Bea glanced at the people in the hallway; many looked to be decades her senior. From glistening eyes and use of hankies she guessed that Susannah had been truly liked by her friends, neighbours and servants.
‘I’ve no need of a ride, Alex,’ Bea whispered, nodding at some elderly ladies close by, dabbing at their eyes. ‘There are others more deserving.’ She stepped outside onto the mellow flags of a flight of steps that cascaded between stone pillars down to an expanse of gravel. At least half a dozen assorted crested vehicles were lined up in a semi-circle, ready for use. The glossy-flanked grey and ebony horses appeared impeccably behaved as they tossed regal black-plumed heads.
Beatrice noticed that a column of mourners was snaking towards the chapel. Pulling her silk cloak about her, she started off too, at the tail-end of it.
‘The sun seems reluctant to escape the clouds.’
Beatrice’s spine tingled at the sound of that familiar baritone. Hugh Kendrick was several yards behind but had obviously addressed her as no other person was within earshot. He seemed to be casually strolling in her wake, yet with no obvious effort he had quickly caught her up and fallen into step at her side.
‘It is an unwritten law that funerals and weddings must have more than a fair share of bad weather.’ Bea’s light comment was given while gazing at a mountain of threatening grey nimbus on the horizon. To avoid his steady gaze she then turned her attention to the rolling parkland of Blackthorne Hall that stretched as far as the eye could see. The green of the grass had adopted a dull metallic hue beneath the lowering atmosphere.
‘Were you preparing for showers on your own wedding day?’
Beatrice was surprised that he’d mentioned that. A quick glance at his eyes reassured her that he hadn’t spoken from malice. She guessed he wanted to air the matter because, if ignored, it might wedge itself awkwardly between them. She was hopeful he shared her view that any hostilities between them should be under truce today.
‘I was banking on a fine day in June, but one never knows...and now it is all academic in any case.’
A breeze whipped golden tendrils of hair across her forehead and she drew her cloak closely about herself. She scoured her mind for a different topic of conversation but didn’t feel determined to rid herself of his company.
‘It seems the dowager was liked and respected by a great many people. My father has sung her sincere praises and those of her late husband.’
‘They were nice people. The late Lady Blackthorne was always kind and friendly to me. I was made to feel at home when I spent school holidays with Alex here at the Hall.’
Bea smiled. ‘You have known each other a long time?’
‘More than twenty years.’
‘I expect you were a couple of young scamps.’
‘Indeed we were...’ Hugh chuckled in private reminiscence, then sensed Bea’s questioning eyes on him. ‘Please don’t ask me to elaborate.’
‘Well, sir, now you’ve hinted at your wickedness I feel I must press for more details.’ A teasing blue glance peeked at his lean, tanned profile.
‘Just the usual boyish antics...climbing trees, catching frogs and tadpoles, building camp fires that rage out of control,’ Hugh admitted with a hint of drollery.
‘A fire...out of control?’ Beatrice echoed with scandalised interest.
‘It was a dry summer...’ Hugh’s inflection implied that the drought mitigated the disaster. ‘Luckily for us the old viscount remained reasonably restrained when learning that his son and heir together with his best friend had burned down a newly planted copse of oak saplings while frying eggs for their supper.’
Beatrice choked a horrified laugh. ‘Thank goodness neither of you were injured.’
‘I burned myself trying to put the fire out...’ Hugh flexed long-fingered hands.
Bea had never before noticed, or felt when he’d caressed her, that area of puckered skin on one of his palms. She recalled his touch had always been blissfully tender. Quickly she shoved the disturbing memory far back in her mind before he became puzzled as to what he might have said or done to make her blush.
‘It was quite an inferno,’ Hugh admitted. ‘It frightened the life out of the viscountess; she made Alex and me amuse ourselves indoors for the rest of the holiday. We rolled marbles with bandaged hands till we were sick of the sight of them. Even when the physician told us we were fit to be let out we were kept confined to barracks. But I wasn’t sent home in well-deserved disgrace.’ His boyish expression became grave. ‘I could give you many other instances of Susannah’s kindness and tolerance.’