Chapter Fifty-Nine: Part 2

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"I know Haverford and I did not instill any particular restraint in you when it comes to the bed. Perhaps you thought... er... Son, you do not enjoy your lovers... under the lash? You are not an aficionado of deSade? You have not participated in any... unsavoury... bloodsport?"

"Bloodsport?" Given all the hints he'd heard, Toad was not entirely surprised at the question, but it hurt that his father felt the need to ask. "Are you mad, old man? I was a rake among willing women, not a bully. I couldn't believe that was actually... Good god. No wonder you have kept me from Sally and Almyra. How could you think...?"

Wellbridge rubbed a hand across his face and through his thinning hair. "I should never have thought it of you." Pointing at Toad, though, he added, "Finding out from Sally that you had been planning elopement since before Christmas did not help Haverford's temper."

"He should not have declined my proposal in Paris, and might not have, had I not just been disowned by you." Toad struggled mightily to keep the accusation out of his voice, but from his father's flinch, he didn't think he had entirely succeeded.

Wellbridge's jaw was tight. "Haverford is a bloody nincompoop. You and I are destined to be in conflict. As soon as I barged into your club, where you have every right to expect privacy, another explosion was assured, and it was bound to be the last straw. I probably knew it before I left the hotel, had I been thinking at the time. It's no reason to keep you from everything you ever wanted and everyone you ever loved."

"It would be rude to argue with Your Grace."

"It would." Clearing his throat, Wellbridge added, "My son, you need to know that Haverford discovered the... collection you accumulated for Lady Sarah. Your mother and hers tried to excuse... well, it was not well done of you. Either of you. But Haverford blames you entirely, of course."

Toad felt the blood rush to his face, and he found himself speechless. Finally, he said, "Oh, good heavens. His actions become more comprehensible with every word you utter."

"Indeed. Which is not to say he is not an arse."

"You know, sir, do you not, that it was not my... not all my... er... Lady Sarah is, of course, quite blameless..."

His father merely turned and stared until Toad finished with, "Well, not entirely blameless. But I should not have—"

"You certainly should not, but there is naught to be done for it now." Wellbridge stood and leaned on his cane to go to the wall safe behind the landscape of Wellstone. "Harburn—Abersham, should you wish it—my heir need not live like a pauper."

"Harburn for now, I think, Your Grace, with no disrespect intended. I understand now why Mother is Missus Bella to her crew. The barony is less lofty on the docks. And it comes with a seat in The Lords, which Abersham does not."

"Yes, of course. I hadn't thought. You will style yourself heir to Pietranego in Italy?"

"I am already so established in Grand Duke Leopold's court, Your Grace, and I hope I did not overstep my bounds. I had not been disinherited when I made my bow."

"Not at all. That is as it should be, Harburn. While I was outrunning your mother before we married, I hid behind both the French and Italian titles, though it didn't take long for the gossip to follow me." Wellbridge unlocked the safe and rooted around inside. "Should you wish to be fully embraced by the nobility in any nation, you need to be outfitted for it. You will need funds to refurbish your new villa and put a carriage in the stables, and to allow your wife to make the apartment in Paris into her own. The ship, of course, is your mother's purview, which means it will already be luxuriously appointed."

Wellbridge turned back with three bags of gold. "This was to be your graduation gift. One is for you to spend at a tailor, mine if you have not yet engaged your own. See you spend all of it and let the first thing you buy be something decent to wear to your sister's ball. Another is for the refurbishment of Toadstone Hall. Or rather, any changes you and your wife wish to make to what your mother has imposed in your absence. And the third is an investment in your new business venture."

"We do not require investment at this time, Your Grace."

"If you do not take it as a gesture of goodwill from your father, I shall make the investment with Firthley, as d'Alvieri did when your friend, Piero, tried to lock his brother out." Toad sighed but moved the bags of coin to his side of the table. "I will reinstate your allowance, Abersham, with an increase commensurate to a ducal heir settling into his adult life, taking possession of his estates, preparing himself to inherit a great deal of work."

"You will give over my trust?"

"I cannot give over your trust, but I can allow you access to the income from your properties and an opinion in their management."

"Thank you, Your Grace... Would you consider... If it would not inconvenience you, would you consider continuing stewardship until I return from Italy? Blakeley will have his hands full in Italy and Paris, and I know no one I trust more."

"I have not turned the estate records over to your solicitor yet. I suggest you save some of the money that will be coming your way, my boy, for wives are expensive, and I mean to see you wed to Lady Sarah before the year is out."

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