“Audrey,” Beatrix implored, “do let me sit next to Lord Annandale.” As if it were some coveted privilege.

“If you insist.” Audrey leaped from the settee as if she had been launched by a spring mechanism.

Before Beatrix took her place, she bent to rummage beneath the settee. Dragging out a drowsing gray cat, she settled it on Annandale’s lap. “Here you are. Nothing warms you faster than a cat in your lap. Her name is Lucky. She’ll purr if you pet her.”

The old man regarded it without expression.

And to Christopher’s astonishment, the old man began to stroke the sleek gray fur.

“This cat is missing a leg,” he remarked to Beatrix.

“Yes, I would have named her Nelson, after the one-armed admiral, but she’s female. She belonged to the cheesemaker until her foot was caught in a trap.”

“Why did you name her Lucky?” Annandale asked.

“I hoped it would change her fortunes.”

“And did it?”

“Well, she’s sitting in the lap of an earl, isn’t she?” Beatrix pointed out, and Annandale laughed outright.

He touched the cat’s remaining paw. “She is fortunate to have been to able to adapt.”

“She was determined,” Beatrix said. “You should have seen the poor thing, not long after the amputation. She kept trying to walk on the missing leg, or jump down from a chair, and she would stumble and lose her balance. But one day, she woke up and seemed to have accepted the fact that the leg was gone for good. And she became nearly as agile as before.” She added significantly, “The trick was forgetting about what she had lost . . . and learning to go on with what she had left.”

Annandale gave her a fascinated stare, his lips curving. “What a clever young woman you are.”

Christopher and Audrey glanced at each other in shared amazement, while Beatrix and Annandale launched into a rapt conversation.

“Men have always adored Beatrix,” Audrey said in an undertone, turning toward Christopher. Her eyes sparkled with laughter. “Did you think your grandfather would be proof against her?”

“Yes. He doesn’t like anyone.”

“Apparently he makes exceptions for young women who flatter his vanity and appear to hang on to his every word.”

Christopher stole a glance at Beatrix’s glowing face. Of course the earl couldn’t resist her. Beatrix had a way of looking at someone with undivided attention, making him feel as if he were the most interesting person in the room.

“I’ll never understand why she hasn’t married before now,” Christopher said.

Audrey kept her voice low as she replied. “Most of the peerage view the Hathaway family as a detraction. And although most gentlemen are delighted by Beatrix, they don’t want to marry an unconventional girl. As you well know.”

Christopher frowned at the gibe. “As soon as I came to know her, I admitted I was in the wrong.”

“That is to your credit,” Audrey said. “I didn’t think you could ever view her without prejudice. In the past, there have been more than a few men who were quite taken with Beatrix, but they did not pursue her. Mr. Chickering, for example. He absolutely begged his father to be allowed to court her, but his father threatened to cut him off. And so he has had to content himself with adoring Beatrix from afar, and flirting madly with her at every opportunity, knowing it will come to naught.”

“Those days are over,” Christopher said. “If he ever comes near her again . . .”

Audrey grinned. “Careful. Jealousy is quite unfashionable these days. One must have the sophistication to be amused by the attentions paid to one’s wife.”

“I’ll take great amusement in tossing him through the window.” Christopher paused as Audrey laughed. Clearly she thought he was jesting. Deciding to change the subject, he said, “I’m glad to see you’re out in society again.” He meant it. Audrey had spent nearly her entire marriage taking care of John, who had been diagnosed with consumption soon after their wedding. That, combined with the mourning period, had made it a lengthy and lonely ordeal for her. She deserved to find some enjoyment in life, and most definitely some companionship. “Are there any gentlemen you’ve taken a liking to?”

Audrey made a face. “You mean the ones my brothers haven’t managed to frighten off? No, there’s no one who appeals to me in that way. I’m sure I could have my choice of nearly any fortune hunter in London, in light of my generous jointure. But it counts against me that I’m barren.”

Christopher looked at her alertly. “Are you? How do you know?”

“Three years of marriage to John, and no children. Not even a miscarriage. And it’s always said that women are to blame in these matters.”

“That’s a belief I don’t happen to share. Women are not always at fault for infertility—that’s been proven. And John was ill for most of your marriage. There’s every reason to hope that you’ll be able to have children with another man.”

Audrey smiled wryly. “We’ll see what fate has in store for me. But I don’t aspire to marry again. I’m weary to the bone. I feel like a woman of five-and-ninety, instead of five-and-twenty.”

“You need more time,” Christopher murmured. “You’ll feel differently someday, Audrey.”

“Perhaps,” she said, sounding unconvinced.

Their attention was caught by the increasingly animated conversation between Beatrix and Annandale. “. . . I can climb a tree as well as any of the Ramsay estate woodsmen,” Beatrix was telling him.

“I don’t believe you,” the earl declared, tremendously entertained.

“Oh, yes. Off with the skirts, off with the corset, I put on a pair of breeches, and—”

“Beatrix,” Audrey interrupted, before this scandalous discussion of intimate apparel progressed any further. “I just caught a glimpse of Poppy in the next room. It’s been ages since I’ve seen her. And I’ve never been introduced to her husband.”

“Oh.” Reluctantly Beatrix turned her attention away from Annandale. “Shall I take you to them?”

“Yes.” Audrey seized her arm.

Annandale looked disgruntled, his black brows lowering as Audrey propelled Beatrix away.

Christopher bit back a grin. “What do you think of her?” he asked.

Annandale replied without hesitation. “I would marry her myself, were I five years younger.”

“Five?” Christopher repeated skeptically.

“Ten, damn you.” But a slight smile had appeared on the earl’s time-weathered face. “I commend you on your choice. She’s a spirited girl. Fearless. Lovely in her own way, and with her charm she has no need of true beauty. You’ll need to keep a firm hand on the reins, but the trouble will be worth it.” He paused, looking wistful. “Once you’ve had a woman like that, you can never be content with the ordinary kind.”

Christopher had been about to argue over the question of Beatrix’s beauty, which in his opinion was unequaled. But that last sentence caught his attention. “You’re referring to Grandmother?” he asked.

“No. Your grandmother was the kind of woman I thought I should marry. I was in love with someone else—a far less suitable girl. And I let her go, to my everlasting regret.” He sighed, pondering some distant memory. “A lifetime without her . . .”

Fascinated, Christopher wanted to ask more . . . but this was hardly the time or place for such a conversation. However, it gave him an unexpected insight into his grandfather. What would it do to a man, to marry a Prudence when one might have had a Beatrix? It would be enough to turn anyone bitter.

Later in the evening, trays of champagne were brought out, and the assembled guests waited expectantly for the betrothal announcement to be made.

Unfortunately, the man designated to do it was temporarily missing.

After a brief search, Leo was found and urged into the drawing room, where he launched into a charming toast and listed any number of amusing reasons for marriage. Although most of the guests listened with close attention and chuckled throughout, Christopher heard a pair of women gossiping nearby, whispering in disapproving undertones.

“. . . Ramsay was found flirting in the corner with a woman. They had to drag him away from her.”

“Who was it?”

“His own wife.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Yes. How unseemly for a married couple to carry on so.”

“I suppose the Hathaways know no better.”

Christopher suppressed a grin and fought the temptation to turn and inform the two old hens that the Hathaways actually did know better. They just didn’t give a damn. He glanced down at Beatrix, wondering if she had heard, but she was oblivious to the gossip, her attention fixed on her brother.

Leo concluded the toast with heartfelt wishes for the betrothed couple’s future happiness and prosperity. The guests raised their glasses and cheered in agreement.

Taking Beatrix’s gloved hand in his, Christopher lifted it and pressed a kiss to the back of her wrist. He wanted to carry her away from the crowded drawing room and have her all to himself.

“Soon,” Beatrix whispered, as if she had read his thoughts, and he let his gaze caress her. “And don’t look at me like that,” she added. “It makes my knees wobbly.”

“Then I won’t tell you what I’d like to do with you right now. Because you’d topple over like a ninepin.”

The private, pleasurable moment ended all too soon.

Lord Annandale, who was standing near Leo, pushed his way to the fore, holding up his champagne glass. “My friends,” he said, “I hope to contribute to the happiness of this occasion by sharing some news from London.”

The crowd quieted respectfully.

A cold feeling slithered down Christopher’s spine. He glanced at Leo, who looked bemused and shrugged.

“What is it?” Beatrix whispered.

Christopher shook his head, staring at his grandfather. “God help me, I don’t know.”

“Before departing for Hampshire,” Annandale continued, “I was informed by His Grace the Duke of Cambridge that my grandson is to be invested with the Victoria Cross. The medal, created this January past, is the highest possible military decoration for valor in the face of the enemy. The queen herself will present the medal to Captain Phelan at an investiture ceremony in London next June.”

Everyone in the room exclaimed and cheered. Christopher felt all the warmth in his body drain away. This was nothing that he wanted, another bloody piece of metal to pin to his chest, another fu**ing ceremony to honor events he didn’t want to remember. And for that to intrude on one of the sweetest moments of his life was revolting. Damn his grandfather for doing this to him without giving him one word of advance warning.

“What will the Victoria Cross be awarded for, my lord?” someone asked.

Annandale sent a smile to Christopher. “Perhaps my grandson can hazard a guess.”

Christopher shook his head, regarding him without expression.

Annoyance crossed the earl’s face at Christopher’s demonstrable lack of enthusiasm. “Captain Phelan was recommended for this honor by a regimental officer who gave an account of seeing him carry a wounded officer to safety under heavy gunfire. Our men had been driven back in an attempt to overtake Russian rifle pits. After rescuing the officer, Captain Phelan held the position until relief arrived. The Russian positions were captured, and the wounded officer, Lieutenant Fenwick, was saved.”

Christopher didn’t trust himself to speak as a volley of cheers and congratulations filled the air. He forced himself to finish the champagne, to stand still and appear calm, when he could feel himself sliding toward a dangerous precipice. Somehow he found the traction to stop it, to hold the madness at bay, reaching for the sense of detachment he both needed and feared.

Please, God, he thought. Not for saving Fenwick.

Chapter Twenty-three

Sensing the explosive quality in Christopher’s stillness, Beatrix waited until he had drained his champagne. “Oh, my,” she said in a voice loud enough to carry to the people around them. “I fear all this excitement is bringing on a touch of the vapors. Captain Phelan, if you wouldn’t mind escorting me to the parlor . . . ?”

The question was greeted with sympathetic murmurs, as any evidence of a woman’s delicate constitution was always encouraged.

Trying to look fragile and wan, Beatrix clung to Christopher’s arm as he led her from the drawing room. Instead of proceeding to the parlor, however, they found a place outside, a bench set on a graveled walkway.

They sat together in wordless communication. Christopher slid his arm around her, pressing his mouth against her hair. She listened to the night sounds from the nearby wood; peeps and rustlings, the melodious conversations of frogs, the flappings of birds and bats. Eventually she felt Christopher’s chest lift and lower in a long sigh.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, knowing that he was thinking about Mark Bennett, the friend he hadn’t been able to save. “I know why this medal is so odious to you.”

Christopher made no reply. From the near-palpable tension he radiated, she understood that of all the dark memories he harbored, this was one of the worst.

“Is it possible to refuse the medal?” she asked. “To forfeit it?”

“Not voluntarily. I’d have to do something illegal or hideous to invoke the expulsion clause.”

“We could plan a crime for you to commit,” Beatrix suggested. “I’m sure my family would have some excellent suggestions.”

Christopher looked at her then, his eyes like silvered glass in the moonlight. For a moment Beatrix feared the attempt at levity might have annoyed him. But then there was a catch of laughter in his throat, and he folded her into his arms. “Beatrix,” he whispered. “I’ll never stop needing you.”

They lingered outside for a few minutes longer than they should have, kissing and caressing until they were both breathless with frustrated need. A quiet groan escaped him, and he tugged her up from the bench and brought her back into the house.

As Beatrix mingled among the guests, chatting brightly and feigning interest in the advice they offered, she kept stealing glances at Christopher whenever possible. He appeared calm to the point of stoicism, maintaining a soldierly demeanor. Everyone fawned on him, even those whose social rank and aristocratic blood far eclipsed his. Despite Christopher’s controlled façade, she sensed his unease, perhaps even antagonism, in trying to readjust to a landscape that had once been so familiar. He felt out of place among old friends, none of whom wanted to dwell on the reality of what he had experienced and done in the war. The medals and gold braid and patriotic music were all that anyone felt comfortable discussing. And therefore he could only allow his feelings to show in brief and cautious increments.

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