In this excerpt from Never Kiss a Toad, Eleanor Haverford has travelled to Paris shortly after her granddaughter has been compromised and her honorary great-nephew, Toad, has been sent away in disgrace.
Never Kiss a Toad is a Victorian novel I’m co-writing with Mariana Garbrielle and publishing one episode a week on Wattpad.
Toad felt the heat rising in his cheeks. At eighty, Aunt Eleanor had an old woman’s tendency to truth-telling, which made her one of his favourites among Sally’s relations, but could be deuced uncomfortable.
“It is always good to see you, of course, Aunt Eleanor, but I am confused. How long have you been in Paris? Have we an appointment I have forgotten?”
“My, my, Abersham. Demanding an appointment of a duchess four times your age? Winshire and I realized we had similar problems to be addressed in France and popped over for a few days.” Eleanor took a sip of her tea. “As for my problem, I am dissatisfied with the information I have gathered about the liberties you took with my granddaughter.”
He stared at her with his mouth flapping, unsure what to say. “Haverford told you?” He flushed and stood to pace before the fire, running his hand through his hair in a gesture he shared with his father. “You? I cannot believe he would…” He stopped and stared at her in horror. “It hasn’t become generally known, has it? She’s not been ruined?”
“No, it has not, praise heaven. Most of my information comes from Sally herself. Haverford told me only what I could glean from monosyllables; Wellbridge still less, but at volume. Cherry and Bella were somewhat more forthcoming, but they naturally do not wish to make themselves or their husbands appear culpable, and they may well be. So, yours is the last viewpoint I must consider.”
Toad looked around and took his pacing to the fire, where he added a shovel of coal.
“How do you fare here in Paris, my boy? Are you well and happy?”
Toad opened his mouth to answer, then closed it, then opened it again, but still did not speak. He finally said, “I am well, Aunt Eleanor. You?”
She sighed. “A little tired, dear.” She patted his hand to reassure him. “Sally made her debut last week, and I find I do not recover from late nights as quickly as I once did.” At Sally’s name, his hand jerked as if burned, and she withdrew hers, watching him closely.
He stiffened and looked away. “I am sure it was… lovely.”
“It was and she was, which is what you most and least wish to hear, I expect.” He ran a hand through his hair as she said, in an annoyingly blithe tone, “I have launched debutantes before, of course, but few as fetching. These modern fashions suit her very well. In white, of course, which is a very hard colour to wear well, but Sally has the hair and complexion for it. She wore the Haverford pearl-and diamond parure, of course, and her gloves, fan, and shawl were all silver. She was a fairy princess, Abersham, all moonbeams and stardust.”
He smiled and swallowed hard, caught up in envisioning his beloved in a wedding gown. “I love to see her in white.”
Aunt Eleanor snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Abersham. Abersham! Are you addled, boy? I said… I wish to hear from you.”
“What do you wish me to say?”
Her exasperated look was tinged with affection. “Silly boy. The truth, of course, as you see it, about your unfortunate plans for the ravishment and elopement of my granddaughter.”
She had timed it to the sip of his brandy. She must have, so skilfully did she make him choke. Once finished coughing, he started, “I am surprised she spoke of it. Is she…”
He was so close to the information he sought that his heart beat faster. “Can you tell me; is she well? Does she think of me fondly, or have I hurt her irreparably? I cannot tell a thing from the letters she writes under Haverford’s eye.”
“She is certainly better than she was when I arrived back in London, but still not back to her old self. Of course, she is proud; she will put on a good show.”
Before Toad could respond, a knock at the door revealed Blakeley. “My lord, as you requested earlier, dinner will be ready in three-quarters of an hour, if it pleases you.”
He looked over at Aunt Eleanor with one cocked brow. “Will you stay for dinner?”
“Thank you, Abersham. I am not dressed to dine, but if you will not regard it, nor will I.”
Once Blakeley had gone and shut the door behind him, Aunt Eleanor began again. “I would have your side of the story, dear lad, before I am too old to comprehend it.”
He laughed a bit harshly. “I set out to make Sally my wife and was thwarted and exiled. What more is there to say?”
She finished her tea, put her cup back on the saucer, then examined him carefully. “That was why you met her, was it? You compromised her to force a marriage?”
He flushed and turned his eyes away. “No! I did not mean to compromise her. Nor to marry… not yet, anyway… not from the first… but… soon after.”
Eleanor held out both hands to Toad and when he took them, said, “Collect yourself, Abersham.”
He took a breath and pulled his hands back. “She sent a note and said she needed my help. I thought she was planning a prank, or escaping her governess for an afternoon, and of course, I would help her with anything of the sort she asked.”
Her lips twitched. “Of course you would. And instead of coaxing you into a lark, she was curious about kissing.”
He gave a short nod, turning away from her incisive stare.
“And you agreed… Why?”
He stammered and rose to pace again. “She is… I had never thought she would… I mean…” He finally stopped and looked her in the eye. “She is everything to me, Your Grace, and has been since we were ten—before that, probably—and I hadn’t any idea she felt the same. I always thought she looked at me as… a friend… a brother. I thought we would marry. Our parents have talked of nothing else for years. But I wouldn’t think of seducing her. I just assumed she would… I assumed the love of a man and wife would grow from friendship… after we wed. After I could… show her my devotion without causing her dishonour.” He blushed and stammered the next words. “I agreed to kiss her because I could not resist the chance to kiss the woman I have loved since childhood.”
“Hmm.” The duchess looked at him thoughtfully. “If that is so, it seems odd you have always bedded any willing woman who came near enough.” She held up a hand to his incipient objection. “No, I believe you believe you love her. You told her you did not know how to love a wife, Abersham. How has that changed?”
What had changed between declaring himself a free man and declaring himself to Sally, was not a question he had stopped to ask.
“I had not thought myself ready to love a wife, no. But I cannot lose her, Aunt Eleanor.” He worked to keep the pleading out of his voice, but not successfully. “And I do love her. If she is my wife, I will love her the same way I do now, as I always have, but we will be allowed to… er… we will no longer live apart.
“That you can please a wife in bed, I have no doubt, given Wellbridge and Haverford. Can you be a good husband in every other sphere of your lives? What say you to the rumours you have not slept alone, or with the same girl twice, since you came to Paris?”
His hand shook as he poured. “I say they are much overblown.”
She lifted a dainty eyebrow. “Untrue? Or exaggerated?”
He downed the rest of his brandy in one gulp. After not having had a drink in several days, out of necessity as he studied for examinations, and now far too many in quick succession, it went to his head rather faster than he was accustomed to.
“Most likely both, as gossip always is. I will be faithful to Sal, if that is your concern. I have no interest in any other women if I have her. I cannot…” he blushed to the roots of his hair. “I have no interest. Must we speak of such things? You are practically my grandmother. It is not natural to discuss… marital relations with you.”
He took a gulp of his brandy, not waiting for it to warm.
To follow the adventures of our star-crossed lovers, see my page on Wattpad or Mari’s.