Another nightmare. He had to wake up, get his bearings. But oddly, Beatrix was in the nightmare with him, crying out and running toward him. Albert reached him in a fury of barking.
His lungs strained to take in a breath, his heart leaping like a fish freshly pulled from water. Beatrix dropped to her knees beside him, her skirts a billow of blue, and she tugged his head to her lap.
“Christopher—let me—oh, God—”
Albert bayed and snarled as someone approached. A momentary pause, and then the dog’s ferocious barks were mingled with high-pitched whines.
Christopher levered upward to a sitting position, using his coat sleeve to blot the rivulet of blood that rolled from his temple. Blinking hard, he saw the rawboned, disheveled figure of a man coming to stand a few yards away from them. The man held a revolver.
Instantly Christopher’s brain made an assessment of the weapon—a cap-and-ball revolver, five-shot percussion. British military issue.
Before he glanced up at the man’s haggard face, Christopher knew who he was.
Beatrix’s first instinct was to interpose herself between her husband and the stranger, but Christopher shoved her behind him. Breathing hard from fear and shock, she looked over his shoulder.
The man was dressed in civilian clothes that hung on his near-skeletal limbs. He was tall and large framed, looking as if he hadn’t slept or eaten well in months. The shaggy layers of his dark hair badly needed cutting. He regarded them with the wild, unnerving stare of a madman. Despite all that, it wasn’t difficult to see that he had once been handsome. Now he was a barely salvaged wreck. A young man, with an old face and haunted eyes.
“Back from the dead,” Bennett said hoarsely. “You didn’t think I’d make it, did you?”
“Bennett . . . Mark.” As Christopher spoke, Beatrix felt the fine, nearly undetectable tremors running through his body. “I never knew what happened to you.”
“No.” The revolver shook in Bennett’s grip. “You were too busy rescuing Fenwick.”
“Bennett, put that damn thing down. I—quiet, Albert—it nearly killed me to leave you there.”
“But you did. And I’ve gone through hell ever since. I rotted and starved, while you became England’s great hero. Traitor. Bastard—” He aimed the pistol at Christopher’s chest. Beatrix gasped and huddled against his back.
“I had to save Fenwick first,” Christopher said coolly, his pulse racing. “I had no choice.”
“Like hell. You wanted the glory for saving a superior officer.”
“I thought you were done for. And if Fenwick had been captured, they would have dragged all kinds of damaging intelligence out of him.”
“Then you should have shot him, and taken me out of there.”
“You’re out of your bloody mind,” Christopher snapped. Which probably wasn’t the wisest thing to say to a man in Bennett’s condition, but Beatrix could hardly blame him. “Murder a defenseless soldier in cold blood? Not for any reason. Not even Fenwick. If you want to shoot me for that, go ahead, and the devil take you. But if you harm one hair on my wife’s head, I’ll drag you down to hell with me. And the same goes for Albert—he was wounded while defending you.”
“Albert wasn’t there.”
“I left him with you. When I came back for you, he was bleeding from a bayonet wound, and one of his ears was nearly cut off. And you were gone.”
Bennett blinked and stared at him with a flicker of uncertainty. His gaze moved to Albert. He surprised Beatrix by lowering to his haunches and gesturing to the dog. “Come here, boy.”
Albert didn’t move.
“He knows what a gun is,” Beatrix heard Christopher say curtly. “He won’t go to you unless you set it aside.”
Bennett hesitated. Slowly he set the revolver on the ground. “Come,” he said to the dog, who whimpered in confusion.
“Go on, boy,” Christopher said in a low tone.
Albert approached Bennett warily, his tail wagging. Bennett rubbed the shaggy head and scratched the dog’s neck. Panting, Albert licked his hand.
Leaning against Christopher’s back, Beatrix felt some of the tension leave him.
“Albert was there,” Bennett said in a different voice. “I remember him licking my face.”
“Do you think I would have left him with you, if I hadn’t meant to come back?” Christopher demanded.
“Doesn’t matter. If the situation were reversed, I would have shot Fenwick, and saved you.”
“No you wouldn’t have.”
“I would,” Bennett insisted unsteadily. “I’m not like you, you fu**ing honorable sod.” He sat full on the ground, and buried his face in Albert’s shaggy coat. His voice was muffled as he said, “You should have at least finished me off before you let them capture me.”
“But I didn’t. And you survived.”
“The price of surviving wasn’t worth it. You don’t know what I went through. I can’t bloody live with it.” Bennett let go of Albert, his tortured gaze alighting on the revolver beside him.
Before Bennett could reach for the weapon, Beatrix said, “Fetch, Albert.” Instantly the dog took up the revolver and brought it to her. “Good boy.” She took careful possession of the gun and patted him on the head.
Bracing his arms on his knees, Bennett buried his face on them, a broken posture that Beatrix recognized all too well. He let out a few incoherent words.
Christopher went to kneel beside him, laying a strong arm across his back. “Listen to me. You’re not alone. You’re with friends. Damn you, Bennett . . . come to the house with us. Tell me what you went through. I’ll listen. And then we’ll find some way for you to live with it. I couldn’t help you then. But let me try to help you now.”
They brought Bennett to the house, where he collapsed from exhaustion, hunger, and nervous distress. Before Christopher could begin to tell Mrs. Clocker what needed to be done, she had taken stock of the situation and marshaled the servants to action. This was a household well accustomed to illness and the needs of an invalid. A bath was drawn, a bedroom was prepared, and a tray of bland and nourishing food was brought up. After Bennett was taken care of, Mrs. Clocker dosed him with tonic and laudanum.
Going to Bennett’s bedside, Christopher stared down at the nearly unrecognizable features of his old friend. Suffering had altered him, within and without. But he would recover. Christopher would see to that.
And with that hope and sense of purpose, Christopher was aware of a new and fragile feeling of absolution. Bennett wasn’t dead. With all the sins on his conscience, at least that one had been taken from him.
Bennett looked up at him drowsily, his once-vibrant dark eyes now dim and dull.
“You’re going to stay with us until you’re better,” Christopher said. “You won’t try to leave, will you?”
“Nowhere else to go,” Bennett mumbled, and went to sleep.
Christopher left the room, closed the door with care, and walked slowly toward the other wing of the house.
Medusa the hedgehog was wandering casually along the hallway. She paused as Christopher approached. A faint smile touched his lips. He bent to pick her up as Beatrix had showed him, inserting his hands beneath her. The hedgehog’s quills flattened naturally as he turned her up to look at him. Relaxed and curious, she viewed him with her perpetual hedgehog smile.
“Medusa,” he said softly, “I wouldn’t advise climbing out of your pen at night. One of the maids might find you, and then what? You might find yourself taken to the scullery and used to scrub a pot.” Taking her to the private upstairs receiving room, he lowered her into her pen.
Continuing on to Beatrix’s room, he reflected that his wife viewed poor Bennett as yet another wounded creature. She had shown no hesitation in welcoming him into their home. One would expect no less of Beatrix.
Entering the room quietly, he saw his wife at her dressing table, carefully filing the claws of Lucky’s remaining paw. The cat regarded her with a bored expression, tail flicking lazily. “. . . you must stay away from the settee cushions,” Beatrix was lecturing, “or Mrs. Clocker will have both our heads.”
Christopher’s gaze traveled over the long, elegant lines of her figure, her silhouette revealed in the lamp-glow that shone through her muslin nightgown.
Becoming aware of Christopher’s presence, Beatrix stood and came to him with natural, unselfconscious grace. “Does your head pain you?” she asked in concern, reaching up to touch the small plaster at his temple. In all the commotion of bringing Bennett to their home, there had been no opportunity for private conversation.
He bent to brush a soft kiss on her lips. “No. With a head as hard as mine, bullets merely bounce off.”
She let her hand linger at the side of his face. “What happened when you spoke to Colonel Fenwick? Did he try to shoot you, too?”
Christopher shook his head. “Only my friends do that.”
Beatrix smiled slightly, then sobered. “Lieutenant Bennett isn’t mad, you know. He’ll be well again, with time and rest.”
“I hope so.”
Her blue eyes searched his. “You blame yourself, don’t you?”
He nodded. “I made the best decision I could at the time. But knowing that doesn’t make the consequences any easier to bear.”
Beatrix was momentarily still, appearing to consider something. Pulling away from him, she went to the dressing table. “I have something for you.” Busily she rummaged through the small drawer in the front of the table, and extracted a folded piece of paper. “It’s a letter.”
He gave her a warm, quizzical glance. “From you?”
Beatrix shook her head. “From John.” She brought it to him. “He wrote it before he died. Audrey was reluctant to give it to you. But I think it’s time that you read it.”
Christopher made no move to take it, only reached out and pulled her close. Picking up a handful of her flowing brown hair, he rubbed it gently against his cheek. “Read it to me.”
Together they went to the bed and sat on the mattress. Christopher kept his gaze on Beatrix’s profile as she unfolded the letter and began to read.
It seems I have less time than I had hoped for. I confess I find myself surprised by how short this life has been. As I draw back to view it, I see that I spent too much time dwelling on the wrong things, and not enough on what mattered. But I also see that I have been blessed far beyond other men. I needn’t ask you to look after Audrey and Mother. I know that you will do so to the extent that they will allow.
If you are reading this, it means you have returned from the war and are facing responsibilities that you have never been prepared for. Let me offer a few words of counsel. I have watched you for your entire life . . . your restless nature, your lack of satisfaction in anything. You put the people you love on pedestals, and are inevitably disappointed by them. And you do the same to yourself. My dear brother, you are your own worst enemy. If you can learn to stop expecting impossible perfection, in yourself and others, you may find the happiness that has always eluded you.
Forgive me for not being able to survive . . . and forgive yourself for surviving.
This is the life you were meant to have. Not a single day should be squandered.
Christopher was silent for a long time, his chest tight. It sounded like his brother . . . that loving, slightly lecturing tone. “How I miss him,” he whispered. “He knew me well.”
“He knew you as you were,” Beatrix said. “But I think you’ve changed. You don’t expect perfection now. How else could you explain your attraction to me?”
Christopher gently took her face in his hands. “You are my idea of perfection, Beatrix Heloise.”
She leaned forward until their noses touched. “Have you forgiven yourself?” she asked softly. “For surviving?”
“I’m trying to.” The proximity of her warm, scantily clad body was too much for him to resist. He slid his hand behind her neck, and kissed her throat. A little shiver chased over her skin. He undressed her carefully, fighting to contain a need that threatened to rage out of control. He kept every movement gentle, light, while his body ached with the violent desire to possess her. His hands swept over her, mapping the physical contours of what words had already expressed. Making love, creating it, letting sensation flow over both of them. Emotion became movement. Movement became pleasure.
He let his tongue explore her mouth at the same time he entered her, his hands clutched in the pouring dark silk of her hair. She tried to move, but he held her still, feeding more pleasure into her, and more, until her every breath was a moan, and she trembled without stopping.
Beatrix dug her heels into the bedclothes, her fingertips digging into his back. He relished the little crescents of pain, loving the dazed, lost look on her face. The rhythms of her body gathered in one impetus, a delicate watercolor flush spreading across her fine skin. But he didn’t want it to end yet, despite his own ravening hunger. With agonized effort, he forced himself to hold still inside her.
She cried out, her h*ps lifting against his weight. “Christopher, please—”
“Shhh . . .” He pressed her down, kissed her neck, worked slowly to her breasts. He pulled her nipple into his mouth, caressing her with his teeth and tongue, leaving a residue of damp heat. Small hungering sounds came from her throat, and her inner muscles clasped him in a helpless rhythm. He began to follow the tender pattern, pressing forward, letting her clasp him on each withdrawal stroke. “Look at me,” he whispered, and her lashes lifted to reveal the depths of her soul.
Cupping a hand beneath her head, he fused his lips to hers, while he entered her more deeply than ever before. She took him, wrapping her arms and legs around him, holding him with her entire body. He let the rhythm roughen, quicken, his lovemaking turning wild and unrestrained as he rode the fast, relentless rhythm of her hips. Arching upward, she convulsed violently, her flesh gripping him in tight, wet ripples that drew out a wrenching release.
They were both too love dazed to move for a while. Saturated in the feeling of being open, unguarded, Christopher let his hand wander over her, not with sexual intent, but reverence. She stretched and moved to trap his legs beneath a slender thigh, her arm slung across his chest. Climbing farther atop him, she rubbed her mouth and nose lightly through the hair on his chest. He lay still beneath the warm scaffolding of her body, letting her play and explore as she would.
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