Chapter Sixty-Three: Part 3

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Chiara frowned and yanked herself back, as though trying to escape too amorous an advance, complaining a bit louder than a lady should. "My lord, you mustn't hold me so close. I must ask you to return me to my brother."

With his voice pitched to carry, he replied, "Ah, my sweet, just finish the dance with me. I find myself entranced." In her ear, he whispered, "I will need to speak to your brother alone when I return you to him, and then I must leave to meet Arturo. I will see you again soon." She nodded and settled down, submitting herself to the rest of the dance, and he kept himself one royal step away from her until he delivered her back to her brother.

"Lord Abersham," il conte began, "d'Alvieri has been telling me your sad circumstance."

Narrowing his eyes at Piero, as though annoyed at his private life being aired, Toad shrugged. "There are plenty of women to be had in the world." He let his eyes rest in strategic locations on Donna Chiara's lush form. "Though it would be excellent to find a lovely one, since I will have to get children on her. Now that I finally have access to my trust, and the duke seems likely to bequeath me my rightful titles and portion any moment, I can certainly afford the best when I go searching for my duchess. Or rather, future duchess. One does not wish to seem anxious for one's parents' demise, does one? Not the done thing at all."

Chiara sniffed and turned up her nose. "If you will excuse me, I will find the ladies' retiring room."

Toad bowed low but kept his eyes on her cleavage as he grabbed her hand and kissed it. "I hope to see you very soon, Donna Chiara."

She swept away without saying a word. By the look on her brother's face, she would hear about that rudeness in the carriage on the way home, but as Arturo had said, Toad would not hear a word of objection for his. He was far too rich for that. He did his best to mitigate the damage he might have done between the lady and her putative guardian.

"I do love a girl who doesn't make things too easy, if you understand my meaning?" He chuckled and il conte followed suit in a terribly unctuous way. Piero had said he needed money and would not be averse to selling his sister's hand, especially to Arturo's enemy.

"I do not mind saying, your sister is a beautiful girl, Fratini. I wonder if you'd mind me calling on her? Take her for a ride and whatnot?"

"Whatnot?"

Toad leered. "Just wish to see how she sits a horse, if you take my meaning."

His jaw tight, il conte nevertheless ignored the obvious insult to Chiara, and said, "We would be pleased to welcome you to our home for luncheon Saturday next, and perhaps afterward, you might take a drive with Donna Chiara in one of our carriages. Escorted."

Toad rubbed his hands together and licked his lips. "Excellent. I will look forward to it. Don't mind if the lady is a bit reluctant. I can make her see my better qualities, given a bit of time to... converse ."

"I will not allow you to toy with my sister, my lord. If your intentions are not honourable, you may consider the invitation rescinded."

"Nothing of the sort, Fratini! My intentions are entirely honourable. I need a beautiful and aristocratic wife before my mother marries me to a debutante in absentia, and the one I had planned on acquiring has decamped for parts unknown. You have a luscious-looking sister in need of a wealthy, titled husband who can appropriately appreciate her beauty. Why should I marry an ugly Englishwoman, when I can marry a beautiful Italian girl instead?"

Fratini raised a brow but shrugged. "I cannot fault your logic. I will look for you at about two o'clock on Saturday. My sister is partial to violets."

Toad made his bow. "Outstanding. I look forward to it. Please say my goodbyes to Donna Chiara."

On his way out, he saw Chiara in a side hall, so he caught her eye and gave her a quick nod, then strode out of the party to his carriage, where Arturo and Piero were waiting.

***

The Duke of Haverford was only too delighted to have his cousin's son available to squire Lady Sarah around Calicut. Fortunately, the man was much older than Lady Sarah. Penchley took comfort in the age gap, and also in Maddox's wandering life. He had not been in England in eight years, travelling from one place to another chasing ways and places to test his various scientific theories.

There could not be much money in science, could there? And ballooning was an expensive hobby, or so Penchley had always understood. Even if Lady Sarah was tempted to look beyond that lecher Harburn, surely Haverford would not give her hand to a poverty-stricken third son with expensive habits?

The duke took a different view. "Why can't our daughter fall for Maddox?" he said to his wife as they strolled on the terrace outside their apartments in the Governor General's palace. "Look at them, Cherry! They're having a marvellous time."

Penchley, waiting patiently for His Grace to return to the correspondence they had been answering when Her Grace commanded her husband's attention, reluctantly agreed. He'd been delighted, when he came out here, to see Lord Maddox and Lady Sarah in vigorous argument in the garden. But it hadn't taken long to see they were debating some complicated mathematical theorem, and with every evidence of enjoyment. Penchley frowned. Such intelligence was unbecoming in a lady, but Maddox did not seem to mind.

"Sally does not see Maddox as a suitor," the duchess told her husband. "Poor Maddox. I thought the age difference between them might protect him. Thank goodness we leave in a few days."

The duke sighed. "It would be very suitable. Not just that they share interests — no one could cavil at his breeding. My mother and his grandmother were sisters. He is a younger son, but his inventions won him a title of his own almost before he was out of short pants, and my cousin Rede has passed on to all his offspring his ability to make money almost without thinking about it. Maddox is very tidily placed, Cherry, and could keep our girl in the style she deserves."

The duchess shook her head. "You are right, my love, but she will have none but Harburn. Who, I might add, also has all the breeding, wealth, and rank we might desire, and is our dear godson, besides."

The duke's next sigh was deeper. "I had hoped for a letter by now, explaining his truancy. Nothing. What can be preventing him from returning to England, or at least from writing? I wish I had your faith in the boy, Cherry."

Penchley shifted uneasily, then stilled. Haverford could read nervousness in his underlings and had an uncanny ability to guess at its source. Not, of course, that anyone would think Penchley might have abstracted letters from the diplomatic pouch before handing them to their rightful recipient.

That excrescence Harburn had written a litany of excuses for his late arrival in England, and a tarradiddle about letters going astray — something about the duke's foreign nephew being his mail box, and the letters following the prince around Northern Europe. Penchley didn't believe a word of it, but Lady Sarah would.

No. He had to keep that letter from Lady Sarah. All would still work out. They would leave Maddox behind in Calicut, and Penchley would continue to court the lady. And once she accepted him as her destiny, he would no longer need to take such drastic measures to protect her from knowledge that could only do her harm.

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