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March 23, 1833
Alexi hadn't been home in more than two years, but it felt like an eternity. Elysse O'Neill smiled at herself in the gilded mirror hanging over the handsome rosewood bureau in her pink, mauve and white bedroom. She had just finished dressing for the occasion. She knew that her excitement was obvious--she was flushed, her eyes bright. She was thrilled that Alexi de Warenne had come home, at last. She couldn't wait to hear all about his adventures!
She couldn't help wondering if he would notice that she was a grown woman now; she'd had a dozen suitors in the past two years, not to mention five offers of marriage.
She smiled again, deciding that her pastel-green gown made her nearly violet eyes even more intriguing. She was accustomed to male admiration; boys had begun to look at her when she was barely more than a child. Alexi had, too. She wondered what he would think of her now. She wasn't certain why she wanted him to notice her this evening-- they were only friends, after all. Impulsively, she tugged her neckline down, adjusting it to show off just a bit more of her cleavage.
He had never been gone for so long before. She wondered if he had changed. When he'd left on a run to Canada for fur, she hadn't known that it would be years before he would return, but she recalled their parting as if it had been yesterday.
He looked at her with that cocky grin he had. "And will you be wearing a ring when I get back?"
She'd known immediately what he meant. Startled, she had quickly recovered and her answer had been coy. "I always wear rings." But she had wondered if some dashing Englishman would sweep her off her feet before he returned. She certainly hoped so!
"Not diamonds."His thick black lashes lowered, shielding his brilliant blue eyes from her.
She shrugged. "I can't help it if I have so many suitors, Alexi. There will probably be many suits. Father will surely know which one to accept for me."
He shrugged in return. "Yes, I imagine Devlin will make certain you are properly married off."
Their eyes met and held. One day, her father would find her a great match. She had overheard her parents speaking about it and knew they wanted it to be a love match, as well. How perfect would that be?
"If I am not offered for, I will be vastly insulted," she said, meaning it.
"Isn't it enough that you are always surrounded by admirers?"
"I hope to be wed by the time I am eighteen!" she exclaimed. Her eighteenth birthday would be in the fall-- only six months away--while Alexi was still in Canada. Hear heart lurched oddly. With confusion, she shook off the strange feeling of dread, smiling brightly at him. She took his hands. "What will you bring me this time?" He always brought her a gift when he returned from the sea.
After a pause, he spoke softly. "I will bring you back a Russian sable, Elysse."
She was surprised. "You are sailing for Lower Canada."
"I know where I am going," he replied, his gaze direct. "And I will bring you back a Russian sable."
She scoffed at him, certain he was teasing her. He had simply grinned. Then he had said goodbye to the rest of her family and swaggered out of the salon, while she rushed off to a tea, where her most recent suitors were eagerly awaiting her....
He had remained in Canada for several months, apparently having some problems acquiring a cargo for the run home. When he had finally raced back to Liverpool, he hadn't stayed. Instead, he had turned around directly for the islands for sugarcane. She had been surprised, even disappointed.
Of course, she had never doubted that he would follow in his father's footsteps. Cliff de Warenne had one of the world's most successful maritime transport companies, and Alexi had been at sea with his father for most of his life. It was a foregone conclusion that, when he came of age, Alexi would take on the most lucrative trade routes, carrying the most profitable cargoes, as his father had once done. At the age of seventeen he'd commanded his first ship. Elysse was the daughter of a retired naval captain, and she truly understood how much Alexi loved the sea--it was in his blood. Men like Cliff de Warenne and her father, Devlin O'Neill--men like Alexi--could never remain on land for very long.
Still, she had expected him to come home after his run to the West Indies. He always came home, sooner or later. But instead he had refitted his ship in Liverpool and set a course to China!
When Elysse had learned that he had leased his ship, the Ariel, to the East India Company, which had a monopoly on the China trade, she had grown worried. Although retired, Devlin O'Neill frequently advised both the Admiralty and the Foreign Offices on matters of imperial and maritime policy, and Elysse was well versed in the subjects of trade, economics and foreign policy. She had heard all kinds of talk about the China trade in past few years. The China Sea was perilous--it remained mostly uncharted territory, with hidden reefs, submerged rocks and unknown shoals, not to mention monsoons and, far worse, typhoons. Beating up the China Sea was easy enough, if one didn't encounter one of those half-hidden rocks or reefs, with the southwesterly monsoons to aid you. But beating through the sea when homeward bound was difficult and dangerous. However, Alexi would think the danger the very best part of his voyage! Alexi de Warenne was fearless and loved a challenge--Elysse knew that very well.
But apparently Elysse had worried about him in vain. Last night, Ariella had sent her a note, telling her that Alexi had just arrived at Windhaven. It had been midnight when she'd gotten the hand-delivered message. She had been stunned to learn he had safely put into Liverpool a few days ago, with five hundred and five tons of silks and tea, having made the homeward run from Canton in one hundred and twelve days--a feat everyone was talking about. For a captain new to the route to make that kind of speed was terribly impressive, and Elysse knew it. He'd be able to command top dollar for his freight the next time he ran home from China. Knowing Alexi as well as she did, he would surely brag about that.
Elysse gave herself a final glance in the mirror and tugged at her bodice one last time, well aware that her mother would take her aside for being so daring. She was an acclaimed beauty--every suitor she'd ever had had raved about her striking blond looks. She had been told many times that she took after both of her parents--she was petite, with amethyst eyes, like her mother, and golden like her father. There had been many suits and five marriage proposals in the past two years. She'd turned every suitor and each proposal down, although she was now twenty, and her father had not minded. She hoped that Alexi wouldn't taunt her for still being single. Hopefully, he wouldn't recall her plan to be happily married by the age of eighteen.
"Elysse! We're here--Alexi is home and he is downstairs!" Ariella cried, knocking on her door from the corridor outside.
Elysse inhaled, suddenly so excited that she felt a bit faint. She ran for the door, opening it. Her best friend's eyes widened at Elysse's evening dress just before they embraced. "Are you going out tonight? Have I been excluded from an invitation to a dinner party?"
Elysse smiled. "Of course I'm not going out. I want to hear all about China and Alexi's adventures! How do I look?" She swiftly pirouetted.
Ariella was a year younger than Elysse, with exotic looks--light eyes, olive skin and dark golden hair. Un-fashionably educated, she had a preference for libraries and museums, and an aversion to shopping and balls. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were hoping to impress someone."
"Why would I bother to try to impress your brother?" She laughed. "But he had better notice that I am grown-up now--and the most desirable debutante in all of Ireland."
Ariella was wry. "Alexi has shortcomings, but a failure to notice attractive women isn't one of them."
Elysse closed the door. Alexi was a notorious ladies' man, but that was hardly a surprise--the de Warenne men were infamous for their rakish ways, which ended on their wedding day. It was an old family adage that when a de Warenne fell in love, it was once and forever, although it might take some time for that climactic event to happen. Elysse squeezed Ariella's hand as they started down the long corridor, lined with family portraits. "Did he say why he's been gone so long?"
"My brother is a seaman and an adventurer," Ariella said. "He is smitten with China--or the China trade, anyway. It was all he could talk about last night--he wants to build a clipper just for the trade!"
Elysse looked at her as they went downstairs. "Then he will continue to lease out to the East India Company? I was surprised when I had heard he'd leased the Ariel out. I can't imagine Alexi in someone else's employ." Alexi had never leased out his ship before.
"He was determined to get into the trade," Ariella said. "I do believe everyone within a league of Askeaton has called, to hear firsthand about China and his run!"
Elysse could hear the murmurs of conversation downstairs. Clearly, they had many callers. But of course, the neighbors would be interested in Alexi's return from China. News of his travels would have spread like wildfire. It was surely the most exciting event of the Season.
As they reached the bottom of the stairs, she could see across the great entry hall, where her neighbors and family had gathered. Askeaton was the ancestral home of the O'Neill family and the great hall was vast, with stone floors and walls, its ceilings timbered. Great, old tapestries were hanging on two of its walls. From one set of oversize windows, one could see out across the rolling green Irish countryside, and past the ruined tower behind the manor house. But Elysse did not look outside, or even at the crowd.
Alexi stood in front of the huge stone fireplace, his posture assured but indolent, clad in a riding coat, breeches and boots. The eighteen-year-old boy was gone. A grown man had taken his place. He was surrounded by their callers. Yet his gaze lifted immediately, moved across the crowd, and their eyes met.
For one moment, she simply stared. He had changed so much. He was a man of experience now. A man of confidence. She saw it in the way he stood, the way he shifted ever so slightly to face her directly. Then, finally, he smiled at her.
Her heart lurched oddly and the happiness was instantaneous. Alexi was home.
Her brother, Jack, slapped his shoulder. "Damn it, you can't leave it there, tell me about the Sundra Strait."
For one more moment, they stared at one another, that odd half smile on his face, while Elysse beamed. She couldn't help noticing that he was even more handsome than when he had left her. Then she saw that three of her girlfriends stood beside him, more closely than the rest of the crowd, their expressions rapt.
"It took us three full days to beat through, Jack." Alexi turned to her tall, golden brother. "I'll even admit I had a moment or two when I wondered if we'd be cast up on the shoals there--spending the next fortnight in Anjers making repairs."
Alexi turned and gestured, and a tall tawny-haired man in a frock coat, a stock and waistcoat, and pale trousers came over. Alexi seized his shoulder. "I don't think we'd have made our run in a hundred and twelve days without Montgomery. Best ship's pilot I ever had. Best thing I ever did was take him on board in Lower Canada."
Elysse finally looked at Alexi's pilot, who was probably a few years older than them both, and found him regarding her. Montgomery smiled at her as one of their neighbors, a gentleman squire, said eagerly, "Tell us about the China Sea! Did you weather a typhoon?"
"No, tell us about the tea," Father MacKenzie cried, smiling.
"Will China really stay closed to all foreigners?" Jack asked.
Alexi grinned at them all. "I got the first pick, black tea, the best you've ever had--I vow it. It's Pekoe. You won't find any other ship's captain bringing it home. Not this Season." Although he spoke to the crowded room, his gaze never wavered from her.
"How did you manage that feat?" Cliff asked, smiling proudly at his son.
Alexi turned to his father. "That is a long story, one that involves a few pretty pennies and a very astute and greedy comprador."
Elysse realized she had remained upon the last few steps like a statue. What on earth was wrong with her? She quickly started down them, still watching Alexi as he turned to one of her girlfriends, who asked him what Pekoe tea was like. Before he could answer, Elysse felt herself miss a step and stumble.
She seized the railing, mortified. She was usually very graceful. As she grasped the railing, someone caught her arm, preventing her from crashing to her knees and utterly humiliating herself.
Alexi slid his arm securely around her.
As he helped her straighten, Elysse looked up into his dazzling blue eyes.
For one moment, she was in his embrace. He began to smile, as if amused. "Hello, Elysse."
Her cheeks felt terribly hot, but that was from the embarrassment of being so foolishly clumsy, not from being in his arms--she was certain. Still, she was terribly confused and almost disoriented. She had never felt so small, so petite and feminine, and Alexi had never seemed so strong, so tall or so male. His body was hard and warm against hers. Her heart was thundering now.
What on earth was wrong with her?
Somehow, she stepped away, putting a proper distance between them. His smile seemed to widen. Her flush felt as if it had expanded--even her chest was hot. "Hello, Alexi. I have never heard of Pekoe tea." She lifted her chin.
"I am not surprised. No one gets first pickings--except, of course, for me," he boasted. His gaze seemed to be on her décolletage, then her eyes. She wasn't certain what had just happened. She wondered suddenly if he found her beautiful, as her many suitors did.
It took her a moment to recover. "Of course you got the best tea." Strangely unnerved, she said lightly, "I didn't know you were back. When did you get home?"