Chapter Eighty-Three

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"Your Grace, dinner is scheduled in half an hour. Your guests are gathering in the drawing room."

It had been two brandies since he had seen Blakeley last; he'd switched to water a half-hour ago.

"You may serve dinner on time, Blakeley, but I will not attend without Lady Sarah. I cannot be a civil host in my current state of mind. It is certain to end in disaster." Under his breath, he muttered, "It is not as though the village has a Bond Street."

Blakeley took the glass and refilled it. "Her Grace and Lady Sarah will no doubt have stayed some time at the school, and I know they planned to stop at every shop and spend a bit with your tenants. They did not leave special instruction for supper, so I expect them any moment. I will ask the duchess to preside at table."

Out of the corner of his eye, Toad caught a motion in the distance: the gig, just visible on the other side of the Wellstone gardens. "Keep the foot of the table open, Blakeley; it is Lady Sarah's seat. And bring her to me as soon as she regains the house in about five minutes. No delays but to remove her coat."

"Yes, Your Grace."

Toad drained his glass of water and poured another.

***

Mama and Sally entered by the side door, directly into the guest wing, leaving Jonny to return the gig and horses to the stables and the footmen to deliver all of the Christmas bundles to the servants' hall, until Sally could divine from whom she must hide which things where.

Aronui was waiting in the hall at the foot of the stairs. She gave them a proper maid-like greeting and a big beaming grin. "Dinner in twenty-five minutes, Mr Blakeley says. I been watching from the big place with the pictures, upstairs, so I could have hot water ready for you." She bobbed a second time to Mama. "Miss Haddow is waiting for you, Your Grace, and the other Her Grace in her rooms after that, before dinner."

Mama led the way up the stairs while Sally paused to speak to Aronui. "Have you seen His Grace? The Duke of Wellbridge?"

Aronui shook her head. "He's been in his study all day, Lady. Waiting for you, the servants say, but he never asked if you had a maid. He told Mrs Dench to give you a bigger room. Not so pretty as the other, Lady, but Mrs Dench said His Grace ordered it. I will show you the way."

A different room? But Sally had slept in the same rooms at Wellstone since she was old enough to leave the nursery. She loved the Rose Suite. Still, she followed Aronui up the stairs, stopping only when Blakeley called out, "Lady Sarah! May I have a word, my lady?"

She looked back at the butler, who stood at the bottom of the stairs. "Yes, Blakeley?"

"My lady, His Grace has asked if you would be kind enough to come to him immediately."

Which 'His Grace'? Her father? Or was it David who summoned her as if she were bound to jump to his every wish? She fought the urge to do exactly that.

"Do you mean Wellbridge, Blakeley, or Haverford?" she asked.

Blakeley looked down at the floor. "Wellbridge, my lady. My duke, my lady."

"What precisely were his words?" The excessive 'my ladying' made Sally suspicious.

Blakeley cleared his throat several times, but eventually said, "'Bring her to me as soon as she regains the house in about five minutes. No delays but to remove her coat.'"

Bring her? Like a parcel? A much-desired parcel, presumably; but still, no request? No message?

As if goaded to it, but with a certain edge that hinted at his irritation with his master, he added, "He's asked me to hold the foot of the dinner table open for you, Your Ladyship."

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