‘What did you mean by your comment?’ Hugh demanded, undeterred. His firm fingers circled her wrist, turning her towards him. ‘Why would I not know such young ladies?’
Beatrice shook him off, then set on her way again. ‘I know you liked Fiona Chapman, but she is rather too old to be called a deb.’ She was thankful that excuse had popped into her head. Moments later she regretted having drawn her friend into it; in mentioning Fiona’s age she’d sounded bitchy and jealous. Besides, Fiona was only a year her senior...
‘I still like Miss Chapman very much,’ Hugh said levelly.
‘And so do I like her very much. Actually, I had a letter from her just days ago,’ Beatrice blurted in emphasis.
She sensed the same quickening of her heart as she had on first absorbing the disturbing fact that Hugh and Colin had argued about her in public.
‘Did the letter have good news for you?’ Hugh asked. He’d immediately guessed what information Fiona might have passed on.
‘I think you probably know the answer to that.’ Beatrice twisted towards him, eyes blazing accusingly. She was tempted to give him a piece of her mind about risking her reputation in such a way, but the lych gate was now in view and beyond it, standing by some ancient leaning headstones, was her father, supported by his stick. He raised a bony hand, signalling to her to come to him, just as Elise also gave her a wave. With a curt dip for Hugh she sped ahead to join her family, filing into the chapel.
‘I suppose I must speak to the fellow,’ Walter grumpily announced.
Beatrice removed her father’s port from his fingers, setting it on the table before he spilled it down his front.
They were sitting side by side on a small fireside sofa and had been observing the company attending the wake. Alex and Elise were the perfect hosts, moving through the room talking to the mourners. From elderly estate servants, now retired, to the Duke of Rodley, who’d arrived on horseback from the next town with two bottles of best cognac strapped to his saddle, all were being graciously thanked for their kind messages and tributes.
‘Would you like me to fetch you some pastries from the buffet, Papa?’ Beatrice had noticed her father again reaching for his depleted glass of port. He was drinking too much, as was his wont. Over the years Walter’s daughters had had to ask their manservant to take their father to bed when he’d been unable to rouse himself due to over-imbibing.
‘Another fruit tart might be sufficient, my dear. I have room for just one.’ As his daughter rose from the sofa, he added, ‘And will you bring the fellow over to me so I might talk to him before he leaves?’
‘Do you know that he’s soon leaving?’ Bea asked, glancing at Hugh’s dark figure surrounded by some jolly people.
‘The viscount told me his friend Kendrick intends returning to town today. I imagine he will not set on the road after dark...not in this weather.’
Walter turned to the dismal grey afternoon beyond the enormous casements. The fire to one side of them had been hissing and spluttering as the driving rain dampened the apple-scented logs. After the funeral service they had been lucky to return to the Hall before the worst of the rain set in.
‘Will you fetch him over?’ Walter nagged. ‘I’d sooner not struggle up out of this chair to go to him and eat humble pie with strangers present.’ Walter sighed. ‘Yet it must be done. My conscience will not allow it to be otherwise.’
Hugh’s group were loudly toasting Susannah’s life. Alex’s mother had left strict instructions that she wanted no maudlin speeches at her wake but a thanksgiving for the blessing of a wonderful life shared with an adored husband and beloved son.
Moving gracefully through the throng towards the dining room, Bea angled her head in an attempt to drag Hugh’s attention from his lively companions. He now seemed oblivious to her presence, and yet before, when walking to the chapel with him, it had been impossible to escape his taunting amber gaze. She’d no intention of approaching him to loiter meekly at his shoulder, waiting for an opportunity to interrupt.
On passing over the threshold into the dining room she glanced over her shoulder, and her heartbeat quickened as his eyes clashed on hers. She felt a burst of elation that had nothing to do with being a step closer to carrying out her father’s task. She’d experienced similar excitement years ago, when she’d easily lured his attention every time she quit or entered a room.
Turning her head, Bea carried on towards the buffet table—but not before she’d noticed him concealing his private smile with a sliding forefinger.