Bea swung an astonished face towards him. ‘No, of course not. What on earth made you think he’d offer to do so?’
Hugh shrugged, brushed a speck from a dark sleeve. ‘It’s what a gentleman does for a woman he cares for.’
Bea moistened her lips, trying to fathom his meaning. ‘Sir Colin now cares for Miss Rawlings, as you know.’
‘So he does...’ Hugh dulcetly concurred, straightening on the seat. ‘But perhaps he cares for you too. Does he?’ His lazy tone had turned demanding.
‘If you think that just because I went out of my way to speak to him this evening that I am trying to wriggle back into Colin’s life, then you are mistaken, sir.’ Bea’s fists were planted either side of her on the seat as though she might shoot upright at any moment.
‘You’re to be commended for treating the couple civilly. Burnett seemed pleased you had, and might approach you next time rather than the other way around. Will you encourage him?’
Finally understanding his hints, Bea gave him an icy glare. She had nobody to blame but herself for him thinking what he did. That particular seed had been sown in Hugh’s mind when she’d declared she’d sooner be Colin’s mistress than his wife. Stupidly she’d flung at Hugh intentionally wounding words, uttered thoughtlessly, and they’d returned to haunt her.
‘If you believe that Sir Colin Burnett might pay your brother off for me if I sleep with him then you are utterly wrong,’ she breathed. ‘You should not apply your own lax morals to others. He is a respectful gentleman, and besides he has not yet settled his own account with my father...’ Beatrice’s small teeth were suddenly clamped on her lower lip. She regretted that she’d disclosed details of Colin’s meanness.
‘Burnett owes your father money?’
‘It is none of your concern.’ Beatrice turned her head, watching the darkling street scene. She wished to be quickly home, to avoid any more awkward interrogation, yet part of her craved to continue savouring the dangerous thrill of Hugh Kendrick’s company.
‘No matter, if you’d rather not say...’ His voice was again as smooth as honey. ‘I’m sure Walter will be happy to oblige me with an answer.’
‘You will not speak to him about it!’
Her father might with alacrity take up any offer Hugh made to act as debt collector, especially once he discovered that his financial position had considerably worsened following her recklessness. There was already bad blood between Hugh and Colin. She had no intention of heightening their feud, and with it the damage to her reputation.
‘It’s likely everything is now resolved and resurrecting the matter will upset Papa.’ Bea hoped her blurted argument was effective.
‘I think you know it is not resolved,’ Hugh countered. ‘I think you intended giving your father your winnings to mitigate his losses. Am I right?’
It seemed pointless fibbing. She gave a single nod, glad the gloom concealed her chagrined blush. ‘Instead I have stupidly made things much worse.’
‘It was good of you to think of your father’s gains rather than your own.’
‘I owed it to him to try to help. My wedding expenses have left him out of pocket—’ Bea knew it was silly continuing to pretend her father had been paid up.
‘It’s Burnett’s duty to make amends, not yours,’ Hugh interrupted mildly.
‘I know...’ Bea sighed, staring at her clasped hands. ‘And he said he would.’
‘Perhaps you of all people should know that his promises are not worth the paper they are written on.’
Again Bea felt her face heating beneath his soft sarcasm. But she couldn’t deny that his criticism of Colin was accurate and well-deserved.
‘There is a solution.’
Again Hugh closed the gap between them so their heads were mere inches apart.
Bea felt her heart cease pounding, then resume with breathtaking speed. Eyes that gleamed like black diamonds in the coach’s interior had entrapped her and she steeled herself not to flinch when a long cool finger circled with seductive slowness on her burning cheek.
‘I know we’ve had our differences. I know you don’t trust me because I’ve let you down in the past.’ Hugh took one of her hands, raising it and touching his lips to her fingertips. ‘I admit I pursued you, told you I wanted to marry you, all to no end. But I didn’t lie and I withdrew from your life the moment I realised I could not raise enough cash to take a wife.’
Hugh paused, angled his head to watch her averted profile.
‘Throughout our friendship we were always very compatible indeed...in one way. I believe we still are, and I want to prove it to you.’ His hand opened, forked on her narrow chin as he turned her towards him. ‘Forget Burnett. He’s not worthy of you; he never was. I can protect you and easily deal with my brother’s spite.’ Without warning his mouth covered hers, expertly parting her lips, daring her to deny his next brutally honest words. ‘Where’s the shame in mutual pleasure, or in letting me care for you and your father?’