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Reaching the entrance of the house, Beatrix dismounted and handed

the reins to a footman. She suppressed a sheepish smile as she saw how he was gaping at her. 'Keep my horse at the ready, please. I'll be only a moment. Come, Albert.'

She was met at the front door by Mrs. Clocker, who was taken aback

by her attire. 'Why, Miss Hathaway . . .' the housekeeper faltered, 'you're 128

wearing . . .'

'Yes, I'm so sorry, I know I'm not presentable, but I came in a dash.

Albert appeared at Ramsay House today, and I'm delivering him back to you.'

'Thank you,' the housekeeper said in a distracted manner. 'I hadn't even noticed he was missing. With the master not himself . . .'

'Not himself?' Beatrix was instantly concerned. 'In what way, Mrs.

Clocker?'

'I shouldn't say.'

'Yes you should. I'm the perfect person to confide in. I'm very discreet--I only gossip to animals. Is Captain Phelan ill? Did something happen?'

The housekeeper's voice lowered to a whisper. 'Three nights ago, we all smelled smoke coming from the master's bedroom. The master was drunk as David's sow, and he had thrown his uniform onto the fire in the hearth, and all his medals with it! We managed to rescue the medals, although the garments were ruined. After that, the master closed himself in his room and began to drink steadily. He hasn't stopped. We've watered his liquor as much as we dared, but . . .' A helpless shrug. 'He will talk to no one. He won't touch the dinner trays I sent up. We sent for the doctor, but he wouldn't see him, and when we brought the pastor yesterday, he threatened to murder him. We've been considering the idea of sending for Mrs. Phelan.'

'His mother?'

'Dear me, no. Mrs. Phelan the younger. I do not think his mother would be of any help.'

'Yes, Audrey is a good choice. She's levelheaded, and she knows him well.'

'The problem,' the housekeeper said, 'is that it would take at least two days for her to arrive . . . and I fear . . .'

'What?'

'This morning he asked for a razor and hot bath. We were frightened to give it to him, but we daren't refuse. I half wonder if he won't do himself harm.'

Two things were immediately clear to Beatrix: first, the housekeeper would never have confided so much in her unless she was desperate, and second, Christopher was in terrible pain.

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She felt answering pain, for his sake, piercing beneath her own ribs.

Everything she had told herself about her newfound freedom, about the death of her infatuation, was revealed as an absurdity. She was mad for him.

She would have done anything for him. Anxiously she wondered what he 129

needed, what words might soothe him. But she was not up to the task. She couldn't think of anything wise or clever. All she knew was that she wanted to be with him.

'Mrs. Clocker,' she said carefully, 'I wonder if . . . it might be possible for you not to notice if I go upstairs?'

The housekeeper's eyes widened. 'I . . . Miss Hathaway . . . I don't think that would be safe. Nor sensible.'

'Mrs. Clocker, my family has always believed that when we are faced with large and apparently impossible problems, the best solutions are found by the insane people, not the sensible ones.'

Looking confused, the housekeeper opened her mouth to disagree, and

closed it. 'If you cry out for help,' she ventured after a moment, 'we will come to your aid.'

'Thank you, but I'm certain that won't be necessary.'

Beatrix went inside the house and headed to the stairs. As Albert

made to follow her, she said, 'No, boy. Stay down here.'

'Come, Albert,' the housekeeper said, 'we'll find some scraps for you from the kitchen.'

The dog switched directions without pausing, panting happily as he

went with Mrs. Clocker.

Beatrix went upstairs, taking her time. How many times, she reflected ruefully, she had sought to understand a wounded wild creature. But it was another matter entirely to penetrate the mystery of a human being.

Reaching Christopher's door, she knocked softly. When there came no

response, she let herself inside.

To her surprise, the room brimmed with daylight, the late August sun illuminating tiny floating dust motes by the window. The air smelled like liquor and smoke and bath soap. A portable bath occupied one corner of the room, sodden footprints tracking across the carpet.

Christopher reclined on the unmade bed, half propped on a haphazard

stack of pillows, a bottle of brandy clasped negligently in his fingers. His incurious gaze moved to Beatrix and held, his eyes becoming alert.

He was clad in a pair of fawn-colored trousers, only partially fastened, and . . . nothing more. His body was a long golden arc on the bed, lean and complexly muscled. Scars marred the sun-browned skin in places . . . there was a ragged triangular shape where a bayonet had pierced his shoulder, a liberal scattering of marks from shrapnel, a small circular depression on his side that must have been caused by a bullet.

Slowly Christopher levered himself upward and placed the bottle on

the bedside table. Half leaning on the edge of the mattress, his bare feet 130

braced on the floor, he regarded Beatrix without expression. The locks of his hair were still damp, darkened to antique gold. How broad his shoulders were, their sturdy slopes flowing into the powerful lines of his arms.

'Why are you here?' His voice sounded rusty from disuse.

Somehow Beatrix managed to drag her mesmerized gaze away from

the glinting fleece on his chest.

'I came to return Albert,' she said. 'He appeared at Ramsay House today. He says you've been neglecting him. And that you haven't taken him on any walks lately.'

'Has he? I had no idea he was so loose-tongued.'

'Perhaps you would like to put . . . more clothes on . . . and come for a walk with me? To clear your head?'

'This brandy is clearing my head. Or it would if my damned servants would stop watering it.'

'Come walk with me,' she coaxed. 'Or I may be forced to use my dog-training voice on you.'

Christopher gave her a baleful look. 'I've already been trained. By Her Majesty's Royal Army.'

Despite the sunlight in the room, Beatrix sensed the nightmares

lurking in the corners. Everything in her insisted that he should be outside, in the open air, away from confinement. 'What is it?' she asked. 'What's caused this?'

He lifted a hand in an annoyed gesture, as if to bat away an insect.

Beatrix moved toward him cautiously.

'Don't,' came his sharp rebuke. 'Don't come close. Don't say anything. Just leave.'

'Why?'

He gave an impatient shake of his head. 'Whatever words would

make you go, consider them said.'

'And if I don't?'

His eyes were devil-bright, his face hard. 'Then I'll drag you to this bed and force myself on you.'

Beatrix didn't believe that for a second. But it revealed the extremity of his torment, that he would threaten such a thing. Giving him a patently skeptical glance, she said, 'You're too drunk to catch me.'

She was startled by a burst of movement.

Christopher reached her, fast as a leopard, and slammed his palms on the door on either side of her head. His voice was harsh and low. 'I'm not as drunk as I look.'

Beatrix had raised her arms reflexively, crossing them over her face.

131

She had to remind herself to start breathing again. The problem was, once she resumed, she couldn't control her lungs, which were working as if she had run miles. Faced with a hard wall of masculine flesh, she could almost feel the heat of his skin.

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'Are you afraid of me now?' he asked.

She gave a slight shake of her head, her eyes huge.

'You should be.'

Beatrix started as she felt his hand glide from her waist to the side of her ribs in an insolent caress. His breathing deepened as he discovered that she wasn't wearing a corset. His palm moved slowly over her natural shape.

Christopher's lashes half lowered, and his color heightened as he

stared at her. His hand came to her breast, lightly shaping the roundness.

Beatrix felt her legs threaten to give out beneath her. His thumb and forefinger caught at the rising tip and squeezed gently.

'Last chance,' he said in guttural voice. 'Get out, or get in my bed.'

'Is there a third option?' Beatrix asked weakly, her breast throbbing beneath his touch.

For answer, Christopher picked her up with stunning ease and carried her to the bed. She was tossed to the mattress. Before she could move, he had straddled her, all that sleek golden power poised above her.

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'Wait,' Beatrix said. 'Before you force yourself on me, I would like to have five minutes of rational conversation. Only five. Surely that's not too much to ask.'

His eyes were pitiless. 'If you wanted rational conversation, you should have gone to another man. Your Mr. Chittering.'

'Chickering,' Beatrix said, squirming beneath him. 'And he's not mine, and--' She swatted his hand away as he touched her breast again.

'Stop that. I just want to--' Undeterred, he had gone for the button placket of her shirt. She scowled in exasperation. 'All right, then,' she snapped, 'do as you please! Perhaps afterward we could manage a coherent discussion.'

Twisting beneath him, she flopped onto her stomach.

Christopher went still. After a long hesitation, she heard him ask in a far more normal voice, 'What are you doing?'

'I'm making it easier for you,' came her defiant reply. 'Go on, start ravishing.'

Another silence. Then, 'Why are you facing downward?'

'Because that's how it's done.' Beatrix twisted to look at him over her shoulder. A twinge of uncertainty caused her to ask, 'Isn't it?'

His face was blank. 'Has no one ever told you?'

'No, but I've read about it.'

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132

Christopher rolled off her, relieving her of his weight. He wore an odd expression as he asked, 'From what books?'

'Veterinary manuals. And of course, I've observed the squirrels in springtime, and farm animals and--'

She was interrupted as Christopher cleared his throat loudly, and

again. Darting a confused glance at him, she realized that he was trying to choke back amusement.

Beatrix began to feel indignant. Her first time in a bed with a man, and he was laughing.

'Look here,' she said in a businesslike manner, 'I've read about the mating habits of over two dozen species, and with the exception of snails, whose genitalia is on their necks, they all--' She broke off and frowned.

'Why are you laughing at me?

Christopher had collapsed, overcome with hilarity. As he lifted his

head and saw her affronted expression, he struggled manfully with another outburst. 'Beatrix. I'm . . . I'm not laughing at you.'

'You are!'

'No I'm not. It's just . . .' He swiped a tear from the corner of his eye, and a few more chuckles escaped. 'Squirrels . . .'

'Well, it may be humorous to you, but it's a very serious matter to the squirrels.'

That set him off again. In a display of rank insensitivity to the

reproductive rights of small mammals, Christopher had buried his face in a pillow, his shoulders shaking.

'What is so amusing about fornicating squirrels?' Beatrix asked irritably.

By this time he had gone into near apoplexy. 'No more,' he gasped.

'Please.'

'I gather it's not the same for people,' Beatrix said with great dignity, inwardly mortified. 'They don't go about it the same way that animals do?'

Fighting to control himself, Christopher rolled to face her. His eyes were brilliant with unspent laughter. 'Yes. No. That is, they do, but . . .'

'But you don't prefer it that way?'

Considering how to answer her, Christopher reached out to smooth

her disheveled hair, which was falling out of its pins. 'I do. I'm quite enthusiastic about it, actually. But it's not right for your first time.'

'Why not?'

Christopher looked at her, a slow smile curving his lips. His voice

deepened as he asked, 'Shall I show you?'

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Beatrix was transfixed.

133

Taking her stillness as assent, he pressed her back and moved over her slowly. He touched her with care, arranging her limbs, spreading them to receive him. A gasp escaped her as she felt his hips settle on hers. He was aroused, a thick pressure fitting against her intimately. Bracing some of his weight on his arms, he looked down into her reddening face.

'This way,' he said, with the slightest nudge, '. . . is usually more pleasing to the lady.'

The gentle movement sent a jolt of pleasure through her. Beatrix

couldn't speak, her senses filled with him, her hips catching a helpless arch.

She looked up at the powerful surface of his chest, covered with a tantalizing fleece of bronze-gold hair.

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Christopher lowered further, his mouth hovering just over hers. 'Front to front . . . I could kiss you the entire time. And the shape of you would cushion me so sweetly . . . like this . . .' His lips took hers and coaxed them open, wringing heat and delight from her yielding flesh. Beatrix shivered, her arms lifting around his neck. She felt him all along her body, his warmth and weight anchoring her.

He murmured endearments, kissing along her throat, while he tugged

at the buttons of her shirt and spread the fabric open. She wore only a short chemise beneath, the kind commonly used as a corset cover. Pulling down the lace-trimmed strap, he exposed a round, pale breast, the peak already tight and rose colored. His head bent, and he caressed her with his mouth and tongue. His teeth grazed lightly over her sensitive nerves. And all the while, that relentless, rhythmic stimulation below . . . he was riding her, owning her, driving the need to an impossible pitch.

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His hands cradled her head as he kissed her again, openmouthed and

deep, as if he were trying to draw the soul from her body. Beatrix answered eagerly, holding him with her arms and legs. But then he let go with a hoarse exclamation, and moved away.