‘Papa!’ Beatrice sounded mildly irritated. ‘I am twenty-five years old and have been alone with Colin many times before.’
‘That was when you were his future wife,’ Walter retorted. He turned to his son-in-law. ‘What reason did he give for asking to see Beatrice?’
‘He said there had been developments, but wouldn’t disclose more to me. He seemed prepared to leave if his request was denied. I’ve had him shown to the small salon to await his answer.’
Her father’s high-handedness had made Bea feel contrary; she was also becoming increasingly curious to know what Colin wanted to talk about. She remembered Colin’s bemused expression as she quit the Whitleys’ house in disgrace. If he’d brought news concerning that calamity it would be best to have the gossip sooner rather than later, and she told her father so.
‘Very well, you may have a few minutes with him.’ Walter backed down because he was also keen to find out why Colin had called; they had all parted company under a very black cloud. Therefore he reasoned it had to be a matter of some magnitude that would bring the doctor, cap in hand, to see the woman he had jilted while she was in the bosom of her family.
‘Would you like some refreshment, sir? I can ask for some tea to be brought to us.’ Beatrice made her polite offer on entering the small salon and closing the door behind her. Her arrival had interrupted Colin pacing and, remembering him as a staid character, she found it remarkable that he appeared so restless.
‘No...nothing...thank you...’ Colin immediately approached, grasping her hands and then raising them as though he might kiss her fingertips.
Flustered by such an eager and inappropriate greeting, Beatrice speedily freed herself from his clasp. She didn’t want him to believe they were now friends just because they had exchanged a few courtesies at the Whitleys’.
‘I have made a dreadful error, Beatrice, and would beg you to hear me out,’ Colin erupted. ‘I know you have every right to hate me but I’m optimistic you do not. You were kind enough to come and talk to me the other evening, and you have agreed to see me today.’
He raked back from his forehead an untidy fringe of auburn hair.
‘I am hoping that your natural grace and goodness will allow you to forgive me. Indeed, I pray you will, and that you’ll take pity on me when you hear of the injury I have suffered.’
‘The injury you have suffered?’ Beatrice echoed, rather tartly. If her memory served her correctly she had been the wounded party.
‘I have been duped, Beatrice!’ Colin exclaimed, a whirling hand and furrowed brow emphasising the gravity of his situation. ‘My uncle’s will did not after all contain a stipulation that I must marry Stella Rawlings.’
Beatrice blinked, momentarily rendered speechless. ‘You have only just thought to check on it?’ Despite her astonishment Bea realised there was no immediate relief at having Colin’s news. In fact, as an inkling of his reason for visiting her pricked her mind, she inwardly mustered a rebuff.
‘Oh, I ordered it all to be checked thoroughly.’ He tutted. ‘There is no point in picking over upsetting details now, because what is done is done. I shall sue my solicitor, of course, and am confident of eventual success...but enough of that.’ He gazed pleadingly at Bea. ‘One vital aspect must be remedied straight away. There was never any need for our engagement to be broken, my dear.’
Once more, Colin captured her small hands in his sturdy digits.
‘I cannot reveal all to you at this stage, but suffice to say that a crime has been committed and Miss Rawlings and I are no longer engaged. I am free to marry you, and would do so this very moment if I could.’ Her crushed fingers were taken to his heart and held there, miming his devotion. ‘We must set a date before the end of the month...next week if you like. Your father will not need to spend a farthing more than he already has, I swear.’
Delving into his pocket, Colin drew out the garnet ring he had just hours ago demanded Stella return to him. In finger and thumb he held it out to Beatrice, anticipating her joy at the sight of it.
‘It gives me immense satisfaction to return this to its rightful owner. I have never stopped loving you, Bea...’
‘But I have stopped loving you.’ Beatrice jerked her hand back to her side as Colin would have forced the ring on her finger. ‘I’m very sorry to be blunt, and to hear that you and Miss Rawlings are not to be married, but I refuse to be drawn into your problems or substitute myself for her.’
Colin smiled softly. ‘You must not be indignant that I have come back to you; I wanted you as my wife all along, Beatrice. You are not second fiddle, and I have not rushed here on the rebound from her.’