"Dignity and decorum, Mother."


"May I come back here… if I find I don't like my new life?"

"You will always be welcomed back here," the mother superior promised. "Go now and help Sister Rachael with the packing. You'll be leaving in the dead of night as a precautionary measure. I'll wait in the chapel to say my good-bye."

Alesandra stood up, made a quick curtsy, then left the room. The mother superior stood in the center of the small chamber and stared after her charge for a long while. She had believed it was a miracle the princess was leaving. The mother superior had always followed a rigid schedule. Then Alesandra came into her life, and schedules became nonexistent. The nun didn't like chaos, but chaos and Alesandra seemed to go hand in hand. Yet the minute the strong-willed princess walked out of the office, the mother superior's eyes filled with tears. It was as though the sun had just been covered with dark clouds.

Heaven help her, she was going to miss the imp and her antics.

Chapter 2

London, England, 1820

They'd called him the Dolphin. He'd called her the Brat, Princess Alesandra didn't know why her guardian's son Colin had been given the nickname of a sea mammal, but she was well aware of the reason behind his nickname for her. She'd earned it. She really had been a brat when she was a little girl, and the only time Colin and his older brother, Caine, had been in her company, she'd misbehaved shamefully. Granted, she had been very young—spoiled, too—a natural circumstance given the fact that she was an only child and was constantly being doted upon by relatives and servants alike. But her parents had both been gifted with patient natures, and they ignored her obnoxious behavior until she finally outgrew the temper tantrums and learned a little restraint.

Alesandra had been very young when her parents took her with them to England for a short visit. She had only a vague memory of the Duke and Duchess of Williamshire, didn't remember the daughters at all, and only had a hazy recollection of the two older sons. Caine and Colin. They were both giants in her mind, but then she had been very little and they had both been fully grown men. Her memory had probably exaggerated their size. She was certain she wouldn't be able to recognize either brother in a crowd today. She hoped

Colin had forgotten her past behavior as well as the fact that he'd called her a brat. Getting along with Colin would make everything so much easier to endure. The two duties she was about to undertake were going to be difficult, and having a safe haven at the end of each day was really quite imperative.

She had arrived in England on a dreary Monday morning and had immediately been taken to the Duke of Williamshire's country estate. Alesandra hadn't been feeling well, but believed her queasy stomach was due to anxiety. She was quick to recover, for she was welcomed into the family with sincerity and affection. Both the duke and duchess treated her as one of their own. Her awkwardness soon dissipated. She wasn't given special consideration, and was even allowed to speak her own mind every now and again. There was only one argument of substance between Alesandra and her guardian. He and his wife were going to escort her to London and open their town house for the season. Alesandra made over fifteen appointments, but just a few days before they were scheduled to leave for the city, both the duke and duchess became quite ill.

Alesandra wanted to go alone. She insisted she didn't want to be a bother to anyone and suggested that she rent her own town house for the season. The duchess had palpitations over the mere thought, but Alesandra held her ground. She reminded her guardian she was an adult, after all, and she could certainly take care of herself. The duke wouldn't hear of such talk. The debate raged for days. In the end it was decided that Alesandra would take up residence with Caine and his wife, Jade, while she was in London.

Unfortunately, just the day before she was supposed to arrive, both Caine and Jade came down with the same mysterious ailment currently afflicting the duke and duchess and their four daughters.

The only choice left was Colin. If Alesandra hadn't already scheduled so many appointments with her father's associates, she would have stayed in the country until her guardian had recovered. She didn't want to inconvenience

Colin, especially after hearing from his father about the terrible past two years he'd had. She imagined the last thing Colin needed now was chaos. Still, the Duke of Williamshire had been most insistent that she avail herself of his hospitality, and it wouldn't have been polite for her to refuse her guardian's wishes. Besides, living with Colin for a few days might make the request she was going to have to make of him easier.

She arrived on Colin's doorstep a little past the dinner hour. He had already gone out for the evening. Alesandra, her new lady's maid, and two trusted guards crowded into the narrow black and white tiled foyer to present her note from the Duke of Williamshire to the butler, a handsome young man named Flannaghan. The servant couldn't have been more than twenty-five years of age. The surprise of her arrival obviously rattled him, for he kept bowing to her, blushing to the roots of his white-blond hair, and she wasn't at all certain how to ease his discomfort.

"It is such an honor to have a princess in our home," he stammered out. He swallowed hard, then repeated the very same announcement.

"I hope your employer feels the way you do, sir," she replied. "I don't wish to be an inconvenience."

"No, no," Flannaghan blurted out, obviously appalled by the very idea. "You could never be an inconvenience."

"It's good of you to say so, sir."

Flannaghan swallowed hard again. In a worried tone he said, "But Princess Alesandra, I don't believe there's room for all of your staff." The butler's face was burning with embarrassment.

"We'll make do," she assured him with a smile, trying to put him at ease. The poor young man looked ill. "The Duke of Williamshire did insist I bring along my guards, and I couldn't travel anywhere without my new lady's maid. Her name's Valena. The duchess personally chose her for me. Valena has been living in London, you see, but she was born and raised in my father's homeland. Isn't it a wonderful coincidence she applied for the position? Yes, of course it is," she answered before Flannaghan could get a word in.

"Because she's only just been hired, I can't let her go. It wouldn't be at all polite, would it? You do understand. I can see you do."

Flannaghan had lost track of what was being explained to him, but he nodded agreement anyway just to please her. He was finally able to tear his gaze away from the beautiful princess. He bowed to her lady's maid, then ruined his first show of dignified behavior by blurting out, "She's just a child."

"Valena's a year older than I am," Alesandra explained. She turned to the fair-haired woman and spoke to her in a language Flannaghan had never heard before. It sounded a little like French to him, yet he knew it wasn't.

"Do any of your servants speak English?" he asked.

"When they wish to," she answered. She untied the cord at the top of her white fur-lined burgundy cloak. A tall, muscled guard with black hair and a menacing look about him stepped forward to take the garment from her. She thanked the man before turning back to Flannaghan. "I would like to get settled in for the night. The journey here took most of the day, sir, because of the rain, and I'm chilled to the bone. It was horrid outside," she added with a nod. "The rain felt like sleet, didn't it, Raymond?"

"Aye, it did, Princess," the guard agreed in a voice surprisingly gentle.

"We're all really quite exhausted," she told Flannaghan then.

"Of course you're exhausted," Flannaghan agreed. "If you'll follow me, please," he requested. He started up the stairs with the Princess at his side. "There are four chambers on the second level, Princess Alesandra, and three rooms on the floor above for the servants. If your guards will double up…"

"Raymond and Stefan will be happy to share quarters," she told him when he didn't continue. "Sir, this is really just a temporary arrangement until Colin's brother and his wife recover from their illness. I'll move in with them as soon as possible."

Flannaghan took hold of Alesandra's elbow to assist her up the rest of the stairs. He seemed so eager to help that she didn't have the heart to tell him she didn't require his assistance. If it made him happy to treat her like an old woman, she would let him.

They had reached the landing before the servant noticed the guards weren't following. The two men had disappeared toward the back of the house. Alesandra explained that they were looking around the lower level to familiarize themselves with all of the entrances to the house and would come upstairs when they were finished.

"But why would they be interested…"

She didn't let him finish. "To make it safe for us, sir."

Flannaghan nodded, though in truth he still didn't have any idea what she was talking about.

"Would you mind taking over my employer's room tonight? The linens were freshly changed this morning and the other chambers aren't ready for company. There's only Cook and me on staff, you see, because of the difficult financial time my employer is suffering through, and I didn't see the need to put linens on the other beds because I didn't know we would…"

"You mustn't worry so," she interrupted. "We'll make do, I promise."

"It's good of you to be so understanding. I'll move your things into the larger guest room tomorrow."

"Aren't you forgetting Colin?" she asked. "I would think he'll be irritated to find me in his bed."

Flannaghan imagined just the opposite, and immediately blushed over his own shameful thoughts. He was still a bit shaken, he realized, and surely that was the reason he was acting like a dolt. The surprise of his guests' arrival was not the true cause of his sorry condition, however. No, it was Princess Alesandra. She was the most wonderful woman he'd ever met. Every time he looked at her, he forgot his own thoughts. Her eyes were such a wondrous shade of blue. She had the longest, and surely the darkest, eyelashes he'd ever noticed, too, and her complexion was exquisitely pure. Only a sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose marred her skin, but Flannaghan found that flaw absolutely wonderful.

He cleared his throat in an attempt to unscramble his thoughts. "I'm certain my employer won't mind sleeping in one of the other chambers tonight. There is a good chance he won't even come home until tomorrow morning anyway. He went back to the Emerald Shipping Company to do some paperwork, and he often ends up spending the night there. The time, you see, gets away from him."

After giving her the explanation, Flannaghan began to tug her along the corridor. There were four rooms on the second level. The first door was wide open and both she and Flannaghan paused at the entrance.

"This is the study, Princess," Flannaghan announced. "It's a bit cluttered, but my employer won't allow me to touch anything."

Alesandra smiled. The study was more than cluttered, for there were stacks of paper everywhere. Yet it was still a warm, inviting room. A mahogany desk faced the door. There was a small hearth on the left, a brown leather chair with a matching foot rest on the right, and a beautiful burgundy and brown rug took up the space in between. Books lined the shelves on the walls, and ledgers were stacked high on the wooden file cabinet tucked in the corner.

The study was an extremely masculine room. The scents of brandy and leather filled the air. She found the aroma quite pleasant. She could even imagine herself curled up in front of a roaring fire in her robe and slippers reading the latest financial reports on her holdings.

Flannaghan tugged her along the hall. The second door was to Colin's bedroom. He hurried ahead of her to open it.

"Is your employer in the habit of working such long hours?" Alesandra asked.

"Yes, he is," Flannaghan answered. "He started the company several years ago with his good friend, the Marquess of St. James, and the gentlemen have had a struggle staying afloat. The competition is fierce."

Alesandra nodded. "The Emerald Shipping Company has an excellent reputation."

"It does?"

"Oh, yes. Colin's father wishes he could purchase shares. It would be a sure profit for investors, but the partners won't sell any stock."

"They want to maintain complete control," Flannaghan explained. He grinned then. "I heard him say just that to his father."

She nodded, then walked into the bedroom, dismissing the topic. Flannaghan noticed the chill in the air and hurried over to the hearth to start a fire. Valena skirted her way around her mistress to light the candles on the bedside table.

Colin's bedroom was every bit as masculine and appealing as his study. The bed faced the door. It was quite large in size and was covered with a dark chocolate brown quilt. The walls had been painted a rich beige color, an appropriate backdrop, she thought, for the beautiful pieces of mahogany wood furniture.

Two windows flanked the headboard posters and were draped with beige satin. Valena removed the ties holding the material away from the window panes so the room would be closeted from the street below.

There was a door on Alesandra's left that led into the study, and another door on her right, next to a tall, wooden privacy screen. She walked across the chamber, pulled the door wide, and found an adjoining bedroom. The colors were identical to those of the master suite, though the bed was much smaller in size.

"This is a wonderful house," she remarked. "Colin chose well."

"He doesn't own the property," Flannaghan told her. "His agent got him a good price on the rental. We'll have to move again at the end of the summer, when the owners return from the Americas."

Alesandra tried to hide her smile. She doubted Colin would appreciate his servant giving away all of his financial secrets. Flannaghan was the most enthusiastic servant she'd ever encountered. He was refreshingly honest, and Alesandra liked him immensely.

"I'll move your things into the adjoining room tomorrow," Flannaghan called out when he noticed she was looking into the other chamber. He turned back to the hearth, tossed another log on the budding fire, and then stood up. He brushed his hands on the sides of his pant legs. "These two rooms are the larger bed chambers," he explained. "The other two on this floor are quite small. There's a lock on the door," he added with a nod.

The dark-haired guard named Raymond knocked on the door. Alesandra hurried over to the entrance and listened to his whispered explanation.

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