The Rake's Ruined Lady - Page 66

As he looked Maggie Monk over an expression of disdain shaped Toby Kendrick’s features. He had pitied Colin Burnett, having a future shackled to a shameless hussy like Stella Rawlings. Though of course, in common with other red-blooded fellows, he’d jump at a chance to take up the offer in those impish eyes of hers. It was that hope that had drawn Toby here to meet Mrs Monk by Marble Arch at the appointed hour.

Maggie licked her lips. She’d heard rumours that Sir Toby was a profligate on his own account but a tight-fist where others were concerned. She had no real desire for him to take up with Stella for, baronet or no, she feared he’d turn her daughter into a skivvy to get his money’s worth out of her. But so far Hugh Kendrick had ignored Stella. Maggie was praying she could change that by enabling him to spite his older brother by snatching her daughter away from Toby.

‘Come, woman...what is it?’ Toby demanded testily. ‘I’ve not all afternoon to tarry with such as you.’

‘Your brother has been showing an undue interest in my sweet Stella,’ Maggie rattled off. ‘I thought you should know of his pursuit.’

Toby shouted a laugh. ‘What do you expect me to do about it? The chit plays up to every man she meets.’

Maggie resented his scoffing criticism. What he’d said might be true, but she didn’t want her nose rubbed in it.

‘She’s a vivacious beauty, I’ll give you that,’ Maggie said, struggling for levity. ‘But she has her...preferences in gentlemen, and appreciates a fellow’s breeding. Now that rogue Sir Colin has done the dirty and left my dear girl to her fate she is keen to meet a fellow of similar status...such as your good self.’

‘Got cold feet, has he?’ Toby purred. It was news to him that the engagement was off, and suddenly the carrot the woman was dangling was looking exceedingly tasty. He guessed that for all the girl’s sauce she was still intact, and taking maidenheads was a sport Toby enjoyed above all else. ‘If you think I’ll wed the chit now she’s been cast off—’

‘Mayhap you will, sir, given time,’ Maggie hastily interrupted. ‘But that brother of yours might come up to scratch for my Stella first. Mr Kendrick is smitten, and will naturally want to have children for that fortune of his...’

‘He might get her increasing but he won’t marry her,’ Toby chortled. ‘He’s produced a boy already and left it abroad.’

Toby suddenly realised how very stupid and indiscreet he’d been. His lust for Stella had overridden his sense and he’d risked losing his valuable hold over Hugh. If his brother found out he’d broadcast his secret he’d cut off his money...maybe knock him senseless into the bargain. He groaned inwardly on noticing the gleam in Maggie Monk’s eyes as she digested this confidential information.

‘A bastard, has he?’ Maggie grunted a coarse laugh, turning away satisfied. She’d got far more than she’d bargained for and might no longer need to manipulate Toby after all. She left him gawping after her and hurried away, muttering gleefully, ‘Well, well...I wonder if the spinster knows about that...’

* * *

Bea could not risk being spotted in a clandestine tryst with Hugh. She had reasoned that a rendezvous in the open, as though they had bumped into one another by chance, would be the only option if she were to avoid heaping more embarrassment on her family.

Following her talk with her father earlier, Bea had acted before her courage fled, despatching a note to request that Hugh meet her at Oxford Street in the environs of Meredew’s haberdashery. Far too impetuous, her father had called her, just a few hours ago, and indeed she was, she realised, frowning at her pale reflection in a shop window. She feigned an interest in a feathered hat behind the glass, not wanting to appear to be aimlessly dawdling.

Glancing at the clock inside the premises, Bea noticed that the appointed hour was nearly upon her. She took a deep calming breath as her heartbeat accelerated, sending blood to pound deafeningly in her ears. Of course her note might have gone unheeded: Hugh might either be out of town or otherwise engaged and unable to respond to her summons.

Unsure whether that possibility gave greater relief than disappointment, she reminded herself that she didn’t want it all to be a squandered effort.

The street scene behind her was reflected in the pane and she began scouring the crowds. She longed to see Hugh approaching, yet confusingly also dreaded a first sight of his powerful presence. What would she say? What would he say? Would he laugh in that infuriating way of his that mingled lust and mockery? She feared he might unwittingly shrivel her determination to bare her soul and admit that she wanted him in the same way he desired her. If he were unable to say he loved her but promised instead his affection and respect it would surely be enough...