‘I’m sorry to startle you, and hope I’ve not arrived at a bad time...’
‘No...not at all...’ Bea fibbed. ‘Please...do come in, sir.’ She belatedly remembered her manners and drew to one side, aware that Betty was hovering behind, watching and listening to their strained conversation.
‘Just one more cup, then, please, Mrs Francis.’ Beatrice was thankful to have a reason to turn to the housekeeper and compose herself, simply to avoid a pair or relentless hawk-like eyes.
She had recognised Hugh straight away, yet marvelled at having done so. The person before her little resembled the gentleman she had fallen in love with three years ago. His thick hair was still conker-brown, worn rather long, and his eyes were deepest hazel, fringed with ebony lashes; but there all similarity ended. Once he’d had an appealing fresh-faced demeanour and had worn modestly styled attire. Now his lean, angular face was sun-beaten and bore lines of dissipation. His elegantly tailored suit of clothing, dusty and creased from the journey, proclaimed him a man who could afford to be carelessly indulgent.
So far they’d exchanged few words, all of them polite, yet Bea felt unsettled by his lazy confidence. Once Hugh Kendrick would blush endearingly the moment she entered a room; at present she found his hooded amber gaze intimidating rather than flattering. As Beatrice pivoted about to again invite him into her home she sensed a pang of regret that he was no longer a charming young fellow but an aloof stranger who possessed an alarming virility.
‘I expect you’re busy with wedding preparations.’
His quiet comment caused Beatrice to snap her darkening eyes to him, wondering if he was being deliberately sarcastic. His tone had been as unemotional as were his features, but she quickly realised it was unlikely he’d yet heard her bad news. Her sister had only found out a few days ago on reaching Hertfordshire, and Elise’s husband remained in ignorance of what had gone on.
‘It’s none of my business, I know. My apologies for mentioning it.’ Hugh had sensed her frostiness increase at the mention of her marriage. She had good cause to dislike him, and he’d often cursed the reason for it.
But not any more. He’d been too broke to have her—the only woman he’d really wanted—and following several humiliating and vain attempts at fortune-hunting a bride he’d done with love and marriage. Now he could buy himself all the female company he needed, and renew it when he grew bored with the women in his life.
Hugh’s mouth slanted in self-mockery as he recalled that a joyful wedding reception had been taking place the last time they’d been in one another’s company.
Alex Blackthorne had been married in Hertfordshire at a country church with few people in attendance, but he had bestowed on his bride an extravagant party when they arrived back in Mayfair. No expense had been spared and the lavish affair had seen ambitious society brides emulating it ever since.
During the celebration Hugh remembered Beatrice and her father keeping their distance from him. He had taken against the fellow escorting Beatrice even before Alex told him that Beatrice Dewey had become engaged to Colin Burnett.
‘What do you want, sir?’ Bea asked coolly, although her complexion had grown warm beneath his relentless scrutiny. She felt wound as tightly as a spring, but the thrill of being so close to him, enveloped in his musky sandalwood scent, was not easily conquered. If he’d just stop staring at her, she thought crossly, she might manage to calm down and stop turning over in her mind what had happened between them years ago.
At Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Hugh had singled her out, paying her such attention that a crowd of envious women had closed in on them to eavesdrop. The giddy elation of that warm midsummer evening and the following days, anticipating her next meeting with Hugh, were not easy to forget. Neither was the memory of her happiness disintegrating when he bluntly told her he couldn’t see her again.
‘We have some neighbours visiting. I do not want to seem inhospitable, sir, but it might be better if you do not join us.’ Mrs Callan’s hoarse laugh had jolted Beatrice to the present. ‘My father has not forgotten or forgiven that once we knew each other...that is, he recalls that our brief friendship turned sour,’ Beatrice hastily amended, blushing. They had most definitely not known each other—in the biblical sense or any other. She had mistaken this man’s nature and sincerity just as she had with Colin.
‘I regret that we parted before I knew you as well as I would have liked.’
‘I cannot echo that sentiment, sir.’ Hugh’s amused tone had deepened the colour staining Beatrice’s porcelain complexion. ‘My only regret is that I ever became acquainted with you at all.’ Stolen kisses and caresses, snatched during their brief moments alone, were at the forefront of her mind, putting a disquieting throb low in her belly. Bea feared he might also be recalling their passionate moonlit trysts, and his next soft comment proved her intuitive.