It was unbecoming in a gentleman of Penchley's intelligence and talent to stoop to listening at doors, but Lady Sarah left him no choice. He had hoped that Lord Maddox's desertion might give him the opportunity to press his suit. She must be disappointed the man couldn't be brought to the point.
After all, she was getting a little long in the tooth—she'd be twenty-one at her next birthday. Now that she knew, thanks to the second set of letters he'd commissioned from the artist at the port, that Harburn was the same cheating rogue he had ever been, she must be desperate to marry.
The Haverfords' imminent departure for home would be adding pressure, for the scandal would swell all over again if she landed on England's shores without a husband, or at least a betrothed. Even if the vicious stories they'd fled before did not reappear, her pride would not allow her to become an object of pity.
Common sense dictated that she needed a husband. But Lady Sarah was a woman. Despite her vaunted intelligence, she was moved by emotion, not logic, and she still believed in the cursed scoundrel whose treatment of her had been the source of all her pain these past years. She treated Penchley more coldly than ever after Lord Maddox left, and marshalled her brigade of chattering females to keep him at a distance.
Penchley would save her despite her failure to see that her place was at his side. And to do so, he needed to know what had her all a-twitter. She'd spent the morning at the beach rereading Harburn's letters and had marched up to the house to demand a private meeting with her father, who had just settled in his office after being out for most of the afternoon.
Haverford had indulged her, of course, as he always did. He'd instructed Penchley and the other secretaries to go for a walk and had even closed the door that separated the secretaries' office from Haverford's inner sanctum.
Penchley had made an excuse of fetching something from his room to detach himself from the others, then doubled back to put his ear to the door. And it was as well he did, for all his hopes and dreams were about to crash in around his ears.
He would have to flee—abandon his post and future—and take any ship, however humble, that was sailing today. As Haverford and his daughter planned a search of everyone's rooms, Penchley hurried up to his own. He didn't have time to destroy the letters he'd kept, and a dedicated search would soon uncover them. He had to hide them somewhere else, and cast enough doubt on his guilt that he'd be allowed to leave the property and make his way across to Albert Town.
The route to his room was blocked. In the dim recesses of the upstairs hall, a couple enjoyed a passionate embrace where anyone with business in this wing could come upon them. Penchley sneered. It was Beckett and the little bitch from the harbour. Beckett, the love-sick fool, was assuring the girl that his family would accept her, that Haverford would allow her to return to England with them, while she declared her father would never allow her to make such an unequal match.
"He says mixing the classes never works, Matthew. He won't let me go. The duke won't support us either. You know he won't."
All of the moment, a brilliant plan popped into Penchley's head. "She's right, you know. The pair of you will need to run away if you want to be together."
They needed to be talked into it. Penchley managed to keep his impatience and fear under control while he explained Haverford's opposition to mésalliances, his concern about Lady Sarah's little friend getting above herself, his determination to rescue Beckett from the girl's coils. He pointed out that Beckett had money of his own, a legacy from his mother that he'd confided to the other secretaries during the long months at sea. He enlarged on the harbourmaster's stated aversion to the scions of peers, who won positions purely on account of their noble relatives. He told them about the ship, sailing in less than two hours, that he'd picked for his own escape.
At last, after a good ten minutes, the two sprang into action, racing to their own rooms to pack for their sudden journey. Penchley gave them all the coins he could find to speed them on their way, collecting the damning evidence from his room while he was at it.
Downstairs, he turned them from the front door, where Haverford was briefing his military and private escort on the necessary search. Penchley could barely keep himself from pushing the sorry pair out of the side door that let onto a screened garden and then jungle down to the beach, where Beckett could steal a canoe to cross the strait to the port. When the silly girl came back to give him a kiss of thanks on the cheek, he did push her.
"Hurry," he said, "and good luck." He meant it. If they were caught, his career was over.
He had just enough time to sneak up the back stairs and put the satchel of purloined letters on the top of Beckett's wardrobe, then escape out the window onto the upper veranda and back through his own window. When the soldiers knocked on his door, he was lying on his bed with a book open in front of him.
"Of course, gentlemen," he said, when they explained what they were about. "Search away. I have nothing to hide."
The villain was Beckett. Sally found it hard to believe, but if the satchel they discovered when they searched his room was not proof enough, the man's flight sealed his guilt.
He was well gone by the time they got to his room, realised he'd not been seen for several hours, and hunted for him. The hunt encompassed the house and grounds, then spread out across the island. By the time they realised he'd stolen a canoe to cross to Albert Island, two ships had sailed; one for Australia and one for Java. He'd escaped, and he'd taken Melody with him.
She spared a moment of compassion for Melody, trapped with a man who would lie and steal to destroy Sally's happiness with David. She'd thought that the satchel would contain the originals of the lying letters, but no. The papers within were her letters to David, letter after letter after letter trapped at point of departure, leaving David with nothing but silence.
"Why would he do this?" she asked her parents. "What did he hope to gain?"
They had no answers, only guesses. Money was the most likely. Someone had paid Beckett to interfere with her correspondence, and not just hers. Letters to Mama and Papa from Aunt Bella also reposed in the satchel.
Posting them again was pointless, for the new Governor had arrived, and the Haverfords were leaving on Seventh Sea's fastest ship, bound directly for Suez with only the briefest provisioning stops along the way. Another Seventh Sea ship would await them in Cairo, and in four months or fewer, they would be in England.
The letters would arrive most quickly if they travelled with the Haverfords, but Sally had every intention of presenting David with the entire package.
And she could only hope and pray that he hadn't taken her silence as dismissal.
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...