‘Dr Burnett has gone?’ Beatrice croaked.
‘He has, and with my opinion of him ringing in his ears.’
Beatrice dropped to her knees by her father’s chair and took a dry, withered hand between her soft palms. ‘Please don’t be upset over it, Papa,’ she whispered, fearful for his health. She could hear his laboured breathing and see a greyish circle outlining his lips. ‘My heart will mend...’
‘You have a resilient ticker, then, my love,’ Walter remarked wryly. How many times now has it been broken in two by some fellow?’
Beatrice knew her father was referring to her past romances that had foundered—usually because the gentleman involved had no money and could not afford to get married. How ironic that this time she must remain a spinster because the reverse were true. Her fiancé had recently received his inheritance and with it a demand to jilt her.
‘Had this confounded Sir Donald not died when he did, leaving his odious terms and conditions, you would shortly have been Mrs Burnett.’
Walter gazed levelly at his daughter’s upturned face. Beatrice had always been a beauty; some said she was fairer than her younger sister, who had bagged herself a nobleman three years ago. Walter thought them equally wonderful, in their own ways, although he wished Beatrice resembled her younger sister in one aspect: Elise had chosen to give her heart just the once, and very wisely.
Two previous rogues—besotted by Beatrice’s golden-haired loveliness, Walter was sure—had encouraged his elder girl to think they would propose, then bitten their tongues at the last minute. In both cases it had transpired that they must fortune-hunt for a bride, being penniless.
Out in the sticks and cut off from the cream of polite society he might be, but Walter was cognizant with marriage mart standards: Beatrice’s chances of finding a spouse diminished with every failed romance and every year that passed.
In Walter’s opinion Beatrice was as lovely at twenty-five as she’d been when half a decade younger. Her creamy complexion was smooth and unblemished and her blonde hair appeared as shiny and abundant as it had been when she was a teenager. Her figure was enviably slender, yet curvaceous enough to catch a man’s eye, and her vivacity made people take to her instantly. Yet still his elder girl remained at home with him because he’d never had the means to provide either of his daughters with a dowry.
Elise had married a millionaire who’d stated bluntly that the privilege of marrying Walter’s daughter was payment enough. Unfortunately a similar good and generous fellow had never crossed Beatrice’s path, catching her eye.
Colin Burnett had come closest to walking her down the aisle, and thus Walter despised him the most.
‘Do you think Burnett truthfully had no idea of the clause in his uncle’s will?’
Beatrice gave a little nod. ‘I believe him sincere on that; as for greatly adoring me and never forgetting me, that I now find harder to swallow.’ Her father’s thin fingers closed comfortingly on hers. ‘Did Colin offer to pay back the cash you spent on wedding preparations?’ Bea asked huskily.
‘He did,’ Walter confirmed, bringing his daughter’s hand to his cool lips.
‘It is only fair you are not left out of pocket because of him. You will take what is due to you, won’t you, Papa?’ Beatrice used the heel of her hand on her cheek to remove a trickle of tears.
‘Indeed I shall!’ Walter forcefully concurred. ‘I admit there was a moment when I felt like telling him to take himself and his money off to rot in hell...but I didn’t.’ He rumbled a chuckle. ‘He might be getting off scot-free from a breach of promise suit but he won’t wriggle out of my expenses so easily. Mark my words, my dear, Burnett will get his comeuppance for treating you so shabbily.’
* * *
‘Letters for me?’ Elise Blackthorne jumped up from her dressing table stool as her maid approached, proffering a silver salver.
Excitedly the viscountess rifled through the post, ignoring elegant cards inviting her to society parties, to find what she was looking for. She frowned; it was from Hertfordshire but bore her father’s spidery script rather than her sister’s neat slanting hand.
‘I shall not need you for an hour or so, Maria.’ Before the maid left her bedchamber Elise asked, ‘Is the viscount eating breakfast?’
‘He has gone to the stables, my lady. Shall I send one of the boys to give him a message?’
Elise shook her head, satisfied she would see Alex before he went about his business for the day. She still felt sated from his lovemaking that morning and knew she should get dressed. If he came back to find her in a lacy negligee they might once more tumble onto the silk sheets, limbs entwined. Elise wanted to get to Pall Mall early today because the dressmaker there had recently given her a fitting and she was impatient to see the beautiful blue satin gown she would wear when matron of honour at Bea’s wedding.