Chapter Twenty-Four: Part 1

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The evening was mild for late November, and the rooms at Lady Prendergast's musical evening were overcrowded and overheated. Sally had believed the whole Polite World left London when Parliament was not in session, except for those in circumstances too poor or too deficient in wealthier friends to be able to escape, but here she was, with several hundred others, squeezed into three rooms intended to hold perhaps ninety with comfort.

Her usual coterie of cousins was depleted by the seasonal exodus, though undoubtedly Town would fill again when the new little prince was christened in January. Meanwhile, Sally's guard had apparently been handed off to two cousins who lived permanently in London—Fulham Whittaker and Martin Wakefield—and Henry's brother Merry, Lieutenant Meredith St James, consigned to a ship currently docked in the Pool of London.

The singer ended a somewhat lacklustre rendition of 'Woodman, Spare That Tree', a sentimental ballad, and Sally clapped politely.

"Thank God," her cousin, Whit, whispered in her ear, and she pressed her lips together to keep from laughing. Uncle Rede's grandson and Longford's nephew, Whit was just down from Cambridge and was to be articled to the Chirbury solicitor after Christmas. Whit would not bother her with a proposal, either. He was too young, too focused on his chosen future, and not of high enough estate, besides.

"We shall now have a brief pause," Lady Prendergast announced, "While the string quartet sets up."

"Sally, would you care for a glass of punch?" Cousin Whit asked. "I'll brave the refreshments table."

"Bring it to her on the terrace," Martin commanded. "Let me escort you out for some fresh air, Sally." Oh, dear. Was he going to offer for her, too?

Martin was the youngest son of her father's brother, David Wakefield, and therefore Merry's uncle, but not related to her in the same way. He was a successful detective in the family business. Surely the last thing he would want was a Society wife ten years his junior? But she would take care not to be left alone with him, anyway.

"Thank you, Martin. Whit, we shall see you there. Merry, will you join us?"

Merry looked to his uncle as if for permission, and received a tiny shake of the head. Oh, dear; oh, dear.

"I shall be there shortly," Merry told Sally. "I will just check to see whether my mother and sister need anything."

For a moment, Sally thought of refusing to budge from the crowded, stuffy room. Martin stood offering his elbow, and she rose and laid her fingers on his arm. She soon had to squeeze between two chattering groups, Martin following closely behind, and she continued to lead the way through the churning mob, one room into the next, until she gained the open doors onto the terrace.

Here, the air was fresher, even if the press of people was only slightly less dense. Martin caught up and offered his arm again, then escorted her down the steps to the prettily lit garden, where many other guests were already strolling, or sitting on strategically placed benches.

Sally took a deep breath as they reached an unoccupied seat, and Martin laughed. "Nice to have air that no one else has exhaled," he said. "Would you prefer to keep walking, Sally? Or shall we sit?"

"We should stop where Whit and Merry can easily find us." And in plain view of at least fifty others, though people intent on their own conversations would not prevent him from making the anticipated—dreaded—proposal.

And sure enough, he wasted no time. "Sally, you must know that I have come to greatly esteem you."

Drat. Sally supposed she should let him get it over with.

"You are becoming a fine woman, and would be an ornament to any house."

Rather more than an ornament, she hoped. Hung on the wall or perched on a shelf to be admired; taken out and polished on occasion; of use to no one.

"I recognise that you have a prior attachment, but Sally, Abersham has surely proven himself unworthy of your regard."

Of course he had, but that did not seem to dent her regard in the slightest. French comtesses notwithstanding. Sally shivered, and Martin noticed immediately. "You are cold?" He began to remove his tailcoat, then stopped, looking uncertainly at the passers-by.

"Martin!" Sally hissed. If he thought to coerce her by such a scandalous display, he could think again.

"I am sorry, Sally. I should have suggested you fetch your shawl."

Did he think she was still in the nursery? She was quite capable of remembering her own shawl. She shivered again, and wished she had.

"We will go in," Martin decided without consulting her. "We can continue this conversation later." Sally thought it high time to assert herself.

"Would you be kind enough to fetch my shawl, Martin? Whit and Merry will be along any minute, and I am surrounded by people. I shall be perfectly safe." Sally saw Martin's thoughts as clearly as if he had spoken them. He was not going to tell her Whit and Merry had been ordered to make themselves scarce. He assessed the crowd for its protective value and decided to agree to her request.

"Of course. I will be back directly."

Inside, the quartet began something from Mozart, the music almost drowned in the sound of conversation. In groups and couples, the people around Sally began to move back inside. Sally should go in, but she could not bear the noise and the crush. If an unwanted proposal was the toll to be paid for ten minutes in peace, she would have to pay it.

In less than a month, she would be in the country, with time to herself. Time to read perhaps. In town, between social engagement and the charity work her mother insisted upon, she had been able to manage little beyond the latest work by the writer Boz serialised weekly in Master Humphrey's Clock, where The Old Curiosity Shop had just reached its sad conclusion. 

In reading she could forget her presumptuous cousins and their annoying proposals, and her far away and unfaithful Toad. What was taking Martin so long? If he thought to please her, abandoning her in the garden was hardly the way.

"Lady Sarah, you are radiant this evening. May I join you? Better yet, may I tempt you to walk in the garden with me?"

Lord Joseph Gildeforte. A rake whose reputation was much, much worse than Toad's, and whose scandalous family history left him out of matchmaking mothers' plans entirely. His father had thrown his mother over for the most notorious Indian courtesan in London's history, then he ruined the Earl of Birchbright just because his paramour asked, and she left him high and dry as soon as the deed was done, never to be seen again. Now, Lord Coventon was all but living with another Indian mistress, with no regard for his children or their prospects. No wonder Lord Joseph had the morals of a boa constrictor.

Much Lord Joseph cared for the rumors. He had wealth and freedom and, if gossip were to believed, a trail of languishing conquests, both wed and unwed, of high degree and low.

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