‘Would you like these?’
‘Are you giving them to me?’ Hugh asked, barely glancing at Beatrice’s debts.
‘For a price...’
‘And that is?’
‘A thousand pounds.’
Hugh’s answering grimace was unfathomable.
‘She’s worth that and more to you.’ Toby slyly eyed his brother while fingering his fleshy lower lip. ‘Of course I could go and see her father...or I might approach the young lady herself. How do you think she’ll take knowing of your lust for exotic harlots? Perhaps she might not want you then and I might think of a way she could repay me. I reckon she’d taste sweet as honey...does she?’
Toby’s intentional provocation received an immediate response.
Simmering with pent-up rage and frustration, Hugh delivered a single punch that sent Toby reeling to the ground.
‘Fifteen hundred pounds is the price now.’ Toby wiped his bloodied lips with the back of a hand, chuckling contentedly. ‘I seriously underestimated just how enslaved by her you are, dear brother.’ He struggled to a seated position, wrapping his arms around his knees. ‘In which case you might like to throw in Gwen Sharpe for me, too. I’ve always fancied that vixen.’
Hugh turned his back on his brother. He understood that once it became known he’d protected Beatrice financially the purity of his motives, and her virtue, would be questioned.
‘I’ll think it over and let you know.’ Hugh made for the door before the temptation became too great to again remove the smirk from Toby’s face with his fist.
‘Well, don’t think about it for too long.’ Toby scrambled to his feet, incensed that his brother would take himself off before an agreement had been reached.
‘Now do you understand, you stupid girl, why I wanted you married as soon as maybe?’ Maggie Monk raised a hand as though to slap some sense into her daughter.
‘It is all your fault everything is lost!’ Stella cried hysterically, scrubbing at her eyes with a hanky. ‘You should have told me sooner all about it. Why keep it secret? I cannot be your offspring...I cannot.’
She sent her mother a look of utter distaste. In Stella’s opinion such a drab-looking woman could not be so closely related to her; she deserved parents who were charming and glamorous. Since childhood Stella had imagined her father to be a tragic gallant who’d perished in a fire while bravely attempting to rescue his wife and baby girl from an inferno. She’d been brought up thinking she’d been safely dropped from a bedroom window into the trusty arms of a servant, then her poor parents had succumbed to the flames, lost to her for ever...
Stella had now learned that no such heroics had occurred and that she’d been brought into the world following a sordid affair between an old miser and a plain-faced adulteress.
‘I cannot be yours.’ Stella gave a pitiful sniff.
‘Well, you are, my girl!’ Maggie boomed. ‘You’re mine and Sir Donald’s and you’re entitled to his protection from beyond the grave.’ Maggie wrathfully wrung her hands. ‘The tight-fist left no provision for you in his will and he left me nothing more than I’d already got, despite me tending to him till he’d expelled his dying breath.’
Her mouth knotted in bitterness.
‘So I did what I had to do to keep us comfortable. My meagre pension would never run to fine gowns for you so you might socialise with the Quality and find a good husband.’ Maggie strode up to her daughter and pinched her chin in cruel fingers. ‘Did you fancy a yokel touching you with his callused hands?’ She gave a grim smile as Stella flinched from the idea of marrying a labourer. ‘Sir Donald’s name and his wealth are yours by right and I did my utmost to get them for you.’ She shook Stella’s shoulder in emphasis. ‘You should thank me for what I did. Once vows had been taken Sir Colin would never have admitted to being hoodwinked; neither would he have wanted the scandal of a divorce.’
‘But he’s not bothered about abandoning his fiancée!’ Stella screeched, again dabbing her watering eyes. She’d not cared much for Sir Colin, but she’d loved the life and the people to which he’d introduced her. She’d been determined to keep him hooked while she cast about for a better catch. Her circle of admirers would disperse once those fellows discovered she was a bastard and her mother a fraudster.
‘You’re not the first Colin’s jilted; he’ll be known as a fickle rogue.’
The only crumb of comfort Maggie had was that Sir Colin Burnett’s reputation might suffer following his breaking off another engagement. Maggie was banking on him keeping the matter to himself as far as he was able. She’d forged Sir Donald’s signature on a replica will when bubbling with rancour because the man to whom she’d devoted her life had treated her and their daughter shabbily. Maggie had cuckolded her mild-mannered first husband for almost a decade with his brother, then carried on sleeping with Donald for the duration of her second marriage. After her lover’s death she’d finally realised that she, and their child, had meant little to the man she’d adored. He’d left everything to a nephew he barely knew and nothing to his own flesh and blood.