Chapter Fifty-Four: Part 2

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Wellbridge spoke up from across the room. "We have decided to give the account to the new Lady Abersham as a wedding gift, so she may buy new appointments for her houses. Or whatever else she'd like," Wellbridge said breezily. Then his voice hardened. "She earned every penny in the loss of her good name due to your malicious meddling. It is shameful she should have to flee the country to avoid attack by a member of her betrothed's family."

Jewel's head hung a bit lower.

"You will notice, Jewel," Bella said, "your parents are not leaping to your defence, which is because I have showed them the evidence—every last word of it—and they agree you have done me and my family such a great injury that I should not be compelled to familial kindness or duty in expressing my displeasure."

"Not only should she not be restrained by blood ties—" Charlotte lectured, her jaw tight, "—for you certainly were not—but she should treat you as any other enemy of her family. You have earned that distinction as much as Lady Sarah earned the monies you have just paid her."

"That's right, Jewel," her father agreed. "No one in this family can trust you will not turn on us, should you see benefit in it, given what you have done to Lord Abersham and Lady Sarah. If you wish to regain our confidence, you will have considerable work to do."

"My name is Lady Julia!"

"Your name is anything I wish it to be today, my dear," Bella quipped grimly. "And right now, the only thing I wish to hear from you is silent repentance for your execrable behaviour toward my family. Now, Lord Athol..." He straightened in his chair and gripped the arms. "You should not believe I have forgotten you. No, not in the least."

He shuddered.

"I have bought your debt, Lord Athol. All of it. From your cobblers to the toughs in Seven Dials to the mortgage on the land your mother left. I own every penny of your sizable obligations. It is too bad you lost your claim to Lady Athol's trust, is it not? For you might have been a very wealthy man, had you not made a habit of dishonour."

Lord Athol slid, inch by inch, into a slump in his chair.

"Additionally, I have purchased the house you rent in Town, and offered your farmers steady work on my estates with much more generous terms."

Julia half rose. "You can't just—"

"Julia!" Firthley barked. "Hold your tongue if you know what is good for you."

She dropped back into her chair, holding her temples in her hand. "Yes, Papa."

"How will we live?" Lord Athol asked, unwisely.

"Why on Earth should my family give a damn about that?" Wellbridge asked.

"Wellbridge," Bella said with a warning tone, and he turned away to pour himself a brandy. "How you will live, Lord Athol, is at my mercy, which is spare indeed, and will require both of you do everything I ask, in precisely the fashion I ask, without hesitation or argument, until such time as I release you from your debt. And I warn you now, it may be decades before I am satisfied you have paid for your crimes against my child." Lord Athol let out an audible squeak. "However, if you comply, you will be allowed shelter, though not, of course, in Town, nor with accommodations for Miss Brown and her ilk. I will allow for a reasonable repayment schedule for your debts, and provide all available assistance in the management of my new farmland, which you will be allowed to till to feed yourselves, and where you will remain for the foreseeable future. After my plans for you in London are complete."

"And if we do not comply?" Jewel asked, as unwise as her husband, it seemed.

"I shall see you both evicted from your homes, and from Society, gaoled for debt or transported, and will not give another thought to your condition for the rest of my days."

Jewel sat with her mouth open, stunned. Bella looked her right in the eye, not flinching.

"Would you really... Aunt Bella?"

"Have you known me to be a woman who says things she does not mean?" Jewel blanched. "And you may address me as Your Grace."

Lord Athol turned in some desperation toward his brother. "Anders. You won't allow us to be ostracized and gaoled, will you?"

Lord Prestwood just laughed. "I washed my hands of you ten years ago. I am here today only to do business with the duchess and assure everyone concerned that you may not count on any assistance from me or my family. The farther I can keep my wife and children from you, the better. I cannot think mother would take it well—what you've done with your miserable life—but if father were still alive, this would kill him."

Athol turned back to Bella, his eyes dropped into a properly subservient position. "Your Grace, I apologize profusely for the disrespect my wife and I have shown toward your family and the Haverfords."

"Athol..." Jewel hissed, but he shoved her hand off his arm.

"You are right that Lord Abersham and Lady Sarah have no reason to forgive us, nor do you, and you have every right to treat us as enemies. I am deeply sorry for any pain we have caused."

"I daresay you are now," Bella said without expression.

"I beg, Your Grace," Athol continued, his voice deep and grave, "tell us how we can make amends for our trespasses against you and yours. We will do anything you ask."

"I daresay you will," Wellbridge observed.

"Excellent," Bella said. "I had hoped you would not be so stupid as to destroy yourselves any further for spite. I shall explain the plan, and you will execute your part posthaste, without error, omission, or argument. Am I understood?"

Everyone in the room but her husband felt compelled to reply, "Yes, Your Grace."

A quarter-hour later, after everyone remaining had committed to playing some role in the rehabilitation of Lord Abersham and Lady Sarah, Bella put it to the two with the most to lose: "Can you agree to these terms, Lady Athol? Can you renounce the gossip and defend the reputation of Lady Sarah with a straight face? Lord Athol, can you apologise to the young ladies you have offended, and admit in public to your lecherous behaviour? Can you both do so without appearing as if someone is breaking your thumbs to gain compliance? For I am happy to break your thumbs, if you prefer it."

"No, Your Grace," Lord Athol squeaked. "That won't be necessary. We will debase ourselves utterly, if it will make amends for our behaviour."

"And Athol," Firthley added, "if my daughter complains to me of any maltreatment or disrespect at your hands, whether public or private, I shall gut you. Is that clear?"

The duchess nodded approvingly, and Lord Athol gulped his understanding.

"Very good, Lord Athol. This will be a start to making amends. Mr and Mrs Wakefield will take you to the formal parlour now and provide you any further information you will need to carry out our plans, and Mr. Pringle can explain your new living arrangements. You will not wish to be forced to speak to me again of this matter."

Everyone stood but the duke and duchess and filed out in an orderly fashion.

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