‘It’s odd for my father-in-law to call Elise home.’ Alex finally stirred himself to answer while standing up. The last time his wife had been summoned in such a way Beatrice had sent word because their father had fractured his collarbone in a fall. Naturally Walter had wanted to have both his beloved daughters by his side...just in case the injury had proved fatal.
‘Do you think some harm might have again befallen him?’
‘Walter wrote the letter himself, so I doubt he’s bedridden.’ Alex shrugged. ‘It’s probably all about Beatrice’s wedding day. Elise is matron of honour...’ He grimaced bewilderment at the workings of the female mind.
Hugh glanced up to find his friend’s eyes on him. ‘Yes...perhaps it’s just about the wedding,’ he muttered, resuming buttoning his cuffs.
‘You don’t ask about Beatrice any more.’ Alex began adjusting his cravat in the mantel glass now Hugh had left the space free.
‘Does she ask about me?’ Hugh countered, picking up his jacket and pegging it on a finger over a muscular shoulder. He preceded his friend towards the door.
They were heading towards the top of the stairs before Alex answered. ‘You can’t blame Beatrice for wanting to forget all about you after the way you behaved.’
Hugh’s mouth tilted sardonically. ‘Indeed...so it seems a bit pointless asking about her, doesn’t it?’ He plunged his hands into his pockets. ‘A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then...’
‘And for you...most of it flowed in India...’ Alex remarked dryly.
‘So it did...’ Hugh said in a similar vein. ‘I hope everything goes well on the big day.’
He moved ahead of Alex, descending the stairs at quite a speed.
On reaching the cool marble vestibule of Hugh’s grand town house the friends waited for the butler to announce that the curricle had been brought round. A moment later they clattered down the stone steps, then stopped to exchange a few words before going their separate ways.
‘Come along to Epsom with us if you’re kicking your heels. You might back a few winners and cheer yourself up by raising your bank balance.’ Hugh was speaking ironically; he knew very well that his friend’s accounts were in no need of a boost. It was his spirits that were flagging.
The startling change in his own fortunes still gave Hugh cause to smile inwardly. Just two years ago he’d had reason to watch carefully every penny he spent. Now he could purchase a stable of prized Arabs and watch them race at Epsom—or anywhere else—if that was his whim. Yet Hugh realised that his enthusiasm for a day out with his favourite mistress was waning and he felt oddly deflated.
‘You expect me to play gooseberry to you and the lovely Gwen?’ Alex scowled. ‘I don’t think I will, but thanks for asking.’ He clapped a hand on Hugh’s shoulder. ‘See you in White’s later in the week, I expect.’
‘It’s a bit late to let Gwen down with an excuse.’ Hugh sounded irritated by his conscience.
‘Quite right...keep the lady happy,’ Alex mocked.
Gwen Sharpe was a celebrated Cyprian known to select as lovers affluent gentlemen who could provide her with the finer things in life. Hugh certainly fitted the bill, following a bizarre stroke of luck that had made him one of the wealthiest men in the country.
‘I’ll be back before ten tonight. Do you fancy a visit to the Palm House to cure your boredom?’ Hugh called over a shoulder as he approached the kerb to take the curricle’s reins from his tiger.
Alex snorted a laugh. ‘I’m a married man...are you trying to get me hung?’
Hugh shook his head in mock disgust. ‘You’re under the thumb...that’s what you are.’
‘And I’ll willingly remain there...’ Alex returned, grinning.
The Palm House was a notorious den of iniquity where gambling and whoring went hand in hand. Men of all classes—from criminals to aristocracy—could be found mingling in its smoky environment from midnight till gone daybreak. At early light the club would spew forth its clientele, the majority of whom would stagger off with sore heads and empty purses.
Hugh set the greys to a trot, wishing he could shake off the feeling that he’d sooner return home than go to Epsom with Gwen. His mistress was beautiful and beguiling, if gratingly possessive at times. Any man would want to spend time with her... And yet Hugh, for a reason that escaped him, wanted solitude to reflect on a romance that had long been dead and buried. The woman he’d loved three years ago was now about to become another man’s bride, so what purpose would be served by brooding on what might have been?