Instead he shook his head to clear it. “I’m sorry,” he said, and took a rough breath. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. A humorless laugh scraped in his throat. “I’m always apologizing to you.”
Her wrists relaxed in his hold. “This wasn’t your fault.”
Christopher wondered how the hell she could appear so composed. Aside from the stain of color in her cheeks, she showed no sign of unease. He had a quick, annoying sense of being managed. “I threw you to the floor.”
Her efforts to make him feel better were having the opposite effect. “Intentions don’t matter when you’ve been knocked over by someone twice your size.”
“Intentions always matter,” Beatrix said. “And I’m used to being knocked over.”
He let go of her hands. “This happens to you often?” he asked sardonically.
“Oh, yes. Dogs, children . . . everyone leaps on me.”
Christopher could well understand that. Leaping on her was the most pleasurable thing he’d done in years. “Being neither a dog nor a child,” he said, “I have no excuse.”
“The maid dropped a tray. Your reaction was perfectly understandable.”
“Was it?” Christopher asked bitterly, rolling off her. “I’ll be damned if I understand it.”
“Of course it was,” Beatrix said as he helped her up from the floor. “For a long time you’ve been conditioned to dive for cover every time a shell or canister exploded, or a bullet was fired. Just because you’ve come back home doesn’t mean that such reflexes can be easily discarded.”
Christopher couldn’t help wondering . . . Would Prudence have forgiven him so quickly, or reacted with such self-possession?
His face darkened as a new thought occurred to him. Did he have any right to go to Prudence, when his behavior was so unpredictable? He couldn’t put her at risk. He had to gain control over himself. But how? His reflexes were too strong, too fast.
At Christopher’s prolonged silence, Beatrix went to Albert and bent to pet him. The dog rolled on his back, offering his tummy.
Christopher straightened his clothes and shoved his hands into his trouser pockets.
“Will you reconsider your decision?” Beatrix asked. “About letting me take Albert?”
“No,” Christopher said brusquely.
“No?” she repeated, as if his refusal were inconceivable.
Christopher scowled. “You needn’t worry about him. I’ve left the servants specific instructions. He will be well cared for.”
Beatrix’s face was taut with indignation. “I’m sure you believe so.”
Nettled, he snapped, “I wish I took the same enjoyment in hearing your opinions that you take in airing them, Miss Hathaway.”
“I stand by my opinions when I know I’m right, Captain Phelan. Whereas you stand by yours merely because you’re stubborn.”
Christopher gave her a stony stare. “I will escort you out.”
“Don’t bother. I know the way.” She strode to the threshold, her back very straight.
Albert began to follow, until Christopher commanded him to come back.
Pausing at the threshold, Beatrix turned to give Christopher an oddly intent stare. “Please convey my fondness to Audrey. You both have my hopes for a pleasant journey to London.” She hesitated. “If you wouldn’t mind, please relay my good wishes to Prudence when you see her, and give her a message.”
“What is it?”
“Tell her,” Beatrix said quietly, “that I won’t break my promise.”
“What promise is that?”
Precisely three days after Christopher and Audrey had left for London, Beatrix went to the Phelans’ house to ask after Albert. As she had expected, the dog had set the household into chaos, having barked and howled incessantly, ripped carpeting and upholstery to shreds, and bitten a footman’s hand.
“And in addition,” the housekeeper, Mrs. Clocker, told Beatrix, “he won’t eat. One can already see his ribs. And the master will be furious if we let anything happen to him. Oh, this is the most trying dog, the most detestable creature I’ve ever encountered.”
A housemaid who was busy polishing the banister couldn’t seem to resist commenting, “He scares me witless. I can’t sleep at night, because he howls fit to wake the dead.”
The housekeeper looked aggrieved. “So he does. However, the master said we mustn’t let anyone take Albert. And as much as I long to be rid of the vicious beast, I fear the master’s displeasure even more.”
“I can help him,” Beatrix said softly. “I know I can.”
“The master or the dog?” Mrs. Clocker asked, as if she couldn’t help herself. Her tone was wry and despairing.
“I can start with the dog,” Beatrix said in a low undertone.
They exchanged a glance.
“I wish you could be given the chance,” Mrs. Clocker murmured. “This household doesn’t seem like a place where anyone could get better. It feels like a place where things wane and are extinguished.”
This, more than anything, spurred Beatrix into a decision. “Mrs. Clocker, I would never ask you to disobey Captain Phelan’s instructions. However . . . if I were to overhear you telling one of the housemaids where Albert is being kept at the moment, that’s hardly your fault, is it? And if Albert manages to escape and run off . . . and if some unknown person were to take Albert in and care for him but did not tell you about it immediately, you could not be blamed, could you?”
Mrs. Clocker beamed at her. “You are devious, Miss Hathaway.”
Beatrix smiled. “Yes, I know.”
The housekeeper turned to the housemaid. “Nellie,” she said clearly and distinctly. “I want to remind you that we’re keeping Albert in the little blue shed next to the kitchen garden.
“Yes, mum.” The housemaid didn’t even glance at Beatrix. “And I should remind you, mum, that his leash is on the half-moon table in the entrance hall.”
“Very good, Nellie. Perhaps you should run and tell the other servants and the gardener not to notice if anyone goes out to visit the blue shed.”
As the housemaid hurried away, Mrs. Clocker gave Beatrix a grateful glance. “I’ve heard that you work miracles with animals, Miss Hathaway. And that’s indeed what it will take, to tame that flea-ridden fiend.”
“I offer no miracles,” Beatrix said with a smile. “Merely persistence.”
“God bless you, miss. He’s a savage creature. If dog is man’s best friend, I worry for Captain Phelan.”
“So do I,” Beatrix said sincerely.
In a few minutes she had found the blue shed.
The shed, built to contain light gardening implements, shuddered as the creature inside lunged against the wall. A fury of barking erupted as Beatrix drew closer. Although Beatrix had no doubt of her ability to handle him, his ferocious baying, which sounded almost unearthly, was enough to give her pause.
The barking became more passionate, with cries and whimpers breaking in.
Slowly Beatrix lowered to the ground and sat with her back against the shed. “Calm yourself, Albert,” she said. “I’ll let you out as soon as you’re quiet.
The terrier growled and pawed at the door.
Having consulted several books on the subject of dogs, one on rough terriers in particular, Beatrix was fairly certain that training Albert with techniques involving dominance or punishment would not be at all effective. In fact, they would probably make his behavior worse. Terriers, the book had said, frequently tried to outsmart humans. The only method left was to reward his good behavior with praise and food and kindness.
“Of course you’re unhappy, poor boy. He’s gone away, and your place is by his side. But I’ve come to collect you, and while he’s gone, we’ll work on your manners. Perhaps we can’t turn you into a perfect lapdog . . . but I’ll help you learn to get on with others.” She paused before adding with a reflective grin, “Of course, I can’t manage to behave properly in polite society. I’ve always thought there’s a fair amount of dishonesty involved in politeness. There, you’re quiet now.” She stood and pulled at the latch. “Here is your first rule, Albert: it’s very rude to maul people.”
Albert burst out and jumped on her. Had she not been holding on to the support of the shed’s frame, she would have been knocked over. Whining and wagging his tail, Albert stood on his hind legs and dove his face against her. He was rawboned and ragged, and distinctly malodorous.
“My good boy,” Beatrix said, petting and scratching his coarse fur. She tried to slip the leash around his neck, but was prevented as he wriggled to his back, his quivering legs stuck straight into the air. Laughing, she obliged him with a tummy rub. “Come home with me, Albert. I think you’ll do very well with the Hathaways—or at least you will after I’ve given you a bath.”
Christopher delivered Audrey safely to London, where her family, the Kelseys, had welcomed her eagerly. The large Kelsey brood was overjoyed to have their sister with them. For reasons no one had quite understood, Audrey had refused to allow any of her relations to come stay with her in Hampshire after John’s death. She had insisted on grieving with Mrs. Phelan unaccompanied by anyone else.
“Your mother was the only one who felt John’s loss as keenly as I did,” Audrey had explained to Christopher during the carriage drive to London. “There was a kind of relief in that. Any of my family would have tried to make me feel better, and surrounded me with love and comfort, which would have kept me from grieving properly. The whole thing would have been drawn out. No, it was the right thing to live in grief for as long as I needed. Now it’s time to recover.”
“You’re very good at organizing your feelings, aren’t you?” Christopher had asked dryly.
“I suppose I am. I wish I could organize yours. At present they seem to resemble an overturned drawer of neckcloths.”
“Not neckcloths,” he said. “Flatware, with sharp edges.”
Audrey had smiled. “I pity those who find themselves in the way of your feelings.” Pausing, she had studied Christopher with fond concern. “How difficult it is to look at you,” she commented, startling him. “It’s the resemblance you bear to John. You’re more handsome than he was, of course, but I preferred his face. A wonderful everyday face—I never tired of it. Yours is a bit too intimidating for my taste. You resemble an aristocrat far more than John did, you know.”
Christopher’s gaze darkened as he thought of some of the men he’d fought with, who’d been fortunate to survive their wounds, but had suffered some manner of disfigurement. They had wondered how they would be received upon their return home, if wives or sweethearts would turn away in horror from their ruined appearances. “It doesn’t matter what someone looks like,” he said. “All that matters is what he is.”
“I’m so very glad to hear you say that.”
Christopher gave her a speculative glance. “What are you leading to?”
“Nothing. Except . . . I want to ask you something. If another woman—say, Beatrix Hathaway—and Prudence Mercer were to exchange appearances, and all that you esteemed in Prudence was transferred to Beatrix . . . would you want Beatrix?”
“Good God, no.”
“Why not?” she asked indignantly.
“Because I know Beatrix Hathaway, and she’s nothing like Pru.”
“You do not know Beatrix. You haven’t spent nearly enough time with her.”
“I know that she’s unruly, opinionated, and far more cheerful than any reasoning person should be. She wears breeches, climbs trees, and roams wherever she pleases without a chaperone. I also know that she has overrun Ramsay House with squirrels, hedgehogs, and goats, and the man unlucky enough to marry her will be driven to financial ruin from the veterinary bills. Would you care to contradict any of those points?”
Audrey folded her arms and gave him a sour look. “Yes. She doesn’t have a squirrel.”
Reaching inside his coat, Christopher pulled out the letter from Pru, the one he carried with him always. It had become a talisman, a symbol of what he had fought for. A reason for living. He looked down at the bit of folded paper, not even needing to open it. The words had been seared into his heart.
“Please come home and find me . . .”
In the past he had wondered if he were incapable of love. None of his love affairs had ever lasted more than a matter of months, and although they had blazed on a physical level, they had never transcended that. Ultimately no particular woman had ever seemed all that different from the rest.
Until those letters. The sentences had looped around him with a spirit so artless and adorable, he had loved it, loved her, immediately.
His thumb moved over the parchment as if it were sensitive living skin. “Mark my words, Audrey—I’m going to marry the woman who wrote this letter.”
“I am marking your words,” she assured him. “We’ll see if you live up to them.”
The London season would last until August, when Parliament ended and the aristocracy would retire to their country estates. There they would hunt, shoot, and indulge in Friday-to-Monday amusements. While in town, Christopher would sell his army commission and meet with his grandfather to discuss his new responsibilities as the heir of Riverton. He would also renew acquaintances with old friends and spend time with some men from his regiment.
And most importantly, he would find Prudence.
Christopher was uncertain how to approach her, after the way she had broken off their correspondence.
It was his fault. He had declared himself too early. He had been too impetuous.
No doubt Prudence had been wise to break off their communications. She was a gently bred young woman. Serious courtship had to be approached with patience and moderation.
If that was what Prudence wanted of him, she would have it.
He arranged for a suite of rooms at the Rutledge, an elegant hotel favored by European royalty, American entrepreneurs, and British aristocrats who did not maintain town residences. The Rutledge was unparalleled in comfort and luxury, and was arguably worth the exorbitant price of lodging there. As Christopher checked into the hotel and conversed with the concierge, he remarked on a portrait that hung over the marble mantel in the lobby. The subject was a singularly beautiful woman with mahogany-colored hair and striking blue eyes.
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