‘Elise warned me I had fallen for Dr Burnett on the rebound. I remember feeling hurt and humiliated by your rejection and wanting somebody to boost my pride,’ Bea admitted.
‘I’m sorry, sweetheart, that I hurt you. At the time I thought I was the only one suffering. Your friend Fiona knew, of course, what a mess I was in, and kindly tolerated my pathetic courtship without taking offence. She told me bluntly to come back to you...but I’d heard Burnett was already courting you. I was a damnable fool! We might have started off as man and wife living in a garret, but we would have been together now for three years...’
‘No...it would not have worked, Hugh,’ Beatrice interjected on a sigh. ‘We might have quickly grown bitter towards one another, constantly fretting over bills and hating feeling beholden to Alex, who would have offered loans of money,’ Beatrice pointed out.
Hugh gave her a grateful smile for understanding so completely how humiliating such a situation would have been for him. His greatest fear had been losing Bea’s respect.
Suddenly Hugh urged her towards a chair and made her perch on its edge. Then, dropping to a knee, he pulled out a grand-looking box from his inside pocket. ‘Will you marry me, Beatrice, and keep me from slipping back into wicked ways?’
His teasing tone earned him a prim look from Beatrice. But soon her mock reproof was overcome by an expression of wonderment. Hugh had opened the casket to reveal a scintillating diamond ring nestling on a luxurious bed of satin.
‘Is this the gift you brought with you this afternoon?’ she asked, struck by its opulence.
‘No...I wanted to give you your betrothal ring somewhere more appropriate than Oxford Street.’ Again his hand disappeared into a pocket, to withdraw a smaller, plainer jewellery box. ‘I brought this with me to show to you. I wanted to convince you that I was not toying with your affections when we first met. It was always my intention to propose to you, even if the best I could afford was a betrothal ring of very little value.’
‘You have kept it all this time...?’ Bea breathed softly. ‘Show it to me...please...’ she coaxed hoarsely when he hesitated in opening the lid of the little box. Reaching out a single digit, Bea stroked the tiny cluster of sapphires embedded in a thin golden shank.
‘I bought it because the blue stones match your eyes. I hoped you might be swayed to accept it with such a sweet thought attached to it. Then my pride took over...’
Bea raised her eyes to his face, seeing for the first time a bashfulness shaping his features, making him look appealingly boyish. ‘Indeed, there was no need for you to have felt ashamed of your gift,’ she reassured him. ‘In fact, if you were to allow me to choose between the two...’
She reached out a hand and removed the small golden band from its resting place. Handing it to him, she extended her left hand towards him.
‘I will marry you, Mr Kendrick, even though you have made me wait far too long to hear you ask me to be your wife.’
After he’d slipped the sapphires onto her finger she curled the digit, securing it in place.
Springing to his feet, Hugh whipped her up into his arms, making her gasp as he spun them both about. ‘You’ve made me the happiest man, even though you don’t like your flawless Golkonda diamond.’
‘Oh, I do, Hugh!’ Beatrice cupped his abrasive chin between her palms. ‘Of course I do. But this is my betrothal ring...the one I always wanted...the one I would so proudly have worn three years ago.’ She extended her finger, admiring the small blue gems. ‘That other, finer gift you may give to me another time...perhaps on the birth of our first child...’ she murmured, blushing.
Hugh let her feet drop to the floor in a way that sensually slid together their bodies. ‘Well, I want to see you wearing that diamond, sweet, so we’d better start on making our family very soon.’
With a confidence that stopped her heart he covered her mouth with his in a kiss that was simultaneously demanding yet reverential. Keeping their faces fused together with a hand cupping her scalp, Hugh manoeuvred them slowly towards the armchair. He sat with Bea on his lap, deepening the kiss as he repositioned her to sit facing him, straddling his thighs.
Swift fingers worked open the buttons on her bodice and the ribbons of her chemise. With teasing leisure he lowered his mouth to the breasts he’d exposed, feasting on the plump milky flesh like a ravenous man. One of his hands swept up her skirt, his fingers caressing the soft inner skin of her thighs with long strokes that stopped a hair’s breadth from their apex.
‘Hugh...’ Bea groaned, throwing back her head and squirming against the tormenting pulse rocking her body. ‘Should we not go upstairs? I don’t care—honestly I do not—if you make love to me properly before I go home. But I must return because they will all worry where I am...’