“Captain Phelan.”

The child’s gaze sharpened with interest. “Where’s your uniform?”

“I don’t wear it now that the war is over.”

“Did you come to see my father?”

“No, I . . . came to call on Miss Hathaway.”

“Are you one of her suitors?”

Christopher gave a decisive shake of his head.

“You might be one,” the boy said wisely, “and just not know it yet.”

Christopher felt a smile—his first genuine smile in a long time—pulling at his lips. “Does Miss Hathaway have many suitors?”

“Oh, yes. But none of them want to marry her.”

“Why is that, do you imagine?”

“They don’t want to get shot,” the child said, shrugging.

“Pardon?” Christopher’s brows lifted.

“Before you marry, you have to get shot by an arrow and fall in love,” the boy explained. He paused thoughtfully. “But I don’t think the rest of it hurts as much as the beginning.”

Christopher couldn’t prevent a grin. At that moment, Beatrix returned to the hallway, dragging the nanny goat on a rope lead.

Beatrix looked at Christopher with an arrested expression.

His smile faded, and he found himself staring into her blue-on-blue eyes. They were astonishingly direct and lucid . . . the eyes of a vagabond angel. One had the sense that no matter what she beheld of the sinful world, she would never be jaded. She reminded him that the things he had seen and done could not be polished away like tarnish from silver.

Gradually her gaze lowered from his. “Rye,” she said, handing the lead to the boy. “Take Pandora to the barn, will you? And the baby goat as well.” Reaching out, she took the kid from Christopher’s arms. The touch of her hands against his shirtfront elicited an unnerving response, a pleasurable heaviness in his groin.

“Yes, Auntie.” The boy left through the front door, somehow managing to retain possession of the goats and the wooden sword.

Christopher stood facing Beatrix, trying not to gape. And failing utterly. She might as well have been standing there in her undergarments. In fact, that would have been preferable, because at least it wouldn’t have seemed so singularly erotic. He could see the feminine outline of her h*ps and thighs clad in the masculine garments. And she didn’t seem at all self-conscious. Confound her, what kind of woman was she?

He struggled with his reaction to her, a mixture of annoyance, fascination, and arousal. With her hair threatening to tumble from its pins, and her cheeks flushed from exertion, she was the epitome of glowing female health.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

“I came to apologize,” he said. “I was . . . discourteous yesterday.”

“No, you were rude.”

“You’re right. I’m truly sorry.” At her lack of response, Christopher fumbled for words. He, who had once spoken to women so glibly. “I’ve been too long in rough company. Since I left the Crimea, I find myself reacting irritably without cause. I . . . words are too important for me to be so careless with them.”

Perhaps it was his imagination, but he thought her face softened a little.

“You don’t have to be sorry for disliking me,” she said. “Only for being discourteous.”

“Rude,” Christopher corrected. “And I don’t.”

“You don’t what?” she asked with a frown.

“Dislike you. That is . . . I don’t know you well enough to either like or dislike you.”

“I’m fairly certain, Captain,” she said, “that the more you discover about me, the more you will dislike me. Therefore, let’s cut to the chase and acknowledge that we don’t like each other. Then we won’t have to bother with the in-between part.”

She was so bloody frank and practical about the whole thing that Christopher couldn’t help but be amused. “I’m afraid I can’t oblige you.”

“Why not?”

“Because when you said that just now, I found myself starting to like you.”

“You’ll recover,” she said.

Her decisive tone made him want to smile. “It’s getting worse, actually,” he told her. “Now I’m absolutely convinced that I like you.”

Beatrix gave him a patently skeptical stare. “What about my hedgehog? Do you like her, too?”

Christopher considered that. “Affection for rodents can’t be rushed.”

“Medusa isn’t a rodent. She’s an erinaceid.”

“Why did you bring her to the picnic?” Christopher couldn’t resist asking.

“Because I thought her company would be preferable to that of the people I would meet there.” A faint smile played at the corners of her lips. “And I was right.” She paused. “We’re about to have tea,” she said. “Will you join us?”

Christopher began to shake his head before she had even finished. They would ask questions, and he would have to come up with careful answers, and the thought of a prolonged conversation was wearying and anxiety provoking. “Thank you, but no. I—”

“It’s a condition of my forgiveness,” Beatrix said. Those dark blue eyes, lit with a provocative glint, stared directly into his.

Surprised and diverted, Christopher wondered how an unworldly young woman in her early twenties had the gall to give him orders.

However, it was turning out to be a strangely entertaining afternoon. Why not stay? He wasn’t expected anywhere. And no matter how it turned out, it would be preferable to going back to those somber dark rooms at home. “In that case—” He broke off, startled, as Beatrix leaned toward him.

“Oh, bother.” She was looking closely at the lapels of his tweed sack coat. “You’re covered with goat hair.” She began to brush at his lapels vigorously.

It took Christopher a full five seconds to remember how to breathe. “Miss Hathaway—” In her efforts to whisk away the scattering of stray goat hairs, she was standing much too close. He wanted her even closer. What would it feel like to wrap his arms around her, and press his cheek into that mass of shiny dark hair?

“Don’t move,” Beatrix said, continuing to bat at the front of his coat. “I’ve almost brushed it off.”

“No, I don’t . . . that’s not . . .” Christopher’s control broke. He snatched her slender wrists with his hands, holding them suspended. God, the feel of her . . . the smooth skin . . . the exquisite throb of her veins against his fingertips. A subtle tremor ran through her. He wanted to follow it with his hands, smooth his palms over the supple curves of her. He wanted to wrap her around him, her legs, her arms, her hair.

But despite her undeniable attractions, he would never pursue a woman like Beatrix Hathaway, even if he weren’t already in love with Prudence. What he truly wanted, needed, was a return to normalcy. To the kind of life that would restore him to peace.

Slowly Beatrix pulled her arms free of his manacling fingers. She stared at him, her gaze wary and intent.

They both started at the sound of approaching footsteps.

“Good afternoon,” came a pleasant feminine voice.

It was the oldest Hathaway sister, Amelia. She was shorter and more voluptuous than her younger sister. There was a warm maternal air about her, as if she were prepared to ladle out sympathy and comfort at a moment’s notice.

“Mrs. Rohan,” Christopher murmured, and bowed.

“Sir,” she replied with a questioning lilt. Although they had met before, she clearly didn’t recognize him.

“This is Captain Phelan, Amelia,” Beatrix said.

The blue eyes widened. “What a lovely surprise,” she exclaimed, giving Christopher her hand.

“Captain Phelan and I dislike each other,” Beatrix told her. “In fact, we’re sworn enemies.”

Christopher glanced at her quickly. “When did we become sworn enemies?”

Ignoring him, Beatrix said to her sister, “Regardless, he’s staying for tea.”

“Wonderful,” Amelia said equably. “Why are you enemies, dear?”

“I met him yesterday while I was out walking,” Beatrix explained. “And he called Medusa a ‘garden pest,’ and faulted me for bringing her to a picnic.”

Amelia smiled at Christopher. “Medusa has been called many worse things around here, including ‘diseased pincushion,’ and ‘perambulating cactus.’ ”

“I’ve never understood,” Beatrix said, “why people have such unreasonable dislike of hedgehogs.”

“They dig up the garden,” Amelia said, “and they’re not what one would call cuddlesome. Captain Phelan has a point, dear—you might have brought your cat to the picnic instead.”

“Don’t be silly. Cats don’t like picnics nearly as much as hedgehogs.”

The conversation proceeded at such quicksilver speed that there was little opportunity for Christopher to break in. Somehow he managed to find an opening. “I apologized to Miss Hathaway for my remarks,” he told Amelia uncomfortably.

This earned an approving glance. “Delightful. A man who’s not afraid to apologize. But really, apologies are wasted on our family—we’re usually pleased by the things we should be offended by, and vice versa. Come in, Captain, you’re among friends.”

Christopher found himself being ushered into a bright, cheery house, with abundant windows and piles of books everywhere.

“Beatrix,” Amelia said over her shoulder as they proceeded through the hallway. “Perhaps you should reconsider your attire. Poor Captain Phelan may find it somewhat shocking.”

“But he’s already seen me like this,” came Beatrix’s voice from behind Christopher, “and I’ve already shocked him. What is the point in changing clothes? Captain, would you feel more comfortable if I took my breeches off?”

“No,” he said hastily.

“Good, I’ll keep them on. Really, I don’t see why women shouldn’t dress like this all the time. One can walk freely and even leap. How is one to chase after a goat in skirts?”

“It’s something the dressmakers should consider,” Amelia said. “Although my concern is more in the direction of chasing after children, not goats.”

They entered a room lined with a semicircular row of tall windows overlooking a spring garden. It was a comfortable room, with overstuffed furniture and embroidered pillows. A housemaid was busy setting out china plates on a tea table. Christopher couldn’t help contrasting this cozy scene with yesterday’s stilted teatime in the Phelans’ immaculate formal parlor.

“Please set another place, Tillie,” Amelia said. “We have a guest.”

“Yes, mum.” The housemaid looked distinctly worried. “Is the goat gone?”

“Entirely gone,” came the soothing reply. “You may bring out the tea tray when it’s ready.” Amelia sent a mock frown to Christopher. “That goat has been nothing but trouble. And the dratted creature isn’t even picturesque. Goats resemble nothing so much as badly dressed sheep.”

“That’s quite unfair,” Beatrix said. “Goats have far more character and intelligence than sheep, who are nothing but followers. I’ve met far too many in London.”

“Sheep?” Christopher asked blankly.

“My sister is speaking figuratively, Captain Phelan,” Amelia said.

“Well, I have met some actual sheep in London,” Beatrix said. “But yes, I was mainly referring to people. They all tell you the same gossip, which is tedious. They adhere to the current fashions and the popular opinions, no matter how silly. And one never improves in their company. One starts falling in line and baaing.”

A quiet laugh came from the doorway as Cam Rohan entered the room. “Obviously Hathaways are not sheep. Because I’ve tried to herd the lot of you for years, without any success.”

From what Christopher remembered of Rohan, he had worked at a London gaming club for a time, and then had made a fortune in manufacturing investments. Although his devotion to his wife and family was well-known in Stony Cross, Rohan was hardly the image of a staid and respectable patriarch. With his longish dark hair, exotic amber eyes, and the diamond stud flashing in his ear, his Romany heritage was obvious.

Approaching Christopher, Rohan exchanged a bow and surveyed him with a friendly gaze. “Captain Phelan. It is good to see you. We were hoping for your safe return.”

“Thank you. I hope my presence is not an imposition.”

“Not in the least. With Lord Ramsay and his wife still in London, and my brother Merripen and his wife visiting Ireland, it’s been far too peaceful here of late.” Rohan paused, a glitter of amusement entering his eyes. “Fugitive goats notwithstanding.”

The ladies were seated, and finger bowls and napkins were brought out, followed by a sumptuously laden tea tray. As Amelia poured, Christopher noticed that she had added a few crushed green leaves to Beatrix’s cup.

Seeing his interest, Amelia said, “My sister prefers her tea flavored with mint. Would you like some as well, Captain?”

“No, thank you, I . . .” Christopher’s voice faded as he watched her stir a spoonful of honey into the cup.

“Every morning and afternoon I drink fresh mint tea sweetened with honey . . .”

The reminder of Prudence awakened the familiar yearning, and Christopher steeled himself against it. He forced himself to focus solely on this situation, these people.

In the ensuing pause, he heard the sound of Albert barking outside. With despairing impatience, Christopher wondered if the blasted dog was ever going to be quiet.

“He wants to protect you,” Beatrix said. “He’s wondering where I’ve taken you.”

Christopher let out a taut sigh. “Perhaps I shouldn’t stay. He’ll bark for hours.”

“Nonsense. Albert must learn to adapt to your plans. I’ll bring him inside.”

Her authoritative manner rankled Christopher, no matter that she was right. “He might damage something,” he said, rising to his feet.

“He can’t do any worse than the goat,” Beatrix replied, standing to face him.

Politely Rohan stood as well, watching the two of them.

“Miss Hathaway—” Christopher continued to object, but he fell silent, blinking, as she reached out and touched his chest. Her fingertips rested over his heart for the space of one heartbeat.

***

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