The Rake's Ruined Lady - Page 42

Glancing over a shoulder, Bea received a bright smile and a little wave from Aunt Dolly, coming up the stairs just behind them. Despite a tilting stomach that Bea was sure made her feel as sick as her poor sister, she inched up her chin and went with Fiona towards the hum of conversation issuing from the assembly.

‘It is a shame Elise is not with us,’ Fiona whispered. ‘She has perfected the art of batting back a snide remark.’

Bea choked a giggle and put a silk-gloved finger to her lips to hush such talk in case it was overheard.

‘That’s the spirit!’ Fiona hissed. ‘Keep smiling—it will confound them all.’

On entering the brightly lit drawing room Lady Groves and Mrs Woodley sailed immediately in their direction.

‘How very nice to see you again, my dear. We heard you had come to town and hoped you might attend this evening.’ Lady Groves glanced over Bea’s shoulder. ‘Is the viscountess not with you?’

‘My sister is indisposed, ma’am,’ Bea replied.

‘ I was right...’ Gloria gave her companion a nod. ‘The viscountess looks to be blooming because she is increasing again, Mary.’

Bea started to attention and gulped down a spontaneous denial. Only very close friends and family were aware of the good news. ‘I...I beg you will not say that, madam, as it is’ Bea fell short of telling an outright lie, yet neither could she hint at the truth before her sister and brother-in-law thought it the right time to make an announcement. ‘Elise is in mourning for her mother-in-law...’ Bea blurted, having just remembered the recent funeral.

Lady Groves patted Bea’s fingers. ‘Of course...I understand; that was naughty of me.’

‘Ah...I see that Mr Kendrick has just arrived,’ Fiona burst out, keen to change the subject lest Beatrice tried to flee after such an inauspicious start.

Though feeling compelled to do so, Bea didn’t turn about. She knew her first glimpse of him would increase the weakness in her knees and make her insides again lurch painfully. She’d come here with Elise’s assurances that Hugh wouldn’t be interested in such tame entertainment. A meeting with the fiancé who’d abandoned her she was prepared for...but a run-in with the dangerous philanderer who wanted to sleep with her was too much...

‘Gracious! Whatever has brought him here tonight?’ Gloria Groves gushed behind her fan, endorsing Elise’s idea that Hugh was likely to shun the Whitleys’ invitation. ‘My...but doesn’t he look handsome?’

‘He always does, Gloria.’ Mary sounded resigned to admiring him. ‘Perhaps he is here to take advantage of the viscount’s absence now they no longer like one another,’ she suggested.

Lady Groves frowned at her companion. It was well known that the two gentlemen had fallen out, but the cause of the argument had yet to break surface. ‘That was not kind, Mary. Miss Dewey is present and she is the viscount’s relative.’

Mary looked suitably chastened and blinked behind her fan’s ivory sticks.

‘There is that little madam with her future husband.’ Lady Groves had been distracted just as she’d been about to probe Miss Dewey for a hint as to why the viscount and Mr Kendrick had taken exception to one another. Elevating her hooked nose, Gloria peered down it at the new arrivals, then deliberately turned back to Beatrice. ‘Don’t worry, my dear. We are your friends. Disgraceful conduct. Don’t know how Sir Colin has got the nerve to flaunt that hussy.’

‘You are kind...’ Bea rattled off, feeling light-headed with suppressed hysteria. ‘Oh, I see Jago and Verity are here.’ She indicated Fiona’s sister and brother-in-law, some distance away. ‘Shall we join them?’

As the two young women walked away Bea tried to still her racing heart, but gave an involuntary little gulp of dismay.

‘You’re trembling, Bea.’ Fiona immediately linked arms with her in concern. ‘You must not let him unsettle you so! I could throttle the brute,’ she muttered with asperity.

‘Which one?’ Bea returned on a sob of a laugh.

‘Burnett, of course,’ Fiona said, glancing at Bea. ‘Did you have another man in mind?’

‘Shall we just take a breath of air on the terrace before joining your sister?’ Bea asked, glad when Fiona immediately complied and steered her in the direction of the breeze.

Once on the flags, Bea approached the railings and curled her warm fingers on cold iron, closing her eyes and breathing deeply to still her panic.

‘It is as well he has turned up,’ Fiona said gently. ‘I know it is dreadfully hard for you, my dear, especially when he has Miss Rawlings with him. But you can show once and for all that neither of them has the better of you.’