Chapter Thirty, Part 2

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Lady Kittering's ball was the third event of the evening, and Sal was tired of smiling. Her dance card was full, as usual: smug sons of the nobility, one after another, all sure they needed merely to flatter and smile and her lovely dowry would drop into their grasping hands.

She could only relax when dancing with one of her cousins: Elf, or Andrew, or Merry, who was back to his usual relaxed self, any bruising to his heart now well concealed.

Elf was currently off twirling Henry around the floor. Sally and Merry had dropped out after one set, and were now in an alcove out of the main action, watching the dancing. Merry had managed to snag them a refreshing drink each of something fruity with bubbles---a provisioning run, he called it. "We navy types have to know the safe harbours and the best places to take on water."

They were discussing marriage; not, of course, their own—but matches within their set. Two of Sally's Beauties Club friends had accepted proposals before the end of last season and another had become betrothed just yesterday. With this year's season barely underway, Merry proposed laying blunt on what he called the safe tethering of the remaining three before Parliament closed in August.

"I should take that bet," Sally said. Toad showed no signs of coming home. Or rather the Wellbridges showed no signs of allowing it.

"Not even if Elfingham comes up to scratch?" Merry teased.

Sally just laughed. She hoped Elf was turning his attention to Henry, who would make him a lovely wife, but she would not say so to Henry's brother, in case Elf disappointed.

"Lady Sarah." Cameron Crowhurst. Bother. His was the next name on her card.

"Mr Crowhurst," she said, polite but cold. But there was no help for it. She introduced the two gentlemen, then allowed Crowhurst to lead her into the dance.

"You are looking particularly lovely this evening, my lady."

He had said that same thing at dinner.

"Thank you," she replied, as she had then.

"Of course, you always look lovely," he said.

That, too. Did he have the whole sequence memorised?

"And the dress. So charming. You have exquisite taste, Lady Sarah."

Apparently he did.

"You have been studying in Paris, I believe," she stated, hoping to deflect him onto a new conversational path.

"Yes. At the University of France. My father insisted on my popping over for a few days—so much easier now, with the trains."

She agreed trains were a convenience, and explained that yes, she had been to Paris, but no, not since she was a child. Further nods or shakes of the head, and a word here or there, were enough to keep up her side of the conversation, which was mildly different to the one at dinner, but still utterly predictable. Then carriages, now trains. Then her hair, now her eyes. Did the man have a guidebook with a list of topics?

As the dance ended, Crowhurst said, "Are you a little warm after the dance, my lady? May I escort you for a stroll in the cool night air?"

"No, thank you, Mr Crowhurst. Please return me to my cousins."

When they could not immediately find Antonia, Henry, and Merry, Crowhurst renewed his urgings.

"It will be perfectly safe, Lady Sarah. There are lights, and besides, it would be my privilege to protect you."

"No, thank you, Mr Crowhurst." What a boor the man was. She had said 'no.'

"But you will be cooler among the trees, and they look delightful in the moonlight," he pleaded.

"Thank you, Mr Crowhurst, but no. Please leave me now. I shall seek my cousin, Lady St James, in the ladies' retiring room."

Crowhurst reluctantly obeyed, and the retiring room would offer a sanctuary from the pest, even if Antonia was not there. But as she opened the door, she heard her name and stopped to listen.

"So, Lady Sarah is to be rejected once again. Even a half-breed like Lord Elfingham cannot stomach my cousin's leavings."

Lady Athol Soddenfield. Sally would know the voice anywhere. For a moment, she toyed with the notion of flinging back the door and telling the stupid woman what a harpy she was. But that would only encourage gossip, not kill it.

"She must be becoming desperate." An unknown voice. "This is her second Season, after all."

Sally closed the door and turned away, but she could see Crowhurst's back just inside the ballroom. If she went that way, she would be challenged to politely deflect his inevitable insistence that they walk outside. The exit at the other end of the hall let onto a walk to the terrace, and she could slip quietly outside and reenter the ballroom without him seeing.

The cool night air was welcome after the heat of the ballroom. She stopped on the walk and rested her elbows on the parapet that edged the drop to the garden. It really was pretty in the moonlight, lamps hung in the trees, adding the occasional earth-bound star.

She was lost in appreciation when someone lunged at her from behind, grabbing her around the waist and pressing a brandy-fumed kiss to her ear. His unsteadiness was her saving, since he stumbled when she struggled and she was able to break free and back away. Lord Athol!

"Come now, girlie," he crooned. "It'll be fun. I bet mine is bigger than Abersham's."

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