Sally and Stocke were shown into Grandmama's parlor as soon as they arrived at Winds' Gate, "And you need not apologize for arriving in your dirt, my dears, for I insisted you be brought to me as soon as you arrived." The duchess kissed Sally's cheek. "You shall have a cup of tea instantly, and tell me how pretty the wedding was."
Stocke bowed over her hand. "The bride was almost as lovely as you, Aunt Eleanor. If we were not so nearly related..."
Grandmama rapped his knuckles with her fan. "You are a rogue, Stocke. And where is your brother? Did he not also escort my granddaughter?"
"He had an errand in the village, Aunt Eleanor," Stocke said. "He sends his regards and will be here shortly."
Sally frowned. Keeping secrets from Grandmama never turned out well, and she would not be pleased about Longford's destination. And it remained to be seen what Mrs Wright, the former Delilah Thoroughgood, would make of Sally blurting out the poor woman's secret in a temper.
She had even disclosed Mrs Wright's location, though only after a long and increasingly frantic interrogation, and then only because Longford swore he loved his mistress and meant neither her nor the child any harm. Far from it.
Stocke made up her mind for her, whispering that Longford was desperately miserable, had been searching for months and had sworn never to give up. He then pointed out to his brother that, until this trip, Sally had been nowhere but Wingatt these past six months, and after that there seemed no point in keeping quiet.
Grandmama was watching her with narrowed eyes, but—thank goodness—a maid wheeled in the tea trolley. Sally took her accustomed seat to preside over the tea pot, and Stocke began a series of amusing anecdotes about the wedding. Grandmama allowed herself to be diverted.
Sally had no doubt that the postponement was temporary, and sure enough, Grandmama called her back when Longford went up to wash and change.
"What mischief is Longford seeking in my village, Sarah? And what have you to do with it?"
Sally explained, being careful to explain as well as apologise for her angry disclosure. "He guessed at Wingatt, ma'am, and he was very anxious about Mrs Wright."
Grandmama's lips were in a tight line, but she said nothing while Sally clasped and unclasped her hands, straightened her back, and shifted slightly in her chair to ease the buttocks from a day of sitting; first on the train and then in the carriage.
"I am very disappointed in you, Sarah," she said, at last. "I thought you had begun to learn to look outside of yourself and think of others. I trusted you, and more this poor woman trusted you, not to speak of those who seek refuge with us."
Sally protested. "But Grandmama, indeed, I am confident Longford means no harm."
Grandmama dismissed the claim with a contemptuous wave of the hand. "I should think not! A grand-nephew of mine? And the Countess of Chirbury's son? But not meaning harm is not the same as not harming, as you should well know given the harm you have caused yourself, many times, you and young Abersham."
She shook her head. "Mrs Wright had her reasons for hiding away, Sally, and we cannot know what they are. You broke the one rule that has always governed the houses in which the ladies of our house have sheltered those who have reason to flee their husbands, fathers, and protectors. You told a secret that was not your own. I am deeply ashamed of you."
Sally made one more attempt to excuse herself. "Did he not have a right to know about his child?"
This made Grandmama angrier than the rest. "What right? The right of being a man? But he is rich and has access to the law, so if he chooses to take the baby from her, I daresay he will do so, and if that was in her mind, no wonder she ran! You have no idea, Sarah Grenford, how much we are all at the mercy of men, and dependent on their good will, wives and mistresses alike. You think your father was an ogre to keep you from that young scoundrel of yours? You could have been in like case to Mrs Wright. You would not be the first duke's daughter to find herself locked up in the country, or married to an old man, or even thrown out to find her own way from the gutter. I flatter myself that my son is no such tyrant, but that is your good fortune and it could have been far otherwise."
She slumped suddenly, the anger still in her eyes, but no longer stiffening her body. "I shall talk to Longford. He shall not be allowed to hurt that poor woman. Go away, Sarah. I do not wish to speak to you again this night."
Sally, frightened at how tired and old Grandmama looked, crept from the room and sent a footman for the duchess's maid, then fled to her bedroom to indulge her feelings in a weep.
She heard the next scene of the drama from her maid, who had it from the footman, who had heard Stocke shouting at Longford that he could not marry where he chose.
By the next day, when Sally was allowed once more into Her Grace's presence, Longford's sins had cast Sally's into the shade. He would not be dissuaded from his course, had written to his parents, and had even enlisted the support of his brother, who declared that Longford was the stubbornest fool on God's earth, but if he was determined to ruin himself then Stocke would at least do his utmost to bring him about.
Mrs Wright, summoned to the castle, argued on the side of Society. "This is precisely why I did not tell you, Stephen." She turned to the duchess. "He has had this foolishness in his head for a year or more, Your Grace, but it could never work, I told him, and would not have him dishonour his family. Not for the world. But I knew if..." she cupped one hand protectively over her belly.
A year or more. No wonder Longford made such a cow-handed proposal to Sally. It had been designed to be rejected.
Longford had possessed himself of Mrs Wright's other hand, and now he lifted it to his lips. "Yes, and you were right, Diana. You knew I would not let our child be born out of wedlock."
He turned his most persuasive smile on Her Grace. "Aunt Eleanor, you can see for yourself that Diana is a lady born. It is not her fault that she was poorly protected and fell foul of a scoundrel, and was forced into a way of life she abhorred as much as anyone. I love her, Aunt Eleanor, and I believe she loves me."
Mrs Wright blushed, and Grandmama softened.
"I have a plan, Aunt Eleanor. She has been living here as a widow, has returned to her legal name, and left off dying her hair and wearing paint. Who is to say I have not fallen for one of the teachers at your school, and if people notice a resemblance to my former mistress, I shall just agree and say that was what first attracted me, until I fell in love with Diana for her own self." He lifted Mrs Wright's hand to his lips with the warmest of smiles, and Sally could tell that he was winning his case.
By the time the Earl and Countess of Chirbury arrived, she was ranged soundly on the side of the young couple, and had summoned the Duke and Duchess of Winshire, the Duke and Duchess of Haversham, and the Duke and Duchess of Wellbridge to attend the wedding in the castle chapel.
Sally endured a scold from Mama and the Winderfield ladies, and an uncomfortable interview with Lady Grace Winderfield, who told several tales of abuse that gave Sally nightmares for weeks.
The ducal couples stayed only a few days, but Lord and Lady Chirbury remained to visit with Grandmama, and Lord and Lady Longford took their honeymoon in a cottage in the grounds, their peaceful time being cut short when the newest member of the Redepenning family, a little girl who was named Anne after her paternal grandmother, was born less than a week after the wedding.
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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...