“They’re called Rosamund and Daisy. Aged ten and seven, respectively. Sisters.”
“Mr. Reynaud, please. Can we—”
He led her through a kitchen and up the stairs. They emerged into a first-floor corridor. She followed him down a passageway with walls covered in striped emerald silk. From the springy plush beneath her boots, she would have guessed the corridor to be carpeted in clouds. Her work took her into many a fine London house, but she never ceased marveling at the luxury.
He led the way up the main staircase, taking the risers two at a time.
“They carry the last name Fairfax, but it’s likely an adopted name. They’re natural children. Some distant relation sired a few by-blows and left their guardianship to the estate.”
As they climbed flight after flight of stairs, Alexandra could scarcely keep pace with him, much less change the topic of conversation.
“I’m sending them to school at Michaelmas term.” He added wearily, “Assuming I can bribe a respectable school into taking them.”
At last, they reached the top of the house. Alex darted forward to grab his sleeve. “Mr. Reynaud, please. There’s been some sort of misunderstanding. A grave misunderstanding.”
“Not at all. We understand one another perfectly. I’m a paltry excuse for a gentleman, as you say. I’m also no fool. That scolding you delivered downstairs was brilliant. The girls need a firm hand. Discipline. I’m the last soul on earth to teach them proper behavior. But you, Miss Mountbatten? You are just the one for the job.” He gestured at the rooms that opened off the passageway. “You’ll have a bedchamber to yourself, of course. The nursery is this way.”
“Here we are.” He flung open the door.
Alexandra’s mind refused to make sense of the scene. Two flaxen-haired girls stood on either side of a bed. A beautiful bed. A grand four-poster with a lacy lavender canopy, gold-painted posts, and matching bed hangings tied back with pink cord. The bed would have been any young girl’s dream. Beneath it, however, was a nightmare. The white bed linens were streaked and spattered with crimson.
“You’re too late.” The younger of the two turned to face them, her expression eerily solemn. “She’s dead.”
“Curse it all.” Mr. Reynaud heaved a sigh. “Not again.”
Chase couldn’t believe it.
Twice in one morning. Insupportable.
He put down Miss Mountbatten’s satchel, stalked to the bed, and swiped a finger along the soiled linens. Red currant jelly, by the looks of it.
“It was the bloody flux,” Rosamund said.
Of course it was. Chase set his jaw. “From now on, there will be no jelly. None, do you hear? No conserves, no jam, no preserves of any kind.”
“No jelly?” Daisy asked mournfully. “Whyever not?”
“Because I am not eulogizing another leprosy victim covered in sores that weep marmalade! That’s why not. Oh, and no mushy peas, either. Millicent’s bout of dyspepsia last week ruined the drawing room carpet.”
“No arguments.” He leveled a finger at his morbid little wards. “Or I’m going to lock the both of you in this room and feed you nothing but dry crusts.”
“How very gothic,” Rosamund replied.
“I’m afraid I must be going now.” The faintly voiced interruption came from Miss Mountbatten, who’d remained near the doorway.
And who, shortly thereafter, made a stealthy reach for her satchel and vanished through said doorway.
He strode to the map and jabbed a tack into the first empty expanse he saw. “Start packing your things.”
“There aren’t any boarding schools in the Lapland,” Rosamund said.
“I’ll put up the money to start one,” he said on his way to the door. “I hope you like herring.”
Then he ran after his newest—and please, God, not latest to quit—governess.
“Wait.” He took the stairs three at a time, vaulting over the banister so as to catch her on the next landing. “Miss Mountbatten, wait.” With a flailing swipe, he caught her by the arm.
They stood wedged in the stairwell. She was short, and he was tall. The crown of her head met him mid-sternum. Conversation was comically impossible. He released her arm and took two steps downward so he might look her in the eye.
Her gaze nearly knocked him down the stairs. For a woman of small stature, she made a prodigious impact. A delicate snub of a nose, olive skin, and a glossy knot of midnight-black hair. And fathomless dark eyes that pulled on something deep in his chest. He needed a moment to collect himself.
“Millicent is Daisy’s doll. She kills the thing at least once a day, but—” Curse it, he’d left red smudges on her sleeve, and God only knew what substance she presumed it to be. “No, it’s not what you think. It’s only red currant jelly.” He held up his stained index finger. “Here, taste for yourself.”
She blinked at him. “Did you just invite me to lick your finger?”
He wiped his hand on a fold of his shirt. God, he was making a hash of this. If she worried for her virtue, that wouldn’t aid his case. Any sensible young woman would hesitate to accept employment in the house of a scandalous rake—even if the rake’s wards were perfect angels. Chase’s wards were incorrigible, morbid hellions.