Chapter Twenty-Six: Part 1

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"I am sorry, Sally. I will go away. I thought you had gone sledding with the others. I know I am intruding." The tears welled again, toppling from eyes already red and puffy.

"Whatever is the matter, Almyra?" Sally prepared herself for a litany of tempests in the schoolroom teapot, but at first, Almyra just shook her head. Sally, doing her best to keep from rolling her eyes, coaxed her, which the little brat undoubtedly intended.

But when Almyra finally spilled out her woes, she was succinct and devastatingly honest.

"I miss D-D-David, and it is my fault Papa will not let him h-h-home. You h-h-hate me for it, and I do not blame you."

Sally temporised. "Why do you say it is your fault?"

"I heard Papa tell Mama. He said David had done his best to ruin you, and was no better than he should be on the Continent, and he wasn't coming back to England until I was safely launched without the scandal David was certain to cause. Don't hate me, Sally. Please don't hate me."

By the end of the conversation that followed, they had shared the now-damp handkerchief and become firm allies, perhaps even friends. "Mama wants him home, too," Almyra assured Sally. "She will talk Papa 'round, if only David won't upset him again."

If only. But how likely was that, when upsetting his father was all Toad ever seemed to do, since the first time he was sent down from school?

Later that day, Sally was showing Almyra her evening gowns, trying out formal hairstyles on the young girl just old enough to wear her hair up, and describing her Court presentation.

"May I come in?" It was Aunt Bella. "Almyra, the ringlets are lovely, but I didn't know you were here. Send her away if she is being a nuisance, Sally. You need not entertain her when she has a governess likely searching her out as we speak."

Sally smiled. "I like having her. Aunt Bella, surely Almyra is old enough to come down to dinner while we are still en famille?" More guests would arrive after Christmas Day, but for the moment, the Haverfords and Wellbridges were enjoying a few days without other company.

"Yes," Almyra added, "and Jonny, too, please, because it would not be fair to leave him in the schoolroom on his own. Not that he would notice, as long as he has a book to read."

She and Sally exchanged glances and laughed.

"I am well pleased to see the two of you becoming such friends. Almyra, if you pay attention to Lady Sarah, perhaps you may be as much a success when you are presented. And yes, I think you are right about our young lady and gentleman dining at table. I shall speak to your Papas." Pinching her daughter's cheek, she added, "You may even leave your hair up if you'd like, though it will make your Papa grumble to see you look so grown up."

Almyra gave her an enthusiastic hug. "I shall go and choose something to wear. Thank you, Mama."

After Almyra was gone, Aunt Bella sat on the window seat, looking carefully at Sally. "Are you happy, Sally?"

Sally caught back the easy word 'yes' and instead told the truth. "I am not altogether unhappy. But I miss David, Aunt Bella. I miss him all the time, and so does Almyra. Why is Uncle Nick so cruel?"

Aunt Bella caught up Sally's hands. "Oh, my dear, I miss him too. But truly, it is not Wellbridge's obstinacy that keeps him from us this season. I swear it. David could not have come home this Christmas. There was not enough time for the travel. That is why he must spend Yuletide with his friends. But, Sally, it is about David I wished to speak with you."

Sally set her jaw. I will not stop loving Toad. I will not believe calumnies against him. But Aunt Bella surprised her. "You love him, I know. I have seen you with other men, all trying to win your favour, and you have not given an inch. Not even the most handsome and charming have turned your mind from my dear boy."

That drew a reluctant nod. Truly, after the most recent revelations, she would have changed her heart had she been able.

Aunt Bella fumbled in the little pocket she wore at her waist. "I... I do not wish to speak for my son, of course, but I believe I know his mind in this... I thought... I think David would like you to have this. It is not the betrothal ring of the Wellbridges, which you should have by rights, and which I'm sure David will give to you in time. It could be calamitous should his father or yours recognize the gesture. But this one was given by James Northope, David's great-grandfather, to a lady he was forbidden to marry, because her father was holding out for his older brother, the heir. I have strung it on a chain so you can wear it under your gown, as I believe she did, right up until James unexpectedly became 6th Duke of Wellbridge. Almost his first act when he ascended to the title was to call on her father to ask for her hand."

The small ring was made from thin gold, moulded into ornate love knots with three small sapphires, and Aunt Bella had strung it on a chain long enough to drop the ring between her breasts, so she could wear it with even the most daring of her evening gowns.

Sally slipped the chain over her head and hugged her godmother. "I will wear it always," she said.

"I do not doubt it, my dear, and I am sure it would warm David's heart to know. I will be so overjoyed to have you as a daughter in truth, as soon as we can safely accomplish it."

****

Three days after Christmas, Sally was sitting on the window seat in the library. The house was far less pleasant now that the remainder of the company had arrived, so she had drawn the curtains and was trying on her new ring, confident no one would find her, because they were all occupied playing snapdragon in the main drawing room. She had slipped away before she could be paired with the loathsome Mr. Cameron Crowhurst, for as pleased as she had been to meet a gentleman who knew Toad and had seen him as recently as a month earlier, his florid compliments and barely concealed advances had cooled her welcome, and his nasty innuendos about Toad's time in France set her seething.

At the sound of the opening door, she put a hand out to twitch back the curtains and show herself, then paused. It might be Crowhurst, and she had seen quite enough of that nuisance for the day; for a lifetime, truth be told. But the voice she heard was her father's.

"So you have good reports of my godson? I'm pleased to hear it." The sound of crystal clinking announced the two dukes' usual after-dinner brandy or port.

Uncle Nick answered, pride in Toad clear in his voice. Sally wouldn't move now for the world.

"He passed his examinations with high marks, and young Blakeley reports that he studied hard and amused himself no more than one might expect. Hawley says he reported to the ship with his friends, just as he told Bella he would."

"I have heard nothing untoward about the Conte d'Alvieri or his family," Papa observed.

"No. Nothing. The title is older than mine, and d'Alvieri is a good man, by all accounts. Rather a reformer in my own mould, if reports are true."

Goodness, Sally hoped discussion of politics would not derail the conversation before she heard more of Toad, but that was unlikely before far more brandy had been imbibed. Indeed, Uncle Wellbridge continued unabated.

"D'Alvieri's brother, Piero, Abersham's school friend, is apparently a bit of a rake, but there is no more harm in him than my son, and the two of them are scheduled to return to France in time for his next term. We may have judged the boy too harshly, Haverford. Your mother certainly seems to think so. Even Captain Hawley agrees, and he is not an easy man to impress."

"He is growing up, perhaps. Will you bring him home for the August holidays, Nick?"

"Possibly. If the travel times are not against us, and if you have no objection. And if he continues to write to his mother. I'll not have him ignoring her again. She was very hurt by his sulk."

Sally's misery dissolved in an instant. Of course Toad would write, when she explained it would end his exile. But would it? Would Papa support him? Again, she lifted her hand. She would announce herself and beg her Papa to agree. She would promise anything, any restriction he cared to impose, if only she could see Toad again. But he spoke before she could open the curtain.

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