‘Elise kindly loaned me one of her habits,’ she said carelessly.
‘And very becoming it is too.’ Hugh fondled the chestnut’s ears soothingly as the stallion continued nudging him to gain attention. ‘Will you accompany Elise to London when she returns there?’
‘No, we are going back to Hertfordshire this afternoon.’
‘The roads will still be hazardous to travel on.’
‘My brother-in-law has given us a good sturdy coach and the driver is skilled. The journey to Berkshire was very comfy despite the potholes.’
Bea was aware that they were politely skirting about the obvious. Much as she wanted to forget him holding her close yesterday, the incident constantly played over in her mind. And she believed he was also brooding on it. A solid heat seemed to be building between them, despite the yard or two of cool atmosphere separating their bodies.
‘Molly, is it, for you, ma’am?’
A young stable lad had poked his head above the door, startling Bea with his question about her choice of ride.
‘Yes...thank you...’ Bea managed a smile for the youth. ‘She suits me very well,’ Bea explained as the ensuing quiet stretched. ‘I always take her out when I visit. I hope she remembers me...’
‘You’re not easy to forget,’ Hugh muttered. ‘You were right in thinking your father wished to thank me yesterday for reminding Burnett of his manners.’
‘Are you hinting I should follow his suit?’ Bea crisply enquired. ‘Because if you are I must disappoint.’ She avoided a pair of preying eyes, glad of the distraction of clopping hooves ringing on cobbles as the ostler led a small dappled horse towards her.
Once the lad had assisted her in mounting the mare Bea felt energised and calmer. She smoothed Molly’s nose, murmuring affectionately as she heard her snicker softly. The opportunity to ride was a great treat for Beatrice; Walter Dewey hadn’t owned any quality horseflesh for many years. In her early teens Bea had shared the use of a pony with Elise and they had both delighted in galloping about under their father’s strict supervision. Then the sisters’ world had crumbled when their mother had abandoned them and their father had bankrupted himself trying to win her back.
Bea had retained a modest skill, despite the intermittence of being in the saddle, and she wanted to savour her morning constitutional. She dipped her head at Hugh in farewell, trotting on towards the beckoning open space off to the south.
‘Do you mind if I join you?’ Hugh had swung easily onto the stallion’s back, bringing his prancing under control within a matter of seconds.
‘Not at all...’ Beatrice called over a shoulder. ‘Don’t feel obliged to try to keep up, though...’
With that bold challenge she prodded her mount into action and Molly sprang forward immediately, covering ground.
As soon as Bea had leapt the small brook that edged the meadow she gave Molly her head. The mare might be small and pretty but she was a wiry little animal, and Bea’s exhilaration soared as stinging air battered her soft cheeks. She laughed softly, racing on, but it was just seconds later that she registered the thud of hooves closing on her. She knew when he reined in to allow her to retain the lead as the drumming rhythm subtly changed tempo. Bea allowed Molly to slow down too, reluctant to appear determined to outpace him in some silly contest. She’d known from the start that docile little Molly was no match for the sleek thoroughbred on her tail.
Having reached the valley where the brook fed a fast-flowing stream, Beatrice slackened the reins so the mare could take a drink and crop grass.
Hugh came to a halt some yards away, then dismounted. He strolled over, wordlessly extending his arms, inviting her to get down.
Bea hesitated, then went to him because she could see he imagined her wary of his touch. And she wasn’t afraid of him. Neither had she any need to be. In an instant he’d lifted her easily, swung her about with giddying speed, then put her down on the turf and walked off.
Feeling flustered by his efficient handling, she wandered towards the water’s edge, glad to stretch her legs, while he tethered the stallion to a branch.
‘He’s a fine beast.’ Beatrice was keen to make conversation. The tense silences between them seemed more awkward than an exchange of barbed remarks. ‘He must be new; I don’t recall seeing Alex ride him.’
‘You brought your own horse with you?’ Bea turned about.
‘I rode him here; I left London quite late and I didn’t want to miss Susannah’s funeral.’ He came slowly closer. ‘Travelling across country is quicker than using a carriage on the roads.’