Chapter Six

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The next day, Alex hitched their old mare to a trap and reluctantly went calling on his neighbors. Rebecca was right: there were platoons of unmarried girls in the area, and they all wanted to get married, or at least their mamas wanted them to find husbands, and he seemed to be, in common opinion, the prime husband material. After the pattern repeated for a few more days, he was heartily sick of all the daughters and their mothers.

He flicked the reins to start their old nag homeward from his latest visit and contemplated his past several days. His cheeks hurt from all the smiles he had to produce on cue, and his head ached from all the empty prattle he had had to listen to. He should be searching for a buyer for Rebecca's paintings instead of gallivanting around the countryside, exhibiting himself to all the wedding-minded females in the vicinity.

Or he should really marry Rebecca and remove himself from the marriage market once and for all. The prospect cheered him up. The marriage business seemed to be as cut-throat here, in the middle of peaceful England, as the war on the peninsula was. Rebecca would be his savior then, rescuing him from being pecked to death by the prospective brides and their parents. He grinned happily, but not for long. To realize this admirable strategy, he needed to sell the paintings. Perhaps tomorrow, he could finally go to London. He didn't have any invitations for tomorrow.

Unfortunately, his plans to remove to London collapsed as soon as he returned home. Feminine fripperies occupied the parlor. Swatches of ribbon and lace hung on all the chair backs in rainbow bunches, and silk flowers of various colors and species dotted the sofa like a flock of butterflies.

Emily squealed as soon as he came in the door and threw herself at him. Alex braced himself as he caught her, surveying the kingdom of girls and frills from behind her thin shoulder. Mary smiled shyly and lifted a wide green ribbon for his inspection.

"Would it fit my dress, do you think? At tomorrow's assembly?"

"Assembly," Alex muttered. Rebecca must've told him, but he had forgotten. He wanted to curse aloud but restrained himself, although his lips moved soundlessly. He couldn't shout his curses in front of three girls and two maids. Of course, no male servant was in sight. They all knew better. Only he, an innocent bystander, was tossed into the sea of silk to swim or else.

"I want a red dress, but Becky said..." Emily demanded.

Alex blocked off her whine. The assembly was the reason why nobody had issued him an invitation for tomorrow. It would be a battlefield for his affection. His eyes located Rebecca beside a heap of girly clothing. She was watching him with curling lips, her eyes smiling. A small chaplet of raspberry silk rosettes in her hands looked as soft as her lips.

Alex couldn't tear his eyes from the delicate flower wreath. "They would be perfect in your hair," he blurted before he could check his runaway mouth. It was playing tricks on him again, like the time when he had suggested they should marry. She hadn't changed her behavior towards him one bit; he wasn't even sure she had heard him then, but she definitely heard him now. Her cheeks turned the same color as the dainty blooms in her fingers. Gosh, he wanted to march to her and kiss her silly. He wanted to play the soft silky petals against her skin, to touch every inch of her body, especially the parts concealed beneath her prim drab gown, but the two young girls and their curious eyes gaped between them like a chasm, worse than any chaperon.

Alex signed and looked away. Rebecca was by far the most beautiful and desirable girl in the county, and he had seen his share in the past few days, but as long as he played her brother he couldn't show his interest. This damn brother-drama must end soon, or he would go crazy. Or marry someone utterly unsuitable just to relieve the tension in his breeches.

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