Chapter Sixty-Eight, Part 4

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Piero cleared his throat and topped up Toad's glass. "He, er, helped her defend a native from something or other. The gossip says they fought together with swords to save a woman from certain death, and the natives declared Lady Sarah a goddess."

Toad felt the world swaying a bit more than was comfortable, so he seated himself. "One assumes the same gossip cannot apply to both my mother in Africa and Lady Sarah in India, four decades apart, so that will be a half-truth, or any at all. But still... this is a disaster. Bloody Maddox turning up in the middle of Sally's foreign adventure is a disaster." His right hand rubbing across his face and through his hair, he dropped into the nearest chair, defeated. "No, if Maddox is a suitor for Sally's hand, it is as good as done. How I will hate watching Haverford gloat."

At that, Piero's eyes narrowed. "You are a great booby, Toad Abersham. If you will not even fight to keep your lady, you do not deserve her. She is not betrothed. You have acclaim or your own, plus a dukedom and shipping empire in waiting, you count royalty all over Europe as friends, and I have seen you speak to no less than half a dozen heads of state."

Toad placed his hands on his knees and pushed himself up from the chair. "You are right. I must set sail for the Victoria and Albert Islands tomorrow morning."

Piero held up a hand. "No, you are not sailing anywhere. It is your turn on dry land being overrun with chattering d'Alvieri females for at least the next three months, and you will not leave me here to endure it in your stead. And you know we cannot spare a ship for your personal use, since you loaned your frigate to the Grand Duke. And now we must provide another to King Otto? You are too free with our fleet as it is, without trying to steal another ship for your personal mission."

Toad stood to pace the length of the long table, with a sharp nod to show he knew better than to think he could indulge himself. "You will never repeat what I say before Sally, but I wish to heaven my mother had never taught her to use guns and knives. It infuriates me that she is driven to undertake her own protection. Defending a native with a sword? Where are the guards my mother promised? Why was she forced to fight for her own life, much less anyone else's? It is intolerable! And it makes a bloody hero out of Maddox, who already understands her deuced math problems!"

"Do not take everything I say as fact, only the gossip as it is bandied about in London. I have most of it from Gills and Etcetera, because I wasn't going to ask your parents to repeat it, and your gossipy cousin, Lady Julia, is quiet as a mouse unless she is refuting all charges against you. All of the talk, thankfully, has been muted by the effort to clear your names, and it is difficult to tell legitimate information from the lies and half-truths Lord and Lady Athol are peddling at your mother's command."

"That is, I assume, the point."

"I imagine so, but do not ask me to divine the intentions of a duchess. Your father is in London working tirelessly at Westminster and at Court to find someone to replace Haverford as governor of the islands, and your mother is gleefully tormenting your cousin and her husband, and entertaining countless ladies for tea and re-education on the topic of Lord Abersham and Lady Sarah."

Toad finished his glass and walked to the fireplace to add a log. "And what is my sister doing?"

Piero's mouth flapped open and he looked at his knees. "She was... taking care of animals, as she always does, and trying to avoid going to parties and entertaining gentlemen."

Toad's lips twisted. "Why is she avoiding the Season? Did something happen to give her an aversion?"

"No, nothing like that. She is simply bored by the round of parties and the same endless conversation over tea and biscuits. She cannot speak of anything that truly interests her without inviting censure."

Toad nodded. She had lasted longer than he had thought she would. He hoped she would meet a gentleman by happenstance who would indulge her odd fixation on veterinary medicine and her penchant for reading scientific journals instead of romantic novels, but he would also see that she was well-seated to do anything she wished with her life, with or without a husband.

"I have the ledgers from North Africa here, if you'd like to praise me for increasing our profit by five percent over last quarter."

"Yes, by all means, tell me how much money I have made, then explain how your mother and Lena have ridden roughshod over Blakeley and spent the same twice over to make my manor house 'pretty.'"

"If I could explain how my sisters do that, Arturo would have petitioned the Grand Duke to give me my own title."

They clinked glasses and Piero opened up a ledger.

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