Ella drawled, “By that, she means her father.”

“As angry as he would have been that we let Alex storm off into the night,” Vivi pointed out, “I think ‘cavalry’ is a perfectly acceptable description.”

The two looked up at Alex and spoke in unison, “What happened?”

And, with that, as she looked into the curious, concerned eyes of her best friends in the world, Alex did what she’d wanted to do since leaving Blackmoor on the balcony earlier in the evening. She burst into tears.

Ella and Vivi shared a quick anxious look before rushing forward and herding Alex back into the music room and closing the door firmly behind them.

“Are you all right? What happened?” Vivi asked urgently, guiding Alex to sit on a small tufted stool while Ella lit some nearby candles.

“I think we’ve established that she’s not all right, Vivi,” Ella piped in, crouching down beside her tearful friend. “Alex? Are you hurt? Has Blackmoor done something to deserve a thrashing?”

Alex sniffed and responded with a watery smile. “Yes. Would you go deliver it?”

Ella smiled back. “Well, I’m happy to see that you can still find humor in this situation. I would go try for you, you know it. But he is rather significantly larger than I.”

“Yes, he is. But mainly he’s just insufferable.” Looking at her friends, Alex continued with pleading in her voice, “I don’t want to go back to the ball. I want to go to my bedchamber and drown myself in my pathetic sorrow.”

“Well, considering the condition of this dress, I don’t think you would be able to return to the ball even if you wanted to. What on earth did you do to yourself? You’re covered in dirt. And your slippers are ruined,” Ella pointed out.

Vivi chimed in, “You look like you’ve fallen in a flower bed.”

Alex looked down at her skirts with sadness, pulling them up to inspect her slippers. With a sigh, she spoke, her voice tiny, “I did fall in a flower bed.”

“This sounds like a fascinating story,” Ella teased, “but let’s wait until we’re abovestairs to tell it, shall we?”

“Indeed.” Vivi whirled into motion, ever the problem solver. “Ella, you sneak Alex up and I shall take care of everything.”

“How?” Alex asked. “My mother will be livid that I left the ball so early.”

Vivi turned a regal look on Alex. “Never you mind. Have I not taught you yet that I never fail?” She kissed her sad friend on both cheeks and continued as she cracked the door to leave, “I shall see you soon.”

And, with that, Vivi left the room, off to convince everyone in Alex’s life that it was perfectly normal for her to have disappeared during a ball hosted in her own home.

Ella took her task very seriously and, within moments, the two girls were in Alex’s bedchamber. Ella had helped Alex strip down to her chemise so that the offending gown could be hidden from view prior to the extreme cleaning it was going to require. As for the slippers, Ella shoved them deep into the recesses of Alex’s wardrobe, hoping that no one would come looking for them. Turning back to her friend, who had already crawled under the coverlet looking sad, Ella kicked off her own slippers and threw herself across the end of the bed.

She landed just as the door to the bedroom opened and Vivi entered, a smug smile on her face, announcing, “Problem solved. No one will come looking for you, Lady Alexandra, until the morning.”

“You’re a miracle worker!” Alex said with a shocked look on her face. “How did you manage that?”

“Easily enough. I enlisted Freddie’s help in telling everyone that you’d felt sick just before your scheduled dance, and that he’d passed you off to us. That, combined with a quick chat with Kit, explaining that you hadn’t wanted to upset or worry your mother, did the trick.” Vivi’s slippers joined Ella’s in a pile on the floor just before she climbed onto the bed next to Alex. “Stanhope wants you to send him a note tomorrow to assure him that you are fine and, quote, ‘that Blackmoor isn’t a rogue who deserves to be called out.’”

Ella giggled and rolled her eyes. “Male bravado really is ridiculous.”

Alex closed her eyes and said aloud, “I’ve had just about enough of the stuff tonight.”

“Are you going to tell us what happened?”

“Which part? When Blackmoor told me that kissing me was a mistake? Or when he told me that he knew someone was trying to kill him? Or perhaps when I told him that the someone in question was his uncle Lucian and he didn’t believe me?”

“What?!” The word came out on Ella’s surprised exhale. Her wide eyes looked as though they would pop from their sockets.

Vivi sat up, eyeing Alex very closely. Slowly, she suggested, “Why don’t we start from the beginning? You seem to have had quite a busy evening.”

And so Alex started from the beginning, trying not to leave anything out—not that Ella would have allowed that. As she told her tale, Vivi and Ella listened intently, hanging on every word while she traced the events of the evening from Blackmoor’s dance with Penelope to their argument and her ungraceful exit from his study.

As soon as she finished, they pounced, firing questions to obtain more details. “So you think the man who killed the earl was Lucian? Not the other?” Ella asked.

“I can’t know for sure, as I couldn’t make out the voices—but he certainly had a hand in it.”

Vivi was next. “And Blackmoor knows someone is out to kill him?”

“Yes. Apparently he’s known for a fortnight.”

“And our fathers as well?”

“It seems that way,” Alex said without emotion.

“But no one knows what information the former earl had?” Ella pressed.

“No.” Alex shook her head before shrugging her shoulders. “At least, not that he told me. It seems they’re waiting for the villain to lead them to whatever information the earl had.”

“But couldn’t Lucian have already found the information and all this be—a red herring?” Vivi spoke, searching for clarity.

“That wouldn’t explain Montgrave’s skulking about,” Ella said to the room at large.

“Or the fact that the two men I overheard were clearly anxious about others beating them to the hiding place,” Alex pointed out.

“You mean Lucian and Montgrave,” Ella said firmly.

“I don’t know it was Montgrave in the room. I didn’t see him. And…if Gavin is to be believed—”

“Blackmoor is a dunderhead,” Ella interrupted.

Vivi nodded in support. “Precisely.”

Alex pushed on. “All the same—if he is to be believed—”

“He’s not,” Vivi pointed out.

“Quite,” Ella agreed, adding, “Dunderhead.”

Alex rolled her eyes. “Fine.” Looking carefully at them, she continued, “You both believe me? You believe it was Lucian?”

“Absolutely!” Ella exclaimed.

“Without doubt,” Vivi chimed in.

“Then why didn’t he believe me?” Alex asked, falling back into the pillows on her bed.

Ella opened her mouth to speak from her spot at the end of the bed, but before she could get a word out, Alex raised a finger in the air and spoke in warning, “Ella…don’t tell me he’s a dunderhead.”

Ella closed her mouth, then raised her head to look at Vivi for support.

“I rather think I understand,” Vivi said carefully.

“I beg your pardon!” Ella sat up, leveling Vivi with a glare. “That’s not exactly supportive, Vivian.”

“Well, I do. After all, Gavin’s uncle is almost all he has left of his father. Losing a parent is awful enough. I cannot imagine what it would be like to then, just as quickly, discover that a person you trust is behind all that pain.”

“Even so…it doesn’t excuse his complete stupidity in not believing Alex,” Ella pointed out.

“No, of course not,” Vivi allowed. “Although I imagine he’ll come around to realizing that she is right.”

“Of course he will,” Ella said imperiously, “because we’re going to prove her right.”

Alex lifted her head from her pillows. “We are?”

“Indeed.” Ella was in one of her moods—she was not taking no for an answer.

“I considered going to our fathers immediately,” Alex said, shaking her head. “I wanted to pull mine away from the ball and reveal everything that I had overheard. But Gavin didn’t believe me—what if my father doesn’t either?”

“That’s silly. Of course, your father will believe you,” Vivi declared with certainty.

“I suppose so.” Alex didn’t sound as if she really believed her own words.

And she didn’t. Gavin’s response had thrown her off—upsetting her more than she could have imagined it would. She was hurt and confused by his cold reaction, as though she were an errant child who had fabricated the tale to garner his attention. She was devastated by his lack of trust and faith—even if Vivi was right and this was all a part of a larger issue that had little, if anything, to do with her. It didn’t matter. She was desperate for someone to believe her; she had information that pointed to the murderer of the Earl of Blackmoor, for goodness sake! Wasn’t that enough?

“There’s only one way to be certain that everyone believes us,” Ella said thoughtfully, reading Alex’s mind. “We have to find the information before they do.”

Vivi and Alex shared a surprised look. “How do you suggest we do that?” Vivi asked.

“I feel quite certain that, between us, we will be able to devise a plan. Once we discover what the earl knew, we will take it to our fathers—and Blackmoor, of course—and prove that Alex was right.”

Alex smiled to herself. “I do like the sound of showing Gavin that I was right.” She paused before asking, “Does it make me a bad person that I feel that way only in part because it will help to avenge the earl’s death? The other part of me simply wants Gavin to see that I am, indeed, right.”

Vivi shook her head and said matter-of-factly, “Absolutely not. His behavior was unkind and unpleasant. I would be worried if there weren’t a small part of you that wanted to show him that you are right.”

“Which brings us to the next question,” Ella pointed out.

“Which is?” Alex was beginning to feel better about the entire evening.

“What was the kiss like?”

Alex thought for a moment, searching for the right word. Then, with a soft smile, she said, “It was wonderful. He was wonderful. The moment was…”

“Wonderful?” Vivi interjected with a laugh.

Alex grinned at her. “Quite.” The smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. “But now he’s furious with me. I doubt he’s reveling in the wonder of the moment.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Vivi said supportively. “It seems that when something is that wonderful, it’s hard to forget it. You’re not thrilled with his behavior right now and you remember how fabulous it was.”

“True,” Alex replied on a sigh.

“Be careful, Alexandra, you’re beginning to sound like the type of young lady who wants all those things typical young females want,” Ella said with warning in her voice, her nose wrinkled, “marriage, children, a house in Surrey.”

“What’s wrong with wanting marriage and children?” Vivi asked. “I want those things. Not Surrey,” she said with a raised finger, “but the rest.”

“True, but with you, it’s different. You’re pining after The One.” Ella said the last with an exaggerated swoon, which Vivi ignored.

“Well, maybe Blackmoor is Alex’s One.”

Ella turned an incredulous look on Alex. “Really?”

They both turned questioning looks on Alex, who thought for a moment before speaking. Was Gavin The One? Could she imagine spending the rest of her life with him? Certainly, his mere presence set her heart racing. When he flashed one of his private, conspiratorial grins, she wanted to stop whatever she was doing and just bask in the glow of his attention. And, if that wasn’t enough, she couldn’t imagine living a day without him in her life. Obviously, considering the events of the season, there was something between them. But was he The One? Did that person even exist? Shouldn’t it be easier to communicate with The One? Shouldn’t she understand him better? Shouldn’t she be able to articulate what she wanted from him? When it came right down to it, she couldn’t say what she wanted from Gavin Sewell, Eighth Earl of Blackmoor, except to say she wanted him with her. For now. And maybe forever.

Turning to her friends, she said simply, “I don’t know. However, I would like to find out.”

The three girls talked late into the night, eventually falling asleep on the bed long after the ball below ended and all the guests went home.

Alex had never been so happy to have her friends with her than she was that evening—they made the whole, horrible night seem tolerable. She knew without a doubt that, together, they would make this confusing, devastating situation right.


Last night, everything had been so clear. His plans had been so well laid out, so perfect, so clean. He had returned home from the Worthington Ball to change clothes, planning to find young Blackmoor quickly and finally finish that which he should have finished long ago. As he changed out of his formal attire, he had imagined what it would feel like to eliminate the boy. How free and invigorated he would feel knowing that another high-and-mighty Blackmoor was gone from the earth. For moments, he had been giddy with laughter—eager to kill again. He’d allowed himself a few moments to fantasize about the manner in which he would dispose of the brat.

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