“In these matters, yes.” Leo gestured to Christopher. “Just look at the fellow, standing there like a bloody Greek god. Do you think she chose him because of his intellect?”

“I graduated from Cambridge,” Christopher said acidly. “Should I have brought my diploma?”

“In this family,” Cam interrupted, “there is no requirement of a university degree to prove one’s intelligence. Lord Ramsay is a perfect example of how one has nothing to do with the other.”

“Phelan,” Leo said, “I don’t intend to be offensive, however—”

“It’s something that comes naturally to him,” Catherine interrupted sweetly.

Leo sent his wife a scowl and returned his attention to Christopher. “You and Beatrix haven’t known each other long enough to consider matrimony. A matter of weeks, to my knowledge. And what about Prudence Mercer? You’re practically betrothed, aren’t you?”

“Those are valid points,” Christopher said. “And I will answer them. But you should know right away that I’m against the match.”

Leo blinked in bemusement. “You mean you’re against a match with Miss Mercer?”

“Well . . . yes. But I’m also against a match with Beatrix.”

Silence fell over the room.

“This is a trick of some sort,” Leo said.

“Unfortunately, it’s not,” Christopher replied.

Another silence.

“Captain Phelan,” Cam asked, choosing his words with care. “Have you come to ask for our consent to marry Beatrix?”

Christopher shook his head. “If I decide to marry Beatrix, I’ll do it with or without your consent.”

Leo looked at Cam. “Good God,” he said in disgust. “This one’s worse than Harry.”

Cam wore an expression of beleaguered patience. “Perhaps we should both talk to Captain Phelan in the library. With brandy.”

“I want my own bottle,” Leo said feelingly, leading the way.

Aside from leaving out a few intimate details, Christopher told them everything. He was unsparing when it came to his own flaws, but he was determined to protect Beatrix from criticism, even from her own family.

“It’s not like her to play games,” Leo said, shaking his head after Christopher told them about the letters. “God knows what possessed her to do such a thing.”

“It wasn’t a game,” Christopher said quietly. “It turned into something more than either of us expected.”

Cam regarded him with a speculative gaze. “In the excitement of all these revelations, Phelan, one could easily be swept away. Are you very sure of your feelings for Beatrix? Because she is—”

“Unique,” Leo supplied.

“I know that.” Christopher felt his mouth twitch with a trace of humor. “I know that she steals things unintentionally. She wears breeches, and references Greek philosophers, and has read far too many veterinary manuals. I know that she keeps the kinds of pets that other people pay to have exterminated.” Thinking of Beatrix, he felt an ache of yearning. “I know that she could never reside in London, that she could only thrive by living close to nature. I know that she is compassionate, intelligent, and brave, and the only thing she truly fears is being abandoned. And I would never do that, because I happen to love her to distraction. But there is one problem.”

“What is that?” Leo asked.

Christopher answered in a bleak syllable. “Me.”

Minutes ticked by as Christopher explained the rest of it . . . his inexplicable behavior since the war, the symptoms of a condition that seemed akin to madness. He probably shouldn’t have been surprised that they received the information without apparent alarm. But it made him wonder: what kind of family was this?

When Christopher finished, there was a moment of silence.

Leo looked at Cam expectantly. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“Now is the time when you dredge up one of your blasted Romany sayings. Something about roosters laying eggs, or pigs dancing in the orchard. It’s what you always do. Let’s have it.”

Cam gave him a sardonic glance. “I can’t think of one right now.”

“By God, I’ve had to listen to hundreds of them. And Phelan doesn’t have to hear even one?”

Ignoring Leo, Cam turned his attention to Christopher. “I believe the problems you’ve described will lessen as time passes.” He paused. “Our brother Merripen would attest to that, if he were here.”

Christopher looked at him alertly.

“He never fought in a war,” Cam continued quietly, “but violence and damage are hardly limited to the battlefield. He had his own demons to fight, and he conquered them. I see no reason why you can’t do the same.”

“I think Phelan and Beatrix should wait,” Leo said. “Nothing will be lost by waiting.”

“I don’t know about that,” Cam said. “As the Rom say, ‘Take too much time, and time will take you.’ ”

Leo looked smug. “I knew there would be a saying.”

“With all due respect,” Christopher muttered, “this conversation is leading nowhere. At least one of you should point out that Beatrix deserves a better man.”

“That’s what I said about my wife,” Leo remarked. “Which is why I married her before she could find one.” He smiled slightly as he contemplated Christopher’s glowering face. “So far, I haven’t been all that impressed by your flaws. You drink more than you should, you have trouble controlling your impulses, and you have a temper. All of those are practically requirements in the Hathaway family. I suppose you think Beatrix should marry a quiet young gentleman whose idea of excitement is collecting snuffboxes or writing sonnets. Well, we’ve tried that, and it hasn’t worked. She doesn’t want that kind of man. Apparently what she wants is you.”

“She’s too young and idealistic to know better,” Christopher said. “I fault her judgment.”

“So do I,” Leo shot back. “But unfortunately none of my sisters let me pick their husbands for them.”

“Easy, the two of you,” Cam interceded calmly. “I have a question for you, Phelan . . . if you decide to wait indefinitely before proposing marriage to Beatrix . . . do you intend to continue seeing her in the meantime?”

“Yes,” Christopher said honestly. “I don’t think anything could keep me away from her. But we’ll be circumspect.”

“I doubt that,” Leo said. “The only thing Beatrix knows about being circumspect is how to spell it.”

“Before long there would be gossip,” Cam said, “and criticism, which would harm Beatrix’s reputation. With the result that you would have to marry her anyway. There’s not much point in delaying the inevitable.”

“Are you saying you want me to marry her?” Christopher asked incredulously.

“No,” Cam replied, looking rueful. “But I can’t say I’m all that fond of the alternative. Beatrix would be miserable. Besides, which one of us will volunteer to tell her that she’s going to have to wait?”

All three were silent.

Beatrix knew that she would get precious little rest that night, her mind too engaged with worries and questions to allow for sleep. Christopher had not stayed for dinner, but had left soon after his talk with Cam and Leo.

Amelia, who had come downstairs after having put Alex to bed, made no attempt to hide her pleasure in the news. “I like him,” she said, hugging Beatrix and drawing back to view her with a smile. “He seems to be a good and honorable man.”

“And brave,” Cam added.

“Yes,” Amelia replied soberly, “one can’t forget what he did in the war.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that,” Cam told her. “I was referring to the fact that he’s willing to marry a Hathaway sister.”

Amelia stuck her tongue out at him, and he grinned.

The relationship between the pair was so comfortable, and yet spiced with playfulness and flirtation. Beatrix wondered if she and Christopher could ever achieve anything similar, if he would relinquish enough of his defenses to allow her to be close to him.

Frowning, Beatrix sat next to Amelia. “I keep asking about the conversation Cam and Leo had with Christopher, and it seems nothing was decided or resolved. All they did was drink brandy.”

“We assured Phelan that we were more than happy to let him have you and your menagerie,” Leo retorted. “After that, he said he needed to think.”

“About what?” Beatrix demanded. “What is there to think about? Why is it taking him so long to make a decision?”

“He’s a man, dear,” Amelia explained kindly. “Sustained thinking is very difficult for them.”

“As opposed to women,” Leo retorted, “who have the remarkable ability to make decisions without doing any thinking at all.”

Christopher came to Ramsay House in the morning, looking very . . . well, soldierly, despite the fact that he was dressed in informal walking attire. He was quiet and impeccably polite as he asked to accompany Beatrix on a walk. Although Beatrix was thrilled to see him, she was also uneasy. He looked guarded and severe, a man with a possibly unpleasant duty to perform.

This was not at all auspicious.

Still, Beatrix maintained a cheerful façade, leading Christopher to one of her favorite walks in the forest, an outward leg with farmland to the right and woodland to the left. It continued in a loop that cut directly into the forest, crossed over ancient paths, and finished along a creek. Albert crossed back and forth, sniffing industriously as they progressed.

“. . . whenever you find a clearing like this,” Beatrix said, leading Christopher to a small, sun-dappled meadow, “it’s most likely an ancient field enclosure from the Bronze Age. They knew nothing about fertilizing, so when a patch of land became unproductive, they simply cleared a new area. And the old areas became covered with gorse and bracken and heather. And here”—she showed him the cavity of an oak tree near the clearing—“is where I watched a hobby chick hatch in early summer. Hobbies don’t build their own nests, they use ones made by other birds. They’re so fast when they fly, they look like sickles cutting through the air.”

Christopher listened attentively. With the breeze playing lightly in his dark gold hair, and a slight smile on his lips, he was so handsome that it was difficult not to gape at him. “You know all the secrets of this forest, don’t you?” he asked gently.

“There’s so much to learn, I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ve filled books with sketches of animals and plants, and I keep finding new ones to study.” A wistful sigh escaped her. “There is talk of a natural history society to be established in London. I wish I could be part of it.”

“Why can’t you?”

“I’m sure they won’t admit ladies,” Beatrix said. “None of those groups do. It will be a room full of whiskered old men smoking pipes and sharing entomological notes. Which is a pity, because I daresay I could talk about insects as well as any of them.”

A slow smile crossed his face. “I for one am glad you have neither pipe nor whiskers,” he said. “However, it seems a pity that anyone who likes animals and insects as well as you shouldn’t be allowed to discuss them. Perhaps we could persuade them to make an exception for you.”

Beatrix glanced at him in surprise. “You would do that? You wouldn’t mind the idea of a woman pursuing such unorthodox interests?”

“Of course I wouldn’t. There would be no point in marrying a woman with unorthodox interests and then trying to make her ordinary, would there?”

Her eyes turned round. “Are you going to propose to me now?”

Christopher turned her to face him, his fingers stroking the underside of her chin, coaxing her face upward. “There are some things I want to discuss first.”

Beatrix looked at him expectantly.

His expression sobered. Taking her hand in his, he began to walk with her along a grassy path. “First . . . we won’t be able to share a bed.”

She blinked. Hesitantly she asked, “We’re going to be platonic?”

He stumbled a little. “No. God, no. What I meant was, we will have relations, but we will not sleep together.”

“But . . . I think I would like sleeping with you.”

His hand tightened on hers. “My nightmares would keep you awake.”

“I wouldn’t mind that.”

“I might accidently strangle you in my sleep.”

“Oh. Well, I would mind that.” Beatrix frowned in concentration as they walked slowly. “May I make a request in turn?”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Could you leave off drinking strong liquor, and only have wine from now on? I know that you use spirits as a medicine to treat your other problems, but it’s possible that it actually makes them worse, and—”

“There’s no need to talk me into it, love. I’ve already resolved to do that.”

“Oh.” She smiled at him, pleased.

“There’s only one other thing I’ll ask of you,” Christopher said. “No more dangerous activities, such as climbing trees or training half-wild horses, or removing feral animals from traps, and so forth.”

Beatrix glanced at him in mute protest, resisting the prospect of any curtailment on her freedom.

Christopher understood. “I won’t be unreasonable,” he said quietly. “But I’d rather not have to worry about you being injured.”

“People are injured all the time. Women’s skirts catch fire, or people are thrown down by vehicles thundering along the road, or they trip and fall—”

“Precisely my point. Life is dangerous enough without your tempting fate.”

It occurred to Beatrix that her family had placed far fewer restrictions on her than a husband would. She had to remind herself that marriage would have compensations as well.

“. . . I have to go to Riverton soon,” Christopher was saying. “I have much to learn about running an estate, not to mention the timber market. According to the estate manager, the production of Riverton timber is inconsistent. And a new railway station is being built in the region, which is to our benefit only if good roads are laid out. I have to take part in the planning, or I’ll have no right to complain later.” He stopped and turned Beatrix to face him. “I know how close you are to your family. Could you bear to live away from them? We’ll keep Phelan House, but our main residence would be at Riverton.”

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