"No." Sally faced her father in his study, her fists clenched at her side. "No, Papa, I am not coming. I am staying in England."
Papa, his jaw tense and his eyes glittering, took two hasty paces across the floor before replying through gritted teeth. "You are not being offered a choice, Sarah."
Sally, summoned back from Winds' Gate only a few days after leaving London, had arrived to find Haverford House in turmoil, her belongings being packed for transport or storage, servants and messengers leaving and arriving by the minute, Haverford stewards and agents from every estate and enterprise in the duchy's vast holdings closeted with her father or waiting to see him or engaged in urgent conversation with one another. Her father's political colleagues came and went, too, admitted or turned away according to some Rubicon understood only by the three busy secretaries who had been appointed in the interim to support Penchley, who stood in her father's shadow at the centre of the whirlwind, glowing with satisfaction.
He had been sent from the room for this discussion with Papa and Mama, witnessed also by Grandmama, who had accompanied her back up to London, tight lipped after reading the letter from Papa.
"David is coming for me." Tears stood in Sally's eyes and she blinked hard to dispel them. Except for that one dreadful month after David was exiled, she had never been a crier—had scorned those who used weeping as a weapon—but since Crowhurst's attack, she had been plagued by easy tears. "David is coming, and he begged me to wait."
"Sally—" Mama began, but Papa interrupted, suddenly picking up a book from his desk and spinning to slam in on the low table between them. For a moment, the object was unfamiliar, and yet she knew it well. It belonged in its hidden place in the bottom of her jewellery cabinet. Yet here it was, the Scrapbook, her private link with the man she loved, exposed and forlorn in her father's study with her father, breathing heavily through flared nostrils, standing behind it glaring accusation at her.
"How dare you go through my things," she told him, scowling back.
"How dare I? I am your father and the head of this house. I have every right to go through your room. I have the right to throw you and this damned book into the street and leave you to those who know how to make use of both, and no one can stop me."
Sally's shocked gasp was drowned by protests from Mama and Grandmama, and Papa deflated a little as he faced them. "Of course I will not. I will protect her with the last breath in my body, whether she wants my protection or not. But you cannot deny the law gives me the right to turn her away. Yes, and Society would approve if they saw the despicable obscene objects Wellbridge's reprobate son collected for our daughter. Look at it, Mama. He has been sending her things like this since she was a mere child."
Grandmama approached the book as if it might explode. The older duchess began leafing through the Scrapbook, and Sally could feel the colour flooding her face and then her chest. She must be as red as fire.
With some difficulty, she dragged her gaze from Grandmama's raised eyebrows and pinched lips and returned to the point. "I am waiting for David, Papa. I can stay with Grandmama, or the Wellbridges. He must be here soon."
Papa's response was in his dangerous low purr. "You think I will permit you to marry Harburn after finding that?"
She had to stay calm. She had to convince Papa somehow. "That is ancient history, Papa. David hasn't sent me anything for the Scrapbook since you and Uncle Nick sent him away. Or, at least, nothing that you would object to."
"What Lord Harburn sent before then is enough, Sarah, as you must know, or why was it hidden so well? Six hidden drawers, and each of them with enough obscenity to send me early to my grave. How could you let that happen, Sarah? Why did you not come to me or to your mother the first time he approached you with such horrors?"
Sally protested. "It wasn't like that! Davi—Lord Harburn didn't want to... You do not...." Unable to explain to her father, she turned to Mama, grasping her hands and looking intently into the kind, if sorrowful, eyes. "He was leaving me behind, Mama. We had always shared everything, but Papa and Uncle Nick were taking him into a world where I could not follow. I just wanted to understand. I told him if he didn't tell me about," she blushed again and stumbled over the words, "carnal relations, I would ask my cousins, and he believed me."
She swallowed hard, but the sympathy in her mother's eyes let her continue her defence of the man she loved. "He didn't want to do it, Mama. He always argued, every time, and in the end, he wouldn't anymore. But by then he was gone. I just wanted to know how to compete with the women he did those things with, but then he was gone." The tears came now, flowing down her cheeks, and she could not stop them. But Mama held her, and murmured in her ear, and Grandmama came up behind and wrapped her arms around them both.
Sally fought for calm and found it, then turned back to her father, who still stood as if carved from granite, unyielding, no sign of any sympathy. "You and Uncle Nick took him from me and kept him away. I was wrong to make David send me such things, but how could it be right for you and Uncle Nick to help him buy them? To do them, too, with any woman who was willing. And you were wrong to keep him out of England so that people do not know him, because they would not believe the lies you have tried to keep from me if they knew him. I am staying in England, Papa, and waiting for David."
Papa had flinched at her accusation, but he rallied at her last words. "No. You are not."
"Haverford, surely..." Grandmama began. It was a measure of Papa's state that he broke the courteous habits of a lifetime and interrupted. "I cannot and will not leave her, Mama. Even with me in England—in the same house, Mama—and all my resources dedicated to her protection, the scurrilous stories about her led to an attack that nearly succeeded in its object. With me gone, she would not be safe. Do you know how many people expect me to throw her to the wolves; how many betting books are taking odds on how long? They can wait until hell freezes over. I will never do abandon her."
Sally softened a little. "But I will be safe married to David, Papa."
He glared again. "Harburn is not here, and even his parents have not heard from him. Besides, Wellbridge says he will..."
"Haverford!" The sharp interruption from Mama caused Papa to break off that sentence, and he changed tack.
"Sarah, it makes no difference to what we do now, but I must know. Did Abersham in truth leave you a virgin, as you and he claimed?"
How dare he doubt her given word! Sally drew herself straight and lifted her chin. "He did, Papa, though as I said at the time, I would not have stopped him had he chosen to do otherwise."
No response from her father but a further flaring of the nostrils. "And are you a virgin yet? That wolf, Gildeforte, has not compromised you unnoticed?"
"Papa!" Her protest was echoed by her father's name from Mama and Grandmama, but Papa ignored them all, just raising his eyebrows as he waited.
Sally decided to respond the cold question with a frosty, "I have been faithful to David."
Papa harrumphed. "Better than he deserved, by all accounts."
"He was the boy you made him, Papa. He is a man now."
Papa looked down again at the Scrapbook. "That remains to be seen. One last question, Sarah, and we are done. Did you and Abersham, or you and anyone else for that matter, perform any of the acts shown in those pictures?"
Again, Mama and Grandmama protested and were ignored, but the freeze had reached Sally's heart, so she was able to respond with dignity. "Once. And you and Uncle Nick caught us and tore him away from me." Her desperation vanquished her pride, and she threw herself on her knees at her father's feet. "Oh, but Papa, I will forgive you for that and for all if only you will let me stay and marry him."
"I cannot, Sally. I cannot. You will be on the ship when it leaves the day after tomorrow if you must be carried aboard trussed like a goose. Cherry. Mother. You will forgive me, there is much to do."
And he walked away, leaving Sally sobbing on the carpet until she was gathered into her mother's and grandmother's arms.
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Mariana Gabrielle and Jude Knight.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...