Without asking if he would oblige, the housekeeper came in, holding out the tray for Hugh to carry to the table. She also gave him a smile and, Beatrice was sure, a wink. A moment later Betty had withdrawn, leaving a silence that was shattered within seconds by the clock chiming.
Beatrice busied herself pouring tea. ‘Please be seated again, if you wish.’ Suddenly voices in the hallway drew her attention. ‘The vicar’s wife and daughter are leaving...’
‘I’m sorry I kept you from them,’ Hugh murmured, choosing to prop himself against the mantelpiece rather than take a chair.
For the first time since he’d arrived they exchanged a proper smile.
‘Please don’t apologise, sir, for their company was no loss on my part, I assure you.’ Bea put a cup of tea near the five bronzed fingers splayed on the mantelshelf.
‘I’m certain your father and sister did sterling work on your behalf.’
‘They are both protective of me and will see off the tattlers.’ Beatrice sipped tea, placing down her cup with an unsteady hand that rattled together china. ‘Mrs Callan and her daughter wished to let me know how shocked and sorry they are to hear I’m to remain a spinster, so are bound to be disappointed to have lost my company after just a few minutes. But I would not have our neighbours...or anybody for that matter...think that I am hiding away, embarrassed and heartbroken, so must go over to the vicarage later in the week to allow their sympathy full rein.’
Hugh smiled. ‘And are you? Heartbroken, I mean? You’re too fine to allow that dolt Burnett to embarrass you...’
‘Why bother asking how I feel now? You didn’t care before!’ Bea cried, before sinking her small teeth in her lower lip to stem the list of accusations ready to be launched at him. Abruptly she turned and snatched up the plate of treacle biscuits, bitterly regretting that she’d let her suppressed anger at his defection, rather than Colin’s, simmer and boil over. ‘Please, have a biscuit. Betty would like you to...’ She slid the plate next to his untasted tea on the oak mantel.
‘Of course I damn well cared!’ Hugh gritted out, curving his fingers over her forearm to keep her close when she would have swished away. ‘Did you believe me that callous?’
Bea prised away his fingers from her body, flinging him off when he would have kept her hand imprisoned in his. But there was a smile pinned to her lips when she said, ‘I’m sorry, sir...please think nothing more of it. I’m just a little on edge after recent events or would not have spoken so.’
She made a concerted effort to still her madly drumming heart. She would not allow him, or any man, to make her act like a hysterical harpy. She had, just an hour or two ago, felt relatively at peace with the prospect of returning to her life as a spinster and living at home with her father. Now, since Hugh Kendrick’s arrival, old yearnings and emotions that she’d thought she’d successfully conquered were again pricking at her mind, making her feel restless.
‘I must not keep you any longer,’ she blurted. ‘I expect you will want to speak to Alex before he heads off to see his mother...’
A skewed smile was Hugh’s reaction to being summarily dismissed. ‘Perhaps I should not have made my presence known to your guests earlier,’ he said quietly. ‘Will our absence from the parlour have given rise to more speculation and added to your troubles?’
Bea had been occupying her nervous fingers by shifting crockery to and fro on the tray. Now she turned about with a frown. ‘I admit I had not thought of that...’ And I should have. The phrase rotated slowly in her mind. She’d concentrated on the Callans being absorbed by her jilting, but of course they’d also be intrigued to have the details of what had kept Miss Dewey and Mr Kendrick elsewhere in the house during their visit. Mrs Callan was renowned for an ability to craft a salacious rumour from little other than her own imagination...
‘Your family are sure to have explained the situation,’ Hugh reassured her. ‘It would indeed be a travesty if you were to be the subject of conjecture because of me when nothing at all exists between us...does it?’
‘Nothing at all,’ Bea fervently endorsed. ‘And, as you say, my sister and father would have made that quite clear when explaining that I was attending to your needs...your hospitality,’ she quickly amended, managing a fleeting smile despite his amused expression acknowledging her infelicity. ‘Besides, in a short while people will no longer be interested in me but chasing new and more interesting tales.’
Unfortunately Beatrice knew that was not strictly true in this neck of the woods: London might boast fresh scandals every week, but in the sticks it might be six months or more before the old biddies found something as entertaining as Beatrice Dewey’s being jilted to chew over at their afternoon get-togethers. They’d also be intrigued to know that soon after the cancellation of her wedding to Dr Burnett she’d been having a private talk with a handsome stranger.