Chapter One

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Alex had never liked Alexander Carlyle but he had promised to watch over his sisters, in case the obnoxious fellow died. And then, while Alex was recuperating at the hospital, Carlyle did have the impudence to die, killed on a routine reconnaissance mission.

Now Alex had to make good on his promise and watch over the dead man's sisters. How many sisters? He clearly recalled the plural but he didn't remember the exact number; he was fairly drunk at the time. What could he do for those multiple sisters? A medically discharged officer with no family or connections, an assortment of medals, a pitiful pension, and a lame leg, what could he possibly do to help anyone?

The carriage lurched on the bumpy road, and Alex gritted his teeth. He was tired of pain. In a way, it had been easier, when the brigands tortured him. It was horrible, of course, all those beatings and hot irons during his week of captivity, but at least they were enemies. He was fighting them, his pride keeping his screams unuttered, hoping for a quick death, behaving like a hero. Like a moron more likely, but still.

After his men had liberated him, there was no need for fighting anymore, just the interminable doctors and the unending agony at the hospital. Even now, months later, when most of his injuries had healed, the pain lingered, an almost familiar companion. His broken leg would always be tender—that's what the doctor had said. Tender, frogging ass. It was unbearable sometimes, especially in lousy weather like today, when he had to spend hours sitting in a badly sprung carriage, traveling to some obscure village because of a half-forgotten, drunken promise.

He glanced out the window, at the rapidly darkening woods alongside the road. Behind the woods, gray majestic ruins strained up to the rising moon. Where was the dratted village and the New Oaks manor? He wanted to arrive at last and put up his leg. He wanted a hot bath. He wanted to fulfill his promise and move on with his life. Maybe he could become a tutor for some unruly boys? Or a secretary? Or a puppeteer? Disgusted with himself, he snorted.

By the time they reached the manor house, after a couple of wrong turns, it was dark and chilly. He should've stopped at the village inn for the night, Alex thought morosely, but the coachman was already pounding on the door. The poor man wanted to be rid of his dour passenger, and who could blame him? At least the coachman could hope for a foamy pint at the end of his journey. Would could Alex hope for, he wasn't sure. A bed would be nice. He climbed out of the carriage and limped up the few steps to the door. His cane thumped rhythmically on the stone steps.

The door opened a crack. A disheveled old man holding a candle appeared in the aperture. He stared at them without speaking. Then he yawned.

"How do you do," Alex said hastily. "I'm to see Miss Rebecca Carlyle. I know it's terribly late, but perhaps..."

He didn't finish his speech before a throaty female voice interrupted. "Who is it, Henry?"

"Someone to see you, Miss." The old retainer raised his candle. "An officer. Should I tell him to drive back to the inn and come back in the morning?"

"No, let him in," the invisible girl said. "I wasn't asleep."

Her voice sounded husky, almost too low for a woman. She was probably big and man-like herself, as uncouth as her brother. His rotten luck holding true, Alex thought morosely. The servant opened the door and gestured him in. He didn't bow or indicate his servant's status in any way, just winced, as Alex stumbled across the threshold. His leg had turned numb during the carriage ride and wouldn't obey him. He bit his lip at the humiliation: he needed to pull it with both hands to make it the few feet inside the house.

The coachman departed as fast as he could, leaving Alex in the unfamiliar house with strange people. In the light of the candle the old butler put on a table beside the door, the girl seemed older than Alex expected, not a schoolroom miss at all, wrapped in a thick dark shawl against the cold air. Her long braid streamed down her chest. She wasn't in any way mannish, as her voice had indicated. Even under the bulky shawl, her body curved enticingly, in a delightfully feminine way. Not a great beauty but pretty enough, Alex decided, and obviously still unmarried, or there would've been a man beside her now. What had Carlyle expected of him—to wed the wretched girl? Damn the man for extracting such an inconvenient promise.

"You have a message for me? From my brother? Come to the library," she said and led the way. The old servant had already disappeared down the hall in the opposite direction.

Alex hobbled after her, dragging his leg, massaging the aching thigh. At the library, she settled at a desk between two towering bookcases and gestured him to an armchair. She seemed to fit in her surroundings, and the desk was obviously hers. Above it hung a large moonlit landscape of some ruins on a river shore. The austere frame didn't enhance the painting but didn't detract from its charm either.

Every piece of furniture in the room, with the sole exception of the gorgeous landscape, looked a bit shabby but clean and pretty, just like the girl, and the books had a used feeling to them. Someone in this house liked reading.

Gratefully, Alex settled in the armchair. "I'm a bearer of bad news, I'm afraid, Miss. Your brother, Lieutenant Alexander Carlyle, was killed recently. I'm Captain Alex Woodward, retired. I was his commanding officer, so it fell to me to bring you the news. I'm very sorry." Then, belatedly, he added, "You're Rebecca Carlyle, right?"

"Yes." She sighed. "Just like Alex. This is such a disaster." She didn't burst into hysterics, didn't even shed one tear. She frowned and fiddled with a letter opener, her gaze distant.

"I'm sorry," Alex repeated inanely. "I promised him that if he died, I would help you in any way I could, although I'm not sure how I can help. What can I do for you, Miss?"

"What can you do for me?" She didn't look at him. "Nothing, I suppose. You would want to spend the night. It's getting late. I'll show you to a guest room." She spoke in monotone, her thoughts elsewhere, her pale face composed. Despite her offer to show him to a room, she didn't budge from her seat.

Alex didn't say anything. He wouldn't rush her. She was in shock and needed time to deal with it. The poor woman just lost her brother. Alex waited quietly. The chair was soft and comfortable, it didn't jolt along the rutted road like the carriage had, and the crackling fire in the hearth was lulling and peaceful. His eyelids drooped, and he floated in a light doze, willing to remain in the comfortable old chair indefinitely, until her voice broke into his dreams.

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