‘Oh...don’t take any notice of my huffing and puffing, my dear,’ Walter patted the delicate fingers his daughter had laid on his arm. ‘I didn’t mean what I said earlier about wanting you wed and out of my hair. You’re a good girl, if far too rash at times. Let’s forget about Burnett and that blackguard Toby Kendrick.’
‘You will not sell your pension policy, Papa, will you?’ Bea asked in concern.
Walter gestured wearily. ‘An old man like me needs little money to live on, and one day soon a good man will come along for you and keep you in a far better manner than I can. I know your luck will change for the better.’ Walter gave a final comforting pat to Bea’s hand, then sank down into a chair, lying his head back against the upholstery. ‘Don’t let’s speak of money any longer...I’m sick of hearing about debts and bills.’ He sighed. ‘It will be nice to go home. I feel tired out by all this frantic business in London. Shall we pack up tomorrow, ready to leave at the weekend?’
Bea nodded, watching her father’s eyes flutter shut. She felt a pang of deep affection and regret that they would not be leaving town unburdened but with problems of her making hanging over them. ‘Yes...let’s go home, Papa,’ she murmured, settling a cushion beneath her snoozing father’s drooping head.
She stepped back, gazing at him as he settled into sleep. A fierce determination rose in Bea to cure the ills she’d caused. She would make sure her father enjoyed his twilight years, and the independence that was so important to him, buffered by his modest pension income. He would not sell the policy and live in penury to get Toby Kendrick off their backs! She could not allow it...
Maggie Monk nipped behind a large shrub protruding from a railing. Then, from her vantage point, she watched her quarry hurtling down the steps of Viscount Blackthorne’s mansion. Having noted Sir Colin’s rigid bearing and black expression, she felt her spirits lift.
Earlier that afternoon she’d been on her way to the bakery when she’d spotted her daughter’s former fiancé. Ever conscious of their dwindling fortunes, Maggie had been hoping to haggle over a stale pie to share with Stella for their dinner. Burnett might have bought her daughter little gifts but he’d kept his fist tightly closed when it came to helping out with their household bills. Maggie had come to town with a little pot of savings gleaned from her small pension from Sir Donald. However, with Stella wanting every pretty frippery her eyes landed on in shop windows, the money was almost run through.
On spotting Burnett all thought of food had fled. Sir Colin had been striding purposefully along on the other side of the street. His air of urgency had prompted Maggie to follow him, curious to know where he was heading. When she’d seen him charging up the steps of a house on Upper Brook Street she’d easily guessed why Burnett might pay a call there. Boiling with resentment, Maggie had waited for him to reappear. She was glad she had tarried, for she now felt cheered up. If she’d been correct in thinking he’d just proposed again to Beatrice, his demeanour proclaimed him as having been roundly rejected.
It seemed that Miss Dewey now had bigger fish to fry than Sir Colin. Gossip was rife that the spinster must be under Hugh Kendrick’s protection since he’d championed her at the Whitleys’. It stuck in Maggie’s craw that the two eligible bachelors who should have been competing for Stella’s favours were instead under an older woman’s spell.
Before emerging from her hiding place Maggie watched Colin stride across the road and turn the corner. She sent a grim scowl at the house he had quit. Miss Dewey was beautiful but past her prime, and couldn’t match Stella for youthful freshness in Maggie’s opinion. If Stella were hungry for Hugh Kendrick’s protection, Maggie would do her utmost to bring about her wish.
Since Stella’s birth Maggie had had to idolise her daughter from afar, in case suspicions were aroused about their true relationship. Now there was no secret to keep and the floodgates of her maternal affection were wide open. If Stella couldn’t have Hugh, then neither should Beatrice get him.
But all was not yet lost; she still had a hand to play, and had noticed when they’d passed Sir Toby Kendrick on Regent Street that he readily responded to Stella’s coy glance with an eager grin. Hugh and Toby Kendrick loathed one another, and Maggie knew there was always a profit to be had when love or hate skewed the odds. As far as she was concerned there remained a chance to win the game.
* * *
‘I’m intrigued, madam, to know what vital news you have that could not have been conveyed in the note that summoned me here.’