‘Please don’t... I...’ She finally listened to the inner voice protesting wildly at her behaviour. She sensed he might dip his head and kiss her while she acted like a mindless idiot enthralled by his touch. And at such a time and place as a wake! Despite her chagrin she felt unable to physically move away from him and raised her eyes to beseech him for leniency.
As Hugh withdrew his fingers in a slow stroking movement Bea expelled a breath, darting glances hither and thither, relieved that people were still too preoccupied with the storm to have noticed their indecent intimacy.
Hugh took the plate from Bea’s shaking hand. ‘I’m glad I wasn’t responsible this time for giving you the jitters...or was I?’ he challenged.
In a moment he was resuming their conversation as though nothing had happened, although Bea felt strangely light-headed.
‘As you seem reluctant to help me prepare for a chastisement, let me stab a guess at the bee in your father’s bonnet.’ He paused before asking abruptly, ‘Did you tell him what was in Fiona’s letter?’
‘Of course...’ Bea replied after a second spent wondering how he could change so quickly from charmer to interrogator.
‘Ah...so I imagine I’m about to be told to mind my own business where Colin Burnett is concerned.’ Hugh’s moulded mouth slanted sardonically.
‘Actually, you are wrong,’ Bea answered, flustered, because just as she’d been recovering her equilibrium he had again upset it. He had a knack of being too forthright for comfort. It was something else he’d acquired along with his money, she was sure, but she wouldn’t be intimidated by it any more than she’d allow his practised philandering to steal her composure. ‘It is I who would ask...insist...you do that. My father, on the other hand, seemed pleased to hear about your uninvited interference in my affairs.’
Bea stared pointedly at his imprisoning arm until lazily he removed it from where it had been propped against the wall. She took immediate advantage of her liberation and carried on towards her father, forcing herself to a leisurely pace so it would not seem she was cravenly taking flight.
* * *
‘Papa seems in good spirits.’ Elise sipped tea following this observation.
‘I think he has sunk rather too far into good spirits.’ Bea put down her bone china cup.
The sisters were side by side on a window seat and had been watching fat clouds travelling over the insipid sky through the square-paned glass. They had turned their attention to their father, still huddled on the sofa by the fire, now with a group of male companions. By his side on the velvet upholstery was the Duke of Rodley. His grace had been topping up Walter’s glass with his fine cognac for at least fifteen minutes while gregariously holding court. Opposite, in a wing chair, sat Hugh Kendrick, also with a replenished brandy balloon and an air of indolent interest in the duke’s conversation. Just moments ago Alex had also joined the gentlemen. He was leaning on the back of the sofa while, at the duke’s insistence, partaking of his late mother’s favourite tipple.
A cosy atmosphere had descended on the drawing room. Most of the guests who lived locally had departed, keen to get home since the storm had blown south. Others, with long journeys in front of them, had taken up the Blackthornes’ offer of accommodation at the Hall while the roads remained bad.
Hugh Kendrick had not bowed to Alex’s insistence that he stay because it would be madness to risk life and limb in such abominable weather. He planned to get going before dusk, much to his host’s disgust.
‘I think I shall go and see Adam before dinnertime.’ Elise found it difficult to spend long periods apart from her little boy.
‘Dinner?’ Bea choked a laugh. ‘I have eaten very well already, Elise.’
‘Oh, the gentlemen will expect their dinner; and their port and cigars,’ Elise declared ruefully, thinking of her husband’s predilection for a smoke and a drink when they had male company. ‘Will you come with me and say goodnight to Adam?’
‘I shall peek at him in the nursery later,’ Bea promised. ‘For now I shall keep the ladies company.’ With a nod she indicated the elderly women she’d seen drying their eyes in the hall earlier. Bea had been introduced to them and recalled that the silver-haired individual with a remarkably hooked nose was called Lady Groves. On her black satin bosom was pinned a huge mourning brooch. The name of the other lady had momentarily escaped Beatrice’s mind.
‘Lady Groves came in her brother’s stead as he is poorly,’ Elise informed her helpfully. ‘My mother-in-law was Lord Mornington’s chère amie for a very long time. He is heartbroken to lose Susannah and it has made him quite ill.’