“Don’t worry. I’m still putting the final touches on our escape plan. We’re not going anywhere today.”
“Good.” She added under her breath, “I think.”
She hurried downstairs and out the front door to find her friends waiting in the center of the square. Nicola, Penny, and a nanny goat exploring the green on a collar and lead, like a lapdog out for a constitutional.
Alex flung her arms around each of them in greeting. Penny gave the most marvelously tight hugs, and Nicola always smelled like burnt sugar. Alex’s heart wrenched. She hadn’t realized how deeply she’d been missing her friends.
“It’s so good to see you both. Why have you come?”
“Emma’s had her baby.” Nic held up an envelope. “The express arrived this morning.”
“That, and Marigold needed a graze.” Penny scratched the nanny goat between her ears.
Alex whisked the letter from Nicola’s hand, unfolding it to read for herself. It was so brief, scanning the contents took but a second. “Oh, it’s a boy,” she said. “How wonderful. I assume he’ll be called Richmond, as it’s the courtesy title. There’s no mention of his Christian name.”
“It’s a terrible letter,” Nicola said. “Ashbury wrote it. Never trust a man to write about babies.”
“No descriptions whatsoever.” Penny sighed. “How are we to know what he looks like? Which of his parents does he favor? What about his temperament?”
“He’s probably pink, wrinkly, bald, and hungry, like all newborn babes. I doubt he’s had time to declare a political affiliation.” Alex folded the letter and gave it back to Nicola. “We’ll have to be patient. Emma will write when she’s well rested, and she’ll tell us every detail.”
“Speaking of details,” Nicola said meaningfully, “I believe a certain governess owes us a few.”
“Yes.” Penny released Marigold’s leash and took Alex by the arm, dragging her to the nearest bench. “Tell us everything.”
They didn’t have to ask Alexandra twice. She unburdened herself of a fortnight’s thoughts. She told them all about Rosamund and Daisy. The daily doll funerals, the petty theft, and the five accomplishments she had been given ten weeks—now eight—to help them master.
“The poor dears are hurting,” Penny said. “They need snuggles, not lessons.”
“I know. But preparing them for school is the task I’ve been employed to complete. If I don’t succeed . . .” Alex propped her elbows on her knees and let her chin fall into her hands. “They’ve no interest in needlework. They’re immune to bribery. And how am I supposed to teach Daisy penmanship when she doesn’t even know her letters?”
“I wish we could be of more help to you with the governessing,” Nicola said, “but traditional ladylike accomplishments aren’t our strong points, either.”
“I know,” said Alex. “That’s why I treasure you.”
They were friends precisely because they didn’t fit in with the finishing school set. They were different, and unashamed of it. The same could be said of Rosamund and Daisy. The world would try to tell them they weren’t good enough, and Alex hated participating in that effort.
Penny lunged to catch the goat’s leash. “What of the Bookshop Rake? Has he confessed his love for you yet?”
“No,” Alex replied. “No.”
“That disavowal was entirely too vehement to be believed.”
“I spend my days with the girls in the schoolroom,” she insisted. “I scarcely cross paths with the man.”
Except for a few minutes every morning, when he holds my hand in his. Oh, and that one foolish, fumbling kiss in the kitchen.
“Come now,” Penny wheedled. “We’re your closest friends. If he’s romancing you, you must tell.”
Nicola groaned. “If he’s harassing her, you mean.”
“There is nothing to tell,” Alex insisted. “Nothing romantic. Nothing villainous. Nothing at all.”
Alex didn’t even consider her statement to be an untruth. This never happened, he’d said. And so it hadn’t. That kiss in the kitchen was the last time she would let herself be carried away. From now on, practicality reigned.
“Believe me,” she insisted once more for good measure. “I’m more likely to find my future in the stars than in the arms of Chase Reynaud.”
Nicola perked. “Oh, I nearly forgot.” She untied her bonnet and removed it carefully, withdrawing a packet wrapped in brown paper, which she handed to Alex. “I finally got the lavender-vanilla shortbread right. Took me seven attempts, but at last I made a batch that didn’t taste like soap.”
Alex accepted the packet. “You carried them here in your bonnet?”
“The goat kept trying to snatch them from my hand, and Penny said she’s not allowed sweets. When are you sending that animal back to the country, anyway?”
“When she’s healed, of course. Marigold has sensitive digestion.”
“Obviously,” Nic said dryly, looking on as Penny coaxed the animal away from a half-eaten shrub. “A delicate stomach indeed.”
Clutching the packet of shortbread in both hands, Alex kissed Nicola on the cheek in farewell. “Thank you. This was precisely what I needed.”