Haverford picked up the object he had brought with him from the sofa beside him and pushed it towards Nick. A large square wrapped in oilcloth. "Here. You probably helped choose some of these. I know I did."
It was a hardbound scrapbook, with the innocuous title painted in watercolour on the front: Lady Sarah's Curiosities.
With a sick feeling pooling in his stomach, Nick used the tip of one finger to open the cover.
Bella came up behind her husband, just in time to steady him when he swayed on his feet. When she looked over his shoulder, she gasped.
"He has been sending things like this to her since she was fifteen, Nick." Haverford said. "Fifteen! Grooming her into corruption. Lady Athol intercepted a letter and has kept it all this time, waiting to watch my little girl fall. And I want to see that bitch pay for such perfidy. But Abersham started it. He got his taste with the maids, then turned his sights on my Sally."
"I cannot..." Nick started, then trailed off. "I find myself at a loss for words. This is...."
Cherry shook her head. "He did nothing without her full cooperation, and very probably was as unwillingly led into trouble as he was when they were both toddling our nurseries. Not one thing either of them has even been caught doing that involved the other was purely the fault of just one of them."
"She was fifteen, Cherry, and a complete innocent."
Cherry retorted, "He was but eleven months older, as he always has been, and if he was not an innocent, Bella and I know exactly who to blame for that."
"It is shameful! This book, the fact he knew enough to curate such an abhorrent collection, and that he learned such depravity from his own father and godfather. It is all shameful." Bella exclaimed. "But the fault lies with both of our children. The book says 'Lady Sarah's Curiosities,' not 'Lord Abersham's Love Letters.'"
"Yes," Nick said, inordinately pleased his wife thought more quickly than he did in a crisis. "Yes, both of them are to blame, and the best way to mitigate the scandal is their immediate marriage."
"If we had a groom, that would be considerably easier to accomplish," Cherry said with a wry smile.
Nick topped up his glass and pushed the decanter toward Haverford again, then flipped through the book, wincing on more than one occasion. Blakeley brought in the tea makings while he browsed, and Bella prepared tea for Cherry and herself, her lips pursed.
Finally, Haverford asked, "Was I right?" Nick just nodded and shut the book, pushing it to the other side of the table.
"And the blame goes also to both of our husbands," Cherry reiterated, with Bella nodding approval. "Do not even think of obscuring your part in this. If my daughter was curious about part of her best friend's life that she could not share, who can be surprised? And he was not nearly old, or emotionally mature, enough to be steeped in debauchery. How can you think he would have the wisdom or vocabulary to speak to her of such things without inciting further curiosity and offering up inappropriate information? How can you think he would be satisfied with fallen women when he could imagine intimate congress with the woman he loved?" Cherry held up a hand to stay Haverford's words. "She was not yet out of the schoolroom, but he far less of a man than you taught him to think he was. They were still almost children. Ill-advised, shockingly inappropriate, and terrifyingly ignorant of consequence. But children often are all those things."
Bella nodded decisively. "They are adults now. An immediate marriage is the answer. I will send Captain Hawley to find Abersham as soon as a carriage can take me to the docks."
YOU ARE READING
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...