All the way down Leadenhall Street, Toad recited the list of his accomplishments—honours at school, consistent profits, shipyard refit, Managing Agent, made his own money, four bloody residences to bring a wife.
Which brought him to his arguments for being allowed to marry Sally, manage his own properties, and take up his position as a peer of the realm. The recitation had become a mantra by the time he reached the front door of the Seventh Sea Shipping London offices, a three-story building with considerably more consequence than the docks where Toad worked and kept his offices on the top floor of a draughty warehouse.
It would be easier to reconcile with the duchess, obviously—especially since the duke was at Westminster, so she would be alone—but she would force concessions about his father, and the Duke of Disownment would have been poisoning her against Toad since the day he'd been cut off. And even though she had taken Almyra and left Paris with his father without even trying to see her son after the duke's pronouncement, she would be hurt by his silence, at least as much as he was hurt by losing his family.
But he couldn't discount the fact she had kept writing him, every week, without fail and without response, for months after he was sent to Paris, and again after his father had cut all ties. And, of course, there was the matter of the frigate and the Paris apartment, both enormous gifts she did not have to make. And, if he were to be honest, his education and the choice of schools. He hadn't any notion he would take to the practical side of the business far more than years of being bored in her office, but she had divined it.
He realised now his parents had planned it deliberately. On their family trip to the Continent when he was sent down from school at 15, they had left him in Paris for a fortnight, with only a valet for supervision (and from his father, carte blanche at any bordello he wished) while they toured the duchess's shipyard in Marseilles. He assumed this had been the start of the deal she would eventually reach to buy his way into business school.
It had taken him three years to figure it out, but it finally occurred the duchess could not have arranged his education at ESCP and the transfer of the shipyard in the hour between Toad being caught trying to elope with Sally, and the announcement that he would not be going back to Cambridge after all. The duke and duchess had hedged their bets, and when his behaviour disappointed once again, they had chosen the alternative plan.
There was no possibility this interview would be easy or simple, to say nothing of what would happen afterward, when it was time to beard the ducal lion in his den. But as he took off his hat to enter the building, the door swung open.
Toad made a respectful bow to the man who emerged. "Captain Hawley... I wasn't expecting you. I was told you were—"
"Off searchin' fer you. Followed you back here, so docked just behind you. Missus Bella will be happy to see you are alive, 'stead of hearing it from the harbourmaster, so you best get in there and tell her yerself. I been trying to tell her you are a man now and could choose where you live and who you see, but only to keep her from thinkin' the worst. In truth, you don't deserve her, Harburn. But she's your mother, so she en't gonna believe a word I say 'til she sees you in the flesh."
"Is she... will she listen to me?"
"Missus Bella never stopped listening, ye nodcock; you stopped talking, after she done ever'thing in her power to help you. E'en now. You en't here to see Missus Bella. You come to try to steal Lady Sarah."
"I'm not stealing anyone! First, Lady Sarah is not property to be passed between owners; second, I was summoned home for the express purpose of marrying her; and third, I am, in fact, on my way into the building to speak to my mother, without being forced to it."
"So, must be you find out His Grace of Haverford sailed away with her on Missus Bella's ship."
Toad staggered back three steps. Would the blows never stop coming? "On my mother's ship? They sailed on a Seventh Sea ship?"
"Choose the captain meself. And Missus Bella picked the crew."
"She did what?"
"You heard me fine, nockyboy."
Toad had to keep himself from doubling over at the pain of it, this confirmation that his mother had acted against him when she could have chosen to help. After all he had done and gone through at her behest, after all the overt signs of support for his position... it was as though Hawley had kicked him in the stomach.
"My mother..." He tried to catch his breath.
"Must be you're here to try to talk to her without the duke nearby, and it en't a bad plan. But I will stand outside her window, Harburn, and I hear Missus Bella crying, I will break down the door to take your head off."
"I thought she wanted me home to marry Sally. I thought they did. Why would she contribute transport to that the farce of Haverford's governorship instead of keeping Sally here?"
"En't my place to say why Missus Bella does what she does, only to carry it out. I might join Their Graces on my next run. Was just talkin' about it to Missus Bella. En't seen much of that part of the world."
That was not the worst idea Toad had ever considered. He trusted Hawley with his own life, and with Sally's, and couldn't possibly protect her better himself.
"Now, get inside, so Missus Bella can stop fretting over whether you are still alive. She's in the master's office, like always. You make her cry, I will cut out your heart." Hawley held the door open.
Toad stepped into his mother's domain, determined to have it out with her, once and for all, regardless of Hawley's threats. He could feel a blanket of post-schoolboy angst settle on his shoulders as he walked—well, perhaps not post.
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Mariana Gabrielle and Jude Knight.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...