Chapter Seventy-Five, Part 3

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They made good time to Gibraltar. After a few days, Papa had recovered his balance sufficiently to engage in 'do you remember' storytelling about his mother. Sally had a few stories of her own to tell, but also learned many more from the early years of her parents' marriage, and even from Papa's bachelor days.

Papa barely mentioned his dearest friend, except to wish that they had not parted on such bad terms, or that they'd made up the quarrel by mail before death made reconciliation impossible.

To those who didn't know him well, he probably seemed his usual self. Certainly, Mr Penchley commented to Sally how good it was to see the duke fully recovered. But when he thought himself unobserved, his face was bleak, and he took to having Mama sit in his office while he worked, as if he could not bear to let her out of his sight.

They stopped in Gibraltar for coal just ahead of an Atlantic storm that made it dangerous to leave the safety of the harbour. Since they were trapped for the next few days, Papa paid his respects to the Governor, and came back with a package of letters that reproduced the simple announcements that had been waiting in his mail in Alexandria. Any more personal letters must have passed them as they travelled. He'd also accepted an invitation to dinner for the following evening.

"There'll be new arrivals from Britain among the other guests," he said. "They'll be able to give us the general news from home, even if not the details we crave about those we love."

Sally had still not told him about the gossipmongers in Alexandria, but she armoured herself in her evening gown, gave her maid's son his goodnight kiss, and set off with the others; her parents, Maddox, Penchley as senior secretary, the ship's captain, and the senior officers of the military and private guard forces.

Dinner was pleasant enough. Sally alternated, as manners demanded, between the dinner companion on either side of her. On the left was an earl's third son who was heading back to England after an extensive five-year grand tour. They exchanged travel stories, and she was sorry to turn away from him to the military officer on her right. He was part of the local garrison, but proved to be a recent arrival from Canada, and was happy to tell her about his ten years of service in that far off land. "I shall have to introduce you to my cousin," she told him. "Lord Maddox's father was a fur trapper in Canada many years ago, before he inherited the earldom."

When the ladies withdrew after dinner, Sally went to her mother's side. Mama was soon deep in conversation with a couple of women she knew from England, and Sally was sitting to one side listening when someone touched her lightly to attract her attention.

"Lady Sarah?" The speaker, a lady much of her own age, appeared familiar. Sally smiled while she tried to recall a name. Oh yes.

"Lady Fiona, is it not? How nice to see you."

Lady Fiona gestured for Sally to follow her to a sofa a few yards away where they could converse in relative privacy. She was an earl's daughter, and Sally had met her when they both served their turns as ladies in waiting—maids of honour—to the queen.

By the time she was seated on the sofa, Sally had remembered enough about to Fiona to regret following her. She was two years older than Sally and had been unsuccessful on the marriage mart. Not that she lacked for suitors, but she did not have the beauty and charm necessary to draw the title she considered her due, despite her impoverished father. She was inclined to resent those with more wealth or a higher social position, and her relationship with Sally had comprised sneers and edged comments on Fiona's side and cool distance on Sally's. Fortunately, their weeks of service had seldom coincided.

When Fiona began, "Dear Sally," Sally stiffened, waiting for the attack Fiona's sweet tone and concerned expression heralded.

"I felt I ought to warn you," she continued, "since I know you are fond of Wellbridge. You were to be betrothed, were you not?"

Sally raised an eyebrow. This again. "He is a dear childhood friend," she replied.

Fiona gave a sigh of relief. "Then you will not mind that the Queen has ordered him betrothed by Christmas, and to one of her ladies."

"Really?" Sally allowed her doubt to infuse her voice.

"Oh, yes. I was present at the time. 'I thought you intended to marry Lady Sarah,' she said, 'but here you are causing havoc among my ladies.' He said, 'Lady Sarah is far away and her letters have been sparse.' You naughty girl, not writing to the poor man." She paused to allow Sally to comment, but Sally had nothing to say. Poor David. He was missing her. He was, wasn't he?

"So, Her Majesty told him that marriage had much to recommend it, and he must be betrothed as soon as possible. 'I will marry one of your ladies, then,' he said. So, there you have it, my dear. I thought you should know." She heaved another sigh, this one full of fake sympathy and true satisfaction.

"You are as kind as I remember," Sally told her. It was all lies, or at least misinterpreted. Nonetheless, she extracted herself with an excuse and found someone else to talk to. Was it just her imagination that a number of the ladies—the gentlemen, too, once they joined the ladies—were looking at her with sympathy and barely concealed glee?

She was grateful when Mama gave her excuses, but less so when both Mama and Papa told her they'd heard the same story. "It is nonsense, of course," Mama reassured her.

"It might be true," Papa suggested, "because Sally is a lady of the court. But depend on it: young Wellbridge intends to make you his bride, Sally. He'll tell you himself in just few weeks."

Sally was almost certain it was true, though her doubts surfaced again when Penchley caught her alone in the cabin they used as their private parlour and told her his version of the story, complete with hints about what David had been doing with Victoria's ladies to draw down the queen's censure.

Maddox walked in on the end of the conversation and told Penchley to mind his tongue. "It's lies, Sally," he said, when Penchley was routed. "I've been asking around, and as best I can tell, Lady Fiona Watterson tried to trap the Duke of Wellbridge in a compromising position. But he had the sense to have reinforcements close at hand, and your cousin, Prince Nikolaus, arrived before she could claim an assault on her virtue. The queen has dismissed her, and her parents are taking her abroad until the scandal dies down."

"Is it all lies?" Sally asked. "The queen telling Wellbridge to marry rings true enough."

"You, Sally. The whole world knows Wellbridge will have no one but you. And you no one but him, as I have cause to know."

Sally tried to smile, but inside she was waiting for yet another blow to keep her and Toad apart. "He has not been getting my letters," she reminded Maddox. "What if he thinks I don't want him? What if he has decided to wed elsewhere? If he has made a promise to one of the queen's ladies—one of the queen's other ladies—he won't break it."

"I'll tell you what." Maddox patted her hand. "If he is betrothed to someone else, then we shall announce our betrothal. That will keep the vultures of Society at a distance and give the pair of you time to sort it out."

Sally nodded, and then thought again. "I couldn't do that to you, Maddox. But I appreciate the thought."

"You could. You will only jilt me to marry your one true love, and the belles of Society will be full of sympathy for your love story and my loss. They'll fall over themselves to console me." He waggled his eyebrows and made her laugh. "Besides, the likelihood is that no one will ever know. We'll arrive. Wellbridge will sweep up to the door and fall to one knee, with a ring in one hand and a special licence in the other. And the pair of you will live happily ever after."

"Maddox, you are the best of men," Sally told him.

"And the best man never gets the bride," Maddox joked.

"Unless Toad has given up on me," Sally warned. "Then you might end up with me after all."

Maddox turned away, but not before Sally saw the longing in his eyes. "A dreadful fate, to be sure." He had replaced his smile before he looked at her again. "Keep it in mind, Sally. You won't need me, but if you do, I'm your contingency betrothed."

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