‘What is to be done?’ Dolly turned to Hugh for support as Bea dropped her forehead into a hand and used a thumb to smear away the moisture on her lashes.
‘The matter can be rectified,’ Hugh soothed.
He sat down on the opposite side of Bea and immediately she raised her glistening eyes to him. ‘You think your brother is lying? I don’t really owe him that much, do I?’
‘Yes...you do...’ Hugh disabused her. He’d had a muttered confirmation from the banker that the sum was correct. Sir Toby had encouraged Beatrice to engage in cocking—her whole pot of money had been risked on the turn of a card—and then, when she’d had nothing left and had panicked, his fiend of a brother had pretended to help her recoup her losses by loaning her more cash to stake.
‘Papa shall not know of this,’ Bea whispered.
‘Indeed he must!’ Dolly spluttered. ‘However are you to save yourself from ruin if your father does not settle with Sir Toby—?’
‘He shall not know!’ Beatrice interrupted, so forcefully that her aunt shrank back in her seat.
‘You are overwrought, Beatrice, to speak so.’ Dolly sounded miffed and glanced about.
Thankfully most people had had the good manners to exit the room while the crisis was debated by kith and kin. But Dolly knew that by tomorrow every breakfast table would be alive with gossip about Miss Dewey. Beatrice’s good deed in being nice to Miss Rawlings would be overlooked and only the gory details of her misbehaviour picked over.
‘I shall go home now.’ Beatrice slowly gained her feet, but with a strengthening determination shaping her features. Drawing in a deep, inspiriting breath she elevated her chin. ‘If I must run the gauntlet I’d sooner do it right away.’ She felt ashamed that Hugh had witnessed her stupidity. She’d gone against him in trusting his brother when he’d made it clear Sir Toby was a bad character. ‘Thank you for trying to save me by taking my place,’ she whispered.
‘My pleasure...’ He inclined his head.
‘Will you leave with us now?’ Fiona had arrived with them in the viscount’s coach and Beatrice realised she might like a lift home.
‘Indeed I shall not!’ Fiona replied with asperity. ‘I’m going to stay here with Verity and Jago and defend your reputation by telling everybody what a vile monster Sir Toby is!’ Fiona’s cheeks were flushed with anger at what Hugh’s brother had done. ‘I can get a ride home with my family later.’
Verity murmured full-hearted agreement to her sister’s plan. ‘Jago has told me that he feared Sir Toby was playing a dastardly game with you...’
‘It’s a shame he didn’t think to come and tell me,’ Hugh pointed out, in a tone of voice that caused Verity to squirm on her spouse’s behalf.
The little party exited the gaming room, Bea and Dolly escorted by Hugh, and the sisters marching right behind them.
Feeling light-headed with embarrassment, Bea involuntarily gripped tighter to the muscled flesh beneath her fingers, causing Hugh to smile encouragement at her. She snapped her head higher, her eyes steadily on the exit...until she came level with Colin and their gazes merged. His brows were drawn together, making him seem puzzled rather than disapproving. However, Bea noticed that Stella and her aunt looked to be relishing her disgrace.
* * *
‘Is this evening’s blasted bad luck never to end?’ Dolly cried, hands jigging in distress. She peered up and down the road, seeking any sign of a coach bearing the Blackthorne coat of arms.
‘It doesn’t matter that the coach has disappeared,’ Hugh said mildly, flicking his fingers to attract his servant’s attention. Immediately a sleek vehicle stationed at the opposite kerb was steered to a halt in front of them.
‘It doesn’t matter? I think the viscount might disagree on that!’ Dolly shrilled, already tottering gratefully towards the open door of Hugh’s transport.
A moment ago they had descended the stone steps from the Whitleys’ townhouse to find that Viscount Blackthorne’s carriage was nowhere to be seen. On questioning one of the footmen stationed at the base of the steps, Hugh had ascertained that the vehicle had left almost as soon as it had dropped off its occupants. The servant had guessed why that was, and so had Hugh: the driver had had an assignation to keep and had believed he’d time to see his sweetheart before returning. The unlucky swain had been caught out because his passengers were departing far earlier than expected.
‘You are good to us, sir, to help like this!’ Dolly’s belated thanks were heartfelt and thrown over a shoulder as a groom sprang from his perch at the back of the coach to assist her boarding.