“What other—” She caught herself, but it was too late. Her ignorance had been exposed. Much like his bare, sculpted chest.
“So, the governess has a few delicate sensibilities after all. There are other ways to give and take pleasure, Alexandra. A great many ways.” His gaze swept her. “Shall I teach you a lesson?”
Without taking his eyes from her, he drained the last of his brandy.
Alexandra found that her reserve of courage was similarly drained. She didn’t know where to look. Her gaze kept landing in the worst possible places. The heap of his discarded clothing. The closed door. The bed.
“Daisy needs spectacles,” she blurted out.
And then she turned and fled.
“The girl ca—” Daisy stopped and tried again. “The girl cat-cheese . . .”
“Catches,” Alex gently corrected.
“The girl catches the fish.”
“Very good, darling. Go on.”
Now that she’d been fitted for spectacles, Daisy was flying through her primers. Her mind had connected the letters and sounds long ago. She simply hadn’t been able to see them.
The primers had needed a bit of editing. As originally written by a certain Mr. Browne—who suffered an appalling lack of imagination—the boys did everything interesting and the girls never left home.
Nothing that a few snips of the shears and a couple dabs of paste couldn’t manage.
Daisy turned the page. “The boy wa-shes the dish.”
Rosamund was making strides, too. Or if not making strides, at least she’d stopped mulishly blocking the road. The girl had already been a voracious reader, and her command of numbers was well beyond her years. She scarcely needed any lessons. What she needed were the sorts of things she’d never ask for and only would occasionally, grudgingly accept. Things like praise and warm pats on the shoulder. Alex was still working up to hugs.
All in all, she was encouraged. There was still a great deal to accomplish by summer’s end, but both Rosamund and Daisy were on their way.
And then there was Chase.
His amorous liaison with Winifred may not have come to fruition, as it were, but it seemed to have had the intended effect. Chase now avoided Alex with unqualified success. Save for the perfunctory morning condolences (scrofula being the latest ailment to claim poor Millicent’s life), she hadn’t seen him in a week.
Therefore, neither had the girls.
Rosamund and Daisy could memorize the encyclopedia, and they still wouldn’t truly be ready to leave for school—not unless they knew they had a loving home to come back to. There was only one person who could give them that. And when that person wasn’t working with Mr. Barrow, he was hammering at something in his Rake Room.
Alex knew they had an undeniable attraction, but she couldn’t be so irresistible as that. Perhaps she could find some way to render herself entirely undesirable. Daisy might have a noxious skin condition to recommend.
“What’s this?” Daisy twisted on Alex’s lap. She plucked at the ribbon tied about Alex’s neck and pulled the beaded cross pendant out from beneath her fichu. “You never take it off.”
“The beads were a gift from my mother.” Alex untied the ribbon from behind her neck. “You may look, if you wish.”
Daisy ran her fingers over the tiny red beads. “Why aren’t they on a proper chain?”
“Governesses can’t afford gold chains.”
“They’re corales,” she told Daisy. “Red coral beads. Where I was born, mothers make a bracelet of them and tie it around their baby’s wrist.” She reached for Millicent and demonstrated, wrapping the ribbon around the doll’s arm where the carved wooden hand met the batting-stuffed arm. “Like so. It’s for protection.”
“Protection?” This skeptical inquiry came from Rosamund. Apparently, she’d been paying attention from across the room. “Protection from what?”
“From all sorts of terrible things. Sickness. The evil eye. An aswang—that’s a witch. There are all manner of fearsome creatures. Take the manananggal.”
“Manananggal.” Alex made her voice dark and mysterious. “She’s a lady vampire who can cut herself in two. Her legs remain rooted in the ground like a tree stump, and the rest of her flies out into the night. Her intestines unwind like a string behind her, and she goes hunting for mothers and their children. She lies on the roof of a house, and uses her long, long tongue to reach her sleeping prey, probe down their throats, and suck out their blood.”
“I shan’t be frightened of those,” Daisy said. “The intestine is only twenty-six feet long, and the Philippine Islands are much farther away than that. No mana-thinggum could possibly reach us.”
“I have a necklace from my mother, too.” Daisy scampered to the trunk that served alternately as treasure chest and Millicent’s burial vault. Rosamund looked on, wary, as her sister sifted through the contents and retrieved a small, gilded box inlaid with French motifs painted on porcelain.