"Lord Joseph." For the first time, Sally realised all the other guests had departed the garden. She stood, and he winged his elbow at her.
"I was just returning to the house, Lord Joseph," she told him firmly.
"My friends call me Gills."
Sally raised one eyebrow, her father's trick to depress pretension, but Lord Joseph seemed not in the least perturbed. "You seem... distracted, my lady, as though you are conversing with someone in your mind. Dare I hope you are rehearsing the list of the ways you love me?"
Sally was startled into a snort of laughter.
"I do not know you, Lord Joseph. I certainly do not love you." She lowered her voice. "Do you really wish to know what I was thinking?"
"No intelligent man would decline such an offer, my lady. Pray tell. I shall trade a truth of my own."
"I was wondering what Mr Boz will write next. I have very much enjoyed The Old Curiosity Shop. Your turn."
She beamed, enjoying seeing him discomposed for a moment.
He chuckled and tapped her on the nose. "That, my delightful little wit, is a lie, for you have been carrying on an argument with a gentleman in your mind since the moment your escort abandoned you. It wants only for you to tell me who he is, and what he has done to upset you so. I shall call him out and run him through, should the situation warrant," he said, winking. "Consider me your champion, Lady Sarah, in all things."
"Have a care, sir. I have not made you free of my person." The tap reminded her again of Toad. Did rakes think such a gesture was appealing? Then they were far out.
Sally suddenly realised that he had been walking her away from the lighted part of the garden. She stopped, and he stopped too, raising his own brow and smiling. Her shiver at his expression was not at all pleasurable. His lips curved in amusement, but his eyes watched her like her cat watched a mouse.
"I will return to the house now, Lord Joseph." She pulled at her hand, but he would not release it, holding it caged gently but firmly, by cupping his other hand around where it rested on his arm.
"Will you not tarry a while longer, Lady Sarah? I have long wished to know you better."
"Why?" Sally asked, baldly. "Is it my face? My figure? My pedigree? My connections? My portion?"
"You wish to know what it is a man sees when he looks at you, my lady?"
Sally lifted her chin. "You owe me a truth, Lord Joseph. I wish to know what you see that makes you think you can lure a daughter of the House of Haverford into a dark garden without consequence."
Gildeforte raised both brows. "A challenge," he observed, looking more closely at her. "I see a beautiful woman, but sad, who dislikes all the fuss about her, and frets under the close supervision of her too-protective cousins. A woman who needs a kiss, perhaps?"
So quickly she had no time to react, he released her hand, instead cupping the back of her head to draw her towards him. Sally didn't hesitate to use David's well-drilled manoeuvre to drive away rogues, twisting her body to one side and punching at his groin with her free hand, throwing all her weight behind her shoulder.
He bent in on himself, teeth clenched on a muffled squeal, but his hand clamped on her arm. She struggled to release herself before he could recover and take his revenge. Screaming would be a last resort; it might save her body, but it would ruin what remained of her reputation. God forbid she be forced into a marriage with a rake even worse than David.
But Gildeforte surprised her. His drawl tight with strain, he still managed to sound amused. "A simple 'no, thank you' would have sufficed, my lady."
Sally glared. "Whatever you may have heard, my lord, I am a virtuous woman. Take your hands off me and let me go."
"Of course." Gildeforte straightened a little and released her arm without delay. "You need have no fear, you know. Even if you had not quite unmanned me, I do not press my attentions on the unwilling. I had heard... er... I was clearly mistaken, my lady, and for that I apologise. But I beg you. I do have some pretensions to being a gentleman. Allow me to escort you back to the safety of the house." He offered his arm again; she slowly, carefully took it.
"Lest I meet someone worse than you?" Sally sniped, and Gildeforte grinned, still white around the mouth and nose.
"Exactly so." His eyes suddenly intent, he warned, "You must not go anywhere alone, or with someone who is not your close relative. Close relative, my lady. Not all men care whether a woman is willing, and you make a tempting package." With a smirk, he explained, "Your face, figure, pedigree, connections, and portion."
He released her as Sally considered his words, paling slightly, then assayed a light chuckle. "Why, Lord Joseph, one might almost think you liked me." Even to her own ears, the laugh sounded forced, but Lord Joseph touched his head as if to salute.
"Don't let anyone know you care, Lady Sarah. That's the spirit."
They said little as he walked her back through the garden to within sight of the steps up to the house. Antonia and Henry were just descending, escorted by Merry, who was looking anxiously out into the garden, and Martin appeared from another path to meet them, all chattering worriedly.
"Stay here, Lord Joseph," Sally suggested. "I will be safe once my cousins see me, and you..."
Before she could decide how to finish the sentence he did it for her. "...will not." Another quick twist of the lips. "Would that I could say it had been unalloyed pressure, Lady Sarah, but I thank you for the lesson, and wish you all good things."
He faded back into the darkness, and Sarah took several steps into the light, seen by Whit who came running from yet another of the garden's many secluded byways. Time to brazen it out.
"Ah, Martin. There you are. Thank you for my shawl," Lady Sarah said.
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...