‘Was he criticising your behaviour with my brother?’
‘No...he was criticising my behaviour with you...’
‘As I’ve been named in Burnett’s slander I think I should be told more about it.’
Bea hesitated before blurting, ‘In short, Colin told me to avoid your company or suffer the consequences.’
Hugh laughed soundlessly. ‘It sounds as though you championed me, Miss Dewey. Did you?’
Bea fidgeted beneath his warm, humorous regard. ‘I didn’t find his lecture necessary. Neither did I like being told who I might choose as a friend.’
‘Am I your friend?’
‘I’m not sure any more,’ Bea said with bittersweet honesty. ‘Despite our squabbling, I’d like to think we were friends at least...if only for Elise and Alex’s sake. I know they’d like everybody to be harmonious.’
‘As I would, too,’ Hugh said. ‘But I’m aiming higher than harmony between us, Bea.’
Bea turned doubtful blue eyes his way, remaining still as he raised a hand, smoothing the backs of his fingers over the silky dip beneath her cheekbone.
His wooing touch was gone too soon; Hugh’s clenched fist dropped to his lap as a carriage rattled closer at quite a pace, its female occupants gawping inquisitively at them.
‘It’s getting too crowded,’ Hugh muttered. ‘I should have taken you somewhere else...just to talk, that’s all, I swear.’ He grimaced in self-mockery. ‘I know you think me a lecherous reprobate, and perhaps I have been. But I do understand it’s vital to sort out certain matters between us.’
Bea gave him a small grateful smile and for the first time felt hopeful that things could come right between them.
‘I’m determined to kiss you...if nothing more...’ he groaned.
I want you to... The unspoken response keened in Bea’s mind, making her dusky lashes droop over her soulful sapphire eyes.
‘I will before the day’s out,’ Hugh vowed, as though sensing her need. He stared moodily after the disappearing carriage, then suddenly jumped from the curricle and came round to open the door. ‘We’ll arouse less interest if we walk for a while.’
Bea allowed him to hand her down, glad to stretch her legs but conscious of time passing. ‘I must go back soon. I said I wouldn’t be out shopping for long. I don’t want my papa to fret over my absence.’
‘How is your father?’
‘Tired and depressed...and it’s my fault,’ Bea admitted through a lump forming in her throat. ‘He wants to go home to Hertfordshire.’
Hugh drew Bea’s hand through his arm as they strolled, his large palm warming her delicate fingers. ‘He’ll cheer up soon and perhaps choose to stay...’
‘No...he wants to go, and so do I.’
‘When are you planning to leave?’ he asked distantly.
‘In a few days’ time.’ She sensed his stare heating the top of her head.
‘In that case we’ve not much time.’
‘I know...’ Bea murmured, lowering her eyes and marshalling her thoughts. ‘I don’t want my papa to live out his days in straitened circumstances,’ she confided quietly. ‘Alex, being the good fellow he is, has naturally offered to set everything straight, but my father is too proud to let him. He is intending to sell his pension policy to settle my debts rather than accept help.’ She sighed. ‘You said you would deal with your brother, so I wrote that note to you. I can’t bear that Papa must suffer the consequences of my folly.’
Having expressed her private heartache, Bea glanced at Hugh for a comment, but he remained worryingly quiet while escorting her to a bench. While she perched on the edge he remained standing, one foot raised and braced against the planks, his expression inscrutable.
‘And you? Can you bear to suffer the consequences of your folly?’ he asked solemnly, his eyes drifting away as though he were more interested in the verdant scenery than in having her answer.
Very conscious of the breeched thigh close to her cheek, Bea darted her eyes from its muscular contours to his saturnine profile. She wanted him to look at her now they’d finally reached the purpose of this meeting: the wager she’d lost... But he remained aloof, giving no encouragement or comfort.
It was only pride, she told herself as she tried to force words past the ache in her throat. Why could she not tell him that she craved his kisses and caresses? Why make it seem that he had her backed into a corner and she would acquiesce only reluctantly to his lovemaking?
Hugh plunged a hand into a pocket and pulled forth some crumpled papers. He let them fall, one at a time, onto the seat.