He wouldn't let his sister leave. Alesandra came to that conclusion right away. But Colin was cautious to a fault, she thought to herself.
"Catherine, I believe you should stay here with us," Alesandra blurted out.
Why indeed? Alesandra's mind hunted for a reason. She turned to Jade, silently imploring her help.
Caine's wife was very astute. She caught the worry in Alesandra's eyes and immediately voiced her agreement.
"Yes, you should stay with us," she told Catherine. "Sterns will be happy to send a note to Morgan explaining a family matter has come up and you aren't able to keep your appointment."
"But I wish to keep my appointment," Catherine argued. "Mother, this isn't fair. Michelle Marie is going riding with the Earl of Hampton. Her sisters don't tell her what to do."
"We aren't telling you what to do," Alesandra countered. "We just don't want you to go."
Catherine's frustration made her voice shrill. Thankfully, Alesandra was saved from having to come up with an answer, for Nathan and his wife walked into the room, drawing everyone's attention.
Alesandra literally bounded to her feet. She hurried across the room to meet Sara.
Nathan's wife was a beautiful woman. She had dark brown hair, a flawless complexion, and eyes the color of a clear blue sky. Her smile was enchanting, too. It was filled with warmth.
Nathan introduced her to his wife. Alesandra wasn't certain if she should formally curtsy or take hold of Sara's hand. Her dilemma didn't last long. The woman was openly affectionate. She immediately walked forward and embraced Alesandra.
It wasn't possible to feel awkward around Sara. She treated Alesandra as though she were a long-lost friend.
"Where is Joanna?" Alesandra asked.
"Olivia's bringing her down," Sara explained.
"With Sterns's assistance," Nathan interjected. He turned to his wife then. "Sweetheart, I'm going back upstairs to finish with the ledgers."
Jade called out to Sara and patted the cushion next to her. Alesandra didn't follow. She chased after Nathan. She caught him halfway up the stairs.
"May I please speak to you in private for just a moment?"
"Certainly," Nathan answered. "Will the study do?"
She nodded. She followed him up the rest of the stairs and into the study. Nathan motioned to a chair, but she declined the invitation to sit.
The room was a clutter of maps and ledgers. Nathan had obviously turned Caine's study into a secondary shipping office. She made that mention to him as he walked across the room.
"Caine's library is downstairs," Nathan explained. "He won't let me inside. He won't come inside this room, either," he added with a grin. "My brother-in-law is a fanatic about order. He can't stand the mess. Have a seat, Alesandra, and tell me what's on your mind."
She again declined the invitation to sit. "This will only take a minute," she explained. "Catherine wishes to go riding with Morgan Atkins. He's coming here to fetch her. I don't think it's a good idea to let her go, Nathan, but I can't come up with a suitable argument why. She's very determined."
"Why don't you want her to go?"
She could have gone into a lengthy and surely confusing explanation that wouldn't make any sense at all, but she decided not to waste Nathan's time.
"I'm just uneasy about it," she said. "And I know Colin wouldn't let her go. Neither one of us is convinced Neil Perry is the guilty man, and until we are convinced we don't want Catherine going anywhere. Colin isn't here to tell his sister no, and her mother won't be able to sway her. Will you please handle this? I don't believe Catherine would dare argue with you."
Nathan started for the door. "So Colin doesn't trust this Atkins?"
"Oh, no, I didn't mean to imply that," she said. "Morgan's a friend of Colin's." She lowered her voice when she added, "He's taken over Colin's position in the department under Sir Richards's supervision."
"But you believe Colin wouldn't wish her to go. All right. I'll take care of it."
"What excuse are you going to give her?" Alesandra asked as she hurried after the giant.
"None," Nathan answered. He smiled then, a rascal's smile to be sure. "I don't need a reason. I'll simply tell her she's staying here."
"And if she argues?"
Nathan laughed. "It isn't what I'm going to say to her, it's how I'll say it. Trust me, Alesandra. She won't argue. There are only two women in this world I can't intimidate. My sister and my wife. Don't worry, I'll take care of it."
"Actually, Nathan, there are three. You can't intimidate Jade, Sara, or me."
She smiled over the look of surprise in his eyes but didn't dare laugh.
The duchess was waiting in the foyer to say good-bye to both Alesandra and Nathan. She had an important dinner party to prepare for, she explained. She kissed Alesandra on her cheek, then made Nathan lean down so she could kiss him, too.
Alesandra assumed Catherine was still inside the salon. She turned to go inside before Nathan so she could pretend she hadn't interfered. Catherine was already a little irritated with her because she'd broken her word to her and Alesandra didn't want to add another sin to her list.
Sara was sitting on the settee. Little Olivia sat next to her and was holding the baby in her lap.
"I do hope Joanna turns out to be as pretty as you are," Sara told Olivia.
"Probably she won't," Olivia replied. "She doesn't have enough hair to be as pretty as me."
Jade rolled her eyes heavenward. Sara smiled. "She's still young," she said. "She might grow more."
"Where's Catherine?" Alesandra asked as she crossed the room. "Nathan wants to have a word with her."
"She left a few minutes ago," Jade answered.
Alesandra immediately jumped to the conclusion that Catherine had left with her mother. She sat down next to Olivia to look at the baby.
"Was she very angry we interfered with her plans? She's probably giving her mother a fit right about now. Oh, Sara, Joanna's beautiful. She's so tiny."
"She'll get bigger," Olivia announced. "Babies do. Mama says so."
"Alesandra, Catherine didn't go home with her mother. She left with Morgan. We did try to make her change her mind, but without a valid reason at hand her mother finally relented. Catherine can cry at the drop of a hat, and I believe her mother didn't want a scene."
The baby started fretting. Sara took her daughter into her arms and stood up. "It's time for her nap," she announced. "I'll be right back down. Sterns will snatch her out of my hands as soon as he can. The man's a wonder with infants, isn't he, Jade?"
"He's a wonder with four-year-old's too," Jade replied. She turned her attention to her daughter. "It's time for your nap, too, Olivia."
Her daughter didn't want to leave. Jade insisted. She took Olivia's hand and pulled her along.
"I'm not a baby, Mama."
"I know you're not, Olivia," Jade answered. "And that's why you only take one nap a day. Joanna takes two."
Alesandra sat down on the settee and watched Jade drag her daughter out of the room. Nathan stood in the doorway.
"Do you want me to go after Catherine?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I'm just a worrier, Nathan. I'm certain it will be all right."
The front door opened just then and both Caine and Colin walked inside. Caine stood in the foyer talking to
Nathan, but Colin immediately went into the salon to his wife. He sat down beside her, hauled her up against him, and kissed her.
"Well?" she demanded when he began to nuzzle on the side of her neck and didn't immediately tell her what happened.
"He's probably guilty," Colin announced.
Caine and Nathan walked inside to join them. Alesandra nudged Colin so he would quit nibbling on her earlobe. Her husband let out a sigh before straightening away from her. He smiled when he saw her blush.
"He had motive and opportunity," Colin remarked then.
Caine heard his brother's comment. "I think we're trying to make this more complicated than it really is. I'll admit it's… convenient."
Colin nodded. He pulled out his list. "All right, sweetheart. Here are your answers. First, Neil denies that he went with his sister to meet a man calling himself her admirer. Second, he swears he didn't know anything about an insurance policy. And third, he vehemently denies being involved with Lady Roberta."
"I expected those answers," Alesandra announced.
"He wasn't much of a brother to Victoria," Caine interjected. He sat down and let out a loud yawn.
"What about my other question to Neil?"
"Which one was that?" Colin asked.
"I wanted the names of the suitors Victoria turned down. He mentioned there were three when he visited me and I thought those rejections might be important. Honestly, Colin, did you forget to ask him?"
"No, I didn't forget. There was Burke—he's married now so he wouldn't count—and Mazelton."
"He's getting married soon," Caine interjected.
"And?" Alesandra asked when Colin didn't continue. "Who was the third man?"
"Morgan Atkins," said Caine. Colin nodded. Alesandra glanced over at Nathan. He was frowning. "Colin, isn't Morgan a friend of yours?" he asked.
"Hell, no," Colin answered. "He probably wants to throttle me about now. He blames me for a situation that developed and he messed up."
Nathan leaned forward. "Would he blame you enough to come after your wife?"
Colin's expression changed. He started to shake his head, then stopped himself. "It's a possibility," he admitted. "Remote, but… what are you thinking, Nathan?"
His partner turned to look at Alesandra.
They said her name in unison. "Catherine."
"We did not panic."
"Yes, we did," Alesandra replied. She smiled at her husband while she contradicted him, then turned her attention back to her task.
Both she and her husband were in bed. Colin was stretched out on his back and had pillows propped behind his head. Alesandra knelt at the foot of the bed. She wrung out another long strip of cotton and applied it to her husband's leg. The heat from the water made her fingers red, but the mild discomfort was certainly rewarded by Colin's loud sighs of pleasure.
Her husband had barely grumbled when she had handed him the list of suggestions Sir Winters had made. He refused both pain medication and liquor, but he took the time to explain why. He didn't wish to become dependent on either and so he went without, regardless of how painful the leg became.
The hot cloths helped take the cramp out of his calf, however, and as long as she kept him busy thinking about something else, he forgot to be sensitive or embarrassed about the scars.
He certainly wasn't embarrassed about the rest of his body. He was a bit of an exhibitionist, too. Alesandra wore a prim pink and white high-necked sleeping gown and matching robe. Colin wasn't wearing anything. His hands were stacked behind his head, and when he let out another long sigh, she decided her husband was thoroughly uninhibited with her… and just as content.
"I will admit Caine did run around a bit, but only because there was the slightest chance Morgan might somehow be involved."
"Ran around a bit? Surely you jest, Colin. The man picked up his wife and tossed her into his open carriage, then went racing toward the park after Catherine."
Colin grinned over the picture. "All right, he did panic. I didn't, however."
She let out an inelegant snort. "Then I didn't see you leap over the side of their carriage so you wouldn't be left behind?"
"Better safe than sorry, Alesandra."
"And all for nought," she said. "Catherine would have died of mortification if Caine and you had caught up with her. Thank heaven Morgan took her home before her brothers spotted her. This is all my fault, by the way."
"What's all your fault?"
"I got everyone all worked up," she admitted. "I shouldn't have made your relatives so worried."
"They're your relatives, too," he reminded her.
She nodded. "Why do you think Victoria turned Morgan down?"
The switch in topics didn't throw Colin. He was getting used to the way his wife's mind raced from one thought to another. She was an extremely logical woman—damned intelligent, too—and for those reasons he no longer shrugged off any concerns she might have. If she wasn't completely convinced Neil was the culprit, then he wasn't completely convinced either.
"Morgan's up to his neck in debt and could very well lose his estates."
"How do you know that?"
"Richards told me," he answered. "Maybe Victoria thought she could do better."
"Yes," Alesandra agreed. "That is possible, I suppose."
"Sweetheart, let's go to bed."
She scooted off the bed and put the bowl of water on the bench near the window. Then she removed the wet strips from his leg, folded them, and put them next to the bowl.
"Colin, are you feeling guilty because you wouldn't listen to me when I tried to talk to you about Victoria?"
"Hell, yes, I'm feeling guilty. Every time you brought up the topic, I told you to leave it alone."
He opened one eye to look at her. "Good? You want me to feel guilty?"
She smiled. "Yes," she answered. She took off her robe, draped it over the edge of the bed, and began unbuttoning her gown. "It's good because I now have the upper hand in negotiating."
He grinned over her choice of words and her expression. She looked so serious. "What exactly do you want to negotiate?"
"Our sleeping arrangement. I'm going to sleep in your bed all night, Colin. It won't do you any good to argue."
Alesandra quit trying to get her sleeping gown off and hurried to get into bed. She thought it would be more difficult for Colin to deny her demand if she was already settled next to him. She pulled the covers over her, fluffed her pillow, and then said, "If guilt doesn't sway you, then I'll have to remind you of my delicate condition. You won't deny the mother of your child anything."