Chapter Fifty-Nine: Part 1

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"Your Grace."

Wellbridge looked up from his papers and slowly removed his spectacles. "Abersham. I am pleased you have returned to us in one piece. Unlike your mother, I haven't lost my head about it, but we have been concerned."

Toad spoke immediately without responding, afraid he never would otherwise, reciting the speech he had been preparing since he had seen his mother the afternoon before.

"I have been rash, Sir, and let temper put words in my mouth, and in yours. I have been disrespectful of your time and the investment you've made in me, and dismissive of the privileges that accrue to me as your heir. It was not well done of me, Your Grace, and I apologize sincerely."

Leaning back in his chair, the duke gestured with no more than his eyes that Toad should take a seat before the desk. "Haverford says you are already the Duke of Wellbridge to your fingertips, so that speech must not have come cheaply." Toad slid into one of the brocade-covered dining chairs. "Do you petition to return to this house as Abersham?"

"No."

Wellbridge's aristocratic brow lifted.

"I answer to Harburn now, Your Grace. I petition for my rightful place in Parliament. I keep rooms at the Delphinus warehouse. I'll be in London until my birthday to take my seat and reacquaint the rakes of London with my skill in weaponry before they think to dance with Almyra."

Wellbridge chuckled. He chuckled. Toad couldn't remember the last time he had been in a room when his father was smiling.

"Are you... are you quite well, Your Grace?"

"No, I am not well. Look at me, Harburn. I am not hale. I am old, and old people die. I will be gone soon enough; perhaps this year or next, and you will be the duke, for good or ill. It may even fall to you to find your sister a husband." He chuckled again.

"I mean to be a good nobleman, Sir... but I am not in a rush to be the duke, Your Grace. Especially not to find Almyra's husband."

"No, you are not a covetous heir. And I am not living with a foot in the grave. I rather look forward to interrogating Almyra's prospective husbands, truth be told. I should hope, however..." Wellbridge coughed deeply, a hacking, hollow cough that echoed. Finally, he recovered enough to have a sip of water. He sat back and interlaced his fingers across his chest. "I should hope, my son, you would have your duchess before you must ascend to the title. She's a sensible little thing. She won't let you muck things up too terribly much."

Toad felt the back of his neck stiffen. "You and I should not speak of Lady Sa—"

"We most certainly should speak of her. She is the next Duchess of Wellbridge and will be mother to my grandchildren, and she should be back in—"

"Less than a year. Yes, I've heard." Toad kept his jaw in sharp alignment against everything he could not say without ruining his life. "Fortunately, I have made a plan for my life that requires I travel for a time. I will return to England as soon as Sally and I are both of age and can meet on the same continent. I will be basing myself near Florence."

"So Blakeley said when he appeared here to formally remove himself from my service, and make one last report."

Toad's throat closed.

"He told me he was taking on stewardship of your European properties, and that he was proud to be employed by Lord Harburn. That was the first I heard it, you know... you dropping the courtesy title. I suppose I should have thought of it while I was stripping you of things."

"It seemed apt and serves as a welcome reminder I have an obligation to my country, in the form of a vote."

"You do, and I am pleased you think to exercise it. Would you like to know what else your young Blakeley told me?"

It couldn't be too awful, since Wellbridge hadn't begun ringing a peal over Toad's head for some offense only Blakeley the younger knew. "Should you feel it relevant, Sir."

Wellbridge smiled. "I have never been so thoroughly abused by a servant in my life. He stopped just short of yelling at me in my own study; his uncle appeared to remove him, had I wished it."

"He did that? Blakeley?"

"The very one. As he would not require a character from me, he said, he could tell me anything he liked in his last report."

"Oh, good God."

Wellbridge laughed outright at that. Toad couldn't remember the last time he had heard his father laugh. "He said you had settled into an admirable gentleman who works harder than any nobleman he ever met, most likely including me, and I had no call to continue to treat you as a rebellious, injudicious boy. He told me he would work for you the rest of his life, if you would have him, and by god, he hoped Lady Sarah Grenford would be mistress of Lord Harburn's house. You deserved it, he told me, after the amount of time you had spent tortured at the separation. You would make a fine husband to any gentlewoman you were given to love, he said, and for good or ill, Sally Grenford is the only one you would ever love."

"Blakeley said all that?"

"There is more, if you wish it, or I can simply say Blakeley said that report was the last thing I would ever hear about you from him, for he owed his loyalty to Lord Harburn now."

"How very gratifying."

"I should say. And if you do not mind the observation, the elder Blakeley has been with me since I was only a few years older than you are now; if you are granted half as much loyalty by your Blakeley as I have been by mine, I'll wager you shall be satisfied with his service to the end of your life."

"I can barely think beyond next week, when it comes to servants."

"It is not a bad thing, in the main, to live without servants for a time. Self-sufficiency, I have learned in my years, is terribly attractive to women with independent minds, and women with independent minds are really the only type worth having."

"Indeed." Toad smiled a bit ruefully, and he and the duke chuckled in unison thinking of different independent women. Toad had never felt anything more unreal in his life than sharing a moment of laughter with the Duke of Wellbridge. After a lengthy silence, however, his father poured two brandies, pushed one across the desk, and started, "Harburn..."

"Yes, Your Grace?"

"I do not know how to ask this without risking your ire, my boy, and that is the last thing I want to do when we are finally speaking civilly."

"Go ahead, Your Grace. Whatever it is. You may as well give me the worst of it."

"Son, I cannot countenance the worst of it... 

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