‘Poor man...’ Bea murmured.
‘Lady Groves and Susannah were friends; they were about the same age, I believe, and were widowed at about the same time. Mary Woodley, Lady Groves’s companion, lost her husband in the Peninsular wars.’
After Elise had gone off to the nursery Bea settled in a wingchair adjacent to the ladies with a cheerful, ‘The clouds are fast moving away, thank goodness.’
‘I shall be glad to set off home tomorrow if the water on the roads has drained away.’
Mary Woodley was a lesser mortal than her noble benefactress in the eyes of polite society. But Lady Groves saw her companion as her equal and treated her as such, despite her friend’s impoverishment. She also treated Mary to those things she could not afford to purchase for herself, due to her subsisting on her late husband’s meagre army pension.
‘I’d rather stay here a while longer, Mary, so flooding doesn’t bother me.’ Lady Groves’s greedy black gaze roved her sumptuous surroundings. ‘It is the first time I have visited Blackthorne Hall but my brother told me it was a wonderful sight.’
‘But what about the Whitleys’ musicale, Gloria?’ Mary mildly complained. ‘I do not want to miss that in case that flibbertigibbet turns up with her aunt, causing us all to gawp at her. Very strange behaviour...very strange indeed.’
‘I heard that Miss Rawlings wasn’t even officially invited to the Clemences’ that evening.’ Lady Groves tutted at such vulgar conduct as gatecrashing. ‘Country bumpkins!’
‘Miss Rawlings?’ Beatrice echoed faintly, too shocked at hearing her rival’s name to take umbrage at Lady Groves’s all-encompassing insult to people like herself who hailed from the shires.
‘I doubt you would know her my dear.’ Lady Groves patted at Bea’s fingers, tightly curled on her lap. ‘She is a gel about eighteen and new to town—from the Yorkshire area, we believe, don’t we, Mary? She is out this year and is being chaperoned by her aunt. Nobody knows much about them, you see...but the bold chit seems determined to change that.’
But I think I might know about her... The words rotated in Bea’s head but she managed to keep them from tripping off her tongue. It seemed these two ladies were ignorant of her being jilted, and therefore didn’t know that the ‘bold chit’ they spoke about had stolen her fiancé.
‘Dolly Pearson told me that the aunt says her charge is secretly engaged.’ Mary was pop-eyed while giving this news.
Lady Groves snorted her wordless opinion on that. ‘If Miss Rawlings does have a fiancé I’ll wager the fellow is unaware of her flirting.’ She inclined forward to whisper, ‘I saw her fluttering her eyelashes at...’ She left the sentence unfinished but her eyes darted sideways to where the gentlemen were grouped. ‘If she thinks she has a chance of snaring him she’ll be sorely disappointed.’
‘No respectable young lady has a hope of catching Hugh Kendrick’s eye,’ Mary scoffed behind the fingers fluttering in front of her lips. ‘He has no interest in debutantes, no matter how irresistible they find him.’
‘No wonder he’s oblivious to decent gels with those two doxies fighting over him. Then there’s the shocking other business to keep him occupied...’ Lady Groves rumbled.
‘Other business...?’ Bea echoed the phrase back at the woman.
Lady Groves looked extremely discomfited by her slip, but nevertheless patted again at Bea’s fingers before attempting to change the subject.
‘Is Mr Kendrick a villain?’ Bea insisted on knowing, and received a shocked look from Mary Woodley at such impertinence as cross-examining Lady Groves.
‘You are a sweet innocent and need not know the details of a gentleman’s behaviour when he is freed from the restraints of a civilised society...’ Lady Groves said, fingering her throat in embarrassment.
‘I assure you I am not about to swoon on hearing that Mr Kendrick has female friends.’ Bea realised she sounded vulgarly inquisitive, and very unladylike, but she couldn’t help herself. She craved to know more.
‘Miss Rawlings and her aunt did leave the Clemences’ early with a gentleman but I’ve no idea who he was,’ Mary burst out, returning to gossip she deemed more seemly. ‘I was coming out of the retiring room and saw the trio suddenly disappearing down the stairs.’
‘I didn’t see the fellow, but possibly he was her father, come to take her home before she disgraced herself,’ Lady Groves sniffed.
‘He seemed far too young for that, Gloria!’ Mrs Woodley disagreed. ‘Perhaps Dolly might know who he was. She seems to find out everything first, though I doubt she spotted the fellow either, for his arrival and departure seemed as one.’