Chapter Fifty-Two: Part 2

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The custom-made pistol fit perfectly in Sally's hand and could be loaded with four bullets. Her first two shots clipped the edge of the target. She took a deep breath to calm herself before the third and managed the inner side of the outer ring.

"Relax your stance, Sally," Aunt Bella commanded. "It is as though you are seven again and afraid of the gun, which is a ridiculous notion. Take a breath and try again."

The fourth shot was closer to the centre, but not close enough. Sally busied herself reloading.

From behind them, the sound of a throat clearing. "Ahem. Bella, Lady Sarah. Blakeley said I might find you here."

Sally turned with a glad smile that faded when she saw Uncle Nick's uncompromising ducal glare, quickly camouflaged behind a polite but bland expression he had never before addressed to her.

Nick's eyes flashed to the gun in Sally's hand, then looked away, and his lips tightened.

"I am sorry the situation has become so terribly tenuous for you here, Lady Sarah," he said, in an indifferent tone. "I am hopeful your sojourn in the Pacific will allow the rumours to subside. Perhaps you will be able to find a suitable man to take as your husband. Someone worthy of you, of course—a gentleman in the diplomatic corps, or a military officer."

What on earth did he mean? Did he, too, think that David was dead? But he looked so forbidding, so strange.

Sally shot a glance at Aunt Bella, who said nothing but just pressed her lips together. Sally would just ignore the remark until she could puzzle it out, or until he explained.

"I came to say goodbye, Uncle Nick. We leave tomorrow. I was just trying out Aunt Bella's gift."

"Yes, I can see that." An annoyed look at Bella told Sally exactly what he thought of the gun, so probably the knife, too, and she tucked her hand and the firearm back behind her skirts.

"I would be delighted to hear you were never forced to display your prowess with weaponry," Nick said stiffly. "I know if my son were here, he would be dismayed at the thought of you left to undertake your own protection."

Sally blinked rapidly. How she wished David were here. With a small spurt of spite, she said, "If David had been here, even for visits, these past two years, I doubt that I would need protection."

Uncle Nick's face blanched, and the cords on the sides of his neck stood out. "No, Lady Sarah, on that we can agree. Had Abersham been allowed to debauch you a second time, the scandal might have happened much earlier, perhaps before it reached such epic proportions, and you would be well out of Society by now, leaving my son free to find an appropriate wife."

Sally blinked rapidly, her jaw hanging open in her shock, the room wavering around her. She grabbed for the rail at her back and stiffened her knees. She would not swoon. She would not cry.

But the faces of her dearest godparents blurred behind sheets of tears as she backed towards the door, whimpering, "Uncle Nick." The attack had been so unexpected, she had no defence but to run as convulsive sobs fought their way from her chest.

Before Sally could make it out the door, Aunt Bella dashed across to stop her, wrapping one arm around Sally and with the other, removing the gun from her hand and setting it on a side table. "Wellbridge, I suggest you either measure your words or remove yourself," Bella said in a voice even colder and more ducal than her husband.

Uncle Nick's nostrils flared, and his neck looked like it might snap from the strain, but he clenched his jaw and said, "I apologize, my lady. I spoke injudiciously. It was unfair to attack you so, especially in my wife's presence." Uncle Nick's teeth remained tightly clenched. He was clearly biting back words he knew better than to say in front of Aunt Bella, and the duchess knew she needn't explain herself to him further. Suddenly, Sally felt cold all through.

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