Chapter Nine

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His good mood persisted all next day, despite the bumpy wagon ride and the sleeting rain outside. Even his leg didn't bother him, until he got home, and Rebecca wasn't there.

"She went for a walk with Mister Talbot," Mary said. A frown looked alien on her young face. "It was four hours ago. It's late and dark, and it's started to rain, and I don't know where she is. Maybe she went to Mister's Talbot's home. But she would've sent a message, right?" Her thin voice quivered.

Emily clutched Mary's hand, trailed Alex's every move with huge frightened eyes, and didn't say a word.

Henry stood behind the girls. "Should I send the lads to look for Miss Rebecca?"

"Do you know where she went?" Alex asked.

Mary and Henry both shook their heads. Emily's lips started trembling.

"I'm sure nothing dire happened," Alex said firmly. He was sure of no such thing but he needed to calm down the girls. He bent and picked up Emily, and she clung to him, her cold little hands like iron pincers around his neck. "Maybe they are hiding from the rain somewhere," he hazarded.

"It's not going to stop any time soon," Henry mumbled sourly.

"Henry!" Alex steeled his voice, as if giving orders to his soldiers.

Henry straightened his old stooped back as much as he could. "Aye, Sir."

"Stop scaring the girls. Send someone to Talbot's home."

"Aye, Sir," Henry repeated and hurried towards the kitchen.

"Rebecca should be back soon. Don't fret." Alex looked Mary in the eyes. Her disquiet mirrored his own, but he must be strong for the girls' sake. He mustn't betray his own agitation, so he hid behind his impassive officer's mask.

"You think so," Mary breathed.

"I'm sure. Nothing dangerous could've happened to her in four hours, especially because she is with a friend."

Unless she did hide somewhere from the rain with Talbot. In an inn, alone in a room with her ardent admirer? Alex didn't like the direction of that thought, even though objectively it might be the best outcome for Rebecca. And the worst? He wouldn't think of it yet, but the ruby ring seemed to burn a hole in his pocket.

He ruthlessly squashed his jealousy towards Talbot. It mustn't overcome his common sense. He didn't know what was happening. He wouldn't panic, not yet, not until he knew for certain, but when he next met Talbot, he would punch the filthy swine in the nose. The man shouldn't poach in his territory. The thought of Nathan Talbot's bloody nose brought savage satisfaction, and Alex breathed easier.

Then he glanced at Emily, and his smugness faded. He needed to bring her out of her mute terror. He petted her little blond head and tried to loosen her dead grip on him. "Sweety, Rebecca is fine," he said quietly. "Let me go. Are you cold, Emily? You're shaking. Do you have a shawl or something to put on? Mary, could you bring me something for her? Perhaps hot cocoa for all of us as well."

Mary nodded and ran upstairs. Alex with Emily in his arms went into the library. When Mary brought in a large woolen shawl, the little girl finally let him go. He wrapped her in the shawl, and they drank the hot cocoa together. Color seemed to flow back into Emily's cheeks, although she still wouldn't talk, but Mary looked pale and apprehensive.

Alex worried too. Perhaps he should go look for Rebecca after all. Still sipping his cocoa, he went to the curtained window. It was fully dark by now, and the rain drove at the shutters as if it wanted to pummel the sturdy wood into submission. When the entrance door banged, he didn't at first distinguish the sound from the battering of the rain.

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