‘We came as soon as we heard,’ Mrs Callan announced with theatrical sympathy, surging into the room. She halted abruptly, causing her plump daughter trailing in her wake to collide with her. Nudging Victoria, to alert her to the presence of aristocracy, Mrs Callan bobbed low to the viscountess, who was rocking her son in her arms.
‘We are indeed honoured to see you today, Lady Blackthorne. Ah...you have brought your little son to see his grandpapa.’ Ethel Callan fluttered a hand to her throat to indicate her regret in what she was about to say. ‘Of course it is a shame that such calamitous news brings you back to Hertfordshire.’
‘I come to Hertfordshire gladly, for good or bad news.’
‘Oh...of course...’ Mrs Callan approached Beatrice, taking her hands in a thin, dry grip. ‘Shocked! It is not too strong a word!’ She gave Bea’s fingers a vigorous shake. ‘Deeply disappointed also, to discover that nice Dr Burnett would heartlessly abandon you like that.’
‘We have discovered he is not so nice, have we not, Mama?’ Victoria piped up.
‘Dr Burnett had his reasons for doing what he did and I have accepted them, so that is that.’ Beatrice’s voice was cool and held an air of finality as she firmly withdrew her hands from the older woman’s clutch. She was not about to be drawn into complaining about her loss. Whatever she said would be repeated ad infinitum in the village.
‘Do take a seat, madam, and you also, Miss Callan.’ Walter’s fist was quivering on his stick as his annoyance increased. Just as he’d been daring to hope Beatrice seemed more cheerful these two were likely to overset her again with their false pity. He knew for a fact that Victoria had done her utmost to snare the doctor herself. It had gone round the locality that the minx had concocted ailments simply to get the fellow to make a house call. Her father had moaned to Walter that he owed Burnett a tidy sum on account of his spinster daughter’s antics, and no gain made from it.
Ethel Callan settled down, with much smoothing of skirts, in a vacant chair by the fireside, and her daughter perched on the sofa next to Walter.
‘We were just about to have some fresh tea,’ Beatrice announced. ‘I’ll ask Mrs Francis to bring two more cups and a fresh pot...’ Her voice tailed off as another rata-tat on the door was heard. Inwardly she groaned, fearing yet more ladies had come to gleefully commiserate with her. ‘I’ll go this time.’ She sent Elise a subtle wink that conveyed she’d sooner her sister fielded questions for a short while.
In the hallway Beatrice spied the comforting figure of Mrs Francis ambling towards her from the direction of the kitchen.
‘I’ll attend to the door.’ Bea gave the housekeeper a smile. ‘Would you make some tea for us, please, and bring it along directly? The sooner we have been hospitable the sooner our guests might decide to be on their way.’
Betty Francis twitched a smile, understanding the quip. ‘Don’t you worry. I’ll be quick as I can with the refreshments, but maybe I’ll just dawdle a moment and see how many cups we might need.’ The woman’s grey head pointed grimly at the door. Betty knew very well why people were calling on them, and wouldn’t be surprised to see Squire Thaddon’s wife outside with some of her friends, keen to join the inquisition that was taking place in the front parlour.
‘I suppose that might be wise,’ Bea said wryly.
‘The rumour mill’s been grinding overtime, no doubt about that,’ Betty muttered darkly. ‘Might be you’ll open up and I’ll need to break out another tea service.’
Betty Francis and her husband Norman had been with the Deweys for approaching twenty-five years and felt very protective of the family. Betty had been like a mother to the girls when the hussy Mr Dewey had married ran off to her lover. If she bumped into the doctor Betty would cheerfully wring his neck for breaking Miss Beatrice’s heart. But she’d heard from the butcher’s boy, who’d pedalled over earlier in the week, that Colin Burnett had wasted no time in upping sticks and moving away.
With one hand Beatrice smoothed her sprigged muslin dress, while the other tucked blonde tendrils behind her small ears. Forcing an insouciant expression, she opened the door. Extreme astonishment caused her smile to freeze on her full pink lips.
‘Hello, Beatrice; you look well...’
‘Why...Mr Kendrick...I...that is...we were expecting somebody else,’ Beatrice finished faintly, having finally snapped herself to attention.
‘You remember me...I’m flattered.’
Beatrice attempted to rouse herself from her stupor. Her heart had begun to thud erratically and the pearl buttons on her bodice were quivering with every breath she took. But if her visitor noticed her bosom’s alluring movement he gave no sign; Hugh Kendrick’s eyes were politely fixed on her blanching face.