A familiar voice startled Bea from her tortured thoughts. At any other time she would have been delighted to see Fiona Chapman flying towards her on Oxford Street, but a rather strained smile was all she could manage as her friend closed the gap between them.
‘Is Elise out shopping with you today?’ Fiona came to a gasping halt by Bea’s side.
Bea shook her head. ‘Are you on your own too?’
‘I am now...’ Fiona answered flatly. ‘I was with Verity and her mother-in-law. Mrs Clemence is driving my poor sister mad, going on about arrangements for a christening before the babe is yet born.’ Fiona pulled a face. ‘I’ve escaped with the excuse that I must go home because of a headache. Now I’ve run into you I won’t have a completely spoiled afternoon.’ With a cheeky grin, Fiona linked arms with Bea, urging her to stroll on. ‘I’ll come window-shopping with you; you deserve to be cheered up after that hateful episode at the Whitleys’.’
Bea’s faint smile disappeared at that reminder.
‘You must not worry that people blame you!’ Fiona reassured her. ‘Everybody is saying what a weasel Toby Kendrick is to have manipulated you in the way he did...’
Suddenly she began waving frantically.
‘Now, over there is a Kendrick I do like—very much!’
The driver of a sleek curricle appeared unaware of Fiona’s enthusiastic welcome as he steered towards the kerb.
‘What a lucky coincidence to run into Hugh,’ Fiona announced, glancing at Bea. Having taken a closer look at her friend’s rosy complexion, she murmured conspiratorially, ‘Ah... I see...’ Fiona’s lips curved. ‘Not such a coincidence after all, is it?’ She tugged on Bea’s arm. ‘I’ve always thought the pair of you were a perfect match. This is no time to turn shy. Let’s go over and say hello now he’s arrived.’ She chuckled. ‘He’s looking for you already and seems rather stern; perhaps he thinks you’ve stood him up.’
Bea watched as Hugh vaulted from his seat and immediately frowned at the vacant spot by Meredew’s shop window. He did seem severe, she realised with a sense of womanly satisfaction, that she hadn’t been where he expected her to be, meekly awaiting his arrival.
‘Well...it’s a lovely day for a drive,’ Fiona piped up, causing Hugh to turn around. ‘Are you going to be kind and offer to take us for a spin around the park, Hugh?’ When he seemed more interested in gazing at Beatrice than answering, Fiona prodded his arm. ‘Oh, say you will. I can act as chaperon.’
Hugh’s narrowed gaze slid from Bea’s beautifully bashful expression to settle on Fiona. ‘You are extremely forward, not to mention bossy at times, Miss Chapman.’
‘Yes, I know, but there’s no point in waiting for you two to dither over how to escape prying eyes so you might talk privately.’
Fiona’s warning was called for; she moved a gloved hand, acknowledging Lady Groves and her friend, who had seen them.
‘We must all go off together for propriety’s sake,’ she whispered. ‘Then you may lose me along the way.’
‘I imagine you’re prepared to take a drive with me, Miss Dewey, as you’ve brought suitable company?’
Hugh’s smooth confidence heightened Bea’s blush.
‘Of course she is, or she wouldn’t be here at all, would she?’ Fiona declared, thrusting a hand at Hugh so he could help her aboard his curricle.
With a despairing look and a tiny head-shake Bea hoped to convey that she’d not sought her friend’s moral support because she was afraid to be alone with him. Hugh’s expression remained darkly quizzical and, conscious of Lady Groves bearing down on them, Bea accepted Hugh’s assistance in alighting.
‘Thank you,’ she murmured, settling back next to Fiona and withdrawing her hand from long fingers that seemed reluctant to release her.
Bea slid a glance at her companions, wondering why she’d ever felt jealous of Fiona’s relationship with Hugh. The way they sniped so good-naturedly made them more suited to being brother and sister than lovers. But there were other faceless women who stirred that new and unpleasant emotion in her. Ever since Colin had taunted her about Hugh’s mistresses Bea had felt curious: were they blonde or brunette, younger or older than she was? His Indian lover...lovers—how many were there?—would be dusky-limbed with jet-black hair. Of course all her rivals were bound to be exceptionally pretty...
The horses were set to a brisk trot and Bea tipped back her head, relaxing a little beneath the cooling air on her flushed face. The respite was short lived. Hugh suddenly captured her eyes with a stare of such intensity that she was jolted back to the night he’d taken her home in his coach. The memory of what they’d done in the dark, while the vehicle swayed through the deserted streets, grazing together their bodies, sent fiery heat rippling through her. The piquant excitement she’d experienced had been unforgettable, as had the sensation of his artful hands tormenting her bare flesh.