Chapter Four

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"Where have you been?" Rebecca asked, when he finally appeared in the dining room.

"I was exploring the ruins. What is it?"

"It's an old abbey; it's been there forever. It was built on top of some Roman fort. Why did you go so far?" Rebecca frowned. She wanted to warn him to take care of his leg—he shouldn't roam so far from home, not yet, his limp was more pronounced when he came in just now than it was in the morning—but at the last moment, she arrested the words in her mouth. He might not take kindly to her interfering in his life.

Her sisters perked up. "Did you find anything interesting?" Emily's eyes gleamed in the candlelight.

"It's very picturesque," Alex said. "Mary, did you paint it? I think I remember something like that among your watercolors."

"Yes," Mary murmured. Her cheeks turned pink. "But only from the outside."

"Rebecca wouldn't let us go in there," Emily complained.

"She is right," Alex said. "Those ruins are not for young unaccompanied ladies. Lots of loose rocks there. In some places, I was amazed those walls are still standing. And I think a local family of foxes made their den there too. I glimpsed a fluffy red tail but only briefly. It didn't want to meet me. The ducks in the pond, however, didn't pay me any attention. I wouldn't recommend any of you to wander inside. One wrong step, and you might be severely injured, but I have a secret tool—my cane—so I was able to navigate."

The girls giggled, but Rebecca wouldn't have him make light of those hazardous ruins. "This is no joke," she said. "Last year, a boy from the village broke his leg there. They only found him two days later, and he still limps."

"I already limp." Alex shrugged.

Rebecca bit her lip. Did she offend him with her unthinking remark? She ventured a quick glance at him. No it didn't seem so.

His eyes sparkled impishly. "I understand the attraction though. For a boy, those ruins must be irresistible. So many pirates and bandits, dragons and battles could populate them. But you're right, Rebecca. A girl in a dress shouldn't venture there."

"Unfair," Emily said. "Boys have all the fun. I could dress as a boy too."

"Oh, I don't know." Alex made it look as if he was studying her. "I think you look much better dressed as a girl."

Emily preened, and even Mary smiled. Rebecca hid a grin. She hadn't made a mistake when she invited Alex yesterday to stay with them, although she wished it wasn't as a brother. Everything in him fascinated her: his capable hands with blunt fingers, his cool blue eyes that didn't miss anything, his disheveled hair, cut surprisingly short, and various other parts of him too, hidden as they were behind his clothing. She wanted to caress his brow and learn if his stubble was as scratchy as she had thought yesterday. She wanted to soothe his pain. He was too thin, his lean cheeks almost concave.

She loaded his plate with more mashed potatoes and another helping of meat loaf, and he didn't notice or acknowledge her service, just kept on eating with gusto. Was he suffering terribly from his war wounds? He didn't complain, and she couldn't tell from his manner—he joked and laughed with the girls and teased Mary in his gentle way—but the deep lines of suffering around his mouth bothered her.

"Mister Talbot also said we shouldn't go to the ruins," Emily said in reply to some of Alex's questions about the neighbors.

Rebecca opened her mouth to steer the conversation away from Nathan Talbot; for some reason, she didn't want Alex to know about him, but it was already too late.

"Who is Mister Talbot?" Alex asked.

"Becky's suitor," Emily said and wrinkled her pert little nose. "I don't like him. He's fat and he stinks."

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