Chapter Eighty-Two

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Ten minutes later, Toad was yet staring out the back window, but he recognised Haverford's foot fall outside the door, then his cough. When the man said, "Your Grace, you wished to speak to me?" Toad took one last deep breath before he turned.

"Your Grace." Both men bowed as deeply as one duke does another, which is to say, not deeply at all. Toad took a seat behind his father's desk and offered the visitor's chair to Haverford. He poured two brandies, but even as Haverford sat back, cradling the glass, Toad's back remained stiff.

"I mean to marry Lady Sarah as soon as she agrees and it is practicable. I will hear no answer but hers, and you may be sure if she will have me, I'll not tarry, no matter who opposes us. We will be wed later today, if I have my preference, Lord Maddox and everyone else be damned. Including you, Sir." His ire rising with every word, he leaned forward to add, "No, especially you."

"Ah, I see. Well then, if you are going to damn me—as I do not deny you have every right to do—you'd better start calling me Uncle Haverford again."

At that, Toad sat back and took a long draught of his brandy. While the meeting in London, had calmed some of his anger and given him a flicker of hope, he hadn't expected Haverford to capitulate now that he was sober.

He took a deep breath before he accepted the olive branch. "Uncle Haverford, then."

"Good. Well, then." Haverford sipped his drink. "Your Grace—Wellbridge, if I may presume—I am sorry it has taken so much time and so much enmity to bring us here. I do not apologise for separating the pair of you when you were little more than children, nor keeping you from a runaway marriage. Nor do I apologise for my concerns when you proposed or my fully justified reaction at the stories I was told or my utter disgust at that scrapbook. But—"

"For what, pray tell, do you apologize, if not one of the things you've done to wrong me?" Toad intended his remark to be ironic, but too much residual indignation leaked in to his tone.

With only a brief rise of one eyebrow, Haverford suggested emphatically that Toad recall how no argument with his father had ever ended well. Toad settled back in his chair, but he didn't drop his eyes at Haverford's subtle challenge.

"I should have treated you like adults long before now. Cherry told me. Bella, too. Even Nick, at the end, though I never answered his letter demanding apology for the way I'd treated you." Haverford winced at a memory, and Toad just sat, flabbergasted at the thought of his father demanding apology on Toad's behalf. "I should have let you find your own way together many months ago. But I took the decision away from you both when I took Sally abroad, and I deeply regret it."

Toad stared at him with widened eyes and took a sip of brandy. The apology was as comprehensive as it was unexpected. Reminding himself that this was Uncle Haverford, his beloved's dear father, and not merely the obstacle to his happiness, he managed to nod. "Good of you to say so."

"I am sorry you feel you must wrench Sally away from me before she is taken from you. It is my fault you are so angry, and I deserve your wrath. Sally's, too. In truth, Wellbridge, she has never, for one moment, belonged to another man. No matter how far I took her from you, no matter what obstacles I constructed, there was never a chance I could keep her from you."

The hope Haverford himself had seeded in London stirred. "She is not set on Maddox, then?"

Haverford shrugged just a bit too carelessly to seem unconcerned. "She could love Maddox, I think—and he certainly loves her to distraction, poor bloke—but I don't think she can let you go. And I don't think she should, after all this time. I am certain Maddox knows it, as he told me so just before he left to return home a few minutes ago. He left it to me to give you both his best wishes."

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