"Jewel, Lord Athol, please do take a seat," Bella offered. "May I pour you tea?"
"I wish you would call me Julia, Aunt Bella, or Lady Athol."
"You are not adult enough to warrant such consideration. As you act like a child, so you shall be treated as one."
Jewel started to stand, but Bella snapped, "Sit. Now. And do not dare to rise from that chair again until such time as I give you leave, or you will never be received in any of my homes again." Jewel sat without a word, and Bella moderated her tone. "I've invited some other guests this afternoon, and I suggest, with all due compassion, that you both consider extremely carefully every word you choose to speak today, for any one might unleash the hounds of hell upon you both, with the full and witting participation of everyone you might look to for protection. Am I understood?"
Jewel's faced blanched and she swallowed visibly, twisting the strings of her reticule between her fingers. Lord Athol shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I knew something awful was going to happen," he muttered.
"How prescient of you, Lord Athol," Bella said, handing out teacups. "I daresay Haverford allowed you to leave his house hoping to lull you into a false sense of security. Did it work?"
"No," Athol mumbled, face flushed.
"Excellent. He should never have let you walk free for a moment. He should have kept you locked in the oubliette at Haverford Castle until we decided what to do with you, but at least I can take comfort you were not sleeping soundly. Wellbridge," she called out, "would you show in our other guests, please?"
Opening a set of French doors on the side of the room, Wellbridge ushered in Blakeley with two footmen, a much larger urn of tea, a cart filled with dishes, and numerous platters of sandwiches and cakes. As soon as the servants were bustling about, adding a sense of chaos to the emotional tumult, the duke escorted in Lord Athol's eldest brother, the Marquis of Prestwood; Lady Athol's parents, the Marquess and Marchioness of Firthley; Nell Brown, Lord Athol's former mistress; and Prue and David Wakefield. Bringing up the rear, Wellbridge's solicitor, Mr Pringle, whom he shared in common with the queen.
Bella had earlier tasked the servants to take their time serving tea; the longer the Soddenfelds were required to stay silent before the help, the tighter Bella could ratchet the tension.
"Lord Prestwood, I am so pleased to have hosted you for luncheon today; it had been entirely too long since we spoke—Her Majesty's wedding, wasn't it? But now, well, your investment in Seventh Sea cannot help but earn steady dividends, and I believe our mutual business interests intersect nicely. I foresee an expansion of your mills, once Seventh Sea supplies your cotton."
Lord Athol opened his mouth to speak, then wisely closed it again.
"Charlotte, Alexander, I do thank you for coming today; we must have supper soon. We live too close by to let it go so long without a family dinner. Perhaps if we had more family dinners, we would have fewer family conflicts."
Firthley was the one who answered, "We would like that very much Bella, with the understanding our family has done yours a great injury, and so should not expect such consideration."
"Nonsense. Of course, you must dine with me. I wish to steal as many Delphinus secrets from you as I can."
Lady Athol turned her head away from her aunt and her parents, only to be confronted by her husband's smirking former mistress. Her face flushed, and she looked at the floor.
"Which event I shall plan in due course," Bella said, eyeing the servants now passing tea and food among the guests. "Mr and Mrs Wakefield, you've brought the charts and reports?"
"Yes, Your Grace."
"Perfect. Mr Pringle, you have the paperwork I requested?"
"Everything you asked, Your Grace."
By now, Blakeley was removing footmen and carts from the room. He left last, closing the door firmly behind him. Finally, after she had acknowledged everyone else, Bella stared down her nose at the woman whom Lord Athol had proposed to replace with Sally Grenford.
"Miss Brown, I will dispose of my business with you first, so you may excuse yourself from our company. With our thanks, of course, but understanding your role here is limited to reporting first-hand information."
"Yes, Your Grace," the doxy said, sending flirtatious glances in all directions, until her eye caught Wellbridge's, and with the rise of one brow and a flare of his ducal nostrils, he left her staring into the corner, face flushed.
"Miss Brown, please repeat what you told me about your leave-taking with Lord Athol."
"He give me twenty pounds, Your Grace, and me clothes. Fair 'nough after a six-month. Jewellery, too, but that don't amount to much." She cast Lord Athol a disdainful look. "He said he could only afford one mistress at a time, and if he could have Lady Sarah Grenford, he would never need another woman."
"This is not—"
"Ah, ah, Jewel," Bella cautioned. "You will not wish to speak when you look so angry." Jewel took the reprimand to heart and closed her mouth. "Thank you, Miss Brown. That is all I need. If you leave by that door, Blakeley will see you are fed and give you the referral I promised."
Miss Brown rose and curtseyed gracefully. "Thank you, Your Grace. I'll not forget your kindness."
"It is nothing, dear. But now, please go, so I may avenge myself further upon your former lover and his wife."
"With pleasure, Your Grace." The lightskirt left the room.
"What was that?" Lord Athol objected. "How dare you bring her here with Lady Athol—"
"How dare you speak in my presence without being given leave. Be silent, Lord Athol, lest you make me want to cut out your tongue. For I assure you, there is no person in London better equipped to do so, and I have no compunction when protecting the children I love. I brought Miss Brown here to clarify to both of you exactly how much I know, and the lengths to which I will go to protect my son's good name. Neither of you should believe I am bound by good manners, filial duty, fear of gossip, concern for your sensibilities, or compassion for your emotional pain."
Turning to Jewel, she continued, "You, Jewel... I have loved you since long before I ever met you. I know that what happened to you when you were a child was, in some wise, my fault, and I have spent many years attempting to make up the loss of your innocence that day, most often by excusing your poor behaviour. I have done everything in my power to help you, but no longer. You have trampled on the loving support of the House of Wellbridge by attacking and maligning our son and his betrothed, and as such, you will receive no more benefit from our association. To begin, Mr Pringle, will you bring me the paperwork I requested, please?"
Mr Pringle laid out the papers on the tea table at Bella's knee. "I am quite certain you are aware, Jewel, my first husband and I established a trust for you upon your birth, which was to be given to you at age 30. Only a few months away now, isn't it?"
Jewel swallowed hard again and nodded.
"Had you forgotten I hold so much money for you when you conceived this plan to harm my child?"
Jewel glanced quickly at her husband then away, refusing to meet the eyes of anyone in the room. Lord Athol's dumbfounded look implied either she had never told him, or he had, indeed, forgotten. Bella hoped that meant Jewel had planned to use the money to separate herself from this fool, but it was too late for her plans now.
"Perhaps you are not aware, however, that when he died, Lord Huntleigh left a good portion of Seventh Sea stock divided amongst all the trusts we had established, and Wellbridge and I have added to them since our marriage. At present, the balance of your account stands at 173,418 pounds. An enormous amount, but 30 years of Seventh Sea dividends will do that. Sadly, you have forfeited any claim to the largesse of my family."
Lady Athol's whimpered "173 thousand" was drowned by Lord Athol's roar, as he flung himself from his chair, hands reaching for his wife. Firthley was too fast for him, stopping him in his tracks with an arm around his throat and a whisper in his ear. With an angry glare at Jewel, Athol subsided into his chair, Firthley taking station behind it.
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...