Read an Excerpt
'Of course I do not understand!' Beatrice Dewey's blue gaze was fixed on her fiancé's face in shocked disbelief. 'How is any woman supposed to comprehend that the man she believes will shortly be her husband must marry another?' She pressed pale, quivering fingers to her brow. 'Repeat to me your news, please, and furthermore tell me why I should accept it.'
Colin Burnett's deep sigh displayed his regret. He stretched a hand towards Beatrice but she evaded his comfort in a swish of pastel muslin.
'Tell me, Colin! An explanationa dozen explanations if I wish to have themis the least you owe me.' Beatrice turned back to him, eyes sparking icy fire.
Ten minutes ago Mrs Francis, the Deweys' housekeeper, had interrupted Beatrice's letter-writing to announce that Dr Burnett had called on her. Beatrice had joined her fiancé in the front sitting room with a sunny smile, proving her gladness at this unexpected visit. Her happiness had started to wither before he'd uttered a single word: she'd read from Colin's demeanour that something was dreadfully wrong.
Not for a moment had she believed him jesting when he had quietly informed her that their wedding must be called off. Colin was not one for levity; neither was he a man who liked a drama. Beatrice could tell this predicament was causing him equal embarrassment and sorrow, but was conscious that he seemed nowhere near as wounded as was she at the idea of them parting.
'You know if there were any other way around this I would take it. I want you as my wife, Beatrice. I love you'
'I don't see how you can love me not really,' Beatrice interrupted harshly, 'if you are prepared to jilt me because you'd sooner have money.'
'It is not just about the money, my dear.' Colin sounded pained, and a trifle exasperated by her accusation. 'My family's reputation and estates are founded on the baronetcy. The Burnetts were granted the title as long ago as the Norman Conquest and it has passed through our male line ever since.' He cast his eyes heavenwards, seeking inspiration. 'If I reject the title and estates everything will be returned to the crown. How am I to explain that to my relations?'
Beatrice gave an impatient shrug. Her fiance's logical reference to history and his kin, when her heart was breaking, was simply increasing her indignation.
'My uncle was not an easy man to fathom,' Colin continued doggedly, thrusting his fingers through a shock of auburn hair. 'He was known as an eccentric, but had I for one moment realised what madness he planned I would have privately set lawyers the task of finding a loophole to wriggle out of his stipulations. As it is, I must bow to his whim or lose everything.'
'So instead of forfeiting your birthright and choosing to remain much as you are: a country doctor of modest meanswhich is the person I fell in love withyou would dance to a dead man's tune to have his fortune and his title?'
Now her shock was receding anger was bringing Beatrice close to tears. She wouldn't beg the man with whom she'd planned to spend her life to honour his proposal, neither would she attempt to shame him into doing so. If he went ahead and married his cousin Stella instead of her then Beatrice knew she would have learned something vitally important and deeply upsetting about Colin's character. And also about her own: she had previously believed she'd become a reasonable judge of people.
'If you have chosen to comply with the terms of your uncle's will, then there is nothing more to be said,' Beatrice whispered. 'All I would ask before you leave is that you find the courtesy to explain to my father why he has wasted his money on my wedding day.' Hot brine squeezed between her lashes and she averted her face.
'I will of course make any financial reparation necessary,' Colin vowed stiltedly.
As he took her elbow to turn her towards him Beatrice flinched from his touch as though scalded. 'I think you should go now, sir.'
'Please don't hate me, Beatrice I couldn't stand it.'
'I have a lot more to stand than you, I think.' Beatrice gazed stormily into eyes that were pleading for compassion. 'Please do not beg me for anything. Especially that I should not hate you for squandering three years of my life and destroying my future happiness.' She distanced herself from him, an odd lethargy enveloping her. 'In truth I do not hate you, Colin I am coming to realise that I pity you for allowing a person you barely knew to dupe you and dictate to you.' She smiled sourly. 'I've let you kiss and caress me, yet despite our intimacy I never really knew you. I'd not imagined you capable of acting in such a callous and selfish way.'
Beatrice noticed the faint colour rising in his cheeks at her wounding criticism.
'It is because I refuse to act selfishly that I must give you up.' Colin cleared his throat. 'I have a family duty to uphold.'
'What about your duty to me?' Beatrice cried. But she knew it was too late. If he were to change his mind and refuse his birthright to marry her instead things would never be right between them. She could never recapture the person she'd been just twenty minutes ago, when excitedly smoothing her hair and gown before speeding down the stairs to joyfully welcome her fiancé and ask him to stay to dine with them.
He too would be different: outwardly Colin might claim to have forgiven her for making him forfeit his inheritance. Inwardly his bitter disappointment might fester and grow until it destroyed the love he professed to still have for her.
'I made a mistake in giving you my heart, but in time I will appreciate you handing it back to me. The pain will pass now I have come to understand your character better.' Beatrice paused, a part of her relishing the hurt she had brought to his eyes with that brutal comment. But she was not by nature spiteful and the feeling soon faded. 'My father is in his study. Please call on him before leaving and do the honourable thing. He is not a wealthy man, as you know, and has scrimped to buy my trousseau.'
'My uncle was fifty-five and if he knew he was not long for this world he kept it to himself. Had he been old and infirm I would have had more cause to check on the terms of my inheritance.' Colin strode to block Beatrice's path as she made to exit the room.
'I've had explanations enough,' Beatrice rebuffed coolly. 'There is no need for you to tarry longer. I hope you find your new wealth and status make up for what you and I have lost.' She withdrew a small garnet ring from her finger and held it out. 'Yours, I believe. Now, please let me pass.'
Colin's lips tightened at Beatrice's frosty tone but he took the gem and pocketed it, standing aside. 'I've suffered too I'll never forget you '
Beatrice heard his plaintive farewell as she closed the parlour door. With her eyes filled with burning water she approached the stairs. She would wait in her bedchamber till Colin left, then go and see her father.
Beatrice knew her papa would need comforting over this calamity as much as she did. Walter Dewey had liked Dr Burnett as his physician and as his future son-in-law. Colin had promised financial reparation and she hoped her father would not be too proud or too angry to accept the cash.
Her sister, Elise, would be shocked to discover she was not shortly to be a matron of honour. Elise lived in Mayfair and had done her best to persuade her kin to join her as permanent house guests following her marriage to Viscount Blackthorne. Alex had a fabulous mansion on Upper Brook Street. But Walter Dewey had insisted a quiet pastoral life suited him. Beatrice had also been happy to remain in bucolic bliss in Hertfordshire as her physician fiancé was living and working in the vicinity of St Albans.
Now Beatrice wondered if Colin had always wished to improve his prospects from that of country doctor, and if so whether he might immediately move to town with his intended wife to enjoy what remained of the season.
At twenty-five, Beatrice accepted that in the eyes of the world she was past her marriageable prime. Most of the friends she'd made during her debut were now married with children. Colin's future bride was not known to Beatriceunsurprisingly, as she'd just learned her rival was some seven years her junior and had just made her come-out. Bea had digested that much about Stella Rawlings before shock had snatched away her senses, leaving her momentarily deaf to the horrible details of Colin's visit.
The light tap on the door brought Bea's head up off the pillow. She had been dozing on her bed's coverlet while waiting for the sound of the doctor's departure from her house, and her life. Beatrice knuckled her tired eyes as she went to the door, realising she'd cried herself into a deeper sleep than she'd wished to have.
'Papa!' Beatrice frowned in consternation. 'You should not have come upstairs!' She sent a searching glance over her father's stooped shoulder. 'Did Mr Francis help you with the climb?'
Walter Dewey waved away his daughter's concern as he made slow progress into her bedchamber assisted by a wooden walking stick. 'Norman is out hunting rabbits for our dinner.' He explained the manservant's absence. 'My small struggle is nothing to the pain I know you must be suffering my dear.'
Walter eased himself down into the armchair by the window. Raising his tired eyes to his daughter's wan face he shook his head to indicate he felt lost for words.
'Dr Burnett has gone?' Beatrice croaked.
'He has, and with my opinion of him ringing in his ears.'
Beatrice dropped to her knees by her father's chair and took a dry, withered hand between her soft palms. 'Please don't be upset over it, Papa,' she whispered, fearful for his health. She could hear his laboured breathing and see a greyish circle outlining his lips. 'My heart will mend.'
'You have a resilient ticker, then, my love,' Walter remarked wryly. How many times now has it been broken in two by some fellow?'
Beatrice knew her father was referring to her past romances that had founderedusually because the gentleman involved had no money and could not afford to get married. How ironic that this time she must remain a spinster because the reverse were true. Her fiancé had recently received his inheritance and with it a demand to jilt her.
'Had this confounded Sir Donald not died when he did, leaving his odious terms and conditions, you would shortly have been Mrs Burnett.'
Walter gazed levelly at his daughter's upturned face. Beatrice had always been a beauty; some said she was fairer than her younger sister, who had bagged herself a nobleman three years ago. Walter thought them equally wonderful, in their own ways, although he wished Beatrice resembled her younger sister in one aspect: Elise had chosen to give her heart just the once, and very wisely.
Two previous roguesbesotted by Beatrice's golden-haired loveliness, Walter was surehad encouraged his elder girl to think they would propose, then bitten their tongues at the last minute. In both cases it had transpired that they must fortune-hunt for a bride, being penniless.
Out in the sticks and cut off from the cream of polite society he might be, but Walter was cognizant with marriage mart standards: Beatrice's chances of finding a spouse diminished with every failed romance and every year that passed.
In Walter's opinion Beatrice was as lovely at twenty-five as she'd been when half a decade younger. Her creamy complexion was smooth and unblemished and her blonde hair appeared as shiny and abundant as it had been when she was a teenager. Her figure was enviably slender, yet curvaceous enough to catch a man's eye, and her vivacity made people take to her instantly. Yet still his elder girl remained at home with him because he'd never had the means to provide either of his daughters with a dowry.
Elise had married a millionaire who'd stated bluntly that the privilege of marrying Walter's daughter was payment enough. Unfortunately a similar good and generous fellow had never crossed Beatrice's path, catching her eye.
Colin Burnett had come closest to walking her down the aisle, and thus Walter despised him the most.
'Do you think Burnett truthfully had no idea of the clause in his uncle's will?'
Beatrice gave a little nod. 'I believe him sincere on that; as for greatly adoring me and never forgetting me, that I now find harder to swallow.' Her father's thin fingers closed comfortingly on hers. 'Did Colin offer to pay back the cash you spent on wedding preparations?' Bea asked huskily.
'He did,' Walter confirmed, bringing his daughter's hand to his cool lips.
'It is only fair you are not left out of pocket because of him. You will take what is due to you, won't you, Papa?' Beatrice used the heel of her hand on her cheek to remove a trickle of tears.
'Indeed I shall!' Walter forcefully concurred. 'I admit there was a moment when I felt like telling him to take himself and his money off to rot in hell but I didn't.' He rumbled a chuckle. 'He might be getting off scot-free from a breach of promise suit but he won't wriggle out of my expenses so easily. Mark my words, my dear, Burnett will get his comeuppance for treating you so shabbily.'