Captain Hawley gestured everyone but Toad to the door. "I got to talk to His Lordship a mo', afore he decides what to do with the scum we brought."
The others dutifully filed out; none had outgrown the habit of doing what Hawley said, after two years under his tutelage.
Arms folded across his chest, Toad waited to hear what this was all about.
"Your Lordship, 'case you don't hear the first time, I will say it again: a duke don't do his own wetwork. You want to torture that sniveling coward to pay him back for hurting your lady, or you just want to beat answers out of his worthless hide, I'll be right beside you—shackle him meself. But I knowed you since you was not a sennight old, and I don't think you are that kind; I 'spect you'll wish you hadn't, once you're done. And I don't think you can keep the loyalty of your men, if they see you do the damage you are thinking about right now."
Toad looked away, but he didn't confirm or deny anything Hawley said. He didn't have to.
"When it comes to killing him—and it had better come to killing him, Your Lordship, after I carted him all this way—I'm sure you could do it; taught you meself, anything Missus Bella en't. But you're going to be a duke, Your Lordship. No need to kill a man yourself 'less you want to do it, and you en't the sort to want to do it.
"Your mother and her first husband already paid me afore you was even born to do your whole family's dirty work into the afterlife. I will say the same to you I said to Missus Bella thirty years ago: Men like me was put here to keep people like you out of hell, and my soul can't be no more damned, no matter what I do for you. You need never think I will take your side against Missus Bella, 'cause I'll kill you where you stand, if she asks it. But if I can do her son a service, Lord Harburn, it is yours to command."
Toad sat suddenly and ran a hand across his face and through his hair. "You are right, Captain. You are entirely correct. And I thank you for sending everyone out while you made your point." With a sigh, he asked, "Will it not seem cowardly if I do not kill him myself after he did such harm to my lady?" Looking Hawley directly in the eye, he amended, "Will it not be cowardly? Even the duchess would kill Crowhurst right now, given the chance. My father killed the man who kidnapped my mother."
"Yer father pay a heavy price for that, right enough. 'Twould only be cowardly if you let Crowbait go free. And for all Missus Bella knows about killing a man, she en't never had to do it, since she had her husbands and her soldiers and sailors behind her, and she en't never hesitated to step aside for her own good when she was told to. Do this right, Harburn, 'twill be duke-like." Hawley strode to the door to recall the others.
"How do I—?"
As the others filed in, Hawley said, as though he were just tying up the loose ends of a conversation that never happened, "As you say, Your Lordship, we've got nowhere particular to go and plenty of time to convince Crowbait to answer questions. Be pleased to take charge of gettin' what you need from 'im, and I got a couple boys travelled with me who like this sorta thing. You've noble things to do, my lord; I could send for you to take your pound of flesh once we wrung everything else we can out of him."
"Excellent. I will look for a report this time tomorrow, then."
"And ever' day 'til yer done with 'im, my lord." Hawley doffed his hat and slipped out of the room.
"As to reports," Toad gestured to the others to sit and took the brandy from the cabinet to pour. "Have we done it? Five percent each of Seventh Sea and Kopet Dag?"
Trading glances with the others that declined to comment on Toad ostensibly sending men to torture Crowhurst, Zajac said, "As of two weeks ago, I have stolen eight cargoes from Kopet Dag buyers and six from Seventh Sea, which is four more since I last reported. That is in addition to the custom I siphoned off by redirecting my father's business and buying exclusivity from some shared suppliers."
"I've only managed to buy a dozen cargoes out from under them in ports," Bey sad, shaking his head sadly, "but I have taken at least as many of their suppliers on three different continents, and have personally spoken to every one of their customers I could find anywhere on the globe, and stolen more than half."
"Eighteen cargoes for me," Piero smirked. "And dozens of suppliers who have now given us exclusivity. And four crooked vendors turned off our books, now taking places left open in our competitors' supply chains."
"My total of commandeered cargoes remains the same as last we spoke of it, seven," Toad added, "as I have been largely landlocked for the past six months. But I have stolen Grand Duke Leopold's business from Seventh Sea; perhaps the Two Sicilies as well, but I must travel there to finalize arrangements."
"Excellent!" Piero exclaimed, holding his glass up as if for a toast. "I was not sure that could be done, as enamored as the man is with your mother."
"Nor I, but I have convinced him youth and vigor, and the heir to Seventh Sea, will serve his treasury better into the future. It was with Lena's help we acquired the business, by the by, Piero, as the Grand Duke has taken quite a liking to your sister."
Piero's shoulder jerked, and his brandy sloshed in the glass. "He's what?"
Toad held up a hand. "A fatherly interest, as he is so pleased she has married his hand-picked nobleman. Do not be distracted, Piero. You are the money man. All tallied, have we won Firthley's bets for him or not? Can I tell him when he comes that he owes us the ownership interest, not just the share of revenue?"
Tapping one finger on the ledger, Piero smiled. "It is difficult to assign an exact value to the interruption of Seventh Sea's and Kopet Dag's custom without examining their books. But just based on the hard money we've cost them in shipments we've purchased out from under them, I believe we can argue the case. To say nothing of the finished fleet and yards and contracts scheduled the next two years out."
"I will be pleased to tell my uncle this news. We've done twice as well in half the time as planned."
"Milord?" One of the urchins kept aboard to do the bidding of everyone else poked his head in, not looking any of the noblemen in the eye. "Milord Harburn, Sir, bosun has a gennelmun on the gangplank wishing to speak with you."
"Lord Firthley, I 'fink he said, milord. Officers don't got to tell me nuffink, sir."
"Firthley! Please bring him back here posthaste, and if any officer says otherwise, you may send him directly to me for a flogging in as imperious a manner as you please."
All four men adjusted their attire, and Toad swept an eye across the room for clutter, placing three different books into the cubby next to his chair, rolling and storing a few loose maps, and finally, filling empty glasses. Soon enough, the owner of Delphinus Shipping appeared in the doorway.
"Uncle Firthley! I wasn't expecting you for another few days, but it is so good to see you at last. We have just been..." He stopped short on his way to the door to welcome his uncle. "What is it?"
"I am afraid our meeting must be rearranged, both in timing and purpose."
"Rearranged?" Toad asked. "Why is that? You are here; we are here... All five of us have travelled many thousands of miles." He began to pour brandy into a clean glass for Firthley.
He dropped the decanter, shattering it against the wooden floor, when Firthley said, simply and quietly, "I'm afraid you must return home immediately... Your Grace."
The whole room fell silent; the very ship seemed to stop rocking, as everyone in earshot learned Toad was now the Duke of Wellbridge.
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...