Chapter Forty-Four, Part 2

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As soon as the Haverfords arrived at Coventon's estate, Sally was swept up in a frenzy of preparations. Her reputation from the Winds' Gate Christmas party preceded her, and her cousins and friends declared her General of Decorations, most especially the ballroom in which the wedding guests would break their fast after they returned from the church.

The flowers would not be delivered until the day before, of course, but they could do much to prepare. Soon, the private family parlour set aside for the purpose was full of red and green ribbons, long swaths of fabric, evergreen boughs in buckets of water, and anything else that they might need. No expense would be spared.

Such industry allowed Sally to avoid Lady Athol, another cousin of the bride, and her lecherous husband, but not Mr Crowhurst. She hadn't seen that horrid man since before Grandpapa Winshire's death, until he arrived in his father's train. Her dislike of Crowhurst might have its roots in Toad's stories of his school-days nemesis, Crowbait, but Crowhurst had since given her many reasons to dislike him on his own account. He and his parents were not staying at Coventon's family seat, thank goodness, but Crowhurst still managed to be underfoot most of the day.

Fortunately, he behaved like a gentleman, apart from frequent florid compliments and a tendency to treat any opinions she offered in conversation with patronising amusement. She could not entirely fault him for that; if those two behaviours were not gentlemanly, there were few true gentlemen in Society.

"I think that funeral-faced wine merchant's son wants to propose, Sally," her brother Jonny told her. "Shall I make an excuse to leave the two of you alone?"

"Do not dare," Sally warned. "I will make your life miserable if you do."

Jonny laughed, not least because Sally was always surrounded. She had made Almyra and Jonny her lieutenants, freeing the adult members of the house party to attend whatever social entertainments they pleased, but a cousin or two usually hovered, and the typical constraints on an unmarried lady remained. Worse still, Almyra would be making her debut in only a matter of weeks; where she ventured, therefore, a duenna followed. Almyra already found herself as bored as Sally by the social gossip over tea. "They don't talk about people I know or anything of more moment than furbelows and feathers," she complained.

"Familiarize yourself with furbelows, my dear, for the quality of conversation only slides downhill once you are out."

On the afternoon before the wedding, all of Sally's usual helpers were off about the house on decorating tasks, or out for an afternoon ride to Bristol to shop or planning to meet guests coming in on the train, including Etcetera and the Suttons. Sally was blessedly alone, for a few minutes at least. Even the maid who usually followed her everywhere was absent, sent off to bed with a sick headache and assurances that Sally was in the private part of the house, and surrounded by friends and family.

"Alone, Lady Sarah?" Crowhurst asked, as he poked his head around the door.

She looked around instinctively, but of course, no one appeared to free her from this nuisance. "Good afternoon, Mr Crowhurst. Would you put your finger on this ribbon, please?"

"What are you making?" Crowhurst asked as he entered the room and obligingly placed his finger at the intersection of a number of ribbons.

"We were short one draping," Sally told him, tying her knot with ease. "I am remedying the defect. It is to go in the front hall, over the fireplace, so I want it to be particularly lovely."

Crowhurst gave it a perfunctory glance. "Yes, very nice. But if it needs to be special, perhaps you should wait until one of your usual helpers returns, Lady Sarah. I am sure they would be better qualified to advise you than I." Crowhurst's little huff of laughter was both self-deprecating and self-promoting.

"I would prefer not to wait," Sally said, focused on binding the baubles securely, and displayed to best advantage. "I will be finished in a moment, and then, if you are not otherwise occupied, Mr Crowhurst, perhaps you could help carry it to the front hall. I would love to have it in place before those who've abandoned me return to their tasks."

"Indeed," Crowhurst said, "And when will that be? I never seem to catch you on your own, Lady Sarah."

"We have been very busy, have we not? But you shall see the benefit, I promise you. There!" Sally sat back, satisfied with her work, and at the next moment startled to her feet as Crowhurst suddenly fell to one knee.

"Lady Sarah, I can remain silent no longer," he declaimed.

She recoiled, but he grasped her hand. "Pray, Mr Crowhurst, do not continue."

Crowhurst ignored her. Of course he did. "I am inflamed by your beauty, your charm, your wit, and I flatter myself that you are not indifferent to me. Lady Sarah, dare I hope you will favour me with your hand?"

The pompous ass. She had done everything she politely could to discourage the man. Impoliteness, then.

"No, Mr Crowhurst, I will not." She yanked her hand from his and snatched it back when he tried to take hold again. Never mind that nonsense about being conscious of the honour, and so on. It was not an honour at all to be desired for one's prominent relatives and one's fifty thousand pounds a year, nor to spite a childhood rival.

Crowhurst surged to his feet and wrapped both arms around her, pulling her tight against his body. "No need to be shy with me, sweet dove. I know you want me as much as I want you." Sally, one arm trapped, tried to push him away with the other, but he was much larger and stronger and would not release her.

"Let me go this instant! What has got into you?"

"You have, tempting heart-breaker. Your teasing has driven me beyond manners. I am crazed by you, unkind Angel. You must be mine." He captured the hand with which she tried to claw his eyes, forcing it behind her back until he could grasp both her wrists in one hand, pulling her tight against his body. He laughed when she struggled. "That's right, little treasure. Wriggle against me. Did Abersham leave you the innocent you seem, I wonder? Shall we find out?"

Terror had rapidly overtaken fury. She could scream, but—depending on who heard her—the outcome could be disastrous.

As if he heard her thoughts, he said, "Scream if you wish, my pet. Let people come. I have compromised you, and you will have to marry me."

"Never," she hissed, "I will never marry you."

"Once I have taken you, foolish kitten, you shall have no choice," he told her, and he pushed her back onto the couch falling with her to keep her hands pinned and trap her with his body.

She screamed then, a wordless roar of anger and outrage, which he cut off with a large hand, pinching at her nose and holding her mouth closed until the need for air roared in her ears and her sight dimmed. 

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