“Is she ill?” Beatrix asked as Audrey sat beside her.

Audrey shook her head in answer. “Only distraught.”

“And . . . your husband?”

“He’s dying,” Audrey said flatly. “He doesn’t have long. A matter of days, the doctor says.”

Beatrix began to reach for her, wishing to gather her in as she might one of her wounded creatures.

Audrey flinched and raised her hands defensively. “No, don’t. I can’t be touched. I’ll break into pieces. I have to be strong for John. Let’s talk quickly. I have only a few minutes.”

Immediately Beatrix folded her hands in her lap. “Let me do something,” she said, her voice low. “Let me sit with him while you rest. At least for an hour.”

Audrey managed a faint smile. “Thank you, dear. But I can’t let anyone else sit with him. It has to be me.”

“Then shall I go to his mother?”

Audrey rubbed her eyes. “You’re very kind to offer. I don’t think she wants companionship, however.” She sighed. “Were it left to her, she would rather die along with John than go on without him.”

“But she still has another son.”

“She has no affection for Christopher. It was all for John.”

As Beatrix tried to absorb that, the tall case clock ticked as if in disapproval, its pendulum swinging like the negative shake of a head. “That can’t be true,” she finally said.

“Certainly it can,” Audrey said, with a faint, rueful smile. “Some people have an infinite supply of love to give. Like your family. But for others it’s a limited resource. Mrs. Phelan’s love is all poured out. She had just enough for her husband and John.” Audrey lifted her shoulders in an exhausted shrug. “It’s of no importance whether she loves Christopher or not. Nothing seems important at the moment.”

Beatrix reached into her pocket and withdrew the letter. “I have this for him,” she said. “For Captain Phelan. From Pru.”

Audrey took it with an unreadable expression. “Thank you. I’ll send it along with a letter about John’s condition. He’ll want to know. Poor Christopher . . . so far away.”

Beatrix wondered if perhaps she should take the letter back. It would be the worst possible time to distance herself from Christopher. On the other hand, perhaps it would be the best time. One small injury inflicted simultaneously with a far greater one.

Audrey watched the play of emotion on her face. “Are you ever going to tell him?” she asked gently.

Beatrix blinked. “Tell him what?”

That earned an exasperated little huff. “I’m not a half-wit, Bea. Prudence is in London at this very moment, attending balls and soirees and all those silly, trivial events of the season. She couldn’t have written that letter.”

Beatrix felt herself turn scarlet, then bone-white. “She gave it to me before she left.”

“Because of her devotion to Christopher?” Audrey’s lips twisted. “The last time I saw her, she didn’t even remember to ask after him. And why is it that you’re always the one delivering and fetching letters?” She gave Beatrix a fond but chiding glance. “From what Christopher has written in his letters to me and John, it’s obvious he’s quite taken with Prudence. Because of what she has written to him. And if I end up with that ninnyhead as a sister-in-law, Bea, it will be your fault.”

Seeing the quiver of Beatrix’s chin and the glitter in her eyes, Audrey took her hand and pressed it. “Knowing you, I’ve no doubt your intentions were good. But I rather doubt the results will be.” She sighed. “I have to go back to John.”

As Beatrix went with Audrey to the entrance hall, she was overwhelmed by the knowledge that her friend would soon have to endure the death of her husband.

“Audrey,” she said unsteadily, “I wish I could bear this for you.”

Audrey stared at her for a long moment, her face flushing with emotion. “That, Beatrix, is what makes you a true friend.”

Two days later the Hathaways received word that John Phelan had passed away in the night. Filled with compassion, the Hathaways considered how best they could help the bereaved women. Ordinarily it would have fallen to Leo, the lord of the manor, to call on the Phelans and offer his services. However, Leo was in London, as Parliament was still in session. Currently a political debate was raging over the incompetence and indifference that had resulted in the Crimean troops being so appallingly ill supported and badly supplied.

It was decided that Merripen, Win’s husband, would go to the Phelan home on behalf of the family. No one had any expectation that he would be received, since the mourners would undoubtedly be too grief-stricken to speak with anyone. However, Merripen would deliver a letter to offer any manner of assistance that might be needed.

“Merripen,” Beatrix asked before he left, “would you convey my affection to Audrey, and ask if I might help with any of the funeral arrangements? Or ask if perhaps she wants someone to sit with her.”

“Of course,” Merripen replied, his dark eyes filled with warmth. Having been raised with the Hathaways since boyhood, Merripen was very much like a brother to all of them. “Why don’t you write a note to her? I’ll give it to the servants.”

“I’ll only be a minute.” Beatrix dashed toward the stairs, pulling up great handfuls of her skirts to keep from tripping as she hurried to her room.

She went to her desk and pulled out her writing papers and pens, and reached for the top of the inkwell. Her hand froze in midair as she saw the half-crumpled letter in the drawer.

It was the polite, distancing letter she had written to Christopher Phelan.

It had never been sent.

Beatrix went cold all over, her knees threatening to give out from beneath her. “Oh, God,” she whispered, sitting on the nearby chair with such force that it wobbled dangerously.

She must have given Audrey the wrong letter. The unsigned one that had started with “I can’t write to you again. I’m not who you think I am . . .”

Beatrix’s heart pounded, straining with the force of panic. She tried to calm her buzzing thoughts enough to think. Had the letter been posted yet? Perhaps there was still time to retrieve it. She would ask Audrey . . . but no, that would be the height of selfishness and inconsideration. Audrey’s husband had just died. She did not deserve to be bothered with trivialities at such a time.

It was too late. Beatrix would have to let it be, and let Christopher Phelan make what he would of the odd note.

“Come back, please come home and find me . . .”

Groaning, Beatrix leaned forward and rested her head on the table. Perspiration caused her forehead to stick to the polished wood. She was aware of Lucky leaping up to the table and nuzzling her hair and purring.

Please, dear God, she thought desperately, don’t let Christopher reply. Let it all be finished. Never let him find out it was me.

Chapter Five

Scutari, Crimea

“It occurs to me,” Christopher said conversationally as he lifted a cup of broth to a wounded man’s lips, “that a hospital may be the worst possible place for a man to try to get well.”

The young soldier he was feeding—no more than nineteen or twenty years of age—made a slight sound of amusement as he drank.

Christopher had been brought to the barracks hospital in Scutari three days earlier. He had been wounded during an assault on the Redan during the endless siege on Sebastopol. One moment he’d been accompanying a group of sappers as they carried a ladder toward a Russian bunker, and the next there was an explosion and the sensations of being struck simultaneously in the side and right leg.

The converted barracks were crowded with casualties, rats, and vermin. The only source of water was a fountain at which orderlies queued up to catch a fetid trickle in their pails. As the water was unfit for drinking, it was used for washing and soaking off bandages.

Christopher had bribed the orderlies to bring him a cup of strong spirits. He had sluiced the alcohol over his wounds in the hopes that it would keep them from suppurating. The first time he’d done it, the burst of raw fire had caused him to faint and topple from the bed to the floor, a spectacle that had caused no end of hilarity from the other patients in the ward. Christopher had good-naturedly endured their teasing afterward, knowing that a moment of levity was sorely needed in this squalid place.

The shrapnel had been removed from his side and leg, but the injuries weren’t healing properly. This morning he had discovered that the skin around them was red and tight. The prospect of falling seriously ill in this place was frightening.

Yesterday, despite the outraged protests of the soldiers in the long row of beds, the orderlies had begun to sew a man into his own bloodstained blanket, and take him to the communal burial pit before he had quite finished dying. In response to the patients’ angry cries, the orderlies replied that the man was insensible, and was only minutes away from death, and the bed was desperately needed. All of which was true. However, as one of the few men able to leave his bed, Christopher had interceded, telling them he would wait with the man on the floor until he had breathed his last. For an hour he had sat on the hard stone, brushing away insects, letting the man’s head rest on his uninjured leg.

“You think you did any good for him?” one of the orderlies asked sardonically, when the poor fellow had finally passed away, and Christopher had allowed them to take him.

“Not for him,” Christopher said, his voice low. “But perhaps for them.” He had nodded in the direction of the rows of ragged cots, where the patients lay and watched. It was important for them to believe that if or when their time came, they would be treated with at least a flicker of humanity.

The young soldier in the bed next to Christopher’s was unable to do much of anything for himself, as he had lost an entire arm, and a hand off the other one. Since there were no nurses to spare, Christopher had undertaken to feed him. Wincing and flinching as he knelt by the cot, he lifted the man’s head and helped him to drink from the cup of broth.

“Captain Phelan,” came the crisp voice of one of the Sisters of Charity. With her stern demeanor and forbidding expression, the nun was so intimidating that some of the soldiers had suggested—out of her hearing, of course—that if she were dispatched to fight the Russians, the war would be won in a matter of hours.

Her bristly gray brows rose as she saw Christopher beside the patient’s cot. “Making trouble again?” she asked. “You will return to your own bed, Captain. And do not leave it again . . . unless your intention is to make yourself so ill that we’ll be forced to keep you here indefinitely.”

Obediently Christopher lurched back into his cot.

She came to him and laid a cool hand on his brow.

“Fever,” he heard her announce. “Do not move from this bed, or I’ll have you tied to it, Captain.” Her hand was withdrawn, and something was placed on his chest.

Slitting his eyes open, Christopher saw that she had given him a packet of letters.

Prudence.

He seized it eagerly, fumbling in his eagerness to break the seal.

There were two letters in the packet.

He waited until the sister had left before he opened the one from Prudence. The sight of her handwriting engulfed him with emotion. He wanted her, needed her, with an intensity he couldn’t contain.

Somehow, half a world away, he had fallen in love with her. It didn’t matter that he hardly knew her. What little he knew of her, he loved.

Christopher read the few spare lines.

The words seemed to rearrange themselves like a child’s alphabet game. He puzzled over them until they became coherent.

“. . . I’m not who you think I am . . . please come home and find me . . .”

His lips formed her name soundlessly. He put his hand over his chest, trapping the letter against his rough heartbeat.

What had happened to Prudence?

The strange, impulsive note aroused a tumult in him.

“I’m not who you think I am,” he found himself repeating inaudibly.

No, of course she was not. Neither was he. He was not this broken, feverish creature on a hospital cot, and she was not the vapid flirt everyone had taken her to be. Through their letters, they had found the promise of more in each other.

“. . . please come home and find me . . .”

His hands felt swollen and tight as he fumbled with the other letter, from Audrey. The fever was making him clumsy. His head had begun to ache . . . vicious throbbing . . . he had to read the words in between the pulses of pain.

Dear Christopher,

There is no way for me to express this gently. John’s condition has worsened. He is facing the prospect of death with the same patience and grace that he has shown during his life. By the time this letter reaches you, there is no doubt that he will be gone . . .

Christopher’s mind closed against the rest of it. Later there would be time to read more. Time to grieve.

John wasn’t supposed to be ill. He was supposed to stay safe in Stony Cross and father children with Audrey. He was supposed to be there when Christopher came back home.

Christopher managed to huddle on his side. He tugged the blanket high enough to create a shelter for himself. Around him, the other soldiers continued to pass the time . . . talking, playing cards when possible. Mercifully, deliberately, they paid him no attention, allowing him the privacy he needed.

Chapter Six

There had been no correspondence from Christopher Phelan in the ten months after Beatrix had last written to him. He had exchanged letters with Audrey, but in her grief over John’s death, Audrey found it difficult to talk to anyone, even Beatrix.

Christopher had been wounded, Audrey relayed, but he had recovered in the hospital and returned to battle. Hunting constantly for any mention of Christopher in the newspapers, Beatrix found innumerable accounts of his bravery. During the months-long siege of Sebastopol, he had become the most decorated soldier of the artillery. Not only had Christopher been awarded the order of the Bath, and the Crimea campaign medal with clasps for Alma, Inkerman, Balaklava, and Sebastopol, he had also been made a knight of the Legion of Honor by the French, and had received the Medjidie from the Turks.

To Beatrix’s regret, her friendship with Prudence had cooled, starting with the day when Beatrix had told her that she could no longer write to Christopher.

“But why?” Prudence had protested. “I thought you enjoyed corresponding with him.”

“I don’t enjoy it any longer,” Beatrix had replied in a suffocated voice.

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