‘The shock of what, exactly?’ Elise quipped. ‘Seeing Hugh Kendrick or losing your fiancé?’
‘I no longer think of Colin as a loss but as a hazard I avoided.’ Bea got up from the clothes-strewn bed where she’d played with her nephew and handed him to his nurse. Helpfully, she started to assist her sister with packing. She felt her profile growing warm beneath Elise’s determined stare. ‘Oh, all right, I admit Mr Kendrick’s appearance did shake me up a bit. But I’m over that too.’
‘I wasn’t hinting that you should come with me so you might see Hugh again,’ Elise fibbed. She had seen the way the couple had reacted to one another yesterday and it had stirred in her an idea that they might still harbour feelings for one another. Hugh had not taken his eyes off her sister and Bea had certainly not seemed indifferent to him in the way a woman should if an old flame—now completely forgotten—turned up out of the blue.
Following his upturn in fortune Hugh was highly sought after by top hostesses and fond mamas with debutantes to settle, but Elise knew he wasn’t courting any well-bred young lady. Of course she heard the gossip, like everybody else, and knew he associated with female company of a very different class. Although Elise liked Hugh, he was an unashamed philanderer, and that fact dampened her enthusiasm for Beatrice again falling for him. The last thing Elise wanted was for her beloved sister to again have her dreams shattered by a man.
‘I suppose I ought to tell you that Hugh is known as an incorrigible rake who keeps company with demi-reps. I have to admit, though, that Alex’s reputation was vastly embellished upon by excitable ladies before we were wed.’ Elise smiled wryly; she’d not forgotten how jealous she’d felt, hearing about Alex’s paramours.
‘Thank you for the warning,’ Bea said mildly. ‘I’m not surprised to know it; he seems very different now from the man I once knew. Anyhow, his sordid habits and so on are of no interest to me. I don’t care how he spends his time.’
Elise gave her sister an old-fashioned look. ‘You might have sounded a little more convincing, my dear.’
Beatrice raised her eyes heavenward, miming exasperation, making her sister chuckle.
‘Papa won’t mind at all if you stay in town with me for a week or two. Mr and Mrs Francis attend to all his needs—’
‘No...’ Beatrice interrupted, giving her sister a winning smile. ‘But thank you for the invitation.’ She knew what Elise was up to: finding her a replacement for Colin. Although Bea was swayed by an offer to visit dear friends in the metropolis, the idea that Hugh Kendrick might believe she’d followed him home to put herself in his way was terrifying enough to quash the temptation to accept.
Elise huffed in defeat. ‘I don’t know what you are afraid of. I have told you that Papa and I fielded every question that Mrs Callan batted over about your association with Hugh. I made a point of letting them know he had courted our friend Fiona Chapman to put them off the scent.’
‘And I do thank you for it. But I am not afraid, Elise, of gossip or of Hugh Kendrick.’ Bea knew that was not quite truthful and hastened on. ‘So, I will remain here, quite content, though I pray your mother-in-law will recover.’ Bea looked reflective. ‘She was very kind to us at your wedding reception and made sure Papa and I had servants dancing attendance on us. She introduced us to so many people, and Papa was glad to renew his acquaintance with her that day. He told me he had liked her late husband too.’
‘Susannah is a dear soul...’ Elise frowned, folding linen with renewed vigour. ‘I must quickly get back and visit her. I’m sure the doctor is right, though, and she’s already on the mend.’
Beatrice comforted her sister with a hug. ‘She will be fine, Elise. The dowager will be up and about again in no time...’
* * *
‘I should like to attend.’
‘Are you feeling up to the journey, Papa?’ Beatrice asked in concern.
The post had arrived just ten minutes ago. Alex’s bold black script had been on one of many letters Bea, with heavy heart, had brought to her father’s study. Walter had opened it at once. There had been a note for her too, from Elise, but Beatrice had slipped that into the pocket of her skirt and would read it later.
The other letters, she surmised, were replies from the guests who’d been informed by her father last week that the wedding would not be taking place. She recognised Mr Chapman’s hand, and also that of her Aunt Dolly on two of the five sealed parchments. Bea felt sure all would contain messages of sympathy and encouragement for her, but she didn’t yet want to know about any of it.