“Men don’t like to put themselves at risk in that way,” Amelia said. “One has to be patient.” Her tone became gently arid, her smile rueful. “But I can assure you, dear . . . no one is ever able to share only the best of himself.”
Beatrix gave her a brooding glance. “No doubt I’ll provoke him into some desperate act before long. I push and pry, and he resists, and I’m afraid that will be the pattern of our marriage for the rest of my life.”
Amelia smiled at her fondly. “No marriage stays in the same pattern forever. It is both the best feature of marriage and the worst, that it inevitably changes. Wait for your chance, dear. I promise it will come.”
After Beatrix had left to visit her sister, Christopher reluctantly contemplated the prospect of visiting Lieutenant Colonel William Fenwick. He hadn’t seen the bastard since Fenwick had been sent back to England to recover from the wounds he’d received at Inkerman. To say the least, they hadn’t parted on good terms.
Fenwick had made no secret of his resentment toward Christopher, for having gained all the attention and homage that he felt he had deserved. As universally loathed as Fenwick had been, one thing had been acknowledged by all: he had been destined for military glory. He was an unequaled horseman, unquestionably brave, and aggressive in combat. His ambition had been to distinguish himself on the battlefield, and gain a place in Britain’s pantheon of legendary war heroes.
The fact that Christopher had been the one to save his life had been especially galling for Fenwick. One would not have been far off the mark to guess that Fenwick would rather have perished on the battlefield than see Christopher receive a medal for it.
Christopher couldn’t fathom what Fenwick might want of him now. Most likely he had learned about the Victoria Cross investiture, and had come to air his grievances. Very well. Christopher would let him speak his piece, and then he would make certain that Fenwick left Hampshire. There was a scrawled address on the calling card Fenwick had left. It seemed he was staying at a local inn. Christopher had no choice but to meet with him there. He’d be damned if he would let Fenwick into his house or anywhere near Beatrix.
The afternoon sky was gray and wind whipped, the woodland paths choked with dried brown leaves and fallen branches. Clouds had veiled the sun, imparting a dull blue cast. A damp chill had settled over Hampshire as winter shouldered autumn aside. Christopher took the main road beside the forest, his bay Thoroughbred invigorated by the weather and eager to stretch his legs. The wind blew through the lattice of branches in the woodland, eliciting whispery movements like restless ghosts flitting among the trees.
Christopher felt as if he were being followed. He actually glanced over his shoulder, half expecting to see death or the devil. It was the kind of morbid thought that had plagued him so mercilessly after the war. But far less often lately.
All because of Beatrix.
He felt a sudden pull in his chest, a yearning to go wherever she was, find her and draw her tightly against him. Last night it had seemed impossible to talk to her. Today he thought it might be easier. He would do anything to try and be the husband she needed. It would not be done in one fell swoop. But she was patient, and forgiving, and dear Lord, he loved her for it. Thoughts of his wife helped to steady his nerves as he arrived at the inn. The village was quiet, shop doors closed against the November bluster and damp.
The Stony Cross Inn was well-worn and comfortable, smelling of ale and food, the plastered walls aged the color of dark honey. The innkeeper, Mr. Palfreyman, had known Christopher since his boyhood. He welcomed him warmly, asked a few jovial questions about the honeymoon, and readily supplied the location of the room that Fenwick occupied. A few minutes later, Christopher knocked on the door and waited tensely.
The door opened, one corner scraping against the uneven hallway flooring.
It was jarring to see Lieutenant Colonel William Fenwick wearing civilian attire, when all Christopher had ever seen him in was the scarlet and gold cavalry uniform. The face was the same, except for a complexion faded to an indoors pallor that seemed utterly wrong for a man who had been so obsessed with horsemanship.
Christopher was instinctively reluctant to go near him. “Colonel Fenwick,” he said, and he had to check himself from saluting. Instead he reached out to shake hands. The feel of the other man’s hand, moist and cool, gave him a creeping sensation.
“Phelan.” Fenwick moved awkwardly to the side. “Will you come in?”
Christopher hesitated. “There are two parlors downstairs, and a taproom.”
Fenwick smiled slightly. “Unfortunately, I’m troubled by old wounds. Stairs are an inconvenience. I beg your indulgence in remaining up here.” He looked rueful, even apologetic.
Relaxing marginally, Christopher entered the room.
Like the other sleeping rooms in the inn, the private space was commodious, clean, and sparely furnished. He noticed as Fenwick took one of the chairs that he didn’t move well, one leg noticeably stiff.
“Please be seated,” Fenwick said. “Thank you for coming to the inn. I would have called at your residence again, but I’m glad to have been spared the effort.” He indicated his leg. “The pain has worsened of late. I was told it was miraculous to have kept the leg, but I’ve wondered if I wouldn’t have been better served by amputation.”
Christopher waited for Fenwick to explain why he was in Hampshire. When it became clear that the colonel was in no hurry to address the subject, he said abruptly, “You’re here because you want something.”
“You’re not nearly as patient as you used to be,” the colonel observed, looking amused. “What happened to the sharpshooter renowned for his ability to wait?”
“The war is over. And I have better things to do now.”
“No doubt involving your new bride. It seems congratulations are in order. Tell me, what kind of woman managed to land the most decorated soldier in England?”
“The kind who cares nothing for medals or laurels.”
Giving him a frankly disbelieving glance, Fenwick said, “How can that be true? Of course she cares about such things. She is now the wife of an immortal.”
Christopher stared at him blankly. “Pardon?”
“You’ll be remembered for decades,” Fenwick said. “Perhaps centuries. Don’t tell me that it means nothing to you.”
Christopher shook his head slightly, his gaze locked on the other man’s face.
“There is an ancient tradition of military honor in my family,” Fenwick said. “I knew that I would achieve the most, and be remembered the longest. No one ever thinks about the ancestors who led small lives, who were known principally as husbands and fathers, benevolent masters, loyal friends. No one cares about those nameless ciphers. But warriors are revered. They are never forgotten.” Bitterness creased his face, leaving it puckered and uneven like the skin of an overripe orange. “A medal like the Victoria Cross—that is all I’ve ever wanted.”
“A half ounce of die-stamped gunmetal?” Christopher asked skeptically.
“Don’t use that supercilious tone with me, you arrogant ass.” Oddly, despite the venom of the words, Fenwick was calm and controlled. “From the beginning, I knew you were nothing more than an empty-headed fop. Handsome stuffing for a uniform. But you turned out to have one useful gift—you could shoot. And then you went to the Rifles, where somehow you became a soldier. When I first read the dispatches, I thought there had to be some other Phelan. Because the Phelan of the reports was a warrior, and I knew you hadn’t the makings of one.”
“I proved you wrong at Inkerman,” Christopher said quietly.
The jab brought a smile to Fenwick’s face, the smile of a man standing at a distance from life and seeing unimaginable irony. “Yes. You saved me, and now you’re to get the nation’s highest honor for it.”
“I don’t want it.”
“That makes it even worse. I was sent home while you became the lauded hero, and took everything that should have been mine. Your name will be remembered, and you don’t even care. Had I died on the battlefield, that would have at least been something. But you took even that away. And you betrayed your closest friend in the process. A friend who trusted you. You left Lieutenant Bennett to die alone.” He watched Christopher keenly, hunting for any sign of emotion.
“If I had it to do again, I would make the same choice,” Christopher said flatly.
An incredulous look came over Fenwick’s face.
“Do you think I dragged you off the battlefield for either of our sakes?” Christopher demanded. “Do you think I gave a damn about you, or about winning some godforsaken medal?”
“Why did you do it, then?”
“Because Mark Bennett was dying,” Christopher said savagely. “And there was enough life left in you to save. In all that death, something had to survive. If it was you, so be it.”
A long silence passed, while Fenwick digested the statement. He gave Christopher a shrewd look that raised the hairs on his neck. “Bennett’s wound wasn’t as bad as it must have appeared,” he said. “It wasn’t mortal.”
Christopher stared at him without comprehension. He shook himself a little and refocused on Fenwick, who had continued to speak.
“. . . a pair of Russian Hussars found Bennett and took him prisoner,” Fenwick was saying. “He was treated by one of their surgeons, and sent to a prison camp far inland. He was subjected to hardships, lacking proper food or shelter, and later he was put to work. After a few unsuccessful escape attempts, Lieutenant Bennett finally managed to free himself. He made his way to friendly territory, and was brought back to London approximately a fortnight ago.”
Christopher was afraid to believe his ears. Could it be true? Steady . . . steady . . . his mind was buzzing. His muscles had gone tense against the threat of deep tremors. He couldn’t let the shaking start, or it wouldn’t stop.
“Why wasn’t Bennett released in the prisoner exchange at the war’s end?” he heard himself ask.
“It seems his captors were trying to negotiate his exchange for a stipulated sum of money, along with provisions and weapons. I suspect Bennett admitted under questioning that he was the heir to the Bennett shipping fortune. In any event, negotiations were problematic, and it was kept secret from all but the highest levels at the War Office.”
“Damn those bastards,” Christopher said in anguished fury. “I would have rescued him, had I known . . .”
“No doubt you would have,” Fenwick said dryly. “However, difficult as it is to believe, the matter was resolved without your heroic efforts.”
“Where is Bennett now? What is his condition?”
“That is why I’ve come to see you. To warn you. And after this, I am no longer in your debt, do you understand?”
Christopher stood, his fists clenched. “Warn me about what?”
“Lieutenant Bennett is not in his right mind. The doctor accompanying him on the ship back to England recommended a stay in a lunatic asylum. That is why Bennett’s return has not been reported in the gazettes or newspapers. His family desires to maintain absolute privacy. Bennett was sent to his family in Buckinghamshire, but subsequently disappeared without a word to anyone. His whereabouts are unknown. The reason I’m warning you is that according to his relations, Bennett blames you for his ordeal. They believe he wants to kill you.” A cold, thin smile split his face, like a crack in a sheet of ice. “How ironic, that you’re being given a medal for saving a man who despises you, and you’ll probably be murdered by the one you should have saved. You had better find him, Phelan, before he finds you.”
Christopher stumbled from the room and went along the hallway in swift strides. Was it true? Was this some obscene manipulation by Fenwick, or was Mark Bennett truly unhinged? And if so, what had he endured? He tried to reconcile his memories of the dashing, good-humored Bennett with what Fenwick had just told him. It was impossible.
Holy hell . . . if Bennett was looking for him, it would be an easy matter to find Phelan House.
A new kind of fear came over him, more piercing than anything he had ever felt. He had to make certain Beatrix was safe. Nothing in the world mattered beyond protecting her. He went down the stairs, his heart thundering, the pounding of his feet seeming to echo the syllables of her name.
Mr. Palfreyman was standing near the inn’s entrance. “A tankard of ale before you leave?” he suggested. “Always free for England’s greatest hero.”
“No. I’m going home.”
Palfreyman reached out to stop him, looking concerned. “Captain Phelan, there’s a table in the taproom—come sit for a moment, there’s a good lad. You’re a bit gray around the gills. I’ll bring out a good brandy or rum. One for the stirrups, eh?”
Christopher shook his head. “No time.” No time for anything. He ran outside. It was darker, colder than it had been before. The late afternoon sky was nightmare colored, swallowing up the world.
He rode for Phelan House, his ears filled with the ghostly cries of men on the battlefield, sounds of distress and pleading and pain. Bennett, alive . . . how was it possible? Christopher had seen the wound in his chest, had seen enough similar injuries to know that death had been inevitable. But what if by some miracle . . .
As he neared the house, he saw Albert bounding out of the woods, followed by Beatrix’s slender form. She was returning from Ramsay House. A strong gust of wind blew against her wine-colored cloak, causing it to flap wildly, and her hat flew from her head. She laughed as the dog went to chase it. Seeing Christopher approach on the road, she waved at him.
He was nearly overcome with relief. The panic eased. The darkness began to recede. Thank you, God. Beatrix was there, and safe. She belonged to him, she was beautiful and vibrant, and he would spend his life taking care of her. Whatever she desired of him, whatever words or memories she asked for, he would give. It almost seemed easy now—the force of his love would make anything easy.
Christopher slowed the horse to a walk. “Beatrix.” His voice was carried away in the wind.
She was still laughing, her hair having come free, and she waited for him to come to her.
He was startled by a streak of bright pain in his head. A fraction of a second later, he heard the crack of a rifle shot. A familiar sound . . . an indelible tattoo on his memory. Shots and the whistling of shells, explosions, men shouting, the screams of panicked horses . . .
He’d been unseated. He was tumbling slowly, the world a confusion of sight and sound. The sky and ground had been reversed. Was he falling up, or down? He slammed against a hard surface, the breath knocked from him, and he felt the hot trickle of blood sliding along his face into his ear.
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