“You bastard. Why didn’t you say so? You could have spared us all of this nonsense.”
Ashbury struggled to a standing position. “I needed the exercise.”
Chase glared at him. “The papers had it right. You are a monster.”
Ashbury shrugged in admission.
“So if Alexandra’s not here, where’s she gone?”
“She went out to the shops.” A woman who was presumably the Duchess of Ashbury stood at the top of the stairs, bouncing a baby in her arms.
“Don’t tell him,” Ashbury complained. “He doesn’t deserve to know.”
She shrugged. “He ate the sham. And the tuna-ish. He’s at least earned the chance to talk to her.” To Chase, she said, “Alex said she had a few things to purchase before we made the journey.”
“What sort of things?”
“I don’t know the full list.” The duchess hesitated. “But she mentioned books.”
Books. Of course. He should have known it would be books.
“Do you know which shop?”
She shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t.”
Well, then. He’d done too much dashing about London to stop now.
Chase would simply have to check them all.
The bookshop had been a mistake, Alex now realized.
After weeks of shedding tears in her cake, a bit of shopping ought to have been a pleasant change. The prospect of escaping to the country gave her something to look forward to. Away from London, she hoped her heart might mend a bit faster. But simply being in this bookshop was opening the wound all over again.
It wasn’t even Hatchard’s this time. She’d known that would be too painful. Instead, she’d chosen the Temple of Muses. The shop’s rotunda design had always delighted her. A set of stairs led to a balcony lining the interior dome. The shelves there were crammed with books as high as a person—a person significantly taller than Alex—could reach. This was where she always browsed first. Balcony books were better than ground-floor books. They just were. Really, anything put on a balcony was instantly improved.
The exception today was Alex’s mood. The balcony had not lifted her spirits.
She couldn’t help but see Chase’s eyes connecting with hers, or feel the way his charming, rakish grin had made her heart and hands flutter. It was as though she could see him before her. Breathe in his scent.
She could almost imagine that she heard his voice.
“Alexandra! Alexandra Mountbatten!”
She opened her eyes and looked down over the railing.
He was there. Bellowing her name through a quiet bookshop and dashing through the aisles like a madman.
Alex had the momentary impulse to hide, but something in her wouldn’t allow it. She stood riveted in place.
Eventually, he spotted her.
“Alex. Thank God.” He doubled over, hands on his knees. “Just give me a moment. I’m winded. Been running all over London.”
“Why? So you could bump into me and make me drop my books again?” She put one forearm on the railing and allowed a slender volume to slip from her fingers. It bounced off Chase’s shoulder. “Oh, dear.”
He was unfazed by the blow. “Stay where you are. I’m coming to you.”
“No,” she said. “You are the last person I want to see.”
“Well, you are the last person I want to see, too.”
She gestured in exasperation. “Then why are you—”
“You are the last person I want to see before I fall asleep at night. Every night. The last woman I want to kiss for the remainder of my life. And your lovely face is the very last thing I want to see before I die. Because I love you, Alexandra.”
Her eyes stung at the corners. “Why are you so good at these charming, romantic speeches? From practice, I suppose.”
“Perhaps. But if I have practiced, it feels as though it was all for the sole purpose of winning you over right now.” He gazed up at her. “Tell me it’s working.”
It seemed it might be working, and that was what terrified her.
“Please don’t put me through this. Every time you’re near me, I build up these silly hopes. It doesn’t make any sense, but I can’t help it. Then I get hurt all over again.”
“So I’ll speak to you from here. This should be a safe distance.”
Alexandra wasn’t so certain. His handsomeness had a greater range than a six-pounder cannon.
“You were so right,” he said. “I regretted everything I’d said within hours of you walking out the door. I wanted to go after you at once, but I knew it would be pointless. You’d have no reason to trust me. To be honest, I didn’t trust myself. But now I can stand here and tell you, sincerely, that I’ve changed.”
She didn’t know what to say.
“You should see us. Daisy’s speeding through books faster than I can acquire them, and I’ve started Rosamund on geometry. Barrow helped me find a tutor. I still believe school may be best for them eventually, but you were right. They need more time.”