Chapter Thirty Four: Part 2

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"Did you know you were my aunt?" Henry demanded, as soon as the three girls were alone in the little sitting room that Sally had made her own.

Emma spoke at the same time. "How many other daughters does your father have?"

Sally shrugged. Papa, before he married his duchess, had been notorious for his amorous affairs, and Cousin Antonia was not the only souvenir of those days. "I knew about your mother," she answered Henry. "My Mama gave me a list of men who were too closely related to be acceptable suitors." Even the memory of the conversation brought back her anger at Papa's hypocrisy. How dare he be so cruel to her and Toad when he had been twice---no, a hundred times as bad.

"No wonder your father was so upset about you and Lord Abersham," Henry commented. "He must know, none better, that it is always the woman who bears Society's scorn, while the man's faults are ignored."

Emma nodded. "Even unto the next generation," she agreed. "Just look at me? No one will tell me what my mother did, but they all expect me to do it too, from the most righteous old busybody to the most riotous rake."

Elf's arrival gave their thoughts another direction, and he brought Peter Tarrington with him. Sally was pleased for Henry's sake and---once it became clear that Mr Tarrington had not come to pursue Sally but to fix his interest with her friend---for Emma, too. And if she was also a little envious, she did her best not to let it show, and to give the couples as much time alone as decorum would allow.

So when she heard Henry and Elf talking as they entered the conservatory where she had sequestered herself to reread Toad's letters, she stayed hidden in the little corner she and her beloved had created on long past childhood visits to Grandmama. They didn't need her chaperonage, and she did not need to be an unwanted intruder in their private moment.

She turned back to her letters but the sound of her own name caught her attention.

"Sally would be a much better choice," Henry was insisting. "There is no shadow over her lineage, and she has been trained to be a duchess."

From the patient note in Elf's deep rumble, he was countering an argument he'd heard before. "I am not marrying Sally, beloved. If you won't have me I'll marry no one."

"You would have married Sally if she had accepted you last year," Henry argued.

"Yes, and what a mistake that would have been."

Sally should have spoken when they first arrived, but she could no more announce herself now than she could stop breathing.

Henry asked the question Sally wanted answered. "Why a mistake? I thought you loved her."

"I had no idea what love was, my Henrietta, until I met you. I love Sally as a friend, and I do not deny her beauty dazzled when she first came out. Even then, I knew she was over-indulged, self-willed, and careless of consequences. I thought I could bridle her, but I doubt any man can."

"Nor should," Henry insisted, loyally. "Sally is kind, and clever, and loving. Yes, she can be outrageous, but that is hardly her fault. She has been given her own way all her life, and Lord Abersham is just as bad, I understand."

"Abersham should be shot," Elf muttered.

"Now, Andrew, you know as well as I do, whatever happened between the two of them, Sally was more than likely the instigator. I daresay she led the poor man into trouble by his nose."

"Not, I suspect, his nose," Elf corrected. "But you are right, of course. Sally undoubtedly was at least as much to blame as Abersham, though he should have known better."

Henry sighed. "She has never spoken of it, but that she loves him, I cannot doubt. Was it so terrible, do you think?"

"I don't know any more than the rest of Society. He was packed off to Paris in the middle of the night, not to be seen in London again. She collapsed and was immured in Haverford House for weeks, rumoured to be broken-hearted. All talk of the longstanding betrothal between them ceased. The two dukes went around grim-faced, Abersham's name never crossing their lips. And to this day, Uncle Haverford turns sour at the mention of him."

Henry returned to her point. "Sally would make a wonderful duchess, Andrew."

"When she grows up," Elf agreed. "But she won't be my duchess. The situation Abersham left her in was more than half the reason I proposed, and others of her cousins after me. We couldn't leave her to face the consequences of her foolishness, so we drew lots."

Sally clapped both hands over her mouth to stifle her shock. How dare they!

"Andrew! You must never tell her. What woman wishes to be married out of pity?" But Henry's voice was gentle with pity and edged with amusement. Sally felt a sting in her palm and unclenched her fists, where two half moons showed blood from her nails.

Elf was dismissive. "She has turned us all down, so it matters not. She is determined to wait for Abersham and I wish her the best of luck. And I want to hear no more about Sally, my dearest love. You swore the last time I proposed that only your mourning prevented the answer I long for, and a betrothal now that you are in colours would not offend the highest stickler. I have your mother's approval, and your grandfather Wakefield's. I'll ask Haverford, too, if you insist, but the only agreement that matters is yours. Will you make me the happiest of men, Henrietta St James? Will you marry me?"

Henry's answer wasn't in words, but was clearly audible. Sally tried to block all she heard from her mind and concentrate on her letters, but the sounds from behind the screen of plants brought Toad all to clearly to her mind. Not that Elf or Henry would go beyond propriety. Not in a conservatory open to the household and in full daylight. But had they privacy and a bed, they would be no more contained than her and Toad. They had no right to judge. Her cousins drew lots? How dare they!

It would be a long wait before she could escape to the stables to release her frustrations in a long gallop. 

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