Page 49

The Governess Game Tessa Dare 2022/8/3 13:55:27

His eyes warmed. “That’s my girl.”

Her heart flapped and fluttered like a loose ribbon caught by the wind.

The girls had climbed aboard the skiff and begun preparing for their maiden voyage as proper pirates. Millicent was placed at the fore of the craft, like a mermaid decorating the ship’s prow.

As the girls unfurled the skiff’s tiny sail, she kept watch on their every move. “Rosamund, come away from the side at once.”

Chase stretched his arm across her back in a stealthy motion. “Take the afternoon off, Miss Mountbatten. I’m relieving you of your governess duties today.”

She could take the afternoon off from being a governess, perhaps. But she couldn’t take an afternoon off from being herself. She was still that shivering girl in the dark, caught between pelting rain and a hungry sea. She was still that stammering woman in Hatchard’s, entranced by roguish green eyes and the scents of sandalwood and mint.

Alex was still Alex. Chase was still Chase. And she could no longer deny that she was mad for him, despite there being every rational argument against it. She’d been ensnared by infatuation the moment they collided in that bookshop, and now she couldn’t imagine ever getting free.

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This hopeless yearning would be the end of her. Or at least the death of her common sense.

“I brought provisions.” He withdrew a tiny corked jug from his pocket and lifted it triumphantly. “There’s grog.”

The girls celebrated with rousing huzzahs. Chase unstoppered the jug and passed it to Daisy, who struggled to lift it to her lips.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered in Alex’s ear. “It’s just water and molasses.”

“They’ll have stomachaches.”

Chase clasped the skiff’s prow and grunted as he pushed the craft off the bank. The girls’ second round of cheering was even more rousing than the first. He kept one boot firmly planted on the bank and had the other in the boat, keeping the skiff close.

Then he motioned to Alex. “Come, then. I’ll hand you in.”

She hesitated a few feet from the water. Panic rose in her breast. Her heart thundered so fiercely she couldn’t hear anything but her own frantic pulse.

I can’t. I can’t do this.

“Truly, I’ll wait here. It’s too small for four.”

“No, it’s not,” Rosamund argued. “There’s plenty of room.”

Daisy propped her hands on her hips. “Mr. Reynaud, you must make her come along.”

“I agree. If she won’t come willingly, piracy is the only choice.” Chase lunged, took Alex by the waist, and lifted—parting her from the safety of the bank and swinging her into the boat.

“I can’t,” she said. “Please. I can’t.”

As Chase moved to deposit her on the bench of the skiff, she clung to his neck. From the boat, Daisy tugged at her skirts.

She began to thrash, unable to think of anything other than fighting her way back onto the bank. The boat only tipped further, making everything worse. In her scrambling panic, she made a wild kick.

A kick that connected with Millicent, sending her flying through the air.

The doll landed with a splash in the center of the lake.

At first, the doll’s wooden head kept her afloat, and for a few seconds it seemed all would be fine—just row to the center, fish her out with a long stick, and she’d be only a bit worse for the adventure. She’d survived far greater trials.

But as her wool-batting body started to soak through, the unthinkable occurred.

The resilient, indestructible, death-defying Millicent—and with her, Alexandra’s coral pendant—began to sink.

“No!” Daisy screamed. “She’s drowning!”

Chase set Alex back on dry land. “Not on my watch.”

Every time he sank out of sight, Alex held her own breath. Daisy was inconsolable. Even Rosamund clung to Alex’s side.

Seven times now, and no result. He had to be growing fatigued.

Alex cupped her hands around her mouth to call to him. “Mr. Reynaud! Come back to the bank!”

“No,” he shouted in reply, pushing his hair from his brow. “Not without that bloody doll.”

He went under once again and this time he stayed out of sight for what seemed like ages. Alex was beside herself. He could have been overcome with fatigue, or fainted from lack of air, or become tangled in reeds . . . There were scores of ways a man could die in the water, and she’d witnessed far too many of them.

Dolls were replaceable. In some cases, resurrectable. Her corales might be all she had left of her mother, but they weren’t flesh and blood. Nothing else mattered right now. Nothing but him.