Before Bea could conquer her indignation and summon up an appropriate response Colin had turned on his heel.
* * *
Stella had been surprised and delighted by her mother’s attitude to securing her future since Colin Burnett had abandoned her. Shrewd by nature, Stella understood that she must capitalise on her youth and virginity before both were gone. She had no more liking for the idea of being tied to a middling gentleman than she had for being a farmer’s wife. Socialising with the cream of society was vital to Stella, and for that she needed to inflame a rich man’s desire. So, with the hurdle of her mother’s objection cleared, Stella had allowed her excited thoughts free rein on the subject of being a kept woman.
Snaring Lord Whitley was no trouble. But he was old enough to be her grandfather and, though nice enough, he might pop off at any minute and leave her in the lurch. Stella also knew she did not fancy him in the way a woman should if she were to lie with a man. Again and again her mind returned to the person she’d wanted from the first moment she’d spotted him in London.
Hugh Kendrick was everything a girl might dream about: a wonderfully handsome bachelor in the prime of life who had fabulous wealth. If rumours were to be believed he was also, and most importantly, ridiculously generous to the women with whom he consorted. Stella believed that to be no exaggeration. She’d seen him with his mistress when out shopping and had immediately coveted the role of the pretty brunette decked in expensive finery and sparkling gems. The woman’s air of smugness had simply heightened Stella’s longing to take her place.
Maggie had told her that the woman was Gwen Sharpe, currently Hugh Kendrick’s preferred paramour. Stella guessed Gwen to be a few years her senior, and was hoping that a man as jaded as Hugh Kendrick was sure to be lured away with the promise of her maidenhead. Stella knew if she kept him interested for a year it would be enough, so long as she did not fall in love with him. But the rumour that he always discarded a mistress giving her a plump pension pot was sure to mend her broken heart...
‘You’ve got a look of mischief about you.’ Maggie caught Stella’s crafty eyes in the dressing mirror while hanging up the clothes her daughter had discarded on the bed. Picking up a hairbrush, Maggie began drawing it through her daughter’s Titian hair. ‘Come, tell Mama what you are thinking,’ she teased fondly. ‘Are you hoping to flatter old Lord Whitley into buying you a pretty trinket next time you meet? If he does, you’ll have hooked him.’
‘I wasn’t thinking of him at all,’ Stella answered airily. She twisted about on the stool, raising an animated face to her mother. ‘I’m after more than pretty trinkets and old codgers. I want diamonds and...and a handsome man—’ She broke off, giggling, without naming her quarry.
‘So you’re after Mr Kendrick, are you?’ Maggie guessed, bringing a sulky thrust to her daughter’s mouth. ‘Well, that one won’t be as easy to twist about your finger.’ Maggie dropped the hairbrush on the bed. ‘If your heart’s set on him you’ll need your wits about you.’ Maggie’s smile turned calculating. ‘One thing I have learned along the way is that a gentleman loves to have what another fellow covets—especially when the two of them are at loggerheads.’
Stella perked up; she believed that Colin desired her, even if he didn’t want her as his wife. She also knew he and Hugh Kendrick intensely disliked one another. ‘You think that if Sir Colin shows an interest in me as his mistress Mr Kendrick might then want me too?’
‘Pah!’ Maggie swept away the notion with a flick of her hand. ‘Hugh Kendrick would waste no energy on him! The one beneath his skin is that brother of his. Mark my words: he would do much to ease that particular itch...’
* * *
‘Are you certain you’ve not too quickly turned Colin down?’
‘I no longer want to marry him...I’m surprised I ever did.’
Bea had not long ago broken the news to her family that Sir Colin had reissued his proposal. Oddly, none of them had seemed as astonished as she’d imagined they would be. Her father had gone off, muttering, to speak to Colin before he left the house. Alex had tactfully withdrawn to allow his wife to speak privately to her sister, as Bea now seemed under siege on all sides.
Beatrice turned from the window, where she had been gazing over the rose gardens, and gave Elise a wry smile. ‘When I was first introduced to Dr Burnett I recall you warned me that I might fall for him on the rebound. Had we gone ahead and married all those weeks ago I would have done my best to be a good wife to him, although I have discovered I still have feelings for...’