Beatrice realised that Hugh was as moved by Susannah’s passing as had been the weeping ladies in the Blackthornes’ hallway. But of course he would not show the extent of his feelings: once, when a personable chap rather than a diamond magnate, he might have been less inclined to conceal his sadness behind a suave mask. Quietly she mulled over the theory of whether gentlemen felt it was incumbent on them to foster an air of detachment as they became richer.
‘And what mischief did you get up to in your youth, Miss Dewey?’
Bea glanced up with an impish smile. ‘Young ladies are never naughty,’ she lectured, before tearing her eyes free of his wolfish mockery.
‘I seem to recall a time, Beatrice, when you were very naughty indeed...’
‘Then I advise you to forget it, sir, as it is now of no consequence,’ she snapped. She tilted her chin and strode on, but no matter how energetic her attempt to outpace him he loped casually right at her side.
‘But you don’t deny it happened?’ he provoked her.
‘I have nothing to say on the subject other than you are very ill-mannered to bring it up.’
‘My apologies for upsetting you...’
He’d spoken in a drawling voice that made Bea’s back teeth grind together. ‘You have not done so,’ she replied, in so brittle a tone that it immediately proved her answer a lie.
‘Of course we were talking about childhood. I alluded to a time when you were most certainly a woman, and I admit it was not fair to do so.’
Bea said nothing, despite his throaty answer having twisted a knot in her stomach. She again contemplated the countryside, presenting him with her haughtily tilted profile.
‘So, did you enjoy your schooldays? How did you spend them, Beatrice?’ His tone had become less challenging, as though he regretted having embarrassed her by hinting at her wanton behaviour with him.
‘When we lived in London Elise and I were schooled at home by Miss Dawkins,’ Bea responded coolly. A moment later she realised it was childish to remain huffy. He’d spoken the truth, after all, even if it was unpalatable. ‘I was almost fifteen when we moved to Hertfordshire, so there was little time left to polish me up. Papa did engage a governess for Elise, and the poor woman did her best to prepare me for my looming debut.’ An amusing recollection made her lips quirk. ‘She despaired of my singing and piano-playing and told Papa he had wasted his money buying an instrument that neither of his daughters would ever master.’
‘What did Walter say to that?’ Hugh asked, laughter in his voice.
‘I cannot recall, but I expect he was disappointed to have squandered the cash; we were quite hard up by then—’ Beatrice broke off, regretting mentioning her father’s financial struggle. Hugh, in common with many others, would know that her parents had divorced amidst a scandal that had impoverished Walter Dewey. It had been a terrible time for them all and she didn’t intend to now pick at the painful memory.
‘I expect you missed your mother’s guidance during your come-out.’
Hugh abhorred hypocrisy so avoided judging others’ morality. He was no paragon and had had illicit liaisons with other men’s wives, although neither of his current mistresses was married. He therefore found it hard to understand why Arabella Dewey had left her husband and children. In polite society the customary way of things was to seek discreet diversion when bored with one’s spouse. But it seemed Arabella hadn’t been able to abide Walter’s company. Hugh found that rather sad, as he sensed the fellow was basically a good sort and the couple had produced two beautiful girls.
Arabella had passed on years ago, when still in her prime, but not before she’d scandalised the ton by abandoning her husband and teenage daughters to run off and live with her lover.
‘Aunt Dolly did her level best to take me under her wing and turn me into a sweet debutante,’ Bea finally answered, having reminisced on that dear lady’s efforts to obtain invitations to top social functions so she might attract a suitor.
‘Thank goodness she failed,’ Hugh muttered. He put up his hands in mock defence as Bea glowered at him. ‘It’s a compliment, I swear. In my experience debutantes tend to be vapid creatures.’
‘I’m surprised you know any well enough to be able to judge.’ Unfortunately Bea’s sarcasm had not been spoken quietly enough.
‘What do you mean by that, Beatrice?’
What did she mean by that? Beatrice thought frantically. She’d rather not let him know that Elise had told her he was a notorious rake.
Ignoring his question, and his scorching stare, she chattered on. ‘My father paid handsomely to get us vouchers for Almack’s that year, but it wasn’t a successful season for me.’ She stopped short of elaborating on her failure: some hostesses had spitefully shunned them because the gossip over her parents’ divorce was still doing the rounds.