Chapter Forty-Four, Part 3

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"Housemaids are easier," he muttered. "Not so many petticoats, and this wire thing..." He yanked at her bodice, fumbling at her skirts, and then, of a sudden, he was gone, and the roaring she heard resolved into a deep growl, overlaid with shapeless chatter.

Sally sat up, drawing in deep gasps of breath. Etcetera pounded Crowhurst with a closed fist, punch after punishing punch, growling through his teeth.

The chatter crowded into the room, all close relatives, Sally was relieved to see: Merry, Sutton, Henry, and Jonny. Gills brought up the rear, but he too could be trusted, and someone might be needed to manage the Coventon servants.

Henry ran to Sally and wrapped her in a shawl. Only then did Sally realise that Crowhurst had torn the bodice of her dress so that it fell half off, and wrenched down her corset until her breasts had spilled out.

"Get your father," Merry told Jonny, who was staring wide-eyed at Crowhurst, his fists clenched. "Don't say anything to anyone else, mind!"

"Leave some of that scum for me," Sutton suggested to Etcetera. "And me," Merry agreed.

Gills leaned against a door jamb and poked at his fingernails, looking away from Etcetera beating Crowhurst. "Gentlemen, I do not wish to overset your prior, much closer associations with Lady Sarah, but I feel I must point out we are in my childhood home, so I have some claim to the unworthy carcass of a man who attacked one of my brother's guests."

Sally, shaking in Henry's arms, pulled herself together as much as she could, before the men built this into something from which she could not extricate herself.

"Stop it, all of you. Etcetera, cease before you kill him. I want him conscious when Papa arrives."

Etcetera put in one more powerful blow then hauled Crowhurst to his feet by his cravat, using the lapel of his coat to throw him into a chair, where the whipped dog whined and kept his hands up to protect his face.

"Lord Sutton?" Sarah's voice slid upwards out of her control. Why on earth was she squeaking?

"Yes, my lady?"

"Will you please," a swallow, and a drop to a more normal voice, "keep the other gentlemen from committing murder until my father can arrive? And make sure Mr Crowhurst is entirely subdued."

"With pleasure, dear Sal." Sutton marched across the room to take the plethora of unruly tempers under his control.

"Lord Joseph," Sarah started, wishing she had a glass of water. She never squeaked.

Gills straightened from his habitual relaxed slouch, and his voice was lower, graver, more sincere, than she had ever heard.

"How may I be of service, my lady?" He sounded more like her meddlesome cousins than she wished to consider at present.

"But for the Dukes and Duchesses of Haverford and Wellbridge, who must come immediately, please post a trusted servant to keep people away from this part of the house, and ensure Lady Almyra and Lord Aldridge are entertained far away from here. Perhaps a walk to the folly on the lake? They are too young to be drawn into this family conflict, and Lady Almyra will be presented in..." She trailed off at the thought of what her friendship with Almyra might be about to cost Toad's sister.

Gills nodded and broke Sarah's brittle protocol by reaching out to grasp her elbow for just a moment. "Strength, my lady." He slipped out the door, shutting it firmly behind him.

"I say," Crowhurst spluttered. "You do not understand. Lady Sarah and I are betrothed!"

Sarah stood and pulled herself up to her full ducal-daughter height. "We are not betrothed, you disgusting cur! I would sell myself to the nearest nobleman for a ha'penny before I would marry you!"

Henry rose behind Sally, gathered her into her arms again, and pulled her back to a seat. On closer inspection, Henry's voice took on a higher pitch. "Your poor face."

Sally held up a hand to stop anyone from touching her face.

"Yes, and look at her wrists," Sutton added, his voice vibrating with anger. Sally looked. They were reddened from Crowhurst's grip and her struggling, with deeper red marks and scratches that would soon purple where his fingers had dug in.

"Are you hurt anywhere else, Sally?" Henry looked significantly at Sally's hands. No, at the breast to which she was clutching the shawl.

"I do not think so." She was keeping a cautious eye on the men, clustered around Crowhurst, barely holding themselves from murder.

Papa hurried in, followed by Jonny. Anger radiated off him like heat, but he was outwardly calm, and in full Duke of Haverford mode. "If you are not a member of my immediate family, or do not have first-hand knowledge of this situation, you will please remove yourself and do me the courtesy of your silence. Lord Aldridge, find Lady Almyra, and keep her entertained somewhere well away from here until I order otherwise. I am relying on you."

Jonny gave Sally a tentative touch on one cheek, opened his mouth and then closed it again, nodded at his father, gave Crowhurst one last scornful glare, then left the room, closing the door behind him.

"Your Grace..." Crowhurst started.

"Silence. You will speak if I give you leave. As will everyone else in this room."

Apart from that harsh command, Papa ignored everyone except Sally, kneeling before her to examine her carefully: her face, her wrists, the way she was shaking as the emotional reaction expressed itself physically.

"May I?" His voice gentled as he lifted one of her hands and moved the shawl aside enough to see the ruin of her dress. His face grew whiter and stiffer, the blazing of the green in his hazel eyes the only sign of the legendary Haverford temper.

"Have you been further injured, my beloved?" As he asked he looked significantly down at her lap, and Sally shifted uncomfortably as she realised what he was asking.

"No, Papa, he...Niko came when I screamed, and then the others."

Papa leaned forward very slowly, as if he feared she would run and hide at a sudden movement. And perhaps she might. Only her pride kept her from shattering in front of them all. He kissed her gently, tenderly on her forehead. "That's my brave girl. Do you wish to stay or remove to your rooms?"

Though she shivered when she said it, she squeaked, "I'll stay, please, Papa. And Henry, if you please." As Henry was Papa's secret granddaughter, she very nearly qualified as immediate family. He nodded his assent, but asked, "Would you like her to bring you another shawl, my dear? You are shivering."

"No, Papa." She could wrap herself in a hundred shawls and the cold inside her would not be assuaged.

Papa looked around Henry, hovering protectively over Sally. "Has someone sent for my wife?"

"Yes, Your Grace," Merry said. "Gildeforte has gone for Her Grace and the Wellbridges."

"The... You've sent for the Wellbridges?"

"Er... yes, sir. Sally said... We assumed... Aber ..." Merry stepped back, hoping to stay out of the fire of the burning glare. Haverford did not, however, belay the order.

"You cannot marry her to Abersham, Your Grace!" Crowhurst burst out. 

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