At last, he surfaced. Not in the center of the lake, but close to the bank, taking her unawares. He emerged from the water with a spray of fanfare, his translucent shirt pasted to his torso and his hair slicked back. Like Poseidon rising from the sea—hoisting a waterlogged doll in place of a trident.
Chase Reynaud, god of the Serpentine.
And oh, he looked ready to enjoy a bit of worship.
He grinned at her, the horrid man. As if he hadn’t just given her the fright of her life, and the past ten minutes were an expected element of any outing in Hyde Park.
He presented the doll to Daisy. “She took in some water, but I think she’ll pull through.”
Instead of hugging the doll, Daisy attached herself to Chase’s leg, clinging to him with all four limbs. Alex rather wished she could do the same.
Chase shook his leg, and Daisy held tight. He looked to Alex. “You’re the sailor. How does one remove a barnacle?”
It felt damned good to be a hero for a change—even if he was a fleeting, insignificant one.
However, on the way home from the park, Chase’s glow of triumph faded to exhaustion, both of body and of mind.
When they arrived back at the house, Alexandra herded Rosamund and Daisy up the stairs at once. “Baths first, girls. Dinner second.”
Chase decided these were excellent ideas. Once he’d scrubbed the mud and lake water from his body, he took supper in his study and opened a bottle of claret to keep him company while he went over yet another folio of estate papers.
It was nearing midnight by the time Alexandra joined him. They seemed to have chosen similar activities—her plaited hair was slick from bathing and she carried a book tucked under her arm.
“Wine.” She sighed. “What an excellent idea.”
“Join me, please. Rescue me from the fluctuating corn prices of 1792.”
He poured her a glass of claret, and she accepted it eagerly, downing half the glass in one go. He’d asked the servants to lay a fire tonight, even though it was summer.
“I wasn’t certain you’d be coming down. I thought perhaps you’d have fallen asleep, too.”
“It was quite a struggle to settle the girls into bed. An hour of reading from Robinson Crusoe, plus two dishes of custard each.”
“Custard? I expressly made a prohibition against custard.”
“Then next time you can put them to bed,” she teased. “Since you know all the best methods.”
“I suppose I can let it go. This time.”
“Even after they fell asleep, my own nerves needed a bit of soothing.” She traced the rim of her wineglass with her fingertip. “Nothing like an hour or two staring into the telescope for that. When I focus on the stars and the spaces between them, all my other cares fade into the dark.”
Chase hated that she had other cares at all. He especially hated that so many of them were his doing.
“You are quite the hero now,” she said.
“I’m so sorry about it. It was all my fault.”
“No, it was mine. I shouldn’t have tried to force the matter. I didn’t realize how frightened you were.” He cocked his head. “So tell me something. Why would a sea captain’s daughter, raised aboard a merchant ship, be afraid of the water?”
Her terror had been palpable that afternoon. Hesitation would be understandable. Her father had been lost at sea. But true panic? Perhaps there was more to it than that.
He sensed she didn’t want to answer the question. He decided not to press.
“It wasn’t only the doll.”
She touched the coral pendant where it lay at the base of her throat. He was glad to see it where it belonged. She’d knotted it onto a new length of ribbon—this time, a rich sapphire blue.
“You’re so good at this,” she went on. “The comforting, the caring. You’ll make an excellent guardian. Residing with you would be worlds better for them than any boarding school.”
“Maybe they’ll like school. I liked school.”
“Naturally you did. Your school was mischief and sport and studies of actual subjects. Not embroidery and etiquette. You were taught to go out and conquer the world. They will be taught to live in a satin-lined pocket. I know. I attended one of these schools. And just like Rosamund and Daisy, I was sent there by relations who wanted nothing to do with me.”
“Is it? You’re rejecting them. Just as everyone else has done. Don’t believe they don’t feel it. And if you send them away, they are never going to trust anyone again. They just want your attention, can’t you see? Even if they have to tie you with ropes or douse you with water, or devise a different death for a doll every morning. Sometimes I think Daisy does it just for the excuse to hold your hand once a day. And you ought to see the way Rosamund looks at you when you’re too occupied to notice. She’d never admit it, but she’s desperate for your approval.” She reached for his hand. “Chase, they love you already.”