London, April 1842
Papa was just coming out of his study when Sally and Elf arrived back from their drive.
"Elfingham." Papa's nod was grave. He was looking tired, Sally thought. Impulsively, she crossed the entrance hall and reached up to give him a kiss.
"Elf and I have just seen the daffodils in the park, Papa. You should take some time from your work to show Mama. They are so pretty."
"Perhaps I will, my sweet." He had bent to bring his cheek closer for her kiss, and he stayed for a moment, curved protectively over her with one hand on her shoulder, his eyes soft. He touched her cheek with the other hand and the sweet smile she saw so seldom played around the edges of his lips for a moment. Then he straightened and turned his attention to Elf.
"Will you join us for tea, Elfingham?"
"Thank you, Your Grace, but I was just making sure that Lady Sarah was safely inside. I'd prefer not keep the horses waiting in this wind, if you will excuse me."
"Of course." Papa inclined his head, and Sally thanked Elf for his escort. "I enjoyed it very much, Elf. And I will be sure to mention it to Henry, when I write."
Elf smiled at that, his shining eyes all the reward Sally needed. His growing partiality for Henry had not yet become a courtship when her father had died in March, following which the St Jameses had retired to the country for the requisite period of mourning.
"Thank you, Sally. I will see you at the Beckertons' tomorrow?"
"Yes, indeed." She returned his smile, and was still smiling when she turned back to her Papa.
"Can you spare a minute for your Papa, Sally?" he asked.
"Of course." She followed him through to his study.
"You always seem to be hurrying somewhere, sweetheart," he said. "I miss having my little princess curled up in a chair in my study, keeping me company."
It was true, she realised. Before her debut, she had sought her father out whenever she could escape the schoolroom. Since she had come out... "I have so much on, Papa," she said. But it was Toad's exile that came between them, even more since her father had begun believing lies about him.
They were lies. They had to be lies.
Papa smiled, sadly. When had the last of his hair faded to grey? "I know, my love. You are very popular. If a sennight goes by and I do not receive an application for your hand, I know to expect two the following week. Am I to expect a visit from Lord Elfingham? He would make a fine husband, Sally."
She suppressed a surge of fury. Papa should know she waited for one proposal, and one only. Would he even tell her if it came? No. That was unfair. Papa had said from the beginning he would not choose her husband, but would allow her to make the decision.
"He will make Henry a fine husband, Papa, when her mourning is over. If she will accept him. She has a notion that she is not fit to be a duchess because of her mother's... Um." Oh dear. She had not meant to discuss that with Papa, of all people.
"Henrietta, is it? I had hoped it was you, Sally."
"We would not suit, Papa. But Henry will suit him very well, I think."
"You shall be eighteen soon, sweetheart. What would you like for your birthday?"
"Toad to be allowed home."
She had not meant to say that out loud. Her father flinched as if she had hit him, and his eyes, before he hid them by turning away, were pools of pain.
"I know you miss your childhood friend, my darling, but he... He is not as you remember him. If he came back, you would suffer for it, and neither his parents nor yours are prepared to risk that."
"You say that, Papa, but you will not tell me how he has changed. You won't give me any real reasons. And I do not believe it, Papa, whatever it is. Someone has been telling you lies. I know him, and I know you are wrong."
His face was shuttered again when he turned back to her, the cold ducal mien she never used to see, before the day everything changed. "You must trust we know what is best for you, Sarah. Can you not choose another? God knows enough of them have asked, or would ask, if you lifted a finger."
"And most of them would not consider me for a moment if I were not wealthy and your daughter. You promised I could choose, Papa. And I choose none of them."
His voice was as stiff as his countenance. "Then you shall tell them yourself. You are all but eighteen, and old enough to refuse your own proposals.
"I should not have to turn down proposals at all, Papa. If you and Uncle Wellbridge had not got this pig-headed notion into your heads, Toad would be home and we would be betrothed by now, if not married."
"No, Sally. I would not grant you leave to marry Abersham, even if he were the only option available to you." When she was younger, that voice, that expression, would have stopped her in her tracks. But now, what did she have to lose?
"At the very least, do I not have a right to know what you hold against him? He is your own godson. You betrothed me to him before I was even born."
"No. You waste your time asking. The story is not fit for your ears, and that is all you should need to know."
"If you will not tell me, Papa, then why should I take responsibility for turning down fools I have not in the least encouraged, but who think to have my dowry and your ear?"
Papa gave her—her, his own daughter—the ducal glare. "Half the bachelors of Europe are at your feet. If you cannot find a husband to please you among the hordes, you can tell them yourself. This discussion is over."
"No buts, Sarah. You shall reject your own suitors from now on."
"You would soon change your tune if I accepted one you disapproved of, Papa."
"Correct. I suggest you not try it."
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...