo held for his new residence. And once he knew the extent of that damage to his funds, he had nothing presentable to wear to his sister's ball—indeed, while he would never say so to Blakeley, after two years living in a boarding-house and on a loading dock, he had very few acceptable suits of clothes left at all.
And he wanted to buy Sally a ring. Given Haverford had taken her entirely out of Toad's ambit, there was no guarantee his parents would back him, no matter what they had written in March, which meant he could not count on giving her any of the Wellbridge jewels until he was Wellbridge.
It would be terribly convenient if his father were to release his properties immediately, rather than waiting for his majority, so Toad could afford to do credit to his family and titles. But if it would be convenient for Toad, he could be sure it would not be so for the Ducal Destroyer of David's Dreams.
He opened the window to the driver. "Whitechapel, please."
He was not destitute. He was the Managing Agent of a shipping line, with money saved, and only a few weeks until he held his seat in Parliament and could petition the queen if his father refused access to his properties in trust. He would go directly to the importers. If he could save himself money and do business for Delphinus into the bargain, so much the better.
Three hours later, he'd filled the carriage with personal purchases, bought four cargos to be unloaded into Delphinus warehouses, and selected an amethyst ring, Sally's favorite gemstone. He also chose some other amethysts, and commissioned some pieces to be made.
"Now, I must off, or I will be tardy for my next appointment." He left the address of his temporary lodgings and returned to the carriage.
"The Delphinus shipyard, please, so I can store these things until I return to Italy." Tomorrow, he would see about making an appointment at Angelo's under the auspices of a fencing lesson, to demonstrate to the rogues of London they should keep their wandering hands and wicked thoughts far away from his sister or expect to be gutted and dropped off the side of the nearest merchant ship. But tonight, he would have dinner at his club and listen to the London gossip.
***
"Lord Abersham! It is good to have you back on English shores again, my lord."
Toad took the hand of the manager of the club when he crossed the room. "Charles. Good to be back. And it is a small thing, to be sure, but I am going by Lord Harburn now; my barony, you see."
Without betraying even an ounce of curiosity, Charles made his bow and Toad pulled Piero forward.
"Lord Piero d'Alvieri, this is Charles Marchand, without whom the Portland Club would fall into pieces."
"Your Lordship." Charles made another low bow.
"Lord Piero is new to London and is my welcome guest as long as he is here. For the moment, we can use a few carefree hours of the type only you can provide."
The man ushered Toad and Piero past people waiting and into a smaller, private study with a prominent bar.
"Your Lordships? Dinner? Drinks?"
"Dinner, please, for both of us, and there seems to be brandy here. We shall make our way to the dining room in due course." Toad took a seat across from Piero and poured for himself from the decanter. "I will let you know if Lord Piero or I need anything, but I cannot see how, when you anticipate the desires of all your guests."
"You flatter me, Your Lordship." Charles left them alone.
"You said you had brought a stake for gambling, and so it begins." Toad gestured toward the gaming rooms. "I shall rely upon you to partner me at whist, so we may learn what the gentlemen of London are saying. But first, I am starving."
"I, too, am famished."
It was over dinner, though, Toad heard the first of many things he wasn't going to want to entertain, and the first of many that would drive him to the edge of murder. It started with the whispers when he walked in the room: "Do you think it's true Haverford took her away to keep her safe from Abersham?" His ire rose further at the response: "Or to keep him safe from her. I've heard she is a wildcat in bed. She left Stocke with bruises." Toad was thankful every time Piero laid a restraining hand on his forearm. "That was not her, gentlemen," another man said. "The bruising was from fisticuffs fought over just such calumnies, and Stocke won—and then some. I would not wish to be the next man he overhears maligning Lady Sarah."
"Well, that is gratifying," Toad muttered. Piero responded with, "The longer you can control your temper, the more you will learn."
Before they could make it all the way through their meal, however, a man with whom Toad very much wished to converse walked through the door. Throwing off Piero's hand, knocking over a chair and crashing past half a dozen other patrons in his haste to cross the room, Toad barely noticed the crowds that parted at the look on his face.
"Gildeforte!" he called out, before he was halfway to the buffet. Gills startled and dropped the plate he had just collected from the sideboard, but left it on the carpet to make a bow.
"Toad Abersham, back in London."
"Lord Harburn, you miserable muck-worm!" With that, Toad pulled his hand back to throw a punch.

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