The letter was in David's handwriting, it even used David's exact turn of phrase, but Sally didn't believe it. The sly innuendoes about women, the dismissive comments about his parents and hers, the reports of drunken outings with his friends—no gentleman would write so, let alone one who penned such beautiful sentiments in other letters.
She'd received three packages of letters from Toad in the two months since Maddox left the islands, twenty letters in total. They'd arrived out of order, but she had just arranged all the letters by date, starting with the seven letters from the package that had been in the diplomatic pouch not long after Maddox sailed away. It had been sent from Greece and was mostly full of descriptions of David's extended family there and the business that kept him constantly busy as he tried to resurrect his uncle's connections.
Except for the letter that implied intimacies with a female cousin. "I told her from the start," the lying letter said, "that nothing could come of it, for I am betrothed. So, you need not fear that I misled her, Sally, before we engaged in a closer understanding, or that I will not make good on my promises to you when the time comes."
Like the others, the letter ended with endearments and a promise of eternal love. Sally removed it from the sequence and put it to one side.
The second package to arrive was the oldest, sent from Italy, but had some letters written in England, including one that described Almyra's ball. Two of the six letters had the same salacious edge and joined the rejection pile.
One hinted at liaisons with fashionable London widows, and explained that he'd reconciled with his father in order to get his hands on his inheritance. Another outlined a callous plan to ruin an Italian princess so that her brother would pay him a substantial bribe to hold his tongue. "Unfortunately, the man wiped his hands of the slut, so I had to marry her off to my friend Arturo," the letter said.
The seven most recent letters finished the news of David's sojourn in Greece and had been sent from Italy, where David wrote he was to stay until his final return to Greece to meet with his partners and his uncle. This package yielded none of the horrid letters.
A breeze fluttered the papers, and Aronui approached from further down the beach to upend a woven sack over the edge of Sally's blanket. "Some things to keep your letters all in their places, Lady Sal," the maid said.
Sally smiled her thanks and distributed the mix of shells, stones, and driftwood. If the breeze strengthened, the precious sheets carrying David's own words would stay in place, and—though Sally would like to see the other three fly away on the wind—such a fate would not remove their stain from her mind.
Besides, they might be evidence, if she could figure out what was going on.
"I collected this last package of letters myself." Sally waved her hand over the letters in question.
Aronui, who had been giving Sally privacy to read, took this as an invitation to sit down. "Yes. When the ship's captain arrived to see Melody's father while we were visiting his office."
Sally nodded. "These three?" She put her hand on three letters she had set aside. "David did not write these."
Aronui leaned forward, looking from the top page on the pile to the other letters still spread out in their sequence. "They look the same, lady."
"They don't sound the same. These ones," she indicated the rows of letters that showed David was about his business, being the man she had always hoped he would grow into, "these are from Lord Harburn. He writes as a dear friend. He tells me what is happening in his life, but he says nothing I could not read out loud to my parents. Except..." She picked up a letter and scanned it, then a second.
"He says things that will mean nothing to another," she said, more to herself than Aronui, as the meaning of those little fragments crystallised in her mind. "See? He had an ice and thought of the last time we shared one. He has ordered a cover for his bed in the owner's cabin on his ship that reminds him of the one in Jonny's quarters. He dreams of reading in the conservatory."
Aronui was looking at her blankly.
"See? Only David and I know that he is thinking of..." she trailed off and looked around her to make sure she and her maid were still alone. Huala was helping Kahu collect shells further down the beach, and Melody was out of sight, as were those deputed to guard Sally's safety and her privacy as she enjoyed a rare day out of the public eye.
Aronui guessed at what Sally hadn't said. "You and Lord Toad have..." A suggestive movement of the long finger of one hand in and out of a circle formed by the other completed the sentence.
Sally felt her face heat as she shook her head, grateful that Aronui hadn't used the vocabulary learned on successive whalers to describe the act Sally and David had barely avoided, and only because of David's sense of what was due to his some-time-later bride.
Even then, though she'd been able to seduce him into nearly forgetting his honour, he'd matured enough to refuse to take the final step. Everything he'd written in the letters that referred to their happier times confirmed that he'd grown beyond his boyish peccadillos, and the need to tell her about them.
She picked up the other letters, the false ones. "None of these letters talk about the times we spent together. All of the others do. These letters may look the same as the others, but they are not from Lord Harburn."
Aronui ran a finger over the signature at the bottom of the page closest to her. Sally waited for the maid to argue, but Aronui merely gave a decisive nod.
"Then someone has made these lies, lady, and we must find out who. Shall you tell the Rangatira?"
"A good idea. He and Mama should be back from their visit by now. Call the others, Aronui, and we'll go inside. Where is Melody?"
Aronui rose gracefully to her feet and waved at Nuala, who waved back and began strolling towards them, hand in hand with Aronui's little boy. "With Mr Beckett, I expect. I will go to the end of the beach and call her, so I do not disturb them under some kindly bush."
Sally gave a half smile, but in truth she was concerned. Papa had had letters of his own, and Uncle Wellbridge's efforts had borne fruit. One day soon, the new Governor would arrive, and the Haverford party would leave, including the Honourable Matthew Beckett, third son of an earl and currently a ducal secretary, whose future awaited him in England. What, then, would happen to Melody Franchett, daughter of a middle-class harbourmaster in a remote Pacific archipelago?
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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...