This afternoon she had been ready to take his terms and become his mistress. What matter if she yielded and agreed to go to his bed or his bath now? Hours ago it would have seemed a shocking notion: she’d always assumed Hugh would arrange for them to make love at a secret location so as not to cause outrage.
But the damage was already done: she’d shocked his servants, who no doubt imagined she was a harlot. Besides, Mrs Monk would be bent on revenge and would besmirch Bea for the sin of a single kiss. In Bea’s rueful estimation she might as well get hung for a sheep as a lamb and stay awhile with the man she loved.
It was time for her to surrender and prove her love and trust to Hugh. When word got out about her visit to Mr Kendrick’s Mayfair mansion she would be home in Hertfordshire. In time a new scandal would erupt to entertain the ton and gossip about her would fade.
Bea’s reflections were interrupted by the touch of gentle fingers at her throat, untying her bonnet strings. Hugh tossed the hat to the table, his eyes capturing her vivid blue gaze as his fingers threaded into her silken hair.
‘This afternoon when I came to meet you in Oxford Street I brought something with me to give to you.’
‘I know...and my papa was as grateful as I to have those IOUs,’ she said with trembling sincerity. ‘I own I thought he might be livid that a gentleman had paid my debts, but he claims you did the right thing, protecting your family’s honour and thwarting your odious brother’s spite. You are still my papa’s good friend.’
Hugh’s mouth tilted wryly. ‘And will he think me his friend after tonight?’
‘I doubt he will if he finds out what we’ve done,’ Bea admitted with a catch to her voice.
‘And what will he think of you if he finds out what we’ve done?’
Bea averted her face as her eyes prickled, but she attempted a steady reply. ‘He will be very upset, of course, but I think he will allow me to stay with him in Hertfordshire—although many would deem me unfit to again darken his doorstep.’
‘Are you prepared to risk so much for me, Beatrice?’ Hugh asked gently.
‘Yes...’ she murmured.
She knew she should tell him now that she loved and wanted him, and no other man would do. She should say she’d far sooner have an uncertain future with him than settle for respectability and the prospect of an arid marriage of convenience when her aged papa died and was no longer her companion. But an obstinate pride remained, blocking the confession in her throat. He might not love her, or want to marry her, but the least she required of him was that he allowed her some dignity, offering up some affectionate words first.
‘Shall I tell you why I think you’d do all that for me, sweetheart?’
Beatrice nodded, the painful throb in her throat preventing her from voicing a need to have his fullest explanation.
‘I think you would risk everything you hold dear because you love me as greatly as I love you. I also think you’re hoping I’m not the immoral lecher others say I am, and will protect you with my name as well as my heart.’ Hugh soothed her quiet sob by stroking his cool lips against her brow. ‘I’ve loved and desired you for years, Beatrice. I’ve tried to force you from my memory by carousing, but you stubbornly resisted being put aside and curbed the worst of my excesses.’
His mouth slanted on hers, sliding with silky sweetness, his tongue teasing her with tiny persuasive touches.
‘The worst of your excesses?’ Bea echoed against his shoulder, although a quiet joy was burgeoning within. ‘You keep two mistresses close by, sir. Did you restrict yourself then?’
Hugh bent his head, laughing soundlessly against her crown of golden hair. ‘Perhaps in my immaturity I might have liked more, but now I have seen the error of my ways I have no desire for even one mistress, or any woman other than my future wife.’
Bea raised glowing eyes to his face, uncertain still, yet daring to hope. ‘You are to take a vow of celibacy then, Mr Kendrick...?’
‘I suppose I must for the short duration of my betrothal...unless my adorable fiancée will take pity on me and let me love her.’ Hugh gathered Beatrice in his arms, rocking her against his chest. ‘Do you know how many times I’ve railed at myself for letting you slip through my fingers? From the moment I walked away from you three years ago I’ve bitterly regretted my decision to act the martyr, leaving you to enjoy your life with a worthier man who could give you what I could not.’ He paused. ‘When I found out you’d attracted another suitor so quickly I was sure you’d easily forgotten me.’