"Raymond has just explained that one of the windows in the salon below has a broken latch. He would like your permission to repair it."
"Do you mean now?" Flannaghan asked.
"Yes," she answered. "Raymond's a worrier," she added. "He won't rest until the house is secure."
She didn't wait for the servant's permission but nodded to the guard, giving him her approval. Valena had already unpacked her mistress's sleeping gown and wrapper. Alesandra turned to help just as Valena let out a loud yawn.
"Valena, go and get your sleep. Tomorrow will be time enough to unpack the rest of my things."
The maid bowed low to her mistress. Flannaghan hurried forward. He suggested the maid take the last room along the corridor. It was the smallest of the chambers, he explained, but the bed was quite comfortable and the room was really rather cozy. He was certain Valena would find it suitable. After bidding Alesandra good night, he escorted the maid down the hall to help get her settled.
Alesandra fell asleep a scant thirty minutes later. As was her usual habit, she slept quite soundly for several hours, but promptly at two o'clock in the morning she awakened. She hadn't been able to sleep a full night through since returning to England, and she'd gotten used to the condition. She put on her robe, added another log to the fire, and then got back into bed with her satchel of papers. She would read her broker's report on the current financial status of Lloyd's of London first, and if that didn't make her sleepy, she'd make a new chart of her own holdings.
A loud commotion coming from below the stairs interrupted her concentration. She recognized Flannaghan's voice and assumed from the frantic edge to his tone that he was trying to soothe his employer's temper.
Curiosity got the better of her. Alesandra put on her slippers, tightened the belt around her robe, and went to the landing. She stood in the darkness of the shadows, but the foyer below her was ablaze with candlelight. She let out a little sigh when she saw how Raymond and Stefan were blocking Colin's way. He was turned away from her, but Raymond happened to look up and spot her. She immediately motioned for him to leave. He nudged his companion back to his station, bowed to Colin, and then left the foyer.
Flannaghan didn't notice the guards' departure. He didn't notice Alesandra either. He never would have gone on and on if he'd known she was standing there listening to his every word.
"She's just what I imagined a real princess would be," he told his employer, his voice reeking with grating enthusiasm. "She has hair the color of midnight, and it's full of soft curls that seem to float around her shoulders. Her eyes are blue, but a shade of blue I've never seen before. They're so brilliant and clear. And you're certain to tower over her. Why even I find myself feeling like a giant, a bumbling one at that, when she's looking directly up at me. She has freckles, milord." Flannaghan paused long enough to take a breath. "She's really wonderful."
Colin wasn't paying much attention to the servant's remarks about the princess. He had been about to put his fist into one of the strangers blocking his way and then toss both men back into the street when Flannaghan had come running down the stairs to explain that the men came from the Duke of Williamshire. Colin had let go of the bigger of the two men and was now once again sorting through the stack of papers in his hands, looking for the report his partner had completed. He hoped to God he hadn't left the thing at the office, for he was determined to transfer the numbers into the ledgers before he went to bed.
Colin was in a foul mood. He was actually a little disappointed that his butler had interfered. A good fistfight might have helped him get rid of some of his frustration.
He finally found the missing sheet just as Flannaghan started in again.
"Princess Alesandra is on the thin side, yet I couldn't help but notice how shapely her figure is."
"Enough," Colin ordered, his voice soft, yet commanding.
The servant immediately stopped his litany of Princess Alesandra's considerable attributes. His disappointment was apparent in his crestfallen expression. He'd only just warmed to his topic and knew he could have gone on and on for at least another twenty minutes. Why, he hadn't even mentioned her smile yet, or the regal way she held herself…
"All right, Flannaghan," Colin began, interrupting his servant's thoughts. "Let's try to get to the bottom of this. A princess just decided to take up residence with us? Is that correct?"
"Why what, milord?"
Colin sighed. "Why do you suppose…"
"It isn't my place to suppose," Flannaghan interrupted.
"When has that ever stopped you?"
Flannaghan grinned. He acted as though he'd just been given a compliment.
Colin yawned. Lord, he was tired. He wasn't in the mood to put up with company tonight. He was exhausted from too many long hours working on the company books, frustrated because he couldn't make the damn numbers add up to enough of a profit and extremely weary fighting all the competition. It seemed to him that every other day a new shipping company opened its doors for business.
Added to his financial worries were his own aches and pains. His left leg, injured in a sea mishap several years ago, was throbbing painfully now, and all he wanted to do was get into his bed with a hot brandy.
He wasn't going to give in to his fatigue. There was still work to be done before he went to bed. He tossed Flannaghan his cloak, placed his cane in the umbrella stand, and put the papers he'd been carrying on the side table.
"Milord, would you like me to fetch you something to drink?"
"I'll have a brandy in the study," he replied. "Why are you calling me your lord? You've been given permission to call me Colin."
"But that was before."
"Before we had a real princess living with us," Flannaghan explained. "It wouldn't be proper for me to call you Colin now. Would you prefer I call you Sir Hallbrook?" he asked, using Colin's knighted title.
"I would prefer Colin."
"But I have explained, milord, it simply won't do."
Colin laughed. Flannaghan had sounded pompous. He was acting more and more like his brother's butler, Sterns, and Colin really shouldn't have been at all surprised. Sterns was Flannaghan's uncle and had installed the young man in Colin's household to begin his seasoning.
"You're becoming as arrogant as your uncle," Colin remarked.
"It's good of you to say so, milord."
Colin laughed again. Then he shook his head at his servant. "Let's get back to the princess, shall we? Why is she here?"
"She didn't confide in me," Flannaghan explained. "And I thought it would be improper for me to ask."
"So you just let her in?"
"She arrived with a note from your father."
They had finally gotten to the end of the maze. "Where is this note?"
"I put it in the salon… or was it the dining room?"
"Go and find the thing," Colin ordered. "Perhaps his note will explain why the woman has two thugs with her."
"They're her guards, milord," Flannaghan explained, his tone defensive. "Your father sent them with her," he added with a nod. "And a princess would not travel with thugs."
The expression on Flannaghan's face was almost comical in his awe of the woman. The princess had certainly dazzled the impressionable servant.
The butler went running into the salon in search of the note. Colin blew out the candles on the table, picked up his papers, and then turned to the steps.
He finally understood the reason for Princess Alesandra's arrival. His father was behind the scheme of course. His matchmaking attempts were becoming more outrageous, and Colin wasn't in the mood to put up with yet another one of his games.
He was halfway up the steps before he spotted her. The banister saved him from disgrace. Colin was certain he would have fallen backward if he hadn't had a firm grasp on the railing.
Flannaghan hadn't exaggerated. She did look like a princess. A beautiful one. Her hair floated around her shoulders and it really did look as dark as midnight. She was dressed in white, and, Lord, at first sight, she appeared to be a vision the gods had sent to test his determination.
He failed the test. Although he gave it his best effort, he was still powerless to control his own physical reaction to her.
His father had certainly outdone himself this time. Colin would have to remember to compliment him on his latest choice—after he'd sent her packing, of course.
They stood staring at each other for a long minute. She kept waiting for him to speak to her. He kept waiting for her to explain her presence to him.
Alesandra was the first to give in. She moved forward until she stood close to the top step, bowed her head, and then said, "Good evening, Colin. It's good to see you again."
Her voice was wonderfully appealing. Colin tried to concentrate on what she had just said. It was ridiculously difficult.
"Again?" he asked. Lord, he sounded gruff.
"Yes, we met when I was just a little girl. You called me a brat."
That remark forced a reluctant smile from him. He had no memory of the encounter, however. "And were you a brat?"
"Oh, yes," she answered. "I'm told I kicked you—several times, in fact—but that was a very long time ago. I've grown up since then and I don't believe the nickname is appropriate now. I haven't kicked anyone in years."
Colin leaned against the banister so that he could take some of the weight off his injured leg. "Where did we meet?"
"At your father's home in the country," she explained. "My parents and I were visiting and you were home from Oxford at the time. Your brother had just graduated."
Colin still didn't remember her. That didn't surprise him. His parents were always entertaining houseguests and he'd barely paid any attention to any of them. Most, he recalled, were down on their luck, and his father, kindhearted to a fault, took anyone begging assistance into his home.
Her hands were demurely folded together and she appeared to be very relaxed. Yet Colin noticed how white her fingers were and knew she was actually gripping them together in either fear or nervousness. She wasn't quite as serene as she would have him believe. Her vulnerability was suddenly very apparent to him, and he found himself trying to find a way to put her at ease.
"Where are your parents now?" he asked.
"My father died when I was eleven years old," she answered. "Mother died the following summer. Sir, would you like me to help you collect your papers?" she added in a rush, hoping to change the subject.
Her smile was enchanting. "The ones you dropped."
He looked down and saw his papers lining the steps. He felt like a complete idiot standing there with his hand grasping air. He grinned over his own preoccupation. He really wasn't any better than his butler, he thought to himself, and Flannaghan had an acceptable excuse for his besotted behavior. He was young, inexperienced, and simply didn't know better.
Colin should have known better, however. He was much older than his servant, in both years and experience. But he was overly weary tonight, he reminded himself, and surely that was the reason he was acting like a simpleton.
Besides, she was one hell of a beauty. He let out a sigh. "I'll get the papers later," he told her. "Exactly why are you here, Princess Alesandra?" he asked bluntly.
"Your brother and his wife are both ill," she explained. "I was to stay with them while in the city, but at the last minute they became indisposed and I was told to stay with you until they are feeling better."
"Who gave you these instructions?"
"Why would he take such an interest?"
"He's my guardian, Colin."
He couldn't contain his surprise over that little bit of news. His father had never mentioned a ward to him, although Colin guessed it wasn't any of his affair. His father held his own counsel and rarely confided in either one of his sons.
"Have you come to London for the season?"
"No," she answered. "Although I am looking forward to attending some of the parties and I do hope to see the sights."
Colin's curiosity intensified. He took another step toward her.
"I really didn't want to cause you any inconvenience," she said. "I suggested I rent my own town house or open your parents' London home, but your father simply wouldn't hear of it. He told me it wasn't done." She paused to sigh. "I did try to convince him. 'Tis the truth I couldn't outargue him."
Lord, she had a pretty smile. It was contagious too. He found himself smiling back. "No one can outargue my father," he agreed. "You still haven't explained why you're here," he reminded her.
"I haven't, have I? It's most complicated," she added with a nod. "You see, it wasn't necessary for me to come to London before, but it is now."
He shook his head at her. "Half-given explanations make me crazed. I'm blunt to a fault—a trait I picked up from my partner, or so I'm told. I admire complete honesty because it's so rare, and for as long as you are a guest in my home, I would appreciate complete candor. Are we in agreement?"
"Yes, of course."
She was clutching her hands together again. He must have frightened her. He probably sounded like an ogre. God only knew he was suddenly feeling like one. He was sorry she was so obviously afraid of him, yet pleased, too, because he'd gotten his way. She hadn't argued with him over his dictate, or tried to act coy. He absolutely detested coyness in a woman.
He forced a mild tone of voice when he asked, "Would you mind answering a few pertinent questions now?"
"Certainly. What is it you wish to know?"
"Why are there two guards with you? Now that you've reached your destination, shouldn't they be dismissed? Or did you think I might withhold my hospitality?"
She answered the last of his question first. "Oh, I never considered you would deny me lodging, sir. Your father assured me you would be most gracious to me. Flannaghan has his note for you to read," she added with a nod. "Your father also insisted I retain my guards. Both Raymond and Stefan were hired by the mother superior of the convent where I used to live to travel with me to England, and your father insisted I keep them on. Neither guard has family back home to miss, and both are very well paid. You really shouldn't worry about them."