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New York City
"Mister Reynolds," his cousin's butler said as he entered the study. Alexander looked up from the map he'd been studying as the tall gray-haired man continued, "A young woman claiming to be a friend of the countess has arrived. She seems a bit ..nervous, sir. I thought perhaps you would be kind enough to explain that the earl and countess have sailed for Ireland."
"It is rather late."
Alex took a sip of his cognac, cautious as always to assume the careless persona he showed the world. Soon he would be free to let go of that facade. Soon that character and everything that had created him would be in the past and he could figure out who the hell he really was.
"Not looking forward to disappointing the lady, Winston?" he pretended to tease. "You never have that problem when I ask you to send a persistent mamma on her way."
Winston stiffened to his tallest, most formal self. "This is different. Disappointing teary-eyed, exhausted females is not my forte, sir."
"You think it's mine?" Alex asked carefully. Was it?
"Not at all. But as I mentioned, she seems to be worried. And fretful. I suppose I could awaken Heddie"
"No. No," Alex said on a sigh. Mrs. Winston worked hard every day and was doing more than usual closing up Jamie's house and with little help. He on the other hand had been doing nothing but marking time until what he thought of as his real life began.
Dammit. Why couldn't this woman have waited another day to show up on his cousin's doorstep? "I suppose I should earn my keep around here."
Winston's left eyebrow rose imperiously. "I believe you did that into perpetuity in San Francisco. You saved the lives of the earl and countess, their child and the lives of the entire household staff."
And all he'd had to do to accomplish that was to kill his own father. Alex knocked back the rest of his snifter of Jamie's best cognac.
The guilt from that night and from the years of hesitation and half measures that had preceded it threatened to crush him. He would have done it years earlier had he known it would come to that. He hoped so at least. It would have saved others endless heartache, his own years of regret and several lives.
"I'd best be off to handle this dirty work for you," Alex joked, forcing his thoughts into the present. "Where did you leave the young lady? Not on the doorstep, I hope."
"Sir! Of course not. I showed her to the front parlor."
Alex forced a grin. Sometimes it was exceedingly tiring to pretend a lightheartedness he didn't feel. "I never thought otherwise. Take a breath, Winston." He stood to go in search of.. "The young lady in question, Winston, what is her name?"
"Mrs. Patience Wexler Gorham."
Alex rose. "I should hurry, I suppose. It has been my experience that women named Patience have little of the virtue to call their own."
Winston nodded smartly, then withdrew. Alex strode down the stairs and along the hall of the New York town house. The house spoke of his cousin Jamie's success. But, even more, of his determination to get out from under Alex's father's shadow.
Alex had always pretended to be the carefree one but somehow Jamie had managed to blossom into all that was sunshine and light. He smiled. Seeing Jamie so happy made everything he'd done since he'd turned twelve worthwhile.
Meanwhile Alex had spent years as a phantom and now he couldn't quite find his way out of the darkness. It was his turn to crawl from behind the shadow that had been Oswald Reynolds, just as Jamie had done. The next step on that journey was leaving New York to begin his new life on the Rocking R, the Texas Hill Country ranch he'd bought. He was counting on the completely foreign, totally sunny atmosphere to free him of some of the weight on his shoulders. Of the darkness in his soul.
Because he couldn't seem to do it for himself. He stepped into the doorway of the parlor, a lovely, light-infused room with Louis Quinze furnishings, gleaming white woodwork and golden brocade-inset wall panels. Three exquisite crystal chandeliers kept it bright even at night.
But the beauty of the decorating paled in the presence of the lovely creature standing near the fireplace. He stared for a long moment at her reflection in a mirror on a side wall. Her profile was delicate, her green eyes heavily fringed with dark lashes and her hair a rich auburn.
Alex's heart bumped in his chest when he cleared his throat and she spun to face him. Disappointment flooded those crystalline eyes. Winston, you rotter.
He cleared his tight throat. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Gorham," he said. "I come the bearer of unfortunate news. My cousin, Jamie, and his wife sailed this morning for his estate in Ireland."
"No," she cried. Her creamy complexion went instantly pale. "Oh, no! What am I to do now?" She looked suddenly as if all the starch had gone out of her. Wobbling a bit, she made a grab for the mantel.
Alex knew an overwrought woman when he saw one. The hand gripping the solid surface would hold her upright only so long. He reached her just in time to catch her before she could pitch forward on her face. He scooped her up then laid her on the settee. But she didn't awaken. Not even when he went from patting her hand to stroking the lovely creature's smooth cheek. He looked down upon her and found himself, just for a moment, tumbling headlong into love.
Then he got his head round straight. Lust. This was only lust. And look what pain that had wrought in his life so far! He'd lost all right to the child born of what he'd thought was love, but now knew to have been that baser emotion.
"Oh, dear. I was correct, then. The young thing is more than a bit upset," Winston said from the hall, pulling Alex out of haunting memories.
"I'd say that is the greatest of understatements. Call your wife, would you, Winston? I think the lady may need a woman when she wakes."
"But, sir, what are we to do about her after that?"
Alex sighed. This was a complication, to be sure, but what else could he do? "It is quite late and we can hardly send her out alone into the dark of night. I don't think the earl would mind if we gave her a room till morning if she is in need of lodging."
"I believe Lady Meara's room could be readied in a thrice, sir. Heddie made it up and put the dust covers in place this afternoon."
"I'm as sorry as I can be about having to awaken your wife but I think proprieties should be followed as much as possible."
Winston nodded. "I'll wake the wife and send her along then I'll go and uncover everything. You can bring the young lady up while my wife dresses."
Alex sighed in relief. "Thank you, Winston. I confess I'm completely at sea as to what to do for her. Or to say to her."
"Perhaps you might listen when she wakes, sir."
Alex frowned. Not what he wanted to hear. He could actually feel himself being pulled into a situation he wanted nothing to do with. Yet.. "I suppose that means first I would be expected to ask what it is she came here to accomplish." He wasn't sure what good he'd be to her. He was barely any good to himself these days.
He received a reprieve of a sort because Mrs. GorhamPatiencehad not awakened by the time Winston returned. The butler reported that he'd readied the room and that his wife was dressing as quickly as possible.
Not knowing what else to do for the young woman, Alex lifted her slight weight into his arms and carried her up to little Meara's room. He laid her on the counterpane and stepped back.
Looking around the room he smiled helplessly. It held the stamp of Meara, the child he could never claim as his own though he was her true father. Several years earlier Jamie had married the woman Alex had loved. She had given birth to Meara seven months after their nuptials. Alex, absent from England at the time, had had no idea he'd left Iris pregnant when he'd gone off on a mission. She'd died some months after Meara's birth in a fall from a horse. Legally Meara was Jamie's daughter. But more important, Jamie loved Meara no less than if she was his natural child. In fact, Jamie said he loved her more because she was Alex's daughter. Alex shook his head in consternation. The inner workings of his cousin's mind were ever a mystery.
His heart aching for all that would never be, Alex walked to the window and looked out, concerned to see a man walking up and down the street, checking yards and obviously searching for something. He glanced at the bed.
A moan from their guest told him his temporary housemate had decided to join him. He walked to the bed, grabbing a small chair on his way, and sat next to her.
Her eyes drifted open then widened in what could only be named terror. Judging from the way she sprang into a sitting position and shrank away to the other side of the bed, no doubt the person who had her so frightened must be a male. "Who are you? What do you want from me?" she gasped and looked around frantically.
"Where am I?"
"At the home of your friend, Amber, in her stepdaughter Meara's room," he told her. "You swooned when I told you the earl and countess had gone from America to Ireland."
She blinked and colored before she took a deep breath, visibly trying to calm herself. "Oh, yes. Of course. I'm so terribly sorry to have caused such an uproar. I traveled all day and I haven't eaten. I won't trouble you further," she added and began to scoot away toward the other side of the bed and the door. "I must get on my way."
Alex wrapped a staying hand around her delicate arm, tilted his head and considered the pretty young woman for a long moment. He took in her frozen expression, as well, and carefully let go of her arm. "Where will you go? You seemed not to know what you would do now that the countess is away."
Tears welled up in her startling eyes, magnifying the multihued qualities of their green color. He had never seen their like. "But that isn't your problem," she whispered as if forcing the words forth.
"But I fear it is of interest to a certain man moving furtively along the street, checking yards."
She sucked in a breath and cast her fear-filled gaze toward the window.
"Perhaps you need help, even if only from the cousin of the earl?" Alex asked, shocked to his toes to hear himself ask the question. Why could he not learn to mind his own business? He was to leave in the morning.
She blinked and hesitantly leaned back against the headboard. "Alexander? You're Alexander?"
He forced a smile, though he loathed that name having heard it on his father's lips one too many times. "My reputation seems to have preceded me. I hope what you've heard hasn't been all bad."
"On the contrary. Amber calls you a hero. She wrote about the problems in San Francisco and how you saved them all from certain death. I am sorry it cost you so much personally."
Alex pushed thoughts of that night out of his mind. He relived it often enough in his nightmares. "I did only what I had to do. The question is how may I help you? WeWinston and Ialready assume you'll stay the night."
She looked at her hands where she'd rested them in her lap. "That is very kind of you but I don't wish to put you out. Or to cause you trouble. My father is a powerful man."
"I assure you, powerful men rarely frighten me. I cut my teeth on a father who probably makes yours look like a petulant angry kitten. We seem to have troublesome sires in common. So tell me. What is so forbidding about yours that you would flee him?"
She sighed, staring at him as if weighing her options. The expression in her startling eyes clearly put him in the dubious category of the lesser of two evils. Truly, nothing new to him.
"I am a recent widow. My marriage was more on the lines of a prison sentencethough the prison itself was quite lovely." She looked down again as if ashamed of her next statement. "My husband was very disappointed in me as a wife. To spite me, he went through his fortune in his last years. He left me penniless at his death. I had no choice but to return to my father. Father blames me for the problems in my marriage and now has arranged another marriage. Soon."
Alex was incredulous, though why he would be after his treatment at his own father's hands he did not know. Perhaps because she was so utterly angelic he couldn't imagine any man, especially her father, not being softened by that endearing grace. "Your father blamed you?"
"My husband spoke ill of me to Father. And my father also holds a great grudge against me. My husband refused to allow me to travel, you see. Impatient to see her only daughter and how I was enjoying the wonderful marriage my father had arranged for me, my mother and brothers came to visit. She departed swiftly when she saw how unhappy I was. They were killed on their return trip. All of them."