Not wanting to draw further attention to them, Bea allowed her hand to skim his fine suiting as they followed Jago and Verity through the throng.
‘Isn’t that Sir Toby over there, Hugh?’ Fiona tapped Hugh’s arm to draw his attention. ‘I’ve not seen your brother in an age.’
‘You’re fortunate, then,’ Hugh returned dryly, barely glancing at Toby. ‘I wish I could say the same.’
‘I’m sure he’s not as bad as you would have us believe,’ Fiona reproved, chuckling. ‘I see that Toby has his fiancée with him for a change. Katherine rarely accompanies him anywhere.’
‘She’s a sensible girl and probably escapes him when she can.’
‘Hugh! How can you be so mean? The poor thing would not agree to marry a man she dislikes.’
‘Have you heard the wedding might be off?’ Fiona whispered, aghast, as she flicked a glance at the couple.
‘I couldn’t possibly make a comment,’ Hugh muttered.
He’d been told yesterday in White’s that Katherine’s father had had enough of his future son-in-law’s ways. Toby was indiscreet with his paramours, but Hugh reckoned it was more likely to be his brother’s wheedling for money that had finally made Mr Lowell reconsider the wisdom of allying his family with such a character. Hugh sympathised with the man’s predicament and only wished he could just as easily make a break with his brother.
‘Another failed engagement...’ Fiona murmured, then glanced apologetically at Bea for her thoughtless remark.
Bea had been aware of their conversation flowing back and forth and was feeling rather ambivalent. Once upon a time she’d been able to enjoy Hugh’s company, and had laughed and joked with him in the way her friend was now doing.
The fingers she’d placed on his arm curled against her palm as she realised she envied the easy intimacy the couple shared. Hugh had courted Fiona for longer than he had her, and Bea wondered if her friend had yearned for his teasingly tender kisses and caresses never to end, as she had...
‘I see my aunt Dolly is beckoning me.’ Bea hastily stepped away, hoping that putting distance between them would drive such maddening thoughts from her head.
She’d not lied; Dolly had been gesturing, trying to catch her eye.
‘I shall keep my aunt company for a while or she will sulk.’
Weaving a path towards Dolly, Bea was aware of many pairs of eyes following her progress. On coming level with groups of people she heard the whispering fade, only to resume the moment she had passed by.
‘Take no heed,’ Dolly said, glaring at a woman who seemed particularly intent on gawping at her niece. ‘You are doing very well indeed. Hugh Kendrick does not give his attention to many young ladies in the way he does to you.’ Her eyes bolted to one side. ‘See—the doctor and his fiancée are looking quite forlorn, all alone over there.’ She clucked her tongue in disgust. ‘Of course Lord Whitley hovers around, but we all know why that is!’
‘I don’t...’ Bea replied, genuinely puzzled.
‘The little wanton is always making eyes at him, even if he is old enough to be her grandfather and his wife is close by.’
Beatrice glanced over to see that indeed Colin and his female companions did appear to have been abandoned by all but an elderly fellow she now knew to be their host.
‘Oh, she is the girl’s aunt.’ Dolly anticipated Bea’s query about the middle-aged woman by Stella’s side.
‘Miss Rawlings is pretty,’ Bea said quietly, having made a quick assessment of her child-like successor. ‘Her hair is an unusual colour.’
‘Nothing like as fair and glossy as yours, that’s for sure,’ Dolly sniffed.
Beatrice felt compelled to once more peek at those tumbling red locks...until she noticed Colin watching her. She dragged her eyes away, unexpectedly pitying him. He looked miserable, yet she’d expected him to seem proud of his new status and his young bride-to-be.
Lord Whitley had ambled away, leaving the trio quite isolated, and on impulse Bea started towards Colin, hesitantly at first but then with increasing confidence. She didn’t falter even when her Aunt Dolly guessed her purpose and followed her for a few steps, hissing at her to halt. Neither did she waver on becoming aware that the hum of conversation in the room was receding.
Everybody present was watching her, Bea realised. Still she carried on, till her steady, graceful pace brought her to stand in front of the newly betrothed couple.
‘Hello, Sir Colin.’ It was a level greeting, if lacking in warmth. ‘I hope you have been well since we last spoke.’