Chapter Fifty: Part 1

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"Nick," Haverford said urgently. "I do not blame you for anything you must do to protect your daughter. I hope you will understand I am just trying to protect mine."

As Bella sat, she said calmly, "It is an odd way to keep her safe, I can assure you, after fifteen years travelling the remotest parts of the globe. I cannot but think the best way to protect everyone's daughter is a marriage between Sally and David without delay, and a unified front at Almyra's ball in a fortnight. David will not miss his sister's ball. I know he will come for that. I can send men out to locate him. If you will give me a week, I can–"

"No." Haverford's rejection was short and absolute.

Cherry spoke into the palpable silence. "Quite apart from Haverford's other concerns, Bella, our ship leaves in three days. When we explain our plan for the children's rehabilitation, I am sure you will see that another short delay will be beneficial in the end. And I am confident Abersham will return, whatever Haverford thinks."

"Of course he will return," Nick snapped. "My son is a man of honour. He will not allow Lady Sarah to be maligned, and he will give her his name immediately upon his return. It is our role to mitigate the scandal as best we can until he arrives to do a duty he has waited his life long to fulfil."

Haverford went to pick up the package he had put beside him, but Cherry put a hand on his arm. "Haverford! We must speak of Lord and Lady Athol before the..."

Bella straightened. "What on Earth has my wretched niece done now? It is long past time for Charlotte to take her unruly daughter in hand."

The Haverfords exchanged glances, and Cherry rearranged her hands on her lap before beginning, "Prue Wakefield has been investigating every nasty rumour and insinuation that has bedevilled Sally—and so, by extension, David—since she first entered Society. We have discovered the rumours have been floating about since at least two years before Sally was presented. And Prue traced them to their source. I do not precisely understand the method, but, undoubtedly, my mathematician daughter would know exactly how it was done."

Bella's fists clenched at her side. "Go on."

Nick poured two brandies and handed one to Haverford.

"The source, in almost every case," Haverford ground out through his teeth, "was that little witch of Firthley's and her muck worm of a husband." He unclenched his jaw just enough for a solid mouthful of brandy.

Nick's eyes narrowed, but he didn't speak.

"We have sufficient information about their activities," Cherry began in a much more conciliatory tone, "to make it clear that our daughter and your son have been the subject of a concerted and sustained attack, orchestrated by Lord and Lady Athol and abetted, most likely independently, by Abersham's childhood enemy, Crowhurst, and perhaps—we are still investigating—his father."

"Sally's attacker," Bella said. "But the rumours persist, which must be my niece."

"And her husband," Nick growled. "Or Crowhurst Senior. I will ruin them. And Bella, Jewel must be brought to heel. She will not be allowed to attack my heir with impunity. And Lord Athol will not ever lay hands on my goddaughter, or he will lose his arms at the elbow."

"Wellbridge, do allow our friends to tell us all they know before you leap into the fray."

Nick ignored her. "Firthley let that girl run amok after he almost lost her," Nick snarled. "Since the age of seven, he has done naught but indulge her whims, and look what it got him: a drunken, womanizing, spendthrift as son-in-law, and a daughter so bitter she will destroy anyone who has a bit more happiness than she allowed herself."

Haverford took up Bella's invitation to continue. "The Wakefields and Cherry believe, and I agree, that this information may be used to rehabilitate our children. It will take time, and will need to be handled carefully, for—while I would happy to see your niece and her husband forever barred from Society—Lord Athol's brother does not deserve to bear his brother's scandal, as he washed his hands of the blackguard years ago, and Firthley does not deserve to wear the consequences just for being an indulgent father." He sighed. "I must answer to that charge myself. Yes, and you, Nick."

With a wave of his hand, he dismissed the thought and returned to his thread. "Mama will help, of course, but she is getting old. It needs a duchess at the head, we think. Will you take the commission, Bella, even though she is your niece?"

"I... I am not sure how I should respond," Bella admitted. "Of course, I will do anything required to help our children, but I should like to know what I will be doing to my sister and niece before I agree to anything."

"That will be up to you," Cherry said. "Not least because I cannot control this from the other side of the world, and Haverford and Sally need me. But also, because I trust you to handle it appropriately, quickly, and even-handedly. Prue will report directly to you, and you will decide what happens with the information." Her face hardened. "If it were my choice, I would utterly destroy her for what she has brought on my child out of jealousy and spite, and kill her husband outright for his lecherous and predatory nature. If they spent their remaining years on their knees in sackcloth and ashes, it could not be long enough for me."

"She had help," Haverford said heavily, and took another sip of his brandy. "I sent for the pair of them, Bella, to discern, if I could, their motives. Jealousy and spite on her part, as Cherry says. Lust on his. But what they told me... Lady Athol's defence..." He buried his face in both hands, and Cherry moved closer to him and laid her hand on his knee.

"Can this be worse?" Nick said, then, clearly deciding it probably could, tossed back the rest of his brandy, poured another, and brought the decanter to Haverford.

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