Chapter Sixty-Two, Part 2

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The marquess's and marchioness's suites, the grand ballroom and library that both occupied two stories, but on opposite ends of the house, the guest bedrooms, even the meanest receiving room, had all been refreshed, top to bottom, and all as tasteful as the homes where he had grown up. Silks, velvets, gilt brocades, Persian and Oriental and Aubusson carpets, furniture in two dozen different styles, each carefully featured in its own room.

Still, the house was left a bit generic, so he and Sally might impose their own tastes—no art on the walls, empty niches and pedestals, only reference books and empty ledgers in the library; the same dull brass sconces encased the gas lighting in every room and could be easily replaced with more fashionable fittings.

Some of the rooms Toad recalled from earlier visits had been repurposed as water closets and bathing rooms with hot and cold running water, including fully half the width of the marquess and marchioness's combined dressing room, which was not the tragedy Sally would surely make of it, as each bedchamber held two large armoires for hanging her extensive wardrobe. He would give her one of his, should it come to that. Or they could assign a whole room to her copious attire. Assuming that clothes were as much an obsession now as they had been when Sally was younger. It disturbed him that he did not know.

The exorbitant kitchen looked prepared to feed an army, and the cook asked quite pointedly about parties, so Toad assured her the new mistress loved to entertain. If, of course, anyone would deign to call on a fallen marchioness, Toad thought, but didn't say. His mother caught his eye, though, and pursed her lips.

The servants' quarters in both attic and basement had, as was his mother's wont, been made as warm, secure, and comfortable as they could be, including items designed to allow a servant to feel welcome: a flowered quilt, a brocade bolster, a painted water pitcher and bowl, a thick, warm rug. All the rooms were painted a cheerful light blue, not whitewashed, with one person to a room. The bedsteads were solid brass with plenty of blankets, and every desk stocked with writing paper, envelopes, and postage stamps, for the duchess had always been a martinet about the younger servants writing to their parents. If they couldn't write, she considered it an investment to send them to school as part of their employment until they could.

Back at the front door, Bella observed, "The house has excellent movement for parties." With not the first clue what that meant—if Sally were here, surely, she could translate—Toad looked around the well-appointed entryway with new eyes, now seeing how many hours his mother must have spent, to say nothing of the costs. "You've put a great deal of time into this, Mother. Far more than I considered."

"Thank you for noticing. I took stock just after you left for France and have been working on it steadily since then."

"Have you shouldered the cost? May I reimburse you, or at least give you a note?"

"Your properties generate enough income to cover the building costs, thanks to your father's careful management, so I have submitted those bills to him, to be paid from your accounts. The decorative elements will be my birthday gift to you."

Toad smiled. "I am delighted you utilized my accounts, and I thank you for your thoughtful gift. I am feeling overextended at the moment, with upkeep for four new residences overnight—no, five, if one includes repairs to the Brickdale estate—so it is good to know at least one refurbishment will not eat into my capital."

"I am happy to do it, and for the Brickdale estate, too, though I will not pay for that. But Abersham, there is plenty of capital, yours upon request."

"The offer is very kind, but thank you, no. Father will be selling Brickdale to pay the note I owe to Arturo on my home in Florence. Shall we go to the dining room, and I will tell you about the furniture and appointments I've purchased for the villa? Sally is going to be overjoyed. I've bought more fabrics in shades of purple than I ever knew existed. She can drape the whole house with it."

"I am sure Sally would not be so tasteless as that."

He escorted his mother to the table, and she blessedly stopped offering him money he did not want to take. She refused the seat at the foot of the table, however, saying, "That is your marchioness's seat, and in any case, I wish to be close enough to hear you speak." With a glance at the head, she added, "That chair, however, is yours."

He hadn't had such an agreeable day with his mother in years. But on the way back to Wellstone, he finally had to address the topic he had been avoiding. "I will leave England soon. I'm expected in Italy, then Greece, and then I will be traveling for a time. I would like to chase after Sally, but if I do that, I will not be able to support her when we return."

"You needn't concern yourself with supporting a wife. You have plenty of money."

"No, Mother, you and the duke have plenty of money. But I shall, too, given a year or two and great good luck. Regardless, even if my trust were signed over tomorrow, I have given my word to return to Italy with Piero, then meet Bey and Zajac in Greece to launch Delphinus, as soon as I have settled my affairs in England. Which will be at the end of this week, when I take my seat in Parliament."

"I knew you would be leaving. I am utterly downcast that it will be without Sally."

Toad clenched his jaw and said nothing. He would not entirely forgive either of his parents until Sally was safely his wife.

Finally, the duchess said, timidly, cautiously, "Are you prepared for all the ceremonial folderol associated with your seat?"

Nostrils flaring, but tone fully modulated, he answered. "Father has talked me through it. I imagine I can get through it without disgracing the House of Wellbridge."

"Yes, I imagine you can."

"And if I cannot comport myself with dignity and solemnity, he has informed me, he will tell everyone I am Harburn and no relation. I am not certain he was joking."

Her lips twitched and one corner turned up. "I am afraid I cannot help you. I am not certain either."

A long period of silence ensued. Eventually, Toad said, "I will leave my proxy with Lord Tarrington; he most closely reflects my politics. I plan to be gone at least a year, but I will not return until I know Sally will be here to say vows. Everywhere I look in London, I am reminded of what I have lost. Without meaning any offense, there is nothing for me in England without her."

"I understand, and you do not cause offense. I will do everything I can, and so will your father. Now, there is a stretch here where we can run flat-out without encountering a buggy or harming anyone's crops. Will you race?"

"Of course I will race. Don't be daft. And I'll win, too."

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