Sally followed her father's instructions to the letter, and dressed in last year's clothes, so as not to remind him she was marriageable. Not out of respect, but because she could not get her own way if he were too angry to comply, she changed into a white schoolgirl dress, short enough for ease of walking, and to show off the tops of her high-top boots. She directed her maid to plait her hair in two long braids, one over each shoulder, their green ribbons bouncing as she walked. She looked as if she was still in leading strings, which offended her, but pretending to be her daddy's little girl would serve her purpose better than defiance. At least to start.
Sally paused just outside the drawing room. The door was shut, but if one held the handle just so, one could ease it open just a little, and observe without being detected.
Papa was still white with fury, and as she watched, he tipped up his brandy glass, which he had assured her many times was a crime. "Brandy is to be sipped and savoured, Sally, not guzzled." Papa was guzzling, and as she watched, he reached for the decanter again.
Mama spoke. "Perhaps save the next until after we have spoken to Sally, my love."
Papa looked at the glass and decanter as if he had no idea how they came to be in his hands, then carefully poured a single finger of brandy and set the glass on the table by his usual chair before turning away with a sudden jerky stride vastly different from his usual graceful pace.
"How could he do it, Cherry? I could not have loved him more had he been my son, not just my godson. And there, of all places? My own daughter, in the bed where I..."
Sally wondered if Papa would have felt better if he had caught them in her bed or in the Conservatory or at Dalrymple House. Not that she would say so to Papa, as long as she could control her own temper. How dare Papa separate them? Had he not taught David everything he knew? Had he not done ten thousand things more sinful than anything she and Toad had done out of an abundance of love?
Sal couldn't see her mother behind the door, but there was no mistaking the soothing tone she used to try to calm Haverford in a rage. "I have very pleasant memories of that bed, my love, and of your inappropriate behaviour in it." Sally grimaced. She had no wish to think of Mama and Papa... How disgusting.
If Mama intended to give Papa's thoughts another direction, she failed. He said grimly, "You were not a child, still in the schoolroom, beloved. I should have killed him. I could have, you know. I am getting old, Cherry, but Abersham does not have his full growth yet, nor a fraction of my skill. I could have killed him, and Nick would not have denied my right."
"You cannot assume a win against anyone trained to weaponry by the Duchess of Wellbridge. Besides, neither your old friend nor your daughter would have forgiven you. Even if Nick and Sally did absolve you, you would never forgive yourself. You love him, Anthony. And he is not the only one to blame, you know. Sally was there, too. Truth be told, it was probably her idea."
Sally nodded. Mama knew her well. But Papa protested. "How can you say that? She is only seventeen, an innocent. He is a rake, Cherry, of the worst kind."
"He is thirteen months her senior. More experienced, certainly, without any semblance of good judgment. You and his father have seen to that. But he is still a child in many ways. Sally is seventeen, and if she were married and a mother within the next twelve months, no one would think it at all strange."
"She may well be. Should we make them marry?"
No! Sally's thought chimed with her mother's words. "No! No, Sally is quite right. Abersham is not ready to settle, and would be an execrable husband. And if you and Nick force husbandly behaviour on him, he would soon come to resent it, and Sally."
"She will marry him if there is a rumour, or a babe," he warned.
A cleared throat warned Sally, and she turned to see their butler frowning, but not without sympathy. She lifted her finger to her lips, and he allowed the ghost of a smile, then glided forward to open the door fully.
Both parents turned as Sally entered the room, facing her father defiantly. Mama would be reasonable; Papa in a rage was as unpredictable as Sally herself. She had seen the ducal transformation many times, though seldom en famille, and never before against her.
The warm, loving family man, always ready with a smile and support, was suddenly gone, leaving the cold, unapproachable nobleman.
"Sit down, Lady Sarah," he said, his use of her formal title an indictment in itself. He handed Mama to a seat, took the place beside her, and waited for Sally to obey. After a moment, she thought better of starting her rebellion with such a small matter, and took the chair opposite them.
"Your mother and I are deeply disappointed in you."
Sally looked down at her hands and chewed her bottom lip. She could meet her father's anger with her own, but his disappointment was harder to bear.
"I cannot comprehend how this happened, Sarah. I do not speak of Lord Abersham, but your behaviour, which is unconscionable. You have been told, many, many times that you must never be alone with a man, and you are not unaware of Abersham's reputation. And yet you go off into a deserted building, where you cannot call for help against his inappropriate advances."
He remained silent, then—a trick he used to encourage others to fill the silence. Sally had seen him try it many times, and was not fooled. She continued to examine her hands.
Haverford spoke first, giving her a second chance to lay the blame at David's feet. "I cannot imagine how he inveigled you to go apart with him."
She felt the heat rise in her cheeks, but she merely traced the pattern of the painted India cotton of her gown.
Finally, Haverford tried once more, any trace of patience wiped clean from his voice. "How did he coerce you, Lady Sarah? Did he... take you against your will?"
At that, she had to speak. She could not allow him to think David would... "He did not, Papa. It was not his idea, but mine. I sent him a note." She had intended to sound calm, dignified, and grown up, but her voice shook a little when she saw the anguish show for a moment under the ducal mask.
He hid it again, so quickly she was unsure what she had seen, his voice cold and hard. "I do not excuse him, Sally. He is older than you. He knows better than to come at your note, especially when his father had, not two hours before, in my presence, told him to remain at Dalrymple House."
Sally lifted her chin, jutting it at her father with as much force as he put into his glower. She could not allow his attack on David to stand. "I begged him not to fail me, Papa. David would never abandon me when I ask for his help. It has ever been so."
Haverford frowned. "His help with what?"
She bit her lower lip, a bit unsure of herself, even as she did what was best for David, and what was right, by all moral codes. She told the truth.
YOU ARE READING
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...