“You have to stop thinking of me as your sister, Gavin.”
He offered her a half smile. “That seems to be the singular problem.” Confusion clouded her emerald eyes as he continued, “You see, I haven’t been thinking of you as my sister. In fact, the way I’ve been thinking when it comes to you is the very opposite of brotherly.”
The words hung in the air and Alex’s eyes widened as understanding dawned.
He offered a self-deprecating smile. “I see you take my meaning.” He let go of her hands and ran his fingers through his hair as though he didn’t know what to do with them. “You needn’t worry. I’m not going to act on my feelings.”
“Why?” Alex asked the question without thinking.
“If only I knew why. It began at the start of the season, and at first I chalked it up to my missing you while I was in mourning. Which I did. But instead of the feelings dissipating as I spent time in your company”—he slashed a hand through the air in frustration—“they only seemed to grow stronger.”
Alex looked up at him, meeting his frustrated grey eyes. “Not why are you feeling the way you are, Gavin. Why aren’t you going to act on those feelings?”
He froze. Neither of them moved, each afraid to take the next step. The first step.
The moment stretched out into what seemed like an eternity and Alex began to feel awkward, as though she had said the wrong thing. “I—I’m sorry. I—I don’t know what prompted me to ask such a thing.” She started to take a step backward.
“No.” The word was soft, but brooked no refusal. She went still as he continued, “There are a dozen reasons why I shouldn’t act on them.” He lifted his hands to cradle her face between them. “A hundred reasons why I should turn around and walk out of this room.” He leaned down until he was a hairbreadth away from her. “But I’m through listening to them.” And, with that, he kissed her.
The instant she felt his lips touch hers, feather soft, Alex couldn’t stop herself from returning the kiss, from reveling in it. His lips were warm and firm, and the feeling of them so wonderful that all thought escaped her. This was it, her first kiss—and with such an unexpected person in such an unexpected place at such an unexpected time. But it was perfect…and she never wanted it to end. She wanted to stand here forever, basking in the glow of this perfect moment—the feel of his hands on her cheeks, the warmth of his body, the sound of his breathing, the way her head was spinning.
Of course, it did end. Too soon. But, when it was over, he placed his forehead against her own, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, as though steadying himself before letting her go.
“I’ve been waiting to do that for weeks,” he said with surprise in his voice. “I’m rather shocked that it happened.”
She smiled shyly. “No more shocked than I, I imagine.”
“So you don’t want to stomp on my foot and run from the room?”
“Not at all. I rather enjoyed the whole experience.”
He chuckled. “I’m happy to hear that.”
She blushed at his laugh and looked down at the floor, wondering what the proper etiquette was for this particular situation. Fast on the heels of that question came the realization that there was absolutely no code of conduct to follow, as their behavior had been highly improper. What happened now?
The question floated through her mind just as the clock in the hallway struck four. She met Gavin’s gaze with a startled one of her own.
He responded by picking up the candle from where he’d set it earlier and telling her, “I think it’s time to take to our beds, Lady Alexandra. This has been a particularly full evening.”
She hid the disappointment from her reply. “Most certainly. You must be exhausted.”
He raised an eyebrow at her statement and turned toward the door, “On the contrary, I seem to have an excess of energy now, thanks to you.”
She blushed again, thankful for the dim light. What had gotten into her?
He waited for her to pass through the doorway into the foyer before following her with the light. At the foot of the stairs, just before Alex began her ascent, he spoke quietly, “Hold.” She looked back at him curiously as he whispered, “I didn’t accept the chance to properly escort you home tonight, Alex. At least let me offer you a proper companion now.”
He held out his hand, and she took it. They climbed the stairs in silence.
Much later, when Alex was lying in bed, unable to sleep for the pounding of her heart, she imagined she could still feel the warmth of his palm pressed against her own.
Her first kiss. With Gavin. The words tumbled over and over in her head as she replayed the moment, the sound of their breathing, the movement of his hands, the way the firelight caught the gold in his hair as it fell across his forehead when he leaned down to her.
She sighed and whispered his name in the darkness of her bedchamber before turning onto her side and looking out the window at the moonlit treetops beyond. She felt the energy of the evening coursing through her, keeping her from sleep. Her mind was racing; there was so much to think about—so much that had changed. Gavin would never be just a friend again. She would never think of him as a brother again. He would always be the first man she’d kissed.
Now she understood what everyone meant when they talked about romance…this feeling had launched the thousand ships of the Trojan War, this feeling had sent Guinevere into the arms of Lancelot, this feeling had driven Fitzwilliam Darcy to confess his love for Elizabeth Bennett. She giggled in the darkness at her silliness, giddy with excitement. She’d scoffed at it for years…she’d never believed that this kind of wonderful, rapturous romance could exist beyond legend. And yet, that evening, in Gavin’s arms, she’d had a taste of it.
Clutching her pillow to her face, she screamed in excitement, then rolled onto her back with a sigh, imagining Gavin sleeping just a few rooms away. She wondered what tomorrow would bring.
So let me see if I fully understand…” Ella was sitting on Alex’s bed, watching as Eliza carefully curled a long strand of Alex’s hair and arranged it atop her head. “Blackmoor arrived home earlier than usual and surprised the intruder, leaving him to run off without actually removing anything from Blackmoor House?”
“Yes. That’s precisely what we think happened.”
The three girls were in Alex’s bedchamber, preparing for the long-awaited Worthington Ball. While, traditionally, they all would have dressed at home and arrived separately, they had agreed that, tonight, they would dress together. Eliza, whom they all adored, had agreed to share her genius for hair and maquillage with them that evening, so Vivi and Ella had arrived, gowns in tow, for tea and were now waiting patiently for her to finish with Alex’s hair and move on to them.
Alex didn’t fool herself into thinking that she hadn’t had an ulterior motive for inviting them this evening, as it had been several days since her kiss with Blackmoor and, while she had seen him a handful of times, the experience had not been repeated. It wasn’t that he’d been standoffish. On the contrary, everything with Blackmoor seemed to be restored to the way it had been for years. He arrived at Worthington House for tea, or supper, or dinner, jested with her brothers, chatted with her parents, and was generally his usual charming self.
But not a mention of the kiss! No attempt to repeat it! No reference to it whatsoever, which both frustrated and confused her, leaving her wondering if she was imagining the kiss meant more than it did—after all, Blackmoor had had a particularly difficult time of it that evening, and perhaps the kiss had been a strange occurrence. She’d been running this possibility over and over in her mind and, finally, had decided it was time to tell her friends. She was tired of her stomach twisting every time he entered the room or she heard his voice, irritated by how surly she was beginning to feel about the whole situation, and she needed a dose of objectivity to regain her sanity.
Of course, she hadn’t told them yet. She wasn’t quite sure how one announced to one’s friends and one’s maid that she’d been kissed. The whole experience made her feel rather like a fish out of water. The idea of simply blurting it out in the middle of conversation was distasteful—she didn’t want to make a scene, especially if it wasn’t an event of import. So, instead, she had told them about the burglary at Blackmoor House, which allowed her to shore up the courage to tell them the rest.
Vivi spoke from her place on the settee on the opposite side of Alex’s dressing table. “My father said the house was thoroughly ransacked. Did you see?”
“No. Though Gavin said that the damage was mostly confined to the study. He seems to think that the intruder wasn’t simply looking for something of value. He was looking for something specific.”
“My father said the same,” Vivi agreed, “but it seems that no one knows what, exactly, someone would be looking for there…so no one can be sure if the item in question was indeed taken.”
“Perhaps it was something that belonged to the former earl?” Ella surmised.
“Perhaps. But wouldn’t Gavin know if there was something of importance that his father possessed?” Alex wondered as Eliza fussed over another curl.
“It’s possible.” Ella ran her hand back and forth over the coverlet. “But the earl’s death was such a surprise, maybe not.”
“Well, what is most important at this point is that Blackmoor is safe. Between my father and Bow Street, someone will get to the bottom of it.” Vivi stood and walked to stand behind Eliza, watching her work as she asked Alex. “Did he sleep at Blackmoor House that night?”
Alex shook her head, garnering a stern look from Eliza as the maid tugged on a curl a touch too firmly. “No. My mother never would have stood for that. He came here after the investigators left.”
“Poor Blackmoor, it must have been a difficult night for him.” Vivi speculated. “Were you able to talk much when he arrived here? Or was it too late to do so?”
“No, my mother and I waited for him.”
Vivi nodded, recognizing that, of course, Alex and the duchess would have waited. “How was he?”
“He was…” Alex paused, looking at her reflection in the mirror, pretending to be caught up in Eliza’s work as she realized that now was the appropriate time to tell her friends exactly what had happened. “Fine…tired and certainly overwhelmed, but we…” She took a deep breath, then lost her courage. “We stayed up for a time and talked and he seemed to be in fairly good spirits.”
“Did he say anything more about the state of the robbery? Suggest any suspects? Mention any clues?”
Vivi laughed at Ella’s line of questioning as Alex watched Eliza insert the final pin into her hair. She smiled up at her maid and thanked her, announcing “There’s no one on the island of Britain who is more of a genius with hair than you are, Eliza.”
She turned the spot at the dressing table over to Vivi and moved to her wardrobe to retrieve the chemise that she would be wearing under her ball gown that evening. As she did so, Ella prodded again, flopping back on the bed. “Well? Did he?”
Taking another deep breath, Alex answered, “No. He failed to mention any of those things. I rather think he was too busy kissing me.”
There was a moment of silence as the words hung in the air of the chamber, and then three gasps erupted in the room, followed by an “Ow!” from Vivi as Eliza accidentally yanked on a strand of her hair.
Alex couldn’t help the nervous giggle that escaped from her as she looked from one face to the next. Vivi’s shock had quickly turned to excitement; Eliza was the portrait of surprise; and Ella looked thoroughly dumbfounded.
Ella spoke first. “I beg your pardon?”
“He DID? And you haven’t TOLD us?” This from Vivi, who had twisted around in her chair and had waved off Eliza.
Which suited Eliza, it seemed, for she couldn’t hold back a starry-eyed “Oh! Lady Alexandra!”
Alex sat in a nearby chair, embarrassed by all the attention, and said, “Yes. He did. I didn’t tell you because it’s not really something that one feels entirely comfortable speaking aloud.” Looking at Eliza, she continued, “I wouldn’t get too excited, Eliza. I’ve been given no indication that it will happen again.”
Vivi and Ella pounced on that. “What?”
“Why not?” from Eliza.
Alex shook her head and looked up at the ceiling. “Because he’s ignoring the whole event!”
Ever the pragmatist, Ella asked, “What do you mean he’s ignoring you? I thought you said you’d seen him since?”
“I didn’t say he was ignoring me. I said he was ignoring it. I have seen him. He’s been here, talked with me, shared meals with my whole family.” She looked at her slippered foot, draped over the arm of her chair. “He just hasn’t…mentioned…or even appeared to remember…the kiss.”
“How is that possible?” Vivi asked. “Surely, he must be at least more…attentive? Than before?” She looked to Eliza for support. The maid nodded eagerly.
Alex let out a frustrated breath. “Oh, he’s being the perfect gentleman. Charming, entertaining—entirely Gavin. It’s not as though he’s avoiding me. It’s as though it never happened. Which I suppose is better than last time.”
Ella and Vivi met each other’s gaze. Ella said, “I beg your pardon. Again? Last time?”
“There was a LAST TIME?” Vivi queried excitedly.