Chapter Seventy-Four: Part 3

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"I will not hear you speak of your sister in such a disgraceful manner before a nobleman, nor anyone else, and I am personally offended you might consider I would leave my daughter alone with any man, of any class, at any time. Hold your tongue before you say something that will require I challenge you."

"Yes, Your Grace. I apologize for my injudicious speech." Toad mumbled, with no good grace at all. A challenge by his mother would only result in a shredded suit and an apology to Almyra at sword point. His father had warned him after the first time, there was no way to win against the duchess, and with near-constant practice whenever Captain Hawley was in port, she had only grown more formidable over the years. "Please, Your Grace, be seated," he said, because it was the only option her stony countenance gave him. "I daresay you have things to add to this dialogue."

"I daresay I do." Bella took a seat in the chair next to Piero, across the vast desk. "Lord Piero, it is very good to see you again. I am pleased you have come to visit." With a twist to her lips, she added, "And I am pleased His Grace has showed the wisdom to put you up in the village, which demonstrates better judgment than his father."

Toad smirked at Piero until his mother frowned at him.

"I find you, Your Grace, to be exceedingly hypocritical, maintaining the fiction that Lord Piero will not be welcome in this family when it was your father's intent before he died. Especially as you use debauchery with women as your excuse, at the same time you beg everyone to allow you have changed and grown in the years you have been away. I daresay, my dear son, I know more about Lord Piero, and more about what you got up to with him in the ports of Europe, than anyone else on Earth, barring only the men we hired to look into it. So, you may only use those exploits to dismiss Lord Piero if you also agree you should be barred from marriage to Sally."

"My marriage to Sally is not under discussion."

"It need not be, if you withdraw your ridiculous objections and do the right thing for your sister. You remind me of Haverford, my boy, and I cannot think you wish to do to your sister what he did to you."

Toad felt himself pale and chill.

"I did not come to discuss whether my daughter will marry Lord Piero, but rather, the terms of their union. I suggest we move to that portion of the discussion without further ado."

Now Piero was smirking.

"As you repeat day in and day out, ad nauseum, Mother: I. Am. The. Duke. No contracts were signed by the prior holder of this office, and I am not obligated to honour a decision I did not make, the wishes of my mother notwithstanding."

Piero stood then, his finger pointed at Toad over the desk, his face thunderous. "You cannot be speaking the same words Chiara's brother used to deny her marriage to Arturo. After all we went through to accomplish the impossible? That is shameful, Wellbridge. It is shameful."

Toad felt the heat rising in his face. It was shameful, and he knew it. His mother said not a word. She didn't have to; she only had to look at his face to know he was trying to break out of his own stubbornness. Presumably, he looked just like his father while he did it, for she used a handkerchief to wipe her eyes.

"I will give you my shares of Delphinus as a wedding gift."

Bella nodded her approval and Piero broke out in a broad grin and sat back down.

"But..." Toad held up a hand to stop Piero speaking. "When I have gathered our stakeholders, I will suggest Seventh Sea subsume Delphinus' operations, with shares converted by a formula to be determined, which will increase their value by many, many times. If you take Almyra's dowry in shares, and also vote hers—"

"My daughter will vote her own shares as long as I live," Bella snapped.

"That is understood, Your Grace," Piero said in the soothing tone Toad had learned from him. "We have spoken of it before, and I am still in agreement. I wish to add to your daughter's life, Your Grace, not take from it."

And didn't that make Toad feel small? He was a jealous, stubborn fool to keep his sister from a man who spoke of her this way. It was exactly how he thought of Sally. Of all the women Toad had seen Piero romance, he had never spoken so tenderly of any of them.

"It will be good to welcome you to my family, Piero, as you are already the brother of my heart."

"Excellent." Bella stood, so Toad and Piero did, too. "May I invite myself for supper, Your Grace?"

"Of course you may, Mother."

"Thank you. I will leave you to your gentlemanly conversation in favour of a short rest in my old rooms, but I will have Almyra sent to speak to you."

"She is likely outside the door with her ear to the keyhole," Toad guessed, and his mother scowled at him on her way out, staring back at him pointedly when no one was at the opened door. Still, Toad was unsurprised to hear tittering when his mother was not two steps down the hall. The duchess and Almyra had likely been plotting for weeks to accomplish what had just happened. It wouldn't take but a few minutes for them to establish the pretence that Almyra had been elsewhere before she would rush in to make her pleasure known, and assuredly kiss the rogue who would be her husband. Toad wasn't sure he could stomach it.

"Thank you, Wellbridge. I appreciate your concerns for Al—Lady Almyra, and I do not wish to discount your fears. But every guardian must have fears about any potential husband, and you have a firmer grasp of who I am and what I intend than most men ever do. I mean to keep your sister and our children in comfort and in love for the rest of her days."

Toad's eyes burned, so he went to the hearth to stir the fire.

"As I believe my father would, I must offer you fair warning. Almyra's skill with a blade is not quite equivalent to mine, but better than yours. Based on the prior duke's experience with my mother, and my own, I will kindly suggest you never wager on the outcome of a fencing match with her, and you never give her reason to cut out your gizzard. In fact, along with the shares, my wedding gift to you will be a year's worth of weekly lessons, so you may bring your skills up to her level before you thoroughly regret the lapse."

Turning back, in control of his emotions once again, Toad said, "Now then. I have work to do here, so I suggest you go be quite stern with my sister when you correct that disaster of a first kiss. But only one kiss, mind, on your honour as a gentleman. I will have you both back here within a quarter-hour, or I will hunt you down with my pistol in hand."

"On my honour." Piero nearly upset the chair in his haste to run headlong after Almyra, wherever she was.

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