Chapter Forty-Six: Part 2

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Bey hadn't been joking. Toad had received letters from nearly everyone he'd ever known in England: his father, all three duchesses, Toad's and Sal's younger siblings, all of Sally's cousins, and most of Toad's. Inexplicably, even Gildeforte had written. Everyone but Haverford, which wasn't exactly a surprise.

But the first letter he opened was, as always and forever, the one in Sally's hand. Before his eyes traversed the first half page, Toad's heart sped up and he choked back a growl. Even having heard the outline of the scandal from Bey, he was unprepared to see it spelled out so plainly in Sally's hand. Thank God, the man hadn't succeeded in his aim, but he had shaken Sal. She was plainly frightened and far too subdued, writing carefully chosen words in a strictly penned hand, as though by naming the horror, she could observe it from a safe distance. The social situation must be unbearable, and Toad was not there to offer his support and comfort. Or his name.

You must not worry about me.

She had apparently lost control of her faculties, to write to him "not to worry."

The act was interrupted, so the question of forced marriage does not arise, but Papa put down the fiend's hopes of profiting from his attack. He would never have suggested I wed such a brute, and so now I know now I am safe from such an outcome.

"Bless you, Uncle Haverford. God bless you for not marrying her to a man like that."

Still, no matter how well guarded, protected, or cosseted in her parents' home, Sally was not half as well cared for as she would be as Lady Harburn—or Abersham, depending, presumably, on his father's letter. Toad's eye kept tracking back to Sally's description of the incident, trying to put a face on a man Bey hadn't been able to identify and Sally never named. Damn Haverford! That he would let it come to this instead of giving Sally into wedlock with him. He could kill the man. And damn Sally for not telling him which other man to track down and murder.

She would be safe as soon as he could make it so, by God, or Toad wasn't the future Duke of Wellbridge. He would have her safely wed and tucked away from the ton's nasty gossip inside a month, and back in Italy in her new manor house within two.

David, for more than three years, I have regretted I begged you to kiss me and caused our painful separation.

Toad blinked back tears. He had regretted that short interlude more than any other action of his young life.

But today, I am grateful that you yielded.

Grateful? Toad's throat closed around his unspoken response.

You made my first experience of a man's touch on my breasts and body a wondrous thing, and not a violent invasion that, even though it did not succeed in its objective, still leaves me shaking.

The thought left Toad's own hand shaking.

Instead, I can sit here and smile at my page as I think of your gentleness, of the reverence with which you showed me the pleasures of a kiss. If you, too, have had regrets, please forget them. You have been my true friend, dear David, in this as in all things.

"I am not only your friend, Lady Sarah Grenford," Toad muttered, "and you shall see the truth in that before the week is out."

And I feel myself so in need of a friend. So many awful things are being said, David, and not a grain of truth, except when they say I have been yours since we were children. Only ever yours, David. Please believe that, no matter what you might hear. My mother and grandmother say the shame I suffer belongs to my attacker, and you will still want me for your wife. But I am afraid, David, for I feel like a broken vase, and who has need of porcelain, once shattered?

"I do!" Toad exclaimed aloud, drawing a brief glance from a footman. If holding Sally's letter didn't feel so much like holding her hand, he might tear the paper to pieces to release some small portion of his rage. But the thought of the pieces he would have to glue together once he had her safe stopped him in his tracks.

You will come soon, will you not? I have expected you any time these four weeks. You will have a good reason for the delay, I know. I love you. I trust you. I send you my deepest affection and devotion always.

Your Sal

Toad's hand dropped to the table, the letter sprawled next to his plate and cup. She didn't know he had gone to Italy to prepare a place for her. She would have made reference, or even written in code. Bey hadn't spoken to her at the wedding, thanks to the blasted Comtesse de Lodève, and clearly, Blakeley hadn't gotten the coded letter to her either. Toad couldn't blame him; Bey said Haverford had guards posted everywhere. He hoped it never got to her now; given her state of fragility, any misunderstanding might be doubly disastrous.

Another letter could get to her no faster than he would, once he left this afternoon. At least he would not have to sneak into London and would probably not have to sneak her out again. Not with his parents' support and the prospect of Haverford's. Her father should have given his consent in Paris and saved Sally this grief. But now, perhaps, a wedding at St George's. In his best, with Etcetera at his elbow as his best man. Toad smiled, a bit grimly, at the thought.

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