Chapter Sixty Five: Part 4

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An hour or so later, as Toad finally gave in and unfastened his collar, a tentative knock fell on his office door. "Enter," he called out, his eyes remaining on the map he'd just begun studying.

"My Lord Harburn." His head flew up at the sound of a lilting, playful voice. One of his cousins. The one who had been seated on his right the night before. He looked over her shoulder for a chaperone, and she giggled.

He closed the ledger and set down his pen as he rose to greet her.

"I am Nikolia. We are cousins, are we not?"

"I... er... It is probably wise to—"

"And I shall call you Harburn, as my brothers do. They said you do not like to be called lord when you are working."

"That is true. However, Miss Andreadis," he began again, coming out from behind his desk to ensure the door stayed wide open and she was at least a few pieces of furniture away. "I think it is not—"

She took off her gloves and her coat and handed them to Toad, who draped them across one of the ladder-back chairs in front of his desk.

"If you can just wait, I will go find someone to—"

"There is no one else here, and we both know it. I've come to offer to show you about the town. I can stay when my parents leave. We have a house in town."

"That cannot possibly be a good—"

"The rumours from Grand Duke Leopold's Court say you have been disappointed by your betrothed in England, and by two ladies you were courting in Florence, and that you have a preference for women from warmer climes."

Toad pulled the second chair a couple or extra feet from his desk and offered it to her, then went back around behind his desk and ledgers and hoped no one would come in before he could kindly explain himself to a daughter of Firthley's house without causing any upset to anyone.

"... . Pray allow me to explain."

"What is there to explain? You are a duke's son who will soon inherit and is in need of a wife, and you have been seeking one around the Continent. I simply do not believe you should overlook the ladies of Greece."

If she would speak so plainly, so would he. "You in particular?"

Her smirk and shrug and the dancing mischief in her eyes reminded him in an odd way of Sally, which helped him withdraw himself. "If I am the first to catch your eye, how can that harm my chances?"

"What you have heard from Italy was only gossip, and manufactured gossip, at that. It was... a feint."

She tilted her head in question, but raised her chin, as though she would do battle depending on his next words.

"I did a good deed, which will clearly not go unpunished."

She did not move to stop him continuing.

"I helped a friend gain his heart's desire by acting the immoral, monied fool for a few weeks. It was all a farce. A well-planned farce that yielded excellent results, but apparently, yet haunts me abroad."

She stared at him blankly for a moment, then threw back her head and laughed aloud; a long and lusty laugh that encompassed every ounce of the ridiculous nature of the thing.

"So, you did not lose 10,000 zecchino? And you did not have a temper tantrum in Leopold's ballroom?"

"Only 2,500, and I would not classify it as a temper tantrum, but rather, a staged disagreement pitched more loudly than was polite."

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