Chapter Seventy-Two: Part 1

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Wellstone felt like it should echo, like the halls and rooms should be empty and silent as a tomb, as deadened as Toad's spirit. The chill in his bones surely must be the drafty halls of the old manor, so he ordered the fires to be built up in every room. Yet, he felt ice should coat the windows as it did Toad's heart, freezing time at the sight of black-cloth-covered mirrors.

But no, there was activity and bustling everywhere Toad looked, albeit muted in deference to the widow's grief, for the business of the village and manor must go on, even during the transition from one duke to another. And no matter the depth of the new duke's grief and regret, he was not afforded the same luxury as the widow. Toad would immure himself in weeds head to foot, if it would stop stewards and solicitors and tenants from requesting continual audience.

And if it would stop even one person from calling him "Your Grace." He had only just accustomed himself to Harburn and now he must take on his own father's name.

He'd been here in his father's study with the door closed for the past hour, composing a letter to Sally, sometimes in his mind and sometimes on paper. He felt as though he was navigating the world with only one arm, trying to ascend to the title without her.

The lap desk bounced when his knee began to shake, so he stilled himself and added to the letter.

It is the strangest sensation imaginable to be called "Your Grace" incessantly, or referred to as His Grace of Wellbridge. I always look around for my father. My mother has taken it as a personal mission to accustom me to the title, so will call me nothing but Your Grace or Wellbridge, no matter how I beg her to stop. She stepped on my toe yesterday when the vicar visited, and I exhibited the temerity to sigh at his fortieth "Your Grace." I so long for you to be here to endure the oddity with me, so we might compare notes and assist each other in the transition. I cannot say how I wish you had been my wife these past years, that we might have begun building our life together long before now. Would that you had been Lady Abersham, then Lady Harburn, and were now ascending to be Her Grace by my side.

Damn Haverford twice over. He would be managing this entire unwelcome transition far better if he had his duchess with him. He needed Sally, and given the weight of his new responsibilities, he yearned for her. He knew what she would say at each new decision, for how many hours had they spent discussing the sorts of nobles they wished to be? But he ached to hear her say it, preferably curled up at his side in his bed after a long and lusty romp.

And still worse, at least momentarily:

I beg you do not repeat it to your father, for it might give him an incorrect impression of my feelings toward him, but I am also feeling keenly the loss of my godfather's affection. I do not believe we can ever regain that relationship, and I do not seek reconciliation, but I never imagined I would have to face becoming a duke without my Uncle Haverford's guidance.

A knock at the door to his father's study arrested his attention. It felt peculiar to be the arbiter of who could enter.

"Come in."

"Your Grace," his mother said from the doorway.

"Oh, do cease calling me that."

She shut the door behind her and moved to the chair she always took, across the occasional table from his father's chair before the hearth. So, right next to where Toad had spent the last hour staring into the fire, avoiding responsibility and bemoaning his lot.

"I will not, Your Grace, as you must learn to hear it with good grace, pardon my pun. There is naught but repetition to achieve the objective, Wellbridge, I assure you. Poor, shy Miss Bella Smithson learned to be Baroness Holsworthy, the Countess of Huntleigh, and the Duchess of Wellbridge across twenty years, with accompanying changes in my stationery, and you shall accustom yourself, too, as you must."

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