‘Come...if you want to slander me, Beatrice, let me have some details and your source.’
‘But I’ve not slandered you, have I?’ she breathed, removing tendrils of fair hair that a stirring breeze had lashed across her vivid blue vision. ‘That damning description is accurate and could be added to.’
He shrugged, cruelly amused. ‘With a little more information, sweet, I’ll be able to judge.’
The temptation to provoke him into admitting he had dallied with exotic women was too great, and he had invited it. ‘It wouldn’t matter where in the world you were, you’d sooner scandalise decent people than curb your lust.’
‘Ah...I see... It worries you that I might have let my eye rove when in India. You told me you weren’t jealous, Beatrice...’ he goaded, glad that she didn’t seem in possession of any firm facts.
‘I’m not jealous...’ Bea raged.
But he was ready for her fist this time and caught the small curled digits inches from his face. ‘What do you want me to tell you, sweet? All of it?’
‘Get out of my way,’ she choked in frustration and fury.
Her eyes continued sparking blue fire despite the burn of tears making her blink. She’d never win this verbal battle and knew she was close to breaking down so must withdraw from it. She was not jealous or upset in any way because of Hugh Kendrick, of that she was certain! Her distress came from the unpalatable news that Colin might already have eased his conscience where she was concerned. It was hard to bear, especially as he must replace her with a woman who seemed likely to stray—perhaps before they’d even wed.
As a sob raised her bosom, then grazed her throat, Hugh released her and strode away. Gathering the reins of the two horses, he brought them closer to where Beatrice still stood, holding herself rigidly, on the bank of the stream. When she refused to approach he jerked her closer and, without a word, hoisted her atop Molly with such strength that she had to cling to the mare’s neck to prevent herself toppling straight off the other side.
‘My offer of carte blanche stands,’ he said with quiet gravity, gazing up at her steadily, a hand on Molly’s bridle preventing her escape. ‘Perhaps, in the circumstances, you should consider it.’
‘And perhaps you should go to hell!’ Beatrice hissed, slapping wildly at his fingers until he removed them. She set off across the meadow at a gallop, the wind drying her wet face as fast as the brine was falling.
When the Hall was in sight she realised that he had not followed her all the way back. She clattered onto the cobbles of the stable yard and, turning her head, saw him stationed on the brow of the hill, watching her. Involuntarily Bea shivered at his dark, brooding presence outlined against a pale sky. A moment later he’d turned the stallion’s head and was heading fast in the direction of London.
‘You will do as your uncle wished!’
‘I don’t see why I must.’ Stella Rawlings had been pouting at her reflection while fixing a garnet to a small earlobe. Now she swivelled on the dressing stool to give her aunt a sulky look. ‘I’m becoming popular and I’d sooner have my pick of the bachelors than have a husband chosen for me.’ She stood up and approached the mantelpiece to sort through invitations, selecting one. ‘See...the Rutherfords want us to join them in their box at the opera.’
Idly, she waved the parchment. The Rutherfords were close to the heart of the ton and every chaperon wanted her ward to have their patronage.
Apart from Maggie Monk.
The woman stomped closer, snatching the card from Stella’s fingers and tossing it back whence it came. ‘The only reason you’re in demand, my girl, is because you’ve drawn attention from every randy fellow in Mayfair. Bertram Rutherford is rumoured to have at least five bastards.’
Stella flounced to sit on the stool, head tilted to one side while she playfully flicked the eardrop. She’d sooner have had rubies, but at least Colin had bought her a gift to mark the announcement of their betrothal. She twisted the garnet ring on her finger. She’d sooner have had a ruby engagement ring too...but mostly she craved a magnificent diamond...from Hugh Kendrick...
Her grey eyes lifted to her reflection, assessing her features. She knew she wasn’t a conventional beauty: her small snub nose was littered with freckles and her full mouth had a natural droop that made her look dissatisfied even when she wasn’t. She twirled a ringlet about a finger, wishing her hair were golden-blonde rather than flame-red, but gentlemen liked her generous bosom and curvy hips; they also appreciated her brazenness, even if their wives didn’t.