The evening started with people to dinner. Sally had been seated between Peter Tarrington and the son of Papa's business connection. Mr Cameron Crowhurst had been annoyingly persistent at Wellstone and had been permitted to remain in England for the christening of the little Prince of Wales, though why, she could not say. He had certainly not been at Windsor for the event.
And here he was, back from Paris again, infesting her home with his persistent unctuous compliments and snide comments about Toad. She resisted the urge to point out that Lord Abersham was studying for exams, as Crowhurst should have been. She was obliged to be polite, but she saw no reason to be pleasant. Nonetheless, she could not, in courtesy, refuse to reserve him a dance for later in the evening. Horrid man.
She was pleased to leave him behind when Henry's brother, Lieutenant St James, arrived to collect her for an outing to the theatre, along with his sister and mother. They were joining Elf and Lord and Lady Sutton to see As You Like It. The older folk fell into a comfortable coze, and Elf was soon telling Henry all about a trip he'd taken to his family's estate in Oxfordshire, where they bred unmatched horses descended from those his grandfather had brought from Turkmenistan.
That left Sally to talk with Merry, but he was not the charming and friendly company he had been last time he was in London. He kept looking between Sally and Antonia, and replying absently to Sally's attempts at conversation.
What could be wrong?
"Lieutenant, will you take me for a walk?" Sally asked.
Antonia met her son's eyes with an anxious frown, but she nodded and he offered Sally his arm. Reluctantly? Or was that just her imagination?
Should she ask outright? If she had correctly guessed the problem, he would never tell her to her face. But saying it herself was completely outrageous. No lady would ever mention such a thing.
She argued with herself all the way along the gallery outside the boxes, nodding to acquaintances but stopping to talk to no one, conscious of the lieutenant, solemn and silent beside her.
This would never do. As people began to stream back into the theatre, she put a hand on his arm to detain him.
"Lieutenant, may I assume you have heard the rumours that your mother is... er... not my father's niece?" There. That was as delicate as she could manage. She could feel herself blushing, and a sideways slide of her eyes confirmed that he, too, had flushed beet red.
"Haverford is a..." He stopped short. "I beg your pardon, Lady Sarah. He is your Papa, and I cannot say what I am thinking to a lady."
"It was a very long time ago, was it not?" she asked wistfully. "And your grandmother is very happy with your grandfather."
The lieutenant sighed, heavily. "I was beginning to hope... of course, I am only a second son, and a career naval man. I did not think I had much of a chance. But the world knows he would give you anything your heart desires, and I thought if you showed a partiality... But now..."
"Oh dear." Sally had assumed he knew the complicated family history that resulted from young men with no morals and a duchess who always cleaned up their messes. She had assumed she was, therefore, safe from romantic intentions. Poor Lieutenant St James.
"I do not know what to say."
"Not rumours," he said.
Her face must have shown her bewilderment at the non sequitur.
"I did not hear rumours," he explained. " My mother noticed my interest and told me I could not court my ruddy aunt." He apologised immediately for the mild expletive. "I beg your pardon, Lady Sarah."
"Given I am your ruddy aunt, you had better call me 'Sally'."
He looked at her for a full moment before giving a bark of laughter. "My friends call me 'Merry.' We had better be friends; do you not think? It is absurd to have a secret aunt six years my junior."
"Entirely absurd," she agreed.
"I thought our family complicated enough, with so many of my uncles and aunts chosen into the family, as my grandmother calls it, instead of being born to it. But this is ridiculous. How many by-blows do Haverford and his brother have? Not to mention their father?" He groaned and covered his face with his free hand. "I seemed doomed to letting my tongue trip over my feet this night, Sally. I beg your pardon again."
Sally gave him a cautious smile. "I have no idea how many children they fathered on the wrong side of the blanket, nor their father, my grandfather, either," she confided. "I have made a vow not to marry anyone whose mother or grandmother might possibly have been in England between when my father was sixteen, and when he married my Mama."
Merry opened his mouth, then thought better of what he was about to say and just nodded.
"Sally? Lieutenant?" Elf looked relieved to see them just standing in the foyer. "Lady St James was concerned."
"We had a few things to discuss, Elf," Sally said. She startedback to the Sutton box, then stopped and held out her hand to Merry."Friends, Merry?" He shook it once, giving her the endearing grinthat she had seen so often on her own father. "Friends, Sally."
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...