She watched carefully, and, yes, there was an unmistakable flicker of cynical acceptance that something hidden had been unearthed.
‘Mrs Monk told you about that too?’
‘She did...’ Beatrice croaked, gripping at a chair-rail to steady herself. ‘And I’m sorry that she was mean enough to do so. I’m certain you’d not reveal anything so personal to her, and don’t know how she found out about your Indian mistress and the little boy.’
‘Toby probably told her; from what you’ve said it sounds as though they’ve been in touch,’ Hugh said tonelessly.
‘I’m sorry if your brother has betrayed you...it is a very personal matter,’ Bea repeated in a voice roughened by emotion. ‘It was none of that woman’s business...just as it is none of mine...’ She gulped in a shaky breath. ‘I must go now, but first will again apologise for intruding like this.’
She’d reached the door and half opened it before he spoke.
‘Don’t you want to know more about the affair?’
Bea twisted about, eyes blazing. ‘What possible interest would I have in your family abroad?’
‘I have no family abroad...’
‘You are a very callous man to say so,’ Bea whispered. ‘What else are the mother of your child and a son...even a bastard son...but members of your family?’
Bea’s fists clenched at her sides in rage and frustration. She had been wrong about him all along; despite his arrogance and philandering she had harboured a hope—a hope that had soared this afternoon—that he was an inherently decent man. He’d not denied the little boy’s birth, yet had easily dismissed him.
‘Have you finished?’
‘Utterly finished... I’ve no wish to say or hear more on the subject. Good evening...’ Bea had her fingers on the door, pulling it fully open, when his dark fist hit the panel overhead, slamming it again shut.
‘I don’t think you mean that, do you, Beatrice?’ he said quietly. ‘I think you’re keen for every detail about Rani and Shay.’
Bea spun about, her back pressed into the door. She gazed up at him with glittering eyes, hating him for understanding her turmoil and for making real people of the ghosts in her mind.
‘You’re wrong!’ she spat. ‘I’ve had enough proof that your lechery causes hurt to innocent people. You will never hurt me in that way.’ Tears trickled down her cheeks. ‘How can you abandon your own flesh and blood in a distant land?’
‘Shay isn’t my flesh and blood...’
‘What?’ Bea whispered. ‘Are you now going to lie—?’
‘It’s not a lie,’ Hugh interrupted harshly. ‘He’s not my flesh and blood and, much as I want the best for him, I’m content to let Rani care for his welfare.’
Hugh pressed thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, as though to ease strain.
‘I want to tell you, Beatrice...let me tell you... And then, if you want nothing more to do with me, I’ll try and accept your wishes and stay away.’
His hoarse words held a note of authority, and Bea realised he’d force her to listen whether she chose to or not.
‘Sit down...please...’ Hugh abruptly strode away from her, thrusting hands that ached to touch her in his pockets. One was withdrawn to gesture at the chair she’d previously used.
Slowly Bea approached the seat, perching again on its very edge, as though she might flee if the details of his foreign affair were too unbearable.
‘Rani became my mistress shortly after I arrived in Hyderabad,’ Hugh started without preamble. ‘She’d had an arranged marriage when little more than a girl. Her husband was much older and they had no offspring. She craved a child to love...’
Bea’s slender fingers gripped the chair-arm as though she would use its support to rise.
‘Let me finish, Bea!’ Hugh ordered with a note of pleading. He quickly resumed. ‘There were many English families in the area connected to the East Indies trade. I became friendly with one fellow, Keith Wheeler, who had his wife and only daughter with him. They’d planned to return to England so the girl could make her come-out. Then they found out Louise was pregnant by a married Indian potentate.’
Hugh’s mouth hardened at the memory.
‘Once the seduction was done the fellow distanced himself, and there would have been a diplomatic incident and a scandal if he’d been pursued over the matter.’
Bea relaxed her tight grip on the chair, returned her fingers to her lap. She gazed at Hugh’s profile, her mind racing ahead. But she remained quiet, breathlessly waiting for him to continue.