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The Governess Game Tessa Dare 2022/8/3 13:55:29

Each evening, he fell asleep wishing Alex was nestled beside him.

Each morning, he woke wondering what Millicent had died of today.

During his ride back to London, it grew worse. A raincloud split directly above him, rinsing the sheep dung and dust off his back, and leaving him cold, shivering, and desperate to be home.

And by home, his heart meant with them.

Upon his arrival, Alexandra rushed to him with arms outstretched in welcome. God. He nearly dropped to his knees. The journey had rendered him weary, muddy—shed of all his dutiful intent. If she embraced him, he wasn’t sure where he’d find the strength to resist.

He braced himself, hand on the staircase banister.

Instead of catching him in a hug, however, she circled him, thrusting her hands deep into his pockets with bossy movements. Her hands were full of small, round mysteries, and she stuffed them into every possible place, jabbing him in the ribs and chest.

“Sweetmeats for the girls,” she explained, seeing his baffled expression. “So you don’t return empty-handed.”

He could only stare at her.

“You could have warned me you were leaving,” she chided. “You should have at least warned them. Soothing their feelings wasn’t easy. But I told them they must expect your absence from time to time. You’re a duke’s heir, an important man with duties and so forth.” Once she’d deposited her candies on his person, she stood back and smoothed his lapels. “I taught them a song while you were gone. It’s a sea chantey, but I took out the crudest parts. They’re eager to sing it for you.”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Perhaps tomorrow, then.”

“No. Not tomorrow, either. Nor the day after that. I’m not going to applaud their songs, or stuff my pockets with candy and gifts.”

“It’s only a song and some sweetmeats.”

“You know very well it’s more than that.”

Irrational anger built a blaze in his chest. He’d exiled himself for a week to break these ties, only to return and find she’d been undermining him all the while. How dare she lead Rosamund and Daisy to believe they could be a family? If he must hurt them, better it be now than later. The last thing he needed was Alexandra building up their hopes.

Or his hopes, for that matter.

He caught her by the arms. “I have never made Rosamund or Daisy promises. Not one. Now you’ve made them in my stead, setting them up for disappointment. If those girls get their hearts broken—no, when those girls get their hearts broken—it will be your fault, Alexandra. Not mine.”

He expected her to wince. Shrink from him, wounded by his words.

Instead, she tilted her head and surveyed him with curious eyes. “Are you feeling well?”

“I’m fine. And I meant every word I just said.”

“You don’t look well. Your face is rather pale. Are you fatigued from the journey?”

“If I’m exhausted, the journey has little to do with it. I’m bone weary of having this conversation over and over again.”

She pressed the back of her hand to his cheek. “You’re feverish.”

“I am not feverish, for God’s sake.”

Chase supposed his face was flushed with heat. And maybe her face had gone wavy at the edges. Perhaps his iron grip on the banister felt essential if he wished to remain standing. But all those things were entirely due to anger, not illness.

“Chase,” she said tenderly, looping her arm through his. “I think you should go upstairs and lie down. I’ll bring you some tea.”

“Stop fussing over me.” He shook off her arm and tromped up the stairs, at a great cost of effort. Someone seemed to have painted this staircase with treacle while he was away. “Haven’t you been paying attention at all? I am infuriated. With you.”

“Of course you are,” she crooned.

Good God. What would it take to get this message across? Did she need it spelled out in maritime flag signals?

He stopped on the landing of the staircase, out of breath. “Don’t want you here. Don’t want them here. Going to put a sign on the door tomorrow. No Females Allowed. Not even doll ones.”

“No females whatsoever? That might interfere with your plans for the Cave of Carnality.”

“You interfered with my plans for the Cave of Carnality. Another thing I hold against you.”

Her amused little smile made his head swim with frustration.

“This isn’t serious, Alex. I am being funny.”

God damn it. None of this was coming out right. His brain buzzed like a hive of wasps. His whole body hurt. “Stop looking at me that way,” he growled.

“In what way is that?”

“As if you expect me to care in return.”

“No.” He released the banister, drew to his full height, and marshaled all his remaining strength into making one last stand. “Come Michaelmas, the girls are going to school. You will be leaving my employ. I will bid all three of you farewell, and we will carry on with our separate lives. No attachments.” He let the words fly like missiles. Gunshots, arrows. Meteors, comets. Dried peas launched through a hollow reed. Anything hurled far and fast enough to wound. “And our little lessons downstairs? Those are through. We are through. I don’t know what kind of dream you’ve sold yourself on, but it is time to wake up. Nothing has changed. Nothing.”