Chapter Fifty-Six

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Penchley watched from the shadows at Lady Sarah Grenford standing at the rail, motionless and lost in her own thoughts. She had been there since they had left Gibraltar, peering across waters that separated them from Italy. He suppressed a surge of impatience at her faithfulness to that lying hound, Toad Harburn, who had last been reported in Florence, several hundred miles north-east of their current position. Her loyalty did her credit, he reminded himself again. Was it not one of the virtues that would make her a perfect diplomatic wife?

She would forget Toad Harburn in time, and the stories Penchley had heard in Gibraltar could only help. A pity it saddened her, but Penchley meant it for the best. He leant back against the wall, and contemplated her proud form. No one would know from her expression how she mourned. No one could have realised, watching her charm the entire English community in Gibraltar, how much pride and courage it had taken for her to face the wolves.

Haverford's plan was working, though. Penchley had helped, dropping a word in one ear, and a hint in another. The lovely innocent daughter of one of the highest nobles in the land had been the victim of a vicious campaign to destroy her reputation; not just rumours, but an outright attack, and all orchestrated by enemies of a childhood friend.

Penchley had added a few points of his own, just to reinforce separation between her and Toad Harburn, the fiend so dissolute the notoriously sybaritic Duke of Wellbridge had disowned him. Nothing said outright, of course. Nothing that Haverford could overhear and dispute. But Harburn's earlier reputation was enough, when combined with newer rumours and the story he was courting one of the Comte d'Alvieri's younger sisters, which news had arrived in Gibraltar before they did. Penchley was so disgusted at Harburn's perfidy, he sometimes forgot that he'd made that story up himself and sent it winging toward Gibraltar before they left London.

But Lady Sarah's devotion had not been rocked; it was time to pass on the letter delivered by Blakeley. Remembering what he'd overheard between His Grace and his brother the enquiry agent about the childhood code Harburn and Lady Sarah had used in their correspondence, Penchley had carefully trimmed the margin, dripped water in strategic places until the ink smudged beyond recall, and even ground certain paragraphs under his boot, being careful not to destroy the most damning of the words. Marry an Italian princess... Yes, indeed; a wound now, swiftly delivered and soon over, and the lovely Lady Sarah could heal and look to her future. A future in which Percival Penchley intended to play a part.

For a moment, he quailed at the task before him. It was not too late to turn back. She had given him letters to Harburn to include in the diplomatic bag returning to England, and he had torn them into little pieces and dropped them into the sea, but he could find a story to cover that. He had steamed open Lady Sarah's letters to her female relatives, to make sure she did not refer to the other correspondence. But he had resealed them and sent them on with those of the rest of the family, official and private alike. He had nothing to fear there.

If he continued down this path, he would need to monitor all letters coming and going. But if he won Lady Sarah's hand in the end...? Ah, what a prize! She was born to be an Ambassador's wife, was Lady Sarah Grenford. His wife, in particular, because with the Haverfords behind him, Penchley could not fail to attain the highest of posts, and in time, his own peerage. He smiled as he slipped quietly away to his cabin. Penchley had been born for this, and Lady Sally was the key.

***

Sally stared blankly at the torn, crumpled, stained pieces—no, shreds—of paper in her hands. The few words that were still decipherable made no sense. Toad could not have written "not be crossing the Channel soon." He had promised to come home; had already been weeks behind his scheduled return when she left England. The next bit was blurred, then "release you from any promise" and a hole in the paper, followed by "the ladies of Europe beckon? (My fa"

My fa what? My fate? My failure? My father? No way to know, for a great muddy stain mixed with the ink there, as if someone had ground their boot onto the paper, leaving only a half-completed phrase: "-arry an Italian princes..." Despite her best efforts to misunderstand, Sally's mind supplied the 'm' at the start and the extra 's' at the end.

It must be in their code, but the edge, which should have been decorated with all the symbols to interpret the real meaning, was completely gone. She shut her eyes and took a deep calming breath before facing the concerned gazes of her mother and father.

"When did this arrive, Papa? And how? It has been much damaged." She could not quite manage to keep the accusation out of her tone. After all the arguments of the last weeks in England, they had reached a kind of peace during the journey through the Mediterranean. And all the time, he had been keeping from her evidence that Toad was still alive and had tried to send her a message?

Papa must have understood, because he answered her charge before she had made it. "I heard about it for the first time today, Sally. The messenger gave it to Penchley, who put it aside for me and then forgot about it. I have reprimanded him, of course, but he had no way of knowing how important it was to you, and he is a very focused soul, our Penchley."

That was true. Nothing existed in Mr Penchley's world except the diplomatic service and, Sally rather suspected, Mr Penchley's planned meteoric rise through its ranks.

"How does it come to be so damaged? Who delivered it, and why to Mr Penchley?" And why did the few words remaining have to be those that cut into her soul, bleeding her dry of hope? "...how can I think to support a wife?" the second sheet asked, and "our childish plans..." Then, miraculously untouched by the mud that had stained the paper, the water that had made the ink run, and whatever mechanism had torn great pieces from the edges, two uncompromising lines. "Should you find some other man can make you happy, I beg you accept his suit." A tear fell on the words. There. Now they were blurred like the rest of this lying writing.

Her father was telling some story about Toad's man, Blakeley, and how he had been apprehended trying to break into Haverford House. He had been forcibly ejected, during which incident, the letter had been damaged. "Blakeley knew Penchley from Marseilles, where the man did a service for young Harburn, and he asked him to deliver the letter."

Sally took another deep breath. "I wish he had thought to do so earlier."

"I do too, princess," Papa said. "If we had been able to interview Blakeley, we might have found out where Harburn was and what he intended. It is in your code, is it not? The one you developed when he went away to school?'

Sally managed a ghost of a smile. "You knew about that? We thought we were so clever. Uncle Wakefield, I suppose."

She shook the poor damaged pages and then relented and held them more gently. "I am sure they are in our code, but the key is gone, and I don't know what he wanted to tell me. I only know that this is all lies."

And if she said it often enough, perhaps she would believe it deep down, where the fear lived, born when Toad first went to school, growing stronger as he began his career as a rake-in-training, and reinforced with every nasty rumour she stoutly rejected.

Tears running down her face, she turned into her mother's embrace. "They are lies, Mama," she repeated, and Cherry held her close and murmured what she wanted to hear. "He is alive, Sally. And he loves you. He asked for your hand. He wrote to say he was coming. Hold to that."

Sally looked up at her father, whose face was closed in his ducal 'no-one-shall-know-what-I-am-thinking' expression. He doubted, and he was wrong.

David loved her. David would come for her.

Gently cradling the letter that told her nothing, except that he had been alive to write it, she sobbed in her mother's arms.

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