“There were camp prostitutes,” he said, “who were kept busy servicing the soldiers. But they were none too attractive, and they helped to spread any number of diseases through the regiment.”
“Poor things,” Beatrix said sincerely.
“The prostitutes or the soldiers?”
“All of you.”
How like her, he thought, to react with compassion rather than distaste. Taking one of her hands, Christopher pressed a kiss into her palm. “I also had offers from one or two of the officers’ wives who had traveled with the brigade. But I didn’t think it was a very good idea to sleep with another man’s wife. Especially when I might have found myself fighting side by side with him afterward. And then when I was in the hospital, there were a few nurses who were probably persuadable . . . the regular ones, of course, not the ones who came with the Sisters Of Mercy . . . but after the long sieges and rounds of grave digging . . . and then being wounded . . . I wasn’t exactly in an amorous mood. So I waited.” He grimaced. “And I’m still waiting.”
Beatrix kissed and nuzzled the back of his neck, sending a new rush of arousal through him. “I’ll take care of you, poor lad,” she murmured. “Don’t worry, I’ll break you in gently.”
This was new, this mixture of desire and amusement. Christopher turned and put his arms around her, toppling her into his lap. “Oh, you will take care of me,” he assured her, and crushed his mouth over hers.
Later in the day Christopher went with Leo to see the Ramsay estate timber yard. Although the Ramsay timber business wasn’t comparable in scope to the Riverton production, it was infinitely more sophisticated. According to Leo, the Hathaways’ absent brother-in-law, Merripen, was the most knowledgeable about estate forestry, including correct procedures for identifying profitable timber, thinning mixed woods, and planting for regeneration.
In the timber yard itself, several technological innovations had been made at the suggestion of Harry Rutledge, Poppy’s husband. After showing Christopher an advanced system of rollers and run planks that allowed the cut timber to be moved efficiently and safely, Leo walked with him back to the house.
Their talk turned toward the timber market and arrangements with merchants. “Anything to do with the market,” Leo said, “and sales by auction or private treaty, are handled by Cam. He has a better grasp of finance than any man you’ll ever meet.”
“I find it interesting, the way you and your brothers-in-law have divided the areas of the business, each to his strengths.”
“It works well for us. Merripen is a man of the soil, Cam likes numbers . . . and my part is to do as little as possible.”
Christopher wasn’t deceived. “You know far too much about the entire enterprise for me to believe that. You’ve worked long and hard on this place.”
“Yes. But I keep hoping if I feign ignorance, they’ll stop asking me to do things.”
Christopher smiled and focused on the ground before them as they walked, their booted feet crossing into the long shadows cast by the sun behind them. “I won’t have to feign ignorance,” he said, sobering. “I know next to nothing about timber. My brother prepared for it his entire life. It never occurred to me—or anyone—that I would have to fill his shoes.” He paused and wished he had kept that last comment to himself. It sounded as if he were asking for sympathy.
Leo, however, replied in a friendly and matter-of-fact manner. “I know that feeling. But Merripen will help you. He’s a fount of information, and he’s never so happy as when he’s telling people what to do. A fortnight in his company, and you’ll be a bloody expert on timber. Has Beatrix yet told you that Merripen and Win will return from Ireland in time for the wedding?”
Christopher shook his head. The wedding would be held in a month, at the church on the village green. “I’m glad for Beatrix’s sake. She wants the entire family to be there.” A brief laugh escaped him. “I only hope we won’t have a parade of animals marching through the church along with her.”
“Count yourself fortunate that we got rid of the elephant,” Leo said. “She might have turned it into a bridesmaid.”
“Elephant?” Christopher glanced at him sharply. “She had an elephant?”
“Only for a short time. She found a new home for him.”
“No.” Christopher was shaking his head. “Knowing Beatrix, I could almost believe it. But no.”
“She had an elephant,” Leo insisted. “God’s own truth.”
Christopher still wasn’t convinced. “I suppose it showed up at the doorstep one day and someone made the mistake of feeding it?”
“Ask Beatrix, and she’ll tell you—”
But Leo broke off as they neared the paddock, where some kind of commotion was taking place. The squeal of an angry horse rent the air. A chestnut Thoroughbred was rearing and bucking with someone on its back.
“Damn it,” Leo said, quickening his pace. “I told them not to buy that ill-tempered nag—he was ruined from bad handling, and not even Beatrix can fix him.”
“Is that Beatrix?” Christopher asked, alarm jolting through him.
“Either Beatrix or Rohan—no one else is foolhardy enough to mount him.”
Christopher broke into a run. It wasn’t Beatrix. It couldn’t be. She had promised him that she wouldn’t put herself at physical risk anymore. But as he reached the paddock, he saw her hat fly off and her dark hair come loose, while the infuriated horse bucked with increasing force. Beatrix clung to the animal with astonishing ease, murmuring and trying to soothe him. The horse seemed to subside, responding to Beatrix’s efforts. But in a quicksilver instant he reared impossibly high, his massive bulk balanced on two slender hind legs.
And then the horse twisted and began to fall.
Time itself slowed, while the huge crushing mass toppled, with Beatrix’s fragile form landing beneath.
As so often had happened in battle, Christopher’s instincts took over completely, prompting action at a speed faster than thought. He heard nothing, but he felt his throat vibrate with a hoarse cry, while his body vaulted over the paddock fence.
Beatrix reacted from instinct as well. As the horse began to fall, she yanked her booted feet from the stirrups and pushed away from him in midair. She hit the ground and rolled twice, thrice, while the horse’s body crashed beside her . . . missing her by a matter of inches.
As Beatrix lay still and dazed, the maddened horse struggled to its feet, its hooves pounding the ground beside her with skull-splitting force. Christopher snatched her up and carried her to the side of the paddock, while Leo approached the enraged horse and somehow managed to grab the reins.
Lowering Beatrix to the ground, Christopher searched her for injuries, running his hands over her limbs, feeling her skull. She was panting and wheezing, the breath having been knocked out of her.
She blinked up at him in confusion. “What happened?”
“The horse reared and fell.” Christopher’s voice came out in a rasp. “Tell me your name.”
“Why are you asking me that?”
“Your name,” he insisted.
“Beatrix Heloise Hathaway.” She looked at him with round blue eyes. “Now that we know who I am . . . who are you?”
At Christopher’s expression, Beatrix snickered and wrinkled her nose impishly. “I’m teasing. Really. I know who you are. I’m perfectly all right.”
Over Christopher’s shoulder, Beatrix caught sight of Leo shaking his head in warning, drawing a finger across his throat.
She realized too late that it probably hadn’t been an appropriate moment for teasing. What to a Hathaway would have been a good chuckle was positively infuriating to Christopher.
He glared at her with incredulous wrath. It was only then that she realized he was shaking in the aftermath of his terror for her.
Definitely not the time for humor.
“I’m sorry—” she began contritely.
“I asked you not to train that horse,” Christopher snapped, “and you agreed.”
Beatrix felt instantly defensive. She was accustomed to doing as she pleased. This was certainly not the first time she’d ever fallen from a horse, nor the last.
“You didn’t ask that specifically,” she said reasonably, “you asked me not to do anything dangerous. And in my opinion, it wasn’t.”
Instead of calming Christopher, that seemed to enrage him even further. “In light of the fact that you were nearly flattened like a pikelet just now, I’d say you were wrong.”
Beatrix was intent on winning the argument. “Well, it doesn’t matter in any case, because the promise I made was for after we married. And we’re not married yet.”
Leo covered his eyes with his hand, shook his head, and retreated from her vision.
Christopher gave her an incinerating glare, opened his mouth to speak, and closed it again. Without another word, he lifted himself away from her and went to the stable in a long, ground-eating stride.
Sitting up, Beatrix stared after him in perplexed annoyance. “He’s leaving.”
“It would appear so.” Leo came to her, extended a hand down, and pulled her up.
“Why did he leave right in the middle of a quarrel?” Beatrix demanded, dusting off her breeches with short, aggravated whacks. “One can’t just leave, one has to finish it.”
“If he had stayed, sweetheart,” Leo said, “there’s every chance I would have had to pry his hands from around your neck.”
Their conversation paused as they saw Christopher riding from the stables, his form straight as a blade as he spurred his horse into a swift graceful canter.
Beatrix sighed. “I was trying to score points rather than consider how he was feeling,” she admitted. “He was probably frightened for me, seeing the horse topple over like that.”
“Probably?” Leo repeated. “He looked like he had just seen Death. I believe it may have touched off one of his bad spells, or whatever it is you call them.”
“I must go to him.”
“Not dressed like that.”
“For heaven’s sake, Leo, just this one time—”
“No exceptions, darling. I know my sisters. Give any one of you an inch, and you’ll take a mile.” He reached out and pushed back her tumbling hair. “Also . . . don’t go without a chaperone.”
“I don’t want a chaperone. That’s never any fun.”
“Yes, Beatrix, that’s the purpose of a chaperone.”
“Well, in our family, anyone who chaperoned me would probably need a chaperone more than I do.”
Leo opened his mouth to argue, then closed it.
Rare was the occasion when her brother was unable to argue a point.
Repressing a grin, Beatrix strode toward the house.
Christopher had forgiven Beatrix before he had even reached Phelan House. He was well aware that Beatrix was accustomed to nearly unqualified freedom, and she had no wish to be reined in any more than that devil of a horse had. It would take time for her to adjust to restrictions. He had already known that.
But he had been too rattled to think clearly. She meant too much to him—she was his life. The thought of her being hurt was more than his soul could bear. The shock of seeing Beatrix nearly killed, the overwhelming mixture of terror and fury, had exploded through him and left him in chaos. No, not chaos, something far worse. Gloom. A gray, heavy fog had enclosed him, suffocating all sound and feeling. He felt as if his soul were barely anchored in his body.
This same numb detachment had happened from time to time during the war, and in the hospital. There was no cure for it, except to wait it out.
Telling the housekeeper that he didn’t want to be disturbed, Christopher headed to the dark, quiet sanctuary of the library. After searching through the sideboard, he found a bottle of Armagnac, and poured a glass.
The liquor was harsh and peppery, searing the inside of his throat. Exactly what he wanted. Hoping it would burn through the chill in his soul, he tossed it back and poured a second.
Hearing a scratch at the door, he went to open it. Albert crossed the threshold, wagging and snorting happily. “Useless mongrel,” Christopher said, bending to pet him. “You smell like the floor of an East End tavern.” The dog pushed back against his palm demandingly. Christopher lowered to his haunches and regarded him ruefully. “What would you say if you could talk?” he asked. “I suppose it’s better that you don’t. That’s the point of having a dog. No conversation. Just admiring gazes and endless panting.”
Someone spoke from the threshold behind him, startling him. “I hope that’s not what you’ll expect . . .”
Reacting with explosive instinct, Christopher turned and fastened his hand around a soft throat.
“. . . from a wife,” Beatrix finished unsteadily.
Christopher froze. Trying to think above the frenzy, he took a shivering breath, and blinked hard.
What in God’s name was he doing?
He had shoved Beatrix against the doorjamb, pinning her by the throat, his other hand drawn back in a lethal fist. He was a hairsbreadth away from delivering a blow that would shatter delicate bones in her face.
It terrified him, how much effort it took to unclench his fist and relax his arm. With the hand that was still at her throat, he felt the fragile throb of her pulse beneath his thumb, and the delicate ripple of a swallow.
Staring into her rich blue eyes, he felt the welter of violence washed away in a flood of despair.
With a muffled curse, he snatched his hand from her and went to get his drink.
“Mrs. Clocker said you’d asked not to be disturbed,” Beatrix said. “And of course the first thing I did was disturb you.”
“Don’t come up behind me,” Christopher said roughly. “Ever.”
“I of all people should have known that. I won’t do it again.”
Christopher took a fiery swallow of the liquor. “What do you mean, you of all people?”
“I’m used to wild creatures who don’t like to be approached from behind.”
He shot her a baleful glance. “How fortunate that your experience with animals has turned out to be such good preparation for marriage to me.”
“I didn’t mean . . . well, my point was that I should have been more considerate of your nerves.”
“I don’t have nerves,” he snapped.
“I’m sorry. We’ll call them something else.” Her voice was so soothing and gentle that it would have caused an assortment of cobras, tigers, wolverines, and badgers to all snuggle together and take a group nap.