“Nearly inconceivable,” Christopher replied. “I had wondered if it would be possible to bring him from the battlefield to a peaceful life here.” He looked at Beatrix, adding gravely, “I am in your debt.”

Beatrix colored and smiled down at her plate. “Not at all.”

“My sister has always had a remarkable ability with animals,” Amelia said. “I’ve always wondered what would happen if Beatrix took it in her head to reform a man.”

Leo grinned. “I propose we find a really revolting, amoral wastrel, and give him to Beatrix. She would set him to rights within a fortnight.”

“I have no wish to reform bipeds,” Beatrix said. “Four legs are the absolute minimum. Besides, Cam has forbidden me to put any more creatures in the barn.”

“With the size of that barn?” Leo asked. “Don’t say we’ve run out of room?”

“One has to draw the line somewhere,” Cam said. “And I had to after the mule.”

Christopher looked at Beatrix alertly. “You have a mule?”

“No,” she said at once. Perhaps it was merely a trick of the light, but the color seemed to leave her face. “It’s nothing. That is, yes, I have a mule. But I don’t like to discuss him.”

“I like to discuss him,” Rye volunteered innocently. “Hector is a very nice mule, but he has a weak back and he’s sickle-hocked. No one wanted him after he was born, so Aunt Beatrix went to Mr. Caird and said—”

“His name is Hector?” Christopher asked, his gaze locked on Beatrix.

She didn’t answer.

A strange, severe sensation took over Christopher’s body. He felt every hair lift, felt every distinct pulse of blood in his veins. “Did his sire belong to Mr. Mawdsley?” he asked.

“How did you know?” came Rye’s voice.

Christopher’s reply was very soft. “Someone wrote to me about it.”

Lifting a glass of wine to his lips, Christopher tore his gaze from Beatrix’s carefully blank face.

He did not look at her for the rest of the meal.

He couldn’t, or he would lose all self-control.

Beatrix was nearly suffocated by the weight of her own worry during the rest of dinner. She had never regretted anything in her life as much as having urged Christopher to stay. What had he made of the news that she had acquired Mr. Caird’s mule and given him the same name as the pet mule of his boyhood? He would want an explanation. She would have to pass it off as some bit of information that Prudence had relayed. I suppose the name stuck in my head when Pru mentioned it, she would say casually. And it is a nice name for a mule. I hope you don’t mind.

Yes. That would work, as long as she seemed nonchalant about the whole matter.

Except that it was difficult to appear nonchalant when one was filled with panic.

Mercifully, Christopher had seemed to lose interest in the subject. In fact, he didn’t so much as glance at her, but instead launched into a conversation with Leo and Cam about mutual acquaintances in London. He was relaxed and smiling, even laughing outright at some quip of Leo’s.

Beatrix’s anxiety faded as it became apparent that the subject of Hector was all but forgotten.

She stole surreptitious glances at Christopher, as she had been doing all evening, mesmerized by the sight of him. He was tawny and sun glazed, the candlelight finding threads of gold in his hair. The yellow glow struck sparkling glints in the new growth of bristle on his face. She was fascinated by the raw, restless masculinity beneath his quietness. She wanted to revel in him as one might dash out-of-doors in a storm, letting the elements have their way. Most of all she longed to talk with him . . . to pry each other open with words, share every thought and secret.

“My sincere thanks for your hospitality,” Christopher finally said at the conclusion of the meal. “It was much needed.”

“You must return soon,” Cam said, “especially to view the timber yard in operation. We have installed some innovations that you may want to use at Riverton someday.”

“Thank you. I would like to see them.” Christopher looked directly at Beatrix. “Before I depart, Miss Hathaway, I wonder if you would introduce me to this notorious mule of yours?” His manner was relaxed . . . but his eyes were those of a predator.

Beatrix’s mouth went dry. There would be no escaping him. That much was clear. He wanted answers. He would have them either now or later.

“Now?” she asked wanly. “Tonight?”

“If you don’t mind,” he said in a far too pleasant tone. “The barn is but a short walk from the house, is it not?”

“Yes,” Beatrix said, rising from her chair. The men at the table stood obligingly. “Excuse us, please. I won’t be long.”

“May I go with you?” Rye asked eagerly.

“No, darling,” Amelia said, “it’s time for your bath.”

“But why must I wash if I can’t see any dirt?”

“Those of us who have a difficult time with godliness,” Amelia replied with a grin, “must settle for cleanliness.”

The family maintained a light conversation until Rye had gone upstairs, and Beatrix and Captain Phelan had left the house with Albert following them.

After a universal silence, Leo was the first to speak. “Did anyone else notice—”

“Yes,” Catherine said. “What do you make of it?”

“I haven’t decided yet.” Leo frowned and took a sip of port. “He’s not someone I would pair Bea with.”

“Whom would you pair her with?”

“Hanged if I know,” Leo said. “Someone with similar interests. The local veterinarian, perhaps?”

“He’s eighty-three years old and deaf,” Catherine said.

“They would never argue,” Leo pointed out.

Amelia smiled and stirred her tea slowly. “Much as I hate to admit it, I agree with Leo. Not about the veterinarian, but . . . Beatrix with a soldier? That doesn’t seem a likely match.”

“Phelan did resign his commission,” Cam said. “He’s no longer a soldier.”

“And if he inherits Riverton,” Amelia mused, “Beatrix would have all that forest to roam . . .”

“I see a likeness between them,” Catherine said reflectively.

Leo arched a brow. “How are they alike, pray tell? She likes animals, and he likes to shoot things.”

“Beatrix puts a distance between herself and the rest of the world. She’s very engaging, but also quite private in nature. I see the same qualities in Captain Phelan.”

“Yes,” Amelia said. “You’re absolutely right, Catherine. Put that way, the match does seem more appropriate.”

“I still have reservations,” Leo said.

“You always do,” Amelia replied. “If you’ll recall, you objected to Cam in the beginning, but now you’ve accepted him.”

“That’s because the more brothers-in-law I acquire,” Leo said, “the better Cam looks by comparison.”

Chapter Fifteen

No words were exchanged as Beatrix and Christopher proceeded to the stable. The cloud-hazed moon was low in the sky, insubstantial as a smoke ring in the blackness.

Beatrix was absurdly aware of the sound of her breathing, of her shoes biting into the graveled ground, of the vital male presence beside her.

A stable boy nodded a greeting as they went into the warm, shadowy interior of the stables. Having become accustomed to Beatrix’s frequent comings and goings, the stablehands had learned to let her do as she pleased.

The pungent smell of the stables—hay, horses, feed, manure—combined in a familiar and reassuring fragrance. Silently she led Christopher farther into the building, past Thoroughbreds, a cart horse, a matched carriage pair. The animals whickered and turned their heads as they passed.

Beatrix stopped at the mule’s stall. “This is Hector,” she said.

The small mule came forward to greet them. Despite his flaws, or perhaps because of them, he was an endearing creature. His conformation was terrible, one ear was crooked, and he wore a jaunty and perpetually cheerful expression.

Christopher reached out to pet Hector, who nuzzled against his hand. His gentleness with the animal was reassuring. Perhaps, Beatrix thought hopefully, he wasn’t as angry as she had feared.

Taking a deep breath, she said, “The reason that I named him Hector—”

“No.” Christopher moved with startling swiftness, trapping her against the post of the stall. His voice was low and rough. “Let’s start with this: did you help Prudence to write those letters?”

Beatrix’s eyes widened as she looked into his shadowed face. Her blood surged, a flush rising to the surface of her skin. “No,” she managed to say, “I didn’t help her.”

“Then who did?”

“No one helped her.”

It was the truth. It just wasn’t the entire truth.

“You know something,” he insisted. “And you’re going to tell me what it is.”

She could feel his fury. The air was charged with it. Her heart thrummed like a bird’s. And she struggled to contain a swell of emotion that was almost more than she could bear.

“Let me go,” she said with exceptional calm. “You’re doing neither of us any good with this behavior.”

His eyes narrowed dangerously. “Don’t use your bloody dog-training voice on me.”

“That wasn’t my dog-training voice. And if you’re so intent on getting at the truth, why aren’t you asking Prudence?”

“I have asked her. She lied. As you are lying now.”

“You’ve always wanted Prudence,” Beatrix burst out. “Now you can have her. Why should a handful of letters matter?”

“Because I was deceived. And I want to know how and why.”

“Pride,” Beatrix said bitterly. “That’s all this is to you . . . your pride was hurt.”

One of his hands sank into her hair, gripping in a gentle but inexorable hold. A gasp slipped from her throat as he pulled her head back.

“Don’t try to divert the conversation. You know something you’re not telling me.” His free hand came to the exposed line of her throat. For a heart-stopping moment she thought he might choke her. Instead he caressed her gently, his thumb moving in a subtle swirl in the hollow at the base. The intensity of her own reaction astonished her.

Beatrix’s eyes half closed. “Stop,” she said faintly.

Taking her responsive shiver as a sign of distaste or fear, Christopher lowered his head until his breath fanned her cheek. “Not until I have the truth.”

Never. If she told him, he would hate her for the way she had deceived and abandoned him. Some mistakes could not be forgiven.

“Go to hell,” Beatrix said unsteadily. She had never used such a phrase in her life.

“I am in hell.” His body corralled hers, his legs intruding amid the folds of her skirts.

Drowning in guilt and fear and desire, she tried to push his caressing hand away from her throat. His fingers delved into her hair with a grip just short of painful. His mouth was close to hers. He was surrounding her, all the strength and force and maleness of him, and she closed her eyes as her senses went quiet and dark in helpless waiting. “I’ll make you tell me,” she heard him mutter.

And then he was kissing her.

Somehow, Beatrix thought hazily, Christopher seemed to be under the impression she would find his kisses so objectionable that she would confess anything to make him desist. She couldn’t think how he had come by such a notion. In fact, she couldn’t really think at all.

His mouth moved over hers in supple, intimate angles, until he found some perfect alignment that made her weak all over. She reached around his neck to keep from dropping bonelessly to the floor. Gathering her closer into the hard support of his body, he explored her slowly, the tip of his tongue stroking, tasting.

Her body listed more heavily against his as her limbs became weighted with pleasure. She sensed the moment when his anger was eclipsed by passion, desire changing to white-hot need. Her fingers sank into his beautiful hair, the shorn locks heavy and vibrant, his scalp hot against her palms. With each inhalation, she drew in more of his fragrance, the trace of sandalwood on warm male skin.

His mouth slid from hers and dragged roughly along her throat, crossing sensitive places that made her writhe. Blindly turning her face, she rubbed her lips against his ear. He drew in a sharp breath and jerked his head back. His hand came to her jaw, clamping firmly.

“Tell me what you know,” he said, his breath searing her lips. “Or I’ll do worse than this. I’ll take you here and now. Is that what you want?”

As a matter of fact . . .

However, recalling that this was supposed to be a punishment, a coercion, Beatrix managed a languid, “No. Stop.” His mouth ravished hers again. She sighed and melted against him.

He kissed her harder, pressing her back against the slatted side of the stall, his hands roaming indecently. Her body was laced and compressed and concealed in layers of feminine attire, frustrating his attempts to caress her.

His garments, however, presented far fewer obstacles. She slid her arms inside his coat, fumbling to touch him, tugging ardently at his waistcoat and shirt. Reaching beneath the straps of his trouser braces, she managed to pull part of his shirt free of the trousers, the fabric warm from his body.

They both gasped as her cool fingers touched the burning skin of his back. Fascinated, Beatrix explored the curvature of deep intrinsic muscles, the tight mesh of sinew and bone, the astonishing strength contained just beneath the surface. She found the texture of scars, vestiges of pain and survival. After stroking a healed-over line, she covered it tenderly with her palm.

A shudder racked his frame. Christopher groaned and crushed his mouth over hers, urging her body against his, until together they found an erotic pattern, a cadence. Instinctively Beatrix tried to draw him inside herself, pulling at his lips and tongue with her own.

Christopher broke the kiss abruptly, panting. Cradling her head in his hands, he pressed his forehead against hers.

“Is it you?” he asked hoarsely. “Is it?”

Beatrix felt tears slip from beneath her lashes, no matter how she tried to blink them back. Her heart was ablaze. It seemed that her entire life had led to this man, this moment of unexpressed love.

But she was too frightened of his scorn, and too ashamed of her own actions, to answer.

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