‘Of course...that’s where he is.’ Beatrice sighed in relief. When Viscount Blackthorne had been courting her sister he would often lodge at the inn at St Albans.
Elise was swaying her drowsing son while frowning at Hugh. ‘If you’ve come all this way it must be bad news. Please tell me what it is for I shall only fret if you do not. Has something awful happened in the few days I’ve been away?’
‘I’m afraid that your mother-in-law has scarlatina.’ Hugh comforted Elise with a sympathetic smile as one of her hands flew to cover her shocked gasp. ‘The physician thinks she will recover well but at her age there is an obvious risk...’ His voice tailed off. ‘She has been asking to see Alex.’
‘Of course...he must go immediately to her side. I should return too.’ Elise was very fond of her mother-in-law and knew the woman doted on Alex, her only child.
‘It has been wonderful to see you, but Papa will understand why you must cut short your visit.’ Beatrice strove to remove Elise’s worry over leaving so soon after arriving in Hertfordshire.
The doorknocker was again loudly employed at the same moment that Betty reappeared, shuffling towards them, bearing a tray laden with a silver tea set surrounded by some delicate bone china.
‘If it’s more nosey Parkers here to tattle they can come back another time,’ the housekeeper stated with salty directness. ‘We’re right out of tea anyhow, till Norman gets back from town with the provisions.’
Being closest to the door, Hugh did the honours, opening it to find Alex on the step.
The viscount gave his chum a quizzical look while proceeding inside, but was prevented from asking the most obvious question. His wife hastily handed her precious burden to her sister, then launched herself at him to hug him about the waist in a show of welcome and comfort at the news she must soon break. Gently Elise urged her husband towards a small alcove by the stairs so they might quietly converse.
‘What’s it all about?’ Walter demanded waspishly, emerging from the parlour and pulling the door shut behind him. ‘You’re not going to abandon me with those two, are you?’
Leaning heavily on his stick, he fished out his spectacles and put them on so he might get a closer look at what was occurring. He peered from one to the other of the people crowding his narrow hallway. ‘Ah...capital! I see my son-in-law has dropped by to join us...why are they whispering?’
Walter didn’t wait for a reply to his question about Elise and Alex huddling together a yard or so away. His attention had already moved on to a person he felt sure he recognised. When the fellow’s identity popped into his mind his gaze narrowed angrily on Hugh Kendrick’s tall, distinguished figure.
‘Ha! I do know you! So you’ve heard, have you, and come to speak to my daughter and me? Well, Bea won’t have you now, no matter how much money you’ve got from your diamonds. And neither will I. You had your chance years ago, so be off with you.’
In the ensuing silence Betty shuffled forward with the heavy tea tray, and never before had Bea felt quite so grateful for their housekeeper’s peevishness.
‘Is some kind person going to open the door?’ The woman huffed out. ‘My arms are giving out with the weight of this lot.’ Betty rested a hip against the wall for support.
Courteously, Hugh unburdened the elderly servant, allowing her to enter the parlour. She gave him a wide smile when he carried the tray inside and put it down on the table, causing the two seated ladies to gawp admiringly at him. Hugh nodded politely before retracing his steps, leaving Betty behind the closed door setting the cups and Mrs Callan and Victoria frantically burbling in low voices.
‘You may quit my house, sirrah.’ Walter pointed his stick at Hugh. ‘Beatrice, come into the parlour, do. I’ve exhausted every topic of conversation I can think of that avoids mentioning a fickle scoundrel upsetting my daughter.’ Again his rheumy eyes settled accusingly on Hugh.
Walter beckoned to Elise and Alex, then disappeared inside the parlour, oblivious to his elder daughter’s mortification or Hugh Kendrick’s cynically amused expression.
‘I’m sorry my father was so rude just then.’ Beatrice’s voice was hoarse with chagrin and she found she could not meet his eyes. She feared he’d understood her father’s oblique reference to her having been jilted. Eventually it would all come out and Hugh Kendrick, along with other acquaintances who resided further afield, would discover Beatrice Dewey’s wedding had been cancelled, but she didn’t want his pity, or his questions, today.
‘I’ve poured the tea if you want to go in and drink it before it goes cold,’ Betty announced, still sounding tetchy as she closed the parlour door and stomped off down the corridor.