She stopped and returned to working the fabric of her skirts. Her voice quieted as she finished her sentence on a whispered, “—incensed.”
The duke laughed at the sheepish way she spoke her final word, but her mother did not seem so amused. “Oh, Alexandra,” she spoke knowingly, “what did you do?”
“Nothing!” Alex’s face and tone were the combination of perfect defensiveness. “He started it by implying that he was my keeper…as though I were some animal! He doesn’t trust me to know what’s best for myself or how to care for myself, and so I told him exactly what I thought!”
“Intriguing,” spoke the duke, his tone laced with amusement. “In private, I hope.”
“Well—you see—that’s the problem.”
Alex felt a blush rising as her father laughed out loud and her mother gasped, “Alexandra Stafford!” The duchess spoke to her husband sharply. “This is because you are too lenient with her.” Turning back to Alex, she queried, “Where did you ‘tell him exactly what you thought’?”
The answer sped out, “On the ballroom floor…but no one heard!”
“Alexandra!” her mother cried.
“No one?” This from the duke.
“Well, no one except Freddie.”
When her father spoke next, he did so with a tone of humor. “I’d lay odds that, considering Blackmoor’s opinion of Stanhope, he hardly thinks of him as ‘no one.’”
“Quite,” Her Grace added. “Yes, well, that would explain why you and Gavin had a falling-out.”
Alex was about to again defend herself when the sound of Harquist clearing his throat interrupted her. Alex turned in surprise, as Harquist rarely had much to say this late in the evening. The old man spoke quickly, “My lord and ladies, Lord Blackmoor is here and requests an audience.”
Alex turned a stunned look on her mother and father, who looked surprised and curious respectively. She spoke in an urgent whisper. “Father, don’t accept him, please? I can’t have another moment of his overbearing attitude this evening.”
“I most certainly will accept him, Alexandra,” replied the Duke. “You’ll have to suffer through. Send him in, Harquist, thank you.”
Alex sent a pleading look at her mother, who made no move to rescue her youngest child and only daughter. Alex wondered if she had enough time to escape the room before Blackmoor arrived.
“My lord,” Gavin spoke as he crossed the threshold, “forgive me for calling at such a late hour.”
Drat. No escape, Alex thought to herself as she patently avoided looking at him.
“It’s never too late an hour for you, Gavin.” Alex’s father stood. “You look like the Devil. What’s happened to you?”
Alex couldn’t help but look up at Gavin upon hearing the tone in her father’s voice. He did indeed look the worse for wear. His face was flushed and he was breathing heavily, as though he’d run all the way over. Was it possible he’d come to apologize? One of her eyebrows rose in curiosity as he opened his mouth to speak.
“I never would have bothered you had it not been a matter of particular import. You see—” Alex leaned forward. Could it be that he was going to confess his actions at the Worthington House dinner? What could he possibly be here for in the middle of the night?
“It’s Blackmoor House. I’ve been robbed.”
He stalked his rooms, furious.
This night had been essential to his plans. He’d convinced his partners that they should give him one more chance—one more day to discover what they were desperate to find. He’d promised that he would find the documents they now knew the deceased earl had possessed. He’d sworn he could complete this—the smallest of tasks. For he knew that if anyone else found the information before him, his would be the first neck placed in the hangman’s noose.
And he had failed.
He’d not given the study as thorough an inspection as he’d wanted. He’d started…he’d emptied the desk and searched the cupboards. He’d just begun to examine the bookshelves when he saw the carriage lanterns in the drive of Worthington House and realized that his time had run out.
If only the brat hadn’t come home early from the ball. If only he’d stayed out with the rest of the shallow, debauched members of the ton, celebrating in excess, as though there were nothing in the world to worry about. What could have happened to force him to come home hours before he was expected? Maybe the Worthington twit had taken ill…leaving Blackmoor little more to do than escort her home. What good manners. He sneered at the thought.
And then, in an instant, he was struck with an undeniable sense of calm. The solution was clear, as though there had never been any doubt.
Without information, there was no way he could be caught, and the boy was the only person convinced there was more to the earl’s death than appeared at first glance. The boy was the problem—always had been. The Earl of Blackmoor was all that was left between him and his safety. His freedom. Without him, no one would care to search for answers about the happenings on the Essex estate. No one would care to discover the truth about the earl’s death.
The solution was clear.
He already had Blackmoor blood on his hands. What was a little more?
Several hours later, Alex was still in the library with her mother, only now they were waiting for the return of her father from Blackmoor House, where he’d gone immediately following Blackmoor’s startling announcement.
Blackmoor’s words were still hanging in the air when the duke had leapt into action, asking Harquist to wake the footmen to take messages to the Bow Street Runners, the private investigators who kept the peace in London, and to the Marquess of Langford, who was one of the best investigators in Britain. Once the messengers were dispatched, the duke and young earl returned to Blackmoor House to assess the situation. His Grace had said little, except to tell his wife and daughter that they should not wait for him to return before retiring to their beds.
Of course, the Stafford women had no intention of taking to their bedchambers before they knew what exactly had transpired that evening at Blackmoor House and what was going to be done to find the criminal who had robbed Gavin.
Alex had alternately attempted to read, to embroider, and to catch up on her correspondence to cousins on the Continent, to no avail. Instead, now she found herself awake at quarter past three in the morning, listening to the sound of her mother’s breathing as the duchess napped in her chair.
The waiting gave her plenty of time to reflect on her behavior at the ball, at the Worthington dinner, and in the two weeks that separated the events, as well as on her own feelings for Blackmoor, which she was terrified to admit.
The more she thought about him, the more she worried—not about the burglary, which was unfortunate, to be sure, but would be addressed by Bow Street and her father. No, she worried about the fact that they were so clearly growing apart; she worried that they seemed to have a markedly different relationship now from what they’d ever had before; and she worried that she’d ruined whatever relationship they might have by losing her temper in front of Freddie. She simply hadn’t been herself since they’d nearly kissed.
They had nearly kissed, hadn’t they?
Torturing herself, she replayed the scene on the Worthington House balcony over and over in her mind, each time wondering if she’d been mad to think that he was actually going to kiss her. Perhaps all this emotion was for naught. Perhaps she’d misread the situation—after all, it was not a situation in which she commonly found herself. Perhaps they hadn’t been close to kissing. Perhaps it was all in her head. She hadn’t really wanted to kiss him anyway.
Of course she had.
Yes, she had wanted the kiss. She still did. No, she wanted more than that. She wanted him to want her back. When on earth had that happened? She sighed, dismayed by the fact that the season had made most things in her life unpleasantly complicated.
The clock in the hallway chimed half past three, marking two hours since her father and Gavin had left the house to meet the runner. Alex looked up at the ceiling, wondering how much longer she would have to wait before her father came home with news.
She had just decided to send a footman over to Blackmoor House to check on the status of the evening when she heard the front door open and her father’s rich tenor. “It’s no trouble at all, Gavin. You know that. Your mother would have our heads if we didn’t offer you a roof tonight, of all nights. More important, the duchess wouldn’t stand for anything else. This I know.”
Alex stood and walked to the door of the library to find the duke and Blackmoor handing their topcoats and walking sticks to Harquist, who had stayed awake to await his master. “Thank you, Harquist. Please have a chamber made for Lord Blackmoor, and then that will be all, my good man. You have outdone yourself this evening,” the duke said warmly.
Blackmoor chimed in, “Indeed, Harquist. Thank you for all your help.”
“My lords, it was my pleasure,” spoke the old man. “Lord Blackmoor, the crimson chamber already awaits you. Her Grace expected you would join us this evening.” With a short bow he took his leave.
The duke offered Blackmoor a weary smile. “You see? You are quite welcome here tonight, my boy.” Turning, he noticed Alex. “Still awake, moppet?”
She nodded seriously. “Of course. Mother and I stayed awake to make certain that everything was set to right.” With a nod over her shoulder she corrected herself. “Well, Mother and I stayed downstairs to make certain that everything was set to right. Awake is another matter.”
As if on cue, the duchess emerged from the library to wrap Blackmoor in an enveloping hug as she said, “I know you’re an earl now, Gavin, but even earls need some mothering now and then.”
Gavin’s arms caught the duchess in a firm hold as he hugged her back and said, “Indeed, they do.”
The duchess pulled back and placed a kiss on each of Blackmoor’s cheeks. “You will stay with us tonight.” It was not a question.
“Yes, thank you, Your Grace.”
The duchess waved away the thanks. “The crimson room is already prepared. Alexandra will remind you of the way.”
Gavin nodded. “Thank you, Your Grace.”
“Nonsense. We shall see you at breakfast.” Turning to Alex, she spoke regally, “Alexandra, I should think Gavin has had enough excitement for one evening. Endeavor not to add to it.”
A blush rose high on Alex’s cheeks as she accepted her mother’s kiss. “Yes, Mother.”
And, with that, the duke and duchess took their leave of Alex and Blackmoor, and climbed the stairs to their bedchambers.
Shaking herself out of her trance following her parents’ departure, Alex turned and re-entered the library to put out the candles and prepare a light to guide them to the upper floors of the house. The task kept her from thinking too seriously about the fact that she was, once again, alone with Blackmoor. She turned from her task, candle in hand, to find him leaning against the doorjamb, rubbing the back of his neck and watching her intently.
Alex spoke quickly, eager to fill the air. “My lord, is all well?”
He offered her a brief, tired smile. “As well as can be expected, I imagine. I confess, I am happy to be here tonight.”
“We are happy to host you. I imagine things will look better in the morning…or at least brighter.”
“One can certainly hope.”
“Neither my mother nor I would have stood for your being alone at Blackmoor House this evening.”
Gavin smiled wearily. “The two of you are an irresistible force. I shan’t put up a fight.”
In the pause that followed, Alex searched for a safe topic—one that would offset her nervousness about being alone with him. “Was much taken in the burglary?”
He shook his head quickly. “No. In fact, nothing that I could discern. It seems that the intruder was interrupted. I’m left with all my possessions, but quite a mess to clean up.”
“You mean the intruder was in the house when you arrived home?” The idea sent a chill down Alex’s spine.
“I imagine so.” Seeing the alarm on Alex’s face, Gavin stepped toward her. “But I did not see him. So all is well.”
“Aside from the fact that you could have been killed, you mean…and all because of me!”
“Because of you?” His confusion was obvious in his tone.
“Of course! If we hadn’t quarreled…” She trailed off.
“If we hadn’t quarreled, I wouldn’t have surprised the intruder and I could well be missing valuable items from Blackmoor House. As it is, I’ve lost only the time it takes to set the study to right.”
“Still…” She paused, then spoke, looking down at her feet. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s no need for you to apologize.”
“There is. I’m not just sorry about the burglary—although I am sorry about that. I’m sorry about this evening, and about Freddie, and for making you so very angry, and…for everything.” By the end of the sentence, her voice was barely a whisper.
She couldn’t look up at him.
“Alexandra. Look at me.”
With a sigh, she did, meeting his gaze as he spoke firmly. “You don’t have to apologize for any of that. I incited you…I know that now as much as I knew it then. I’m sorry that I was boorish. I should have checked my behavior long before it came to our arguing in the middle of a ball.” He reached out and took the candle from her hands, setting it on a nearby table before taking her hands in his. “I’m the one who should be apologizing. I don’t know what got into me about Freddie. I’ve always quite liked him. But this season…seeing him flirting with you…it’s been…difficult to watch. And I know my behavior has been reprehensible.”