‘Louise’s parents were understandably distraught and keen to keep the matter concealed. When Rani discovered that a baby was to be born in secret and then given away she wanted it. She pleaded with me to make the necessary arrangements. I refused, so behind my back she spoke to the expectant mother and the parents...offered to pay them for the child. The Wheelers wanted nothing other than that the whole affair be dealt with as discreetly as possible.’
Hugh paused, threw his head back to sightlessly stare at the ceiling.
‘The Wheelers begged me to put it right for them if I could. I resisted, and tried to dissuade Rani too, but her obsession with being a mother overrode all else and eventually I agreed to help them all obtain the longed-for outcome.’ He gestured briefly. ‘My liaison with Rani was in the open, and accepted by the locals as a practical arrangement. Rani’s elderly husband didn’t object to his wife sleeping with me. They were not peasants, but neither were they wealthy people, and the family welcomed my friendship and financial assistance.’
Hugh shifted position, lowering his moody features to the empty fire grate.
‘Louise concealed her weight gain; Rani padded out her clothes and begged me to claim the child as mine. She didn’t want to be vilified as a trollop, unable to name her baby’s father, and a fair-skinned sire would be required as the baby was sure to look of mixed race. As indeed he does...’
A softening about Hugh’s mouth caused Beatrice a pang of joy rather than jealousy. Despite everything, the little boy held a place in his heart. ‘You love him, don’t you?’
‘I grew to adore the little chap...’
‘And you named him Shay?’ she asked, in a voice so quiet it was almost inaudible.
‘Rani chose the name. Shay means gift...and that’s how she saw the boy... Whereas I...’
‘Whereas you...?’ Bea prompted in a whisper.
‘Whereas I knew word of Shay’s existence would leak out, and I could see the problems and inconvenience that lay ahead in my becoming embroiled in such deceit.’
‘But you did it anyway,’ Bea said, her voice soft with wonder. She knew she believed what he’d said... Every single word was true—outlandishly dramatic tale though it was. A spontaneous sob of admiration and love for him welled in her chest. ‘You must have loved her very much to sacrifice what you believed to be right so she might have her dream of becoming a mother.’
‘No...’ He grimaced wryly. ‘I was fond of Rani, but we both knew I didn’t love her—and neither did she love me. It was an exchange of basic needs that suited us both at the time.’
‘It was good and selfless of you, nevertheless...’
‘In the end I did it for Louise. My sister was compromised when young and it nearly ruined her future. I could understand why Louise’s parents were fretting over what lay ahead for their daughter.’
‘How did Toby find out?’ Bea asked, puzzled.
‘He came to India, uninvited, to try and wangle himself an interest in my mining company. He got nothing from me but of course he’s used the knowledge of Shay’s birth to his advantage. My brother has hinted at spreading what he knows...but up to now he’s shrewdly kept quiet, fearing my revenge. I expect he’s already worried that he’ll not be able to extract another penny from me.’
‘He’s been blackmailing you?’ Bea sounded outraged.
‘In a subtle way... But it seems he’s now burned his bridges, and in a way I’m glad. The gossip will spread like wildfire; Mrs Monk will make sure of that now she knows I’ve no interest in her daughter.’
‘It will die down...’ Bea reassured him.
Hugh shrugged carelessness. ‘A few other people already know of Shay’s existence. Of course Alex has had the full story; he’s the only person, apart from you, to hear it from my lips. He said he’s never had reason to mention it to Elise.’ Hugh prowled to and fro in front of the chimneypiece. ‘Lord Mornington was in India at the same time as me, attending to his investments. I expect he’s told his close circle that I fathered a child abroad. I’ve noticed his sister looking at me oddly at times. But Lady Groves is obviously not a gossip or word would have already got round.’
Hugh gave another lazy shrug.
‘It no longer matters who knows, and thankfully Toby never discovered the truth behind the boy’s birth. Had he done so he’d have held the means to destroy many people’s happiness.’
‘What of Louise and her parents?’
‘They returned to England and Louise was quietly married in Kent to a nice young fellow... I was invited to the ceremony...’