Chapter sixteen

631 59 4

            

Sally was in her favourite part of her favourite room in the house, the conservatory, a grand space that opened out on to the terrace that led to the lawn. Her little corner had been marooned by the extensions and alterations planned by past duchesses, and the planting schemes of past gardeners. She and Toad had discovered it when he was seven and she six, wandering away from their mamas and nursemaids, who were admiring little baby Johnny, the brand-new Marquis of Aldridge, heir to the Haverford duchy, in the main part of the conservatory.

The two children had crept between two of the elephant palms, whose grove sheltered and hid the corner, and watched with glee as their caregivers hurried frantically past to search for them along the long conservatory walk that extended the length of the south face of the building.

It was not entirely a secret: the gardeners came here from time to time, and maids, too, presumably, since the place was not dusty. The furniture, once sized for small children, had been changed several times as they grew. But no one came when Sal and Toad were here, which was all that mattered.

Once the workmen charged with ripping out the old décor and redecorating had descended on the heir's wing, Sally began bringing Toad's letters to their conservatory sanctuary to read and reread. In the heir's wing, being stripped of its mirrors and scarlet paint, she no longer felt close to Toad. But she had saved the Scrapbook, wrapped it in oiled cloth, and hidden it here in a hole the two children had excavated long ago under the shelter of an elephant palm. 

She did not have a letter today; just her thoughts, her memories, and a deep melancholy, and though she could tell herself it was waving Johnny goodbye at the station, as he left for Rugby and school, she knew better. The rain drumming on the roof and streaming down the glass meant she had the entire vast conservatory to herself. Even if anyone had been there, the rain was too loud for them to hear Sally crying.

Toad would be thoroughly disgusted at what a watering pot she had become since he left. She was disgusted herself.

Every time it happened, she told herself she would shed no more tears for Toad, and then she would hear more evidence her heartless friend had given her little thought since his parents shipped him off to Paris, and she would have to find another hidden corner to sob out her anguish in private.

She had been having a pleasant evening. All the important people in her life, except one, had come to present Papa with their best wishes. Even Grandmama and Grandpapa, who had been away from London, had arrived back in time to join them for dinner. 

Johnny had presented his gift: one of those new metal pens with a refillable reservoir in the handle, so the nib did not need constant dipping, nor near constant trimming. Papa had expressed enormous delight, and had insisted on using it immediately, and if the reservoir dribbled a little on his cuff? Well, any new instrument needs to be learned, Papa said.

Sally had been trying not to think of Papa's birthday last year, when she and Toad had spent their own money on a silver desk setting, engraved with the significant fact Papa had turned sixty on that particular natal anniversary. It was money they had earned themselves, running errands and polishing silver and the like, since they both always ran through their quarterly allowance within weeks of disbursement. Their mamas and the household staff in both ducal establishments had entered into the conspiracy to find work they could do.

Toad's absence was a gaping hole, not improved by the forced cheerfulness of his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Wellbridge. Sally would not disgrace herself or spoil Papa's evening by letting anyone know how she felt, but she needed a moment apart to compose herself.

In the small sitting room next door, she had escaped the celebrating crowd, which included several of her suitors—cousins who should have been safe escorts, but instead insisted on courting her, despite her father's declaration that she would not choose a husband this Season.

Never Kiss a ToadRead this story for FREE!