A ghost of a smile came to his lips. “No. That wasn’t what I wanted to do.” He brought his mouth to hers, kissing her with rough, hungry ardor. Unfastening her breeches, he found the taut surface of her stomach. His hand insinuated farther into the loosened garment, curving around her bare hip. His fingers explored with a gentle but insistent curiosity that made her squirm, gooseflesh rising.
“Christopher,” she said brokenly, fumbling with the front of his trousers, but he caught her wrist and pulled it back.
“It’s been too long. I don’t trust myself with you.”
Pressing her burning face against his neck, where his shirt had been laid open, Beatrix felt the strong ripple of his swallow against her parted lips. “I want to be yours.”
“You are, God help you.”
“Then love me.” Feverishly she kissed his throat. “Love me—”
“Hush,” Christopher whispered. “I have little enough self-control as it is. I can’t make love to you here. It wouldn’t be right for you.” He kissed her tumbled hair, while his hand smoothed her hip in an unsteady caress. “Talk to me. Would you really have let me marry Prudence?”
“If you seemed happy with her. If she was the one you wanted.”
“I wanted you.” He kissed her, his mouth strong and punishing. “It nearly drove me mad, looking for the things I loved in her and not finding them. And then beginning to see them in you.”
“You should have told me.”
“Yes. But I knew you’d be angry. And I thought she was what you wanted. Pretty and vivacious—”
“With all the wit of a toasting iron.”
“Why did you write to her in the first place?”
“I was lonely. I didn’t know her well. But I needed . . . someone. When I received that reply, about Mawdsley’s donkey and the smell of October, and the rest of it . . . I started falling in love right then. I thought it was another side of Pru I hadn’t yet seen. It never occurred to me that the letters were written by someone else entirely.” He gave her a dark glance.
Beatrix returned his gaze contritely. “I knew you wouldn’t want letters from me. I knew I wasn’t the kind of woman you wanted.”
Rolling Beatrix to her side, Christopher brought her against his aroused form. “Does this feel as if I don’t want you?”
The hard pressure of him, the rampant heat of his body, dazzled her senses . . . it was like being drunk . . . like drinking starlight. Closing her eyes, she leaned her face into his shoulder. “You thought I was peculiar,” she said in a muffled voice.
His mouth brushed the edge of her ear and settled against her neck. She felt that he was smiling. “Darling love . . . you are.”
An answering grin curled her lips. She shivered as Christopher moved over her, pushing her back, using his thigh to part hers. He took her mouth with endless kisses, deep and impatient, turning her blood to fire. He began to caress her with strong, callused hands, a soldier’s hands. Her breeches were dragged away from her pale hips.
They both gasped, breath fragmenting, as his palm cupped her intimately. He stroked the humid warmth, parting and spreading her, a fingertip stroking the entrance to her body.
She lay quiet and unresisting, a mad heartbeat resounding everywhere. He touched inside her, his finger pushing gently past the innocent constriction. Lowering his head, he pressed his mouth to the tender curves of her breasts. A moan escaped her as she felt him take a hard bud between his lips. He began to suckle, his tongue lapping between each rhythmic tug. His finger went deeper, the heel of his hand teasing an unspeakably sensitive place.
Beatrix writhed, seeing nothing. Desperate tension folded in upon itself, and again, centering low and tight. A whimper escaped her as a wave of unimaginable pleasure caught her, and he guided her farther into it. She managed to speak through dry lips, her voice stunned and shaken. “Christopher—I can’t—”
“Let it happen,” he whispered against her flushed skin. “Let it come.”
He stroked her in a wicked, sensual cadence, pushing her higher. Her muscles worked against the alarming rush of sensation, and then her body began pulling it all in, her veins dilating, heat surging. Groping for his head, Beatrix sank her hands into his hair and guided his mouth to hers. He complied at once, drinking in her moans and gasps, his beguiling hands soothing the wrenching spasms.
The delight receded in lazy ebbs, leaving her weak and trembling. Beatrix stirred and opened her eyes, discovering that she was on the floor, half undressed, cradled in the arms of the man she loved. It was a strange, delicious, vulnerable moment. Her head turned in the crook of his arm. She saw Albert, who had fallen asleep in the chair, supremely uninterested in their antics.
Christopher caressed her slowly, his knuckles trailing through the valley between her breasts.
Beatrix tilted her head back to look at him. Perspiration had given his skin the sheen of polished metal, strong masculine features worked in bronze. His expression was engrossed, as if her body fascinated him, as if she were made of some precious substance he had never encountered before. She felt the soft, hot shock of his breath as he bent to kiss the inside of her wrist. He let the tip of his tongue rest against a tiny pulse. So new, this intimacy with him, and yet it was as necessary as the beat of her own heart.
She never wanted to be out of his arms again. She wanted to be with him always.
“When are we going to marry?” she asked, her voice languorous.
Christopher brushed his lips against her cheek. He held her a little more tightly.
And he was silent.
Beatrix blinked in surprise. His hesitation affected her like a splash of cold water. “We are going to marry, aren’t we?”
Christopher looked into her flushed face. “That’s a difficult question.”
“No it’s not. It’s a very simple yes-or-no question!”
“I can’t marry you,” he said quietly, “until I can be certain that it will be good for you.”
“Why is there any doubt of that?”
“You know why.”
“I do not!”
His mouth twisted. “Fits of rage, nightmares, strange visions, excessive drinking . . . does any of that sound like a man who’s fit for marriage?”
“You were going to marry Prudence,” Beatrix said indignantly.
“I wasn’t. I wouldn’t do this to any woman. Least of all to the woman I love more than my own life.”
Beatrix rolled away and sat up, pulling her loosened garments around her. “How long do you intend for us to wait? Obviously you’re not perfect, but—”
“ ‘Not perfect’ is having a bald spot or pockmarks. My problems are a bit more significant than that.”
Beatrix answered in an anxious tumble of words. “I come from a family of flawed people who marry other flawed people. Every one of us has taken a chance on love.”
“I love you too much to risk your safety.”
“Love me even more, then,” she begged. “Enough to marry me no matter what the obstacles are.”
Christopher scowled. “Don’t you think it would be easier for me to take what I want, regardless of the consequences? I want you with me every moment of the day. I want to hold you every night. I want to make love to you so badly I can’t even breathe. But I won’t allow any harm to come to you, especially from my hands.”
“You wouldn’t hurt me. Your instincts wouldn’t let you.”
“My instincts are those of a madman.”
Beatrix wrapped her arms around her bent knees. “You’re willing to accept my problems,” she said dolefully, “but you won’t allow me to accept yours.” She buried her face in her arms. “You don’t trust me.”
“You know that’s not the issue. I don’t trust myself.”
In her volatile state, it was difficult not to cry. The situation was so vastly unfair. Maddening.
“Beatrix.” Christopher knelt beside her, drawing her against him. She stiffened. “Let me hold you,” he said near her ear.
“If we don’t marry, when will I see you?” she asked miserably. “On chaperoned visits? Carriage drives? Stolen moments?”
Christopher smoothed her hair and stared into her swimming eyes. “It’s more than we’ve had until now.”
“It’s not enough.” Beatrix wrapped her arms around him. “I’m not afraid of you.” Gripping the back of his shirt, she gave it a little shake for emphasis. “I want you, and you say you want me, and the only thing standing in our way is you. Don’t tell me that you survived all those battles, and suffered through so much, merely to come home for this—”
He laid his fingers against her mouth. “Quiet. Let me think.”
“What is there to—”
“Beatrix,” he warned.
She fell silent, her gaze locked on his severe features.
Christopher frowned, weighing possibilities, inwardly debating the issue without seeming to come to any satisfactory conclusion.
In the silence, Beatrix rested her head on his shoulder. His body was warm and comforting, the deep-flexing muscles easily accommodating her weight. She wriggled to press closer to him, until she felt the satisfying hardness of his chest against her breasts. And she adjusted her position as she felt the firm pressure of him lower down. Her body ached to gather him in. Furtively she brushed her lips against the salt-scented skin of his neck.
He clamped his hand on her hip. Amusement threaded through his voice. “Stop squirming. There is no possible way a man can think when you’re doing that.”
“Haven’t you finished thinking yet?”
“No.” But she felt him smile as he kissed her forehead. “If you and I marry,” he said eventually, “I would be put in the position of trying to protect my wife against myself. And your well-being and happiness are everything to me.”
If . . . Beatrix’s heart leaped into her throat. She began to speak, but Christopher nudged his knuckles beneath her chin, gently closing her mouth. “And regardless of what fascinating ideas your family may have about the marital relationship,” he continued, “I have a traditional view. The husband is master of the household.”
“Oh, absolutely,” Beatrix said, a bit too quickly. “That’s what my family believes, too.”
His eyes narrowed skeptically.
Perhaps that had been taking it a bit far. Hoping to distract him, Beatrix nuzzled her cheek into his hand. “Could I keep my animals?”
“Of course.” His voice softened. “I would never deny something so important to you. Although I can’t help but ask . . . is the hedgehog negotiable?”
“Medusa? Oh, no, she couldn’t survive on her own. She was abandoned by her mother as kit, and I’ve taken care of her ever since. I suppose I could try to find a new home for her, but for some reason people don’t take readily to the idea of pet hedgehogs.”
“How odd of them,” Christopher said. “Very well, Medusa stays.”
“Are you proposing to me?” Beatrix asked hopefully.
“No.” Closing his eyes, Christopher let out a short sigh. “But I’m considering it against all better judgment.”
They rode directly to Ramsay House, with Albert loping happily along. It was nearly time for dinner, which made it likely that both Leo and Cam would have concluded their work for the day. Beatrix wished that she’d had time to prepare her family for the situation. She was fervently glad that Merripen was still in Ireland, because he tended to view all outsiders with suspicion, and he would not have made the situation easier for Christopher. And Leo might have objections. The best option was to approach Cam, who was by far the most reasonable male in the family.
However, when Beatrix tried to make suggestions to Christopher about whom to approach and what to say, he interrupted her with a kiss and told her that he would manage it on his own.
“Very well,” Beatrix said reluctantly. “But I warn you, they may be resistant to the match.”
“I’m resistant to the match,” Christopher informed her. “At least we’ll have that in common.”
They entered the house and went to the family parlor, where Cam and Leo were involved in conversation, and Catherine was sitting at a small writing desk.
“Phelan,” Cam said, looking up with an easy smile, “have you come to see the timber yard?”
“Thank you, but I’m here for another reason.”
Leo, who was standing near the window, glanced from Christopher’s rumpled attire to Beatrix’s disheveled condition. “Beatrix, darling, have you taken to going off the estate dressed like that?”
“Only this once,” she said apologetically. “I was in a hurry.”
“A hurry involving Captain Phelan?” Leo’s sharp gaze moved to Christopher. “What do you wish to discuss?”
“It’s personal,” Christopher said quietly. “And it concerns your sister.” He looked from Cam to Leo. Ordinarily there would have been no question concerning which one of them to approach. As lord of the manor, Leo would have been the first choice. However, the Hathaways seemed to have settled on an unconventional sharing of roles.
“Which one of you should I talk to?” Christopher asked.
They pointed to each other and replied at the same time.
Cam spoke to Leo. “You’re the viscount.”
“You’re the one who usually deals with that sort of thing,” Leo protested.
“Yes. But you won’t like my opinion on this one.”
“You’re not actually considering giving them your approval, are you?”
“Of all the Hathaway sisters,” Cam said equably, “Beatrix is the one most suited to choose her own husband. I trust her judgment.”
Beatrix gave him a brilliant smile. “Thank you, Cam.”
“What are you thinking?” Leo demanded of his brother-in-law. “You can’t trust Beatrix’s judgment.”
“She’s too young,” Leo said.
“I’m twenty-three,” Beatrix protested. “In dog years I’d be dead.”
“And you’re female,” Leo persisted.
“I beg your pardon?” Catherine interrupted. “Are you implying that women have poor judgment?”
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