Bea glanced at her IOUs, then raised wide blue eyes to his preying gaze. ‘You have already paid Toby?’ she whispered. ‘You were very certain of your victory, then.’
‘I bought those days ago—long before I received your note.’
Bea imagined that with such animosity between them Sir Toby would have extracted the best possible price for her markers.
‘How much did you pay him?’ she breathed.
‘It doesn’t matter. Take them.’ He swooped on the notes, held them out, smiling sardonically when her fingers clasped together in her lap.
‘Are we not friends, then, Beatrice?’ Hugh gently taunted.
Bea knew if she accepted the notes she would have tacitly agreed to their becoming lovers. When she’d left the house earlier she’d persuaded herself that having his promise of respect and affection was enough for her. Yet now...now the scene was real—not in an imaginary theatre in which she played the part of a tragic heroine.
With those IOUs in her possession she must lie naked with a man...this man...for the first time, and allow him licence to do whatever he wanted...whatever she wanted... So he’d promised her weeks ago, when coarsely propositioning her.
A sweet shiver raced through Bea but she flicked aside her face, forcing her mind to examine the dark side to her ruinous pleasure. Her ostracism from society was a mere breath away; so was her father’s despair. Discreet as she and Hugh might endeavour to be when they rendezvoused to make love, gossip would eventually reach Walter’s ears and break his heart.
But there was more firing her indecision than the effects of her disgrace: she couldn’t bear to toss and turn jealously, wondering whose bed Hugh shared when he was absent from hers. He might say she was the woman with whom he was obsessed, but what about when the chase was done and he’d had his novice mistress? Would he grow restless and desire a new hunt? Or again visit paramours well versed in ways of pleasing him?
Suddenly, and very bleakly, Bea realised that crumbs of his affection would never be enough when she was greedy for so much more. She wanted him to tell her that, like his friend before him, he too had given up carousing because he’d finally found a woman he could cherish and adore—the only one with whom he wanted to live his life and rear his children...
‘Nothing...’ Hugh said gruffly, having watched raw emotion flitting over Bea’s profile.
His single word penetrated her mind and Bea raised an expression of wonderment to his face. ‘Toby gave up my IOUs for nothing?’
‘No... Toby wanted to be paid...’ Hugh removed his boot from the wooden bench and strode off a few paces. ‘Whereas I don’t. I’m not expecting a thing from you.’
‘Why is that?’ Bea finally touched a finger to the IOUs, shifting them to and fro on the timber.
‘It’s what a gentleman does for a woman he cares about.’
She’d heard that from him before, spoken with the same caustic inflection.
Hugh glanced sideways at her, ramming his hands into his pockets. ‘Don’t look so scared, Beatrice,’ he said. ‘Stupid game, maybe, but you’ve won...hands down.’ He gazed across the park towards the water glistening in the afternoon sun. ‘I was going to have a servant deliver them to you tomorrow. I’d have brought them myself, but I know Alex might not want me darkening his doorstep.’
‘He is pining for your company. Elise said so.’ Bea collected the papers and put them in her pocket, then rose from the bench, joyous optimism unfurling in her breast. She had just glimpsed the gentleman Hugh had once been, before his good fortune turned him into a sophisticate.
‘Why would a rogue act with such chivalry and kindness?’ she asked with a hint of teasing.
‘I’ve been asking myself the same question,’ Hugh muttered, a cynical slant to his thin lips. But he avoided her eyes as she glided closer to him. ‘I owe it to you and your father. I let you down before, years ago, leading you into thinking I was in a position to propose.’ He gestured roughly. ‘I was a fool to ever want what I couldn’t afford.’
‘And now?’ The question sighed unbidden out of Beatrice.
‘And now I can afford whatever I damn well like...’ He turned ferocious golden eyes on her. ‘But some things can’t be bought, can they...?’
‘Did Burnett offer to pay off your debts?’
‘So why did you come to me?’
‘Colin said I must marry him. That was the deal he offered.’
A mirthless sound scratched Hugh’s throat. ‘Trumps mine, I think,’ he muttered sourly.