He assessed Bea’s thoughtful expression.
‘You’re wondering why I didn’t make it home yesterday, in that case.’
Bea nodded, aware of his eyes roving her flushed complexion, making her wonder if mud had flown up from Molly’s hooves to dirty her face as well as her hands.
‘I found I didn’t want to go home, Beatrice. I wanted to stay here for a while longer...’
Beatrice turned away, then bent down to dip her fingers into the cold water, sluicing off the soil stains. If he thought she’d ask him if he’d returned to see her, he was mistaken. She’d no intention of giving him an opportunity to scoff on that score.
‘Elise is worried Alex will pine for his mama as he has no brothers or sisters.’ She sent that over a shoulder before standing and drying her hands on her skirt.
‘Siblings can be more of a burden than a support.’ Hugh joined her on the bank of the stream.
Bea glanced at his harsh, chiselled features. She was sorry that he felt that way, considering how close she was to her beloved Elise. Hugh had a sister and a brother, and she wondered to which he’d referred when making that damning comment about his kin.
Curiosity loosened her tongue. ‘Are you not a close family?’
‘I visit my mother regularly, but my sister only rarely now she’s settled in the shires with her husband. We have no quarrel with one another.’ A chuckle grazed his throat. ‘Which is remarkable, considering how Sarah has tested my patience and my pocket in the past.’
‘And Sir Toby?’ Bea asked after a short silence.
‘The less I see of him the better I like it,’ Hugh replied. He jammed his fists into his pockets, turning his head to gaze out over the fields. ‘He is an unpleasant character and I would advise anybody to steer clear of him. My aunt Edith couldn’t abide him, so she said.’
Beatrice sensed the soft clod beneath her feet giving way and scrambled backwards. Hugh grabbed at her whirling hand, jerking her away from the water and to safety higher up the bank.
He didn’t immediately relinquish her and Bea made no effort to wriggle her fingers free of his warm grip. She blushed beneath the golden gaze she sensed scorching the top of her head, finally liberating herself with murmured thanks for his assistance. She was determined not to give the impression of being susceptible to his polished charm. And he was very attractive...more so than when she’d fallen in love with him...she grudgingly acknowledged while darting him a glance.
He had the height and dark good-looks that appealed to women and made lesser-blessed fellows resentful. He also now had the wherewithal to purchase expensive tailoring to enhance his broad shoulders... Beatrice abruptly curtailed her wild appreciation. It was now nothing to her how handsome his face, or how snug his clothes! But she could understand why women everywhere—even in exotic locations—might succumb to him...
‘I have been remiss in not offering you my condolences,’ Beatrice uttered briskly, in order to curb her annoying preoccupation with his attractiveness. ‘I had no idea that your aunt Edith had passed away till recently.’ She started to walk along the bank. ‘Elise told me the sad news when she came to Hertfordshire. I liked Mrs Vickers, although I spoke to her only a few times when in London.’
It had been during that particular sojourn in town three years ago that she had met Hugh Kendrick and almost disgraced herself with him.
With hindsight Beatrice was aghast at what she’d done. Why she had ever thought it a good idea to adopt the soubriquet Lady Lonesome when advertising for a husband in a gazette, or to arrange clandestine trysts with strangers to select her mate, she would never fathom. She’d matured in character since, with Colin’s staid influence, she was sure. But the memory of what she’d risked—and forced her younger sister to risk as her reluctant accomplice—horrified her.
Bea was very fortunate that her antics had not completely sullied her future and her family’s name, already tarnished by her parents’ divorce. Few people had ever been aware of her stupid scheme; the man at her side had known because he’d responded to her advert. As a lure she’d pretended to possess a dowry and Hugh Kendrick had been eager to lay claim to it, if not to her...
‘Ah...I do recall you first met my aunt and me at Vauxhall Gardens. You were attending a concert with your sister and the Chapman family.’
Hugh sounded as though he’d dredged up the details from the pit of his memory while strolling at her side. In fact he’d not forgotten a solitary thing about that first encounter. Neither had he forgotten that he’d replied to Lady Lonesome’s advertisement because of Toby’s refusal to loan him money to pay his rent and keep a roof over his head.