“Let me try,” she said gently.
Christopher fell back a step, his breath catching. His body responded to her touch with disconcerting swiftness. A lady never put her hand to any area of a man’s torso unless the circumstances were so extreme that . . . well, he couldn’t even imagine what would justify it. Perhaps if his waistcoat was on fire, and she was trying to put it out. Other than that, he couldn’t think of any defensible reason.
And yet if he were to point out the breach of etiquette, the act of correcting a lady was just as graceless. Troubled and aroused, Christopher gave her a single nod.
The men resumed their seats after Beatrix had left the room.
“Forgive us, Captain Phelan,” Amelia murmured. “I can see that my sister startled you. Really, we’ve tried to learn better manners, but we’re Philistines, all of us. And while Beatrix is out of hearing, I would like to assure you that she doesn’t usually dress so outlandishly. However, every now and then she goes on an undertaking that makes long skirts inadvisable. Replacing a bird in a nest, for example, or training a horse, and so forth.”
“A more conventional solution,” Christopher said carefully, “would be to forbid the activity that necessitated the wearing of men’s garments.”
Rohan grinned. “One of my private rules for dealing with Hathaways,” he said, “is never to forbid them anything. Because that guarantees they’ll keep doing it.”
“Heavens, we’re not as bad as all that,” Amelia protested.
Rohan gave his wife a speaking glance, his smile lingering. “Hathaways require freedom,” he told Christopher, “Beatrix in particular. An ordinary life—being contained in parlors and drawing rooms—would be a prison for her. She relates to the world in a far more vital and natural way than any gadji I’ve ever known.” Seeing Christopher’s incomprehension, he added, “That’s the word the Rom uses for females of your kind.”
“And because of Beatrix,” Amelia said, “we possess a menagerie of creatures no one else wants: a goat with an undershot jaw, a three-legged cat, a portly hedgehog, a mule with an unbalanced build, and so forth.”
“A mule?” Christopher stared at her intently, but before he could ask about it, Beatrix returned with Albert on the leash.
Christopher stood and moved to take the dog, but Beatrix shook her head. “Thank you, Captain, but I have him in hand.”
Albert wagged his tail wildly at the sight of Christopher and lunged toward him with a bark.
“No,” Beatrix scolded, pulling him back and putting her hand briefly to his muzzle. “Your master is safe. No need to make a fuss. Come.” Reaching for a pillow from a low-backed settee, she placed it in the corner.
Christopher watched as she led the dog to the pillow and removed the leash. Albert whimpered and refused to lie down, but he remained obediently in the corner. “Stay,” she told him.
To Christopher’s amazement, Albert didn’t move. A dog who thought nothing of running through gunfire was completely cowed by Beatrix Hathaway.
“I think he’ll behave,” Beatrix said, returning to the table. “But it would be best if we paid him no attention.” She sat, placed a napkin in her lap, and reached for her teacup. She smiled as she saw Christopher’s expression. “Be at ease, Captain,” she said gently. “The more relaxed you are, the calmer he will be.”
In the hour that followed, Christopher drank cups of hot sugared tea and let the gently animated conversation flow around him. Slowly, a string of tight, cold knots inside his chest began to loosen. A plate filled with sandwiches and tarts was set before him. Occasionally he glanced at Albert, who had settled in the corner, his chin on his paws.
The Hathaways were new in Christopher’s experience. They were intelligent, amusing, their conversation veering and dashing in unexpected directions. And it was clear to him that the sisters were too clever for polite society. The one subject they didn’t tread upon was the Crimea, for which Christopher was grateful. They seemed to understand that the topic of war was the last thing he wanted to discuss. For that reason among others, he liked them.
But Beatrix was a problem.
Christopher didn’t know what to make of her. He was mystified and annoyed by the familiar way she spoke to him. And the sight of her in those breeches, her legs crossed like a man’s, was unsettling. She was strange. Subversive and half tame.
When the tea was concluded, Christopher thanked them for the agreeable afternoon.
“You will call again soon, I hope,” Amelia said.
“Yes,” Christopher said, not meaning it. He was fairly certain that the Hathaways, although enjoyable, were best taken in small, infrequent doses.
“I’ll walk with you to the edge of the forest,” Beatrix announced, going to collect Albert.
Christopher suppressed a twinge of exasperation. “That won’t be necessary, Miss Hathaway.”
“Oh, I know it’s not,” she said. “But I want to.”
Christopher’s jaw tightened. He reached for Albert’s leash.
“I have him,” Beatrix said, retaining the leash.
Conscious of Rohan’s amused regard, Christopher bit back a retort, and followed Beatrix from the house.
Amelia went to the parlor windows and watched the two distant figures proceed through the orchard toward the forest. The apple trees, frosted with light green buds and white blossoms, soon conspired to hide the pair from view.
She puzzled over the way Beatrix had behaved with the stern-faced soldier, pecking and chirping at him, almost as if she were trying to remind him of something he’d forgotten.
Cam joined her at the window, standing behind her. She leaned back against him, taking comfort in her husband’s steady, strong presence. One of his hands glided along her front. She shivered in pleasure at the casual sensuality of his touch.
“Poor man,” Amelia murmured, thinking of Phelan’s haunting eyes. “I didn’t recognize him at first. I wonder if he knows how much he has changed?”
Cam’s lips played lightly at her temple as he replied. “I suspect he is realizing it now that he’s home.”
“He was very charming before. Now he seems so austere. And the way he stares sometimes, as if he’s looking right through one . . .”
“He’s spent two years burying his friends,” Cam replied quietly. “And he’s taken part in the kind of close combat that makes a man as hard as nails.” He paused reflectively. “Some of it you can’t leave behind. The faces of the men you kill stay with you forever.”
Knowing that he was remembering a particular episode of his own past, Amelia turned and hugged herself close to him.
“The Rom don’t believe in war,” Cam said against her hair. “Conflict, arguing, fighting, yes. But not in taking the life of a man with whom one has no personal grievance. Which is one of many reasons why I would not make a good soldier.”
“But for those same reasons, you make a very good husband.”
Cam’s arms tightened around her, and he whispered something in Romany. Although she didn’t understand the words, the rough-soft sound of them caused her nerves to tingle.
Amelia nestled closer. With her cheek against his chest, she reflected aloud, “It’s obvious that Beatrix is fascinated by Captain Phelan.”
“She’s always been drawn to wounded creatures.”
“The wounded ones are often the most dangerous.”
His hand moved in a soothing stroke along her spine. “We’ll keep a close watch on her, monisha.”
Beatrix kept pace easily with Christopher as they headed toward the forest. It nagged at him to have someone else holding Albert’s leash. Beatrix’s assertiveness was like a pebble lodged in the toe of his shoe. And yet when she was near, it was impossible to feel detached from his surroundings. She had a knack of keeping him anchored in the present.
He couldn’t stop watching how her legs and h*ps moved in those breeches. What was her family thinking, to allow her to dress this way? Even in private it was unacceptable. A humorless smile curved his lips as he reflected that he had at least one thing in common with Beatrix Hathaway—neither of them was in step with the rest of the world.
The difference was that he wanted to be.
It had been so easy for him, before the war. He had always known the right thing to do or say. Now the prospect of reentering polite society seemed rather like playing a game in which he had forgotten the rules.
“Will you sell your army commission soon?” Beatrix asked.
Christopher nodded. “I’m leaving for London in a few days to make the arrangements.”
“Oh.” Beatrix’s tone was noticeably subdued as she said, “I suppose you’ll call on Prudence.”
Christopher made a noncommittal sound. Inside his coat pocket rested the small, tattered note he carried with him always.
I’m not who you think I am . . .
Come back, please come home and find me.
Yes. He would find her, and discover why she had written those haunting words. And then he would marry her.
“Now that your brother is gone,” Beatrix said, “you’ll have to learn how to manage the Riverton estate.”
“Among other things,” he said curtly.
“Riverton encompasses a large part of the forest of Arden.”
“I was aware of that,” Christopher said gently.
She didn’t seem to notice the touch of sarcasm. “Some estate owners are overcutting, to supply the local manufacturing businesses. I hope you won’t do that.”
Christopher remained silent, hoping that would quell further conversation.
“Do you want to inherit Riverton?” Beatrix surprised him by asking.
“It doesn’t matter whether I want it or not. I’m next in line, and I’ll do what is required.”
“But it does matter,” Beatrix said. “That’s why I asked.”
Losing his patience, Christopher said, “The answer is no, I don’t want it. It was always supposed to be for John. I feel like a bloody impostor trying to assume his place.”
With anyone else, the burst of vehemence would have put an end to the questioning. But Beatrix persisted. “What would you have done if he was still alive? You would still sell your commission, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes. I’ve had enough of the army.”
“And then? What would you do?”
“I don’t know.”
“What are your aptitudes? Your talents?”
Their footsteps slowed as they reached the woods. His talents . . . he could hold his liquor, beat a man at billiards or cards, seduce a woman. He was a crack shot and an excellent rider.
Then Christopher thought of the thing in his life he had most been lauded for, and showered with praise and medals.
“I have one talent,” he said, taking Albert’s leash from Beatrix’s hand. He looked down into her round eyes. “I’m good at killing.”
Without another word, he left her standing at the edge of the forest.
In the week after Christopher had returned to Hampshire, the discord between him and his mother became so pronounced that they found it difficult to occupy the same room for more than a few minutes at a time. Poor Audrey did her best to serve as peacemaker, without much success.
Mrs. Phelan had fallen into a habit of relentless complaining. She couldn’t go through a room without tossing out nagging comments like a flower girl flinging handfuls of petals at a wedding. Her nerves were acutely sensitive, obliging her to lie quietly in a dark room in the middle of the day, every day. A collection of aches and pains kept her from supervising the household, and as a result, nothing was ever done to her satisfaction.
During Mrs. Phelan’s daily resting period, she reacted to the rattling of plates in the kitchen as if she had been stabbed with invisible knives. The murmur of voices or the thud of feet on the upper floors were agony to her nerves. The entire household had to tread upon eggs for fear of disturbing her.
“I’ve seen men who had just lost arms or legs and complained far less than my mother,” Christopher told Audrey, who had grinned ruefully.
Sobering, Audrey said, “Lately she has become fixed in her mourning rituals . . . almost as if her grieving will keep John with her in some way. I’m glad your uncle is coming for her tomorrow. The pattern of her days needs to be broken.”
At least four mornings a week, Mrs. Phelan went to the family burial plot at the graveyard of the Stony Cross church, and spent an hour at John’s grave. Since she did not want to go unaccompanied, she usually asked Audrey to go with her. However, yesterday Mrs. Phelan had insisted that Christopher escort her. He had waited for an hour in grim-faced silence while she knelt by John’s headstone and let a few tears fall.
After she had finally indicated that she wished to rise, and Christopher had gone to help her to her feet, she had wanted him to kneel and pray as she had.
He hadn’t been able to do it, not even to please her.
“I’ll mourn in my own way,” Christopher had told her. “At a time of my choosing, not yours.”
“It’s not decent,” Mrs. Phelan said heatedly, “this lack of respect for him. Your brother deserves to be mourned, or at least be given a show of it, by the man who has profited so greatly by his death.”
Christopher had stared at her in disbelief. “I have profited?” he had repeated in a low voice. “You know I never gave a damn about inheriting Riverton. I would give everything I have, if it would bring him back. If I could have sacrificed my life to save his, I would have.”
“How I wish that had been possible,” she had said acidly, and they had ridden back to the house in silence.
And all the while, Christopher had wondered how many hours she had sat at John’s grave and wished that one son were in the place of the other.
John had been the perfect son, responsible and reliable. Christopher, however, had been the wilder, rougher son, sensual and reckless and careless. Like his father, William. Every time William had been caught up in some kind of scandal in London, often involving some other man’s wife, Mrs. Phelan had been cold and distant to Christopher, as if he had been the designated proxy of her unfaithful husband. When William Phelan died as a result of being thrown by a horse, it had been whispered in London that the only surprise was that he had not been shot by some outraged husband or father of one of the women he had debauched.
Christopher had been twelve at the time. In his father’s absence, he had gradually inhabited the role of wild-living rake. It seemed to have been expected of him. The truth was that he had reveled in the pleasures of the city, no matter that such enjoyments were fleeting and hollow. Being an army officer had been the perfect employment for him . . . he had found it enjoyable in every regard. Until, Christopher reflected with a grim, private smile, he’d actually been called to go to war.
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