The Rake's Ruined Lady - Page 41

‘Perhaps...’ Hugh walked back towards the bed, glad that Gwen was coming to accept, without too much recrimination, that their relationship was coming to an end. Of course ordinarily he’d have enjoyed her charms for longer than six months. Gwen was a competent mistress: shapely, skilful, passionate...the list of her attributes was almost as long as that of the reasons why he was a confounded idiot for considering forgoing them.

‘I was surprised to see that your friend’s wife has returned to town,’ Gwen mentioned idly, sliding a long fingernail to and fro on Hugh’s breeched thigh, inches from her face. Her eyes slid sideways, watching for his renewed arousal and her victory, but he seemed impervious to her teasing even when she replaced the digit with her moist lips.

‘Why were you surprised? The funeral is over and the viscountess resides mainly in London.’ Hugh strolled to a chair and picked up his gloves.

‘The scandal concerning her poor sister is very absorbing.’ Gwen clutched the sheet to her bosom, sitting up. ‘It’s bizarre that a fellow like Sir Colin would jilt a refined lady to marry that silly girl, don’t you think?’

‘Burnett’s affairs are of no interest to me...’ Hugh raked tidying fingers through his thick hair in front of the pier glass.

‘He is of scant interest to anybody; it is the combatant ladies who will now be gleefully observed at all times.’

‘Ladies?’ Hugh selected the word that interested him, pivoting on a heel towards Gwen.

‘I saw the viscountess in her landau in Hyde Park. With her were an elderly gentleman and a pretty blonde who very much looks like her, although not in the first flush of youth—older, I’d say, by a year or two. Methinks the spinster and her father have come to do battle with the minx and her aunt.’ Gwen felt her breath catching in her throat at a subtle fleeting intensity in his expression. ‘If the viscountess has brought her sister to town do you think sparks might fly when the rivals meet?’

‘Possibly,’ Hugh said, staring sightlessly at his paramour, a mirthless laugh grazing his throat. ‘But not in a way anybody might expect.’

Hugh clattered down the stairs from Gwen’s apartment and out into the street, unheeding of his paramour at the window, watching his dawn departure. He sprang aboard his phaeton, setting the greys to a trot. His mouth twisted in a bitter smile as he brooded that as far as he was concerned the rivals in this game were men, not women.

He was sure Gwen had correctly described seeing the Dewey family out for a drive in the park. If he were arrogant and conceited, as Bea had accused him of being he mocked himself, he’d believe she had followed him to London to become his mistress. But it was closer to the truth to suppose Mr Dewey had come after the doctor for compensation of some sort. Burnett was sure to refuse ceding his birthright for Beatrice, so perhaps the less formal role she’d stated she’d be willing to undertake might be arranged between them.

Hugh knew he could outplay the doctor at every turn at the negotiating table and he was determined to have Beatrice at any cost...

And damn any man who tried to stand in his way.

* * *

‘The old biddies will do their best to extract from you an account of Sir Colin’s betrayal simply to be feted as the first to pass it on. You must refrain from calling him a swine, though he deserves it.’

Beatrice received that blunt advice from Fiona Chapman while the two of them were ascending the magnificent stairway of Lord and Lady Whitley’s townhouse on Devonshire Square. Outwardly Beatrice remained exquisitely cool and calm. Inwardly her heart was racing, while her mouth felt arid and her palms clammy. She moved them inconspicuously against the skirt of her sister’s blue silk gown, borrowed for the occasion.

Elise had stayed at home; her morning sickness had lasted so long she’d finally given up hope of leaving the house, saying she felt too queasy to socialise. Nevertheless she’d insisted Beatrice attend with Aunt Dolly and their friends. The sisters had spent some time—in between spells of Beatrice rubbing the expectant mother’s back while Elise used a china bowl—in selecting a perfect ensemble for Bea’s first social outing since Colin jilted her.

The idea of facing down the stares and whispers had been daunting, but there was undeniable good sense in the advice to thwart the gossips and boost her pride and reputation. So, following her father’s declaration that he’d like to go to London before his aching legs put him in a Bath chair, Beatrice had agreed to the trip.

Earlier that evening, during the ride over to Devonshire Square in the viscount’s coach, her Aunt Dolly had bluntly stated that the wretched doctor might have dreadfully humiliated Beatrice, but it was her niece’s duty not to show it bothered her in the slightest. Bea could not but agree.