He grabbed at her with one hand while the other fumbled at his fall, and she barely managed to evade him. She couldn't safely pass him on the path. She would have to go down the steps to the garden and back up onto the main terrace. She turned and fled, leaving Lord Athol behind her, shouting endearments and curses, fortunately without mentioning her name.
Once safely hidden on a garden path, she slowed her wild dash and tried to compose herself. The horrid man. He and his ghastly wife had turned her evening into a disaster. Being even tangentially related to them would be the very worst part of marrying Toad. And she didn't care what anyone said; she would never, ever entertain them at Toadstone Hall, once she was mistress there.
She came around a bend and stopped short when she saw Crowhurst, sitting on a bench and puffing at a cigarillo. He leapt to his feet.
"Lady Sarah! How delightful."
"Mr Crowhurst. Excuse me. I am on my way inside."
"But surely you can spare a moment, Lady Sarah."
"No, sir. My cousin will be concerned if she cannot see me."
But as she passed him, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her and trapping hers at her sides. She struggled, but he would not let go.
"Mr Crowhurst! You forget yourself, sir."
He sneered. "Now, now, my dear. We both know you need to protest. Shall we take it as said?" His face was approaching hers. Surely he did not mean to... He did! She twisted her face away so that the clumsy kiss met her ear.
"Let me go, you cad!"
"You need not be afraid, Sally, my love. I will apply to your father in the morning."
And be crushed like the slug he was, which was no help to Sally this minute. "I have not given you leave to use my name, Mr Crowhurst, nor to touch my person. Unhand me, sir."
"You want it, Sally. You know you do."
She managed to get one arm free and slapped him; a stinging, ringing blow with as much weight behind it as she could apply, but he just laughed and caught her hand, squeezing her wrist. "You like it rough, do you?" he asked. "I suppose Abersham taught you that. I wouldn't normally take spoiled goods, but you are a pretty thing with an even lovelier dowry, and a duke's daughter, too."
Sally was struggling in earnest now. If she made a commotion, someone would come to save her, but that would cause a scandal when she refused to bow to convention and marry this obnoxious, nasty, creeping vermin. Better than submitting to his assault, but she would save it as a last resort. He attempted to kiss her again, and she jerked her head forward, connecting sharply with his nose.
"Ow! You little bitch!" He jerked back, tearing her dress, then shook her, digging his fingers into her arms. "You'll pay for that."
Sally heard the indrawn breath, and looked around to see what scandalmonger had found them.
"Merry! Thank God."
Crowhurst looked triumphant. "St James, Lady Sarah has just done me the honour of..."
"You despicable liar, I would not..." Sally interrupted, but Merry did not wait for further explanation.
"Take your hands off her, Crowhurst, you bastard."
"I assure you, St James..."
"Now." It was a naval bark, and it had its effect. Crowhurst's hands relaxed their grip, and Sally tore out of them and ran to put herself behind Merry.
As soon as she was beyond Crowhurst's reach, Merry's fist connected with Crowhurst's face, already bruised by Sally's blows, the strike rocking him backwards and startling another yelp out of him.
"Are you hurt, Sally?" Merry asked. "If he has hurt you, I will kill him."
"I will help." That was Elf's voice, and Henry ran to her friend and tucked an arm around her.
Elf snarled, "Time for you to leave, Crowhurst."
Faced with two furious men, Crowhurst backed down. "I shall call on your father in the morning, Lady Sarah," he said. "We both know if I voice this about..."
"If you voice this about, Crowhurst," Elf said, "you will not live to find out the strength of Lady Sarah's support in Society."
"If you call on my father, Mr Crowhurst," Sally told him, "he will beat you bloody for the insult to me."
"Insult! I offer you honourable marriage, despite how familiar you are with half the noblemen of England..."
Merry stopped that speech with another fist to the jaw. "Out. Now. Leave this place immediately. Do not return to inside. Do not speak of this again." Elf, every inch the son and grandson of dukes, loomed over Crowhurst, and Merry came up at his elbow. Crowhurst deflated, and slunk away down the path that led around the house to the street.
"Will you escort Lady Sarah to my mother, Lord Elfingham? I will just see that the scoundrel leaves." Merry followed Crowhurst.
Henry was draping her shawl around Sally. "I will stay with her, my lord, if you will fetch Mama."
"I am not hurt," Sally insisted, but she was shaking, and even she could hear how her voice quavered.
"I will be right back." And Elf was as good as his word, returning with Antonia just a few minutes later. Antonia sent him to order the carriage and fetch their cloaks. At the end of the terrace, a door opened to a small passage that led to the entrance hall, and soon they were on their way home.
"Will you tell His Grace or should I?" Antonia wondered.
"I will," Sally promised, but privately thought she would say nothing unless Crowhurst made trouble. I would not want him to know how foolish I was, going alone to such a secluded place. Certainly, I will not make that mistake again!
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...