Chapter Three

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Unlike Rebecca with her dark braid and eyes, both younger girls looked very much like their brother, with sandy hair and blue eyes. A little bit like Alex himself, he mused as he fielded their inevitable questions. They started their inquisition as soon as he appeared in the breakfast room and Rebecca introduced him. The breakfast was over an hour ago, but they still refused to stop. They refused to have their lessons either. They all converged in the library; Rebecca at her desk, pretending to work, Alex in his armchair, not pretending to do anything, and the younger sisters fussing over him.

"We celebrate today," six-year-old Emily, the baby of the family, announced exuberantly and climbed into Alex's lap. "Our brother came home." She hugged him tightly for the tenth time that morning and kissed his cheek. "I'll brush your hair, Alex. You're all tangled. Your leg doesn't hurt, does it?" She made it sound as if it would be a great imposition if his leg dared to hurt.

The only possible answer was, "No." While Emily beautified him, Alex glanced at Rebecca. She watched him with such entreaty in her brown eyes that he smiled and nodded faintly in reassurance. He felt a cad for impersonating the girls' brother, but to back off now would be even worse.

"I haven't had a girl brushing my hair since forever," he said. "Such a weird feeling. Hey, pumpkin," he addressed Emily. "Who does your hair? Your braids are almost as long as Rebecca's."

"Becky does," she said absently, absorbed in her task. "Sometimes, Mary. But I want red ribbons, and Becky said red is not my color."

Her little fingers tickled his scalp, and he couldn't erase his smile. This warm feeling in his chest didn't belong to him; it rightly belonged to Alexander Carlyle. Why hadn't the stupid man ever visited home, if such a welcome awaited him?

"Rubbish," Alex said loyally. "Red is definitely your color. Any color is your color. Next time, send Rebecca to me about the ribbon colors."

Emily beamed, while Mary, the middle sister, held back, gazing at Alex in quiet adoration.

"Do you remember when you last came to see us?" Mary murmured. "You brought me paints."

"Mmm," Alex said. He had found long ago that silence served in most situations, letting people assume what they wanted. He should've stayed silent during his conversation with Rebecca last night. Or maybe not.

He liked it here, liked the girls' flurry around him. He knew his soldiers liked him too, but that had been professional. He had been a good officer, he cared about his men, and they respected him for that and for his personal courage. It was give and take. Here, he didn't have to give anything. They seemed to like him just because he played the role of their brother, that lucky bastard Carlyle. Even Rebecca liked him because of that.

Last night, Alex had thought her passably pretty, but he had been wrong. Today, the weak autumn sunlight peeking into the library window surrounded her with a golden glow. He wanted to touch her, to discover how soft her skin was. Something stirred in his breeches too, a decidedly unbrotherly fascination. He checked the younger sisters. Did they notice? No, they didn't seem to. Good. Emily was babbling again, and he tuned her out. He should find a solution to their masquerade soon, or someone was bound to notice his interest in Rebecca.

Did Rebecca think of him as a brother? The thought wiped a goofy grin from his lips. That was not how he wanted her to look at him. He ruthlessly blocked his improper thoughts and concentrated on Emily's words.

"Mary's drawing and painting all the time," the girl confided, disregarding her sister's frantic hand waving. "Show him your paintings, Mary."

"Yes." Alex perked up. Anything was better than thinking lewd thoughts about Rebecca. She was supposed to be his sister, at least for a while. "Please, Mary," he said.

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