‘Of course I do not understand!’ Beatrice Dewey’s blue gaze was fixed on her fiancé’s face in shocked disbelief. ‘How is any woman supposed to comprehend that the man she believes will shortly be her husband must marry another?’ She pressed pale, quivering fingers to her brow. ‘Repeat to me your news, please, and furthermore tell me why I should accept it.’
Colin Burnett’s deep sigh displayed his regret. He stretched a hand towards Beatrice but she evaded his comfort in a swish of pastel muslin.
‘Tell me, Colin! An explanation—a dozen explanations if I wish to have them—is the least you owe me.’ Beatrice turned back to him, eyes sparking icy fire.
Ten minutes ago Mrs Francis, the Deweys’ housekeeper, had interrupted Beatrice’s letter-writing to announce that Dr Burnett had called on her. Beatrice had joined her fiancé in the front sitting room with a sunny smile, proving her gladness at this unexpected visit. Her happiness had started to wither before he’d uttered a single word: she’d read from Colin’s demeanour that something was dreadfully wrong.
Not for a moment had she believed him jesting when he had quietly informed her that their wedding must be called off. Colin was not one for levity; neither was he a man who liked a drama. Beatrice could tell this predicament was causing him equal embarrassment and sorrow, but was conscious that he seemed nowhere near as wounded as was she at the idea of them parting.
‘You know if there were any other way around this I would take it. I want you as my wife, Beatrice. I love you—’
‘I don’t see how you can love me...not really,’ Beatrice interrupted harshly, ‘if you are prepared to jilt me because you’d sooner have money.’
‘It is not just about the money, my dear.’ Colin sounded pained, and a trifle exasperated by her accusation. ‘My family’s reputation and estates are founded on the baronetcy. The Burnetts were granted the title as long ago as the Norman Conquest and it has passed through our male line ever since.’ He cast his eyes heavenwards, seeking inspiration. ‘If I reject the title and estates everything will be returned to the crown. How am I to explain that to my relations?’
Beatrice gave an impatient shrug. Her fiancé’s logical reference to history and his kin, when her heart was breaking, was simply increasing her indignation.
‘My uncle was not an easy man to fathom,’ Colin continued doggedly, thrusting his fingers through a shock of auburn hair. ‘He was known as an eccentric, but had I for one moment realised what madness he planned I would have privately set lawyers the task of finding a loophole to wriggle out of his stipulations. As it is, I must bow to his whim or lose everything.’
‘So instead of forfeiting your birthright and choosing to remain much as you are: a country doctor of modest means—which is the person I fell in love with—you would dance to a dead man’s tune to have his fortune and his title?’
Now her shock was receding anger was bringing Beatrice close to tears. She wouldn’t beg the man with whom she’d planned to spend her life to honour his proposal, neither would she attempt to shame him into doing so. If he went ahead and married his cousin Stella instead of her then Beatrice knew she would have learned something vitally important and deeply upsetting about Colin’s character. And also about her own: she had previously believed she’d become a reasonable judge of people.
‘If you have chosen to comply with the terms of your uncle’s will, then there is nothing more to be said,’ Beatrice whispered. ‘All I would ask before you leave is that you find the courtesy to explain to my father why he has wasted his money on my wedding day.’ Hot brine squeezed between her lashes and she averted her face.
‘I will of course make any financial reparation necessary,’ Colin vowed stiltedly.
As he took her elbow to turn her towards him Beatrice flinched from his touch as though scalded. ‘I think you should go now, sir.’
‘Please don’t hate me, Beatrice...I couldn’t stand it...’
‘I have a lot more to stand than you, I think.’ Beatrice gazed stormily into eyes that were pleading for compassion. ‘Please do not beg me for anything. Especially that I should not hate you for squandering three years of my life and destroying my future happiness.’ She distanced herself from him, an odd lethargy enveloping her. ‘In truth I do not hate you, Colin...I am coming to realise that I pity you for allowing a person you barely knew to dupe you and dictate to you.’ She smiled sourly. ‘I’ve let you kiss and caress me, yet despite our intimacy I never really knew you. I’d not imagined you capable of acting in such a callous and selfish way.’