Chapter Sixty-Eight: Part 1

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Cold rain poured down as from buckets the night Toad finally arrived at the castello, the mid-point between Livorno and Toad's and Piero's conjoined estates. It had been three months since he had set out for Greece to commence operations. Now, his three-month rotation was complete, and Piero was expecting him to manage both estates when they returned from their respective expeditions—and Arturo's if he hadn't yet returned from France—while Piero travelled to Spain to do business with cousins there, and Toad poached his mother's concerns in Italy by ruthlessly exploiting his status as her heir.

Had it not been dark and wet and cold, he might have pushed ahead to his own property, and ascertained Arturo's location later, but he was covered head-to-toe in muck, as were Franks and the outriders, after pushing Toad's carriage and the baggage carriage out of mud and mire three times in as many hours. Toad counted himself lucky he would spend the night under a roof at all, instead of taking shelter with his valet and two mercenaries in a carriage stuck on the side of the road.

He banged on the huge oak double doors; it was long past dinnertime, and much of the castello was dark. To be granted rooms, they would probably have to wake someone up to accommodate them. Still, it was dark and wet and cold and the nearest village was another five miles down the soggy road.

A butler, but not the one who had been in residence last time Toad have visited, answered the door fully dressed, as though he had been waiting.

"Il conte is not at home."

"I am the Marquess of Abersham, and this is my valet, Mr. Franks, hoping for a room on the way to Lord Piero's estate and my own."

The servant opened the door wide. "Lord Abersham. Of course. You are always welcome. Please, come in. I will wake a few men to take care of your carriages and baggage and tell the count and countess and the housekeeper you are here. She will have to assign you a room." Looking Toad up and down, he cleared his throat and said, "I, however, can order you baths." He held out his hand for their muddy coats and dripping hats. "I will have a maid address the laundering of your clothes in the morning." He tugged on a bell pull to alert the night footman and kitchen maid. To Franks, he added, "If you will go to the kitchens down that hall, someone will bring you some food and take you to a room. I will have someone else draw a bath and take a tray to Lord Abersham."

With a nod to Toad, he gestured a different direction. "If you would like to wait in the Great Hall, my lord, I can have a fire laid and provide refreshments of a limited sort while we prepare a room."

"Excellent," Toad said. "You are a prince among men...?"

"Garza, sir. And I hardly think myself a prince, but I shall endeavour to give you the warmest welcome of the House of d'Alvieri. I joined the household with il conte Torelli while il conte d'Alvieri was in France."

"Ah, so Lena and her new husband have taken up residence here."

"For the time being, yes, Your Lordship." Bringing Toad into a huge room at least three stories tall, with a gallery above them on all sides, he pointed out the wine and other drinks. "If you will excuse me, I will send in the night footman to lay a fire and return with food after I rouse the count and countess."

"Please, you needn't wake—"

"It is a standing order for the staff, my lord. If you will excuse me."

"Very well. But I am capable of managing the fireplace. Please do offer my apologies for disturbing the household and forcing people out into the rain."

"It is our role to see to your comfort, day or night. If you will not object to building up the fire, I shall, instead, ask the night footman to carry water for your baths."

"Most appreciated, Garza. Thank you," Toad said.

The man bowed himself out.

Toad went to the hearth—a fireplace large enough for three people to stand upright with arms extended, if it weren't housing banked coals. Toad raked out the coals and used the bellows to feed the flame, following it with kindling from the brass hob and two logs from the stack filling the inglenook.

Once finished, he stripped off his jacket and waistcoat and cravat, hanging them on the fire screen to dry. He would have preferred to relieve himself of his sopping wet shirt, too, but it wouldn't do to upset the housekeeper or maids first thing. And the countess had already seen him entirely too undressed the night she escaped her brother's castle.

So, he pulled a chair nearer the fireplace before he made his way to the drinks. Claret or hock or Madeira, or what looked to be a good Malbec... Opening more decanters, sniffing each one and looking at the colour against the now-roaring fire, he found brandy, whiskey, three different amaris and grappa and amaretto. Arturo was the prince among men, to keep such a well-stocked cellar.

Toad poured a scant glass of the Malbec and watered it, taking his seat before the fire, and Garza returned with a plate of fruit, bread, and cheese. "I have a bath arranged, and a suite of rooms, and a man to assist you while Mr. Franks recovers himself. You will have a hot meal in an hour, and the count and countess will join you in your sitting room by then."

"Excellent. But do not concern the cook for me." He waved a hand at the tray. "This is sufficient until morning; I have lived on less. Clean, dry clothes will seem miracle enough." Toad selected a pear from the tray and took a bite, carrying his wine. "Lead on."

After a hot bath, a change of clothes, and a solid meal the housekeeper would not allow him to decline, Toad sipped brandy until Arturo appeared in a dressing gown, embracing Toad with a kiss on each cheek. "My friend. My brother. It is good to have you in this house again. You are ever my welcome guest. My countess will greet you in the morning. She needs her sleep at the moment..."

With a slow grin, Toad said, "Oh, that is excellent news. Your mother must be delighted. I assume your flight to Paris was a success?"

"A success—a miracle. We were safely wed on board ship, and I have made my peace with Matteo, in full, not part. I have given him a piece of land he has wanted to buy since my father's time, and he was delighted with his dividends from you and Piero. On reflection, he felt guilty about letting Chiara run off into the night without searching for her and was grateful I had married her straightaway. We are scandalous, but it is true love, so Italy will forgive us all." He shrugged. "Matteo has come to terms with his nearest neighbours and new family disagreeing with him on everything political. You will have to talk yourself out of pretending to be a monarchist, for he believes you will argue his side."

Toad laughed. "I will find myself swayed by your radical views after all, much to my chagrin. But I will lose to him at cards, and all will be well."

"It worked for Piero. He convinced Matteo he had been persuaded of my positions during his travels—he returned a fortnight ago, if you do not know."

"Oh, very good. I was delayed, and I hoped he hadn't left. He has little time to spare"

"He is waiting impatiently. Now, I leave you to your bed, Abersham. We will talk more in the morning."

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