Chapter Two

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The man was asleep. He had delivered the most devastating message of her life and then had the effrontery to fall asleep. With his quiet words, he destroyed her world and he didn't even know it.

She didn't care about her brother. They were never close, and his death didn't touch her heart, but the estate was entailed, even if Alex had never visited it. It was a small estate but it had been home for her sisters and herself since he inherited three years ago. She had worked her tail off to make it profitable, so they could live on the proceeds. She even managed to save some money from this year's crops and fix the stables, but now they were going to have to leave it to someone else just because her scoundrel of a brother got himself killed.

She hadn't even had time to secure her marriage to Nathan Talbot. Nathan seemed interested but he was stalling, and with the estate gone from the family, he would never take her and her sisters now. He had never been enthusiastic about her sisters in the first place.

Her angry gaze landed on her guest's face. A fresh pink scar marred his temple, and lines of pain bracketed his mouth. He was gray under his tan, his stubble imperfectly concealing the puffiness of his skin, as if after a long illness. The poor cove limped, probably still recovering from his wounds. His blond hair and blue eyes resembled Alex's and her sisters' in their coloring. She was the only odd one in the family, with her brown hair and eyes.

She fingered her braid as she watched Captain Alex Woodward, retired, asleep in a chair in her library. He even had the same name as her late brother. And the only person for miles around who would know the difference between the two Alexes was herself. The servants all came with the estate; they had never met Alex, neither had Nathan Talbot or other neighbors.

Emily, the younger of her two sisters, had turned six in the summer. She was born after Alex's last visit from the army and had never seen him. Mary had been four when she saw Alex. She probably wouldn't remember his face clearly. If Rebecca said that this man, her brother's namesake, was their brother Alex, both girls would believe it. They would be ecstatic that their brother finally came home.

Captain Woodward said that he was delivering the message of Alex's death. If she persuaded him to keep it secret, nobody would be the wiser. They could keep living here, if the lawyers didn't already know that Alex was dead. Her stomach clenched, as an outrageous and utterly illegal solution appeared in her head. Would the brave captain agree? He said he was willing to help. What if he had a family of his own, a wife and three children? He seemed too young, but one never knew. There was nothing for it: she had to wake him up.

"Captain," she said loudly.

He jerked and opened his eyes. "Huh?" he said. Then his eyes cleared. "Oh, God, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, Miss Carlyle. I guess I'm more tired than I realized."

A blush crept underneath the blond bristles on his cheeks, and Rebecca's lips twitched involuntary. "Captain," she repeated softly. "I understand that you're tired, but this can't wait. Do you have a family? Somewhere you must rush off tomorrow? Or could you stay for a while? Help us."

"Well," he said. "No, I don't have to rush anywhere. Nobody is waiting for me, no family, but I thought you wouldn't want me around after my message." He sighed. "Of course, I will help. What would you ask of me?"

"Your message wrecked my life. Our lives," she said. "New Oaks is entailed. With my brother's death, we'll have to leave. We don't have any place to go and no relatives to take my sisters in." She swallowed her shame and resolutely plodded on. She couldn't afford to be prissy now.

"We have no money. I can work, as a governess or a paid companion, but who would take me with two younger sisters? Your message, Captain, is a herald of doom for all three of us."

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