He shook his head. “Absolutely not. You are forbidden from going within a quarter of a mile of Sewell Hall. Whatever I do, I shall do it alone. I won’t risk anyone else I love.”
Her voice shook with indignation. “And what am I to do? Simply watch someone I love sally off to save the day without helping you succeed? The concept is as ridiculous as it is impossible. I should like to see you attempt to forbid me from helping you. I am no delicate flower, Gavin.”
He offered a half smile at her reference to her governess’s lesson. “You are certainly no delicate flower right now, Alex. That much is true. We will discuss this in the morning, when we are both calmer,” he said, ignoring her eyebrow raised in ire, and continuing, “Do you not think we should take this time to consider the minor fact that we seem to be in love?”
Her eyes widened slightly at the words and she played the last moments of their conversation over in her head. We are in love. He met her gaze, not letting her look away as he spoke. “You appear to have missed my meaning. Allow me to repeat myself more plainly. I love you, Alex.”
She looked at him, shocked by his words, which chased all thoughts of their disagreement from her mind. She had been so wrapped up in making sure that he would include her in his plans that she had glossed over the meaning in his words. She opened her mouth, then closed it, scared to speak for fear of ruining this perfect moment.
He leaned forward and placed his forehead against hers, smiling as he spoke in low, liquid tones. “I adore you. I adore your laugh and your wit and your intelligence and your confidence. I cannot think of another woman I would rather have by my side than you. You are as brilliant as you are beautiful and I probably should have realized it years ago, but I seem to be rather dull-witted.”
She shook her head, “I think that, at this particular moment, you are rather a genius.”
“Oh, you do?” he said teasingly. “And what else are you thinking?”
She smiled softly at his obvious attempt to entice her into revealing her feelings. “I’m thinking you have the most beautiful eyes in the world. And that your shoulders have grown exponentially broader since last year. And that your smile is the only thing able to make me forget myself and do things that are thoroughly inexcusable.
“Mostly, however, I’m thinking that you’ve been my savior for years…since before I can remember…my friend for the same length of time. And I honestly believe that there is nothing that could have stopped me from falling in love with you. It was only a matter of time.”
“Say the words,” he prodded.
“I love you, Gavin. I love the boy you were and the man you have become.” She had never been so certain of anything in her life.
“Capital,” he pronounced, and kissed her roundly, threading his fingers through her hair, scattering her hairpins and setting her heart racing.
After several moments, she stopped the kiss, meeting his gaze directly for several seconds before saying firmly, “Gavin. Promise me you won’t do anything rash about your uncle. Promise me you won’t do anything by yourself. Promise me you’ll ask for help.”
“I promise. If you promise not to get yourself any more involved in this than you already are, Alex. I will tie you up in a linen closet if I think I must to keep you safe.”
“Say the words.”
They sat together long into the night, basking in the glow of their newly professed love, talking until the light of day began to creep over the horizon in deep purple streaks and Alex was unable to keep her eyes open. Placing one final kiss on her forehead, Blackmoor snuck into the hallway and, unseen, found his own chamber.
He watched the Essex countryside roll past beyond the carriage window. He had been traveling all night—seething with anger.
He had lost everything. All because of that brat. His French partners had broken contact with him. Stopped using his services. It was only a matter of time before they came for him; he knew too much—their identities, their plans, their location.
The girls had to be dealt with. He would not be bested by a gaggle of irritating children.
He knew, without question, that they had been searching the study of Blackmoor House. They had been looking for the same thing he had been looking for—information that could lead to his capture and the capture of his contacts. Information that would see them all hanged.
While he was certain the girls hadn’t found anything—after all, if he had failed to find the evidence designed to incriminate him, he was sure that three silly girls playing at investigators could do no better—but now he was concerned about Blackmoor’s suspicions being raised.
He was growing more desperate. Everything he had worked for was lost. He could not risk losing his life as well. The ridiculous young earl was proving to be no sort of threat; he was just as much of a lapdog as his father had been. But those girls…they had to be silenced. Starting with that meddling Worthington chit, who seemed fearless. If anything happened to her, it would devastate the earl.
He smiled darkly, willing the horses forward.
Alex woke, stretching luxuriously, keenly aware of the sun high in the sky, marking the lateness of the hour. Outside her chamber, she could hear two maids chattering as they moved down the hallway, clearing away any stray dust that might take away from the imposing stature of the manor. One laughed, the sound tinkling through the door, and Alex felt a jolt of happiness at the sound.
Of course, it would have been difficult to dampen her mood on this particular morning, after such a wonderful night shared with Blackmoor. Her Blackmoor. She smiled to herself as a wave of eagerness coursed through her. She wondered if she’d missed the chance to see him at breakfast, if he was still in the house, if she could catch him before he left on whatever excursion her brothers had likely cooked up to avoid the arrival of her parents’ guests. She threw back the covers and bounded from the bed, pulling the bell for Eliza.
She was deep in her wardrobe, poring through clothes, when the knock sounded on her door. She called out, “Enter!” expecting Eliza. Instead, Ella and Vivi entered, then stopped short just inside the room, surprised by the scene they had disturbed.
Vivi spoke first, unable to keep the curiosity from her tone. “Begging your pardon, whatever are you doing?”
Alex stepped back, exclaiming, “Oh! Thank goodness! I don’t have any idea what to wear! You have to help me. What should I wear to make me look”—she waved her hand in the air as she searched for the word—“beautiful? The green walking dress? The lavender day dress? Something else? Help!”
“Whatever for? When have you ever been concerned with fashion?” Ella asked, unable to keep the confusion from her tone.
Vivi understood immediately. “Ella, you really can be dense at times.” She walked toward Alex, pushing her way into the wardrobe beside her. “Looking to impress Blackmoor, are we?”
Alex blushed prettily, peeking around a cream-colored evening gown. “Yes. How did you know?”
“You’ve hardly been the model of discretion,” Vivi pointed out.
Alex held up a turquoise-colored riding habit for Vivi and Ella to consider. “Am I that obvious?”
“Only to those who know you best,” Ella said, wrinkling her nose and shaking her head at the dress and pointing, instead, to the buttercup-colored Empire walking dress that Vivi was holding. “That one.”
Within minutes, Alex was dressed and the three girls had made their way to the terrace of the manor, where they joined the duchess and Will, who were seated under a large linen canopy, out of the sun. As soon as they dropped into the chairs set out for them, Alex announced, “I’m famished!”
The duchess reached for a nearby teapot and poured her daughter a cup of tea while continuing to list the tasks she needed to complete prior to the arrival of several early guests that afternoon. “I’m still not entirely sure how to arrange all the rooms—I thought I had it all complete, then realized that I placed Lady Twizzleton and Lord Vauxwell in adjoining rooms. That won’t do.” She placed two biscuits on the saucer and passed the makeshift breakfast to her youngest child.
“Why can’t you just move one of them to an unused room?” Will queried.
“My dear boy, there aren’t any unused rooms.”
“Mother!” Alex exclaimed around a mouth filled with biscuit. “Whatever do you mean, there aren’t any rooms? There are twenty-three bedchambers in this house.”
“Twenty-four, actually. It seems the party has grown in size.”
“It certainly has! How many young, eligible men did you invite?” Alex’s exasperation showed.
“Not as many as I would have liked,” the duchess replied. Will snickered, only to stop immediately when she explained, “I had to invite eligible young ladies as well…and their parents, of course.”
Alex smiled sweetly at her brother. “Of course. Ah, sweet justice. You have to deal with girls and mothers.”
Will scowled. “At least I’m not the only eligible male in attendance.”
“To that end, where are Nick and Kit and Blackmoor?” Alex queried, attempting to sound casual.
“Christopher and Nicholas are still abed,” the duchess replied, shaking her head. “I’m sending their valets to wake them in a quarter of an hour if they fail to emerge on their own. As for Blackmoor, he was up very early to go back to Sewell Hall and check on some estate affairs. I expect him back before this evening’s dinner.”
“Indeed,” Will agreed, “Blackmoor swore he’d not leave me to face the wolves alone.”
Alex sipped her tea to cover her disappointment that she wouldn’t see Blackmoor until the evening. She had been hoping to spend some part of the day with him—she would have settled for seeing him at a distance. She sighed quietly into her teacup, wondering if he would come back sooner rather than later to see her.
Her brother gave her a wry look. “I feel exactly the same way,” he said sympathetically, clearly thinking that she was accepting her fate as the unmarried daughter of an inveterate matchmaker.
Alex understood his meaning and smiled to herself, amused by his misinterpretation. “Somehow, I doubt that.”
“Well, both of you will have to endeavor to overcome your disappointment,” the duchess said distractedly, looking down at the list in her hand. “Eleanor, Vivian, do you girls mind my moving you to the adjoining rooms? That way, I can put Lord Vauxwell between Gavin’s uncle and Lord and Lady Waring, and Lady Twizzleton next to the Stanhopes.”
Alex’s head snapped up at her mother’s words. She met Ella’s gaze to confirm that she’d heard correctly. Ella nodded mutely.
“Mother, did you say Lucian Sewell will be here?”
“Indeed, I did. I know he’s an odd man, but I couldn’t very well invite Blackmoor and leave him off the list. Especially since he’s been such a help since the earl’s death.”
Vivi coughed to cover her innate response to the duchess’s words. Alex, a chill running down her spine, spoke, choosing her words carefully. “Of course. I was merely surprised. When do you expect him to arrive?”
“My understanding is that they are on their way presently and should be here not long before dinner.”
“They?” Ella blurted out.
“He and Baron Montgrave. They seem to be very close. I thought it might make Lucian more comfortable.”
“I’m sure you did,” Alex replied, her voice strained.
“Girls?” Her mother spoke, looking from Vivi to Ella. “You don’t mind having adjoining rooms, do you?”
Ella shook her head as Vivi answered, “Not at all, Your Grace. We would be happy to share.”
“Excellent. I’m off to make those changes, then.” The duchess stood, then turned back to her children. “Do not go far, you two. And do not let your brothers disappear, should you see them. I may well require your combined assistance. In fact, William—” He groaned, knowing that he was about to be assigned a task. “Why don’t you go and wake them?”
“I shall go as soon as I have finished reading this article.” He nodded toward the paper he’d been trying to read. Seeming to accept that compromise, the duchess turned on her heel and exited the terrace into the house.
Alex watched her go, then turned to Will, buried in his newspaper. Cautiously, she asked, “Will, how do you feel about Blackmoor’s uncle?”
“Strange fellow, but harmless,” he said, distracted. “I suppose I understand why Mother invited him, but I find it very odd that he would attend. As helpful as the uncle has been, Blackmoor is thoroughly able to see to his duties himself by now. I think it’s time for him to return to his prior life.”
“Indeed,” Ella said, meeting Alex’s eye.
With a shake of the newsprint, Will closed the paper, folded it to its original position, and placed it on the table in front of him. Raising himself up to his full, looming height, he offered a short bow to the girls and spoke, taking two more biscuits from the tray. “I suppose I ought to raise the miscreants. Be warned…when we return, they shall devour everything in sight.” Garnering a smile from the three friends, he entered the house to find his brothers.
Alex snatched another biscuit off the tea tray herself, nodding her agreement with Will’s prediction. She needed to eat her fill before Nick and Kit arrived, or she’d have no chance of leaving this particular meal full.
Once Will was out of earshot, she spoke quietly to her friends. “Lucian Sewell and the Baron Montgrave are on their way here? I would guarantee they aren’t coming because of my mother’s reputation as a hostess.”