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As for Beatrix, there was doubt as to whether she would marry at all. She was only half civilized, spending most of her time out-of-doors, riding or rambling through the woodlands, marsh, and meadows of Hampshire. Beatrix preferred the company of animals to people, collecting injured and orphaned creatures and rehabilitating them. The creatures that couldn’t survive on their own in the wild were kept as pets, and Beatrix occupied herself with caring for them. Out-of-doors, she was happy and fulfilled. Indoors, life was not nearly so perfect.
More and more frequently, Beatrix had become aware of a chafing sense of dissatisfaction. Of yearning. The problem was that Beatrix had never met a man who was right for her. Certainly none of the pale, overbred specimens of the London drawing rooms she had frequented. And although the more robust men in the country were appealing, none of them had the unnameable something Beatrix longed for. She dreamed of a man whose force of will matched her own. She wanted to be passionately loved . . . challenged . . . overtaken.
Beatrix glanced at the folded letter in her hands.
It wasn’t that she disliked Christopher Phelan as much as she recognized that he was inimical to everything she was. Sophisticated and born to privilege, he was able to move with ease in the civilized environment that was so alien to her. He was the second son of a well-to-do local family, his maternal grandfather an earl, his father’s family distinguished by a significant shipping fortune.
Although the Phelans were not in line for a title, the oldest son, John, would inherit the Riverton estate in Warwickshire upon the earl’s death. John was a sober and thoughtful man, devoted to his wife, Audrey.
But the younger brother, Christopher, was another sort of man entirely. As often happened with second sons, Christopher had purchased an army commission at the age of twenty-two. He had gone in as a cornet, a perfect occupation for such a splendid-looking fellow, since his chief responsibility was to carry the cavalry colors during parades and drills. He was also a great favorite among the ladies of London, where he constantly went without proper leave, spending his time dancing, drinking, gaming, purchasing fine clothes, and indulging in scandalous love affairs.
Beatrix had met Christopher Phelan on two occasions, the first at a local dance, where she had judged him to be the most arrogant man in Hampshire. The next time she had met him was at a picnic, where she had revised her opinion: he was the most arrogant man in the entire world.
“That Hathaway girl is a peculiar creature,” Beatrix had overhead him say to a companion.
“I find her charming and original,” his companion had protested. “And she can talk horses better than any woman I’ve ever met.”
“Naturally,” came Phelan’s dry rejoinder. “She’s more suited to the stables than the drawing room.”
From then on, Beatrix had avoided him whenever possible. Not that she minded the implied comparison to a horse, since horses were lovely animals with generous and noble spirits. And she knew that although she wasn’t a great beauty, she had her own charms. More than one man had commented favorably on her dark brown hair and blue eyes.
These moderate attractions, however, were nothing compared to Christopher Phelan’s golden splendor. He was as fair as Lancelot. Gabriel. Perhaps Lucifer, if one believed that he had once been the most beautiful angel in heaven. Phelan was tall and silver eyed, his hair the color of dark winter wheat touched by the sun. His form was strong and soldierly, the shoulders straight and strong, the h*ps slim. Even as he moved with indolent grace, there was something undeniably potent about him, something selfishly predatory.
Recently Phelan had been one of the select few to be culled from various regiments to become part of the Rifle Brigade. The “Rifles,” as they were called, were an unusual brand of soldier, trained to use their own initiative. They were encouraged to take up positions forward of their own front lines and pick off officers and horses that were usually beyond target range. Because of his singular marksmanship skills, Phelan had been promoted to a captaincy in the Rifle Brigade.
It had amused Beatrix to reflect that the honor probably hadn’t pleased Phelan at all. Especially since he’d been obliged to trade his beautiful Hussars uniform, with its black coat and abundant gold braiding, for a plain dark green one.
“You’re welcome to read it,” Prudence said as she sat at her dressing table. “I must repair my coiffure before we go on our walk.”
“Your hair looks lovely,” Beatrix protested, unable to see any flaw in the elaborately pinned twist of blond braids. “And we’re only walking to the village. None of the townspeople will know or care if your coiffure isn’t perfect.”
“I’ll know. Besides, one never knows whom one might encounter.”
Accustomed as she was to her friend’s ceaseless preening, Beatrix grinned and shook her head. “All right. If you’re certain you don’t mind my looking at Captain Phelan’s letter, I’ll just read the part about the dog.”
“You’ll fall asleep long before you get to the dog,” Prudence said, expertly inserting a hairpin into a twisted braid.
Beatrix looked down at the scrawled lines. The words looked cramped, tight coils of letters ready to spring from the page.
I’m sitting in this dusty tent, trying to think of something eloquent to write. I’m at wit’s end. You deserve beautiful words, but all I have left are these: I think of you constantly. I think of this letter in your hand and the scent of perfume on your wrist. I want silence and clear air, and a bed with a soft white pillow . . .