Aunt Dolly had reported that tongues were wagging following publication of the doctor’s engagement notice. Inquisitive people had been asking why Sir Colin Burnett favoured a bold hussy, half his age, over her niece. Dolly had made it clear she’d given short shrift to anybody suggesting Beatrice must be distraught by his defection. Dolly had further written that she strongly advised Walter to send Bea to town to scotch such damaging rumours once and for all or his elder girl would be forever pitied and avoided.
‘Aunt Dolly is right, you know.’ Elise pushed the letter across the table so her sister could not help but look at it. Their father had insisted they both read it and discuss if action needed to be taken. ‘Are you going to quash these rumours that you’re hiding away, desolate? Come to Mayfair with me and hold your head high at the best places. That will show them all!’
‘You have not even discussed with your husband about inviting me to stay with you,’ Bea pointed out mildly.
‘Alex always loves to see you, and besides he is quite furious with that rakish—’ Elise bit her tongue. In her enthusiasm to get Bea to London she had almost let slip that her husband’s rage was directed at his best friend rather than Sir Colin Burnett.
Bea frowned. Her sister was now keen to escape her gaze and she could guess why that might be. ‘Oh, please say you haven’t told the viscount that Hugh propositioned me.’ After a tiny silence Bea angrily threw onto the table a half-folded pillowcase.
‘Really, Elise!’ She pushed to her feet. ‘You promised you would not—’
‘I swear I did not betray you!’ Elise interrupted anxiously. ‘Alex could tell I was dreadfully upset after you went home following the funeral and he kept on and on at me for a reason. He thought I might have lost the babe, and that made me even more tearful, so I admitted I was fretting about you. I swear I did not mention Hugh’s name, or the nature of your problem...but Alex guessed in the end, and I confirmed it for I could not lie to him.’
Beatrice pivoted about, white fingers flying to cover her gasp. ‘That’s why Alex went off to London without waiting for you to accompany him!’ she breathed. ‘He’s gone to challenge Hugh over it.’ She could tell from her sister’s forlorn expression that she’d hit on the truth.
‘I honestly did not ask him to, Bea; in fact I tried to make Alex see the sense in calming down before setting off.’
Bea thrust two hands into her silky hair, cupping her scalp. ‘He will think that I acted like a whining child, running to my brother-in-law to complain about him.’
‘Do you care what he thinks?’ Elise asked pithily.
‘Of course not!’ Bea fumed beneath her sister’s arch expression. ‘Well...naturally I do not want him to think me incapable of putting pen to paper to tell him my opinion of him. Neither do I want him believing me cowed. I intended to give the impression that his offer of carte blanche was not worthy of any further attention.’
‘Well, if you don’t want Alex to stand up for you it only remains for you to tell Hugh yourself that his pursuit is most unwelcome and in vain.’ Elise crossed her arms over her middle and sighed. ‘It’ll be sad if Alex and Hugh have fallen out. Hugh can’t be an incorrigible rogue or Alex wouldn’t have been friends with him for so long.’
Bea felt guilty that her brother-in-law might have suffered an unpleasant argument because of her, but she was also exasperated because she’d not asked Alex to champion her.
‘Hugh is probably embarrassed to have overstepped the mark with you, yet won’t admit it. I’ll wager he’s already lined up a more suitable candidate.’
‘If that is supposed to make me feel better, Elise...’ Bea was torn between laughter and annoyance.
‘It is supposed to make you feel like damning the lot of them!’ Elise fell silent as their father entered the room.
‘For a lady, you cuss like a navvy.’ Walter was not averse to chastising his daughters, no matter their ages or the fact that the younger outranked him.
‘Sorry, Papa,’ Viscountess Blackthorne said meekly.
Walter pointed to his sister’s letter, a gleeful smile spreading across his face. ‘So, this woman Sir Colin must marry is a cheap flirt! Hah! Just what he deserves! I’ve a mind to go to town and tell him so!’
‘Why do you not, Papa?’ Elise suggested. She had not thought her father would undertake the journey, but he seemed fired up enough to do it.
‘I might...yes, I might...and while I’m at it I’ll ask the skinflint where my compensation has got to.’