After two days of watching Maddox when he wasn't aware, Sally had decided that Mama and Aronui had the right of it. Her new awareness made her stiff with him, and on the third day, he asked her about it. They were strolling along the beach, the escort trailing behind them so that they had a little privacy.
"Have I offended you, Sally? You seem — upset about something. Tell me what I have done and I will make amends."
"I am the one who owes an apology," Sally confessed. "I didn't notice... that is... Maddox, you know that I love Lord Harburn, that we are betrothed and that he is the only man in the world for me."
Maddox closed his eyes, and sighed, then opened them again, smiling ruefully. "I hoped you would not notice. I have tried not to let my feelings affect our friendship."
"I am so sorry, Maddox."
"No," Maddox protested. "Don't apologise. You have never given me the least reason to hope. Except — Sally, if anything goes wrong, may I hope you will at least consider me?"
"Maddox—" she wasn't sure what she was going to say, but he didn't wait for her to finish.
"Sally, let me say it once, and then we will forget this whole conversation and go back to enjoying one another's company. I love you. If Toad Abersham..." He shook his head and began again. "I will always be there if you need me. Wherever you are, wherever I am, just send for me and I will come. Now. We're almost at the end of the beach, and just over here is where I saw the land crabs I wanted to show you. Enormous beasts, Sally, so watch where you step!"
Sally stopped on the sand. "What about Toad, Maddox? What have you heard?"
He regarded her thoughtfully. "Rumours. Rumours only, Sally, except that I remember him from Cambridge and the rumours are consistent with his behavior then."
Sally shook her head. "Crowhurst and David's cousin began the rumours, and others have continued them. David was top of his school, and is now building a shipping empire. He is not the schoolboy you knew, Maddox."
"I hope so, dear cousin, for your sake." Maddox didn't sound convinced, and when he turned to continue towards the land crabs, Sally stopped him again.
"Tell me about the rumours."
Sally didn't believe a word of it. Not the drinking and gambling. Not the supposed betrothal with one of the d'Alvieri sisters. Especially not the ruination and abduction of an Italian princess. It was all nonsense. But the fear that it was not tainted her friendship with Maddox. She didn't blame him for obeying her command to repeat what he'd heard, but she resented him for being the bearer of news she didn't want to believe and that he clearly did. He wanted Toad to be a cad because he wanted Sally, and Sally could no longer feel at ease with him.
Maddox began to talk about moving on. "It would be interesting to see where the winds would blow me from here," he said one morning at breakfast.
"Rather dangerous just to take off into thousands of miles of empty ocean," Papa commented.
Maddox waved off the concerns. "I have my support ship, and — according to Huala's father — this is the most settled season for weather."
Sally couldn't help but feel he was leaving because she didn't want his courtship. "If anything happens to him," she told Aronui, "it will be my fault."
Aronui refused to allow any self-castigation. "Rubbish. He has been doing this for fifteen years — sailing off into the sky with no idea where he will end up. And as for his feelings for you, you didn't ask for them. You haven't encouraged him. And he knows you have already chosen another man."
All of which was true. In order to keep herself from thinking about how much she would miss their friendship, she threw herself into the preparations for his departure; helping him restock his ship and choose supplies for the balloon, going with him to visit captains of the ships that docked in the harbour at Albert Island to ask for maps and stories of all the lands to which he might be blown.
"But I recognise that one," she said, the day before he was due to leave. They had been standing on the dock watching as a magnificent clipper negotiated the gap in the reef and sailed into the harbour. "It is one of Aunt Bella's — the Almyra. I wonder if Captain Hawley still commands it? Oh, Maddox, perhaps he will have news of Da— of home?"
Maddox's wry smile showed he'd heard what she'd been about to say, but all he said was, "We'll find out within the half hour, Sally."
The ship was not under the command of Bella's most loyal retainer, but the man who was in command leapt to the dock when he realised he was being hailed by Lady Sarah Grenford. "My lady, I have letters for... for His Grace your father."
"And for me?" Sally clasped her hands to keep them from patting the man down to seize whatever he held.
The captain shot an anxious glance at Maddox, and then at the escorts and companions, who clustered a few feet away. "Er... can I speak to you in private, my lady?"
Lieutenant Jones, the replacement for poor Lieutenant Bracken, pushed his way forward. "We cannot risk it, my lady. We don't know this man."
"I am Thrush. Nathaniel Thrush, Acting Captain of the Almyra." Thrush was looking uncertainly from the Lieutenant to Maddox.
Sally's frown cleared. "You have been told to give me my letters in private. Is that it? Maddox, Lieutenant, please assure Captain Thrush that their graces my parents do not censor my letters nor keep them from me. Acting Captain. Has something happened to Captain Hawley? Oh, I hope not."
"No, my lady. Her Grace sent the Almyra to be at the service of yourself and your family, ma'am, with Captain Hawley in charge. But something came up." This time, his look at Maddox was one she'd seen before, a man begging another man to rescue him from interrogation about a subject unfit for a lady's ears.
Sally decided to leave further investigation until she achieved her main aim. "I would like my letters now, Captain Thrush, please."
"Er... I was instructed to see you alone, ma'am," the Captain pleaded.
"Her ladyship has been attacked several times, Captain Thrush," Maddox explained. "Her guard and companions have their own instructions—never to leave her alone with anyone who is not on the very small list of people that the Duke of Haverford trusts. But my cousin is right. His Grace has no wish to prevent her from receiving and reading letters addressed to her, and if you have a letter from my cousin's betrothed, she is anxious to receive it."
By this time, the ship was docked and they were running out the gangway. Captain Thrush frown again and then shrugged. "I will fetch them for you, ma'am," he conceded.
Sally took Maddox's hand and squeezed. What would David's letter say? Why had he not written for so long? In a moment, she would know. She grinned at Maddox, and he smiled back. What a good friend he was.
She accepted the package from Captain Thrush, set aside a letter from Aunt Bella to read later, and held the one from David to her heart, suddenly reluctant to open it.
"Go on," Maddox urged. "Go and sit over there," he pointed to a bench a little along the dock, where no one could reach her without first passing all of those dedicated to her safety. "Read your letter in peace, and then we'll take Captain Thrush back across the channel to your father."
Sally opened the seal and peeked within, just enough to see David's signature, and above, the words she had waited so long to read. "Forever yours." She almost skipped to the bench, and forgot the whole world around her as she opened the folded pages and fell into David's words.
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...