Having conquered his outrage, the butler politely asked for her name and her business.
‘My name is Miss Dewey and I should like to speak to your master, if you please,’ Bea said firmly.
As she stepped unsteadily over the threshold into a vast cool hallway Bea noticed the manservant’s eyes dart to the street, as though checking whether her lone arrival at a bachelor’s house was under observation.
Having led her to a huge hallway chair, the fellow disappeared. Bea sat rigid-backed, unaware she had been holding her breath until the sound of her sighing exhalation echoed eerily in the silence of her opulent surroundings. A moment later she spotted the butler marching back towards her. He threw her a flustered frown before diverting to the stairs and scooting up them.
When two housemaids appeared and gawped at her from behind a marble pillar Bea’s awkwardness increased to such a degree that she was tempted to leap up and leave. She clasped her hands, then untangled her fingers as minutes passed and other servants crept up to congregate and whisper about her.
Bea could stand it no longer. She was on the point of announcing that she would return another time when the butler flew down the stairs. This time he ignored her, glaring instead at his inferiors, who melted away into the shadowy corridors.
‘Mr Kendrick will be here directly. He has invited you to wait in the blue salon.’ He held out a gloved hand, his demeanour once more phlegmatic as he led the way.
They had got no further than the first set of ornate doorways when Bea heard a familiar baritone voice.
‘You may leave us.’
Hugh had addressed his manservant from the top of the wide curving treads. Now he approached, hands plunged in pockets, a towel draped negligently about his shoulders.
Following a stiff bow the butler backed away, then turned towards the vestibule.
Bea raised her eyes, overwhelmed with embarrassment as Hugh came closer to her. No wonder his staff had acted as though she were a nuisance and a spectacle to behold. Nobody, let alone an unaccompanied young woman, should interrupt a gentleman in the middle of bathing. Why had he not just sent her away? she wailed inwardly as another wave of heat deepened her blush.
Hugh raised the cloth to his slick dark hair, drying it, and the more casually he took her intrusion the more acutely awkward Beatrice felt. He appeared to have dressed in a hurry, and his ruffled linen shirt was damp and clinging to his broad torso, exposing an expanse of tanned skin at his throat.
‘I’m so sorry...’ Bea croaked, finally forcing words past strangling embarrassment. ‘I shouldn’t have come. I’ll go...and leave you to finish your...umm...’ She turned to bolt towards the door.
Hugh had caught hold of her before she’d made it more than a yard or so.
‘No, you don’t,’ he said softly, turning her about. ‘You’ve found the courage to come here to see me so it must be on an urgent matter. I want to know what it is.’
‘It is an urgent matter...’ Bea blurted, finally forcing her gaze to his face.
His lashes were still heavy with water, fringing caramel-coloured eyes, and slick ribbons of jet hair adorned his temples. If he still hadn’t got a penny to his name Bea knew he could enslave her with his breathtaking good looks as easily as he had three years ago.
Then he hadn’t been able to afford even one residence to call his own. Now Hugh Kendrick, diamond magnate, had the wherewithal to support households and dependants at home and overseas. Bea knew there was so much more to discover than whether he’d revealed Colin’s renewed marriage proposal to Mrs Monk and Stella. But with startling clarity she realised that answer was more important to her than any other. If it transpired that he had done so then those other questions crowding her mind about his life in India would no longer be important. Love him maybe she would, till the day she died, but she could never see him again after tonight if he’d betrayed her trust to the vile Mrs Monk.
‘Come with me...’ Hugh extended a hand to her. ‘Let’s find somewhere comfortable to talk.
‘There’s no need for me to tarry.’ Bea ignored his beckoning fingers, pleased that her composure was strengthening and the wobble had gone from her voice. ‘It’s very wrong of me to be here, and I apologise for coming, but...but I have an important question to ask.’
‘Go ahead...’ Hugh’s mouth skewed as he sensed he was about to be accused of something. He could hazard a guess at what it was. But how Beatrice had found out that Mrs Monk had tried to solicit his protection for Stella Rawlings he could only guess. The woman was a mischief-maker and the girl was made in her image.
The vision he wanted to keep lodged in his mind was that of a tantalising temptress sharing his bath, her golden tresses floating on soapy water, her limbs entwined with his... A dry chuckle rasped in Hugh’s throat as his phantom lover brusquely interrupted his fantasy.