Elise had been holding her son by his tiny hands, helping Adam take a shaky step on the carpet. As her sister’s voice faded away she sent Beatrice an astute glance. ‘I’m guessing that the person who years ago propelled you towards Colin has now drawn you away.’
Beatrice’s head swayed back on her shoulders in despair, but it was answer enough for Elise. Lifting Adam to sit on the sofa, she came quickly to her sister’s side. ‘I like Hugh—you know I do, Bea—but he is...different from the charming gentleman we knew all those years ago. I’m not saying his good fortune has spoiled his character...’ she began diplomatically.
‘Well, if you won’t say it, I will,’ Bea quietly replied. ‘But it doesn’t matter...I love him anyway. I think I knew it that first time when he came to Hertfordshire with the news about the dowager’s illness.’ Bea turned to face Elise. ‘It frightened me that he could turn up out of the blue like that and turn my world upside down...’
‘Does Hugh know how you feel about him?’ Elise asked hoarsely.
Bea shook her head. ‘As you say, he is very different now. I wouldn’t embarrass myself, or him, with a declaration of love. Oh...he desires me—he has made that clear too—but what future is there in being taken into his harem?’ Bea stifled a mournful chuckle with the back of a hand. ‘Colin took pains to tell me that if I chose Hugh over him I would disgrace myself and my family and should expect to have several rivals for his time and affection.’
‘You need not heed Burnett’s opinion!’ Elise had spoken dismissively, yet she feared the doctor was right in his forecast of her sister’s prospects. Hugh was a rogue where women were concerned. ‘Shall I ask Alex to visit Hugh and discover if he might be persuaded to propose marriage?’ Elise asked anxiously. ‘Alex is moping since he fell out with his best friend. I know he’s keen to make up with Hugh, so he’d probably appreciate the opportunity to talk to him...’
‘No!’ Beatrice emphasised the single word with a deep frown. ‘Promise me you will not mention any of our conversation, Elise, even to Alex.’
Bea didn’t want Hugh to believe she’d again sent her brother-in-law to sort out personal matters because she lacked the courage to do so herself. If Hugh were ever to know she loved and wanted him, she’d sooner be the one to tell him.
‘You are not seriously considering Hugh’s proposition of carte blanche...are you?’ Elise asked. She could see why her sister might be tempted by such an offer from a handsome and generous man. Bea had every right to be heartily fed up with regular romance when in the past three gentlemen pursuing her as a wife had let her down. But she could see nothing but heartache ahead for Bea if her sister drifted into a liaison with a man as jaded and cynical as Hugh.
‘Of course not,’ Bea said breathily, pushing back a blonde curl from her forehead. She wished she’d sounded more convincing. Objectionable as many would deem the idea, Bea had found herself wondering whether a discreet, informal arrangement with a man she truly loved and desired would be preferable to an arid marriage to suit convention. When younger she had desperately wanted to be a wife and have a family of her own, but always her dream had eluded her. Constant disappointment had eroded the yearning till she no longer knew what she wanted...other than Hugh. If she could not have a wedding ring from him, would it be so bad to accept the gift of his passion instead?
‘Burnett’s just gone.’
The sisters turned in unison as Alex entered the parlour. He scooped up his gurgling son from the sofa, chucking him beneath the chin. ‘I think your father might like to speak to you, Beatrice.’
With a fierce look for Elise that threatened dire consequences should she tell Alex what they’d talked about, Bea quit the room.
‘I don’t blame you one bit, my dear, for turning Burnett down this time. Bumptious fellow!’
Walter’s abrupt exclamation met Bea on entering the room. ‘Sir Colin tried to bully me into persuading you to have him back, you know.’ He sighed deeply. ‘That fellow has changed since he inherited his money...and not for the better...’
‘It seems to be the way of things...’ Bea gave a hollow laugh.
‘He made it plain that your gambling debt would be cleared the moment the marriage contract was signed. I made it plain that I’d like him to clear his own debts and mind his business about yours. He said he would send me a bank draft this afternoon. I’ll believe it when I see it,’ Walter concluded pessimistically.
‘I’m sorry that I’m such a trouble to you, Papa,’ Bea said softly.