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Cainewood Castle, the South of EnglandSummer 1808
It was almost like touching him.
Lady Alexandra Chase usually sketched a profile in just a few minutes, but she took her time today, lingering over the experience in the darkened room. Standing on one side of a large, framed pane of glass while Tristan sat sideways on the other, she traced his shadow cast by the glow of a candle. Her pencil followed his strong chin, his long, straight nose, the wide slope of his forehead, capturing his image on the sheet of paper she'd tacked to her side of the glass. Noticing a stray lock that tumbled down his brow, she hesitated, wanting to make certain she caught it just right.
Someone walked by the open door, causing Tris's shadow to flicker as the candle wavered. "Are you finished yet?" he asked from behind the glass panel.
"Hold still," she admonished, resisting the urge to peek around at him. "Artistry requires patience."
"This is a profile, not oil on canvas."
True, and she often wished she had the talent to paint, like her youngest sister, Corinna. But the fact that she was missing something Corinna had—that elusive, innate ability to see things others missed and convey them in color, light, and shade—didn't keep her from taking pride in her own hobby.
Alexandra made excellent profile portraits.
She'd been asking Tris to sit for her for years, but he'd never seemed to find time before. "You promised you'd sit still," she reminded him, knowing better than to read malice into his comment. "Just this once before you leave."
"I'm sitting," he said, and although his profile remained immobile, she could hear the laughter in his voice.
She loved that evidence of his control, just like she loved everything about Tris Nesbitt.
She'd been eight when they first met. Her favorite brother, Griffin, had brought him home between terms at school. In the many years since, as he and Griffin completed Eton and then Oxford, Tris had visited often, claiming to prefer his friend's large family to the quiet home he shared with his father.
Alexandra couldn't remember when she'd fallen in love, but she felt like she'd loved Tris forever.
Of course, nothing would ever come of it. Now, at fifteen, she was practical enough to accept that her father, the formidable Marquess of Cainewood, would never allow her to marry plain Mr. Tristan Nesbitt.
But that didn't stop her from wishing she could. It didn't stop her stomach from tingling when she heard his low voice, didn't stop her heart from skipping when she felt herself caught in his intense, silver-gray gaze.
Not that he directed his gaze her way often. It wasn't that he was unfriendly, but, after all, as far as he was concerned she was little more than Griffin's pesky younger sister.
Knowing Tris couldn't see her now, she skimmed her fingertips over his shadow, wishing she were touching him instead. She'd never touched him, not in real life. Such intimacy simply didn't occur between young ladies and men. Most especially between a marquess's daughter and an untitled man's son.
The drawing room's draperies were shut, and the resulting dimness seemed to afford them an odd closeness alone in the room. She traced the flow of his cravat illuminated through the glass onto her paper. "Where are you going again?" she asked, although she knew.
"Jamaica. My uncle wishes me to look after his interests. He owns a plantation there; I'm to learn how it's run."
He sounded sad. During this visit he'd seemed sad quite a bit. "Is that what you wish to do with your life?"
"He doesn't mean for me to stay there permanently. Only to acquaint myself with the operation so I can make intelligent decisions from afar."
"But do you wish to become his man of business? Do you want to manage his properties? Or would you rather do something else?"
He shrugged, his profile tilting, then settling back into the lines she'd so carefully drawn. "He financed my entire education. Have I a choice?"
"I suppose not." Her choices were limited, too. "How long will you be gone?"
"A year at the least, probably two, perhaps three."
Everything was changing. Griffin would leave soon as well—their father had bought him a commission in the cavalry. Although Griffin and Tris had spent much of the past few years at school and university, these new developments seemed different. They'd be across oceans. It wasn't that Alexandra would be alone—she'd still have her parents and her grandmother, her oldest brother and her two younger sisters—but she was already feeling the loss.
"Two or three years," she echoed, knowing Griffin would likely be gone even longer. "That seems a lifetime."
Tris's image shimmied as he laughed out loud. "I expect it might, to one as young as you."
He wasn't that much older, only one-and-twenty. But she supposed he'd seen a lot in the extra six years he had on her. Young men left home as adolescents to pursue their educations. They spent time hunting at country houses and carousing about London.
While she didn't exactly chafe at her own more restrictive life, she was counting the years and months until she'd turn eighteen and have her first season. She'd spent hour upon hour imagining the balls, the parties, and all the eligible young lords. One of those titled men would be her entrée to a new life as a society wife. A more exciting life, she hoped. And she would love her husband, she was certain, although right now she could hardly imagine loving any man besides Tris.
He'd never indicated any interest in her, but of course he wouldn't. As well as she, Tris knew his place. But that didn't stop her from wishing she knew whether he cared.
Just whether or not he cared.
"Will you bring me something from Jamaica?" she asked, startling herself with her boldness.
"Like what?" She heard astonishment in his voice. "A pineapple or some sugarcane?"
It was her turn to laugh. "Anything. Surprise me."
"All right, then. I will." He fell silent a moment, as though trying to commit the promise to memory. "Are you finished yet?"
"For now." She set down her pencil and walked to the windows, drew back the draperies, and blinked. The room's familiar blue-and-salmon color scheme suddenly seemed too bright.
She turned toward him, reconciling his face with the profile she'd just sketched. From the boy she'd met years ago, he'd grown into a handsome, masculine man—one might even say he looked arresting. But she wouldn't describe him as pretty. His jaw was too strong, his mouth too wide, his brows too heavy and straight. As she watched, he raked a hand through his hair—tousled, streaky dark blond hair that always seemed just a bit too long.
Her fingers itched to run through it, to sweep the stray lock from his forehead.
"It will take me a while to complete the portrait," she told him as she walked back to where he sat beside the glass, "but I'll have it ready for you before you leave."
"Keep it for me."
She blew out the candle, leaning close enough to catch a whiff of his scent, smelling soap and starch and something uniquely Tris. "Don't you want it?"
He rose from the chair, smiling down at her from his greater height. "I'll probably lose it if I take it with me."
"Very well, then." She'd been hoping he'd say she should keep it to remember him by. But as always, Tris was the perfect gentleman. If he did harbor any affection for her, he wouldn't betray so with such a remark. "I wish you a safe journey, Mr. Nesbitt."
She'd called him Tristan—or Tris—for years now, but suddenly that seemed too informal.
His gray gaze remained steady. "Thank you, Lady Alexandra. I wish you a happy life."
A happy life. She could be married by the time he returned, she realized with a shock. In fact, if he were gone three years, she very likely would be.
Her heart sank at the thought.
But at least she'd have his profile. When she was finished, it would be black on white in an elegant oval frame, a perfect likeness of his face. And she'd almost touched him while making it.
As he walked from the room, she peeled the paper off the glass and hugged it to her chest.
Take halfe a pound of Ground Almonds and a little more than that of Sugar. Make it up in a stiff paste with Whites of five Eggs and a little Essence of Almond whipt to a Froth. Beat it all well in a Mortar, and make it up in little Loaves, then bake them in a very cool oven on Paper and Tin-Plates.
I call these my magical sweets…my husband proposed directly after eating only one!
—Eleanor, Marchioness of Cainewood, 1728
Cainewood Castle, seven years laterJune 1815
"Not all of it!" Alexandra Chase made a mad grab for her youngest sister's arm. "We're instructed to add a little more sugar than almonds."
Corinna stopped grating and frowned. "I like sugar."
"You won't like these ratafia puffs if they're all sugar," their middle sister, Juliana, said as she took the cone-shaped sugar loaf and set it on the scarred wooden table in the center of Cainewood Castle's cavernous kitchen.
"Here, my arm is tired." Alexandra handed Corinna the bowl of egg whites she'd been beating, then scooped a proper amount of the sugar and poured it into another bowl that held the ground almonds. Stirring them together, she shook her head at Corinna. "You really are quite hopeless with recipes. If you didn't look so much like Mama, I'd wonder if you're truly her child."
A sudden sheen of tears brightened Corinna's brilliant blue eyes. She quickly blinked them away. "She always made good sweets, didn't she?"
"Excellent sweets," Juliana said in a sympathetic tone, shooting a warning glance to her older sister.
Alexandra felt abashed and maybe a little teary herself. She looked away, her gaze wandering the whitewashed stone walls of the kitchen. Heaven knew Corinna was the most talented of the three of them. She'd meant only to tease her sister about her lack of their family's renowned skills for making sweets, not remind her of their mother. Memories could still be painful, since Mama had been gone less than two years.
But the time for sadness was over…following years of mourning various family members one after another, Alexandra and her sisters were finally wearing cheerful colors and ready to face the world. In Alexandra's case, she was more than ready to put the sorrow behind her and get on with her life.
During her first and only season four long years ago, she'd entertained many excellent offers of marriage. But when her grandmother died shortly thereafter, all thoughts of a wedding had been postponed, and she'd missed the 1812 season while mourning her. Then her father had died, and she'd missed the 1813 season while mourning him. Then her mother had died, and she'd missed the 1814 season while mourning her. Then her oldest brother had died, making 1815's season yet another one of solitude here in the countryside.
All of the marriage-minded men who'd courted her had long since found available brides. But Alexandra wasn't sure she wanted to face another season, with all the attending games and frivolity. She just wanted to be a wife. She wanted to put her old life behind her and start over in a new place and a new situation.
As for her younger sisters, they'd yet to be presented at court and were beside themselves at the thought of finally having a season. It seemed all Juliana and Corinna could talk of were the many parties, balls, breakfasts, dances, and soirees they were looking forward to attending.
"I can hardly wait for next spring," Corinna said, echoing Alexandra's musings.
Juliana added a few drops of almond extract to the egg whites. "If Griffin has his way, we'll all be married long before spring. We'll never have a season."
"He cannot get us all married off so quickly." Alexandra idly stirred the almonds and sugar. "Never mind that he's been inviting his friends here to meet us since before we were out of mourning. You two will have your seasons. He'll have to be content with my marriage for now."
"If the 'magical' ratafia puffs do their job." Corinna handed the bowl of eggs back to Alexandra. "Here, now my arm is tired. This is hard work." Mopping her forehead with a towel, she looked pointedly through an archway to where a scullery maid stood drying a towering stack of dishes. "I cannot understand why you won't ask her—"
"If the magic is to work," Juliana interrupted patiently, "Alexandra must make the ratafia puffs herself, not relegate the task to a servant."
"Holy Hannah!" Corinna tossed her mane of long, wavy brown hair, which she insisted on wearing down even though she had long since become old enough to put it up. "It's blazing hot in here with the coal burning all the day long. Ladies don't work in the kitchen."
Still beating the eggs, Alexandra glanced at the ancient, stained journal that lay open on the long table. "Chase ladies do. Our foremothers have been making sweets forever." The heirloom volume was filled with recipes penned by Chase females going all the way back to the seventeenth century. "It's a tradition," she added, looking back up at her sister. "Will you be the first to break it?"
"Perhaps. Unlike you, I don't put much stock in tradition."
Alexandra beat the eggs harder. "You should—"
"Girls." Always the peacemaker, Juliana took the bowl of stiffened eggs and dumped the almond and sugar mixture into it. "Why is there no ratafia in ratafia puffs?" she asked, adeptly changing the subject.
"Perhaps we're supposed to serve ratafia with them," Corinna suggested.
Alexandra laughed. "Griffin invited Lord Shelton to take tea, not to drink spirits. I expect they're called ratafia puffs because they taste of almonds like ratafia does."
Corinna dipped a finger into the sweet mixture and licked it off. "Do you think Lord Shelton will really propose?"
Juliana rolled her lovely hazel eyes. "Alexandra could feed him dirt and he'd propose. Have you not seen the way he looks at her?"
"Like he'd rather eat her than the sweets?"
"Oh, do hold your tongues." Alexandra had noticed the way Lord Shelton looked at her, and although she couldn't figure out why he looked at her that way—she knew she had a pretty face, but her boring brown eyes and impossible-to-control brown hair left a lot to be desired—she had to confess it was gratifying. She only wished she felt the same way about him.
But even though he didn't make her heart race, he was handsome and kind. He possessed a fortune of his own, so she knew he wasn't after her sizable dowry. And he lived nearby, so she would see her sisters often.
He really was quite perfect.
Once, at fifteen, she'd basked in the illusion of love. But now she suspected love to be an unrealistic, childish expectation. Years of sadness and disappointment had taught her to expect less than she used to of life.
With any luck, the ratafia puffs would work their magic, she thought as she dropped shiny dollops of the batter onto a paper-lined tin baking sheet.
The Chase sisters were long overdue for some luck.
For the first time in seven years, Tristan rode over Cainewood Castle's drawbridge and into its quadrangle. As a groom hurried from the stables, he swung down from his black gelding, his gaze skimming the clipped lawn and the four stories of living quarters that formed a U around it.
Cainewood didn't look any different, although there was no reason it should. If he remembered right, the castle had been in Chase hands—save during the Commonwealth—for close to six hundred years. He shouldn't have expected it to change in the last seven.
But he'd changed, so it felt odd that this place hadn't.
Seven years ago, he'd been a young man of one-and-twenty on his way to Jamaica to begin a promising career working with his generous Uncle Harold. He'd had a new degree from the University of Oxford, a soon-to-be-healed broken heart, and nary a serious care in the world.
Four years ago, Uncle Harold had died, and Tristan had taken his place as the Marquess of Hawkridge.
These days, he was anything but carefree.
The young groom tipped his cap. "Take your horse, my lord?"
"Yes, thank you." Tristan handed over the reins. As his mount was led away, his gaze wandered the ancient keep—still as tumbledown as he remembered it—and past it to the old tilting yard that lay beyond. He smiled, recalling games played there as a youth, he and Griffin—and often, Griffin's charming little sisters—running through the untamed, ankle-high vegetation. Those summers spent here during his school years were memories to be treasured. Griffin's family had been a jolly substitute for the lack of his own.
"Tristan. Or I suppose I should call you Hawkridge. Whichever, it's been entirely too long."
Lost in his thoughts, he hadn't heard Griffin approach, but now he turned to see his old friend holding out a hand. He reached his own to grasp it.
"Ah, hell," Griffin said and pulled him into a rough embrace instead.
Tristan tensed for a stunned moment. Other than the impersonal attentions of his valet or a perfunctory handshake now and then, it was the first human touch he had felt in…entirely too long to remember.
He clapped his friend on the back. "Yes. Entirely too long," he echoed as he drew away. "Am I supposed to call you Cainewood?"
"Strikes the ear wrong after all these years, doesn't it?" Like the castle, Griffin's slightly crooked smile was familiar. "Griffin will do. I didn't expect you until tomorrow at the earliest."
Tristan walked with him toward the entrance. "Your note sounded urgent."
Before they reached the front steps, the double oak doors opened. Cainewood's longtime butler stood between them. "Welcome back, my lord," he said with a little bow.
"Why, thank you, Boniface," Tristan returned, pleased to see him again. The man was aptly named, for he had a bonnie face—a youthful countenance that belied his forty-odd years. No matter how hard he tried to look stiff and serious, he never quite succeeded. And other than a touch of gray gracing his temples, the years hadn't changed him a bit.
Tristan couldn't say the same for Griffin. "You look older," he said as they climbed the steps. Griffin's jaw looked firmer; his green eyes looked somewhat world-weary. "But I expect one could say the same of me."
Griffin nodded. "We're both shouldering responsibilities we never thought to have."
"Feeling overburdened, are you?" Tristan was surprised. "Surely the marquessate is less stressful than plotting war strategy."
"You have no idea." They stepped inside. "I have three sisters to marry off, and that's only the beginning—"
"They cannot already be old enough to wed!"
Griffin's laugh boomed through the three-story-high entrance hall, all the way up to its stone-vaulted ceiling. "You expect we aged while time stood still for them?" He led Tristan up the carved stone staircase. "Corinna—the baby—is nearly twenty. Plenty old enough to find a husband."
Tristan frowned. "And Juliana and Alexandra?" he asked, deliberately mentioning her last.
Maybe she would seem less important that way.
"Twenty-one and twenty-two." They turned on the landing and went up a second level to the family's private apartments. "Four deaths in the family have kept them from the marriage mart, but I mean to see them all settled now—and soon."
Griffin ushered Tristan into a dark wood study. Waving him into a leather wing chair, he went to open a cabinet.
Tristan sat warily. "Look, old man, I sympathize with your problem, but your letter indicated you were in dire straits and needed my expertise—"
"Yes." Rather than sitting behind the massive mahogany desk, Griffin chose the chair beside Tristan's. "I appreciate your response." He set two crystal glasses on the small table between them, unstoppered a matching decanter, and began pouring. "Regardless of the fact that you've hidden yourself away in the countryside all these years, you are known far and wide—"
"I'm not in search of a wife!"
"—for your advances in scientific agriculture and land management." In the midst of handing Tristan a glass, Griffin blinked. "Wife? Do you imagine I asked you here to marry one of my sisters? Perish the thought!"
Tristan breathed deep of the brandy as he wavered between relief and annoyance. Never mind that he had no interest in wedding any of Griffin's sisters—or anyone else, for that matter—he wasn't sure he appreciated having his unsuitability thrown directly into his face. "Why did you summon me, then?"
"I need your help. I've heard you've worked miracles with Hawkridge's vineyard."
"I've managed to revive it, yes. We've had two excellent harvests—the wine from last year's is particularly good." Relaxing back, Tristan took a bracing sip of the fine spirits. "You're in need of wine?"
Griffin's sip was more like a gulp. "Charles," he said, referring to his late older brother, "had taken up growing grapes, with an eye to making wine. He planted vines some three years ago—"
"Charles wanted to make wine?"
"It's the latest thing; haven't you heard? What with the prices soaring during the war against France, I suspect he thought to make a killing. But regardless, Charles always was a swell of the first stare."
"Yes," Tristan said dryly. "He was." He well remembered Charles, a tall, dark man with an air of superiority and an eye to owning the best. "Go on, then."
"I've been told not to expect a yield suited for production for another year at the least. But the vines should be bearing fruit by now, shouldn't they? They're not producing anything."
"Three years with nothing at all? Not even the odd bloom?"
"Nothing beyond leaves. I fear they may be dying. And I haven't the foggiest idea what to do." Griffin's fingers tightened on his glass. "I'm trained to lead men into battle, not manage land and livestock."
"Not to mention make wine, which is another enterprise entirely." Tristan sipped thoughtfully. "With more than thirteen thousand acres, a good percentage of that productive, you cannot stand to lose the vineyard? This is your emergency?"
Griffin colored. "I apologize if my letter made it sound dire. But…this was Charles's pet project. He invested a fair amount of funds, and I wish to make a success of it." After hesitating a moment, he met Tristan's eyes. "I hate to think I might fail where my brother would have succeeded. I'm not comfortable with these responsibilities—they were meant to be his, and I wasn't raised to the task. But I mean to make the best of it."
The admission sounded pained, but Tristan could sympathize. He didn't imagine that military officers sat around at night baring their souls. And as for himself, it had been a long time since he'd had anyone to confide in.
"I understand," he said. He hadn't been raised with expectations of inheriting a title, either. Quite the contrary, he'd been born the son of a second son, a mere mister who'd attended the right schools only on the largesse of his uncle. "I'm trying to make the best of my life, too."
Griffin nodded, looking uneasy.
These days, most everyone was uneasy around Tristan.
"Shall I have a look at your vineyard?" He drained his glass, set it down, and began to rise.
"It will have to wait until tomorrow." Waving him back down, Griffin refilled their glasses. "It's a good hour each way by horseback, and I'm expecting another caller shortly. A very acceptable suitor for Alexandra's hand."
Alexandra. Tristan pictured long dark curls and innocent young eyes. He wondered how she'd look all grown up.
He wondered if she'd have the same effect on him she used to.
"We'll ride over in the morning," Griffin added. "You'll stay, won't you? At least long enough to evaluate the situation?"
"I'll stay as long as I'm needed." Though Griffin's problem wasn't as pressing as Tristan had imagined, it had been a long time since he'd felt needed.
And a long time since he'd seen Lady Alexandra Chase.
"You look lovely, Alexandra." Standing in the high gallery, Juliana tweaked her sister's low, ruffle-edged neckline. "Lord Shelton won't be able to resist you."
"Especially after he tries your magical ratafia puffs." Corinna grabbed one of the small sweets from the tray on a marble side table and popped it into her mouth. She sighed as it dissolved on her tongue. "François said they turned out perfect."
"Lord Shelton won't be able to try one if you eat them all first." Alexandra lifted the silver tray, smiling at the little golden puffs, which had been beautifully arranged by François, their French cook. "Come along, now. Lord Shelton is surely waiting." She hurried through the gallery, lifting her blue sprigged muslin skirts with one hand while carrying the fancy tray with the other.
Her sisters flanked her going down the wide stone staircase. "Gentlemen expect to wait for ladies," Juliana said. "It's not the thing to appear too eager."
"I don't care to play those silly feminine games," Alexandra said, gazing down at her sister.
Juliana was exceedingly short—so short she made Alexandra feel tall, although she and Corinna were rather average in height. Juliana, Alexandra had noticed in the brief time Griffin had been inviting his friends to pay calls, attracted men like bees to honey—most especially the shorter men.
Thankfully, Lord Shelton was tall.
On the first floor, Alexandra paused in the picture gallery outside the drawing room's door. Masculine voices drifted out. Griffin must have been entertaining her guest—or, more likely, trying to talk him into a proposal.
With any luck, his efforts would pay off.
She schooled her expression into a welcoming one and rounded the corner into the room. "Lord Shelton," she said pleasantly, "please excuse my tardiness. I hope these sweet confections will make up for the wait."
Lord Shelton turned and smiled, walking toward her. But her gaze shifted past him, to where another man stood beside her brother. As he turned slightly and she met his eyes—intense gray eyes she recalled from years before—her heart gave a little skip.
He still had the same strong jaw, the same long nose, the same heavy, straight brows. His skin was unfashionably bronzed, as though he'd spent much time outdoors, and his streaky brown-blond hair still looked tousled, as it used to—and still made her wish to run her fingers through it.
The mere sight of him robbed her of breath.
"Good afternoon, my dear," Lord Shelton said. "I was more than pleased to receive your invitation to take tea."
She tore her gaze from Tris. Lord Shelton looked pale in comparison, his skin a pasty white, his hair the lightest blond, his eyes an innocuous blue. Odd, his paleness had never made an impression on her before. It seemed almost as though he'd faded.
And he wasn't as tall as she'd thought. At least not when he was standing in the same room with Tris.
"Thank you for accepting the invitation," she murmured, struggling to remember her manners.
"I'm certain you girls recall Tristan," Griffin prompted.
Juliana and Corinna curtsied. "Mr. Nesbitt," they said in unison.
Dazed, Alexandra followed suit. "Mr. Nesbitt."
"The Marquess of Hawkridge now," her brother informed them. "Tristan inherited four years back."
Tris was titled now? How had that happened? And where had he been all this time? she wanted to ask. That and a million other questions. She hadn't seen him in…sweet heaven, was it seven years? While she hadn't precisely forgotten him in all that time, she had forgotten how just looking at him made her insides melt like butter.
Or maybe she'd banished that from her thoughts.
"Lord Hawkridge," she corrected herself.
"Lady Alexandra," he returned with a vague if polite nod. "And Ladies Juliana and Corinna. My, if you haven't all grown up since I saw you last."
Of course, when he saw Alexandra last, he'd paid her little mind. If he'd noticed her at all, he'd thought of her as Griffin's bothersome younger sister.
And he didn't seem to be paying her any mind now, either.
He turned back to Griffin. "Do you know what time of the year Charles planted the vines?"
"I haven't the foggiest idea," Griffin said.
Lord Shelton stepped closer. "Lady Alexandra." There was a cloying quality to his voice that had been missing when Lord Hawkridge said the same words. Alexandra supposed Lord Shelton was trying to sound romantic. She probably would have reacted positively to that yesterday.
He lifted her gloved hand and pressed a kiss to the back. "My dear, you look exquisite."
She'd never heard anything quite so disingenuous.
Juliana elbowed her discreetly. "Perhaps Lord Shelton would like to taste one of your ratafia puffs."
Alexandra looked down to the silver tray, forgotten in her other hand. "Oh, not quite yet." Her laughter sounded forced to her own ears. "Don't you think we should pour the tea first?"
Ignoring her sisters' puzzled frowns, she walked clear across the room and put the tray on a gilt-legged table that sat against the wall.
Juliana began pouring. "The puffs can hardly work their magic from over there."
"Magic?" Lord Shelton inquired.
"Please do sit," Alexandra told him, leaving the tray safely distant while she made her way back across the room. She seated herself on one of the light blue velvet sofas instead of a chair; a tactical error, since Lord Shelton immediately took the place beside her.
That wouldn't have bothered her yesterday. But his scent—an Oriental mix—was too flowery and suddenly annoying.
When Juliana handed her a teacup, she rose and went to Lord Hawkridge where he was talking with her brother. He smelled of clean soap and starch and something else she couldn't identify—but it was decidedly male. "Tea, my lord?"
"Thank you." He took it while barely sparing her a glance. "Not every variety is suited to our climate," he said to Griffin.
"You're welcome," Alexandra murmured.
"Alexandra," Corinna called conspicuously, "since you're up, why don't you get the ratafia puffs and bring them over here?"
"Not just yet." Alexandra marched to the sofa and plopped back down, giving her sister a pointed look. "I've decided I'm not certain I wish to serve the ratafia puffs at all."
Lord Shelton glanced between them, clearly confused. "And why not?"
"Yes, why not?" Corinna pressed. "They're supposed to be magical."
"Precisely." Alexandra accepted another teacup from Juliana and sipped. "I've no wish to employ magic."
"Magic?" Lord Shelton repeated.
Juliana stood. "May I speak with you in private?" Before Alexandra could disagree, she pulled her up by the arm and drew her out into the picture gallery, Corinna in their wake.
Juliana's hazel eyes radiated concern. "What's going on?"
"Nothing." Alexandra glanced away, her gaze landing on a solemn ancestor who glared from a canvas on the smooth stone wall, looking exceedingly disapproving.
"Nothing?" If possible, Corinna appeared even more disapproving. "Why won't you give Lord Shelton one of the magical ratafia puffs?"
"Magical?" Putting scorn into her voice, Alexandra focused on each of her sisters in turn. "Do you truly believe that eggs and sugar can be magical?"
"Of course not," Corinna said quickly. "But don't you think it's worth a try?"
Juliana laid a gloved hand on Alexandra's arm. "If they did work," she said gently, "you could add a notation to Eleanor Cainewood's entry in the recipe book, verifying her allegation. It's a tradition."
"I don't care," Alexandra said blithely. At least, she hoped she sounded blithe.
Her sisters stared at her, their eyes wide.
"You don't care?" Juliana breathed. "About tradition?" She pulled off a glove and reached to touch Alexandra's forehead. "Are you ill?"
"No." Alexandra drew away. "I just don't care about this silly tradition."
"But, Alexandra…" Juliana hugged herself. "You're the most traditional person I've ever met."
It was true. Juliana was known for her wild ideas—always meant to help, of course—and Corinna was a bit of a rebel. But Alexandra always did exactly the right thing. She ran her brother's enormous household like clockwork; she kept up with her correspondence; she visited the villagers and tenants, both healthy and ailing, always with some famous Chase sweets in hand. She could sing, play the pianoforte, make lovely profile portraits, and embroider—and if she wasn't exactly renowned for any of those talents, at least she was competent.
Alexandra was a perfect lady. The best single word to describe her was traditional. But right at the moment, tradition could hang for all she cared.
She set her jaw. "I don't want Lord Shelton to eat any ratafia puffs."
Her sisters exchanged matching looks of astonishment. "Why?" Juliana asked carefully.
Corinna cocked her head. "Are you that certain he'll propose without them?"
"I don't wish him to propose at all."
Juliana dropped her glove. "What?"
"You heard me." Alexandra drew a deep breath, relieved the truth was out. "I've changed my mind."
Juliana blinked. "But Griffin expects you to marry Lord Shelton."
When Alexandra only shrugged, Corinna frowned. "You always do the expected thing."
"How very tedious. It's about time I changed, don't you think?"
"Girls?" Alexandra's flabbergasted sisters were saved from answering when Griffin stepped into the gallery. "What are you all doing out here?"
"Talking." Juliana bent to retrieve her glove.
Griffin looked toward the stone-vaulted ceiling as though praying for heaven-sent strength. "Lord Shelton is inquiring after your presence." He lowered his gaze to Alexandra and smiled. "He likes your sweets very much."
"Oh!" she said, when she wanted to say "Drat!" Not that she believed in magic, but…what if the ratafia puffs worked? She didn't want to actually turn down Lord Shelton's proposal. Griffin would never forgive her.
"I'm not feeling well," she told him—and suddenly, it wasn't a fib. The thought of marrying Lord Shelton made nausea rise in her throat. "Please give Lord Shelton my apologies," she said. "I must go lie down."