It was a striking thought, living away from her family. They had been her entire world. Especially Amelia, her one great constant. The idea touched a note of anxiety in Beatrix, but also excitement. A new home—new people, new places to explore . . . and Christopher. Most of all, Christopher.

“I believe I could,” Beatrix said. “I would miss them. But most of the time I’m left to my own devices here. My siblings are occupied with their families and their lives, which is as it should be. As long as I could travel to see them when I wished, I think I would be happy.”

Christopher fondled her cheek, his knuckles sliding delicately against the side of her throat. There was understanding in his eyes, and sympathy, and something else that caused her skin to flush.

“Whatever your happiness requires,” he said, “you’ll have it.” Easing her closer, he kissed her forehead, working down to the tip of her nose. “Beatrix. Now I have something to ask you.” His lips found the curve of her smiling mouth. “My love . . . I would choose the small sum of hours I’ve spent with you over a lifetime spent with another woman. You never needed to write that note, asking me to find you. I’ve wanted to find you my entire life. I don’t think there’s a man alive who could be all the things you deserve in a husband . . . but I beg you to let me try. Will you marry me?”

Beatrix pulled his head down to hers, and brought her lips close to his ear. “Yes, yes, yes,” she whispered, and for no reason at all other than she wanted to, she caught the edge of his ear lightly with her teeth.

Startled by the love nip, Christopher looked down at her. Beatrix’s breath quickened as she saw the promises of retribution and pleasure in his eyes. He pressed a hard kiss against her lips.

“What kind of wedding would you like?” he asked, and stole another kiss before she could reply.

“The kind that turns you into my husband.” She touched the firm line of his mouth with her fingers. “What kind would you like?”

He smiled ruefully. “A fast one.”

Chapter Nineteen

Christopher supposed he should take it as a bad sign that within a fortnight he had become entirely comfortable around his future in-laws. Whereas he had once avoided them for their peculiarities, he now sought out their company, spending nearly every evening at Ramsay House.

The Hathaways squabbled, laughed, and genuinely seemed to like each other, which made them different from any other family of Christopher’s experience. They were interested in everything, new ideas, inventions, and discoveries. No doubt the family’s intellectual bent was a result of the influence of their late father, Edward.

Christopher sensed that the happy, often chaotic household was doing him good, whereas the clamor of London had not. Somehow the Hathaways, with all their rough edges, were smoothing the broken places of his soul. He liked all of them, especially Cam, who acted as the leader of the family, or the tribe, as he referred to them. Cam was a soothing presence, calm and tolerant, occasionally herding the Hathaways along when necessary.

Leo wasn’t quite so approachable. Although he was charming and irreverent, the sharp edges of his humor reminded Christopher uncomfortably of his own past, when he had often made quips at other people’s expense. For example, that remark he had once made about Beatrix belonging in the stables. Which he still didn’t remember saying, except that unfortunately it sounded exactly like something he would have said. He hadn’t fully understood the power of words then.

The past two years had taught him differently.

In the case of Leo, however, Beatrix assured Christopher that in spite of his sharp tongue, Leo was a caring and loyal brother. “You’ll come to like him very well,” she said. “But it’s no surprise that you feel more comfortable around Cam—you’re both foxes.”

“Foxes?” Christopher had repeated, amused.

“Yes. I can always tell what kind of animal a person would be. Foxes are hunters, but they don’t rely on brute strength. They’re subtle and clever. Fond of outwitting others. And although they sometimes travel far, they always like to come back to a snug, safe home.”

“I suppose Leo is a lion,” Christopher said dryly.

“Oh, yes. Dramatic, demonstrative, and he hates being ignored. And sometimes he’ll take a swipe at you. But beneath the sharp claws and the growls, he’s still a cat.”

“What animal are you?”

“A ferret. We can’t help collecting things. When we’re awake, we’re very busy, but we also like to be still for long periods.” She grinned at him. “And ferrets are very affectionate.”

Christopher had always imagined that his household would be run with order and precision by a proper wife who would oversee every detail. Instead it seemed there was going to be a wife who strode about in breeches while animals roamed, waddled, crept, or hopped through every room.

He was fascinated by Beatrix’s competence at things women were not usually competent at. She knew how to use a hammer or a plane tool. She rode better than any woman he had ever seen, and possibly better than any man. She had an original mind, an intelligence woven of recall and intuition. But the more Christopher learned about Beatrix, the more he perceived the vein of insecurity that ran deep in her. A sense of otherness that often inclined her toward solitude. He thought that perhaps it had something to do with her parents’ untimely deaths, especially her mother’s, which Beatrix had felt as an abandonment. And perhaps it was partly a result of the Hathaways’ having been pushed into a social position they had never been prepared for. Being in the upper classes wasn’t merely following a set of rules, it was a way of thinking, of carrying oneself and interacting with the world, that had to be instilled since birth. Beatrix would never acquire the sophistication of the young women who had been raised in the aristocracy.

That was one of the things he loved most about her.

The day after he had proposed to Beatrix, Christopher had reluctantly gone to talk to Prudence. He was prepared to apologize, knowing that he had not been fair in his dealings with her. However, any trace of remorse he might have felt for having deceived Prudence vanished as soon as he saw that Prudence felt no remorse for having deceived him.

It had not been a pleasant scene, to say the least. A plum-colored flush of rage had swept across her face, and she had stormed and shrieked as if she were unhinged.

“You can’t throw me over for that dark-haired gargoyle and her freakish family! You’ll be a laughingstock. Half of them are Gypsies, and the other half are lunatics—they have few connections and no manners, they’re filthy peasants and you’ll regret this to the end of your days. Beatrix is a rude, uncivilized girl who will probably give birth to a litter.”

As she had paused to take a breath, Christopher had replied quietly, “Unfortunately, not everyone can be as refined as the Mercers.”

The shot had gone completely over Prudence’s head, of course, and she had continued to scream like a fishwife.

And an image had appeared in Christopher’s head . . . not the usual ones of the war, but a peaceful one . . . Beatrix’s face, calm and intent, as she had tended a wounded bird the previous day. She had wrapped the broken wing of a small sparrow against its body, and then showed Rye how to feed the bird. As Christopher had watched the proceedings, he had been struck by the mixture of delicacy and strength in Beatrix’s hands.

Bringing his attention back to the ranting woman before him, Christopher pitied the man who eventually became Prudence’s husband.

Prudence’s mother had come into the parlor then, alarmed by the uproar, and she had tried to soothe her. Christopher had taken his leave soon after, regretting every minute he had ever wasted in Prudence Mercer’s company.

A week and a half later, all of Stony Cross had been startled by the news that Prudence had eloped with one of her longtime suitors, a member of the local gentry.

The morning of the elopement, a letter had been delivered to Ramsay House, addressed to Beatrix. It was from Prudence. The letter was blotched and angrily scrawled, filled with accusations and dire predictions, and more than a few misspellings. Troubled and guilt-ridden, Beatrix had shown it to Christopher.

His mouth twisted as he tore it in half and gave it back to Beatrix. “Well,” he said conversationally, “she’s finally written a letter to someone.”

Beatrix tried to look reproving, but a reluctant laugh escaped her. “Don’t make jest of the situation. I feel so awfully guilty.”

“Why? Prudence doesn’t.”

“She blames me for taking you away from her.”

“I was never hers in the first place. And this isn’t some game of pass-the-parcel.”

That made her grin. “If you’re the parcel,” she said, giving him a suggestive glance, “I would like to unwrap you.”

Christopher shook his head as she leaned forward to kiss him. “Don’t start that, or we’ll never get this done.” Putting a board in place, he looked at her expectantly. “Start hammering.”

They were in the hayloft, where she had taken him to help repair a nest box that she had constructed herself. Christopher watched, entertained, while Beatrix sank a neat row of nails into the end of the board. He had never expected that a woman’s proficiency with tools would be so charming. And he couldn’t help but enjoy the way her breeches tightened over her bottom every time she leaned over.

With an effort, he tried to discipline his body, push back the urgent rise of desire, as he’d had to do so often lately. Beatrix offered more temptation than he could bear. Whenever he kissed her, she responded with an innocent sensuality that drove him to the limits of his self-control.

Before he had been called to war, Christopher had never had any difficulty in finding lovers. Sex had been a casual pleasure, something he had enjoyed without guilt or inhibitions. But after prolonged abstinence, he was concerned about the first time he made love to Beatrix. He did not want to hurt or frighten her.

Self-control of any kind was still a struggle.

That was readily apparent on occasions such as the night when one of the twins had accidently stumbled over Beatrix’s cat Lucky, who had let out the particular earsplitting screech of an irritated feline. And then both the twins started squalling, while Catherine had rushed to soothe them.

Christopher had nearly jumped out of his skin. The uproar had sent a shock through him, leaving him tense and trembling, and he had lowered his head and squeezed his eyes shut as he was transported in an instant to a battlefield beneath an exploding sky. A few deep breaths, and then he had become aware of Beatrix sitting beside him. She didn’t question him, only stayed quiet and near.

And then Albert had come and put his chin on his knee, regarding him with somber brown eyes.

“He understands,” Beatrix had said softly.

Christopher reached out to pet the rough head, and Albert nuzzled into his hand, a tongue curling against his wrist. Yes, Albert understood. He had suffered beneath the same rain of shells and cannonfire, knew the feeling of a bullet tearing through his flesh. “We’re a pair, aren’t we, old fellow?” Christopher had murmured.

His thoughts were wrenched back to the present as Beatrix finished her task, set the hammer aside, and dusted her hands together. “There,” she said in satisfaction. “All ready for the next occupant.”

She crawled over to where Christopher was half reclining, and stretched out beside him like a cat. His lashes half lowered as he surveyed her. His senses wanted to draw her in, to indulge in the feel of her soft skin, the supple firmness of her beneath him. But he resisted as she tried to pull him closer.

“Your family will suspect we’ve been doing something other than woodworking,” he said. “You’ll be covered with hay.”

“I’m always covered with hay.”

Her slightly crooked grin and lively blue eyes undid him. Relenting, he lowered to her, his mouth covering hers in a warm, lightly probing kiss. Her arms went around his neck. He explored her slowly, taking his time, playing with her until he felt the shy stroke of her tongue against his. The sensation went down to his groin, fueling a fresh wave of erotic heat.

She cradled him, her h*ps adjusting instinctively beneath his. He couldn’t stop himself from pushing against the feminine softness, a pulse of movement that beguiled them both. Murmuring his name, Beatrix let her head fall back on his arm, her throat exposed to the damp caress of his lips. He found sensitive places with his tongue, using the tip of it when he felt her squirm. His hand went to one of her breasts, cupping the natural shape of her through the shirt and chemise, rubbing the tight peak with a warm circling of his palm. Small moans rose in her throat, abbreviated purrs of pleasure.

She was so exquisite, writhing and arching beneath him, that Christopher felt himself begin to drown in lust, his body taking over and his mind going hazy. It would be so easy to open her clothes, free his tortured flesh . . . let himself enter her, and find wholesale relief—

He groaned and rolled to his back, but she stayed with him, clinging.

“Make love to me,” she said breathlessly. “Here. Now. Please, Christopher—”

“No.” Managing to pry her away, he sat up. “Not in a hayloft, with someone likely to come into the barn at any moment.”

“I don’t care.” Beatrix dove her hot face against his chest. “I don’t care,” she repeated feverishly.

“I care. You deserve something far better than a tumble in the hay. And so do I, after more than two years of going without.”

Beatrix looked up at him, her eyes widening. “Truly? You’ve been chaste for that long?”

Christopher gave her a sardonic glance. “ ‘Chaste’ implies a purity of thought that I assure you does not apply. But I have been celibate.”

Crawling behind him, Beatrix began to brush at the straw clinging to his back. “There were no opportunities to be with a woman?”

“There were.”

“Then why didn’t you?”

Christopher twisted to glance at her over his shoulder. “Are you really asking for the details?”

“Yes.”

“Beatrix, do you know what happens to girls who ask such naughty questions?”

“They’re ravished in haylofts?” she inquired hopefully.

Christopher shook his head.

Beatrix’s arms slid around him from behind. He felt the light, stimulating pressure of her br**sts against his back. “Tell me,” she said near his ear, the moist heat of her breath causing the hairs on his nape to prickle pleasantly.

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