Toad and his mother rode up to Toadstone Hall on horseback at about half-past ten, after a solid morning's ride from Wellstone, where they had spent two days reacquainting Toad with his childhood home. The forty-room manor house and thousand-acre estate were just outside Holsworthy; Prinny had once granted the property to the duchess's first husband, Baron Holsworthy, before his elevation to an earldom.
Underneath a heavy cloak, the duchess was dressed in her boys' clothes—which she had first donned years ago on-board ship with the encouragement of the baron in question—riding astride, a long gun in a saddle mount, a knife sheathed on her boot and, Toad knew, a pistol in a holster at her waist.
The Duchess of Wellbridge, thanks to her first husband and Captain Hawley, did not ever travel across country unprotected, especially if she eschewed the carriage, which she often did. Toad would have come with a pistol and a few balls and the knife he kept for convenience, and he'd been lectured for it on the front drive at Wellstone, earning himself extra weapons practice with his mother, before he was told to take himself to the gun room immediately and equip himself properly.
The travel having been accomplished without incident, Toad took in the sight of his primary seat—at least, until he became Wellbridge—from the end of the long drive framed with cherry blossoms in bloom. He passed the duchess the wineskin of apple shrub hanging from his saddle, and she drank deeply before she handed it back.
"Cherry blossoms are Sally's favorite flower, and cherries are her favorite sweet. Did you know that? I do hope this will be a surprise for her, since it is a surprise to me."
"She has not yet seen the Hall since you left—I have been telling everyone it is still in paint and plaster to keep them away—and I do not think we ever visited while the landscaping was in bloom. We hardly visited here at all, except to make certain the roof hadn't fallen in. The cherry trees are entirely the work of some past occupant and my gardeners." She used her heels to start her horse walking up the long drive. "Come. Come see your home."
About halfway up the drive, he stopped and pointed out a structure in the distance, in the gardens. It hadn't been here any time he'd come before. "What is that? A folly? A pergola?"
"That, my son, is a wedding gift to Sally, and I shall evermore say, to one and all, it was your idea."
He raised a brow and waited for her to explain. With a smug smile, she stroked her horse's neck and said, "It's an observatory. The best observatory to be had without engaging scientists to operate it."
Toad's mouth fell open. "That is spectacular, Mother. Absolute perfection." After a few long moments, as they started the horses walking again, he said with a sideways smile, "But it was my idea, you know, long before it was yours."
"I always planned to have one built when I took possession of the Hall, since the night Sally snuck out to see the transit of Mercury when she was ten. I was not going to have my wife sleeping in a tree trying to look at planets. I was infuriated every time she wrote to me at school about her many nighttime adventures to stare at stars; Haverford's hair would have curled, had he known. Plus, she complained all too often that no 'real' astronomer would allow her to look through a 'real' telescope. I decided that when we grew up, she would have a sturdy, safe place with a stout lock to stare at math problems in the dark whenever she wanted, and she would have a better telescope than the prigs at the Royal Astronomical Society."
"Well then, I shall leave the credit where it is due, and hope my interpretation of your wishes meets with her approval."
As they traversed the half-mile or so to the house, his mother apologized too often, and each time she did, it left a wound on him.
"I had thought to ask Sally to help me—to make the house hers, you see. But then... things seemed so uncertain. I thought it a cruelty, to ask her to choose appointments for the house where she might not have become mistress. And I did not think you could bear to live with another woman, or even alone, in a house she had decorated as its mistress might."
Toad nodded. "You did the right thing. It was kind of you to make it livable, so we may abide in relative comfort while she chooses any appointments she wishes to change."
When they arrived at the door, it was already open, with a familiar face in the entryway, who soothed a great many of the cuts to his heart, the Haverfords' butler from Haverford Castle, for as long as Toad could remember.
"Landers!" Toad exclaimed as he dismounted, then helped his mother off her mount. "How good to see a familiar face. Are you betting on Lady Sarah coming to be mistress here?"
"I am, Your Lordship. Her Grace made me an exceptional offer I was pleased to accept."
"I could not be more thrilled to have you here."
"The sentiment is mutual, Your Lordship."
The stablemaster appeared then, whom his mother introduced as Mr. Bletherly.
"Grooms in the next few weeks, my lord," he said, doffing his hat too many times for Toad's comfort.
"We should be here a few hours, so the horses can be thoroughly spoiled, if you please." The man led the horses off to the stables.
"The housekeeper, Mrs. Coates, is with the cook, preparing luncheon for you, Your Grace, Your Lordship," Landers said. "We have only one footman and one maid thus far, so I do hope you will not be disappointed in the presentation."
"It will be excellent, I'm sure," Toad assured him, "and I will not be in residence for some time yet, so there is no need for a full staff. Though I am grateful you and Mrs. Coates are here to maintain order in my absence."
"Mrs. Coates is not a woman any of us knew," the duchess explained as they entered the foyer, "but your cousin Jewel and her husband were not able to keep all the servants they had been paying, and Mrs. Coates was one. I was pleased to be able to offer her employment, as she was not well served by the Soddenfelds. We will have more of their staff here shortly, I expect, as I've left the matter with Blakeley the Elder."
"No better hands. Forgive my impatience, but may I see the house?" he asked Landers.
"Certainly, Your Lordship, but Her Grace can act as guide better than I. She knows every inch of the house, and I have been here but a fortnight. If you have no further need of me, I can assist with luncheon."
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...