Until, of course, the morning that she did.
The morning began in the same way as most of Chase’s mornings lately. With a tragic demise.
He turned onto his side. As he blinked, Rosamund’s face came into focus. “What was it this time?”
Using the sofa’s upholstered arm for leverage, he pushed to a sitting position. As he did so, his brain sloshed with regret. He rubbed his temples, ruing his behavior the night before. And his licentiousness in the very early morning. While he was at it, he decided he might as well regret his entire misspent youth, too. Clear a bit of his afternoon schedule.
“It can wait until later.” Once his head ceased ringing and he’d washed off the cloying scent of French perfume.
“It must be now, Daisy says, or else the contagion could spread. She’s preparing the body.”
Chase groaned. He decided it wasn’t worth arguing. Might as well have it done with.
As they began climbing the four flights of stairs to the nursery, he interrogated his ten-year-old ward. “Can’t you do something about this?”
“She’s your little sister.”
“You’re her guardian.”
He grimaced, rubbing his throbbing temple. “Discipline isn’t one of my particular talents.”
“Obedience isn’t one of ours,” Rosamund replied.
“I’ve noticed. Don’t think I didn’t see you pocket that shilling from the side table.” They reached the top of the stairs and turned down the corridor. “Listen, this has to stop. Quality boarding schools don’t offer enrollment to petty thieves or serial murderesses.”
“It wasn’t murder. It was typhus.”
“Oh, to be sure it was.”
“And we don’t want to go to boarding school.”
“Rosamund, it’s time you learned a harsh lesson.” He opened the nursery door. “We don’t always get what we want in life.”
Didn’t Chase know it. He didn’t want to be guardian to a pair of orphaned girls. He didn’t want to be next in line for the Belvoir dukedom. And he most assuredly did not want to be attending his fourth funeral in as many days. Yet here he was.
Daisy turned to them. A veil of dark netting covered her straw-colored curls. “Please show respect for the dead.”
She waved Chase forward. He dutifully crossed to her side, bending down so that she could pin a black armband around his shirtsleeve.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said. So very sorry. You don’t know how sorry.
He took his place at the head of the bed, looking down at the deceased. She was ghostly pale and swaddled in a white shroud. Buttons covered her eyes. Thank God. It was damned unnerving when the eyes looked up at him with that glassy, empty stare.
Daisy reached for his hand and bowed her head. After leading them in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, she poked Chase in the ribs. “Mr. Reynaud, kindly say a few words.”
Chase looked to the heavens. God help him.
“Almighty Father,” he began in a dispirited tone, “we commit to your keeping the soul of Millicent. Ashes to ashes. Sawdust to sawdust. She was a doll of few words and yet fewer autonomous movements, yet she will be remembered for the ever-present—some might say permanently painted—smile on her face. By the grace of our Redeemer, we know she will be resurrected, perhaps as soon as luncheon.” He added under his breath, “Unfortunately.”
“Amen,” Daisy intoned. With solemnity, she lowered the doll into the wooden toy chest, then closed the lid.
Rosamund broke the oppressive silence. “Let’s go down to the kitchen, Daisy. We’ll have buttered rolls and jam for our breakfast.”
“You’ll breakfast here,” he corrected. “In the nursery. Your governess will—”
“Our governess?” Daisy gave him a sweet, innocent look. “But we don’t have a governess at the moment.”
He groaned. “Don’t tell me the new one quit. I only hired her yesterday.”
Rosamund said proudly, “We were rid of her in seventeen and a quarter hours. A new record.”
Chase strode to the world map on the wall and plucked a tack from the border. “There.” He stabbed an unsuspecting country at random, then pointed at it with authority. “I am sending you to boarding school there. Enjoy”—he squinted at the map—“Malta.”
Fuming, Chase quit the room and made the journey back down the four flights of stairs, and then down a half flight more and through the kitchen—all the way to his private retreat. Upon entering, he shut and locked the door before exhaling a lungful of annoyance.
For a gentleman of leisure, he was damned exhausted. He needed a bath, a shave, a change of clothing, and a headache powder. Barrow would arrive in an hour with sheaves of papers to look over and bank drafts to sign. The club had a bacchanalian revel this evening. And now he must hire yet another governess.
Before he could face any of it, he needed a drink.
As he made his way to the bar, he navigated a card table draped with a dustcloth and a stack of paintings propped against the wall, waiting to be hung. The apartment was a work in progress. He had a well-furnished bedchamber upstairs, of course, but for now he needed a space as far away from the nursery as architecturally possible. The arrangement was for the girls’ benefit as much as his own. He would rather not know what mischief his wards wrought at the top of the house, and they must never learn of the devilry he practiced at the bottom of it.