Chapter Sixty: Part 1

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Toad was being dressed for Almyra's ball in the heir's suite at Dalrymple House, which had been his London quarters since he turned ten and went off to school—until he took up residence in a warehouse. Now, less than a week later, he was in a room fit for a marquess, being dressed by his valet, in clothes chosen from a vast new wardrobe delivered from his father's tailor earlier in the day.

"You'll have to forgive me, Franks, if I seem preoccupied. I haven't heard so much English spoken in years. I'm having a hard time grasping all the conversations, as I keep trying to translate it into French or Italian in my mind before I respond."

Since Blakeley's duties would now be far broader than the state of Toad's shirts, Toad had hired Franks away from Etcetera. The former footman had proven himself a surprisingly accomplished valet, and a surprisingly intelligent man. He shouldn't be surprised, really; Etcetera's parents educated anyone in their sphere with a brain within an inch of their lives.

"I can see the difficulty, speaking French, German, and English myself, and travelling between Erzherzog and England with the royal family." As he smoothed down Toad's shirt across his shoulders, he observed, "I imagine it must be odd, Your Lordship, to be back in your childhood rooms."

"It is and it is not, Franks."

His new valet held out a selection of cufflinks and studs from the pile of jewelled trinkets Toad had hoped to abscond with three years ago, to support Sally after their aborted elopement. He had been separated from all of his various bodily ornaments the night he was dragged from London bound and gagged, yet they were miraculously back in their cases when he moved back in.

"My mother requested we all wear emeralds, and so we shall—something to do with trims and ribbons and my sister's eyes." He held out his arm for the cufflink to be inserted. "These are my rooms, of course, since I was deemed old enough to leave the nursery, but I never spent great swaths of time here. If I wasn't at Eton or Cambridge, I was travelling with my parents or at the family seat at Wellstone, and then I was banished to the Continent. My cabin on the family frigate is more familiar, and my apartment in Paris and villa near Florence are my homes now."

He hadn't seen these rooms since the night he had tried to run away with Sally.

Piero and Etcetera were probably having a much better—far less emotionally fraught—evening toilette in the family wing of the Erzherzog embassy, where Piero became a guest when Toad took up his old rooms at Dalrymple House. Niko, His Supreme Etcetera, joined Piero there a few days later.

Toad had given up the freedom of his bachelor friends for the moment, because he agreed with his parents: he and his swords and pistols should be in residence while his sister was entertaining her first gentlemen callers. And bachelor friends should not be invited to stay before Almyra was safely presented, nor, quite possibly, after. Toad agreed thoroughly with his father on the question of safeguarding Almyra's virtue from rakes, even if the rakes were friends.

Regardless of the tsunami of gossip about Toad and Sally that threatened to topple the Houses of Haverford and Wellbridge—or rather, because of it—a united family front was deemed best. When combined with the weight of the other royal and noble houses his parents and their friends had pressed into service, perhaps his sister could come out of this night still marriageable. As it was, this whole evening would be a long walk on thin ice in warm shoes, for everyone in his family and everyone standing up for them.

As Franks was tying Toad's cravat, a knock came on the door to his bedchamber.

"Enter."

When the duke stumped in, leaning on his cane, Toad dismissed Franks, asking him to return in a quarter-hour.

"I am more pleased than you know to have you under my roof again, my boy." The duke made his way to Toad's bed and sat on the quilted chest at the end.

"I admit, I find it odd, after all this time. I am not the same man I was when I left this room last. Or rather, when I was ripped from it."

"And thank heavens for that," his father said, "I cannot express the vast sums of money I would have wasted, had you not managed to turn yourself into a proper gentleman. And for the sake of accuracy, you were ripped from Haverford House. You left this one voluntarily, with a satchel, in a fit of pique, just like you did with Sally when you were six and weren't allowed to go to Astley's because you had both been ghastly brats the entire week prior."

"Touché. Have you come to provide the usual pre-party lecture about my behaviour in public? For I think myself too old for such correction by now."

"No, I have not come to correct you. You are acquitting yourself well amid all this noise and trumpery."

Noise and trumpery, indeed. He and Sally had been dragged through the fetid bottom of every gossip rag in London, augmented with verses and ditties and pamphlets and sermons decrying their myriad sins. The only things that had made it remotely bearable were the fact that Sally was not in England to hear it, and the twenty-five-year-old caricatures and limericks his mother had saved, passed around London when Toad's father killed le Duc de Malbourne, after the Frenchman abducted Toad's mother and murdered her first husband. At least Toad was in good company in the gossip columns, and his father could hardly hold lying newspapermen against Toad, after all that.

"I have come to say that when you dance with your sister this evening, it will be the best way I have to express my confidence in you. I admit, I am a bit maudlin to have to miss this particular dance, but your mother is right. I cannot keep myself upright that long, and there is every chance I would embarrass her. And there is a sort of symmetry to it—the younger generation upholding tradition and all that..."

"If it makes you feel better, Almyra is distraught at having to dance with me, not you."

"Good," the duke said, smirking. "Now, then, if your mother's scheming with the queen has borne fruit, perhaps Almyra will be spared your loathsome escort, for my duchess is hoping Prince Albert will appear to open the ball with your sister. I, personally, would rather horsewhip the man than let him lay hands on my daughter, but Bella assures me I am merely being cantankerous, and will feel the same about every suitor who calls."

Toad's lips twitched—poor Almyra—but he managed not to laugh. "It is kind of the queen to involve herself, given the social situation. I admit I am hoping it does not make her rethink Harburn's Writ of Summons."

"It is kind of her, and you need not worry on that score. Haverford did his part to mitigate Sally's damage at Court before he took her away, and we have done the same on your behalf. Thanks to your mother and your Aunt Cherry, the queen is incensed at the idea that Almyra might be harmed by Crowhurst's actions, even arm's length away, and livid at what he tried to do to Sally. The queen sent her good and trusty cousin, Lady Sarah, a basket of exotic fruit and three books to read 'while she waited out the awful newspapers,' and instructed her ladies that Sally had her full confidence. Her Majesty also had barrels of Crowhurst Senior's wine from her cellar emptied and returned to him, and her orders cancelled, as have others who favoured his wine on our recommendation."

"You truly have worked miracles."

"Indeed, we have. More than half a century as a courtier has taught me a few things about scotching a scandal. As for you, Her Majesty is not pleased with how she has heard you acquitted yourself in royal courts elsewhere, but she will allow you to prove the rumours wrong, since it has been some time since the last poor report. You came home to redeem Lady Sarah's name, and you charmed Her Majesty during your audience and chastisement. Before this is finished, I would not be at all surprised if Almyra were invited to join the queen's ladies."

"Let us not get ahead of ourselves, shall we? We have a ball yet to get through, provided our guests do not forsake us."

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