Christopher went still, his searing gaze fixed on her.

In a matter of seconds the balm had done its work, the cooling spices relieving her heated flesh while simultaneously awakening intimate nerves. She moved restlessly. Grasping her hips, Christopher pushed her back down and thrust upward.

“Christopher . . .” She was unable to stop herself from squirming and lifting again. With every helpless movement she made, he pulled her h*ps back to his. His thighs braced behind her, and one of his hands went to the place where they were joined. He watched her, played with her, his fingers sliding across her with flirting strokes while his body never relented its deep, provocative grinding.

“Truce,” she managed to say. “I can’t bear any more.”

“But you will.” Reaching up to her, he drew her down and kissed her.

“Please. Finish it.”

“Not yet.” He trailed his hands down her back. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered. “So sensitive. I could make love to you forever.”

“Christopher—”

“Let me bring you to pleasure one more time.”

“No, I’m exhausted.” She took his lower lip between her teeth in a gentle nip. “Finish it now,” she said.

“Not yet.”

“I’ll make you.”

“How?”

Beatrix considered him, the arrogantly handsome features, the glitter of challenge in his eyes. Lowering herself over him, her body gently rocked by his ceaseless thrusts, she put her mouth near his ear.

“I love you,” she whispered, catching his rhythm, riding it. “I love you.”

Nothing more was needed. His breath stopped on a groan, and he drove into her and held, his powerful body trembling with the force of his release. Sliding his arms around her, he poured the years of anguished longing into her. And she continued to murmur to him, promising love, safety, new dreams to replace the broken ones.

Promising forever.

Chapter Twenty-two

After the London season had ended, the peerage continued their social amusements in the country. Invitations were sent for balls, dinners, and dances; gamekeepers prepared grouse to be released for shooting; guns were freshly oiled and cleaned for wildfowling; riding courses were trimmed and repaired; and wine and delicacies were brought from the ports of Bristol and London.

The most sought-after invitation in Hampshire was the mid-September soiree to be held at Ramsay House, to announce Beatrix’s betrothal to Christopher Phelan. Usually any event the Hathaways hosted was well attended, but this was different. Everyone they had invited had accepted immediately, followed by a flood of letters and inquiries from people asking for invitations. Demanding them, in some instances.

The Hathaways could only attribute their newfound popularity to the fact that Christopher, England’s most admired war hero, would be attending. And Christopher, with his unconcealed loathing of crowds, was glum about the entire matter.

“You must admit,” Leo remarked, “it’s rather amusing that the one of us least inclined to mingle in society is the one all of society wants to mingle with.”

“Sod off, Ramsay,” Christopher muttered, and Leo grinned.

But the phrase “one of us,” used so casually, warmed Christopher’s heart. Their relationship had acquired an easy, friendly feeling that reminded Christopher of how it used to be with John. Although no one would ever take John’s place, Christopher found a great deal of enjoyment in the company of his future brothers-in-law. At least, he found enjoyment in the company of Leo and Cam. Whether the same liking would extend to Merripen remained to be seen.

Merripen and his wife Winnifred, or Win, as the family called her, returned from Ireland with their young son on the first of September. The Hathaways, hardly a subdued lot to begin with, had erupted in a frenzy of joy. Christopher had stayed at the side of the family parlor during the chaotic reunion, watching as the family merged into a tangle of hugs and laughter. Cam and Merripen embraced and thumped each other’s backs enthusiastically, speaking in a rapid volley of Romany.

Christopher had met Merripen on one or two occasions before the war. However, Christopher remembered little of him other than as a large and brooding presence, a man of few words. Certainly Christopher had never expected they would belong to the same family someday.

Win was a slim and graceful woman with large blue eyes and light blond hair. She had a fragile quality, almost ethereal, that set her apart from the other Hathaway sisters. Separating from the group in the middle of the room, Win came to Christopher and gave him her hand. “Captain Phelan. How lucky we are to be gaining you as a brother. The men in the family have been quite outmatched—four to five. Now you’ll make our total an even ten.”

“I still feel outmatched,” Leo said.

Merripen approached Christopher, shook his hand with a strong grip, and gave him an appraising glance. “Rohan says you’re not bad, for a gadjo,” he said. “And Beatrix says she loves you, which inclines me to let you marry her. But I’m still considering it.”

“If it makes any difference,” Christopher said, “I’m willing to take all of her animals.”

Merripen considered that. “You can have her.”

The discussion at the dinner table was fast-paced and ebullient at first. Eventually, however, the talk turned to Ireland, and the estate Merripen would soon inherit, and the mood became somber.

Approximately ten years earlier Ireland had suffered a prolonged potato blight, leading to a magnitude of disaster the country had still not recovered from. England had offered only minimal assistance in the form of temporary relief measures, assuming that the problem would somehow solve itself through natural means.

Ireland, already impoverished, had fallen into nationwide starvation, followed by a plague of diseases, with the result that entire families had died by the roadside or in their mud huts. And landlords such as Cavan had evicted their penniless tenants, and fought with the ones who remained, resulting in lawsuits and bitterness that would last for generations.

“The Cavan lands and tenants have been neglected for years,” Merripen said. “Grandfather was too preoccupied with his properties in England to make improvements or repairs. The land has no drainage, and no machinery for ploughing. The tenants themselves know only the most primitive methods of farming. They live in cottages made of mud and stone. And most of their animals have been sold off to pay the rents.” Merripen paused, his face grim. “I met with Cavan before we returned to Stony Cross. He refuses to part with a shilling of his fortune to benefit the people who depend on him.”

“How long does he have to live?” Amelia asked.

“Less than a year,” Merripen replied. “I would be surprised if he survives past Christmas.”

“When he does go,” Win interceded, “we’ll be free to invest his fortune back into the Cavan lands.”

“But it will take far more than money,” Merripen said. “We’ll have to replace the mud dwellings with sound cottages. We’ll have to teach the tenants an entirely new way of farming. They need everything. Machinery, fuel, cattle, seed . . .” His voice trailed away, and he gave Cam an unfathomable glance. “Phral, it makes what we accomplished with the Ramsay estates look like child’s play.”

Cam reached up and absently tugged a forelock of his hair. “We’ll have to start preparing now,” he said. “I’ll need all the information we can obtain on Cavan’s finances and holdings. We may sell some of his—your—English properties for capital. You’ll have to make estimates for what is needed, and set the priorities. We won’t be able to do everything at once.”

“It’s overwhelming,” Merripen said flatly.

From the stunned silence at the table, Christopher gathered that Merripen seldom, if ever, declared that something was overwhelming.

“I’ll help, phral,” Cam said, his gaze steady.

“I’m beginning to have the unpleasant feeling,” Leo said, “that I’m going to be handling the Ramsay estates by myself, while the two of you devote yourselves to saving Ireland.”

Beatrix was staring at Christopher, a slight smile on her lips. “It puts our situation in perspective, doesn’t it?” she murmured.

Which was exactly what he had been thinking.

Merripen’s alert gaze went to Christopher’s face. “You’re to inherit Riverton, now that your brother is dead.”

“Yes.” Christopher’s lips twisted in a self-mocking smile. “And while John was thoroughly prepared for the responsibility, the inverse is true for me. I know little more than how to shoot someone or dig trenches.”

“You know how to organize men,” Merripen pointed out. “How to form a plan and carry it out. How to assess risk, and adapt when necessary.” He threw a swift grin in Cam’s direction. “When we started to restore the Ramsay estates, we told ourselves the best thing we could do was make a mistake. It meant we would learn something.”

It was then that Christopher fully grasped how much he had in common with the men in this family, even though they couldn’t have come from more different environments and upbringings. They were all grappling with a rapidly changing world, facing challenges that none of them had been prepared for. All of society was being tumbled and sifted, the old hierarchy crumbling, power shifting to unfamiliar hands. A man could either let himself sink into irrelevance, or step forward to shape the new age that was upon them. The possibilities were both intriguing and exhausting—he saw that in Merripen’s face, and in the faces of the others as well. But none of them would shrink from what had to be done.

Christopher contemplated Beatrix, who was sitting a few places away from him. Those eyes . . . midnight-blue, innocent and wise, alarmingly perceptive. What a curious mixture of qualities she possessed. She was capable of extraordinary composure and yet she was willing to play like a child. She was intellectual, instinctive, droll. Talking with her was like opening a treasure box to sort through unexpected delights.

As a man not yet thirty, Christopher was only six years older than Beatrix, and yet he felt the difference between them as a hundred. He wanted, needed, to be close to her, while at the same time he had to close away the worst of what he had seen and done, so that it would never touch her.

He had not made love to her since that afternoon two weeks earlier, having resolved not to take advantage of her until after they were married. But the erotic memory tantalized him constantly. Beatrix was an experience for which he had no reference point or comparison. The women he had known from the prior time in his life had offered easy and sophisticated pleasures. Nothing remotely similar to Beatrix’s headlong passion.

She was too innocent, too fine, to be what fate had intended for him. But he wanted her too badly to care. He would take her, and whatever calamity fate might choose to inflict in return, he would keep Beatrix safe from it.

Or from himself, if necessary.

A shriek came from the drawing room, disrupting all conversation at the Ramsay House soiree.

“What the devil was that?” Christopher’s grandfather, Lord Annandale, asked with a scowl. He was holding court in the family parlor, occupying a settee while various guests came to offer their homage. The long journey to Hampshire had made him querulous and exhausted. As a result, Annandale had demanded that Audrey, who had accompanied him from London, stay at his side.

Christopher suppressed a grin as he saw his sister-in-law staring at the doorway of the drawing room with patent longing. Although she had always gotten on fairly well with Annandale, she had spent the entire previous day shut away with the old codger in a private carriage.

“Why would someone scream at a soiree?” Annandale persisted, scowling.

Christopher maintained a bland expression. Since it most likely involved one of the Hathaways, it could have been anything.

“Shall I go and find out?” Audrey asked, clearly desperate to escape her grandfather-in-law.

“No, you may stay here, in case I need something.”

Audrey suppressed a sigh. “Yes, my lord.”

Beatrix entered the parlor and made her way through the clustered guests. Reaching Christopher, she said in a low tone, “Your mother just met Medusa.”

“My mother was the one who screamed?” Christopher asked.

“What was that?” Annandale demanded, remaining seated on the settee. “My daughter screamed?”

“I’m afraid so, my lord,” Beatrix said apologetically. “She encountered my pet hedgehog, who had escaped from her pen.” She glanced at Christopher, adding brightly, “Medusa’s always been too plump to climb the walls of her box before. I think her new exercise must be working!”

“Were any quills involved, love?” Christopher asked, repressing a grin.

“Oh, no, your mother wasn’t stuck. But Amelia is taking her to one of the upstairs rooms to rest. Unfortunately Medusa gave her a headache.”

Audrey glanced heavenward. “Her head always aches.”

“Why do you keep a hedgehog as a pet?” Annandale demanded of Beatrix.

“She can’t fend for herself, my lord. My brother rescued her from a fencepost hole when she was still a hoglet, and we couldn’t find her mother. So I’ve taken care of her ever since. Hedgehogs make delightful pets, as long as they’re handled properly.” She paused and regarded Annandale with frank interest. “My goodness, you are an eagle, aren’t you?”

“A what?” the elderly man asked, his eyes narrowing.

“An eagle.” Beatrix stared at him closely. “You have such striking features, and you exude power even while sitting still. And you like to watch people. You can assess them instantly, can’t you? No doubt you’re always right.”

Christopher began to intervene, certain that his grandfather would incinerate her with his response. To his astonishment, Annandale practically preened under Beatrix’s admiring regard.

“I can,” the earl allowed. “And indeed, I am seldom mistaken in my judgments.”

Audrey rolled her eyes again.

“You look a bit chilled, my lord,” Beatrix observed. “You must be sitting in a draft. One moment—” She bustled off to fetch a lap blanket, and returned to drape the soft blue wool over him.

It wasn’t the least bit cool in the room, and there couldn’t possibly have been a draft. However, Annandale received the blanket with obvious pleasure. Recalling the overheated rooms in his grandfather’s house, Christopher reflected that he probably had been chilled. How Beatrix could have guessed it was a mystery.

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