“Come in, come in,” she urged. “Nicola’s already here. She’s made teacakes.”
Alex held the girls back. “Wait. You know they’re meant to be practicing. Go on, girls.”
The girls curtsied. Not especially smoothly, but they were improving. “Good afternoon, Lady Penelope,” they said in a chorus of two.
“Rosamund, would you introduce Lady Penny to our guest?”
“Mr. Reynaud, may I present—”
“No, no. The other way around,” Alex said. “You ask Lady Penelope if you may present him, because she’s his superior in society.” And his superior in many other ways.
“Alex, you know I despise that sort of thinking,” Penny said.
“They need to learn. Their guardian wishes them to be proper young ladies.” She turned to Chase. “Isn’t that right, Mr. Reynaud?”
Rosamund began again, the promise of teacakes outweighing her impatience with the exercise. “Lady Penny, may I present our guardian, Mr. Reynaud. Mr. Reynaud, this is Lady Penelope Campion.”
Chase not only bowed, but took her hand and kissed it with devilish charm. “Enchanted, Lady Penelope.”
“Oh,” Penny sighed. “You are wonderful. I knew you would be.”
Etiquette lessons were left at the door. Penny’s house didn’t lend itself to propriety, anyway. The upholstery was shredded, and the carpet pattern was medallions interspersed with tufts of loose fur, and if a one-eyed kitten wasn’t mewling and climbing the draperies, a yipping two-legged dog was racing around the room on its specially made cart.
Alex loved the place unreservedly.
Chase was introduced to Nicola, whose reception of him was as icy as Penny’s was warm. No kisses on the hand. Nic swiveled her gaze to Alex the moment he’d turned away and mouthed a simple Why?
Alex could only shrug.
They all settled themselves in the parlor. The girls dashed off to the back garden at once.
“Where are they going?” Chase asked.
“Oh, they’ve gone to feed Hubert his tea,” Penny explained.
“Yes, of course. A beautiful creature, the otter.”
“Isn’t it, though? They’re so affectionate. Hubert adores Rosamund and Daisy. We all do. You must be so proud of your girls.” She lifted a plate and offered it to him. “Sandwich?”
Aha. Here was the moment of truth.
“This one is a new recipe of mine.” Penny pointed at one half of the plate. “I call it tuna-ish.”
“I’m . . . unfamiliar with that.”
“Well, the tuna is a Mediterranean fish, and I had a letter from a cousin in Cadiz who told me it makes an excellent sandwich with a bit of soured cream. But I don’t consume animals, so I made my own version. Instead of tuna fish, it’s tuna-ish. The secret is in the brine.”
She pointed at the other half of the plate. “And this is my usual specialty. Sham. It’s everyone’s favorite.”
“It’s like ham. Only made from vegetables, all pressed together into a loaf and sliced thin. I’ve been told it tastes even better than the real thing.”
Do not hurt her feelings. Do not. Or I will never forgive you.
“Lady Penny, that sounds delightful,” Chase said smoothly, and for a moment even Alex believed him. “Thank you, I’ll take two of each.”
In the end, he ate three of each—and asked Penny for the recipes. He praised Nicola’s baking and listened to her describe her latest fascination: the engineering challenges of tunneling under the Thames.
Even the hedgehog uncurled in his hand, offering her soft underbelly for a gentle stroke.
He didn’t commit a single act of unforgivable behavior. With the exception of being unforgivably wonderful, perhaps.
As they hugged in farewell, Penny whispered a teasing question in Alex’s ear. “So? How does it feel to be falling in love?”
Hopeless, Alex silently answered.
It felt hopeless indeed—because it was.
In the office the next morning, Chase clutched his side and groaned.
Barrow gave him a sidelong glance. “Is it the bank accounts?”
“No, it’s the sham. Or maybe the tuna-ish.”
“Good. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Barrow stretched his arms overhead and yawned. “You know, I’ve noticed that doll of Daisy’s hasn’t taken ill in weeks.”
“I suppose my own bedridden state was entertainment enough.”
“Hm.” Barrow cast a pensive look out the window. “Speaking of beds . . . As far as I can tell, you haven’t shared one with a woman in weeks, either.”
“Oh, yes. I did finally manage a period of celibacy, didn’t I? And all I had to do was nearly die.” Chase narrowed his eyes at him. “What are you on about, then? Don’t tell me you’re going to badger me to keep the girls.”
“I mean to suggest you should marry Miss Mountbatten. And then keep the girls.”
“Don’t you love her? I think you love her.”
Chase avoided answering that question, and he did so easily. He’d had a great deal of practice avoiding merely thinking about that question.
“It doesn’t matter how I feel about her,” he said. “I’m not marrying, ever. You know my reasons.”
“Yes, but your reasons aren’t good.”