A flash of white appeared as he grinned down at the group on the drive. He called back into the house, “My word! It appears someone’s left a group of orphans at the door!”
The four women laughed at his silly jest as he came bounding down the steps, taking Alex into his arms for a warm hug and a kiss on the forehead, and welcoming Vivi and Ella in turn. He then turned to help the duchess down from the carriage. When her feet touched the ground, she looked up at her husband and said, “Rather too old to be an orphan, I think.”
Wrapping his arms around her, the duke replied lovingly, “Nonsense. You grow younger with each day,” and kissed her soundly on the mouth.
Vivi and Ella turned away, blushing and leaving Alex shaking her head and teasing, “Your behavior really is too uncivilized. Shouldn’t you be setting a better example for the next generation?”
“It looks like an excellent example to me.”
The words sent a tingle up Alex’s spine as she recognized the warm, friendly voice. She turned to find Blackmoor, clad as casually as her father, coming down the steps to greet them. In the darkness, she couldn’t be sure, but he seemed to be looking straight at her. Her stomach turned over as she watched him approach, and she blushed deeply to think that he was discussing her parents’ actions so openly.
“You could have this yourself, Gavin, if you would only take a wife!” her mother pointed out, kissing him on both cheeks in welcome.
Vivi’s, Ella’s, and Alex’s jaws dropped in unison as they heard the duchess’s cheeky response. There was most definitely something about the country.
They were soon inside, taking a brief late-evening meal with the entire Stafford family. The boys recounted their day hunting in traditional exaggerated fashion, and the girls played the part of remarkable audience, making appropriately appreciative noises.
“I caught a fish that weighed three stone if it weighed a pound!” Nick bragged, looking to Kit for approval.
“Indeed.” Kit nodded in assent, supportively. “But mine was the real coup—I took down a rabbit with feet as large as my own!”
“Mmmm,” Will agreed, taking a drink of wine. “Neither compares with the quail I bested…it was the size of a golden eagle! Wasn’t it, Blackmoor?”
Blackmoor smiled broadly, leaning back and looking from one brother to the next. “I’m not certain I want to be involved in this particular conversation,” he said with a laugh.
“Oh?” Alex asked with a twinkle in her eye, knowing exactly why he wouldn’t participate. “Could that be because this generation of Staffords has been having this very conversation for years, since they were old enough to go hunting?”
Blackmoor smiled at her and replied, “It could be…”
“And perhaps because, for years, it is only after the Stafford boys have relayed their incredible feats of manhood that their father ruins their fun by telling the truth—that none of the three of them could catch a fish, a rabbit, or a bird if his very life depended on it?” the duke noted, drawing a laugh from everyone around the table.
“Alas, it seems the wildlife of this particular estate have nothing to fear from their masters,” Vivi said.
“It’s a good thing you’re all fairly intelligent,” Ella remarked.
“And don’t forget attractive,” added Nick, good-humoredly.
“Oh, of course!” Alex replied sarcastically. “How could we forget?”
The duchess stood on a laugh and spoke to the table. “I am afraid, my dears, that I must take to my chamber. It has been a long day, and tomorrow shall be another. May I suggest you all retire early?”
And, with that, the meal was ended, the duke and duchess taking their leave, followed closely by Vivi and Ella, who were looking more tired by the minute and were eager to find their beds. Alex silently willed her brothers to retire and give Blackmoor and her a moment alone together so she could say all the things she had decided to say during the carriage ride, but they appeared unmoved by her thoughts and did not accommodate her request. Realizing she would not have a private conversation with Blackmoor on this particular evening, she stood and announced her own intentions to find her bed. Leaving the room, she lit a candle in the hallway beyond and climbed the wide center stairway of the manor to the upper chambers.
She made it all the way to her bedchamber and had one hand on the door handle before she realized that Blackmoor had followed her abovestairs. She knew before she looked back that she would find him silhouetted in the light, and when she did, her heart began to pound.
“What are you doing up here?”
“Retiring to my chamber.”
“Why aren’t you doing that at your own home?” The question came out more harshly than she’d intended.
“Are you disappointed? I shan’t bother you, Alex.”
“No! No. I just thought…since…you live next door…” She stopped, feeling rather idiotic, then pressed on, “I…I don’t care where you sleep.”
“Excellent. Then if it’s all the same to you, I think I shall stay here.”
“It’s fine with me.”
She turned back to her door and pushed it open as he moved down the hall. She started to step forward into the room; she meant to go in and close the door behind her. Instead, she turned just as he was moving past. “Wait.”
He stopped just inches from her, so close that she had to step into the doorway to keep from burning him with her candle. His voice was no louder than a whisper when he spoke, “Yes?”
“I…” she paused again, mute with the flood of words that had rushed to her tongue. What should she say? Where should she start? Was this the place to take her risk? Did she really care? “I have something I want to say.”
“I sensed that,” he teased.
“Perhaps I’ll just retire instead.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.” He raised an eyebrow. “I apologize, Alex. Please. Go on.”
“This just doesn’t seem the…proper place.”
“It seems proper enough to me.”
“It’s a darkened hallway. In the middle of the night.”
“Do you have a better locale in mind?”
She looked from one side of the hallway to the other quickly, then reached out and grabbed his arm and pulled him quickly into her bedchamber, closing the door behind them. They both paused for a moment, equally shocked by her rash behavior.
He spoke first, saying slowly, “Well, I’m fairly certain this isn’t the proper place.”
She blushed. “It’s well lit. That makes it more proper than the hallway.” She hoped that sounding like she knew the rules would cover up the fact that he was absolutely right.
“And the fact that it’s your bedchamber?”
“Really.” The word came out in a slow drawl. “Why do I have a feeling that if any one of your family members wandered in, they might feel differently?”
She held up her hand, effectively stopping him from saying anything more. “Either way. You’re here now.”
“So I am.”
“I’ll try to be quick.”
“No need. I wouldn’t like to be caught leaving this particular room. Suffice to say, I’m here for an hour or so, until your brothers have almost certainly retired themselves.” He moved farther into the room and sat on a pink ruffled stool. Alex couldn’t help but chuckle at the picture he made. Looking down at his seat, he joined her in laughter, saying, “Not exactly the portrait of lordliness?”
She covered her smile and shook her head. “Not exactly.”
He leaned back and looked at her frankly. “I miss you, Alex.”
Her breath caught at his words. “I was supposed to say something to you.”
“You waited too long. I decided to speak first.”
Alex sat tentatively on the edge of the bed, facing him. “All right, then. You go first.”
“Happily.” He paused briefly, and then plunged forward. “I miss you. Everything about you. Since that night at your house, at your mother’s dinner, I’ve mucked up everything. I’ve lost a handle on how to be near you…how to speak with you.”
“You appear to be doing quite well presently,” Alex pointed out, teasingly.
He smiled. “Minx. I owe you a tremendous apology. In attempting to better understand everything that has happened in the last few months, I somehow lost my way with you. What can I do to find it again?”
Her heart began to pound as she detected the earnestness in his tone. She didn’t know what to say. Earlier in the evening, she had wanted to force him to hear her thoughts on Lucian, but now she couldn’t bring herself to draw his uncle into the conversation. She didn’t want to risk his closing himself to her again.
She worried her lower lip, wondering if she shouldn’t just forgo the topic with him. But what of her resolution in the carriage? What of her commitment to being honest and open with him to test the mettle of what they may or may not have together? She had sworn to herself that she’d speak to him about everything. Vowed that she would make him understand.
She didn’t have to. He spoke before she could find her voice. “The things you were trying to tell me about my uncle…I should have listened.”
Her eyes flew to his in disbelief. “Really?”
“I did not treat you fairly. I would have listened to your brothers if they had come to me with such a story.” He smiled, continuing, “Perhaps not believed them, but listened nonetheless.”
He rested his forearms on his thighs and leaned toward her. “I would like to make it up to you now. If you’d still like to discuss it.”
She took a deep breath, looking into his clear grey eyes, and realized that choice had been removed from the situation. She was going to have to take the risk she’d promised herself she’d take.
“I would still like to discuss it,” she said quietly.
“I am listening.”
And so she told him everything, trying to be calm and relay facts rather than suspicions. She again recounted the conversation she overheard, again relayed what she had witnessed in the corridor beyond the orangery and in the garden outside his study, and then, steeling herself for his anger, told him about the trickery with Bingham, their reconnaissance of the Blackmoor House study when they knew he’d be away, her encounter with Lucian, and, finally, the note they’d found from the late earl.
He had remained silent, though his spine had grown straighter as she recounted her tale. When she was finished, he had only one question. “Do you have the note with you?”
She did, of course, and rose from the bed to find it in her trunk, which had arrived with them that evening, still tucked inside A History of Essex. She handed the book and note over together, not knowing what more to say.
Opening the parchment, his face was stony as he read the words of his father—words that seemed as though they’d come from beyond the grave. Alex winced, knowing what pain they must be causing him. He held still for a long moment, then looked up at her with a question in his eyes. “What name is at stake?”
“We could only believe that he was referencing the Sewell name. The Blackmoor line,” she said carefully, uncertain of his thoughts.
He nodded, looking back at the letter. “And the book? A History of Essex? Every household in the county must own a copy.”
“We don’t know. There must be something particular to this copy. Do you remember your father ever speaking of it?”
He shook his head, turning the book over in his hands and studying it. After a few moments, he raised his eyes to hers. “Alex, I should have thought twice when you told me about the conversation you witnessed. I should have asked more questions, listened more carefully.” Gavin’s voice wavered, as he fought his emotions.
“Gavin—” She stopped, unsure of what she could say to help.
He stood and walked toward her, taking the spot next to her on the bed. He took her hand in a simple, beautiful act. She stayed quiet, waiting for him to speak.
Long minutes later, he did. “I believed in him. Believed that, despite his oddities, his coldness, he was first my uncle. My father’s brother. My family. I suppose I wanted to believe in him because he brought me that much closer to the father that I no longer had. I searched for something about him that would remind me of my father. I was desperate to find that similarity. I haven’t been able to. And now…I find that not only is he nothing like my father…he’s the reason I lost my father.”
The sadness and shock in his voice devastated Alex, and she wrapped her arms around him. He remained still, not responding to her attempt to comfort him for the first few seconds until, consumed by emotion, he caught her in an intense embrace, burying his face in her neck. They stayed that way, wrapped tightly together, sharing their strength in the silence.
And then, after what seemed like an eternity, he pulled back, loosening but not releasing his hold. Brushing a stray lock of hair from her face, he asked, “What should I do?”
She smiled softly, placing her hand on his roughened cheek. “You mean what should we do.”
He shook his head. “No, Alex. It is too dangerous for you. He’s already threatened you.”
“Nonsense. I’m the one who discovered everything. We can do this together! We can discover his deeds and make sure he is punished for them, together! I’ve already been thinking about what we might be looking for at Sewell Hall.”