So, in all, Stella Rawlings was satisfied with her looks and the way things were going since she’d arrived in town. She just wished her aunt would accept that Sir Colin should be kept dangling in reserve...just in case she failed to hook a gentleman with a good deal more to offer than a minor title and a modest country estate.
‘Did you hear what I said, miss?’ Maggie exploded when Stella continued simpering at her reflection. ‘You are making a fool of yourself, flirting with every gentleman who ogles you. Lord Whitley is over sixty and yet I thought at one point you were about to sit on his knee, so close did you get to his chair.’
‘The old goat would have liked that,’ Stella snorted, planting her hands on the dresser and pushing herself to her feet once more.
‘Maybe...but his wife would not. You do not irk somebody as important as Lady Whitley at her own soirée.’
‘Why ever not?’ Stella piped up. ‘Her husband will ensure she asks me again.’
‘How do you know that?’ Maggie snapped.
‘Because he assured me of it.’
‘I imagine Lord Whitley’s assured plenty of girls of plenty of things, and none of it came to pass.’
‘Oh...hush, Auntie.’ Stella changed tack, embracing Maggie to sweeten her temper. ‘I’m just enjoying myself and I wish you’d be happy for me.’
Maggie gave a mollified sniff. ‘I’ll be happy when your fiancé adds a gold band to that garnet ring. Your uncle Donald wanted you to be quickly wed to Sir Colin so your future would be secure and you’d be a titled lady. We must set the date without delay.’
‘I don’t want to just yet,’ Stella insisted sulkily. ‘There are better titles going begging than his.’ She noticed her aunt’s expression darkening so added, ‘But if I do want Sir Colin I’ll keep him...don’t worry your head about that.’
Stella felt confident she had her fiancé wound about her little finger, and all it had taken was a sly glimpse of her shapely calves. She’d schemed to give him a taste of what she could offer but hadn’t wanted Sir Colin to think her a little trollop, so had pretended to be unaware of him entering the parlour at the very moment she’d been adjusting a garter.
His fulsome apology for intruding had not been able to disguise the burst of lust in his eyes. The following day Sir Colin had presented her with the gift of garnet eardrops. Stella’s lips knotted in ruefulness. She should have raised her skirts higher that afternoon...she might then have got the rubies she wanted.
Maggie shook her head in a mix of despair and appreciation, watching Stella sorting through her jewellery box. The eardrops were removed and a different set, bought by a previous admirer, tried on. She’d received that gift of oval amethysts from a besotted old coal merchant in York.
Maggie knew Stella was still a virgin, so Sir Colin had no quibble there. But the girl was adept at getting cash spent on her while preserving the goods. She could understand why Stella wanted more than Colin Burnett could give. But only he could give what Maggie Monk was determined Stella would get...so the girl was marrying him and no other.
* * *
‘You must come and stay with us in London and let Hugh see that you don’t care a fig for him and he’ll never force you to be his mistress.’
Before joining her husband in town Elise had decided to have a final attempt at persuading Bea to fight her corner. She had packed up and left Blackthorne Hall and was en route to Mayfair via her childhood home, where she had stayed the night with her family.
‘I’m sure Mr Kendrick knows he can’t intimidate me.’ Bea smiled, despite feeling a fraud. The dratted man’s name, even an annoying phantom feeling of his body still pressing against hers, was enough to dry her mouth. But she continued with the task of folding clean linen brought in from the washing line as though undisturbed by the nature of their conversation.
‘Well, even if you don’t mind Hugh Kendrick bothering you, you must be worried that the gossips in town are having a field-day at your expense.’
Elise hated being so brutal but hoped that resorting to bald facts might galvanise Beatrice into preserving her pride and dignity. Elise was sure that beneath that brave face her sister was understandably deeply wounded by her run of bad luck. She didn’t want Beatrice to become a recluse because of two gentlemen who’d proved they weren’t worthy of her.
It saddened Elise that Hugh’s upturn in fortune seemed to have turned him into a heartless Lothario. She felt a fool for having cherished a hope that Hugh might honourably pursue her sister. But now another problem had gone into the mixing pot: their father had received a lengthy missive from his sister.