‘There’s always an exception to prove the rule,’ Hugh replied gently. ‘To my knowledge Alex is enviably content in every way with your sister.’
Bea expelled a pent-up breath.
‘It would sadden you to know otherwise, wouldn’t it?’ Hugh murmured.
‘Of course...Elise would be devastated. Alex is the love of her life.’
‘And Burnett...was he the love of your life?’ Hugh asked in a voice devoid of emotion.
‘I have given up on love...’ Bea prevaricated, gazing through the coach window.
‘You just said you would marry for love...’
Bea choked a bitter little laugh. ‘So I did, and thus will need to remain a spinster—for the likelihood of finding somebody suitable is remote.’
‘Spinsters are entitled to get pleasure from life, Beatrice...discreetly, perhaps, and with no hurt caused to anybody else.’
‘Apart from your wife...’
‘Alas...like you, I fear I might be doomed to a single life,’ he returned solemnly.
‘I have said do not mock me,’ Beatrice answered levelly while continuing to watch the stars. Her anger and embarrassment seemed to have drained away, leaving her calmer.
‘I wasn’t. I was telling the truth. Why do you feel you must deny yourself the comfort I offer?’
Hugh stretched out a hand but Bea knocked away his fingers.
‘Are you going to tell me you didn’t like what we just did?’ he taunted.
‘I’m going to tell you never to touch me again,’ Bea said. ‘Keep your empty promises and your payments for services rendered for your courtesans. They are sure to appreciate them, whereas I do not.’ She met his gaze squarely, unflinchingly. ‘You will not degrade me with your lust any more than will your brother with his malice.’
Bea glanced away from the flinty glitter in black eyes. She knew she’d angered him by thwarting him, and by comparing him to Sir Toby.
With a sigh of sheer thankfulness she glimpsed the top of Upper Brook Street and knew she was finally able to escape. One of her hands darted to the door, but she hesitated before jumping out of the coach. ‘I trust in the future you will keep to your word and leave me alone as I’ve asked you to. I know you are entitled to visit the Blackthornes because you are the viscount’s friend...’
‘Not any more...’ Hugh said smoothly over her words.
There had been no hint of accusation in his reply and yet still Bea felt suddenly guilty that the two men, companions since childhood, had fallen out over her.
‘I did not complain to Alex that you had propositioned me and I regret that he went after you, resulting in a bad argument.’ She paused before adding, ‘I told Elise what had occurred in confidence and she...’ Bea tailed off, not wanting to blame Elise.
‘Did you think your sister would not confide in...the love of her life?’ Hugh asked ironically.
‘It’s not Elise’s fault. She didn’t betray my trust; Alex badgered her till she hinted at what was troubling her.’
‘Have I been troubling you too, Bea?’
‘Not at all...you are never in my mind...’ She blurted out the lie while studying the sliver of moon in the navy blue heavens. ‘And I would not have you and Alex becoming worst enemies over me.’
‘You’re the viscount’s sister-in-law and it’s right he protects you; in his position I would have done the same,’ Hugh admitted tonelessly. At her questioning glance, he shrugged. ‘I’d risk that friendship again for your sake. Nothing has changed...I want you...’ He repeated it with emphasis. ‘Nothing has changed, Beatrice.’
‘Nothing has changed for me either,’ Beatrice echoed in a voice that had lost a little composure. ‘I have told you to stay away and hope, as a gentleman, you will accept my wishes.’
She noticed a corner of his mouth tilt upwards. ‘I’ll do whatever you want, sweet...’ He moved towards her, his narrowed, gleaming eyes steady on her. ‘How about a wager?’ he suggested. ‘I’ll bet the money you lost tonight that within a week you come to me.’
Bea shrank back against the side of the coach, alarmed by his indolent confidence and the reason for it. Her eyes were drawn to his thin mouth...the lips that had so recently soothed and excited her and no doubt could savage equally efficiently...
‘All you need stake in return is one night spent with me.’ Hugh captured her chin with a masterful hand as she tried to avoid his eyes. ‘Come...you’re adamant you don’t want me...never think of me...what’s to fear? Take the wager and clear your debts in one fell swoop.’