Chapter Seventy-Four: Part 1

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"Show him in, please, Blakeley."

The younger Blakeley had finally returned to England to allow his uncle to retire, though prying him out of the duchess's employ had proved impossible, so he was now managing the dower house. Toad's Blakeley was now managing Toad's various estates from his seat, but not until this very moment did Toad recognize exactly how much he had come to rely on his steward.

Toad's guest had been expected by everyone in the house for the past fortnight, but no one knew when he would appear, and the tension had been playing havoc with everyone, from the duke down to the scullery maids. Blakeley's contribution to the entire situation was to act as though he had never heard the man's name before and to tell Toad unbidden that his allegiance was entirely with the House of Wellbridge.

Toad straightened his morning coat, refilled his coffee cup, and took a seat behind the expansive desk that had belonged to the Duke of Wellbridge for at least six generations, crossing his right ankle over his left knee. He added sugar to his coffee, then leaned back slightly in his chair. He would be damned if he was made uncomfortable in his own study.

True to form, Blakeley cleared his throat and announced, "Lord Piero d'Alvieri of Florence," and did not spare Piero a glance, presumably until Toad gave him some sort of sign of the duke's intentions. Sadly, Toad couldn't possibly know what such a sign would be. Nor, for that matter, his intentions.

For the first time since he had ascended to the title, Toad showed no visible reaction to "Your Grace" when Piero spoke, one foot in the room and one still in the hall. Toad had learned a public-school façade years ago, but the motionless depth of this ducal mask was something he'd never felt before, until it appeared unbidden at the thought of arranging his sister's marriage.

"Lord Piero." He did not invite his friend to sit.

To his credit, Piero did not try, just remained standing, drawn to his full height, hands resting easily at his sides. "I did not expect to receive a formal invitation from the duchy, Your Grace."

"I did not expect the duke would have to formally ascertain your intentions toward Lady Almyra. Especially when I have lived on the next estate over for the past year, while you have been sneaking back and forth to England using company resources."

"Are you angry I have been paying court to your sister, or angry I kept it from you?"

"Both. And it was not just you who kept it from me. Seemingly, everyone in my entire extended family—indeed, most of England—had knowledge of the budding romance but me, down to my nasty cousin, Jewel, and her disgrace of a husband, Lord Athol, who both informed me of your unsuitability over supper before Firthley put a stop to it. My Aunt Charlotte told me I could not dither over a decision my parents had already made. How is it, Lord Piero, that my mother and father had already made a decision about my younger sister and my best friend marrying, but none of you said a word about it to me?"

"Did none of these scads of loose-lipped idiots explain why it was kept from you?"

Toad slammed his hand down on his desk. "They do not have to! I know why! And I cannot deny I have had suspicions. I might have done the same if I'd courted Lena, but I cannot help but feel slighted by the omission."

"We did not mean to—"

"I understand it; I do. Who knows what ridiculous impulse will drive a man to do what stupid thing when the honour of his sister is involved? We are both young and impetuous and foolish. My mother and Firthley were wise to suggest you keep your own counsel."

"Your mother said—"

Toad held up a hand. "For. A. Time. But you should have told me before you visited my family home without me. You should have spoken to me before you spoke to my father. You and my sister are in the Betting Book at White's these six months past, so the whole of London knew before I did."

"I am sorry, Harb—Your Grace. I sincerely regret deceiving you. It was not the right thing to do. I should have had more faith in the strength of our friendship."

"I do not understand, Piero. If I fart in Leopold's card room, last night's supper is reported at every coffee house in London, but not one gossipy, obnoxious courtier could call me aside to give me the news? How on Earth did you manage it?"

"It was not—no one intended—there was no concerted effort to keep it from you. Only we agreed—your family and Firthley—that it would be best not to upset you while the company was still precarious. I do not know how the information did not accidentally make its way from White's to you in Italy. Luck, I suppose, though good or bad can be debated. I did not hide my visits or my intentions from anyone else but you. And I would not have hidden them from you forever, only until your father gave his blessing."

"I—" Toad's voice broke and he looked away. "I wish you had let me tell my father what will make you a good husband to my sister. I would have, you know, had you asked." Clearing his throat and motioning Piero to a seat, he sat forward and poured them both brandy. "Which is not to say I will not be interrogating you thoroughly and completely about every aspect of your life and your plans for Lady Almyra. You may not presume you will be granted your desire, and you will wish, Lord Piero, you had asked my father before he died."

With a slight smirk, Piero shrugged and said, "I did. He was to make enquiries with my man of business and his acquaintances in Leopold's court and give me an answer upon my next trip to England. So... now."

"I know what he will hear from your man of business, but what would my father have heard from Florence? How many of the noblewomen of Italy are you in bed with, Piero? How many women do you have waiting in ports all over Europe, dreaming of your next visit the same way my sister does?"

"None, since the day I asked your father's blessing. And fewer than you imagine before that."

That could be true or not, and Toad could never confirm it. He knew Piero had long since given up his adolescent sport with virgins of every class, but the only reason Toad knew he had more appropriate paramours was that they found women in the same places while they were in France. He had little idea what Piero did or didn't do, privately anyway, with any of them.

"I did not choose to fall in love with your sister, Your Grace."

Toad sighed. "Stop calling me that, please. Wellbridge will be fine."

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