She felt an overwhelming need to physically draw him closer, as if to ease him away from a precipice. Instead she kept her hands in her lap, and stared at the place where the ends of his hair rested on his sun-browned neck. The muscles of his back were bunched. If only she could smooth her palm over that hard, rippled surface. If only she could soothe him. But he had to find his own way out.
“A friend of mine died at Inkerman,” Christopher finally said, his voice halting and raw. “One of my lieutenants. His name was Mark Bennett. He was the best soldier in the regiment. He was always honest. He joked at the wrong times. If you asked him to do something, no matter how difficult or dangerous, it would be done. He would have risked his life for any of us.
“The Russians had set up rifle pits in caverns and old stone huts built in the side of a hill. They were firing directly into our siege batteries—the general decided the Russian position had to be taken. Three companies of Rifles were chosen.
“A company of Hussars was ordered to ride against the enemy if they tried to flank us. They were led by a man I hated. Lieutenant Colonel Fenwick. Everyone hated him. He commanded the same cavalry regiment I had started in when I bought my first commission.”
Christopher fell silent, lost in memory. His half-lowered lashes sent spikes of shadow over his cheeks.
“Why was he so hated?” Beatrix eventually prompted.
“Fenwick was often cruel for no reason. Fond of punishment for its own sake. He ordered floggings and deprivations for the most minor infractions. And when he invented excuses to discipline the men, I intervened. He accused me of insubordination, and I was nearly brought up on charges.” Christopher let out a slow, uneven breath. “Fenwick was the main reason I agreed to be transferred to the Rifle Brigade. And then at Inkerman I found out I would have to depend on his cavalry support.
“Before the riflemen got to the trenches, we stopped in a ravine where there was shelter from stray shots. Night was coming. We formed into three groups. We opened fire, the Russians returned it, and we pinpointed the positions we had to take. We advanced with guns . . . took out as many as we could . . . then it turned into hand-to-hand combat. I was separated from Bennett in the fighting. The Russians drove us back when their support came . . . and then shell and grape started raining down. It wouldn’t stop. Men around me were falling . . . their bodies opening up, wounds breaking out. My arms and back were burning with shrapnel. I couldn’t find Bennett. It was dark, and we had to fall back.
“I’d left Albert waiting in the ravine. I called for him, and he came. Through all that hellfire, against every natural instinct . . . Albert came out with me to find wounded men in the dark. He led me to two men lying at the base of the hill. One of them was Bennett.”
Beatrix closed her eyes sickly as she drew an accurate conclusion. “And the other was Colonel Fenwick,” she said.
Christopher nodded grimly. “Fenwick had been unseated. His horse was gone. One of his legs was broken . . . a bullet wound in the side . . . there was a good chance he would live. But Bennett . . . his front had been ripped open. He was barely conscious. Dying by degrees. I wanted it to be me, it should have been. I was always taking chances. Bennett was the careful one. He wanted to go back to his family, and to the woman he cared for. I don’t know why it wasn’t me. That’s the hell of battle—it’s all chance, you never know if you’ll be next. You can try to hide, and a shell will find you. You can run straight at the enemy, and a bullet might jam in a rifle, and you’re spared. It’s all luck.” He clenched his jaw against a tremor of emotion. “I wanted to take them both to safety, but there was no one to help. And I couldn’t leave Fenwick there. If he was captured, the enemy would get crucial intelligence from him. He’d had access to all the general’s dispatches, knew all about strategies and supplies . . . everything.”
Beatrix stared at his partially averted profile. “You had to save Colonel Fenwick first,” she whispered, her chest aching with compassion and pity as she finally understood. “Before you could save your friend.”
“I told Mark, ‘I’ll come back for you. I’ll come back, I swear it. I’m leaving Albert with you.’ There was blood in his mouth. I knew he wanted to say something, but he couldn’t. Albert stayed next to him, and I picked up Fenwick, and carried him over my shoulder, and took him back to the ravine.
“When I went back for Bennett, the sky was on fire, the smoke made it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. The ammunition flashes were like lightning. Bennett was gone. Literally gone. They had taken him. Albert was wounded—someone had jabbed him with a bayonet. One of his ears was half dangling—there’s a little ragged place where it wasn’t stitched properly afterward. I stayed beside Albert with my rifle, and we held the position until the Rifle companies advanced again. And finally we took the pits, and it was done.”
“Lieutenant Bennett was never found?” Beatrix asked faintly.
Christopher shook his head. “He wasn’t returned in the prisoner exchange. He couldn’t have lived long after he was captured. But I might have saved him. I’ll never know. Jesus.” Blotting his glittering eyes with his sleeve, he fell silent.
He seemed to be waiting for something . . . sympathy that he would not accept, condemnation that he did not deserve. Beatrix wondered what some person far wiser or more worldly than she might have said. She didn’t know. All she could offer was the truth. “You must listen to me,” she said. “It was an impossible choice. And Lieutenant Bennett . . . Mark . . . didn’t blame you.”
“I blame myself.” He sounded weary.
How tired of death he must be, she thought compassionately. How tired of grief and guilt. But what she said was, “Well, that’s not reasonable. I know that it must torment you to think that he died alone, or worse, at the hands of the enemy. But it’s not how we die that matters, it’s how we live. While Mark lived, he knew that he was loved. He had his family and his friends. That was as much as any man could have.”
Christopher shook his head. No good. No words could help him.
Beatrix reached out to him then, unable to hold back any longer. She let her hand glide gently over the warm golden skin of his shoulder. “I don’t think you should blame yourself,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter what I believe. You’ll have to come to that conclusion on your own. It wasn’t your fault that you were faced with a terrible choice. You must give yourself enough time to get better.”
“How much time will that take?” he asked bitterly.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “But you have a lifetime.”
A caustic laugh broke from him. “That’s too damned long.”
“I understand that you feel responsible for what happened to Mark. But you’ve already been forgiven for whatever you think your sins are. You have,” she insisted as he shook his head. “Love forgives all things. And so many people—” She stopped as she felt his entire body jerk.
“What did you say?” she heard him whisper.
Beatrix realized the mistake she had just made. Her arms fell away from him.
The blood began to roar in her ears, her heart thumping so madly she felt faint. Without thinking, she scrambled away from him, off the bed, to the center of the room.
Breathing in frantic bursts, Beatrix turned to face him.
Christopher was staring at her, his eyes gleaming with a strange, mad light. “I knew it,” he whispered.
She wondered if he might try to kill her.
She decided not to wait to find out.
Fear gave her the speed of a terrified hare. She bolted before he could catch her, tearing to the door, flinging it open, and scampering to the grand staircase. Her boots made absurdly loud thuds on the stairs as she leaped downward.
Christopher followed her to the threshold, bellowing her name.
Beatrix didn’t pause for a second, knowing he was going to pursue her as soon as he donned his clothes.
Mrs. Clocker stood near the entrance hall, looking worried and astonished. “Miss Hathaway? What—”
“I think he’ll come out of his room now,” Beatrix said rapidly, jumping down the last of the stairs. “It’s time for me to be going.”
“Did he . . . are you . . .”
“If he asks for his horse to be saddled,” Beatrix said breathlessly, “please have it done slowly.”
And Beatrix raced from the house as if demons were at her heels.
Beatrix fled to the one place where she knew he wouldn’t find her.
The irony was hardly lost on her, that she was hiding from Christopher in the place she had most longed to share with him. And she was well aware that she could not hide from him forever. There would be a reckoning.
But after having seen his face when he realized that she was the one who had deceived him, Beatrix wanted to put off that reckoning for as long as possible.
She rode pell-mell to the secret house on Lord Westcliff’s estate, tethered the horse, and went upstairs to the tower room. It was sparsely furnished with a pair of battered chairs, an ancient settee with a low back, a ramshackle table, and a bed frame propped against one wall. Beatrix had kept the room swept clean and dusted, and she had adorned the walls with unframed sketches of landscapes and animals.
A dish of burned-out candle stubs was set at the window.
After admitting fresh air into the room, Beatrix paced back and forth, muttering frantically to herself.
“He’ll probably kill me. Good, that’s better than having him hate me. A quick throttling, and it will be over. I wish I could throttle myself and spare him the trouble. Maybe I should toss myself out the window. If only I’d never written those letters. If only I’d been honest. Oh, what if he goes to Ramsay House and waits there for me? What if—”
She stopped abruptly as she heard a noise from outside. A bark. Creeping to the window, she looked down and saw Albert’s jaunty, furry form trotting around the building. And Christopher, tethering his horse near hers.
He had found her.
“Oh God,” Beatrix whispered, blanching. She turned and set her back against the wall, feeling like a prisoner facing execution. This was one of the worst moments of her entire life . . . and in light of some of the Hathaways’ past difficulties, that was saying something.
In just a few moments, Albert bounded into the room and came to her.
“You led him here, didn’t you?” Beatrix accused in a furious whisper. “Traitor!”
Looking apologetic, Albert went to a chair, hopped up, and rested his chin on his paws. His ears twitched at the sound of a measured tread on the stairs.
Christopher entered the room, having to bend his head to pass through the small medieval doorway. Straightening, he surveyed their surroundings briefly before his piercing gaze found Beatrix. He stared at her with the barely suppressed wrath of a man to whom entirely too much had happened.
Beatrix wished she were a swooning sort of female. It seemed the only appropriate response to the situation.
Unfortunately, no matter how she tried to summon a swoon, her mind remained intractably conscious.
“I’m so sorry,” she croaked.
Christopher approached her slowly, as if he thought she might try to bolt again. Reaching her, he took her upper arms in a hard grip that allowed no chance of escape. “Tell me why you did it,” he said, his voice low and vibrant with . . . hatred? Fury? “No, damn you, don’t cry. Was it a game? Was it only to help Prudence?”
Beatrix looked away with a wretched sob. “No, it wasn’t a game . . . Pru showed me your letter, and she said she wasn’t going to answer it. And I had to. I felt as if it had been written for me. It was only supposed to be once. But then you wrote back, and I let myself answer just once more . . . and then one more time, and another . . .”
“How much of it was the truth?”
“All of it,” Beatrix burst out. “Except for signing Pru’s name. The rest of it was real. If you believe nothing else, please believe that.”
Christopher was quiet for a long moment. He had begun to breathe heavily. “Why did you stop?”
She sensed how difficult it was for him to ask. But God help her, it was infinitely worse to have to answer.
“Because it hurt too much. The words meant too much.” She forced herself to go on, even though she was crying. “I fell in love with you, and I knew I could never have you. I couldn’t pretend to be Pru any longer. I loved you so much, and I couldn’t—”
Her words were abruptly smothered.
He was kissing her, she realized dazedly. What did it mean? What did he want? What . . . but her thoughts dissolved, and she stopped trying to make sense of anything.
His arms had closed around her, one hand gripping the back of her neck. Shaken to her soul, she molded against him. Taking her sobs into his mouth, he licked deep, his kiss strong and savage. It had to be a dream, and yet her senses insisted it was real, the scent and warmth and toughness of him engulfing her. He pulled her even more tightly against him, making it difficult to breathe. She didn’t care. The pleasure of the kiss suffused her, drugged her, and when he pulled his head back, she protested with a bewildered moan.
Christopher forced her to look back at him. “Loved?” he asked hoarsely. “Past tense?”
“Present tense,” she managed to say.
“You told me to find you.”
“I didn’t mean to send you that note.”
“But you did. You wanted me.”
“Yes.” More tears escaped her stinging eyes. He bent and pressed his mouth to them, tasting the salt of grief.
Those gray eyes looked into hers, no longer bright as hellfrost, but soft as smoke. “I love you, Beatrix.”
Maybe she was capable of swooning after all.
It certainly felt like a swoon, her knees giving way, her head lolling against his shoulder as he lowered them both to the threadbare carpet. Fitting his arm beneath her neck, Christopher covered her mouth with his again. Beatrix answered helplessly, unable to withhold anything. Their legs tangled, and he let his thigh nuzzle between hers.
“I th-thought you would hate me . . .” Her dazed voice seemed to come from far away.
“Never. You could run to the farthest corners of the earth. There’s no place you could go where I wouldn’t love you. Nothing you could do to stop me.”
She shivered at what he was doing, his hands opening her clothes, sliding inside them. Her br**sts felt hot, the tips hardening as he touched them. “I thought you were going to murder me,” she said with difficulty.
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