Her friend had given her an incredulous glance. “I can scarcely believe that you would abandon him like this. What is he to think when the letters stop coming?”

The question made Beatrix’s stomach feel heavy with guilt and wanting. She hardly trusted herself to speak. “I can’t continue to write to him without telling him the truth. It’s becoming too personal. I . . . feelings are involved. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

“All I understand is that you’re being selfish. You’ve made it so that I can’t send a letter to him, because he would notice the difference between your penmanship and mine. The least you could do is keep him on the string for me until he returns.”

“Why do you want him?” Beatrix had asked with a frown. She didn’t like the phrase “keep him on the string” . . . as if Christopher were a dead fish. One among many. “You have many suitors.”

“Yes, but Captain Phelan has become a war hero. He may even be invited to dine with the queen upon his return. And now that his brother is dead, he will inherit the Riverton estate. All that makes him nearly as good a catch as a peer.”

Although Beatrix had once been amused by Prudence’s shallowness, she now felt a stab of annoyance. Christopher deserved much more than to be valued for such superficial things.

“Has it occurred to you that he’ll be altered as a result of the war?” she asked quietly.

“Well, he may yet be wounded, but I certainly hope not.”

“I meant altered in character.”

“Because he’s been in battle?” Prudence shrugged. “I suppose that has had an effect on him.”

“Have you followed any of the reports about him?”

“I’ve been very occupied,” Prudence said defensively.

“Captain Phelan won the Medjidie medal by saving a wounded Turkish officer. A few weeks later, Captain Phelan crawled to a magazine that had just been shelled, with ten French soldiers killed and five guns disabled. He took possession of the remaining gun and held the position alone, against the enemy, for eight hours. On another occasion—”

“I don’t need to hear about all that,” Prudence protested. “What is your point, Bea?”

“That he may come back as a different man. And if you care for him at all, you should try to understand what he has gone through.” She gave Prudence a packet of letters tied with a narrow blue ribbon. “To start with, you should read these. I should have copied the letters that I wrote to him, so you could read them as well. But I’m afraid I didn’t think of it.”

Prudence had accepted them reluctantly. “Very well, I’ll read them. But I’m certain that Christopher won’t want to talk about letters when he returns—he’ll have me right there with him.”

“You should try to know him better,” Beatrix said. “I think you want him for the wrong reasons . . . when there are so many right reasons. He’s earned it. Not because of his bravery in battle and all those shiny medals . . . in fact, that’s the least part of what he is.” Falling silent for a moment, Beatrix had reflected ruefully that from then on she really should avoid people and go back to spending her time with animals. “Captain Phelan wrote that when you and he knew each other, neither of you looked beneath the surface.”

“The surface of what?”

Beatrix gave her a bleak look, reflecting that for Prudence, the only thing beneath the surface was more surface. “He said you might be his only chance of belonging to the world again.”

Prudence had stared at her strangely. “Perhaps it’s better after all that you stop writing to him. You seem rather fixed on him. I hope you have no thought that Christopher would ever . . .” She paused delicately. “Never mind.”

“I know what you were going to say,” Beatrix had said in a matter-of-fact manner. “Of course I have no illusions about that. I haven’t forgotten that he once compared me to a horse.”

“He did not compare you to a horse,” Prudence said. “He merely said you belonged in the stables. However, he is a sophisticated man, and he would never be happy with a girl who spends most of her time with animals.”

“I much prefer the company of animals to that of any person I know,” Beatrix shot back. Instantly she regretted the tactless statement, especially as she saw that Prudence had taken it as a personal affront. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“Perhaps you had better leave, then, and go to your pets,” Prudence had said in a frosty tone. “You’ll be happier conversing with someone who can’t talk back to you.”

Chastened and vexed, Beatrix had left Mercer House. But not before Prudence had said, “For all our sakes, Bea, you must promise me never to tell Captain Phelan that you wrote the letters. There would be no point to it. Even if you told him, he wouldn’t want you. It would only be an embarrassment, and a source of resentment. A man like that would never forgive such a deception.”

Ever since that day, Beatrix and Prudence had not seen each other except in passing. And no further letters were written.

It tormented Beatrix, wondering how Christopher was, if Albert was with him, if his wounds had healed properly . . . but it was no longer her right to ask questions of him.

It never had been.

To the jubilation of all England, Sebastopol fell in September 1855, and peace negotiations began in February of the next year. Beatrix’s brother-in-law Cam remarked that even though Britain had won, war was always a pyrrhic victory, as one could never put a price on each life that had been damaged or lost. It was a Romany sentiment that Beatrix agreed with. All totaled, more than one hundred and fifty thousand of the allied soldiers had died of battle wounds or disease, as well as over one hundred thousand Russians.

When the long-awaited order was given for the regiments to return home, Audrey and Mrs. Phelan learned that Christopher’s Rifle Brigade would arrive in Dover in mid-April, and proceed to London. The Rifles’ arrival was keenly anticipated, as Christopher was considered a national hero. His picture had been cut out of newspapers and posted in shop windows, and the accounts of his bravery were repeated in taverns and coffeehouses. Long testimonial rolls were written by villages and counties to be presented to him, and no fewer than three ceremonial swords, engraved with his name and set with jewels, had been struck by politicians eager to reward him for service.

However, on the day the Rifles landed at Dover, Christopher was mysteriously absent from the festivities. The crowds at the quay cheered the Rifle Brigade and demanded the appearance of its famed sharpshooter, but it seemed that Christopher had chosen to avoid the cheering crowds, the ceremonies and banquets . . . he even failed to appear at the celebration dinner hosted by the queen and her consort.

“What do you suppose has happened to Captain Phelan?” Beatrix’s older sister Amelia asked, after he had gone missing for three days. “From what I remember of the man, he was a social fellow who would have adored being the center of so much attention.”

“He’s gaining even more attention by his absence,” Cam pointed out.

“He doesn’t want attention,” Beatrix couldn’t resist saying. “He’s run to ground.”

Cam lifted a dark brow, looking amused. “Like a fox?” he asked.

“Yes. Foxes are wily. Even when they seem to head directly away from their goal, they always turn and make it good at the last.” Beatrix hesitated, her gaze distant as she stared through the nearby window, at the forest shadowed by a harsh and backward spring . . . too much easterly wind, too much rain. “Captain Phelan wants to come home. But he’ll stay aground until the hounds stop drawing for him.”

She was quiet and contemplative after that, while Cam and Amelia continued to talk. It was only her imagination . . . but she had the curious feeling that Christopher Phelan was somewhere close by.

“Beatrix.” Amelia stood beside her at the window, laying a gentle arm across her shoulders. “Are you feeling melancholy, dear? Perhaps you should have gone to London for the season as your friend Prudence did. You could stay with Leo and Catherine, or with Poppy and Harry at the hotel—”

“I have no interest whatsoever in taking part in the season,” Beatrix said. “I’ve done it four times, and that was three times too many.”

“But you were very sought after. The gentlemen adored you. And perhaps there will be someone new there.”

Beatrix lifted her gaze heavenward. “There’s never anyone new in London society.”

“True,” Amelia said after a moment’s thought. “Still, I think you would better off in town than staying here in the country. It’s too quiet for you here.”

A small, dark-haired boy charged into the room on a stick horse, letting out a warlike cry as he brandished a sword. It was Rye, Cam and Amelia’s four-and-a-half-year-old son. As the boy sped by, the end of the stick horse accidentally knocked against a floor lamp with a blue glass shade. Cam dove reflexively and caught the lamp before it smashed against the floor.

Turning around, Rye beheld his father on the floor and leaped on him, giggling.

Cam wrestled with his son, pausing briefly to inform his wife, “It’s not that quiet here.”

“I miss Jàdo,” Rye complained, referring to his cousin and favorite playmate. “When is he coming back?”

Merripen, Amelia’s sister Win, and their young son Jason, nicknamed Jàdo, had left a month earlier for Ireland to visit the estate that Merripen would someday inherit. As his grandfather was ailing, Merripen had agreed to stay for an indeterminate time to become familiar with the estate and its tenants.

“Not for a while,” Cam informed him regretfully. “Perhaps not until Christmas.”

“That’s too long,” Rye said with a wistful sigh.

“You have other cousins, darling,” Amelia pointed out.

“They’re all in London.”

“Edward and Emmaline will be here in the summer. And in the meantime, you have your little brother.”

“But Alex is hardly any fun,” Rye said. “He can’t talk or throw a ball. And he leaks.”

“At both ends,” Cam added, his amber eyes sparkling as he looked up at his wife.

Amelia tried, without success, to stifle a laugh. “He won’t leak forever.”

Straddling his father’s chest, Rye glanced at Beatrix. “Will you play with me, Aunt?”

“Certainly. Marbles? Jackstraws?”

“War,” the boy said with relish. “I’ll be the cavalry and you be the Russians, and I’ll chase you around the hedgerow.”

“Couldn’t we reenact the Treaty of Paris instead?”

“You can’t do a treaty before you have the war,” Rye protested. “There would be nothing to talk about.”

Beatrix grinned at her sister. “Very logical.”

Rye jumped up to grab Beatrix’s hand, and he began to drag her outside. “Come, Auntie,” he coaxed. “I promise I won’t whack you with my sword like the last time.”

“Don’t go into the woods, Rye,” Cam called after them. “One of the tenants said a stray dog came out of the hazel copse this morning and nearly attacked him. He thought the creature might be mad.”

Beatrix stopped and looked back at Cam. “What kind of dog?”

“A mongrel with a rough coat like a terrier’s. The tenant claims the dog stole one of his hens.”

“Don’t worry, Papa,” Rye said confidently. “I’ll be safe with Beatrix. All animals love her, even the mad ones.”

Chapter Seven

After an hour of romping along the hedgerow and through the orchard, Beatrix took Rye back to the house for his afternoon lessons.

“I don’t like lessons,” Rye said, heaving a sigh as they approached the French doors at the side of the house. “I’d much rather play.”

“Yes, but you must learn your maths.”

“I don’t need to, really. I already know how to count to a hundred. And I’m sure I’ll never need more than a hundred of anything.”

Beatrix grinned. “Practice your letters, then. And you’ll be able to read lots of adventure stories.”

“But if I spend my time reading about adventures,” Rye said, “I won’t actually be having them.”

Beatrix shook her head and laughed. “I should know better than to debate with you, Rye. You’re as clever as a cart full of monkeys.”

The child scampered up the stairs and turned to look back at her. “Aren’t you coming in, Auntie?”

“Not yet,” she said absently, her gaze drawn to the forest beyond Ramsay House. “I think I’ll go for a walk.”

“Shall I come with you?”

“Thank you, Rye, but at the moment I need a solitary walk.”

“You’re going to look for the dog,” he said wisely.

Beatrix smiled. “I might.”

Rye regarded her speculatively. “Auntie?”

“Yes?”

“Are you ever going to marry?”

“I hope so, Rye. But I have to find the right gentleman first.”

“If no one else will marry you, I will when I’m grown up. But only if I’m taller, because I wouldn’t want to look up at you.”

“Thank you,” she said gravely, suppressing a smile as she turned and strode toward the forest.

It was a walk she had taken hundreds of times before. The scenery was familiar, shadows broken by sunlight that came in shards through the tree limbs. Bark was frosted with pale green moss, except for the dark erosions where wood had turned into dust. The woodland floor was soft with mud, overlaid by papery leaves, ferns, and hazel catkins. The sounds were familiar, birdsong and swishing leaves, and the rustlings of a million small creatures.

For all her acquaintance with these woods, however, Beatrix was aware of a new feeling. A sense that she should be cautious. The air was charged with the promise of . . . something. As she went farther, the feeling intensified. Her heart behaved strangely, a wild pulse awakening in her wrists and throat and even in her knees.

There was movement ahead, a shape sliding low through the trees and rippling the bracken. It was not a human shape.

Picking up a fallen branch, Beatrix deftly snapped it to the length of a walking stick.

The creature went still, and silence descended over the forest.

“Come here,” Beatrix called out.

***

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