Bea took a backward pace, her heart drumming in consternation. Nobody knew about Colin recently reissuing his proposal to her other than her close family...and Hugh. The idea that he might have discussed her private business with this vulgar woman was making her feel nauseated.
‘You think about what I’ve said,’ Maggie warned, grim-faced. ‘Stella’s like a honeypot where those brothers are concerned. You keep away, I’m warning you, or you’ll get stung.’
‘You’re lying!’ Bea said in a shaky exhalation of breath.
‘Am I, now? I’m giving you a friendly warning, but if you upset me I’ll have a chat with Stella in Oxford Street about what Miss Dewey was up to with Mr Kendrick behind a tree. If society ladies eavesdrop on our conversation you’ll suffer the consequences, my dear—not us or him.’
‘Say what you like about me. I’ll never bow to blackmail!’ Bea gritted through her teeth with a confidence she was far from feeling.
‘Perhaps you’ll think differently about your lover when he tells you his secrets.’ Maggie was ready to use her trump card, because Miss Dewey was made of tougher metal than she’d anticipated.
‘Mr Kendrick makes no secret of his affairs...’
‘You didn’t deny that you’re lovers!’ Maggie pounced.
‘Good day to you, madam,’ Bea said icily, turning away.
‘Has Mr Kendrick told you about his bastard son in India?’
Bea felt frozen to the spot, then pivoted about very slowly. The smirk on Maggie’s face was gleefully triumphant and Bea needed no further proof that the woman was speaking the truth. The memory of Lady Groves implying there was an overseas scandal in Hugh’s background sprang to Bea’s mind. She had assumed Lady Groves’s hint concerned an Indian mistress, but would never have guessed a child might also be involved.
Despite a thickening in her throat Bea whispered in desperation, ‘You’re lying again...’
‘Ask him, if you dare.’
Maggie swung away. She’d hoped to keep that ace up her sleeve in case she got a chance to play it another day. She knew Stella would have to settle for Whitley’s protection after all. Hugh would never soften towards her daughter once Miss Dewey threw her knowledge of his son in his face and revealed her source. But Maggie was confident there’d be no happy ending for the diamond magnate and Miss Dewey either, and she realised that consolation would have to suffice...
Bea didn’t run back the way she’d come, though she was tempted to when she heard Maggie let rip a raucous chuckle. Tilting her chin, she straightened her shoulders, glad her tormentor couldn’t see her blinking back the tears scorching her eyes.
Halfway up the steps to her door, Bea clutched double-handed at the iron railing to support her shaky legs. She knew Mrs Monk hadn’t followed her because she’d looked back over a shoulder, just once, and seen the older woman disappearing in the opposite direction. Bea sank down to sit on a step, aware of curious glances from passers-by. She couldn’t make herself go inside the house because she knew she’d fidget and fret; neither could she share this latest appalling news with her family. She had burdened them far too much already with her woes.
There was only one person capable of soothing her torment. Only he could tell her whether he’d fathered a child and then abandoned the boy overseas. Whatever Hugh admitted to, his carousing in India might excite a furore but it would eventually die down. Wealthy men and their bastards were nothing new, even if the woman seduced was a foreigner.
Of course being spotted kissing a gentleman behind a tree in Hyde Park would secure lifelong ostracism for a genteel spinster. And if she were discovered visiting Hugh at home it would simply add to her infamy. But what did it matter if she committed one final, vital sin and went to his house to demand an explanation?
* * *
She was right to have been worried, Bea realised as a regal-looking butler stood, appalled, at the sight of her.
A few minutes ago Beatrice had paid the Hackney cab driver and gazed up at the dauntingly imposing façade of Hugh’s townhouse on Grosvenor Square. The sunset had faded to twilight and she’d quickly ascended a flight of stone steps before her courage evaporated and she turned tail. As she tilted her chin up to squarely meet the butler’s eyes she cocooned herself in her anger and jealousy, though realised she had little to gain from either.
Hugh had not professed to love her or to want to marry her. He had not offered to remain faithful to her. He had promised her nothing that might make her entitled to have his past exposed to her scrutiny or forgiveness. Yet deep within Bea felt she deserved every possible explanation and apology from him...