But there had also been the matter of Sophia Sweetman’s expensive tastes depleting his bank balance. Sophia had been under his protection then—until he’d found he couldn’t afford to keep her any longer. Now she was again his paramour, and he was able to give her all she wanted this time round, but Hugh wasn’t sure he wanted Sophia—or Gwen Sharpe for that matter—no matter what delightful tricks they dreamt up to keep his interest and defeat one another. Annoyingly, he knew that the coltish blonde at his side would have no such difficulty arousing him...
Hugh cursed beneath his breath at the direction his thoughts...and his loins...were taking. ‘My aunt liked you,’ he said in a voice roughened by frustration. ‘When you and your sister left town that year and returned to Hertfordshire she lacked your company.’
‘I expect Edith missed having the details of our hasty escape explained to her.’
Beatrice had sensed his irritation. If he were already bored with her company she’d not impose on him longer. She retraced her steps towards Molly, hoping he might offer to assist her in remounting rather than watch her scramble in an ungainly fashion onto the mare’s back.
‘I missed you too.’
‘Did you?’ Beatrice jerked around. ‘You had an odd way of showing it, Mr Kendrick, as I recall.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘I believe you were paying attention to Fiona Chapman before I had unpacked my case in Hertfordshire.’
‘Were you jealous?’
Beatrice whipped a biting glance to his rugged profile but found a denial refused to trip off her tongue.
Slowly he turned his head, his hawk-like eyes trapping her, bringing her to an involuntarily halt.
‘It is a shame you have become arrogant and conceited,’ she whispered. ‘I think I liked you better as a penniless fortune-hunter.’ She marched on, but had covered very little ground when a hand clasped her wrist, jerking her back.
‘And I liked you better when you were a country miss keen to please me.’
‘That silly girl no longer exists.’ Bea twisted her wrist in an attempt to free herself.
‘I think she could be resurrected, given time...’ he growled.
‘And I think you might now be rich, thanks to your aunt’s bequest, but the Indian sun has addled your wits.’ Beatrice forced a fist between them to prise herself away from him.
Hugh grunted a laugh, dipping his head as though he would kiss her. But he skimmed his mouth past her mutinous face, letting her go. ‘Quite possibly something’s addled my wits,’ he muttered, and walked on.
Inwardly he mocked himself for feeling like a randy youth. He’d been burning with desire for her yesterday and only the thought of an audience with her father had checked his lust. If a roomful of mourners at a wake hadn’t put him off pursuing her he knew he should quickly distance himself, in case he lost control while they were alone. He should have gone home yesterday, he realised, and straight to Gwen and a long night of release.
There was nothing to be achieved by wanting her; he was tormenting himself for no reason. Alex would kill him if he seduced his sister-in-law, and Hugh was sure he wasn’t ready for a wife. Inwardly, he mocked himself that if he did propose Beatrice Dewey would throw the offer back at him. But she’d accepted Burnett, and Hugh knew there’d been a suitor before the doctor...
‘Did Mr Vaughan propose to you?’
Beatrice quit gazing at the mud underfoot. ‘Mr Vaughan? How do you know of him?’ she gasped in surprise.
‘Because you told me,’ Hugh replied dryly. ‘Don’t you remember that conversation, Beatrice?’
Bea bit her lip. No doubt when in Hugh’s arms, in a blissful haze, she had confided her secrets to him. Mr Vaughan had been the first gentleman for whom she’d formed a tendresse. The lawyer had pursued her when she was eighteen, then repaid her shy devotion by dropping her like a stone to wed the fiancée he’d omitted to mention.
‘No...he did not propose. Rather like you, he enjoyed flirting while chasing a dowry to make taking on a wife worthwhile.’
Hugh strode back towards her, caught her face in a fierce grip when she avoided looking at him. ‘I told you at the time I was wrong to mislead you when I had nothing to give. If things had been different we would by now have been man and wife. Things for me are different now.’
Beatrice would have pulled back but Hugh caught the tops of her arms, keeping her against him. Oddly, he was calmly certain that whatever he thought he knew about himself, whatever secrets he’d be obliged to expose, he was on the brink of asking her to marry him.
‘Things for me are different now, too,’ Bea retorted, glaring into hard hazel eyes. ‘Once home that year I fell in love properly, with a decent man, and soon realised that I’d felt mere infatuation for you.’