The Rake's Ruined Lady - Page 56

‘From you, sir,’ Percy croaked, shrinking back.

Pulling out a chair from the table, Colin slumped into it. He gazed up at Withers, casting his mind back to the critical time and inwardly dissecting what had occurred just prior to his predecessor’s death.

‘Mrs Monk gave me the will. She had nursed Sir Donald during his last days and told me he had ordered her to hand his personal papers to me and no other.’

‘Indeed...’ Percy said in a commiserating tone.

‘What are you implying?’ Colin barked. ‘Mrs Monk was Sir Donald’s sister-in-law. When his brother died and Maggie was remarried to Peter Monk they remained friendly. The woman has nothing to gain from meddling.’ Colin jumped to his feet, pacing to and fro. ‘Donald provided her with an allowance when she was widowed for a second time. The amount did not increase or decline after my uncle expired.’ He ceased prowling. ‘The only person to improve their lot, if she considers marrying me to be a positive step,’ Colin muttered bitterly, ‘is my cousin Stella.’

He gestured away the idea. Colin believed his fiancée to be an ambitious chit but innocent of criminality. He’d noticed that at times Stella seemed careless of his presence, and she never pressed him for a date to be set for their wedding. Only Maggie did that. Stella might cosy up to him when worried she’d angered him with her flirting, but it was absurd to suppose her guilty of falsifying the will to trap him and he told Percy Withers so.

‘Indeed, Sir Colin, neither do I think the girl had a hand in it. I believe we must look to her mother...’

‘Her mother is dead!’ Colin exclaimed testily. ‘My uncle became Stella’s guardian when her parents sadly died. Of course I know we are not natural cousins, and previously I had not met Stella, but she grew up calling her benefactor “uncle”, and Mrs Monk has been an honorary aunt to her.’

He paused, gesturing wildly as though exasperated by his own explanation.

‘Over the years information filtered down through the family that Sir Donald had formed a friendship with Stella’s birth father when they served together under Nelson. So, despite being a bachelor, my uncle stepped in to help when at ten years old the girl was orphaned following a fire at her home.’

‘A fiction, I believe, concocted for propriety’s sake,’ Withers sighed out.

‘By whom?’ Colin demanded, forcing his fists against his hips.

‘By the child’s true mother under direction from the reluctant sire, I imagine.

‘How can you possibly know that?’ Colin spluttered.

‘I have lately attempted to trace the girls’ parents—a Mr and Mrs Rawlings of Pontefract, who perished in the fire—and have found that no such people ever existed.’

Percy twisted his hat between his hands, anticipating that once his client had conquered his obvious amazement he would furiously demand to know why such diligence had not been applied sooner. Withers was unwilling to admit that he had allowed a junior clerk to peruse Sir Donald’s will because business accounts for a more prestigious client had occupied him personally. Mr Kendrick paid handsomely, and on time, and never quibbled over necessary expenses as Sir Colin did. Thus the solicitor had considered the wealthy mine owner worthier of his attention.

But he was regretting his lack of vigilance now that he had finally compared the signature on the document Sir Colin had given him with the earlier version held in his office. The fraudster had made a fair effort to mimic the deceased’s wandering scrawl, but it could not fool the man who had dealt with Sir Donald’s papers for over two decades. And the only difference from the original document was the insertion of a clause that stated Colin Burnett must promise to wed Stella Rawlings in order to take his birthright.

Deeming it prudent to use his ace before Sir Colin had mustered his thoughts and threatened to sue, Percy confidently resumed. ‘During my investigation I turned up the fact that Mrs Monk’s maiden name was Rawlings. It is my belief that she has deliberately deceived you; furthermore I believe she is Stella’s mother and Sir Donald fathered the girl...’

* * *

Hugh Kendrick had enjoyed no better sleep than had Colin Burnett, and for the same reason: Beatrice had been on his mind the night through. Whereas Colin had tossed and turned, rueing that a sweet, decorous woman had slipped through his fingers, Hugh’s thoughts about her had been reprehensibly torrid. To Hugh, Beatrice was no poised goddess worthy of a pedestal; she was a maddeningly sensual temptress whose silky limbs had entwined perfectly with his while she’d panted sweet breath against his lips.