To the outside world, Colin appeared to be a man without a care in the world. He always wore a devil-may-care smile, and he was one of the most popular men in London. When he entered a room, he was immediately surrounded by friends. The women wouldn't be left out either. It didn't matter to most of the ladies that he was now married. They continued to flock to his side. Colin was a charmer, yes, but he wasn't a flirt. He usually had hold of Alesandra's hand while he went about the task of mixing business with pleasure. Colin wasn't just intelligent—he was clever, too. Most of the shipping deals were negotiated in the ballrooms. When she realized that fact, she didn't mind the late hours they kept every night.
She did do quite a bit of napping, though. She and Colin attended parties almost every night for two full months, and she was so exhausted she was seized with attacks of nausea.
She was looking forward to tonight's affair, however, because Colin's family was also going to be attending the Earl of Allenborough's bash. The duke and duchess were escorting their daughter Catherine, and Colin's brother, Caine, and his wife were also going to be there.
The earl had rented Harrison House for the ball. The magnificent marble and stone estate was almost as large as the prince regent's palace.
Alesandra wore her ivory-colored gown. The neckline wasn't overly revealing, but Colin still felt compelled to grumble about it. Her only adornment was a beautiful gold and sapphire necklace that fit like a choker around her neck. There was only one sapphire in the center of the looped chain. The precious jewel was at least two carats in size and appeared to be flawless. Colin knew the thing was worth a bloody fortune, and he didn't like the idea of Alesandra wearing it.
"I have a special fondness for this necklace," she remarked once they were settled inside the carriage and on their way to the ball. "But I can tell from your frown you don't care for it. Why is that, Colin?"
"Why do you like it?"
Her fingertips brushed the necklace. "Because it belonged to my mother. Whenever I wear it, I'm reminded of her. The necklace was a gift to her from my father."
Colin's attitude immediately softened. "Then you should wear it."
"But why did it displease you? I saw the way you frowned when you first noticed it."
He shrugged. "I was displeased because I didn't buy it for you."
She didn't know what to make of that remark. She reached behind her neck and started to undo the clasp so she could take the necklace off. Colin stopped her. "I was being foolish. Leave it. The color matches your eyes."
From the look on her husband's face, she concluded he'd just given her a compliment and not a criticism. She folded her hands in her lap, smiled at her husband, and changed the subject. "Shouldn't your partner be home any day now?"
"Will I like him?"
"Will I like his wife?"
She wasn't upset by his short answers. She could tell from his expression he was in pain. His leg was obviously acting up tonight, she speculated, and when Colin propped his foot up on the cushion next to her, she knew her guess was right.
It took all the self-control she could muster not to reach over and touch his leg. "We don't have to attend the affair tonight," she said. "You look weary to me."
"I'm fine." he said in a clipped, no-nonsense tone of voice. She decided not to argue with him.
She changed the topic again. "It's appropriate for us to give a gift to Nathan and Sara for their baby."
Colin had leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes. She wasn't certain if he was paying attention to what she was saying or not. She lowered her gaze to her lap and began to adjust the folds of her gown. "I didn't think you wanted to be bothered with the chore so I took care of it. Since you and Nathan own a shipping company, I thought it would be nice to have a replica of one of the ships made. What do you think of that idea? When they purchase a home, Sara could put our gift on her mantel."
"I'm sure she'll like it," Colin replied. "Whatever you decide is fine with me."
"There were several drawings of your ships in your library," she said then. "I hope you don't mind that I borrowed one of the Emerald to give to the craftsman."
The carriage came to a quick stop in front of Harrison House. Colin had looked half asleep until the door was opened by the coachman. Then his manner changed. He helped Alesandra out, took hold of her arm, and started up the steps. He spotted his brother and his wife walking toward them and immediately smiled.
Colin hadn't made a miraculous recovery. His smile was forced, but Alesandra knew she was the only one who realized how much pain he was in. The physician had told her that Colin should get off his leg when it pained him. Her husband wouldn't listen to such advice, however. He would probably dance the night away just to prove he was all right.
The night air was damp and chilly. Alesandra suddenly felt a bit lightheaded. Her stomach turned queasy, too, and she was thankful she hadn't eaten much of the light supper Cook had prepared. Exhaustion was surely the reason she wasn't feeling well, she told herself.
Jade noticed how pale Alesandra's complexion was and made that mention in front of their husbands. Both Caine and Colin turned to look at her.
"Why didn't you tell me you didn't feel well?" Colin asked.
"I'm just a little weary," she hastily replied. "Do quit frowning at me, Colin. I'm not accustomed to going out every night and that's why I'm a bit fatigued. 'Tis the truth, I would rather stay home every now and then."
"You don't like the parties?"
Her husband looked surprised. She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. "We do what we must," she replied.
"Explain what you mean, sweetheart."
He wasn't going to let the matter drop. "All right then," she said. "No, I don't particularly like the parties…"
"Why didn't you say something?"
He was exasperated with her. She shook her head at him. "Because each affair is a business opportunity for you and Nathan," she explained. "You don't like going out either," she added. "And that is why I said that we do what we must. I would have said something eventually."
His wife was an extremely astute woman. She'd understood his motives and known exactly how he'd really felt about all the parties he dragged her to. "Eventually?" he repeated with a grin. "When, exactly, would you have offered a complaint?"
"I would never complain and you should apologize for even suggesting I would," she countered. "Eventually would be exactly five years from now. Then I would mention my preference to stay home."
Caine smiled at Alesandra and said, "Be sure to thank your friend, Albert, for his advice regarding that investment. The stock has already increased threefold." She nodded.
"What investment?" Colin asked. Caine answered. "I mentioned I was interested in investment opportunities the last time I was over at your house, and Alesandra told me Albert had recommended shares in Campton Glass. It just went public."
"I thought you were investing in Kent's garment factory." Jade interjected.
"I'm still considering it," Caine replied.
Alesandra shook her head before she could stop herself. "I don't believe that would be a wise investment, Caine. I do hope you'll give the matter careful consideration first."
She could feel Colin's gaze on her but didn't turn to look at him. "Albert was also interested in the garment factory. He had his broker, Dreyson, go and look at the place. Dreyson reported it was a fire trap and ill run. There are hundreds of women and children employed there and conditions are deplorable. Albert wasn't about to make the owner rich or get rich himself on such a venture. Why, he would be profiting from other people's misery—at least, that's what he told me in his last letter."
Caine immediately agreed. The topic was dropped when they entered the foyer of Harrison House. The duke and duchess were waiting in a nearby alcove with Catherine and immediately motioned for Caine and Colin and their wives to join them. Business matters were put aside. Catherine hugged Jade, then turned to hug Alesandra. She noticed the sapphire necklace right away and declared she was about to swoon with envy. Catherine wore a single strand of pearls around her neck. She absentmindedly fingered her necklace as she mentioned that her violet gown would look far more smashing if her father had given her a sapphire to wear.
Alesandra laughed over the not-too-subtle hint. Since no one was observing them, she quickly took off her necklace and handed it to Catherine.
"This belonged to my mother, so you must be very careful with it," Alesandra whispered so Colin wouldn't overhear her. "The clasp is quite secure and as long as you leave it on, you won't lose it."
Catherine gave a halfhearted protest as she unclasped her own necklace and handed it to Alesandra. Jade held on to Catherine's dance card while her sister-in-law put on the necklace, then made her turn around so that she could make certain the clasp was secure.
"You be careful with this," she ordered her.
Colin didn't notice the switch in jewelry for a good hour. Sir Richards came hurrying over to greet the family, and when Caine was occupied answering a question from his father, the director gave Colin the signal that he wanted to speak in private to him. The look on Richards's face indicated the matter was serious.
The opportunity for a quick conference arose when Colin's father requested a dance with Alesandra. As soon as they walked toward the center of the ballroom, Colin went over to the director. Richards stood at the entrance of a. triangular alcove, watching the crowd.
The two men stood side by side without speaking for several minutes. Colin noticed Neil Perry across the floor and immediately frowned with displeasure. He hoped Alesandra wouldn't notice the man. She was bound to try to comer him as soon as she spotted him and demand answers about his sister. Neil would turn insulting, of course, and Colin would probably have to smash his face in. That possibility made Colin smile. His sister drew his attention then. She was partnered with Morgan. Colin clasped his hands behind his back and watched the pair. Morgan spotted Colin and nodded to him. Colin nodded back.
Sir Richards also nodded to the new recruit. He smiled, too. For that reason Colin was surprised by his angry tone of voice when he spoke. "I shouldn't have given the assignment to Morgan," he whispered. "He made a muck of it. Do you remember Devins?"
Colin nodded. The man Richards referred to was an agent who was occasionally used to transfer information for the government.
"He's dead now. From what I can sort out, he got caught in the middle of what turned into a bloody fight. Morgan said Devins panicked. They were waiting for their contact when Devins's daughter came along. It was a bad piece of luck. The girl was killed in the cross fire. Damn it all, Colin, it should have gone as smooth as ice, but Morgan's eagerness and inexperience turned a simple, uncomplicated mission into a fiasco. Bad luck or not, the man doesn't have the instincts for this line of work," he added with a nod. "Don't use him again." Colin's voice shook with anger.
"Devins wasn't the type to panic. He had a temper, yes, but he could always be relied on to use sound judgment."
"Yes, under usual circumstances I would agree with your evaluation. However, he was also a protective father, Colin. I can imagine he did panic if he thought she was in danger."
"I would think a father would react in just the opposite manner. He had more reasons not to panic."
Richards nodded. "I've told Morgan he's out. He felt bad about my decision, of course. He was sorry it went sour and admitted he'd overreacted. He blamed you too, son, because you didn't go along and show him the ropes, so to speak."
Colin shook his head. He wasn't buying that excuse. From the look on the director's face, he wasn't buying it either.
"You're right, Richards. He doesn't have the instincts."
"It's a pity," the director remarked. "He's eager to please and he needs the money. I imagine he'll marry well. He's quite a charmer with the ladies."
Colin looked back at the dance floor. He found Morgan right away. He was smiling down at Catherine as he whirled her around the floor. His sister was laughing and obviously having the time of her life.
Colin noticed the necklace Catherine was wearing then. He immediately turned to find Alesandra in the crowd. He spotted his father first, then saw Alesandra. She was now wearing Catherine's pearls. Colin frowned with concern. The switch in jewelry wasn't the cause, however. His wife's complexion had turned as white as her gown. She looked ready to faint.
Colin excused himself from the director and went to his wife. He tapped his father on his shoulder and took Alesandra into his arms. She forced a smile and leaned into her husband's side.
The waltz ended just as Colin turned to take his wife out on the front terrace.
"You're really ill, aren't you, sweetheart?"
Caine was standing with his wife next to the doors leading outside. He took one look at Alesandra's complexion and immediately backed up a step. His sister-in-law's face was turning green. He hoped to God whatever was ailing her wasn't the catching kind.
Alesandra couldn't make up her mind whether she wanted to swoon or throw up. She prayed she wouldn't do either until she was home. The fresh air seemed to help, however, and after a minute or two, her head quit spinning.
"It was all that twirling around and around," she told her husband.
Caine let out a loud sigh of relief and stepped forward to offer his assistance. Colin left Alesandra leaning against his brother while he said their good-byes, then came back to collect her. She hadn't worn a cloak, so he took off his jacket and put it around her shoulders on the way down the steps to their waiting carriage.
Feeling better was short-lived. The rocking motion of the carriage made her stomach start acting up again. She gripped her hands together in her lap and took several deep breaths to calm herself.
Colin reached over and hauled her onto his lap. He tucked her head under his chin and held her tight.
He carried her inside the town house and up to her bedroom. He left her sitting on the side of the bed while he went to fetch a drink of cool water she'd requested.
Alesandra stretched out on top of the covers and closed her eyes. She was sound asleep a minute later.