“Let him have it,” Catherine protested. “The twins are teething, and the biscuits are very hard. There’s nothing harmful in them.”

“How do you know that?”

“Beatrix made them.”

“Beatrix doesn’t cook. To my knowledge, she can barely butter her bread.”

“I don’t cook for people,” Beatrix said cheerfully, coming into the parlor with Albert padding after her. “But I do for dogs.”

“Naturally.” Leo took one of the brown lumps from the bowl, examining it closely. “Would you care to reveal the ingredients of these disgusting objects?”

“Oats, honey, eggs . . . they’re very nourishing.”

As if to underscore the point, Catherine’s pet ferret, Dodger, streaked up to Leo, took the biscuit from him, and slithered beneath a nearby chair.

Catherine laughed low in her throat as she saw Leo’s expression. “They’re made of the same stuff as teething biscuits, my lord.”

“Very well,” Leo said darkly. “But if the twins start barking and burying their toys, I’ll know whom to blame.” He lowered to the floor beside his daughter.

Emmaline gave him a wet grin and pushed her own sodden biscuit toward his mouth. “Here, Papa.”

“No, thank you, darling.” Becoming aware of Albert nosing at his shoulder, Leo turned to pet him. “Is this a dog or a street broom?”

“It’s Albert,” Beatrix replied.

The dog promptly collapsed to his side, tail thumping the floor repeatedly.

Beatrix smiled. Three months earlier, such a scene would have been unimaginable. Albert would have been so hostile and fearful that she wouldn’t have dared to expose him to children.

But with patience, love, and discipline—not to mention a great deal of help from Rye—Albert had become a different dog altogether. Gradually he had become accustomed to the constant activity in the household, including the presence of other animals. Now he greeted newness with curiosity rather than fear and aggression.

Albert had also gained some much-needed weight, looking sleek and healthy. Beatrix had painstakingly groomed him, stripping and trimming his fur regularly, but leaving the adorable whisks that gave his face a whimsical expression. When Beatrix walked Albert to the village, children gathered around him, and he submitted happily to their petting. He loved to play and fetch. He stole shoes and tried to bury them when no one was looking. He was, in short, a thoroughly normal dog.

Although Beatrix was still pining after Christopher, still in despair over him, she had discovered that the best remedy for heartache was trying to make herself useful to others. There were always people in need of assistance, including the tenants and cottagers who resided on the Ramsay lands. And with her sister Win away in Ireland, and Amelia busy with the household, Beatrix was the only sister left who had the time and means for charitable work. She took food to the sick and poor in the village, read to an elderly woman with failing eyesight, and became involved with the causes of the local church. Beatrix found that such work was its own reward. She was far less likely to fall into melancholy when she was busy.

Now, watching Albert with Leo, Beatrix wondered how Christopher would react when he saw the changes in his dog.

“Is he a new member of the family?” Leo asked.

“No, merely a guest,” Beatrix replied. “He belongs to Captain Phelan.”

“We saw Phelan on a few occasions during the season,” Leo remarked. A smile touched his lips. “I told him that if he insists on winning at cards every time we play, I would have to avoid him in the future.”

“How was Captain Phelan when you saw him?” Beatrix asked, striving to sound diffident. “Did he seem well? Was he in good spirits?”

Catherine answered thoughtfully. “He looked to be in good health, and he was certainly very charming. He was often seen in the company of Prudence Mercer.”

Beatrix felt a sickening pang of jealousy. She averted her face. “How nice,” she said in a muffled voice. “I’m sure they make a handsome pair.”

“There is a rumor of a betrothal,” Catherine added. She sent a teasing smile to her husband. “Perhaps Captain Phelan will finally succumb to the love of a good woman.”

“He’s certainly succumbed to enough of the other kind,” Leo replied, in a holier-than-thou tone that made her erupt in laughter.

“Pot, may I introduce you to kettle?” Catherine accused, her eyes twinkling.

“That was all in the past,” Leo informed her.

“Are wicked women more entertaining?” Beatrix asked him.

“No, darling. But one needs them for contrast.”

Beatrix was subdued for the rest of the evening, inwardly miserable at the thought of Christopher and Prudence together. Betrothed. Married. Sharing the same name.

Sharing the same bed.

She had never experienced jealousy before now, and it was agonizing. It was like a slow death by poison. Prudence had spent the summer being courted by a handsome and heroic soldier, whereas Beatrix had spent the summer with his dog.

And soon he would come to retrieve Albert, and she wouldn’t even have his dog.

Immediately upon his return to Stony Cross, Christopher learned that Beatrix Hathaway had stolen Albert. The servants didn’t even have the decency to look apologetic about it, offering some preposterous story about the dog having run off, and Beatrix having insisted on taking him in.

Although he was weary from the twelve-hour journey from London, and he was starved and travel dusty and in an unbelievably foul temper, Christopher found himself riding to Ramsay House. It was time to put a stop to Beatrix’s meddling once and for all.

Dark was lowering by the time he reached Ramsay House, shadows creeping from the woodlands until the trees resembled curtains drawn back to present a view of the house. The last vestiges of light imparted a ruddy glow to the brick and glittered on the multipaned windows. With its charming irregular roofline and sprouting chimneys, the house seemed to have grown from the fertile Hampshire land as if it were part of the forest, a living thing that had sent down roots and was reaching toward the sky.

There was an orderly bustle of outside staff, footmen and gardeners and stablemen, retiring to the indoors after the day’s labors. Animals were being led to the barn, horses to the stables. Christopher paused on the drive for a short, staving moment, assessing the situation. He felt apart from the scene, an intruder.

Determined to make the visit short and efficient, Christopher rode to the entrance, allowed a footman to take the reins, and strode to the front door.

The housekeeper came to greet him, and he asked to see Beatrix.

“The family is having dinner, sir—” the housekeeper began.

“I don’t care. Either bring Miss Hathaway to me, or I’ll find her myself.” He had already resolved that the Hathaway household would do nothing to distract or divert him. No doubt after a summer spent with his cantankerous dog, they would hand Albert over without a qualm. As for Beatrix—he only hoped she would try to stop him, so that he could make a few things clear to her.

“Would you care to wait in the front parlor, sir?”

Christopher shook his head wordlessly.

Looking perturbed, the housekeeper left him in the entrance hall.

In no time at all, Beatrix appeared. She was wearing a white dress made of thin, flowing layers, the bodice wrapped intricately over the curves of her breasts. The translucence of her chest and upper arms gave her the look of emerging from the white silk.

For a woman who had stolen his dog, she was remarkably composed.

“Captain Phelan.” She stopped before him with a graceful curtsy.

Christopher stared at her in fascination, trying to retain his righteous anger, but it was slipping away like sand through his fingers. “Where are your breeches?” he found himself asking in a husky voice.

Beatrix smiled. “I thought you might come to fetch Albert soon, and I didn’t want to offend you by wearing masculine attire.”

“If you were all that concerned about giving offense, you would have thought twice before abducting my dog.”

“I didn’t abduct him. He went with me willingly.”

“I seem to recall telling you to stay away from him.”

“Yes, I know.” Her tone was contrite. “But Albert preferred to stay here for the summer. He has done very well with us, by the way.” She paused, looking him over. “How are you?”

“I’m exhausted,” Christopher said curtly. “I’ve just arrived from London.”

“Poor man. You must be famished. Come have dinner.”

“Thank you, but no. All I want is to collect my dog and go home.” And drink myself into a stupor. “Where is Albert?”

“He’ll be here momentarily. I asked our housekeeper to fetch him.”

Christopher blinked. “She’s not afraid of him?”

“Of Albert? Heavens, no, everyone adores him.”

The concept of someone, anyone, adoring his belligerent pet was difficult to grasp. Having expected to receive an inventory of all the damage Albert had caused, Christopher gave her a blank look.

And then the housekeeper returned with an obedient and well-groomed dog trotting by her side.

“Albert?” Christopher said.

The dog looked at him, ears twitching. His whiskered face changed, eyes brightening with excitement. Without hesitating, Albert launched forward with a happy yelp. Christopher knelt on the floor, gathering up an armful of joyfully wriggling canine. Albert strained to lick him, and whimpered and dove against him repeatedly.

Christopher was overwhelmed by feelings of kinship and relief. Gripping the warm, compact body close, Christopher murmured his name and petted him roughly, and Albert whined and trembled.

“I missed you, Albert. Good boy. There’s my boy.” Unable to help himself, Christopher pressed his face against the rough fur. He was undone by guilt, humbled by the fact that even though he had abandoned Albert for the summer, the dog showed nothing but eager welcome. “I was away too long,” Christopher murmured, looking into the soulful brown eyes. “I won’t leave you again.” He dragged his gaze up to Beatrix’s. “It was a mistake to leave him,” he said gruffly.

She was smiling at him. “Albert won’t hold it against you. To err is human, to forgive, canine.”

To his disbelief, Christopher felt an answering smile tug at the corners of his lips. He continued to pet the dog, who was fit and sleek. “You’ve taken good care of him.”

“He’s much better behaved than before,” she said. “You can take him anywhere now.”

Rising to his feet, Christopher looked down at her. “Why did you do it?” he asked softly.

“He’s very much worth saving. Anyone could see that.”

The awareness between them became unbearably acute. Christopher’s heart worked in hard, uneven beats. How pretty she was in the white dress. She radiated a healthy female physicality that was very different from the fashionable frailty of London women. He wondered what it would be like to bed her, if she would be as direct in her passions as she was in everything else.

“Stay for dinner,” she urged.

He shook his head. “I must go.”

“Have you eaten already?”

“No. But I’ll find something in the larder at home.”

Albert sat and watched them attentively.

“You need a proper meal after traveling so far.”

“Miss Hathaway—” But his breath was clipped as Beatrix took his arm with both hands, one at his wrist, one at his elbow. She gave a gentle tug. He felt it all the way to his groin, his body responding actively to her touch. Annoyed and aroused, he looked down into her dark blue eyes.

“I don’t want to talk to anyone,” he told her.

“Of course you don’t. That’s perfectly all right.” Another small, entreating tug. “Come.”

And somehow Christopher found himself going with Beatrix, through the entrance hall and along a hallway lined with pictures. Albert padded after them without a sound.

Beatrix released his arm as they entered a dining room filled with abundant candlelight. The table was laden with silver and crystal, and a great quantity of food. He recognized Leo, Lord Ramsay, and his wife, and Rohan and Amelia. The dark-haired boy, Rye, was also at the table. Pausing at the threshold, Christopher bowed and said uncomfortably, “Forgive me. I merely came to—”

“I’ve invited Captain Phelan to join us,” Beatrix announced. “He doesn’t want to talk. Do not ask him direct questions unless absolutely necessary.”

The rest of the family received this unorthodox pronouncement without turning a hair. A footman was dispatched to set a place for him.

“Come in, Phelan,” Leo said easily. “We love silent guests—it allows us to talk all the more. By all means, sit and say nothing.”

“But if you can manage it,” Catherine added with a smile, “try to look impressed by our wit and intelligence.”

“I will attempt to add to the conversation,” Christopher ventured, “if I can think of anything relevant.”

“That never stops the rest of us,” Cam remarked.

Christopher took an empty chair beside Rye. A liberally filled plate and a glass of wine were set before him. It wasn’t until he began to eat that he realized how famished he was. While he devoured the excellent fare—baked sole, potatoes, smoked oysters wrapped in crisp bacon—the family talked of politics and estate business, and mulled over happenings in Stony Cross.

Rye behaved like a miniature adult. He listened respectfully to the conversation, occasionally asking questions that were readily answered by the others. To Christopher’s knowledge, it was highly uncommon to allow a child to sit at the dinner table. Most upper-class families followed the custom of having children eat alone in the nursery.

“Do you always take dinner with the rest of the family?” Christopher asked him sotto voce.

“Most of the time,” Rye whispered back. “They don’t mind as long as you don’t talk with food in your mouth or play with the potatoes.”

“I’ll try not,” Christopher assured him gravely.

“And you mustn’t feed Albert from the table, even when he begs. Aunt Beatrix says only plain food is good for him.”

Christopher glanced at his dog, who was reclining placidly in the corner.

“Captain Phelan,” Amelia asked, noticing the direction of his gaze, “what do you think of the change in Albert?”

***

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