“Beatrix.” Audrey was at her side, gently drawing her away before she could become involved in another conversation. “Come with me. I want to give you something.”

Beatrix took her to the back of the house, to a set of stairs leading to an oddly shaped room on the second floor. It was one of the many charms of Ramsay House, that rooms and eccentric spaces with no apparent purpose seemed to have grown organically from the main residence.

They sat together companionably on the stairs.

“You’ve done Christopher so much good already,” Audrey said. “I thought when he first returned after the war that he had lost all capacity for happiness. But he seems far easier with himself now . . . not nearly so brooding or tightly strung. Even his mother has remarked on the difference—and she is grateful.”

“She has been kind to me,” Beatrix said. “Even though it’s obvious that I am not what she expected of a daughter-in-law.”

“No,” Audrey conceded with a grin. “However, she is determined to make the best of things. You are the only chance of keeping Riverton in our branch of the family. If you and Christopher produce no offspring, it will go to her cousins, which she could not abide. I think she would have liked me much better, had I been able to conceive.”

“I’m sorry,” Beatrix murmured, taking her hand.

Audrey’s smile turned bittersweet. “It wasn’t meant to be. That is the lesson I’ve had to learn. Some things aren’t meant to be, and one can either rail against it, or accept it. John told me near the end that we had to be grateful for the time we had been given. He said he saw things very clearly, as his life drew to a close. Which leads me to what I wanted to give you.”

Beatrix looked at her expectantly.

Carefully Audrey removed a neatly folded bit of parchment from her sleeve. It was an unsealed letter.

“Before you read it,” Audrey said. “I must explain. John wrote it the week before he died—he insisted on doing it himself—and he told me to give it to Christopher when—or if—he returned. But after reading it, I wasn’t certain what to do with it. When Christopher came back from the Crimea, he was so volatile and troubled . . . I thought it better to wait. Because no matter what John had asked of me, I knew above all that I must do no further harm to Christopher, after all he’s been through.”

Beatrix’s eyes widened. “You think this letter might harm him?”

“I’m not sure. In spite of our kinship, I don’t understand Christopher well enough to judge.” Audrey shrugged helplessly. “You’ll know what I mean when you read it. I don’t want to give it to Christopher unless I can be sure it will do him good, and not create some unintended torment. I leave it in your hands, Beatrix, and trust in your wisdom.”

Chapter Twenty-four

A month later, on a sunny and dry October day, the wedding took place at the parish church on the village green. To the general pleasure of Stony Cross, the ceremony adhered to long-standing village traditions. The wedding party emerged from their carriages a few streets away from the church, and walked the rest of the way along a path heavily strewn with flowers and fertility herbs. More and more people joined them as they passed, until it was less of a wedding procession than a jovial mob.

Additional flowers had been piled into a pair of massive baskets that were strapped across the back of Beatrix’s mule, Hector. The little mule led the crowd at a dignified pace, while the women walking beside him reached into the baskets and tossed fresh handfuls of petals and blossoms to the ground. A straw hat festooned with flowers had been tied to Hector’s head, his ears sticking out at crooked angles through the holes at the sides.

“Good God, Albert,” Christopher said ruefully to the dog beside him. “Between you and the mule, I think you got the best of the bargain.” Albert had been freshly washed and trimmed, a collar of white roses fastened around his neck. The dog looked wary, clearly not liking the close-packed crowd around them any more than Christopher did.

As the women occupied one half of the street, and the men the other, Christopher caught only occasional glimpses of Beatrix. She was surrounded by village girls dressed in white, ostensibly to confuse evil spirits that might have had designs on the bride. Christopher, for his part, was surrounded by an honor guard comprised of friends from the Rifle Brigade, and a few men from his original cavalry unit.

Finally they reached the church, which was already filled. Violin music filled the air in buoyant strains.

While Christopher went to the front of the church to wait at the altar, Beatrix remained at the back with Leo.

“Beatrix,” her brother asked, “what did you do to Hector?”

“He’s a flower mule,” she said reasonably.

“I hope it won’t distress you to learn that he’s eating his hat.”

Beatrix stifled a giggle.

Bending his head over hers, Leo murmured, “When I give you away at the altar, Bea, I want you to remember something. I’m not really giving you away. I’m merely allowing him the chance to love you as much as the rest of us do.”

Beatrix’s eyes watered, and she leaned against him. “He does,” she whispered.

“I think so, too,” her brother whispered back. “I wouldn’t let you marry him otherwise.”

The rest of the morning and afternoon passed in a daze of happiness. After they exchanged vows, they left the church beneath an arch of swords held up by the honor guard. The front gate was closed—another Stony Cross tradition—and would not be opened until the groom paid the toll. Christopher reached into a velvet bag, pulled out a fistful of gold coins, and tossed them to the crowd. The shower of coins elicited squeals of glee. Three more handfuls were sent into the air, most of the glittering pieces caught before they ever reached the ground.

When every last coin had been retrieved, the assemblage swarmed to the village green, where long tables had been piled high with cakes brought by everyone in Stony Cross. Beatrix and Christopher fed each other bites of cake, while villagers showered them with crumbs to ensure the couple’s fertility.

The crowd continued their celebration on the green as the wedding party departed for Ramsay House. A massive wedding breakfast ensued, with endless rounds of toasting and merriment.

When the lengthy affair was finished, Beatrix was relieved to be able to go upstairs and remove her wedding dress. As Amelia and a housemaid helped to remove the voluminous dress, the three of them started laughing as a shower of cake crumbs fell to the floor.

“That is my least favorite Stony Cross wedding custom,” Beatrix said ruefully, brushing at the remaining few crumbs that clung to her arms. “On the other hand, it’s probably made more than a few birds happy.”

“Speaking of birds, dear . . .” Amelia waited until the maid had gone to draw a bath. “That brings to mind the line from Samuel Coleridge’s poem about spring, ‘The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—’ ”

Beatrix gave her a quizzical glance. “Why do you mention that? It’s autumn, not spring.”

“Yes, but that particular poem mentions birds pairing. I thought you might have some questions for me on that topic.”

“About birds? Thank you, but I know far more about birds than you.”

Amelia sighed, giving up the attempt to be delicate. “Forget the blasted birds. It’s your wedding night—do you want to ask me anything?”

“Oh. Thank you, but Christopher has already, er . . . provided the information.”

Amelia’s brows lifted. “Has he?”

“Yes. Although he used a different euphemism than birds or bees.”

“Did he? What did he reference, then?”

“Squirrels,” Beatrix said. And she turned aside to hide a grin at her sister’s expression.

Although they would be leaving on the morrow for a fortnight in the Cotswolds, Beatrix had assumed that they would spend their wedding night at Phelan House. She had sent a trunk containing some clothes, toiletries, and a nightgown to Christopher’s home. She was surprised, therefore, when Christopher informed her that he had different plans in mind.

After bidding her family good-bye, Beatrix went out to the front drive with Christopher. He had changed from his uniform, with its gleaming jangle of medals, and wore simple tweed and broadcloth, with a simple white cravat tied at his neck. She much preferred him this way, in rougher, simpler clothing—the splendor of Christopher in military dress was nearly too dazzling to bear. The sun was a rich autumn gold, lowering into the black nest of treetops.

Instead of the carriage Beatrix had expected, there was a single horse on the drive, Christopher’s large bay gelding.

Beatrix turned to give him a questioning look. “Don’t I get a horse? A pony cart? Or am I to trot along behind you?”

His lips twitched. “We’ll ride together, if you’re willing. I have a surprise for you.”

“How unconventional of you.”

“Yes, I thought that would please you.” He helped her to mount the horse, and swung up easily behind her.

No matter what the surprise was, Beatrix thought as she leaned back into his cradling arms, this moment was bliss. She savored the feel of him, all his strength around her, his body adjusting easily to every movement of the horse. He bade her to close her eyes as they went into the forest. Beatrix relaxed against his chest. The forest air turned sweeter as it cooled, infused with scents of resin and dark earth.

“Where are we going?” she asked against his coat.

“We’re almost there. Don’t look.”

Soon Christopher reined in the horse and dismounted, helping her down.

Viewing their surroundings, Beatrix smiled in perplexity. It was the secret house on Lord Westcliff’s estate. Light glowed through the open windows. “Why are we here?”

“Go upstairs and see,” Christopher said, and went to tether the horse.

Picking up the skirts of her blue dress, Beatrix ascended the circular staircase, which had been lit with strategically placed lamps in the wall brackets where ancient torches had once hung. Reaching the circular room upstairs, Beatrix crossed the threshold.

The room had been transformed.

A small fire glowed in the formerly dark hearth, and golden lamplight filled the air. The scarred wooden floors had been scrubbed clean and covered with rich, thick Turkish carpets. Floral tapestries softened the old stone walls. The ancient bedframe had been replaced by a large chestnut bed with carved panels and spiral columns. The bed had been made up with a deep mattress and luxurious quilts and linens, and plump white pillows piled three deep. The table in the corner was draped in mauve damask and laden with covered silver trays and baskets spilling over with food. Condensation glittered on the sides of a silver bucket of iced champagne. And there was her trunk, set beside a painted dressing screen.

Stunned, Beatrix wandered farther into the room, trying to take it all in.

Christopher came up behind her. As Beatrix turned to face him, he searched her face with a gently quizzical gaze. “If you like, we can spend our first night together here,” he said. “But if this doesn’t suit you, we’ll go to Phelan House.”

Beatrix could hardly speak. “You did this for me?”

He nodded. “I asked Lord Westcliff if we might stay the night here. And he had no objections to a little redecorating. Do you—”

He was interrupted as Beatrix flung herself at him and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck.

Christopher held her, his hands coursing slowly over her back and hips. His lips found the tender skin of her cheeks, her chin, the yielding softness of her mouth. Through the descending diaphanous layers of pleasure, Beatrix answered him blindly, taking a shivering breath as his long fingers curved beneath her jaw. He shaped her lips with his own, his tongue questing gently. The taste of him was smooth and subtle and masculine. Intoxicating. Needing more of him, she struggled to draw him deeper, to kiss him harder, and he resisted with a quiet laugh.

“Wait. Easy . . . love, there’s another part of the surprise that I don’t want you to miss.”

“Where?” Beatrix asked drowsily, her hand searching over his front.

Christopher gave a muffled laugh, taking her by the shoulders and easing her away. He stared down at her, his gray eyes glowing.

“Listen,” he whispered.

As the thrumming of her own heart quieted, Beatrix heard music. Not instruments, but human voices joined in harmony. Bemused, she went to the window and looked out. A smile lit her face.

A small group of officers from Christopher’s regiment, still in uniform, were standing in a row and singing a slow, haunting ballad.

Were I laid on Greenland’s coast,

And in my arms embrac’d my lass;

Warm amidst eternal frost,

Too soon the half year’s night would pass.

And I would love you all the day.

Ev’ry night would kiss and play,

If with me you’d fondly stray.

Over the hills and far away . . .

“Our song,” Beatrix whispered, as the sweet strains floated up to them.

“Yes.”

Beatrix lowered to the floor and braced her folded arms on the windowsill . . . the same place where she had lit so many candles for a soldier fighting in a faraway land.

Christopher joined her at the window, kneeling with his arms braced around her. At the conclusion of the song, Beatrix blew the officers a kiss. “Thank you, gentlemen,” she called down to them. “I will treasure this memory always.”

One of them volunteered, “Perhaps you’re not aware of it, Mrs. Phelan, but according to Rifle Brigade wedding tradition, every man on the groom’s honor guard gets to kiss the bride on her wedding night.”

“What rot,” Christopher retorted amiably. “The only Rifles wedding tradition I know of is to avoid getting married in the first place.”

“Well, you bungled that one, old fellow.” The group chortled.

“Can’t say as I blame him,” one of them added. “You are a vision, Mrs. Phelan.”

“As fair as moonlight,” another said.

“Thank you,” Christopher said. “Now stop wooing my wife, and take your leave.”

“We started the job,” one of the officers said. “It’s left to you to finish it, Phelan.”

And with cheerful catcalls and well wishes, the Rifles departed.

“They’re taking the horse with them,” Christopher said, a smile in his voice. “You’re well and truly stranded with me now.” He turned toward Beatrix and slid his fingers beneath her chin, nudging her to look at him. “What’s this?” His voice gentled. “What’s the matter?”

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