At noon that day Sir Colin Burnett had turned up, thunder-faced. Stella had still been abed and Maggie had been relieved that her daughter had missed most of the argument that had taken place. At first Maggie had denied everything. Once Sir Colin had produced the authentic will she had known the game was up and taken refuge in bluster. Their raised voices had eventually drawn Stella downstairs and Sir Colin had tarried only long enough to demand back his engagement ring before storming off.
Maggie was anxious to know how Burnett might retaliate. If she were mistaken in thinking he’d wish to smooth over the matter to protect his credibility she must prepare to flee to avoid arrest. If she were imprisoned her beloved Stella would be at the mercy of rough sorts in need of a wife but with nothing to give her but coarse manners and backbreaking work.
‘Damn that solicitor and his eagle eyes,’ Maggie spat resentfully.
Stella knuckled her wet eyes. ‘Are we in bad trouble, Mama?’
‘No...’ Maggie stroked her daughter’s fiery tresses, pleased to hear the girl call her Mama. ‘Sir Colin will not want this all played out in court because of the risk to his reputation. It will blow over.’
‘What of my reputation?’ Stella wailed. ‘Lord Whitley will never again have me in his house if he knows I’m a bastard...’
‘Never mind that old man!’
‘But I like him...’
Maggie sighed, eyeing her daughter shrewdly. ‘I reckon Lord Whitley likes you, too, my dear.’
Once the old lecher found out her wedding was off he might proposition Stella. It was no perfect solution, but Maggie believed her daughter would be better off protected as a rich man’s mistress than a poor man’s wife...
* * *
‘You must allow me to pay off Toby Kendrick...prior to knocking his teeth down his throat.’
‘You may knock the blackguard’s teeth down his throat with my blessing, but paying my daughter’s debts is my responsibility.’ Stubbornly Mr Dewey turned from his son-in-law to cast a censorious look in Beatrice’s direction. ‘Would that she had a husband to keep her in check,’ he muttered darkly, ‘For I am fast running out of cash and patience with her.’
‘Papa! It is not wholly Bea’s fault! The vile wretch tricked her into thinking he was offering sound advice during that game of Faro.’ Elise attempted to soothe her father’s agitation.
Beatrice’s sorrowful shake of the head indicated to her sister that she deserved their father’s wrath, and would bear it if it eased his mind. Approaching Walter, Bea took one of his withered hands. She hated seeing him overwrought.
Walter shook off her comfort, limping to an armchair to flop down. ‘You have overstepped the mark this time, miss, with your impetuousness.’
Alex shrugged, wordlessly enquiring from his wife how else he might persuade Walter to sensibly allow him to take control of the matter.
‘Papa, listen to me. It is best that the odious man is quickly paid off or he might charge interest on the debt, you know,’ Elise warned briskly.
‘Hah! He can try! I’ll broadcast far and wide that he is a dastardly money-grabber.’
‘I think most people have already come to that conclusion,’ the viscount commented dryly. ‘What’s more, Toby Kendrick gives the impression he’s too thick-skinned to care about vilification.’
‘He was not liked before this blew up; now people roundly despise him,’ Elise chipped in. ‘Why would he go out of his way to make a target of Bea?’
Alex had his own ideas on that, but realised he’d better not air them or his father-in-law might have apoplexy. He and Hugh had been close for decades, and Alex was sorely missing his friend’s companionship. He knew Hugh almost as well as he knew himself. In Alex’s opinion Hugh had never stopped loving Beatrice and desired her with a passion bordering on obsession. Alex also knew that Sir Toby Kendrick was bitterly resentful of his younger brother’s success. If Toby had discovered Hugh’s Achilles’ Heel he would jab mercilessly at it and enjoy watching his brother squirm.
‘Your sister had it from Kendrick that his brother was no good.’ Walter wagged a finger at Elise. ‘Beatrice told me that herself; yet she ignored the good fellow and heeded the bad character.’
Again Beatrice winced beneath her father’s rebuke, clapping her hands over her ears as the debate over Sir Toby’s hatefulness and her stupidity continued batting to and fro.
Two days had passed since the evening she’d gambled so heavily. Early the following morning she had told her father and sister what she’d done. Under chaotic interrogation, when questions had been fired at her from every direction, she had admitted that Hugh Kendrick had said he didn’t consider his brother a trustworthy individual. Bea was glad she’d owned up straight away that a scandal was brewing, before her family learned gory details from gossip.