“. . . have reconsidered the question of your inheritance. I had originally set aside very little for you. The lion’s share was, of course, for your brother. If there was ever a man who deserved Riverton more than John Phelan, I have not met him.”
“Agreed,” Christopher said quietly.
“But now he is gone with no heir, which leaves only you. And though your character has shown signs of improvement, I’m not convinced that you’re worthy of Riverton.”
“Neither am I.” Christopher paused. “I want nothing that you had originally intended for John.”
“I will tell you what you will have, regardless of what you want.” Annandale’s tone was firm, but not unkind. “You have responsibilities, my boy, and they are not to be dismissed or evaded. But before I lay out your course, I want to ask something.”
Christopher regarded him without expression. “Yes, sir.”
“Why did you fight as you did? Why did you risk death so often? Did you do it for the good of the country?”
Christopher snorted in disgust. “The war wasn’t for the good of the country. It was for the benefit of private mercantile interests, and fueled by the conceit of politicians.”
“You fought for the glory and the medals, then?”
Silently Christopher sorted through possible answers. Finding the truth, he examined it with weary resignation before he spoke. “Everything I did was for my men. For the noncommissioned ones who had joined the army to avoid starvation or the workhouse. And for the junior officers who were experienced and long-serving but hadn’t the means to buy a commission. I had the command only because I’d had money to purchase it, not for any reason of merit. Absurd. And the men in my company, the poor bastards, were supposed to follow me, whether I proved to be incompetent, an imbecile, or a coward. They had no choice but to depend on me. And therefore I had no choice but to try and be the leader they needed. I tried to keep them alive.” He hesitated. “I failed far too often. And now I would love for someone to tell me how to live with their deaths on my conscience.” Focusing blindly on a distant patch of carpeting, he heard himself say, “I don’t want Riverton. I’ve had enough of being given things I don’t deserve.”
Annandale looked at him in a way he never had before, speculative and almost kind. “That is why you will have it. I won’t pare a shilling or a single inch of land from what I would have given John. I am willing to gamble that you will care for your tenants and working-men out of the same sense of responsibility you felt for your men.” He paused. “Perhaps you and Riverton will be good for each other. It was to be John’s burden. Now it is yours.”
As a slow, hot August settled over London, the coagulating stench began to drive the town dwellers to the sweeter air of the country. Christopher was more than ready to return to Hampshire. It was becoming apparent that London had done him no good.
Nearly every day was fraught with images that leaped at him from nowhere, startlements, difficulty in concentrating. Nightmares and sweats when he slept, melancholy when he awakened. He heard the sound of guns and shells when there were none, felt his heartbeat begin to hammer or his hands tremble for no reason. It was impossible to lower his guard, regardless of the circumstances. He had visited old friends in his regiment, but when he had tentatively asked if they were suffering from the same mysterious ailments, he was met with determined silence. It was not to be discussed. It was to be managed alone, and privately, in any manner that worked.
The only thing that helped was strong spirits. Christopher dosed himself until the warm, blurring comfort of alcohol quieted his seething brain. And he tried to measure its effects so that he could be sober when he had to. Concealing the encroaching madness as well as he could, he wondered when or how or if he was going to get better.
As for Prudence . . . she was a dream he had to let go of. A ruined illusion. Part of him died a little more each time he saw her. She felt no real love for him, that was clear. Nothing like what she had written. Perhaps in an effort to entertain him, she had culled parts of novels or plays, and copied them into the letters. He had believed in an illusion.
He knew that Prudence and her parents hoped he would offer for her, now that the season was drawing to a close. Her mother, in particular, had been hinting heavily about marriage, a dowry, promises of beautiful children and domestic tranquility. He was in no condition, however, to be a fit husband for anyone.
With mingled dread and relief, Christopher went to the Mercers’ London residence to make his farewells. When he asked for permission to speak privately with Prudence, her mother left them in the parlor for a few minutes with the door left conspicuously open.
“But . . . but . . .” Prudence said in dismay when he told her he was leaving town, “you won’t go without first talking to my father, will you?”
“Talk to him about what?” Christopher asked, although he knew.
“I should think you’d want to ask for his permission to court me formally,” Prudence said, looking indignant.
He met her green eyes directly. “At the moment, I’m not at liberty to do that.”
“Not at liberty?” Prudence jumped up, obliging him to stand, and gave him a glance of baffled fury. “Of course you are. There is no other woman, is there?”
“Your business affairs are settled, and your inheritance is in order?”
“Then there is no reason to wait. You’ve certainly given every impression that you care for me. Especially when you first returned—you told me so many times how you had longed to see me, how much I had meant to you . . . Why have your passions cooled?”
“I expected—hoped—that you would be more like you were in the letters.” Christopher paused, staring at her closely. “I’ve often wondered . . . did someone help you to write them?”
Although Prudence had the face of an angel, the fury in her eyes was the exact opposite of heavenly serenity. “Oh! Why are you always asking me about those stupid letters? They were only words. Words mean nothing!”
“You’ve made me realize that words are the most important things in the world . . .”
“Nothing,” Christopher repeated, staring at her.
“Yes.” Prudence looked slightly mollified as she saw that she had gained his entire attention. “I’m here, Christopher. I’m real. You don’t need silly old letters now. You have me.”
“What about when you wrote to me about the quintessence?” he asked. “Did that mean nothing?”
“The—” Prudence stared at him, flushing. “I can’t recall what I meant by that.”
“The fifth element, according to Aristotle,” he prompted gently.
Her color drained, leaving her bone-white. She looked like a guilty child caught in an act of mischief. “What has that to do with anything?” she cried, taking refuge in anger. “I want to talk about something real. Who cares about Aristotle?”
“I do like the idea that there’s a little starlight in each of us . . .”
She had never written those words.
For a moment Christopher couldn’t react. One thought followed another, each connecting briefly like the hands of men in a torch race. Some entirely different woman had written to him . . . with Prudence’s consent . . . he had been deceived . . . Audrey must have known . . . he had been made to care . . . and then the letters had stopped. Why?
“I’m not who you think I am . . .”
Christopher felt his throat and chest tightening, heard a rasp of something that sounded like a wondering laugh.
Prudence laughed as well, the sound edged with relief. She had no idea in hell what had caused his bitter amusement.
Had they wanted to make a fool of him? Had it been intended as revenge for some past slight? By God, he would find who had done it, and why.
He had loved and been betrayed by someone whose name he didn’t know. He loved her still—that was the unforgivable part. And she would pay, whoever she was.
It felt good to have a purpose again, to hunt someone for the purpose of inflicting damage. It felt familiar. It was who he was.
His smile, thin as a knife edge, cut through the cold fury.
Prudence gazed at him uncertainly. “Christopher?” she faltered. “What are you thinking?”
He went to her and took her shoulders in his hands, thinking briefly of how easy it would be to slide his hands up to her neck and throttle her. He shaped his mouth into a charming smile. “Only that you’re right,” he said. “Words aren’t important. This is what’s important.” He kissed her slowly, expertly, until he felt her slender body relax against his. Prudence made a little sound of pleasure, her arms linking around his neck. “Before I leave for Hampshire,” Christopher murmured against her blushing cheek, “I’ll ask your father for formal permission to court you. Does that please you?”
“Oh, yes,” Prudence cried, her face radiant. “Oh, Christopher . . . do I have your heart?”
“You have my heart,” Christopher said tonelessly, holding her close, while his cold gaze fastened on a distant point outside the window.
Except that he had no heart left to give.
“Where is she?” were Christopher’s first words to Audrey, the moment he had reached her parents’ home in Kensington. He had gone to her immediately after leaving Prudence. “Who is she?”
His sister-in-law seemed unimpressed by his fury. “Please do not scowl at me. What are you talking about?”
“Did Prudence put the letters directly into your hand, or did someone else give them to you?”
“Oh.” Audrey looked serene. Sitting on the parlor settee, she took up a small needlework hoop and examined a patch of embroidery. “So you’ve finally realized that Prudence didn’t write them. What gave her away?”
“The fact that she knew the contents of my letters, but nothing of the ones she sent.” Christopher stood over her, glowering. “It was one of her friends, wasn’t it? Tell me which one.”
“I can confirm nothing.”
“Was Beatrix Hathaway part of it?”
Audrey rolled her eyes. “Why would Beatrix want to take part in something like this?”
“Revenge. Because I once said that she belonged in the stables.”
“You denied having said that.”
“You said that I said it! Set that hoop down, or I swear I’ll wrap it around your throat. Understand something, Audrey: I am scarred from neck to foot. I have been shot, stabbed, bayoneted, struck by shrapnel, and treated by doctors so drunk they could barely stay on their feet.” A savage pause. “And none of that hurt like this.”
“I’m sorry,” Audrey said in a subdued tone. “I would never have agreed to any scheme that I thought would cause you unhappiness. It began as an act of kindness. At least that’s what I believe.”
Kindness? Christopher was revolted by the idea that he had been viewed as the object of pity. “Why in God’s name did you help someone to deceive me?”
“I was barely aware of it,” she flared. “I was half dead from caring for John—I wasn’t eating or sleeping—and I was exhausted. I didn’t think much about it at all, other than to decide that it would do no harm for someone to write to you.”
“It did, damn you!”
“You wanted to believe it was Prudence,” she accused. “Otherwise it would have been obvious that she wasn’t the author of the letters.”
“I was in the middle of a bloody war. I didn’t have time to examine participles and prepositions while hauling my arse in and out of trenches—”
He was interrupted by a voice from the doorway. “Audrey.” It was one of her tall, strapping brothers, Gavin. He leaned negligently against the frame, giving Christopher a warning stare. “One can’t help hearing the pair of you quarreling all through the house. Do you need help?”
“No, thank you,” Audrey said firmly. “I can manage this on my own, Gavin.”
Her brother smiled faintly. “Actually, I was asking Phelan.”
“He doesn’t need help, either,” Audrey said with great dignity. “Please allow us a few minutes alone, Gavin. We have something important to settle.”
“Very well. But I won’t go far.”
Sighing, Audrey looked after her overprotective brother and returned her attention to Christopher.
He gave her a hard stare. “I want a name.”
“Only if you swear that you will not hurt this woman.”
“I swear it.”
“Swear it on John’s grave,” she insisted.
A long silence passed.
“I knew it,” Audrey said grimly. “If you can’t be trusted not to hurt her, I certainly can’t tell you who she is.”
“Is she married?” A hoarse note had entered his voice.
“Is she in Hampshire?”
Audrey hesitated before giving him a wary nod.
“Tell her that I’ll find her,” he said. “And she’ll regret it when I do.”
In the tense silence, he went to the threshold and glanced over his shoulder. “In the meantime, you can be the first to congratulate me,” he said. “Prudence and I are nearly betrothed.”
Audrey looked ashen. “Christopher . . . what kind of game are you playing?”
“You’ll find out,” came his cold reply. “You and your mysterious friend should enjoy it—you both seem to like games.”
“What the devil are you eating?” Leo, Lord Ramsay, stood in the family parlor at Ramsay House, viewing his dark-haired twins, Edward and Emmaline, who were playing on the carpeted floor.
His wife, Catherine, who was helping the babies to build block towers, looked up with a smile. “They’re eating biscuits.”
“These?” Leo glanced at a bowl of little brown biscuits that had been placed on a table. “They look revoltingly similar to the ones Beatrix has been feeding the dog.”
“That’s because they are.”
“They’re . . . Good God, Cat! What can you be thinking?” Lowering to his haunches, Leo tried to pry a sodden biscuit away from Edward.
Leo’s efforts were met with an indignant squall.
“Mine!” Edward cried, clutching the biscuit more tightly.
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