‘Off you go, then, and keep him company and I’ll be along directly.’ The housekeeper nodded at the door.
‘I think I’d sooner stay here with you and wait till the tea’s brewed.’
‘I know you would,’ Betty said. ‘That’s why I reckon you should go and sit with him and show him what you’re made of.’ She wagged a finger. ‘You, Miss Beatrice, are not a coward. If I can tell he frightens you I reckon he already knows.’
‘He does not frighten me!’ Beatrice asserted, sitting straight in the chair and blinking at Betty.
‘In that case you’ll remember your manners and have a nice chat about the weather with him while the kettle boils,’ Betty returned bossily. ‘I’ll be by in about ten minutes with a hot pot of tea and a plate of biscuits.’ She turned away. ‘But those two in the front parlour aren’t getting any; Vicar’s wife maybe, but not a charitable bone in her body by my reckoning. And the daughter’s not much better.’
Betty glanced over her shoulder as she heard the chair scrape back. Her puckered features softened in a smile as she watched Beatrice marching towards the door, a determined set to her full mouth.
‘Tea won’t be long...do sit down, sir.’
Beatrice had entered the morning room to find Hugh standing by the unlit fire, contemplating the view through the window. His long fingers were drumming on the oak mantelpiece, making him seem impatient, and Bea wondered if he’d decide to leave without waiting for refreshment. The idea that he might depart before she’d proved to him her indifference to his arrival prompted her to burst out with some conversation.
‘I hope that the dowager will soon recover. I have only met her once or twice but found her to be very nice,’ Beatrice rattled off. She had decided to steer their chat in the direction of mutual concerns. In that way she might avoid his hard stares and lazy mockery. ‘My father will be sad to hear that she’s ailing. He also likes Alex’s mother...’
‘I’ll attempt to find out how she managed to charm him,’ Hugh remarked dryly. He strolled to an armchair and sat down.
Beatrice perched on a seat opposite, inwardly sighing that she’d suffered an early defeat. ‘How are your family keeping, sir?’ she asked brightly, recollecting that he had a younger married sister. ‘Have you nephews or nieces?’
‘One of each,’ Hugh replied, sitting back and planting a dusty boot atop one knee. His fingers curled close to his mouth and he regarded her through dropped lashes. He knew she was anxious to avoid answering personal questions but, vulgar as his curiosity might be, he wanted to hear from her own lips that her wedding was off.
Elise’s urgent summons to the countryside, taken together with Walter Dewey’s recent bitter comments about scoundrels upsetting his daughters, pointed to the fact that Beatrice was not after all getting married. Hugh wanted her to tell him herself, because in that way he could judge her reaction and whether she had instigated the break-up with Dr Burnett.
‘How old are your sister’s children?’ Beatrice doggedly continued, keeping an eye on the clock. Betty had said she would bring the tea in ten minutes; Bea was sure that five must already have passed. Yet the hands seemed to have crawled only fractionally about the face of the timepiece ticking on the wall.
‘Luke is seven and Lucinda five.’
‘Such nice names,’ Beatrice remarked, on realising he wasn’t about to add anything to the drawled information. Abruptly she got to her feet. ‘I should open the door wider for Mrs Francis or she will struggle entering with the tray. Indeed...I should carry it for her...’
Bea had a plausible excuse to escape the strained atmosphere, but Betty’s warning about acting cowardly rang in her ears, holding her on the spot. Today there’d been nothing in Hugh Kendrick’s behaviour to which she might take serious offence. So far he’d been unfailingly civil... And yet she knew Betty had spoken the truth: she was fearful of him, and not simply because he might at any moment launch an unwanted question at her.
The fever on her flesh where his hands had been, the butterflies circling in her stomach, all were indications that she was not immune to this man, and she dearly wanted to be. It might be three years since they’d kissed and caressed one another but the memory of it was strengthening with every minute that passed. There was an unbearable tension between them and she knew he too was dwelling on that shared intimacy.
Never had Colin Burnett kissed her so hard and long that a vivid colour had stained her lips for hours. Never had he, during their long engagement, pulled open her bodice and drawn whimpers of delight from her when his mouth teased her breasts.