He held his exasperation. She was looking so earnest now. "I wasn't worried about them," he replied. He grinned then and shook his head again. "Do you know, trying to get answers out of you is proving to be very difficult."
She nodded. "Mother Superior used to say the very same thing to me. She considered it one of my greatest flaws. I am sorry if I confuse you. I don't mean to, sir."
"Alesandra, my father's behind this scheme, isn't he? He sent you to me."
"Yes and no."
She quickly held up her hand to waylay his frown. "I'm not hedging. You're father did send me to you, but only after he found out Caine and his wife were ill. I don't believe there was a scheme involved, however. As a matter of fact, your father and your mother wanted me to stay in the country until they were recovered enough to escort me to the city. I would have, too, if I hadn't made all of my appointments."
She sounded sincere. Colin still scoffed at the notion that his father wasn't behind this plan. He'd seen him at the club only a week before and he'd been perfectly healthy then. Colin remembered the inevitable argument too. His father had oh so casually brought up the topic of marriage, then become relentless as he once again nagged Colin about taking a wife. Colin had pretended to listen, and once his father had wound down, he told him he was determined to remain alone.
Alesandra didn't have any idea what was going through Colin's mind. His frown was making her nervous, however. He certainly seemed to be a suspicious sort. He was a handsome man, she thought to herself, with rich, auburn-colored hair and more green- than hazel-colored eyes. They had fairly sparkled when he smiled. He had an adorable little dimple, too, in the left side of his cheek. But, heavens, his frown was fierce. He was even more intimidating than the mother superior, and Alesandra considered that an impressive feat.
She couldn't stand the silence long. "Your father planned to speak to you about my unusual circumstances," she whispered. "He was going to be very straightforward about the matter."
"When it comes to my father and his plans, nothing's ever straightforward."
She arched her shoulders back and frowned at him. "Your father is one of the most honorable men I've ever had the pleasure to know. He's been extremely kind to me, and he only has my best interests at heart."
She was sounding incensed by the time she finished her defense of his father. Colin grinned. "You don't have to defend him to me. I know my father's honorable. It's one of the hundred or so reasons why I love him."
Her stance relaxed. "You're very fortunate to have such a fine man for a father."
"Were you as fortunate?"
"Oh, yes," she answered. "My father was a wonderful man."
She started backing away when Colin came up the rest of the steps. She bumped into the wall, then turned and slowly walked down the hall to her room.
Colin clasped his hands behind his back and fell into step beside her. Flannaghan was right, he thought to himself. He did tower over Alesandra. Perhaps his size intimidated her.
"You don't have to be afraid of me."
She came to a quick stop and turned to look up at him. "Afraid? Why in heaven's name would you think I was afraid of you?"
She'd sounded incredulous. Colin shrugged. "You backed away rather hastily when I reached the landing," he pointed out. He didn't mention the fear he'd glimpsed in her eyes or the fact that she'd been wringing her hands together. If she wanted to pretend she wasn't afraid, he'd let her have her way.
"Well, I'm not very afraid," she announced. "I'm not used to… visiting while in my nightgown and wrapper. In fact, Colin, I'm feeling quite safe here. It's a nice feeling. I have been a little jumpy lately."
She blushed, acting as though her confession was embarrassing her.
"Why have you been jumpy?" he asked.
Instead of answering his question, she turned the topic. "Would you like to know why I've come to London?"
He almost laughed then and there. Hadn't he been diligently trying to find out just that for the past ten minutes? "If you want to tell me," he said.
"I really have two reasons for my journey," she began. "They're both equally important to me. The first involves a mystery I'm determined to solve. I met a young lady by the name of Victoria Perry over a year ago. She stayed at the Holy Cross convent for a spell. She was touring Austria with her family, you see, and she became quite ill. The sisters at Holy Cross are well known for their nursing skills, and once it was determined that Victoria would recover, her family felt it safe to leave her there to recuperate. She and I became fast friends, and after she returned to England, she wrote to me at least once a month, sometimes more. I do wish I'd saved the letters, because in two or three of them she made references to a secret admirer who was courting her. She thought it was all very romantic."
"Perry… where have I heard that name?" Colin wondered aloud.
"I don't know, sir."
He smiled. "I shouldn't have interrupted you. Please continue."
She nodded. "The last letter I received was dated the first of September. I immediately wrote back, but I didn't hear another word. I was concerned, of course. When I reached your father's home, I told him I was going to send a messenger to Victoria to request an audience. I wanted to catch up on all the latest happenings. Victoria led such an exciting life and I so enjoyed her correspondence."
"And did you get your audience?"
"No," Alesandra answered. She stopped and turned to look up at Colin. "Your father told me about the scandal. Victoria was supposed to have run off with a man from a lower station. They were married in Gretna Green. Can you imagine such a tale? Her family certainly believes it. Your father told me they've disowned her."
"Now I remember. I did hear about the scandal."
"None of it's true."
He raised an eyebrow over the vehemence in her voice. "It isn't?" he asked.
"No, it isn't," she said. "I'm a good judge of character, Colin, and I assure you Victoria wouldn't have eloped. She simply isn't the sort. I'm going to find out what really happened to her. She may be in trouble and need my help," she added. "Tomorrow I shall send a note to her brother, Neil, begging an audience."
"I don't think the family will want their daughter's embarrassment drudged up again."
"I shall be most discreet."
Her voice reeked with sincerity. She was a dramatic thing, and so damned beautiful it was difficult to pay attention to anything she said. Her eyes mesmerized him. He happened to notice she had her hand on the doorknob to his room. He was further distracted by her wonderful scent. The feint smell of roses floated in the air between them. Colin immediately took a step back to put some distance between them.
"Do you mind that I'm sleeping in your bed?"
"I didn't know you were."
"Flannaghan's going to move my things into the adjoining chamber tomorrow. He didn't think you would be coming home tonight. It's just for one night, sir, but now that he's had time to put linens on the bed next door, I'll be happy to give you your bed back."
"We'll change in the morning."
"You're being very kind to me. Thank you."
Colin finally noticed the dark smudges under her eyes. The woman was clearly exhausted and he'd kept her from her sleep by grilling her.
"You need your rest, Alesandra. It's the middle of the night."
She nodded, then opened the door to his bedroom. "Good night, Colin. Thank you again for being so hospitable."
"I couldn't turn my back on a princess when she's down on her luck," he said.
"I beg your pardon?" She didn't have the faintest idea what he meant by that remark. Where had he gotten the idea she was down on her luck?
"Alesandra, what was the other reason for coming to London?"
She looked confused by the question. The second reason must not have been very important, he decided. "I was merely curious," he admitted with a shrug. "You mentioned you had two reasons and I wondered… never mind. Go to bed now. I'll see you in the morning. Sleep well, Princess."
"I remember the reason now," she blurted out.
He turned back to her. "Yes?"
"Would you like me to tell you?"
"Yes, I would."
She stared up at him a long minute. Her hesitation was obvious. So was her vulnerability. "Do you want me to be honest with you?"
He nodded. "Of course I do."
"Very well then. I'll be honest. Your father suggested I not confide in you, but since you have insisted upon knowing and I did promise I would be honest…"
"Yes?" he prodded.
"I've come to London to marry you."
He was suddenly hungry again. It was peculiar to him the way the craving burst upon him all at once. There was never any warning. He hadn't thought about a hunt in a long, long while, and now, at the midnight hour, while he was standing in the doorway of Sir Johnston's library listening to the latest gossip about the prince regent, sipping his brandy with several other titled gentlemen of the ton, he was nearly overwhelmed with his need.
He could feel the power draining away from him. His eyes burned. His stomach ached. He was empty, empty, empty.
He needed to feed again.
Alesandra didn't get much sleep the rest of the night. The expression on Colin's face when she had blurted out her second reason for coming to London had made her breath catch in the back of her throat. Lord, he'd been furious. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't seem to block the image of his anger long enough to fall back to sleep.
So much for honesty, she thought to herself. Telling the truth hadn't served her well at all. She should have kept silent. Alesandra let out a loud sigh. No, she had to tell the truth. Mother Superior had drummed that fact into her.
Her thoughts immediately returned to Colin's expression of fury. How could a man with such an adorable dimple in his cheek have eyes so frigid? Colin could be dangerous when he was riled. She really wished his papa had mentioned that important fact to her before she had embarrassed herself so thoroughly and infuriated Colin so completely.
She dreaded her next encounter with him. She took her time getting dressed. Valena assisted her. The maid kept up a constant chatter while she brushed Alesandra's hair. She wished to know all the details of her princess's day. Was she going out? Would she wish her maid to accompany her? Alesandra answered her questions as best she could.
"We may have to find another lodging after today," she remarked. "I shall share my plans with you as soon as I've formulated them, Valena."
The maid finished buttoning the back of Alesandra's royal blue walking dress just as a knock sounded at the door.
Flannaghan requested the princess join his employer in the salon as soon as possible.
Alesandra didn't think it would be a good idea to keep him waiting. There wasn't time to braid her hair, and she didn't want the bother anyway. She didn't have a lady's maid while living at the convent and found the formality a nuisance. She had learned to do for herself.
She dismissed Valena, told Flannaghan she would be downstairs in just a moment, and then hurried over to her valise. She pulled out the notecard her guardian had given her, brushed her hair back over her shoulders, and then left the room.
She was ready to take on the dragon. Colin was waiting for her in the salon. He stood in front of the hearth, facing the door, with his hands clasped behind his back. She was relieved to notice he wasn't scowling. He looked only mildly irritated with her now.
She stood in the entrance, waiting for him to invite her to join him. He didn't say a word for a long while. He simply stood there staring at her. She thought he might be trying to get his thoughts under control. Or his temper. She could feel herself blushing over his close scrutiny, then realized she was being just as rude scrutinizing him.
He was a difficult man not to notice. He was so attractive. He had a hard, fit body. He was dressed in fawn-colored riding buckskins, polished brown high boots, and a sparkling white shirt. His personality came through in the way he wore his apparel, she decided, because Colin had left the top button of his shirt undone, and he wasn't wearing one of those awful starched cravats. He was obviously a bit of a rebel who lived in a society of conservatives. His hair wasn't at all fashionable. It was quite long—shoulder length at least, she guessed—although she couldn't tell the exact length because he had it secured behind his neck with a leather thong. Colin was definitely an independent man. He was tall, muscular in both shoulders and thighs, and he reminded Alesandra of one of those fierce-looking frontiersmen she'd seen charcoal sketches of in the dailies. Colin was wonderfully handsome, yes, but weathered-looking too. What saved him from being unapproachable, she decided, was the warmth of his smile when he was amused.
He wasn't amused now.
"Come in and sit down, Alesandra. We have to talk."
"Certainly," she immediately replied.
Flannaghan suddenly appeared at her side. He took hold of her elbow to assist her across the room. "That isn't necessary," Colin called out. "Alesandra can walk without assistance."
"But she's a princess," Flannaghan reminded his employer. "We must show her every courtesy."
Colin's glare told the butler to cease his comments. Flannaghan reluctantly let go of Alesandra.
He looked crushed. Alesandra immediately tried to soothe his injured feelings. "You're a very thoughtful man, Flannaghan," she praised.
The butler immediately latched on to her elbow again. She let him guide her over to the brocaded settee. Once she was seated, Flannaghan knelt down and tried to smooth her skirts for her. She wouldn't allow his help.
"Is there anything more you require, Princess?" he asked. "Cook will have your breakfast ready in just a few more minutes," he added with a nod. "Would you care for a cup of chocolate while you wait?"
"No, thank you," she replied. "I do need a pen and inkwell," she added. "Would you be kind enough to fetch them for me?"
Flannaghan ran out of the salon to see to the errand.
"I'm surprised he didn't genuflect," Colin drawled out.
His jest made her smile. "You're fortunate to have such a kindhearted servant, Colin."