Chapter Twenty-Six: Part 1

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The Haverford and Wellbridge families had spent Christmas together Sally's entire life. If they were in England, they alternated between Wellstone Grange and Haverford Castle, but they might just as easily share some commodious mansion in Italy or France or visiting Sally's uncle in Ertzerhog.

This year, Wellstone Grange was as familiar and as lovely as ever. But Toad's absence, ever an aching sore, became a bleeding wound in the home he loved. That he had written, asking her to relay news and an account of her holidays made her even more despondent. To pretend, for his benefit, that she did not have her heart ripped from its moorings a thousand times a day was more false merriment than she could manage without it taking a toll. Added to the fictitious front she must put up before the other guests, the strain was almost more than she could bear.

For Sally had no intention of letting her family and friends know she grieved. Heaven forbid that that rumour should reach Toa—anyone's ear.

She laughed. She flirted. She joined in charades and sleigh rides and nursery games like pass the slipper and theatricals. She danced of an evening or played the piano for others' enjoyment.

It took several days to notice she had a shadow. Lady Almyra Northope, Toad's little sister, had always been Jonny's friend. The more-adult Sarah and Toad went off skating or riding or just walking around the extensive grounds, leaving Almyra and Jonny behind to do baby things, under the supervision of the nursery maids and governesses.

But the babies had grown up while she wasn't looking. Jonny was twelve and taller than his sister, voice deepening, shoulders widening, seemingly changing overnight, or at least over each stretch away at school. This holiday, he had deserted Almyra, his old playmate, spending most of the time with his father, learning the mysterious duties of a ducal heir, even a young one, or in the workshop he had been given for his mechanical experiments.

And Almyra would be sixteen soon, her own Court presentation looming within the next two years, Uncle Wellbridge already boasting about her musical and artistic accomplishments to anyone who would listen.

Sally brushed the girl off, well aware that Toad's exile could be blamed, at least in part, on his parents' fear that his escapades might reflect badly on his sister. Sally tried to convince herself there would have been no escapades, had they been allowed to marry, but rumours of the comtesse and the cats had taken on epidemic proportions in Society, with people sniggering everywhere. Sally's confidence was shaken.

One morning, Sally crept away to their special place in the Wellstone conservatory to reread his latest letter, a stiff missive sent through her father, full of commonplaces about his work, not at all allaying her fear that she had driven him away with her own angry response to the cat story. The only personal note was the request causing her so much heartbreak: Please write, I beg, with an account of the holiday, for I cannot expect to enjoy any of our favourite Yuletide pastimes in Italy. From Piero's descriptions, one wonders if we will do anything but attend endless Catholic masses morning to night. (I pray you do not say so to my mother, lest she fear for my immortal Anglican soul.)

But when she entered the conservatory, their place was already occupied. Almyra! That little pest. How dare she? Sally vacillated between storming off to her room and dragging the intruder out by her hair. When a muffled sob reached her, she nearly turned away. What has Almyra to cry about? She has probably lost her paintbrush or missed a chord in her music practice.

But the desperate sniff of someone who had failed to bring a handkerchief sent Sally impatiently through the ferns to thrust her own into Almyra's hands. The sobbing child accepted it with a deep shuddering breath.

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