Just yesterday, Rosamund had woken him with a single word: “Tapeworms.” He’d all but leapt to his feet with delight.
It wasn’t entirely desire, but it was partly desire. He knew an innocent outward appearance often concealed a tightly coiled spring waiting for release. In the dark of night, with that virginal shift unbuttoned and that plait of dark hair unbound, Alexandra Mountbatten might prove surprising.
No sooner had he conjured the image than she untied the strip of linen holding the end of her plait. As her hair came unbound and fell loose, he stared at a lock of black satin dipping to graze the slope of her neck.
She pursed her lips and blew over his wound to dry it.
“There’s no doubt that they’re clever,” she went on, winding the strip of linen about his thumb, “but life’s taught them some difficult lessons. One only needs to look at Millicent to know Daisy’s hurting. It’s obvious from spending mere minutes with Rosamund that she’s learned to be wary. She won’t lower her guard easily. It will take time and patience to gain her trust.”
“You have until Michaelmas.”
“We have until Michaelmas.” She deftly tucked the strip of linen in on itself, securing the binding.
“Disciplining children is not among my talents. That’s why I hired you to take them in hand.”
She looked up at him. “Maybe they don’t need to be taken in hand, but taken into someone’s heart.”
Heart? He tugged his hand from hers. “Oh, no. Don’t get ideas.”
“Goodness. Heaven forbid that a woman have ideas.”
“Ideas are all well and good, but not those ideas. I know that look in a woman’s eye. I’ve seen it before, many times. You think you can convince me to settle down.”
“You don’t need to settle down. My father was a sea captain. I was raised on a ship, sailing the globe. We were the least settled family in the world, and yet I never doubted his love for me.”
“Wait. You were raised aboard a ship? Sailing the globe?”
She paused in the act of packing up the unused salves and plaster. “I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that.”
“No, I think you should have mentioned it. And long before now.”
“Does it truly matter? Perhaps I had an unconventional upbringing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t perform my duties. I had a full education. Here in England, at a proper school. I . . . I did warn you I wasn’t gently bred, and you said you didn’t care.” Her voice went small, but resonant with emotion. “Mr. Reynaud, I need this post. Please don’t sack me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I have no intention of sacking you. That’s not what I meant.”
“No. You should have told me straightaway because you should tell everyone straightaway. If I had your life story, it would be the first thing I mentioned to anyone. ‘Hullo, I’m Chase Reynaud. I learned to toddle aboard a merchant ship, and the Seven Seas rocked my cradle. And have I mentioned that no tropical sunset could compare with your beauty?’ The women would fall into bed with me.”
“Don’t they fall into bed with you anyway?”
“That’s true. But they might do so a half minute faster. Over months and years, those half minutes add up. So let’s hear the rest of the tale.”
She put away the soap and vinegar. “My father was American. After the Revolution—”
“The rebellion,” he corrected.
“—he became a seaman. He’d worked his way up to first mate when they anchored in Manila harbor. Theirs was one of the first ships to open trade with the Philippine Islands. Aside from the Spaniards, of course. Anyhow, they anchored for a few months. That’s where he met my mother. And they fell in love.”
“She was a Spanish colonist, then?”
“Mestiza. My grandfather was Spanish, but my grandmother was native to the island.”
Fascinating. This information solved a few mysteries that had been lingering in Chase’s mind. Life on a trading ship would have taught her the value of goods—everything from the ribbon around her neck, to telescopes and comets. He supposed her mother had blessed her with that bounty of dark hair and her delicate snub of a nose—and her father was likely to blame for her stubborn, independent streak. Those Americans just wouldn’t be told what to do.
“So if your father was American, and he met your mother in the Philippine Islands . . . how did you come to be living in England?”
“That’s a long story.”
He looked pointedly at his bandaged hand. “I won’t be doing any more work tonight.”
She paused. “After they married, my father sailed back to Boston. He promised to return once he’d found a partner and bought a ship of his own. It was only supposed to be a year, but in the end, it took him more than three. When he finally returned, he found that my mother had died. He was no longer a husband.”