Christopher’s fingertips found the tear marks on her damp skin. His mouth grazed her trembling lips, lingering at one soft corner, sliding up to the verge of a salt-flavored cheek.
Releasing her, he stepped back and stared at her with baffled anger. The desire exerted such force between them that Beatrix dazedly wondered how he could maintain even that small distance.
A shaken breath escaped him. He straightened his clothes, moving with undue care, as if he were intoxicated.
“Damn you.” His voice was low and strained. He strode out of the stables.
Albert, who had been sitting by a stall, began to trot after him. Upon noticing that Beatrix wasn’t going with them, the terrier dashed over to her and whimpered.
Beatrix bent to pet him. “Go on, boy,” she whispered.
Hesitating only a moment, Albert ran after his master.
And Beatrix watched them both with despair.
Two days later, a ball was given at Stony Cross Manor, the manorial residence of Lord and Lady Westcliff. It would have been difficult to find a more beautiful setting than the ancient dwelling built of honey-colored stone, surrounded by extensive gardens. The whole of it was situated on a bluff overlooking the Itchen River. As neighbors and friends of Lord and Lady Westcliff, the Hathaways were all invited. Cam in particular was a valued and frequent companion of the earl’s, the two having been closely acquainted for many years.
Although Beatrix had been a guest at Stony Cross Manor on many previous occasions, she was still struck by the beauty of the home, especially the lavish interior. The ballroom was beyond compare, with intricately parqueted floors and a double row of chandeliers, two of the long walls fitted with semicircular niches containing velvet upholstered benches.
After partaking of refreshments at the long buffet tables, Beatrix entered the ballroom with Amelia and Catherine. The scene was profligate with color, ladies dressed in lavish ball gowns, the men clad in the formal ensemble of black and white. The sparkle of the crystal chandeliers was very nearly matched by the bountiful displays of jewels on feminine wrists, necks, and ears.
The host of the evening, Lord Westcliff, approached to exchange pleasantries with Beatrix, Amelia, and Catherine. Beatrix had always liked the earl, a courteous and honorable man whose friendship had benefited the Hathaways on countless occasions. With his rugged features, coal-black hair, and dark eyes, he was striking rather than handsome. He wore an aura of power comfortably and without fanfare. Westcliff asked Catherine to dance with him, a mark of favor that was hardly lost on the other guests, and she complied with a smile.
“How kind he is,” Amelia said to Beatrix as they watched the earl lead Catherine into the midst of the whirling couples. “I’ve noticed that he always makes a point of being obliging and gracious to the Hathaways. That way, no one would dare cut or snub us.”
“I think he likes unconventional people. He’s not nearly as staid as one might assume.”
“Lady Westcliff has certainly said as much,” Amelia replied, smiling.
A rejoinder faded on Beatrix’s lips as she caught sight of a perfectly matched couple on the other side of the room. Christopher Phelan was talking with Prudence Mercer. The scheme of formal black and white was becoming to any man. On someone like Christopher, it was literally breathtaking. He wore the clothes with natural ease, his posture relaxed but straight, his shoulders broad. The crisp white of his starched cravat provided a striking contrast to his tawny skin, while the light of chandeliers glittered over his golden-bronze hair.
Following her gaze, Amelia lifted her brows. “What an attractive man,” she said. Her attention returned to Beatrix. “You like him, don’t you?”
Before Beatrix could help herself, she sent her sister a pained glance. Letting her gaze drop to the floor, she said, “There have been a dozen times in the past when I should have liked a particular gentleman. When it would have been convenient, and appropriate, and easy. But no, I had to wait for someone special. Someone who would make my heart feel as if it’s been trampled by elephants, thrown into the Amazon, and eaten by piranhas.”
Amelia smiled at her compassionately. Her gloved hand slipped over Beatrix’s. “Darling Bea. Would it console you to hear that such feelings of infatuation are perfectly ordinary?”
Beatrix turned her palm upward, returning the clasp of her sister’s hand. Since their mother had died when Bea was twelve, Amelia had been a source of endless love and patience. “Is it infatuation?” she heard herself asking softly. “Because it feels much worse than that. Like a fatal disease.”
“I don’t know, dear. It’s difficult to tell the difference between love and infatuation. Time will reveal it, eventually.” Amelia paused. “He is attracted to you,” she said. “We all noticed the other night. Why don’t you encourage him, dear?”
Beatrix felt her throat tighten. “I can’t.”
“I can’t explain,” Beatrix said miserably, “except to say that I’ve deceived him.”
Amelia glanced at her in surprise. “That doesn’t sound like you. You’re the least deceptive person I’ve ever known.”
“I didn’t mean to do it. And he doesn’t know that it was me. But I think he suspects.”
“Oh.” Amelia frowned as she absorbed the perplexing statement. “Well. This does seem to be a muddle. Perhaps you should confide in him. His reaction may surprise you. What is it that Mother used to say whenever we pushed her to the limits of her patience? . . . ‘Love forgives all things.’ Do you remember?”
“Of course,” Beatrix said. She had written that exact phrase to Christopher in one of her letters. Her throat went very tight. “Amelia, I can’t discuss this now. Or I’ll start weeping and throw myself to the floor.”
“Heavens, don’t do that. Someone might trip over you.”
Further conversation was forestalled as a gentleman came to ask Beatrix to dance. Although Beatrix hardly felt like dancing at the moment, it was the worst possible manners to refuse such an invitation at a private ball. Unless one had a plausible and obvious excuse, such as a broken leg, one danced.
And in truth, it was no hardship to partner this gentleman, Mr. Theo Chickering. He was an attractive and amiable young man, whom Beatrix had met during her last season in London.
“Would you do me the honor, Miss Hathaway?”
Beatrix smiled at him. “It would be my pleasure, Mr. Chickering.” Letting go of her sister’s hand, she went with him.
“You look lovely tonight, Miss Hathaway.”
“Thank you, kind sir.” Beatrix had worn her best gown, made of shimmering aniline violet. The bodice was scooped low, revealing a generous expanse of fair skin. Her hair had been curled and swept up with a multitude of pearl-tipped pins—other than that, she wore no adornment.
Feeling the hairs on her nape prickle with awareness, Beatrix sent a quick glance around the room. Her gaze was immediately caught by a pair of cool gray eyes. Christopher was staring at her, unsmiling.
Chickering gracefully pulled her into the waltz. Following the completion of one turn, Beatrix glanced over her shoulder, but Christopher was no longer staring at her.
In fact, he didn’t glance at her even once after that.
Beatrix forced herself to laugh and dance with Chickering, while privately reflecting that there was nothing so trying as pretending you were happy when you weren’t. Discreetly she watched Christopher, who was inundated with women who wanted to flirt with him and men who wanted to hear war stories. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to associate with the man whom many were calling England’s most celebrated war hero. Christopher bore it all with equanimity, looking composed and courteous, occasionally flashing a charming smile.
“It’s hard for a fellow to challenge that,” Chickering told Beatrix dryly, nodding in Christopher’s direction. “Fame, great wealth, and a full head of hair. And one can’t even despise him, because he singlehandedly won the war.”
Beatrix laughed and gave him a mock-pitying glance. “You’re no less impressive than Captain Phelan, Mr. Chickering.”
“By what measure? I wasn’t in the military, and I have neither fame nor great wealth.”
“But you do have a full head of hair,” Beatrix pointed out.
Chickering grinned. “Dance with me again, and you can view my abundant tresses at your leisure.”
“Thank you, but I’ve already danced with you twice, and any more would be scandalous.”
“You have broken my heart,” he informed her, and she laughed.
“There are many delightful ladies here who would be happy to mend it,” she said. “Please go and favor them—a gentleman who dances as well as you should not be monopolized.”
As Chickering left her reluctantly, Beatrix heard a familiar voice behind her.
Although she wanted to cringe, she squared her shoulders and turned to face her former friend. “Hello, Prudence,” she said. “How are you?”
Prudence was sumptuously attired in an ivory gown, the skirts a massive froth of blond lace caught up at intervals with pink silk rosebuds. “I am very well, thank you. What a fashionable dress . . . you look very grown-up tonight, Bea.”
Beatrix smiled wryly at this bit of condescension coming from a girl who was a year younger than herself. “I’m twenty-three years old, Pru. I daresay I’ve looked grown-up for quite a while now.”
A long, awkward pause ensued.
“Do you want something?” Beatrix asked bluntly.
Prudence smiled and drew closer. “Yes. I want to thank you.”
“You’ve been a loyal friend. You could easily have spoiled things for Christopher and me by revealing our secret, but you didn’t. You kept your promise, and I didn’t believe that you would.”
“I suppose I thought that you might have tried to attract Christopher’s attention to yourself. As ludicrous as that would have been.”
Beatrix tilted her head slightly. “Ludicrous?”
“Perhaps that’s not the right word. I meant unsuitable. Because a man in Christopher’s position needs a sophisticated woman. Someone to support his position in society. With his fame and influence, he may enter politics someday. And he could hardly do that with a wife who spent most of her time in the forest . . . or the stables.”
That delicate reminder was like an arrow through Beatrix’s heart.
“She’s more suited to the stables than the drawing room,” Christopher had once said.
Beatrix stretched her lips into a careless grin, hoping it didn’t resemble a grimace. “Yes, I remember.”
“Again, my thanks,” Prudence said warmly. “I’ve never been happier. I’m coming to care for him very much. We’ll be betrothed soon.” She glanced at Christopher, who was standing near the ballroom entrance with a group of gentlemen. “See how handsome he is,” she said with affectionate pride. “I do prefer him in his uniform, with all those lovely medals, but he looks splendid in black, doesn’t he?”
Beatrix returned her attention to Prudence, wondering how to get rid of her. “Oh, look! . . . There is Marietta Newbury. Have you told her about your impending betrothal? I’m sure she would be delighted to hear of it.”
“Oh, indeed, she would! Will you come with me?”
“Thank you, but I’m terribly thirsty. I’ll go to the refreshment tables.”
“We’ll talk again soon,” Prudence promised.
“That would be lovely.”
Prudence left her in a swish of white lace.
Beatrix let out an exasperated puff that blew a stray lock of hair away from her forehead. She stole another glance at Christopher, who was involved in conversation. Although his demeanor was calm—stoic, even—there was a gleam of perspiration on his face. Looking away from his companions for a moment, he discreetly passed a shaking hand over his forehead.
Was he feeling ill?
Beatrix watched him closely.
The orchestra was playing a lively composition, obliging the crowd in the ballroom to talk loudly over the music. So much noise and color . . . so many bodies confined in one place. A percussion came from the refreshment room; clinks of glasses, flatware scratching on china. There came a pop of a champagne cork, and Beatrix saw Christopher twitch in response.
At that moment she understood.
It was all too much for him. His nerves were stretched to the breaking point. The effort at self-discipline was requiring everything he had.
Without a second thought, Beatrix made her way to Christopher as quickly as possible.
“Here you are, Captain Phelan,” she exclaimed.
The gentlemen’s conversation stopped at this untoward interruption.
“There’s no use in hiding from me,” Beatrix continued brightly. “Recollect, you promised to stroll with me through Lord Westcliff’s picture gallery.”
Christopher’s face was still. His eyes were dilated, the gray irises nearly extinguished by black. “So I did,” he said stiffly.
The other gentlemen acceded immediately. It was the only thing they could do in the face of Beatrix’s boldness. “We will certainly not keep you from making good on a promise, Phelan,” one of them said.
Another followed suit. “Especially a promise given to a delightful creature such as Miss Hathaway.”
Christopher gave an abbreviated nod. “By your leave,” he said to his companions, and offered Beatrix his arm. As soon as they were out of the main circuit of rooms, he began to breathe heavily. He was sweating profusely, the muscles of his arm unbelievably hard beneath her fingers. “That did your reputation no good,” he muttered, referring to the way she had approached him.
“Bother my reputation.”
Being familiar with the arrangement of the manor, Beatrix led him to a small outdoor conservatory. The attached circular roof was supported with slender columns and dimly illuminated with torchlight shed from the surrounding gardens.
Leaning against the side of the house, Christopher closed his eyes and drew in the cool, sweet air. He seemed like a man who had just emerged from a long swim underwater.
Beatrix stood nearby, watching him with concern. “Too much noise in there?”
“Too much of everything,” he muttered. After a moment, he slitted his eyes open. “Thank you.”
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com