Alesandra was in the process of pulling a note out of an envelope. She paused to look up at Flannaghan. "What bit of nonsense?"
"It's believed by some that you and my employer are related," he explained. "They think Colin's your cousin."
"Neil Perry mentioned that," she said. "He also said that there are others who believe Colin's my lover."
Flannaghan was properly appalled. She reached out and patted his hand. "It's all right. People will believe what they want to believe. Poor Colin. He can barely stand to have me around as it is, and if anyone refers to me as his cousin, heaven only knows what he'll do."
"How can you say such a thing?" Flannaghan asked. "Milord adores having you here."
"I'm impressed, Flannaghan."
"Why is that, Princess?"
"You've just told the most outrageous lie with a straight face."
Flannaghan didn't laugh until she smiled. "Well, he would adore having you here if he wasn't so busy worrying about his ledgers," he remarked.
He was trying to save face, Alesandra supposed. She nodded, pretending agreement, and then turned her attention back to her task. Flannaghan begged to help. She gave him the duty of affixing her seal to the envelopes. Her crest was most unusual. Flannaghan had never seen anything like it. There was a clear outline of a castle and what appeared to be an eagle or falcon atop one turret.
"Does the castle have a name, Princess?" Flannaghan asked, intrigued by the amazing detail.
"It's called Stone Haven. My father and mother were married there."
She answered every question put to her. Flannaghan's jovial mood lightened her own. He was incredulous when he heard she owned not one but two castles, and his expression made her laugh. He really was a delightful man.
They worked together all morning long, but when the bell chimed one o'clock Alesandra went upstairs to change her gown. She told Flannaghan only that she was expecting more company and wanted to look her best.
Flannaghan didn't think the princess needed to change a thing. It simply wasn't possible for her to become any more beautiful than she already was.
Colin came home around seven that evening. He was stiff and irritable from sitting at his desk at the shipping offices for such long hours. He carried his heavy ledgers under his arm.
He found his butler sprawled out on the steps leading upstairs. It was Raymond who opened the front door for him.
Flannaghan looked done in. "What happened to you?" Colin asked.
The butler roused himself from his stupor and stood up. "We had company again today. The princess didn't give me any warning. I'm not faulting her, of course, and she did tell me she was going to have callers, but I didn't realize who, and then he was here with his attendants and I spilled the tea Cook prepared. After he left, a dock worker appeared at the door. I thought he was after begging, but Princess Alesandra heard me tell him to go around to the back door and Cook would give him something to eat. She intervened. Why, she was expecting the man, and do you know, milord, she treated him with the same respect as the other."
"What other?" Colin asked, trying to sort through the servant's bizarre explanation.
"The prince regent."
"He was here? I'll be damned."
Flannaghan sat back down on the steps. "If my uncle Sterns gets wind of my disgrace, he'll box my ears."
"I spilled tea on the prince regent's jacket."
"Good for you," Colin replied. "When I can afford it, you're getting a raise."
Flannaghan smiled. He'd forgotten how much his employer disliked the prince regent. "I was quite rattled by his presence, but Princess Alesandra acted as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening. She was very dignified. The prince regent wasn't his usual pompous self either. He acted like a besotted schoolboy. It was apparent to me he has great affection for the princess."
Alesandra appeared at the landing above. Colin looked up and immediately frowned. A tightness in his chest made him realize he'd quit breathing.
She looked absolutely beautiful. She was dressed in a silver and white gown that shimmered in the light when she moved. The cut of the dress wasn't overly revealing, but there was still a hint of flesh visible at the top of her neckline.
Her hair was pinned up with a thin white ribbon threaded through her curls. Wisps of hair curled at the base of her neck.
She looked breathtakingly beautiful. Every nerve in Colin's body reacted to the sight of her. He wanted to take her into his arms, kiss her, taste her…
"Where the hell do you think you're going?" He snapped out the question in a general's tone of voice. Anger hid his lust—or so he hoped.
Her eyes widened over the hostility in his demand. "To the opera," she answered. "The prince regent insisted I take his box tonight. I'm taking Raymond with me."
"You're staying home, Alesandra," Colin stated.
"Princess, you cannot expect me to go inside the opera and sit near the prince regent," Raymond said, somewhat plaintively for such a large, fearsome man.
"He won't be there, Raymond," she explained.
"I still can't go inside. It wouldn't be proper. I'll wait by the carriage."
"You aren't going anywhere without me," Colin announced. He added a hard glare so she would understand he meant what he said.
Her smile was radiant. He realized then she'd had no intention of dragging Raymond into the opera house. She'd cleverly tricked him into accommodating her.
"Do hurry and change, Colin. We don't want to be late."
"I hate the opera."
He sounded like a little boy complaining about having to eat his vegetables. She didn't have a bit of sympathy for him. She didn't particularly like the opera either, but she wasn't going to admit that fact to him. He'd want to stay home then, and she really couldn't insult the prince regent by not using his box.
"Too bad, Colin. You already gave me your promise to go. Do hurry."
Alesandra lifted the hem of her gown and came down the stairs. Flannaghan watched her with his mouth gaping open. She smiled when she passed him.
"She moves like a princess," Flannaghan whispered to his employer.
Colin smiled. "She is a princess, Flannaghan."
Colin suddenly quit smiling. Alesandra's dress was a little lower on top than he'd realized. Up close he could see the swell of her bosom.
"You're going to have to change your gown before we go anywhere," he announced.
"Why would I want to change?"
He muttered something under his breath. "This gown is too… enticing. Do you want every man there boldly staring at you?"
"Do you think they will?"
She smiled. "Good."
"You want to attract their notice?" He sounded incredulous.
She looked exasperated. "Of course I want to attract their notice. I'm trying to find a husband, remember?"
"You're changing your gown."
"I'll keep my cloak on."
Flannaghan's neck was beginning to ache from turning his head back and forth during the heated debate.
"You're being ridiculous," she announced. "And acting terribly old-fashioned."
"I'm your guardian. I'll act any damned way I want to act."
"Colin, be reasonable about this. Valena went to a great deal of trouble and time to get all the wrinkles out."
He didn't let her finish. "You're wasting time."
She shook her head at him. She wasn't going to give in, no matter how intimidating his scowl became.
He walked over to her. Before she knew what he was going to do, he grabbed hold of the bodice of her dress and tried to pull the material up to her chin.
"Every time I think your dress needs some adjustment, I'm going to haul it up, just like this, no matter where we are."
"I thought you might."
As soon as he let go of her, she turned and ran up the steps. "You're a horrible man, Colin."
He didn't mind her insult. He'd gotten his way, and that was all that mattered. He'd be damned if he'd let the unattached predators ogle her.
It didn't take him long to wash and dress in formal attire. He was back downstairs in less than fifteen minutes.
She took much longer. She was coming down the stairs again when Colin sauntered in from the dining room. He was eating a green apple. He stopped when he saw her on the staircase. His gaze lingered on the bodice of her gown for a long minute, then he nodded his approval. He smiled with satisfaction. She thought he might very well be gloating over his victory. It was apparent he found the forest green gown suitable. It wasn't, though. The cut of the bodice was a deep V, but she'd cleverly stuffed a piece of lace down the middle to appease her guardian.
She didn't choose the gown to deliberately provoke Colin. The dress was the only other option left to her. The other gowns were too wrinkled to wear, and Valena had only just finished getting the creases out of this one.
Colin certainly looked dashing. Black suited him. He tugged on his starched white cravat and devoured his apple at the same time.
He still looked incredibly sexy. The fabric of his jacket was stretched tight across his broad shoulders. His pants were indecently snug, and Alesandra couldn't help but notice the bulge of muscle in his thighs.
Colin seemed preoccupied for most of the ride to their destination. Alesandra sat across from him in the small carriage with her hands folded together in her lap. His legs crowded her into one corner, and in the darkness his size was far more intimidating. So was his silence.
"I didn't realize you were friends with the prince regent," he remarked.
"He isn't my friend. I only just met him today."
"Flannaghan told me the prince was taken with you."
She shook her head. "He was taken with what I am, not who I am."
She let out a little sigh before answering. "It was an official call, Colin. The prince came because I'm a princess. He doesn't know me personally at all. Now do you understand?"
He nodded. "Most of society will embrace you because of what you are, Alesandra. I'm pleased you understand the shallowness that may exist in the friendships offered to you. It shows you have maturity."
"Maturity? No, it shows cynicism."
He smiled. "That too."
Several minutes passed in silence. Then Colin spoke again. "Did you like him?"
"I don't know him well enough to form an opinion."
"You're hedging, Alesandra. Tell me the truth."
"I was being diplomatic," she replied. "But I'll give you an honest answer. No, I didn't particularly like him. There, are you happy now?"
"Yes. Your answer proves you're a good judge of character."
"Perhaps the prince has a kind heart," she remarked, feeling guilty because she'd admitted she hadn't liked him.
"Why don't you like him?"
"He broke his word—a promise made to my partner," Colin explained. "The prince regent held a large treasury belonging to Nathan's wife, Sara, and after a time he decided to keep it for himself. It was dishonorable."
"That is shameful," she agreed.
"Why didn't you like him?"
"He seemed… full of himself," she admitted.
Colin snorted. "He's full of…" He stopped himself from using the crude word he was thinking of and substituted another. "Vinegar."
The carriage came to a rocking stop in front of the Royal Opera House. Alesandra adjusted her white gloves, her attention fully on Colin. "I never would have allowed him entrance into your home if I'd known what he'd done to your partner. I apologize to you, Colin. Your home is your castle, where only friends should be invited."
"You would have refused him?"
She nodded. He winked at her. Her heart immediately started pounding a wild beat. Dear God, he was a charmer.
Raymond had ridden with the driver in front of the carriage. He jumped down from his perch and opened the door for them.
Colin got out first, then turned to assist Alesandra. Her cloak opened when she reached for his hand. The handkerchief she'd stuffed into the bodice shifted, and when she stepped to the pavement, the lace fell out.
He caught it. He took one look at her provocative neckline and started glaring at her.
He was furious with her. She tried to back away from his frown and almost fell over the curb. Colin grabbed her, then turned her around until she was facing the carriage door. He stuffed the bit of lace back into her dress.
She suffered through the humiliation, matching him frown for frown. Their gazes held for a long minute before she finally gave in and turned away.
Colin adjusted her cloak over her shoulders, hauled her into his side, and turned back to the steps. She guessed she should be thankful he hadn't made a scene, and she didn't think anyone had noticed their little confrontation. He had blocked her from the view of the crowd going inside the opera house. Yes, she should have been thankful. She wasn't, though. Colin was acting like an old man.
"You've spent too much time with your ledgers, sir. You really need to get out more often. Then you'd notice my gown isn't at all inappropriate. It's actually quite prim."
She didn't appreciate his snort of disbelief. She felt like kicking him. "You've taken this duty as guardian to heart, haven't you?"
He kept his arm anchored on her shoulders as they went up the steps. She kept trying to shrug him away from her. Colin was determined to be possessive, however, and she finally gave up.
"Alesandra, my father entrusted me with your care. It doesn't matter if I like this duty or not. I'm your guardian and you'll do as I order."
"It's a pity you aren't more like your father. He's such a sweet, understanding man. You could learn a lesson or two from him."
"When you quit dressing like a trollop, I'll be more understanding," he promised.
Her gasp sounded like a hiccup. "No one has ever dared to call me a trollop."
Colin didn't remark on that outraged statement. He did smile, though.