Lady Sarah Grenford made her way down the abandoned servants' passage to the heir's wing of Haverford House, holding the skirts of her dress out of the dust that had accumulated since the last monthly clean. Once, these apartments had been witness to carnal excesses such as London had never seen or heard, when her father was young, still the Merry Marquis of Aldridge, before he married Mama. Or so the gossip columns said.
Now that Sally was approaching seventeen, she knew more than she used to about the ways of the world, in part because her parents overlooked her advancing age and never considered that a child would understand their conversations.
She often dined with her parents now, even when they had guests, especially family friends, as was the case tonight. Aunt Bella and Uncle Wellbridge exclaimed over the grown-up gown, newly arrived from the modiste, and the way Maud had dressed her hair high on her head, with just a few curls cascading down her neck to touch her white shoulders.
But it had been a dismal meal, the adults preoccupied and avoiding the one topic on their minds. Toad Northope, her best friend in the whole world, was in deep disgrace with his parents and godparents alike, and the nature of his crimes was such that they were loath to sully a maiden's ears with it. Aunt Bella had glanced over at her with such sadness in her eyes, again and again, throughout the meal, even as the conversation stuttered and started, when she thought Sally wasn't looking.
For most of her life, Sally had assumed she would one day grow up and marry Toad. When she was little she looked forward to living night and day with the friend who always understood her. As she grew older, and he became the most handsome man she knew, she trembled at the thought of being his to touch.
If he wanted to marry her.
The parents thought Sally did not know he was here in London, and they would be horrified if they realized she had heard them discussing why. But they wanted to talk about it again. She had counted on that, had expected Papa to dismiss her immediately after dinner was over. It was a simple matter to give Maud leave to go to bed, declaring that Sally wanted to feel like a princess for a little longer in her grown-up gown, and would take down her own hair.
A princess. In her father's old quarters, she lit every candle she could find and twirled in front of the gilt-framed mirrors lining every wall of his former bedchamber. She used to think this a room for a princess, and the draped painting of the mysterious woman on the wall seemed proof, for she was surely the most beautiful of any of the many portraits in her family's houses.
Sally's dress, striped in yellow and cream, which had seemed very grownup at dinner, looked suddenly insipid against the ornately painted and carved walls, the richly upholstered furniture—all red and gold. And it seemed childish next to the decadent gown worn by the lady in the painting, that bared her breasts, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Sally tried not to look at the enormous bed with yet another mirror above it on the ceiling, but it was reflected from every angle. Thinking about the use to which her father had put that bed and all these mirrors was making her nearly as red as the velvet spread she had once thought so fine. She retreated to the sitting room next door, just barely managing not to run from her own lust, and seated herself on one of the powder-blue fireside chairs.
No. The dark blue sofa would be a better contrast with her gown. Should she lie down on it, stretching herself out like the women in the pictures Toad had sent? Her eyes turned to the shelf that held The Scrapbook.
The Scrapbook was Sally's and Toad's deepest secret. When first she had overheard the stories about the young rake's escapades with the wrong dairymaid—when Eton strongly suggested Uncle Wellbridge withdraw him to avoid expulsion—she had complained to him about her ignorance of such matters and demanded Toad teach her what he was learning. She had been a silly little girl then, only fifteen.
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Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...