“Who was that man?”
“The one you were dancing with.”
“Mr. Chickering?” Her heart felt considerably lighter as she realized that he had noticed. “Oh, he’s a delightful gentleman. I’d met him before in London.” She paused. “Did you also happen to see that I spoke to Pru?”
“Well, I did. She seems convinced that you and she will marry.”
There was no change in his expression. “Perhaps we will. It’s what she deserves.”
Beatrix hardly knew how to reply to that. “Do you care for her?”
Christopher gave her a look of scalding derision. “How could I not?”
Her frown deepened. “If you’re going to be sarcastic, I may as well go back inside.”
“Go, then.” He closed his eyes again, continuing to lean against the wall.
Beatrix was tempted to do just that. However, as she looked at his still, gleaming features, a wave of unaccountable tenderness swept through her.
He looked so large and invulnerable, with no sign of emotion save for that indentation between his brows. But she knew that he was overwrought. No man liked to lose control, especially a man whose very life had depended so often on his ability to govern himself.
Oh, how she wished she could tell him that their secret house was close by. Come with me, she would say, and I’ll take you to a lovely quiet place . . .
Instead she fished a handkerchief from a hidden pocket in her gown, and approached him. “Be still,” she said. Standing on her toes, she carefully blotted his face with a handkerchief.
And he let her.
He looked down at her when she was done, his mouth grim. “I have these moments of . . . madness,” he said gruffly. “In the middle of a conversation, or doing something perfectly ordinary, a vision appears in my head. And then there’s a moment of blankness, and I don’t know what I’ve just said or done.”
“What kind of vision?” Beatrix asked. “Things you saw in the war?”
His nod was nearly imperceptible.
“That’s not madness,” she said.
“Then what is it?”
“I’m not certain.”
A humorless laugh escaped him. “You have no damned idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, I don’t?” Beatrix stared at him intently, wondering how far she could trust him. The instinct of self-preservation struggled with her desire to help him, share with him. “Boldness be my friend!” she thought ruefully, summoning her favorite line from Shakespeare. It was practically the Hathaway family motto.
Very well. She would tell him the shameful secret she had never told anyone outside her family. If it helped him, the risk was worth it.
“I steal things,” she said bluntly.
That got his attention. “Pardon?”
“Little things. Snuffboxes, sealing wax, odds and ends. Never intentionally.”
“How do you steal things unintentionally?”
“Oh, it’s dreadful,” Beatrix said earnestly. “I’ll be in a shop, or someone’s home, and I’ll see a little object . . . it could be something as valuable as a jewel, or as insignificant as a piece of string . . . and the most terrible sensation comes over me. A sort of anxious, fidgety feeling . . . Have you ever had an itch so awful that you must scratch it or die? And yet you can’t?”
His lips twitched. “Yes. Usually in one’s army boot, while standing in knee-deep water in a trench. While people are shooting. That absolutely guarantees an unreachable itch.”
“My goodness. Well, I try to resist, but the feeling gets worse until I finally take the object and slip it into my pocket. And then later when I return home, I’m overcome with shame and embarrassment, and I have to find ways to return the things I took. My family helps me. And it’s so much more difficult to put something back than it is to steal it.” She grimaced. “Sometimes I’m not even fully aware of doing it. That’s why I was expelled from finishing school. I had a collection of hair ribbons, pencil stubs, books . . . and I tried to put everything back, but I couldn’t remember where it all went.” Beatrix glanced at him cautiously, wondering if she would find condemnation in his face.
But his mouth had gentled, and his eyes were warm. “When did it start?”
“After my parents died. My father went to bed one night with pains in his chest, and he never awoke. But it was even worse with my mother . . . she stopped talking, and hardly ate, and withdrew from everyone and everything. She died of grief a few months later. I was very young, and self-centered, I suppose—because I felt abandoned. I wondered why she hadn’t loved me enough to stay.”
“That doesn’t mean you were self-centered.” His voice was quiet and kind. “Any child would have reacted that way.”
“My brother and sisters took very good care of me,” Beatrix said. “But it wasn’t long after Mother was gone that my problem appeared. It’s much better than it used to be . . . when I feel peaceful and safe, I don’t steal anything at all. It’s only at difficult times, when I’m uncomfortable or anxious, that I find myself doing it.” She looked up at Christopher compassionately. “I think your problem will fade in time, as mine has. And then it might come back every once in a while, but only briefly. It won’t always be this bad.”
Torchlight flickered in Christopher’s eyes as he stared at her. He reached out and drew her close with slow, stunning tenderness. One of his hands cradled her jaw, his long fingers textured with calluses. To Beatrix’s bewilderment, he eased her head against his shoulder. His arms were around her, and nothing had ever felt so wonderful. She leaned against him in a daze of pleasure, feeling the even rise and fall of his chest. He toyed with the tiny wisps at the nape of her neck, the brush of his thumb on her skin sending a rapturous quiver down her spine.
“I have a silver cuff link of yours,” Beatrix said unsteadily, her cheek pressed to the smooth fabric of his coat. “And a shaving brush. I went to take back the shaving brush, and stole the cuff link instead. I’ve been afraid to try and return them, because I’m fairly certain I would only end up stealing something else.”
A sound of amusement rustled in his chest. “Why did you take the shaving brush in the first place?”
“I told you, I can’t help—”
“No. I meant, what were you feeling anxious about?”
“Oh, that’s not important.”
“It’s important to me.”
Beatrix drew back just enough to look up at him. You. I was anxious about you. But what she said was, “I don’t remember. I have to go back inside.”
His arms loosened. “I thought you weren’t worried about your reputation.”
“Well, it can survive a little damage,” Beatrix said reasonably. “But I’d rather not have the whole thing blown to smithereens.”
“Go, then.” His hands fell away from her, and she began to walk away. “But Beatrix . . .”
She paused and glanced at him uncertainly. “Yes?”
His gaze held hers. “I want my shaving brush back.”
A slow grin curved her lips. “I’ll return it soon,” she promised, and left him alone in the moonlight.
“Beatrix, see who’s here!” Rye came to the paddock with Albert padding beside him.
Beatrix was working with a newly acquired horse, which had been badly trained as a colt and sold by its disgruntled owner. The horse had a potentially fatal habit of rearing, and had once nearly crushed a rider who had been trying to discipline him. The horse started uneasily at the appearance of the boy and dog, but Beatrix soothed him and had him begin a slow circle around the paddock.
She glanced at Rye, who had climbed onto the fence and sat on the top rail. Albert sat and rested his chin on the lowest rail, watching her with alert eyes.
“Did Albert come alone?” Beatrix asked, perplexed.
“Yes. And he wasn’t wearing a leash. I think he must have run away from home.”
Before Beatrix could reply, the horse stopped and began to rear irritably. Immediately she loosened the reins and leaned forward, sliding her right arm around the horse’s neck. As soon as the horse began to come down, Beatrix urged him forward. She doubled the horse in tight half circles, first to the right, then to the left, and began him forward again.
“Why do you double him like that?” Rye asked.
“It’s something your father taught me, actually. It’s to impress on him that he and I must work together.” She patted the horse’s neck and kept him at a sedate walk. “One must never pull on the reins when a horse is rearing—it could cause him to fall backward. When I feel him getting light in the front, I urge him forward a little faster. He can’t rear as long as he’s moving.”
“How will you know when he’s straightened out?”
“There’s never an exact moment when one knows,” Beatrix said. “I’ll just keep working with him, and he’ll improve little by little.”
She dismounted and led the horse to the railing, and Rye stroked his satiny neck. “Albert,” Beatrix said conversationally, bending to pet the dog. “What are you doing here? Have you run off from your master?”
He wagged his tail enthusiastically.
“I gave him some water,” Rye said. “Can we keep him for the afternoon?”
“I’m afraid not. Captain Phelan may be worrying after him. I’m going to take him back now.”
The boy heaved a sigh. “I would ask to go with you,” he said, “but I have to finish my lessons. I so look forward to the day I know everything. Then I won’t have to read any more books or do any more counting.”
Beatrix smiled. “I don’t wish to be discouraging, Rye, but it’s not possible to know everything.”
“Mama does.” Rye paused reflectively. “At least, Papa says we must pretend she does, because it makes her happy.”
“Your father,” Beatrix informed him with a laugh, “is one of the wisest men I’ve ever known.”
It was only when Beatrix had ridden halfway to Phelan House, with Albert trotting alongside, that she recalled she was still dressed in boots and breeches. No doubt the outlandish attire would annoy Christopher.
There had been no word from him in the week after the ball at Stony Cross Manor. And although Beatrix had certainly not expected him to pay a call on her, it would have been a cordial gesture on his part. They were neighbors, after all. She had gone out walking every day, hoping to encounter him on a long ramble, but there was no sign of him.
It couldn’t have been more obvious that Christopher wasn’t interested in her, in any regard. Which led Beatrix to the conclusion that it had been a grave mistake to confide in him. She had been presumptuous in assuming that her problem was comparable to his.
“Recently I realized that I’m no longer in love with him,” she told Albert as they neared Phelan House. “It’s such a relief. Now I’m not at all nervous about the prospect of seeing him. I suppose this is proof that what I felt for him was infatuation. Because it’s completely gone now. I couldn’t care less about what he does or whom he marries. Oh, what a feeling of utter freedom.” She glanced at the dog, who didn’t look at all convinced by her statements. She sighed heavily.
Reaching the entrance of the house, Beatrix dismounted and handed the reins to a footman. She suppressed a sheepish smile as she saw how he was gaping at her. “Keep my horse at the ready, please. I’ll be only a moment. Come, Albert.”
She was met at the front door by Mrs. Clocker, who was taken aback by her attire. “Why, Miss Hathaway . . .” the housekeeper faltered, “you’re wearing . . .”
“Yes, I’m so sorry, I know I’m not presentable, but I came in a dash. Albert appeared at Ramsay House today, and I’m delivering him back to you.”
“Thank you,” the housekeeper said in a distracted manner. “I hadn’t even noticed he was missing. With the master not himself . . .”
“Not himself?” Beatrix was instantly concerned. “In what way, Mrs. Clocker?”
“I shouldn’t say.”
“Yes you should. I’m the perfect person to confide in. I’m very discreet—I only gossip to animals. Is Captain Phelan ill? Did something happen?”
The housekeeper’s voice lowered to a whisper. “Three nights ago, we all smelled smoke coming from the master’s bedroom. The master was drunk as David’s sow, and he had thrown his uniform onto the fire in the hearth, and all his medals with it! We managed to rescue the medals, although the garments were ruined. After that, the master closed himself in his room and began to drink steadily. He hasn’t stopped. We’ve watered his liquor as much as we dared, but . . .” A helpless shrug. “He will talk to no one. He won’t touch the dinner trays I sent up. We sent for the doctor, but he wouldn’t see him, and when we brought the pastor yesterday, he threatened to murder him. We’ve been considering the idea of sending for Mrs. Phelan.”
“Dear me, no. Mrs. Phelan the younger. I do not think his mother would be of any help.”
“Yes, Audrey is a good choice. She’s levelheaded, and she knows him well.”
“The problem,” the housekeeper said, “is that it would take at least two days for her to arrive . . . and I fear . . .”
“This morning he asked for a razor and hot bath. We were frightened to give it to him, but we daren’t refuse. I half wonder if he won’t do himself harm.”
Two things were immediately clear to Beatrix: first, the housekeeper would never have confided so much in her unless she was desperate, and second, Christopher was in terrible pain.
She felt answering pain, for his sake, piercing beneath her own ribs. Everything she had told herself about her newfound freedom, about the death of her infatuation, was revealed as an absurdity. She was mad for him. She would have done anything for him. Anxiously she wondered what he needed, what words might soothe him. But she was not up to the task. She couldn’t think of anything wise or clever. All she knew was that she wanted to be with him.
“Mrs. Clocker,” she said carefully, “I wonder if . . . it might be possible for you not to notice if I go upstairs?”
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