He bent to place a kiss on Millicent’s painted forehead. “Bless her soul. She looks just as though she’s sleeping. Or awake. Or doing anything else, really.”
Alex’s mouth twitched at the corners, but she bowed her head and tried to appear bereaved.
“Let us begin,” Daisy said solemnly.
They formed a semicircle at the foot of the bed. Rosamund went to Daisy’s right side. Mr. Reynaud assumed what was clearly his usual place at Daisy’s left—which put him next to Alexandra.
She didn’t want to think about where he’d been since she saw him last, but her senses gave her no choice in the matter. When she inhaled, she smelled brandy and sandalwood, and the suggestion that he’d walked through a cloud of cheroot smoke. She didn’t detect any hint of a lady’s perfume, however. That should not have come as a relief, but it did.
She stared at the bedpost and set her mind on tragedy.
“Mr. Reynaud, would you kindly say a few words?” Daisy asked.
“But of course.” He clasped his hands together and intoned in a low, grave voice, “Almighty Father, we are gathered here today to commend to your keeping the soul of Millicent Fairfax.”
Daisy nudged him with her elbow.
“Millicent Annabelle Chrysanthemum Genevieve Fairfax,” he corrected.
Alexandra bit the inside of her cheek. How could the man keep a straight face through all this?
“She will be remembered for her faithful companionship. A truer friend never lived. Not once did she stray from Daisy’s side—save for the few occasions when she rolled off the bed.”
Oh, help. Alex was going to laugh. She knew it. Biting her tongue clean through wouldn’t help.
Perhaps she could disguise a burst of laughter as a cough. After all, consumption was catching.
“Let Millicent’s composure in the face of certain death be a model for us all. Her eyes remained fixed on heaven—and not merely because she lacked any eyelids to close.”
She cast a pleading glance at him, only to catch him glancing back with devilish amusement. He wanted her to laugh, the terrible man. And then, just as she thought she was lost, he took her hand in his, lacing their fingers into a tight knot.
Alex no longer worried she might laugh.
Instead, her heart squeezed.
On Mr. Reynaud’s other side, Daisy clasped her guardian’s hand tight. Then she offered her free hand to Rosamund. The four of them had formed an unbroken chain, and Alex realized the truth. Here were three people who desperately needed each other—perhaps even loved each other—and they would all rather contract consumption than admit it.
Daisy bowed her veiled head. “Let us pray.”
Alex fumbled her way through the Lord’s Prayer, quietly reeling. His grip was so warm and firm. His signet ring pressed against her third and fourth fingers. The moment felt intimate. The way they stood holding hands, heads bowed in prayer, it felt less like a funeral, and more like . . .
What was wrong with her? Had she learned nothing from those months of foolish imaginings? All those silly fantasies had popped like a soap bubble when it became clear he’d forgotten her completely. Chase Reynaud was not the man of her dreams. By his own declaration, he would never even think of seducing her.
She really needed to start on that sampler.
“Lead us not into temptation,” Alex prayed fervently, “but deliver us from evil.”
When the prayer was done, Daisy placed the deceased doll reverently in a toy-chest “grave.”
Mr. Reynaud kept Alexandra’s hand in his. “Well, then, Miss Mountbatten. Now that’s over with, I shall leave you to your pupils.” He gave her hand a light squeeze before releasing it. “Let the education begin.”
The education was on hold. Before any lessons could take place, Alexandra had a ten-year-old girl to conquer.
After breakfast, the Rosamund Rebellion commenced.
Silence was her first strategy, and she’d marshaled Daisy into the campaign. Neither of them would speak a word to Alex. Indeed, once the funeral was over, neither of them even acknowledged her presence. Rosamund read her book, Daisy exhumed Millicent, and all three treated Alex as if she didn’t exist.
Very well. Both sides could play at this game.
The next day, Alex didn’t even try to start conversation. Instead, she brought a novel and a packet of biscuits—Nicola had sent her off with a full hamper of them—and she sat in the rocking chair to read. She laughed aloud at the funny bits—really, pigeons?—gasped at the revelations, and loudly chewed her way through a dozen biscuits. At one point, she was certain she felt Daisy gazing at her from across the room. However, she didn’t dare look up to confirm it.
It became a habit. Every day, Alex brought with her a novel, and every day, a different variety of Nicola’s biscuits. Lemon, almond, chocolate, toffee. And every day, as she sat eating and reading, the girls ignored her existence.