Raymond and Stefan were both waiting in the foyer. Colin walked past the two guards, then stopped. "Don't let her leave," he ordered.
Raymond immediately nodded. Alesandra's eyes widened. "They're my guards, Colin," she called out. Damn, he'd treated her like a child when he'd tweaked her nose and talked so condescendingly to her, and now she was behaving like one.
"Yes, they are your guards," Colin agreed. He opened the front door, then turned back to her. "But they answer to me. Isn't that right, boys?"
Both Raymond and Stefan immediately nodded. She was a bit piqued, and almost blurted out her opinion of his high-handed methods.
Dignity and decorum. The words echoed in her mind. She could feel the mother superior standing behind her, looking over her shoulder. It was a ridiculous feeling, of course, for the nun was an ocean away. Still, her lectures had taken root. Alesandra forced a serene expression and simply nodded agreement.
"Will you be gone long, Colin?" she inquired, her voice quite calm.
He thought she sounded hoarse. She looked like she wanted to shout at him. Colin smiled. "Probably," he answered. "Will you miss me?"
She matched his smile. "Probably not."
The door closed on his laughter.
She didn't miss him at all. Colin didn't come home until well after the dinner hour. Alesandra was thankful he stayed away because she didn't want his interference, and the man certainly did seem to interfere.
She was kept busy with her appointments. She spent the remainder of the morning and all afternoon entertaining her father's old friends. They called, one after another, to pay their respects and to offer her assistance while she was in London. Most of the visitors were titled members of the ton, but there were also artists and laborers as well. Alesandra's father had had a wide range of friends. He had been an excellent judge of character, a trait she believed she had inherited, and she found she liked every one of his friends.
Matthew Andrew Dreyson was her last appointment. The elderly, potbellied man had been her father's trusted agent in England, and he still handled some of Alesandra's assets. Dreyson had held the coveted position of subscriber on the rolls of Lloyd's of London for over twenty-three years. His standards as a broker were of the very highest. He wasn't just ethical; he was also clever. Alesandra's father had instructed his wife, who in turn had instructed his daughter, that in the event of his death Dreyson should be leaned upon for financial advice.
Alesandra invited him to stay for dinner. Flannaghan and Valena served the meal. The lady's maid did most of the work, however, as Flannaghan was busy listening to the financial discussion at the table. He was astonished that a woman would have extensive knowledge of the marketplace, and made a mental note to tell his employer what he had overheard.
Dreyson spent a good two hours going over various recommendations. Alesandra added one of her own, then completed her transactions. The broker used only her initials when placing his slips before the underwriters at Lloyd's, because it was simply unthinkable for a woman to invest in any venture. Even Dreyson would have been appalled if he'd known the suggestions she gave him actually came from her, but she understood the man's prejudice against women. She'd gotten around that obstacle by inventing an old friend of the family she called her Uncle Albert. She told Dreyson the man wasn't really related to her, but she held such great affection for him she'd begun to think of him as her relative years ago. To ensure Dreyson wouldn't try to investigate the man, she added the mention that Albert had been a close personal friend of her father's.
Dreyson's curiosity had been appeased by her explanation. He didn't have any qualms about taking stock orders from a man, although he did comment more than once how odd it was that Albert allowed her to sign her initials as his ambassador. He wanted to meet her adviser and honorary relative, but Alesandra quickly explained that Albert was a recluse these days and wouldn't allow company. Since he'd moved to England, he found visitors a distraction to his peaceful daily routine, she lied. Because Dreyson was making a handsome commission on each order he placed with the underwriters, and because Uncle Albert's advice to date had been quite on the mark, he didn't argue with the princess. If Albert didn't wish to meet him, so be it. The last thing he wanted to do was alienate his client. Albert, he decided, was simply eccentric.
After dinner they returned to the salon, where Flannaghan served Dreyson a glass of port. Alesandra sat on the settee across from her guest and listened to several amusing stories about the subscribers who haunted the floors of the Royal Exchange. She would have loved to see for herself the gleaming hardwood floors cluttered with wooden stalls they called boxes where the underwriters conducted their business. Dreyson told her about a quaint custom that had begun way back in 1710, referred to as the Caller in the Room. A waiter, he explained, known as the Kidney, would step up into what looked very like a pulpit and read the newspapers in a loud, clear voice while the audience of gentlemen sat at their tables and sipped their drinks. Alesandra had to be content to picture the events in her mind, however, as women were not allowed in the Royal Exchange.
Colin came home just as Dreyson was finishing his drink. He tossed his cloak in Flannaghan's direction, then strode into the salon. He came to a quick stop when he spotted the visitor.
Both Alesandra and Dreyson stood up. She introduced the agent to her host. Colin already knew who Dreyson was. He was impressed, too, for Dreyson's reputation was well known in the shipping community. The broker was considered by many to be a financial genius. Colin admired the man. In the cutthroat business of the market, Dreyson was one of the very few who put his clients' affairs above his own profits. He was actually honorable, and Colin considered that a remarkable quality in an agent.
"Have I interrupted an important meeting?" he asked.
"We were finished with our business," Dreyson replied. "It's a pleasure to meet you, sir," the broker continued. "I've been following the progress of your company and I must compliment you. From ownership of three ships to over twenty in just five years' time is quite impressive, sir."
Colin nodded. "My partner and I try to stay competitive," he said.
"Have you considered offering shares to outsiders, sir? Why, I myself would be interested in investing in such a sound venture."
Colin's leg was throbbing painfully. He shifted positions, winced, and then shook his head. He wanted to sit down, prop his injured leg up, and drink until the ache went away. He wasn't about to pamper himself, however, and shifted positions again until he was leaning against the side of the settee, then forced himself to think about the conversation he was engaged in with the agent.
"No," he announced. "The shares in the Emerald Shipping Company are fifty-fifty between Nathan and me. We aren't interested in outsiders gaining possession."
"If you ever change your mind…"
Dreyson nodded. "Princess Alesandra has explained you are acting as her temporary guardian during the family illness."
"That is correct."
"You've been given quite an honor," Dreyson said. He paused to smile at Alesandra. "Protect her well, sir. She's a rare treasure."
Alesandra was embarrassed by Dreyson's praise. Her attention was turned, however, when the broker asked Colin how his father was doing.
"I've just seen him," Colin replied. "He's really been quite ill, but he's on the mend now."
Alesandra couldn't hide her surprise. She turned to Colin. "You didn't…" She stopped herself just in time. She was about to blurt out the obvious fact that Colin hadn't believed her and had in fact tried to catch his father in a lie. She found his behavior shameful. Private affairs, however, should never be discussed in front of business associates. She wasn't about to break that sacred rule, no matter how pricked she was.
"I didn't what?" Colin asked. His grin suggested he knew what she was about to say.
She kept her expression serene, but the look in her eyes had turned frigid.
"You didn't get too close to your father or your mother, did you?" she asked. "I believe the illness might be the catching kind," she explained to Dreyson.
"Might be?" Colin was choking on his laughter.
Alesandra ignored him. She kept her gaze directed on the agent. "Colin's older brother visited his father for just an hour or two several days ago, and now he and his dear wife are both ill. I would have warned the man, of course, but I had gone out riding, and by the time I returned, Caine had come and gone."
Dreyson expressed his sympathy over the family's plight. Both Alesandra and Colin walked with the agent to the entrance. "I'll return in three days, if that fits your schedule, Princess Alesandra, with the papers ready for your signature initials."
The broker left a moment later. Colin closed the door after him. He turned around and found Alesandra just a foot away, glaring up at him. Her hands were settled on her hips.
"You owe me an apology," she announced.
"Yes, I do."
"When I think how you… you do?"
The bluster went out of her anger. Colin smiled. "Yes, I do," he said again. "I didn't believe you when you said my brother and my father were both too ill to watch out for you."
"You had to find out for yourself, didn't you?"
He ignored the anger in her voice. "I admit I believed it was all a scheme," he told her. "And I really thought I'd be bringing my father back with me."
"For what purpose?"
He decided to be completely honest. "To take you off my hands, Alesandra."
She tried to hide her hurt feelings from him. "I'm sorry my staying here is such an inconvenience for you."
He let out a sigh. "You shouldn't take this personally. It's just that I'm swamped with business matters now and I don't have time to play guardian."
Colin turned to his butler before she could tell him she most certainly did take his remarks personally.
"Flannaghan, get me a drink. Something hot. It was damned cold riding today."
"Serves you right," Alesandra interjected. "Your suspicious nature is going to get you into trouble someday."
He leaned down until his face was just inches away from hers. "My suspicious nature has kept me alive, Princess."
She didn't know what he meant by that remark. She didn't like the way he was frowning at her either, and decided to leave him alone. She turned to go up the stairs. Colin followed her. He could hear her muttering something under her breath, but he couldn't catch any clear words. His concentration was too scattered to pay much attention to her remarks anyway. He was thoroughly occupied trying not to notice the gentle sway of her h*ps or acknowledge how enticing he found her sexy little backside.
She heard a loud sigh behind her and knew he was following her up the stairs. She didn't turn around when she asked, "Did you look in on Caine, too, or did you accept your father's word that your brother was also ill?"
"I looked in on him."
She whirled around to frown at him. She almost bumped into him. Since she was on the step above, they were now eye to eye.
She noticed how tanned his face was, how hard his mouth looked, how his eyes sparkled green with his incredible smile.
He noticed the sexy freckles on the bridge of her nose.
Alesandra didn't like the path her thoughts were taking. "You're covered with dust, Colin, and probably smell like your horse. You need a bath."
He didn't like her tone of voice. "You need to quit glaring at me," he ordered, his voice every bit as curt as hers had been. "A ward shouldn't treat her guardian with such disrespect."
She didn't have a ready comeback for that statement of fact. Colin was her guardian for the time being, and she probably should be respectful. She didn't want to agree with him, however, and all because he had made it perfectly clear he didn't want her there.
"Is your brother feeling better?"
"He's half dead," he told her quite cheerfully.
"You don't like Caine?"
He laughed. "Of course I like my brother."
"Then why did you sound so happy when you said he was half dead?"
"Because he really is sick and isn't in league with my father and his schemes."
She shook her head at him, turned around again, and ran up the rest of the steps. "Is his wife feeling any better?" she called over her shoulder.
"She isn't as green as Caine is," Colin answered. "Thankfully their little girl wasn't exposed. She and Sterns stayed on in the country."
"Who is Sterns?"
"Their butler-turned-nanny," he explained. "Caine and Jade will remain in London until they're recovered. My mother's feeling better, but my sisters still can't keep anything in their stomachs. Isn't it odd, Alesandra, that you didn't get sick?"
She wouldn't look at him. She knew she was responsible and hated having to admit it. "Actually, now that I think about it, I was a little bit ill on the journey to England," she remarked casually.
He laughed. "Caine's calling you The Plague."
She turned around to look at him again. "I didn't deliberately make everyone sick. Does he really blame me?"
"Yes." He deliberately lied just to tease her.
Her shoulders slumped. "I had hoped to move in with your brother and his wife tomorrow."
"Now you think you're going to be stuck with me, don't you?"
She waited for his denial. A gentleman, after all, would have said something gallant, even if it was a lie, just to be polite.
"Alesandra, I am stuck with you."
She glared at him for being so honest. "You might as well accept the situation and try to be pleasant."
She hurried down the hallway and went into his study. He leaned against the door frame and watched her collect her papers from the table by the hearth.
"You aren't really upset because I didn't believe my family was ill, are you?"
She didn't answer him. "Did your father talk to you about my circumstances?"
The fear in her eyes surprised him. "He wasn't up to a long talk."
She visibly relaxed.
"But you're going to tell me about your circumstances, aren't you?"