The words rocked him. But they changed nothing. He could not, should not be responsible for anyone’s well-being. Even if he cared for—or, God help him, loved—that person. To cave to his desire for companionship would be selfish in the extreme.
“It’s impossible, Alexandra. Unthinkable.”
She gave an exasperated groan. “You’re always saying that.”
“And for good reason,” he said firmly.
“What good reason is that?”
“The last time I promised to look after someone, he ended up dead.”
Alex searched his eyes. Her impulse was to dismiss his words, assume he must be exaggerating. But his intense, defiant gaze spoke of something beyond accidents or misunderstandings. Regret. Guilt. Pain.
“Tell me.” She made it a demand, rather than a request. Whatever secrets he had, he needed to purge them before they devoured him from the inside out. “Chase. Tell me.”
“Son of a whore,” she muttered.
He was taken aback. “I’ve never heard you curse.”
“I try to avoid using profanity. But I grew up around sailors. I certainly know how.”
The late-night visitor abandoned the bell in favor of pounding at the door. Chase started toward the door as if to answer it himself, but apparently a servant beat him to it. The caller didn’t wait for an introduction, but stormed directly into the room.
“Where’s Alexandra?” he demanded gruffly.
“I have a better question.” Chase stepped between Alex and the intruder. “Who the devil are you?”
Alex smiled. “He’s the Duke of Ashbury.”
Truly, it couldn’t be anyone else. It wasn’t as though there were two tall, dark, imposing dukes in England bearing scars on one side of their body from a misfired rocket at Waterloo. Ash’s scarred face gave him an intimidating, even fearsome appearance. But Alexandra knew him to be tenderhearted beneath the scars, and utterly devoted to his wife.
He also made an excellent friend.
“Ash.” Alex emerged from the shadows and rushed to him, giving him a hug before he could deflect it. “But why have you come to London? I hope there’s nothing wrong with Emma or the baby.”
“Emma and the baby are fine.” He looked over her shoulder, sending a glare in Chase’s direction. “As for what I’m doing in London, I’m here to plant my boot in someone’s arse.”
“I thought you’d given that up.”
“I thought so, too. But this employer of yours has me coming out of retirement. I came as soon as I heard you’d taken up residence in this place.” He walked past her to stare down Chase face-to-face. “You deserve to know what a worthless scoundrel he is, Alex.”
“Yes!” Chase exclaimed. He reached for Ashbury’s hand and pumped it in a vigorous greeting. “Thank you. I’ve been trying to tell her myself, but she won’t listen.”
Ashbury looked more than a bit thrown by Chase’s invitation. He gave Alex a what-the-devil-is-he-on-about look.
Alex could only shrug in response.
“Be seated, the both of you.” Chase went to the brandy decanter on the sideboard. “Ashbury, can I pour you a drink?”
“I brought my own.” Ash pulled a flask from his coat pocket and uncapped it.
“Even better,” Chase replied, pouring himself a brandy. “Do go on. Don’t wait on me.”
Ash turned to Alex, ignoring their host and speaking in a low, serious tone. “Listen to me, Alexandra. This man is a known libertine. Even before my injuries, I knew of his reputation. Everyone knows. He is unwelcome in any good family.”
“See?” Chase returned, pulling up a chair and joining the group. “Exactly as I’ve been telling you, Miss Mountbatten. I am the most wretched of rakes.”
“I wasn’t unaware of Mr. Reynaud’s . . . popularity with ladies,” Alex said carefully.
“Has he touched you?”
Oh, had he ever. But what happened between them wasn’t any of Ash’s concern. “Not in any uninvited manner.”
“Now, now.” Chase shifted forward in his chair. “Be honest, Miss Mountbatten.”
“I am being honest. Mr. Reynaud has not subjected me to any unwanted attentions, nor taken advantage of me in any way.”
Ash looked suspicious, but he didn’t belabor the question. “Regardless. His sexual escapades are merely the tip of the iceberg.”
“Oh, I haven’t even acquainted her with the tip,” Chase said merrily. “Not properly.”
“Just ignore him,” Alex told the duke. “Go on.”
“Three years ago, there was a sordid, suspicious business with his cousin.”
“I’d been wondering when we’d get to this.” Chase took a large swallow of brandy. “This is the good part. Pay attention.”
Ash gave Chase an annoyed look. “Do you mind? We’re having a conversation here.”
“I presume you mean the old duke’s son,” Alex went on. “The one who would have been the heir, had he not died.”
“The cousin didn’t merely die,” Ash said. “He was killed.”