Chapter Twenty

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The next day, the schedule in Sally's room indicated a picnic in the afternoon, and she chose to participate, since Emma and Henry would, too. When the group arrived at the appointed spot, Lady Tarrington's servants had set up screens against the wind, tents against the sun, and tables laden with food and drink. Grooms took the guests' horses to rest, water, and graze, while the party rested or wandered around the old hill fort to which Longford, as the local peer, acted as guide.

Emma had found a vantage point from which to sketch the village below, and Peter Tarrington was sitting close by, clearly content with the closer view. Perhaps something good would come of her fright yesterday, if that interest persisted, and meanwhile Sally had one less suitor to keep at arms' length.

Henry was strolling with her mother, Elf escorting them, carrying the wildflowers Henry kept stopping to pick. She pressed them and made pictures, fitting the petals, leaves, and grass stems into little animals and landscapes, which Sally thought beautiful and terribly clever. Elf looked up and saw Sally watching, but merely smiled and continued in his self-imposed task.

Sally looked out across the plains from atop a comfortable stone. Somewhere far in the distance, perhaps beyond the horizon, was Wellstone Grange, the principal seat of the Duke of Wellbridge. Would Toad come home for Christmas? And if he did, would the Haverfords and Wellbridges celebrate together, as they had for the whole of Sally's life?

She was interrupted by Richard Tarrington, playing the part of host with impeccable manners and a gleam in his eyes that hinted at a regard she could not return. "A penny for your thoughts, Lady Sarah."

They were not for sale at any price, but she pasted on her most pleasant smile and prepared to be civil. "It is a beautiful view, Mr Tarrington."

"Come now, Tarrington," Longford teased as he joined them. "You deserved such a commonplace response to such a low offer. Dear Lady Sarah, what thoughts will you give us for a gold guinea?"

Longford had been flirting with Sally all season, but she was well aware of the ironic edge to his pretended courtship. After all, less than a year ago, he used to pull her plait and call her a pesky brat.

"I think it is time for lunch, Lord Longford." Sally allowed Mr Tarrington to help her to her feet, and she tucked her hand into his arm with a saucy grin at her cousin, who tipped his hat to her and chuckled, saying to his brother Stocke, "Our little Princess is all grown, and harbouring secrets, I'll wager."

If she lifted her chin half an inch higher at the nickname that had haunted her childhood, she gave no other reaction. But she did allow Mr Tarrington to devote his attention to finding a nice shady spot for her to sit, not even pointing out that she liked sitting in the sun. And when he served her a plate far too full of sweets, when her preference was always for savouries, she thanked him politely and resolved to discourage the silly man later, when Longford wasn't watching.

Thankfully, both Tarrington brothers, plus every male in the vicinity, were soon drawn into a game of football organised by Longford and Stocke, with one brother heading each team.

"What are the rules?" Emma wondered, as the two mobs of men charged back and forth across the fort site, detouring into other fields to land the ball on the rocks the brothers had designated as goals.

"To strip to their shirtsleeves and show how muscular they are," Henry suggested, and her mother snorted a hastily swallowed laugh.

Grooms, footmen, gentlemen, and lords all looked much the same covered in mud, Sally decided, as they disappeared behind the carriages to clean up as best they could and don the outerwear they had discarded in favour of free movement during the game. Which had, Sally conceded as Elf helped her to mount her mare for the ride home, been very exhilarating.

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