Colin ran a finger inside his tightening collar. ‘I’ve been very well, Miss Dewey, thank you,’ he croaked. ‘And you have been well?’
Beatrice inclined her head in answer, smiling at him to put him at ease as his eyes darted hither and thither like a trapped animal. Bea turned her attention to the women, noticing that the younger appeared careless of her arrival. Bea guessed that Stella hadn’t been told the whole story...or perhaps she felt secure enough of her hold over her future husband not to care that a short while ago he had professed to love and want to marry another.
‘Are you not going to introduce me to your fiancée?’
‘Of course... Stella, this is Miss Dewey. We were once...’ Colin’s words tailed away, confirming Bea’s idea that Stella had been ignorant of her existence.
Bea held out a hand and Stella took it, rather lazily, with the hand that sported a garnet engagement ring. Bea wondered if Miss Rawlings had done it deliberately, to flaunt in her face that she now possessed the gem that her predecessor once had proudly worn. But Bea got the impression that the girl’s attitude was prompted by boredom and a lack of breeding rather than rivalry.
‘Margaret Monk is my name.’ The middle-aged woman spoke before Colin had time to make an introduction, and barely touched Bea’s fingers before dropping them.
‘The weather is changeable today, don’t you think?’ The formalities over, Bea made conversation to cover the ensuing awkwardness.
They remained under observation, although a rumble of voices had now lightened the depressing silence. Enduring a few more minutes with her ex-fiancé and his future wife would achieve her purpose. The worst of the excruciating exercise was over and quiet contentment bathed Bea, because this meeting with Colin had stirred little emotion other than her sympathy for him.
She could tell from the intensity of his gaze that he would like to speak privately to her, and indeed she would like to speak to him, too. He owed her father an amount of money that he had promised to repay. Beatrice thought it mean of him to hold on to it now he had bettered himself, and at the first opportunity she would tell him so.
‘We were saying it might storm,’ Colin burst out, when it seemed neither of his companions was going to bother herself with chitchat. Reassured that she had not approached to make trouble, but rather the reverse, Colin gazed at Bea with eyes glowing with gratitude.
‘There’ll be a storm... Oh, indeed there will...’ The look passing between Stella’s future husband and his past love had made Maggie Monk’s blood boil. Stella might not know that Miss Dewey had almost got Sir Colin to the altar, but she did. She gave Beatrice a frosty smile. ‘I think a lady is trying to catch your eye, my dear.’
‘Ah...my aunt...Mrs Pearson...is accompanying me this evening.’ Beatrice stepped away, aware that Mrs Monk had dismissed her and that Colin had allowed it. Stella, on the other hand, seemed as uninterested in her farewell as she had in her greeting. The young woman was sliding coy peeks at her elderly admirer, observing the scene from a distance.
‘Well? What did he say? What did you say?’
A barrage of garbled questions met Beatrice when she was once more at her aunt’s side.
‘I...I think our meeting went well,’ Bea answered, smiling slightly on realising she’d spoken the truth. ‘At least the expectancy is over for everybody. Miss Dewey and Miss Rawlings have come face to face and then civilly parted without attempting to scratch out each other’s eyes.’
‘Very disappointing for one and all, I’m sure,’ Dolly sniffed. ‘Never mind that; what did the doctor say? He could not take his eyes from you, Beatrice...puppy dog eyes they were too.’
‘I’m sure Colin was pleased I’d attempted to clear the air...once he’d got over the shock of me confronting them like that.’
‘He looked more than pleased to me!’ Dolly smoothed her neck with restless fingers, peering askance to ascertain whether the doctor was still watching Bea. ‘He looks like a man who knows he’s just lost a sovereign and found a shilling.’
* * *
She was a bold chit—Hugh had to give her that. He had been aware of Stella Rawlings behind him from the moment he’d stepped into the Whitleys’ gaming room. In fact, if he’d not dismissed the notion as being unworthy of consideration, he’d have believed her dogging his footsteps. She’d shaken off Lord Whitley and her fiancé, and seemed irked that her aunt was sticking close to her as she sashayed to and fro, tossing her red curls.
Hugh despised Colin Burnett, but in his estimation the fellow at least deserved some moral support from this young woman, considering he was taking criticism on her account. Stella Rawlings was obviously thick-skinned; she’d observed him eject Colin from the Clemences’ house so knew they were at loggerheads, yet it didn’t seem to bother her. She was attempting to flirt with him, although Hugh had shown no interest in her that night or this.