"I knew it," Alesandra cried out. She clasped her hands together as though in prayer and turned to frown at Colin. "Didn't I tell you so?"
Her enthusiasm made him smile. "Tell me what?"
"That Lady Victoria wouldn't elope. Your director has just confirmed my suspicions."
"Now, Princess, it's still a possibility—remote, of course—that she did marry there. Both Elliott and Laing keep accurate records so each can boast the number of weddings performed. It's a competitive thing, you see. However, they aren't the only men in Gretna Green who can marry a couple. Some less reputable gents just don't bother with records. They would fill out the certificate and hand it over to the husband. So you see, my dear, she still could have eloped after all."
Alesandra was emphatic in that belief. Colin shook his head. "She's stirring up a hornet's nest, Richards. I've told her to leave it alone but she won't listen to me."
She frowned at Colin. "I am not stirring anything up."
"Yes, you are," Colin replied. "You're going to cause Victoria's family additional heartache if you pester them with questions."
His criticism stung. She bowed her head. "You must have a low opinion of me if you believe I would deliberately set out to hurt anyone."
"You didn't have to be so harsh with her, son."
Colin was exasperated. "I wasn't being harsh, just honest."
Sir Richards shook his head. Alesandra smiled at the director. She was pleased he'd taken her side.
"If he would only listen to my reasons for being worried, Sir Richards, he wouldn't be so quick to call my concern interference."
The director glared at Colin. "You wouldn't listen to her reasons? She makes a sound argument, Colin. You shouldn't judge without knowing all the facts."
"Thank you, Sir Richards." Colin snorted.
Alesandra decided to ignore the rude man. "What is our next step in this investigation?" she asked the director.
Sir Richards looked a bit confused. "Investigation? I hadn't thought of the problem in that light…"
"You said you would help me," she reminded the director. "You mustn't become discouraged so quickly."
Sir Richards looked to Colin for assistance. Colin grinned.
"It isn't a matter of giving up," Sir Richards said. "I'm just not certain what it is I'm investigating. It's a plain fact your friend did run off with someone and I believe Colin's correct when he suggests you let the matter go."
"Why is it a plain fact?"
"Victoria left a note," Sir Richards explained.
She shook her head. "Anyone could have written a note."
"I had so hoped you would help me, Sir Richards," she interrupted. Her tone of voice sounded forlorn. "You were my last hope. Victoria could be in danger and she only has you and me to help her. If anyone can ferret out the truth, it's you. You're so intelligent and clever."
Sir Richards puffed up like a rooster. Colin had to shake his head. One compliment had turned the man into mush.
"Will you be satisfied if I can find a record of the marriage?"
"You won't find one."
"But if I do…"
"I'll let the matter rest."
Sir Richards nodded. "Very well," he agreed. "I'll start with her family. I'll send a man around tomorrow to talk to the brother. One way or another, I'll find out what happened."
Her smile was radiant. "Thank you so much," she whispered. "I should warn you, though. I sent a note to Victoria's brother and he refused to grant me another audience. Colin, you see, was rude to him and he obviously hasn't forgiven him."
"He won't refuse me," Sir Richards announced with a hard nod.
Colin had heard enough of what he considered a ridiculous topic. He didn't like the idea that the director of England's Security Section was lowering himself to snoop into another family's private affairs.
He was about to change the subject when Sir Richards's next remark caught his attention. "Princess Alesandra, after the cooperation you've given, looking into this delicate matter is the very least I can do for you. Rest easy, my dear. I'll have some answers for you before you leave England."
Colin leaned forward. "Back up, Richards," he demanded, his voice hard. "Exactly how has Alesandra cooperated?"
The director looked surprised by the question. "She didn't explain to you…"
"I didn't believe it was necessary," Alesandra blurted out. She hastily stood up. "If you'll excuse me now, I'll leave you two gentlemen alone to discuss your business."
"Alesandra, sit down."
Colin's tone suggested she not argue with him. She let out a little sigh and did as he ordered. She refused to look at him, however, and kept her gaze directed on her lap. She wanted to run and hide rather than talk about her decision, but that would be cowardly and irresponsible, and Colin deserved to know what had been decided.
Dignity and decorum, she thought to herself. Colin would never know how upset she was, and there was a bit of victory in that, wasn't there?
"Explain to me why Richards is so pleased with your cooperation."
"I've decided to return to my father's homeland," she explained in a bare whisper. "I'm going to marry the general. Your father has given his approval."
Colin didn't say anything for a long while. He stared at Alesandra. She stared at her lap. "All of this was decided while I was sick?"
"Look at me," he commanded.
She was close to bursting into tears. She took a deep breath and finally turned to look at him.
Colin knew she was upset. She was twisting her hands together and trying not to cry.
"She wasn't coerced," Sir Richards interjected.
"The hell she wasn't."
"It was my decision," she insisted.
Colin shook his head. "Richards, nothing has been decided. Understand? Alesandra is still reacting to the incident last week. Her guard was injured and she feels responsible."
"I am responsible," she cried out.
"No," he countered, his voice emphatic. "You were frightened."
"Does it matter what my reasons were?"
"Hell, yes, it matters," he snapped. He turned his attention back to the director. "Alesandra has obviously forgotten her promise to me last week."
Her eyes widened in disbelief. "Be silent? This is my future under discussion, not yours."
"I'm your guardian," he countered. "I decide your future. You seem to have forgotten that fact."
His scowl was as hot as the fire from a dragon's nostrils. She decided not to argue with him. He wasn't being at all reasonable, and if he didn't quit glaring at her she was definitely going to get up and leave the room.
Colin turned his attention back to the director. "Alesandra and I talked about this problem last week," he explained. "We decided she wouldn't marry the general. You can tell your associates in finance the deal's off."
Colin was so furious he barely noticed the director's nod of agreement as he continued on. "She isn't going to marry him. The general sounds like a real sweetheart, doesn't he? He sent a gang of cutthroats to kidnap his bride for him. A hell of a courtship, wouldn't you say? How I wish he'd come to England. I'd like to have a few minutes alone with the bastard."
Alesandra couldn't understand why Colin was getting so worked up. She had never seen him this angry. She was too astonished to be frightened. She didn't know what to say or do to calm him.
"He won't give up, Colin," she whispered, grimacing over the shiver in her voice. "He'll send others."
"That's my problem, not yours."
The fear he glimpsed in her eyes took away some of his anger. He didn't want her to be afraid of him. He deliberately softened his voice when he answered her. "Yes, it is."
They stared at each other a long minute. The tenderness in his expression made her want to weep with relief. He wasn't going to let her leave England.
She had to force herself to turn her gaze away from him so he wouldn't see the tears in her eyes. She stared at her lap, took a deep breath in an attempt to control her emotions, and then said, "I was trying to be noble. I didn't want anyone else to get hurt and Sir Richards said there was a chance for better trade agreements…"
"My associates believe the general would cooperate," Sir Richards interjected. "I personally don't hold with that nonsense. I'm of the same mind as Colin," he added with a nod. "The general isn't a man to be trusted. So you see, my dear, you don't have to be noble."
"And if Colin gets hurt?" she blurted out.
Both Sir Richards and Colin were astonished by that question. The fear was back in Alesandra's expression. Colin leaned back in his chair and stared at her. She wasn't afraid for her own safety; no, she was worried about him. He probably should have been irritated with her. He could take care of himself, and it was a bit insulting to know she was worried about him.
It was damned flattering, too.
Sir Richards raised an eyebrow and looked at Colin, waiting for him to answer her.
"I can take care of myself," Colin said. "I don't want you to worry, understand?"
Her immediate agreement pleased him. "Leave us now, Alesandra. Richards and I have other matters to discuss."
She couldn't get out of the room fast enough. She didn't even say good-bye to the director. Her conduct was most unladylike, but she didn't care. She was shaking so violently she could barely get the door closed behind her.
Relief made her knees weak. She sagged against the wall and closed her eyes. A tear slipped down her cheek. She took a deep breath in an attempt to calm herself.
She wasn't going to have to be noble and marry that horrible man after all. Colin had taken the decision out of her hands and she was so grateful she didn't mind at all that he'd been so angry. For some reason she couldn't define, Colin had decided to take the duty of guardian to heart. He had acted like a protector, and Alesandra was so thankful to have someone on her side she said a prayer of thanksgiving.
"Princess Alesandra, are you all right?"
She jumped a good foot. Then she burst into laughter. Flannaghan and another man she'd never met before stood just a few feet away from her. She'd not even heard their approach.
She could feel herself blushing. The stranger standing just behind the butler was smiling at her. She decided he probably thought she'd lost her mind. Alesandra moved away from the wall, forced herself to quit laughing, and then said, "I'm quite all right."
"What were you doing?"
"Reflecting," she replied. And praying, she silently added.
Flannaghan didn't know what she meant by that remark. He continued to stare at her with a perplexed look on his face. She turned to their guest. "Good evening, sir."
The butler finally remembered his manners. "Princess Alesandra, may I present Morgan Atkins, the Earl of Oakmount."
Alesandra smiled in greeting. "It is a pleasure to meet you."
He moved forward and took hold of her hand. "The pleasure is all mine, Princess. I've been most eager to meet you."
He smiled over the surprise in her eyes. "Yes, I have," he assured her. "You're the talk of London, but I imagine you realize that."
She shook her head. "No, I didn't realize," she admitted.
"The prince regent has been singing your praises," Morgan explained. "You mustn't frown, Princess. I've only heard wonderful things about you."
"What wonderful things?" Flannaghan dared to ask.
Morgan didn't take his gaze away from Alesandra when he answered the butler. "I was told she was very beautiful and now I know that story is true. She is beautiful—exquisite, in fact."
She was embarrassed by his flattery. She tried to pull her hand away from his, but he wouldn't let go.
"You have a delightful blush, Princess," he told her. He moved closer, and in the candlelight she could see the handsome silver threads streaking his dark brown hair. His eyes, a deep black brown color, sparkled with his smile. Morgan wasn't much taller than Flannaghan, but he seemed to overwhelm the butler. The aura of power surrounding him was probably due to his important position in society, she guessed. His title allowed him to be arrogant and self-assured.
The man was a charmer, however, who understood his own appeal. He knew he was making her uncomfortable under his close scrutiny, too.
"Are you enjoying your stay in England?" he asked.
"Yes, thank you."
Colin opened the door just as Morgan was asking Alesandra if he might be permitted to call on her the following afternoon. He immediately noticed Alesandra's blush. He noticed Morgan was holding her hand, too.
He reacted before he could stop himself. He reached out, grabbed hold of Alesandra's arm, and jerked her into his side. Then he draped his arm around her shoulders in an action she found terribly possessive and frowned at their guest.
"Alesandra's going to be busy tomorrow," he announced. "Go on inside, Morgan. The director's waiting to talk to you."
Morgan didn't seem to notice the irritation in Colin's tone of voice, or if he did notice, he chose to ignore it. He nodded his agreement, then turned his attention back to her.
"With your permission, Princess, I'll continue to try to convince your cousin to let me call on you."
As soon as she nodded agreement, he bowed to her and walked into the study.
"Do quit squeezing me, Cousin," Alesandra whispered.
He heard the laughter in her voice and looked down at her. "Where the hell did he get that idea? Did you tell him I was your cousin?"
"No, of course I didn't," she replied. "Will you unhand me now? I have to go back to my room to fetch my notecard."
He wouldn't let go of her. "Alesandra, why are you so damned happy?"
"I'm happy because it appears as though I won't have to marry the general," she said. She squirmed her way out of his grasp and went hurrying down the hallway. "And," she called over her shoulder, "I have a new name to put on my list."