Chapter Seventy-Three

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Sally was sitting on the veranda of yet another wealthy merchant sipping tea and pretending to listen to the assembled ladies interrogating the duchess about London fashions and London scandal—as if Mama had kept up with such matters in more than a year away from the so-called polite world.

Calicut society had not improved in the past year. At least on this sojourn, Mama was well enough to take the lead on the polite social round expected of people in their position. Sally had merely to follow in her train and pretend to listen to the twittering of Mama's admirers and sycophants.

They would be leaving as soon as the weather allowed, but Sally's anxiety to be home was no match for her father's unwillingness to risk his ladies to the ocean when storms swept over it in succession, with barely a lull for the English residents to flock out into the wet parks and gardens and then be driven back indoors by the hot Indian sun.

Did David trust that she'd written, even though none of the letters had arrived? Her faith in him had wavered during the long silence Beckett had engineered. She could not blame him if he had doubts about her fidelity. Especially with the constant rumours that surrounded them both. In the three weeks since their ship had limped into Calicut between storms, more than one person had approached her to see if she was betrothed to Maddox, or to a Polynesian prince, or even to Mr Penchley.

She overheard even more, including a garbled account of Crowhurst's attack that had her consorting with a pirate and even assisting him to escape the righteous anger of her father, and the stories they told one another about David's activities surpassed even the nonsense they made up about her.

They resurrected some of the rumours of deviant behaviour and added to them. They declared that David had been entertaining himself with others in France, Italy, Greece, and places between. Jealous cats, her mother said, and Sally agreed, though she was a little shaken to hear some of the gossip from the lying letters repeated. What was the real story behind Toad's—David's—involvement with the Italian count's sister? And was the reconciliation with his father truly a front, and nothing more?

Sally didn't believe it. Of course she didn't.

But still... If only the winds would settle enough for them to go home.

"My lady." Mr Penchley stood before her, offering an arm. "Shall we take a walk around the garden? We may not have another opportunity this week." He gestured towards the looming clouds.

Why not? She had been careful not to encourage the poor man in his romantic inclinations, but his devoted and polite attentions had been a comfort since their journey home began. "Thank you, Mr Penchley."

They began a slow stroll around the rectangular gravel path that skirted the perimeter, framed by floral borders that grew luxuriantly in the damp heat. Aronui fell into position behind them, but today's guard clearly decided that Sally was in no danger in this enclosed garden, for neither man budged from his post; one by the gate at the side of the house, and one by the doors to the veranda.

Mr Penchley broke the silence. "They are jealous, Lady Sarah."

Sally cast him an enquiring glance.

"Those women who gossip about you behind your back. You are wealthy, well-born, beautiful, and intelligent. They want you to have flaws, and so they believe any story that makes you seem less than you are."

Sally sighed. "I have many flaws, Mr Penchley."

Mr Penchley shook his head, poor man. "Not in my eyes, my lady. But you do not wish to hear about that. Suffice it to say that your true friends know how to value you."

"You are very kind, sir. My father says you will go far in the service of your country." Papa—before Sally's rescue had made Penchley into his favourite staff member—had said that Penchley was a born diplomat, with an inborn sense of the right posterior to lick at that moment in time, a golden tongue, four times as much arrogance as his talents deserved, and the kind of charm that papered over generations of ill-will at the good fortune of others. Did his diagnosis of the motives of her detractors come from intimate knowledge of his own reasons for his continued malice towards Toad?

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