To Christopher’s knowledge, Beatrix’s melancholy had begun ten months after her late-term miscarriage of their first child. The catalyst, so far as he could tell, was the death of the baby sparrow she’d been unable to save. She’d found the chick during one of her late fall walks, when the cold wasn’t yet at its worst, but was quite chilly enough. She had stayed with it hour after hour, feeding it by hand, speaking to it, naming it. In the end, though, nothing had worked.
It was hardly the first rescue Beatrix had lost. Since their marriage nearly two years earlier, Christopher could think of four. Nature is not a very nurturing parent, she would sometimes say, leaning into him for support. But this time was different. This time, Beatrix did not lean. She pulled away.
Christopher gave Beatrix space, thinking she just needed to roam, as was sometimes the case with her. By the end of the first week, however, he decided a change in tactics was called for. He awoke her early on a Sunday morning, too early for her to question him much, and bundled her into the carriage. By the time she truly woke up and looked out the carriage window, they were three-fourths of the way from Phelan house and to Lord Westcliff’s cottage.
She looked at him and dredged up a smile. Christopher could tell it was forced, nothing like Beatrix’s usual sunny grins in the least. He put a hand to her knee only to have her pull away. She said, “Some time away. What a perfect idea, love.”
Christopher had fallen in love with her words long before he had ever seen her face. He knew how to tell when she was using language as a shield. He opened his mouth to try and persuade her to talk, but one glance at how she curved in upon herself was enough to keep him quiet. Instead he looked out the same window as she and wondered if they were seeing the same thing at all.
Christopher resorted to drastic measures only a few days later, when even the seclusion and personal magic of the cottage seemed incapable of shaking the dreariness that had caught Beatrix. He waited until Beatrix had taken off for her daily romp through the woods and rode to Ramsay House.
Merripen was the one to open the door. One look at Christopher and the man lost all color.
Christopher spoke hastily, “Bea is in good health. Physically.”
Merripen nodded, looking less than wholly reassured. He stepped back. “Come in.”
“Is Rohan in?” Christopher asked.
“His study,” Merripen said, and proceeded to follow Christopher into the designated room. Christopher knew better than to object, even had he felt like it.
Amelia was also in the study, her youngest child sleeping in a small crib nearby, the oldest one nowhere to be seen. Christopher took a moment to let the ache he felt whenever around children fade then nodded. “Amelia, Rohan.”
“Christopher,” Amelia said with a smile. “We had no idea you were in the area. Is Bea with you?”
“Yes, she—“ Christopher realized he had not thought of what to say.
“Phelan?” Rohan asked softly, carefully. When Christopher looked over at him, Rohan was watching him closely. Christopher consistently felt as though Rohan could see straight through him, down to his very bones.
“I need some help,” Christopher admitted. “Bea, she has-- Well, she has not been herself and my attempts to fix the problem have been entirely unsuccessful.”
Amelia frowned slightly. “What do you mean, not herself?”
All of the descriptions Christopher could come up with sounded ridiculous, even in his own head. As though someone has taken her heart, and refuses to give it back. “Blue, I suppose. But not in the fleeting way she sometimes has. It is… It is worse than it was when—“ Christopher could not say it, could not say, when the babe died. Instead he said, “It is worse.”
Amelia stood, looking at her husband. The two of them spoke with glances and small puffs of breath for moments on end. Finally, she said, “You’re staying at Westcliff’s cottage, I would imagine?”
Christopher nodded. She brushed past him, kissing lightly at his cheek. “Stay here, then. I shall return with her, promise.”
“She was on a walk.”
Amelia nodded. “I can wait until she returns. As you will wait for us.”
Christopher was less than enamored at the idea, but he had come for help, and didn’t see much of an option. “Of course. Thank you.”
Amelia smiled slightly and mimicked back, “Of course.”
When she was gone, Rohan asked, “Sherry, or something harder?”
“Harder,” Christopher replied. “Much, much harder.”
It started to rain a few hours later, when Christopher was valiantly attempting to help Rohan with his communications to Ramsay and Rutledge. Christopher appreciated that Rohan was trying to settle him within Ramsay family affairs in a way that felt neither overbearing nor dismissive. For the life of him, though, Christopher could not concentrate on anything but the fact that Amelia had not returned with Beatrix.
Rohan said, “You can borrow the carriage, should you like to try and find them.”
Christopher shook his head. “She is either in the woods or at Westcliff’s. If the former, the carriage will do no good. If the latter, I have no reason to be concerned.”
“I have found that having no reason to be concerned very rarely keeps anyone from it, especially when the concern regards one’s wife.”
Christopher smiled bitterly. “Indeed.” He was about to offer a game of chess—Rohan was a fascinatingly unconventional player, something Christopher relished after years pitting himself against military types—when he heard the house door opening. He was on his feet before he even realized, Rohan at his side.
When they reached the door, Merripen and Win were already there, calling for towels to dry both Amelia and Beatrix. The two were both dripping wet and shivering. Christopher bit back a curse. Beatrix might not yell at him for it, but he imagined Merripen might take him out back and murder him for sullying Win’s ears.
Rather, he took a towel when the staff came back with them, and began gently but firmly drying Beatrix off. He mumbled, “You should-- Hot bath. You’ll catch your death.”
Beatrix managed a watery smile. “You sound like Amelia. Like a mother hen.” The smile faltered and then fell away completely, giving way to tears.
Christopher blinked. “Bea? Bea, what’s—“
Christopher felt a hand on his arm and looked over to see that it belonged to Amelia, who was shaking her head slightly. She murmured, “Bath first, I think. And some tea. Then we shall talk.”
It took everything Christopher had in him to allow Amelia and Win to usher Beatrix away from him. Rohan said, “Come. You haven’t eaten all day.”
“You expect I will now?”
“No, but it will give you something new to scowl at.”
There was that. Christopher followed obediently.
The next hour and a half of Christopher’s life was arguably the longest, even including his years of service. When Beatrix came down to the parlor, she at least looked warmer, if still piqued. He wanted to go to her, to touch her, but she was holding herself stiffly in a way he’d never really seen, not even in the days after the midwife had left. He was at a loss, afraid his touch would break her open and he would be entirely to blame.
She looked at him, her eyes uncertain, as they hadn’t been for so, so long. He asked, “Bea?”
“It wasn’t the bird,” she said.
Christopher blinked. A sob broke free from her and it was all he could do to stay where he was. She covered her mouth for a moment and then forced her hands to her side. Amelia took one, her gaze on Christopher. He looked back at Amelia, feeling helpless.
Beatrix said, “Of course, I-- Of course I was sad about the bird, but it wasn’t, that is, I lost another child.”
For a moment, Christopher could not remember how to speak. When he did, what he managed—of all things—was, “How?”
Both Amelia and Beatrix looked at him as though he’d gone mad. He said, “No, I didn’t-- What I meant is, I didn’t even know you were carrying.”
Beatrix shook her head. “After the first, well, I realized it a month in, but I didn’t want to say anything. I thought, that way, if it made it to where I was showing, you would know, and otherwise, if I lost it, you never had to, but I—“ She shook her head again. “Christopher.”
He went to Beatrix then, heedless of the fact that Amelia was still holding her hand, that Rohan was still there, watching silently. She felt small in his arms, which was not something he ever thought of her as being. “Bea, my love.”
“I hadn’t meant for you to find out. You’ve-- There’s been enough grief for you.”
Christopher closed his eyes, wondering precisely where he had gone wrong sothat his wife thought he could not be trusted to support her in their shared grief. All he could think to say was, “I don’t want you going anywhere I cannot follow.”
It must have been the right thing, because she went limp in his grasp, giving herself over to him. He felt the squeeze of Rohan’s grip on his shoulder, and heard him say, “We shall be in the dining rooms,” before the door closed softly. Then, it was just the two of them.
Beatrix rarely cried, but when she did it was with her whole body. Christopher held on, irrationally afraid she would somehow fly apart if he did not keep her together with his hands. At last, when she had settled, her breaths hitching but regular, she said, “What kind of a woman can nurse ferrets and squirrels and robins and even hedgehogs back to life, but cannot keep a child alive within her?”
“As to the first, only you, my love,” Christopher said quietly. “As to the second, you well know how many women never manage to carry to term. That is-- This takes nothing from you as my wife.”
And it did not, but it did take something from them as married people, and they could both feel it. There was nothing he could say to change that.
Quietly, she told him, “I spoke with the midwife. She’s not sure, but she thinks I might be entirely incapable of-- That I’m not to be a mother.”
Christopher rubbed at her back, and without quite realizing he was going to say it, said, “It is one thing not to bear a child. It is wholly another not to be a mother.”
Ramsay and his wife arrived at the estate two mornings later. Christopher and Beatrix were working their way through breakfast, both doing their best to brighten each other’s spirits. Christopher had actually been over the estate three times in the previous two days, desperately searching for an ailing creature in need of his wife’s ministrations. So far, nature was unwilling to provide for him at his most desperate of moments.
“Cat, Leo,” Beatrix said, seeming at least genuinely pleased to see them if not full of the infectious joy to which Christopher was accustomed.
Cat swept Beatrix off to do whatever it was women did when they were left to their own devices. Christopher hoped Cat would know what to say. The woman was infinitely sensible, and like Amelia, had played a considerable part in shaping Beatrix.
Ramsay looked at him and said, “Well, Phelan, no time like the present, eh?”
Christopher hadn’t a clue what that meant, but then, Ramsay was often something of a cipher to him. Nonetheless, he followed Ramsay from the room and into Rohan’s study, where Christopher was unsurprised to find Rohan, but somewhat startled by Merripen’s presence. He would have sworn the man had left to survey the far northern tract earlier that morning.
Ramsay nodded to his brothers-in-law. They nodded back, Rohan with a smile, Merripen with something that looked closer to exasperation.
Ramsay said, “No easy way to start this, really.”
Rohan said, “Leo, offer the man a seat.”
“I’d prefer to stand,” Christopher said, his nerves tingling like they had before a battle. He took a breath, a slow draw in, then out. The last thing he needed was an attack.
“There are some among your kind that would consider Bea to be…less, given the information you’ve acquired,” Rohan started, his face calm but his eyes burning dark and fierce.
Christopher tensed even more than he had before. “If you weren’t her family, and she wouldn’t positively kill me for it, and if I so much as suspected you truly thought a word of that, I’d challenge you right here and now, Rohan.”
Christopher half-heard, half-felt the breath all three of the men standing around him let out. He tightened his jaw. “Did I pass your test?”
Ramsay sneered. “Oh, come off it. We’re Hathaways. We’re used to derision and mocking in the best of circumstances. We had to know.”
“Has she ever once so much as hinted, to any of you, that I force her to change in anyway, that I want anything other than everything she is?”
Merripen grunted and pushed himself away from the wall he’d been leaning against. “As I told you, phral. Now, I have work to see to.”
Rohan waved a lazy hand at him. Ramsay sat down after Merripen had left the room and said, “Take a seat. We have something to discuss.”
“Something else?” Christopher asked archly, but Merripen’s vote of confidence and Ramsay’s understandable defensiveness regarding his family had calmed him considerably. He sat.
Ramsay nodded. “Something Cat spoke to me about on the way here.”
“Adopt?” Beatrix asked, not looking put off by the idea, but rather as if she’d been given a new puzzle to work through. Which was more than Christopher could say for himself. When Ramsay had first brought it up, it had felt akin to a punch to the solar plexus, leaving him breathless and sore at his core. It was not even the thought of raising a child not his own—it was the acknowledgment that underscored making the decision. Rohan and Ramsay had kept at him, though, Rohan cutting Ramsay off more times than not to inject a gentler style of persuasion. They had eventually gotten through to Christopher.
Beatrix looked at him, her eyes dark in the way they went when she was reading him, digging at secrets he would prefer she never see. He said, “Only if you are—only if it is what you wish.”
She tilted her head. “Did Leo tell you what Cat does when they are in London?”
“He said she helped orphans.”
“She goes to the mills and the streets and the places where the most desperate of children end up and tries to help them into a better life. The ones she finds, they are already adults, despite their ages. She—she tries to give them back their childhood, even if only pieces of it.”
Christopher suspected that Catherine Hathaway had a whole history nobody, least of all her, ever spoke about. Beatrix’s information only cemented the suspicion. “What are you saying, Bea?”
“The war left legions of orphans, most of whom will become those children Cat can only try to save. If we could take just one or two-- I know it isn’t what you imagined. I will understand if—“
“Do not finish that sentence.” Christopher held up his hand. “I shall take the doubt from your brother and brothers-in-law, but not from you. You know better.”
She smiled at him then, the first real smile he had seen in so very long. “Why should I help birds that fall out of their nest and not children whose parents are no longer there to keep them safe? What sort of sense does that make?”
He smiled back at her, hardly able to help himself. The raw ache was still there, but there was something alongside it, the warmth that filled him whenever she looked at him, just him. “None whatsoever.”
One month later
They stayed at the Rutledge once in London, of course. Poppy and Beatrix had stayed up together until the early morning hours, long after Christopher and Rutledge had finished their cognacs and bid each other a good night.
Ramsay and Cat arrived a day later, but Cat had sent missives ahead to all of her contacts. Their party was to head to the agency at three that afternoon. Beatrix, in a very un-Beatrix-like fashion, had changed her dress four times since the morning. Finally, Christopher kept hold of her wrist when she tried to leave again. He said, “You look lovely.”
“But do I look like a mother? I-- I could meet our child today and I wouldn’t want—“
“There is not a child in the world who would not wish to go home with you,” Poppy said, confident and calm. Christopher missed Poppy’s influence terribly when they were away from London. Of course, that was more often than not.
Cat bundled Christopher and Beatrix into the hack, then climbing in afterward with Poppy. The ride to the agency took a while with traffic and was silent given how nervous both he and Beatrix both were.
They allowed Cat to speak to people and make arrangements once they had arrived. Moments later, a woman from the agency came, introduced herself as Jane, and talked to them privately about their desire to adopt. It was clear, however, that Christopher’s title and their combined wealth made the agency less concerned about their desires than normal. It was worrisome, in context, but not unusual.
Jane told them, “We have a few younger children, about two, if that would be agreeable. Babies are rarer, but certainly if you wait, they are always—“
“Two is perfect,” Beatrix told her with a smile that managed to be eager and terrified all at once.
“Very well. Please stay here.”
Cat and Poppy were allowed back in the room. Moments later, Jane came back with a young boy in her arms. He had green eyes and a ferociously unruly mop of brown hair. He had a scrape on his cheek and his hands were dirty.
Jane said, “This is Arthur. He does not speak, that we can tell, but the doctors say his vocal chords are fine, and it is only a matter of him lacking the desire.”
Gently, she let the little boy down. Beatrix was immediately on her knees in front of the child. She said, “Hello, Arthur. Did you know that in Welsh, Arthur means bear? Bears are fabulous creatures, I have plenty of books on them, some have pictures. Do you like pictures?”
Slowly, slowly, Arthur nodded his head. Beatrix grinned. She looked over her shoulder and reached out a hand to pull Christopher down at her side. Beatrix told Arthur, “He likes pictures as well.”
Arthur looked a little skeptical, but Christopher told him gravely. “It is true. I like it even better when she reads to me.”
Arthur’s eyes widened at the mention of being read to. Beatrix asked, “Do you think, Arthur, that you might like to come home with us? Let me read to you, and look at pictures with him?”
And slightly less slowly than before, Arthur nodded.