‘Colin has not returned the money you spent on our wedding arrangements?’ Beatrice sat down on the chair opposite her father, looking shocked and concerned.
‘Not all of it,’ Walter confirmed. ‘I would remind the fellow of his promise face to face, as he has ignored my letter.’
* * *
‘So she told you, then...?’ Having voiced this sour response to being hit in the mouth, Hugh touched his bleeding lip. As he picked himself up off his hallway floor he sent his assailant a baleful look
‘She? Are you talking about my wife?’ It was an icy demand.
‘I wasn’t...no...I was talking about Beatrice.’
Alex Blackthorne stalked closer, flexing his sore fingers. He halted on seeing Hugh’s stance altering: his friend was balancing aggressively, preparing to defend himself. Alex might have got in one lucky punch and sent his opponent reeling, but he was certain he wouldn’t manage another. The two men were evenly matched in combat skills and had sparred, fenced and shot at targets together since the age of about twelve.
‘I haven’t seen Beatrice since she went home after the funeral. Elise told me what you’d done. You said you’d leave my sister-in-law alone.’
‘You damn well will!’ Alex thundered. ‘If her father finds out you’ve propositioned her he’ll crawl to town, if necessary, just to shoot you.’
Hugh used the back of his thumb to smear away the blood trickling towards his chin. ‘Don’t tell him, then,’ he said bluntly.
‘That’s it, is it? Don’t tell him?’ Alex mimicked in disgust. He strode to and fro over the marble slabs in Hugh’s palatial hallway. ‘What in damnation’s up with you? You’ve got two willing women set up in London; you’ve got attachments in India you’re not willing to forgo. Still you’re not satisfied!’ Alex roared. ‘How dare you treat Beatrice as though she’s some cheap strumpet—?’
‘I’ve not,’ Hugh coolly interrupted. ‘She can have everything she wants—including all the discretion money can buy.’
‘She can have everything from you but a wedding ring?’
Hugh displayed even white teeth in a soundless laugh. ‘She doesn’t want one.’
That took the wind out of Alex’s sails. He stopped prowling and shot Hugh a dark look. ‘What do you mean by that?’
‘She told me she’d sooner be Burnett’s mistress than my wife.’
Alex continued glaring at Hugh but inwardly his attitude altered. If what Hugh had just said were true it put a whole different light on things. Ruining a virgin spinster was one thing; bidding against somebody else for a self-confessed paramour was another matter entirely. He’d done so himself on many occasions before he’d met Elise.
Alex thrust his fingers through his hair in exasperation, unsure now how to proceed. It was none of his business if Beatrice and the doctor had been lovers, or indeed if she’d succumbed to Hugh all those years ago when they’d been besotted with one another. His sister-in-law had made no complaint of having been ravished at any time.
Alex realised he probably owed his friend an apology, and beneath his breath he groaned at the mess of it all.
‘Actually, if we’re going to come to blows over grievances...’ Hugh approached in a single athletic stride and knocked Alex onto his back with an efficient jab. ‘It was my job to tell Beatrice about Rani. How much does she know about my time in India?’
Alex levered himself up onto an elbow. ‘I haven’t even told my wife about that damned web of deceit!’ he bawled out in his defence.
‘If it wasn’t you or Elise who mentioned a foreign liaison—’
‘It’s bound to have got out,’ Alex interrupted harshly. Your brother knows, after all, and so does Lord Mornington.’ Alex dragged himself upright. ‘You got yourself into the confounded mess so you’ll have to suffer the consequences of being so blasted noble...’
‘Drink?’ Hugh invited acidly. A thumb pointing over his shoulder indicated his study, situated along the corridor. He knew they were both feeling foolish for having swung first and asked questions second.
Hugh knew he was wrong for wanting Beatrice in his bed, but if necessary he’d fight his best friend to have her—because just a single memory of her silky lips slipping beneath his, and her moaning response to his ardour, was enough to send tormenting heat to his loins.
‘Promise me you’ll stay away from my sister-in-law and I’ll take a drink with you.’ Alex feared his terms and his olive branch would be rejected.