Chapter Eight: Part 1

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Thirty minutes later, Toad surveyed the guards patrolling beneath Sal's bedchamber window, but the two dukes were clearly far too enamoured of their own consequence. Wellbridge must have told Haverford he would keep Toad under lock and key, and Haverford, bless him, believed it. Their guards were watching Sal's balcony for signs of escape, not looking for a man trying to break in.

He waited until they turned the corner to the other side of the mansion. With luck, they would circle the whole house, but he could not count on it. He crouched down, stole across the garden, and shimmied up a pillar to her balcony. Keeping low behind the wall of her terrace, he tapped quietly on the door. He heard the guards return below him, but they hadn't seen him. He waited until their voices drifted away again, then tapped a bit harder.

The curtain shifted slightly, then the door cracked open and an arm dragged him inside, throwing him off balance. He had to steady himself and regain his feet and, by then, Sally had shut the door and locked it, hissing, "Polly is asleep in the dressing room," before throwing herself into his arms, shoulders heaving with silent sobs.

Stroking her hair and holding her head on his shoulder, he murmured as quietly as he could while still making himself heard, "I've come to take you away with me tonight, before our fathers can act. I have two horses saddled and waiting ."

She drew back so she could look at his face, and for the first time since he entered, he took in what she was wearing; clearly, one of the new purchases for the adult wardrobe, for the trim, military-braided jacket, atop the fashionable riding habit, was shaped to accentuate her curves, and the skirt was short enough to show her trim ankles and bare feet.

Her trusting gaze firmed his resolve, as she said. "I was coming to you, of course. Where will we go? What will your father do?"

"First Gretna Green. After that... We do not have time, Sal. The Duke of bloody Wellbridge will stop us if he gets the slightest hint I've gone."

"And Haverford," she agreed. "But David..." In the lamplight, he could see her eyes, red and bruised with crying, narrow as she shook her head, loosening the hastily pinned curls. "You do not have to marry me. I set you free. Remember?"

"Sal, I do not wish to be free. I want to marry you. I'll not allow my father to exile me to Paris and yours to marry you off to one of his fat, old cronies. We are all but adults. It is time for us to take our destiny into our own hands."

She burrowed back into his arms.

"But you do not have to marry me, David. Truly."

"Of course I will marry you. If I do not, I will regret it all my life. Now, pack quickly. I've enough money to buy you new dresses once we have crossed the border, so you needn't bring every gown in your armoire."

"My clothes are all in the dressing room, and Polly is asleep in there. But can we not catch the train, at least partway? We will arrive that much sooner, and I can manage like this until then."

He nodded. "Part of the route, yes. And we can buy what you need along the way. But we cannot be seen in a London station. Once we have left Town, we can find an out-of-the-way station where the dukes will not think to ask questions. Put your boots on and we will be off. Hurry. "

She hurried, picking up the half-boots and sitting on a small footstool by the fire to put them on. "David, are you certain this is what you want?"

He crossed to her and kissed the back of her neck, relishing her shiver. "Hurry, Monkey. We don't have much time." Toad wanted to soothe her doubts and fears, but he had too many fears of his own, namely that her father would catch them and kill Toad with his bare hands.

She was pulling her boots onto her bare feet.

"Sal, you need stockings, or you'll come up in blisters."

"They are in the dressing room," she protested.

"Let me look. I'll be quiet." But there was no need for silence when he pushed the door open. The pallet was deserted, the covers thrown back, and the maid gone.

Frantic, Toad grabbed the first stockings he could lay his hands on. "Polly is gone, Sal, and you know your mother's way with servants. We have to hurry."

He knelt down before her and slipped on her stockings, then began lacing the first boot as fast as his trembling hands could move, so nervous now he barely noticed he was caressing her ankle and calf.

"Abersham!" Aunt Cherry stood in the doorway, the treacherous maid peeking over her shoulder. "You unconscionable scoundrel! Get away from her, now!"

He jumped up and backed away from Sal, his face losing all its colour.

"Aunt Cherry. It isn't... I mean..."

He stepped between Sal and her mother, preparing to take all the blame and as much of the punishment as they would pile on him instead of her.

Sally was just as pale, even a bit green around her jawline, but she straightened up and popped her head around his arm. "David and I are going to be married, Mama."

"Without delay," Toad added.

Aunt Cherry managed to keep most of the shock off her face; only her eyes widened. Nostrils flaring, she said, "Your father will have something to say about that, young lady. And yours, too, Abersham. Polly, help your lady remove her boots, as she will not be leaving tonight." She gestured to a chair. "Abersham, sit."

Toad remained standing, squaring his shoulders and guarding his love from her incensed mother, spoiling for the fight to come. He would comply with nothing until he was assured he could marry Sal. "I will not be denied, Aunt Cherry, no matter how many fathers you throw at us."

Sally shifted away from her maid, who was trying to snatch the remaining boot, and slipped her hand into Toad's. "Mama, please let us go. Please, Mama?"

Aunt Cherry ignored her daughter. "Denied what, Abersham? Is she your property, then?"

"No! She is not my property. What a thing to say." He snarled at the implication. "But I'll not leave her here to be married to some fat, old nobleman who will mistreat her, when I can do the right thing and make her my wife in truth, as she already is in my heart."

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