Bea was kitted out in sturdy boots and one of her sister’s riding habits, with a hat sitting jauntily on her fair tresses. As she jumped a puddle, one hand on the brim to prevent her hat flying off, she felt inexplicably joyful, considering the ordeals of the last few weeks. Others might pity her, and think there was little in her life to celebrate, yet Beatrice was determined that failed love affairs would never crush her while she had Elise and her papa close by. And her little family was expanding all the time: yesterday, after dinner, when the gentlemen had taken port and cigars, and Lady Groves and Mary Woodley had settled down in the drawing room to play cards, Elise had quietly confided to Bea that she suspected Adam might soon have a little brother or sister.
While pondering on the lovely idea of a little niece to cherish alongside Adam, Bea realised being a spinster aunt held a certain warm appeal. Vigorously she brushed a splash of mud from the fine cloth of her sister’s bottle-green skirt. The viscountess had a collection of the most exquisite silks and satins stitched by feted modistes and would press on Bea any garment she might praise—not simply to borrow, but to keep. Bea understood the sweetness behind Elise’s generosity but rarely accepted such lavish gifts, quipping that there was little need for pearl-encrusted ball gowns in her neck of the woods.
Having traversed a courtyard, Bea glimpsed the stables situated beyond a walled physic garden. As she approached the neat shrubs and plants some of her child-like delight at being up early on this fresh new morning dwindled. The sight of the herbs had reminded her of Colin. His work as a doctor had necessitated him knowing about natural remedies for ailments and Bea had taken an interest in the healing powers of plants too.
Her fingers brushed against rosemary spikes, filling her nostrils with a pungent perfume. Suddenly she crouched down, unable to pass by without touching the velvety leaves of lady’s mantle, cradling their watery jewels. The image of tiny diamonds jolted her upright, thinking of another gentleman who had the power to disturb her peace of mind.
She marched briskly on, trying to shake off the unwanted memory of Hugh’s degeneracy. Mulling the secret scandal over in private, she’d guessed, from Lady Groves’s hint, that it had occurred abroad, and that Hugh’s investment in India held the clue to the outrage he’d committed. When she’d joined Elise in the nursery yesterday she’d asked her sister—quite casually—if she could shed any light on the matter alluded to by Lady Groves. The viscountess had given a little shrug, reminding Bea that Hugh was a notorious rake and saying that she doubted he’d remain celibate just because he was on foreign soil.
Bea had already arrived at the same conclusion: the idea of Mr Kendrick having foreign affairs, as well as a few closer to home, had probably sent the elderly ladies into a tizz...but it certainly didn’t surprise her.
Of course Bea knew the only way to find out for sure what it was all about was to ask him...and she’d no intention of doing that! Why would she bother when she didn’t care a jot what he got up to...?
‘You’re up early, Beatrice.’
‘So...so are you, sir.’ Bea had swivelled about and automatically stuttered a reply, despite her amazement at seeing the very person who’d been intruding on her thoughts.
Hugh was emerging from the first stall she’d passed, leading a large chestnut horse. ‘Are you riding alone?’
‘I am... Elise told me last night she would not stir herself before ten o’clock. She and Alex often like to lie in...’ Bea cleared her throat, wishing she’d kept her answer brief.
‘I’m sure they do...’ Hugh muttered, glancing at the house.
‘I thought you would by now be in London,’ Bea blurted, unable to curb her curiosity at his reappearance.
‘I’m sorry to disappoint you,’ Hugh drawled. ‘But it was foolish of me to suppose I’d get even as far as Enfield last night. Half the road had been washed away by the flooding so I turned back after a couple of miles.’
Bea found the idea of him, unbeknown to her, sleeping beneath the same roof rather disquieting. And if he had returned to the house he hadn’t joined them at dinner yesterday. ‘You stayed at the Hall last night after all?’
‘I was tempted to,’ he said huskily. ‘Too tempted...’ he muttered at the leather he was tightening on the chestnut’s flanks. ‘I put up at the Red Lion instead.’
His tawny eyes ran over her smart figure and returned quizzically to her lovely face. He was too polite to voice the obvious: that she was dressed in her sister’s expensive finery. Bea’s gloved fingers adjusted the tailored jacket; she wasn’t too proud to hide the fact that she wore borrowed clothes. Besides, he already knew her father’s income wouldn’t stretch to such luxuries.