"Drink, Abersham, and read your note. Then you may tell me for what other reasons you have returned to London, apart from marrying or eloping with my granddaughter."
After two gulps that downed half his glass, he opened the letter.
My dearest love,
You are reading this, and so you are alive. Surely wherever I am in the world, my heart is singing? God could not be so cruel as to leave me in doubt of your survival when it hurts so much to be without you.
He shut his eyes for a moment against the pain in her words, unwelcome tears welling up. How could he have stayed away for so long? How could he have allowed their fathers to keep him away?
Do not be angry with me for not waiting as you asked. 'Travel can be difficult,' your mother says, and 'the posts are often interrupted.' She has assured me again and again that you will come. In my innermost being, I know you would be with me if you could. Weeks passed, then months, and still you are not here; something prevents you. Thank God, if you are reading my words, it was not the worst that I feared.
"I wrote," he told Aunt Eleanor. "I wrote as often as I always have until I left Italy to come home. Did none of my messages reach her?" The duchess shook her head. "None," she confirmed, and Sally's letter said the same.
I have received no news of you since your note at Christmas, except through rumour, much of it contradictory and all of it unpleasant. I believe none of it, as I pray you will believe none of the unkind stories circulating through Society about me.
Of course, he believed none of it. A fact which was irrelevant as long as he had no way to reassure her.
I cannot face them alone, David. Please understand. With you at my side, I could dare anything. Even if I just knew for certain that you lived, and were coming for me, I would ignore them and wait. But I am so afraid for you, and so alone, that I have no strength.
My father has found a way for me to escape, for a few months, at least. He is taking up a temporary post as governor of the Victoria and Albert Islands in the Pacific Ocean. We shall be gone for no more than a year—perhaps less. Surely only a short time when measured against our separation so far, and our lives to come?
"Am I meant to be grateful?" At her look, he stopped talking and just railed inside: To Haverford? For stealing Sally from me again?
And yet, as he fumed and refused to meet Aunt Eleanor's eyes, he found he was. The infuriating man had found a way to remove her from harm. Again. When Toad had failed her. Again. Dear God, how he hated Haverford.
My mother—she has forbidden me to tell Papa, but you will keep my secret, David—is not in good health, and will need my assistance as governor's lady. I beg you, support me in this. Forgive me for not waiting. Do not believe the lies that have been told about me.
As you asked me, so I bend my pride into dust and implore you. Wait for me, my love.
Ever yours and only yours,
Toad tapped Sally's letter on his knee, tears standing in his stoic English eyes.
"Why take her away? Surely a marriage to me would protect her better than this flight from scandal? What can he be thinking? Or is he thinking at all?"
Aunt Eleanor sipped her own tea before she answered. "Haverford thinks by removing her from England, he will keep her safe from you and from scandal. And, young man, you will not criticise the Duke of Haverford to me."
Safe from him. It always came back to that. "I have not done half of what is bandied about. And of the things I have done, not all were what they seem."
"I believe you, Abersham. Even had it not been confirmed by Prue and David at Wakefield and Wakefield..." At this Toad started, but nodded when she raised an eyebrow. Of course he was being investigated. How very like Haverford. And the rest of them. "...if you were half the degenerate you are said to be, my granddaughter would never be so unwise as to give you her heart."
He folded the note again and slipped it into the envelope before gave his best argument.
"I have tried, Aunt Eleanor. I would have done anything to convince Uncle Haverford, but he denied my proposal three separate times. He said he would see me rot in hell, first."
Aunt Eleanor's lips twitched. "That sounds like my son in a rage."
"I was delayed because I went to Italy to prepare a home for her. I know eloping is dishonourable, but what choice did he leave me? With all her cousins trying to persuade her to marriage, and the likes of Gildeforte trying to persuade her to ruin, and Haverford telling me I was unfit to touch the hem of her dress?"
Turning to look her directly in the eye, he stated, "There is no one more fit. I am worthy of her now, and I do not mind saying so, to you or to anyone. She has a manor house waiting in Italy, and an apartment in Paris, and a vineyard in Greece, and will be wife to a future duke and a businessman with a sizable international custom." Sighing and dropping back into his seat, he added, "And I've never stopped loving her for a moment. It is long past time for me to be wed to Sally Grenford, Your Grace, and you cannot say otherwise. If she will have me, no one shall deny us."
With a short chuckle and a pinch of his cheek, she said, "I believe Haverford to be the only person not aware of that fact. Even your father has given in by now. But in fairness, you should know the rumours painted you as unsafe for a young lady's acquaintance, Abersham."
"Unsafe? Me? So, to protect Sally from a man who has loved her since the nursery, he laid her open to attack by an actual villain?" He rose from his seat and began to pace, his hands flailing at the futility of every word he uttered. "Everyone wrote—even Jonny asked me to come to her defence. I must go after her, Aunt Eleanor. How can I stand by and leave her unprotected in the middle of the Pacific? She might have been killed at that wedding. She might have been damaged beyond reckoning, and she might yet be! What if Haverford had married her to such a man? Even if he wouldn't, it is only a matter of time before she is wed to someone else."
"Calm yourself, Harburn. You are becoming hysterical. The hot-blooded manners of the Continent do not become you in London's drawing rooms. Sit, and I shall pour you more brandy." He sat and held out his glass, which she filled with alacrity. "I can set your mind at rest on that last, at least, my dear. Sally has resolutely refused to accept any other suitor, and Haverford is equally firm in refusing to force her. She will not be wed out from underneath you, and by the time she returns, she will need no permission from anyone to marry. Let us consider your next steps, Abersham. For you have a business to run, and a future to plan, and your affianced wife is the safest lady in the Victoria and Albert Islands, as the Governor's beloved daughter."
When Toad left an hour later, the dowager duchess had heard and approved his plans, and had promised to support him with introductions in the shipping trade. She also confided that her son-in-law, the new Duke of Winshire, a major shareholder in Kopet Dag, was planning to do the same for Bey Nartay, but cautioned they might have many of the same contacts.
"Thank you for coming to see an old woman, Harburn," she said, as he bent to kiss her cheek in farewell. "I am delighted to know you as an adult now. I shall not tell your parents you are in London, but I will caution you not to allow them to hear it from someone else."
"Yes, I will see them soon." He touched her arm. "Aunt Eleanor, you would say if you needed something...?"
"Some things, dearest boy, even you cannot fix." She presented her cheek for his kiss, and he went out to face the rest of what the day might bring.
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...