Albert’s tail thumped the floor enthusiastically.

Audrey looked dubious. His mother looked angry.

Christopher drank his tea in the ensuing silence. It tore at his heart to see the changes in both women. They were both thin and pale. His mother’s hair had gone white. No doubt John’s prolonged illness had taken a toll on them before his death, and nearly a year of mourning had finished the job.

Not for the first time, Christopher thought it a shame that the rules of mourning imposed such solitude on people, when it probably would have benefited them to have company and pleasant distractions.

Setting down her half-finished cup of tea, his mother pushed back from the table. Christopher rose to help her with the chair.

“I can’t enjoy my tea with that beast staring at me,” she said. “At any moment, it could leap forward and rip my throat out.”

“His leash is tied to the furniture, Mother,” Audrey pointed out.

“That doesn’t matter. It’s a savage creature, and I detest it.” She swept out of the room, her head high with indignation.

Freed of the necessity for good manners, Audrey rested an elbow on the table and leaned her hand on her chin. “Your uncle and aunt have invited her to stay with them in Hertfordshire,” she said. “I’ve encouraged her to accept their offer. She needs a change of view.”

“The house is too dark,” Christopher said. “Why are all the shutters closed and the curtains drawn?”

“The light hurts her eyes.”

“The devil it does.” Christopher stared at her with a slight frown. “She should go,” he said. “She’s been holed up in this morgue for far too long. And so have you.”

Audrey sighed. “It’s almost been a year. Soon I’ll be out of full mourning and I can go into half-mourning.”

“What is half-mourning, exactly?” Christopher asked, having only a vague notion of such female-oriented rituals.

“It means I can stop wearing veils” Audrey said without enthusiasm. “I can wear gray and lavender dresses, and ornaments without shine. And I may attend a few limited social events, as long as I don’t actually appear to be enjoying myself.”

Christopher snorted derisively. “Who invents these rules?”

“I don’t know. But heaven help us, we must follow them or face the wrath of society.” Audrey paused. “Your mother says she won’t go into half-mourning. She intends to wear black for the rest of her life.”

Christopher nodded, unsurprised. His mother’s devotion had only been strengthened by death. “It’s clear that every time she looks at me,” he said, “she thinks I should have been the son she lost.”

Audrey opened her mouth to argue, then closed it. “It was hardly your fault that you came back alive,” she said eventually. “I’m glad you’re here. And I believe that somewhere in her heart, your mother is glad as well. But she’s become slightly unbalanced during the past year. I don’t think she’s always entirely aware of what she says or does. I believe some time away from Hampshire will do her good.” She paused. “I’m going to leave, too, Christopher. I want to see my family in London. And it wouldn’t be appropriate for the two of us to stay here unchaperoned.”

“I’ll escort you to London in a few days, if you like. I had already planned to go there to see Prudence Mercer.”

Audrey frowned. “Oh.”

Christopher gave her a questioning glance. “I gather your opinion of her has not changed.”

“Oh, it has. It’s worsened.”

He couldn’t help but feel defensive on Prudence’s behalf. “Why?”

“For the past two years, Prudence has earned a reputation as a shameless flirt. Her ambition to marry a wealthy man, preferably a peer, is known to everyone. I hope you have no illusions that she pined for you in your absence.”

“I would hardly expect her to don sackcloth while I was gone.”

“Good, because she didn’t. In fact, from all appearances you slipped from her mind completely.” Audrey paused before adding bitterly, “However, soon after John passed away and you became the new heir to Riverton, Prudence evinced a great deal of renewed interest in you.”

Christopher showed no expression as he puzzled over this unwelcome information. It sounded nothing like the woman who had corresponded with him. Clearly Prudence was the victim of vicious rumors—and in light of her beauty and charm, that was entirely expected.

However, he had no desire to start an argument with his sister-in-law. Hoping to distract her from the volatile subject of Prudence Mercer, he said, “I happened to meet one of your friends today, when I chanced upon her during a walk.”

“Who?”

“Miss Hathaway.”

“Beatrix?” Audrey looked at him attentively. “I hope you were polite to her.”

“Not especially,” he admitted.

“What did you say to her?”

He scowled into his teacup. “I insulted her hedgehog,” he muttered.

Audrey looked exasperated. “Oh, good God.” She began to stir her tea so vigorously that the spoon threatened to crack the porcelain cup. “And to think you were once renowned for your silver tongue. What perverse instinct drives you to repeatedly offend one of the nicest women I’ve ever known?”

“I haven’t repeatedly offended her, I just did it today.”

Her mouth twisted in derision. “How conveniently short your memory is. All of Stony Cross knows that you once said she belonged in the stables.”

“I would never have said that to a woman, no matter how damned eccentric she was. Is.”

“Beatrix overheard you telling it to one of your friends, at the harvest dance held at Stony Cross Manor.”

“And she told everyone?”

“No, she made the mistake of confiding in Prudence, who told everyone. Prudence is an incurable gossip.”

“Obviously you have no liking for Prudence,” he began, “but if you—”

“I’ve tried my best to like her. I thought if one peeled away the layers of artifice, one would find the real Prudence beneath. But there’s nothing beneath. And I doubt there ever will be.”

“And you find Beatrix Hathaway superior to her?”

“In every regard, except perhaps beauty.”

“There you have it wrong,” he informed her. “Miss Hathaway is a beauty.”

Audrey’s brows lifted. “Do you think so?” she asked idly, lifting the teacup to her lips.

“It’s obvious. Regardless of what I think of her character, Miss Hathaway is an exceptionally attractive woman.”

“Oh, I don’t know . . .” Audrey devoted careful attention to her tea, adding a tiny lump of sugar. “She’s rather tall.”

“She has the ideal height and form.”

“And brown hair is so common . . .”

“It’s not the usual shade of brown, it’s as dark as sable. And those eyes . . .”

“Blue,” Audrey said with a dismissive wave.

“The deepest, purest blue I’ve ever seen. No artist could capture—” Christopher broke off abruptly. “Never mind. I’m straying from the point.”

“What is your point?” Audrey asked sweetly.

“That it is of no significance to me whether Miss Hathaway is a beauty or not. She’s peculiar, and so is her family, and I have no interest in any of them. By the same token, I don’t give a damn if Prudence Mercer is beautiful—I’m interested in the workings of her mind. Her lovely, original, absolutely compelling mind.”

“I see. Beatrix’s mind is peculiar, and Prudence’s is original and compelling.”

“Just so.”

Audrey shook her head slowly. “There is something I want to tell you. But it’s going to become more obvious over time. And you wouldn’t believe it if I told you, or at least you wouldn’t want to believe it. This is one of those things that must be discovered for oneself.”

“Audrey, what the devil are you talking about?”

Folding her narrow arms across her chest, his sister-in-law contemplated him sternly. And yet a strange little smile kept tugging at the corners of her lips. “If you are at all a gentleman,” she finally said, “you will call on Beatrix tomorrow and apologize for hurting her feelings. Go during one of your walks with Albert—she’ll be glad to see him, if not you.”

Chapter Eight

Christopher walked to Ramsay House the next afternoon. Not because he actually wanted to. However, he had no plans for the day, and unless he wanted to contend with his mother’s unforgiving stares, or worse, Audrey’s quiet stoicism, he had to go somewhere. The stillness of the rooms, the memories tucked in every nook and shadow, were more than he could face.

He had yet to ask Audrey what it had been like for John the last few days of his life . . . what his last words had been.

Beatrix Hathaway had been right when she’d guessed that John’s death hadn’t been real to him until he’d come home.

As they went through the forest, Albert bounded this way and that, foraging through the bracken. Christopher felt morose and restless as he anticipated his welcome—or lack thereof—when he arrived at Ramsay House. No doubt Beatrix had told her family about his ungentlemanly behavior. They would be angry with him, rightfully so. It was common knowledge that the Hathaway family was a close-knit, clannish group, fiercely protective of each other. And they had to be, with a pair of Romany brothers-in-law, not to mention their own lack of blood and breeding.

It was only the peerage title, held by Leo, Lord Ramsay, that afforded the family any social foothold whatsoever. Fortunately for them, they were received by Lord Westcliff, one of the most powerful and respected peers of the realm. That connection gave them entrée into circles that otherwise would have excluded them. However, what annoyed the local gentry was that the Hathaways didn’t seem to care one way or the other.

As he approached Ramsay House, Christopher wondered what the devil he was doing, calling on the Hathaways unannounced. It probably wasn’t a proper visiting day, and certainly not an appropriate time. But he rather doubted they would notice.

The Ramsay estate was small but productive, with three thousand acres of arable land and two hundred prosperous tenant farms. In addition, the estate possessed a large forest that yielded a lucrative annual timber yield. The charming and distinctive roofline of the manor home came into view, a central medieval dormer sided by rows of high peaked gables, Jacobean pierced crestings and strap work, and a tidy square Georgian addition to the left. The effect of mixed architectural features wasn’t all that unusual. Many older homes featured additions in a variety of styles. But since this was the Hathaway family, it only seemed to underscore their strangeness.

Christopher put Albert on a leash and proceeded to the entrance of the house with a little stab of dread.

If he were fortunate, no one would be available to receive him.

After tying Albert’s leash to a slender porch column, Christopher knocked at the door and waited tensely.

He reared back as the portal was flung open by a frantic-faced housekeeper.

“I beg your pardon, sir, we’re in the middle of—” She paused at the sound of porcelain crashing from somewhere inside the house. “Oh, merciful Lord,” she moaned, and gestured to the front parlor. “Wait there if you please, and—”

“I’ve got her,” a masculine voice called. And then, “Damn it, no I don’t. She’s heading for the stairs.”

“Do not let her come upstairs!” a woman screamed. A baby was crying in strident gusts. “Oh, that dratted creature has woken the baby. Where are the housemaids?”

“Hiding, I expect.”

Christopher hesitated in the entryway, blinking as he heard a bleating noise. He asked the housekeeper blankly, “Are they keeping farm animals in here?”

“No, of course not,” she said hastily, trying to push him into the parlor. “That’s . . . a baby crying. Yes. A baby.”

“It doesn’t sound like one,” he said.

Christopher heard Albert barking from the porch. A three-legged cat came streaking through the hallway, followed by a bristling hedgehog that scuttled a great deal faster than one might have expected. The housekeeper hastened after them.

“Pandora, come back here!” came a new voice—Beatrix Hathaway’s voice—and Christopher’s senses sparked in recognition. He twitched uneasily at the commotion, his reflexes urging him to take some kind of action, although he wasn’t yet certain what the bloody hell was going on.

A large white goat came leaping and capering and twisting through the hallway.

And then Beatrix Hathaway appeared, tearing around the corner. She skidded to a halt. “You might have tried to stop her,” she exclaimed. As she glanced up at Christopher, a scowl flitted across her face. “Oh. It’s you.”

“Miss Hathaway—” he began.

“Hold this.”

Something warm and wriggling was thrust into his grasp, and Beatrix dashed off to pursue the goat.

Dumbfounded, Christopher glanced at the creature in his hands. A baby goat, cream colored, with a brown head. He fumbled to keep from dropping the creature as he glanced at Beatrix’s retreating form and realized she was wearing breeches and boots.

Christopher had seen women in every imaginable state of dress or undress. But he had never seen one wearing the clothes of a stablehand.

“I must be having a dream,” he told the squirming kid absently. “A very odd dream about Beatrix Hathaway and goats . . .”

“I have her!” the masculine voice called out. “Beatrix, I told you the pen needed to be made taller.”

“She didn’t leap over it,” came Beatrix’s protest, “she ate through it.”

“Who let her into the house?”

“No one. She butted one of the side doors open.”

An inaudible conversation followed.

As Christopher waited, a dark-haired boy of approximately four or five years of age made a breathless entrance through the front door. He was carrying a wooden sword and had tied a handkerchief around his head, which gave him the appearance of a miniature pirate. “Did they catch the goat?” he asked Christopher without preamble.

“I believe so.”

“Oh, thunderbolts. I missed all the fun.” The boy sighed. He looked up at Christopher. “Who are you?”

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