Christopher had been far more effective in combat than he or anyone else had ever expected. And the more successful he’d become at bringing death to others, the more dead he had felt inside.
But there was Prudence. That was the only decent part of him left, the part that loved her. The thought of going to her filled him with agitation.
He still found it difficult to sleep, often waking up bolt upright in the middle of a nightmare. And there were moments in the day when he twitched at a sudden noise and found himself fumbling for a rifle that wasn’t there. But he was certain all of that would improve in time.
It had to.
Obviously there was no reason to hope for anything, where Christopher Phelan was concerned. Beatrix kept reminding herself of that fact. He wanted Prudence. Beautiful, golden-haired, conventional Prudence.
It was the first time in Beatrix’s life that she had wanted to be someone other than who she really was.
“I think you might be my only chance of becoming part of the world again . . .”
Perhaps Prudence, after all, was best suited to help Christopher. She was at ease with society in a way that Beatrix could never be. Very well. If that was best for him, Beatrix could not find it in her heart to blame him for that. The man had endured enough pain and hardship—Beatrix did not want to cause any further difficulties for him.
Except . . . she couldn’t stop thinking about him. It was like an illness. It was impossible for her to carry on as usual. She was constantly on the verge of tears. She felt feverish and fatigued and bereft of appetite. In fact, she had become so morose that Amelia had insisted on brewing a pot of sorrel tonic for her.
“You’re not yourself,” Amelia had said. “You’re usually so cheerful.”
“Why should I be cheerful if there’s no reason for it?” Beatrix had asked sullenly.
“Is there a reason to be miserable?”
Beatrix had longed to confide in her sister, but she had kept silent. There was nothing Amelia could do about the situation. Besides, telling a hundred people, a thousand, wouldn’t have made her feel any better. She was pining for a man she could never have, and she didn’t want to be told how ridiculous it was. She didn’t even want to stop pining. The desperate strength of her wanting was her one frail link with Christopher.
She was so obsessed with him that she had actually considered going to London for the rest of the season. She would be able to visit Audrey, and she would also be able to see Christopher. Except that she would also be forced to see him with Prudence . . . dancing, flirting, courting . . . and Beatrix was quite certain that she couldn’t bear that.
No, she would stay in Hampshire where she belonged.
Audrey had said that was a wise decision.
“He has changed, Bea, and not for the better. When Christopher first returned from the Crimea, I was so tempted to tell him the truth about the letters. That you were the one who had written to him, and not Prudence. But now I’m glad I didn’t. I wouldn’t want to encourage an attachment between you and Christopher. He’s not himself. He drinks more than he should. He’s easily startled. Sometimes he’ll hear or see something that isn’t there. And I know he’s not sleeping—I often hear him wandering through the house at night. But when I try to talk to him, he brushes my questions away as if I’m being silly. And sometimes a simple question—anything to do with the war, especially—sends him into a rage that he has difficulty controlling. I wonder . . .”
“What?” Beatrix whispered, wrenched with concern.
Audrey had looked at her directly. “I wonder if Prudence can manage him. He’s so determined to have her . . . but he’s not the man he was. And Prudence won’t have the sense to realize it. I even wonder if he’ll be a danger to her.”
Pondering Audrey’s ominous words, Beatrix walked to the Phelans’ house with a mission in mind. Although there was nothing she could do for Christopher, there was a great deal she could do for Albert. An aggressive dog was likely to do harm to others, and he would be deprived of necessary love and attention. Dogs were inherently sociable animals, and therefore Albert must be taught how to get on with other creatures.
The Phelan housekeeper, Mrs. Clocker, greeted her at the door and said that Audrey was not at home, but was soon expected to return from a visit to the village. “Will you want to wait for her, Miss Hathaway?”
“As a matter of fact, I would like to speak to Captain Phelan on a particular business.” Beatrix smiled faintly at the housekeeper’s questioning gaze. “I want to offer to look after Albert while Captain Phelan is in London.”
The housekeeper’s eyes widened. “The master had planned to leave the creature here, and have the servants look after it.” Leaning close, she whispered, “He is a hound of Hades, miss. The devil himself wouldn’t have such a dog.”
Beatrix smiled sympathetically. “I hope that I may influence him for the better. If Captain Phelan allows, I will take Albert with me today, and relieve you of the burden of managing him.”
Mrs. Clocker looked positively exuberant. “Oh, that is very kind of you, Miss Hathaway! I will inform Captain Phelan immediately.” She hurried off as if she feared Beatrix might leave.
When Christopher’s tall form entered the front receiving room, Beatrix was instantly covered with a full-bodied flush. Stop this at once, Beatrix Hathaway, she told herself sternly. If you insist on being idiotic, you will have to go home and drink an entire bottle of sorrel tonic.
“Miss Hathaway,” Christopher said, bowing with meticulous politeness.
The dark smudges of sleeplessness beneath his eyes made him even more appealing, if that was possible, lending a human texture to the hard contours of his face.
Beatrix managed to pull up a casual smile. “Good morning, Captain Phelan.”
“Oh, is it?” She glanced over his shoulder at the mantel clock. Half-past twelve. “Good afternoon, then.”
One of his brows lifted. “Is there something I may do for you?”
“The reverse, I hope. I would like to keep Albert with me at Ramsay House while you are away to London.”
His eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“I want very much to help him adjust to his new life. Albert would receive the best of care, and I would work with him, train him . . .” Her voice faded as she saw his forbidding expression. It had not occurred to her that he might refuse her offer.
“Thank you, Miss Hathaway. But I think it in his best interests to remain here with the servants.”
“You . . . you doubt I could help him?” Beatrix managed to ask.
“The dog is excitable. He has need of absolute peace and quiet. I mean no offense in saying that the atmosphere at Ramsay House is too tumultuous for him.”
Her brows rushed downward. “I beg your pardon, Captain, but you are entirely wrong. That is precisely the kind of environment Albert needs. You see, from a dog’s perspective—”
“I don’t need your advice.”
“Yes you do,” Beatrix said impulsively. “How can you be so certain that you’re right? You could at least spare a moment to listen—I daresay I know more about dogs than you.”
Christopher skewered her with the hard stare of a man who was not accustomed to having his decisions questioned. “No doubt you do. But I know more about this one.”
“It’s time for you to leave, Miss Hathaway.”
Beatrix was filled with a surge of bitter disappointment. “What do you think your servants will do with him in your absence?” she demanded, and rushed on before he could reply. “They’ll keep him shut away in a shed, or locked in a room, because they’re frightened of him, and that will make Albert even more of a danger. He’s angry and anxious and lonely. He doesn’t know what’s expected of him. He needs constant attention and care, and I’m the only person who has the time and the willingness to provide those things.”
“That dog has been my companion for two years,” Christopher snapped. “The last thing I would subject him to is that bedlam of a household. He doesn’t need chaos. He doesn’t need noise and confusion—”
He was interrupted by an explosion of wild barking, accompanied by an earsplitting metallic crash. Albert had come racing through the entrance hall and had crossed paths with a housemaid bearing a tray of polished silver flatware.
Beatrix caught a glimpse of forks and spoons scattering to the doorway, just before she was thrown bodily to the receiving room floor. The impact robbed her of breath.
Stunned, she found herself pinned to the carpet and covered by a heavy masculine weight.
Dazedly she tried to take in the situation. Christopher had jumped on her. His arms were around her head . . . he had instinctively moved to shelter her with his own body. They lay together in a confusion of limbs and disheveled garments and panting breaths.
Lifting his head, Christopher cast a wary glance at their surroundings. For a moment, the blank ferocity of his face frightened Beatrix. This, she realized, was how he had looked in battle. This was what his enemies had seen as he had cut them down.
Albert rushed toward them, baying furiously.
“No,” Beatrix said in a low tone, extending her arm to point at him. “Down.”
The dog’s barking flattened into a growl, and he slowly lowered to the floor. His gaze didn’t move from his master.
Beatrix turned her attention back to Christopher. He was gasping and swallowing, struggling to regain his wits. “Christopher,” she said carefully, but he didn’t seem to hear. At this moment, no words would reach him.
She slid her arms around him, one at his shoulders, the other at his waist. He was a large man, superbly fit, his powerful body trembling. A feeling of searing tenderness swept through her, and she let her fingers stroke the rigid nape of his neck.
Albert whined softly, watching the two of them.
Beyond Christopher’s shoulder, Beatrix glimpsed the housemaid standing uncertainly at the doorway, stray forks clutched in her hand.
Although Beatrix didn’t give a fig about appearances or scandal, she cared very much about shielding Christopher during a vulnerable moment. He would not want anyone to see him when he was not fully in command of himself.
“Leave us,” she said quietly.
“Yes, miss.” Gratefully the maid fled, closing the door behind her.
Beatrix returned her attention to Christopher, who didn’t seem to have noticed the exchange. Carefully she drew his head down and turned her cheek against his glinting amber hair. And she waited, letting him feel the even rhythm of her breathing.
The scent of him was clean, summery, like hot sun and saffron. Her eyes closed as she felt his body press along hers with intriguing firmness, his knees digging into the billowing mass of her skirts.
A minute passed, and another. For the rest of her life she would remember lying alone with him in a bright square of sunlight from the window . . . the delicious weight of him, the intimate heat of his breath collecting against her neck. She would have lived in that moment forever, if it were possible. I love you, she thought. I am madly, desperately, permanently in love with you.
His head lifted, and he looked down at her with bewildered gray eyes. “Beatrix.” His ragged whisper thrilled along her nerves. His hands cradled her head, long fingers weaving gently through her tumbled dark locks. “Have I hurt you?”
Beatrix’s stomach went tight. She shook her head, unable to speak. Oh, the way he was looking at her, really looking at her . . . this was the Christopher of her dreams. This was the man who had written to her. He was so caring, and real, and dazzling, that she wanted to weep.
“I thought . . .” Christopher broke off and drew his thumb over the hot surface of her cheek.
“I know,” she whispered, her nerves sparking at his touch.
“I didn’t mean to do that.”
His gaze went to her parted lips, lingering until she felt it like a caress. Her heart labored to supply blood to her nerveless limbs. Every breath caused her body to lift up against his, a teasing friction of firm flesh and clean, warm linen.
Beatrix was transfixed by the subtle changes in his face, the heightening color, the silver brightness of his eyes. Possibilities entered the quietness, like sun breaking through forest canopy.
She wondered if he were going to kiss her.
And a single word flashed through her mind.
Christopher tensed against the shaking in his muscles. His heartbeat roared in his ears. He struggled to comprehend how he had so utterly lost control of the situation. A noise had startled him, and he had reacted without thinking. He had been aware of nothing until he had found himself lying over Beatrix, trying to protect her, trying to protect them both . . . and when the ferocious heartbeat had faded from his ears, he was suffused with the hideous awareness of what he had done.
Knocking a defenseless woman to the ground. Leaping on her like a madman. Christ. He felt disoriented, and more than a little crazed. He might have injured her.
He had to help her up, offer an apology. Instead he watched as his exploring fingertips went to her throat, stroking a tiny pulse. Holy hell, what was he doing?
It had been a long time since a woman had held him. It felt so good that he couldn’t make himself release her just yet. Her body cradled his with supple feminine strength. Those slim, gentle fingers continued to stroke the back of his neck. He had never seen such blue eyes, clear and dark like Bristol blue glass.
Christopher tried to remember the reasons why he shouldn’t want her. He even tried to summon thoughts of Prudence, but it was impossible. He closed his eyes and felt her breath striking his chin. He felt her everywhere, with his entire body, her scent in his nose and throat, her warmth sinking into him.
It seemed as if all the months and years of need had distilled to this one moment, this slender form tucked beneath his. He was actually afraid of what he might do to her. He knew he should roll away, put distance between them, but all he could do was gather in the sensations of her, the enticing rise and fall of her breasts, the feel of her legs splayed beneath the layers of her skirts. The stroke of her fingers on his nape raised chills of pleasure, and at the same time turned his flesh hot with need.
Desperately he groped for her hands and pinned them over her head.
Her gaze provoked him, invited him closer. He could feel the force of will in her, radiant as heat, and everything in him responded to it. Fascinated, he watched a blush spread over her skin. He wanted to follow the spreading color with his fingers and mouth.
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