Chapter Fourteen

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Alex rushed down the three steps to the coach laden with trunks. He threw open the door before the rotund coachman climbed off his perch. Rebecca's pale, tired face appeared in the doorway, wrapped in a knit red shawl. A few curious dark curls peeked from under the shawl, framing her loveliness like carved mahogany.

"Alex." She smiled.

Behind her, the younger girls glared at him. No smiles there. Yes, he would have to do some groveling, but first, he should remove them all from the cold foggy street.

"You're late," he accused, devouring Rebecca with his eyes. "I expected you last week. Did my first letter go astray?"

"No, we got both your letters," Rebecca said as she stepped out of the carriage. "We had some complications. Emily was sick." Instead of hurrying into the warmth of the house, she halted on the threshold, waiting for her sisters.

Emily stuck her head, swathed in a huge shawl, out of the carriage after Rebecca. Alex picked her up. "Hey, pumpkin. I'm sorry you got sick. You're better now, right?"

"I was kidnapped," Emily said sulkily. "You were not there."

"Right." Alex deposited her just inside the door and grinned at Rebecca, ready to indulge the younger girl with her new game, but Rebecca's frown stopped him.

Rebecca nodded. "She was," she said apologetically. "That man, he didn't run away. He wanted his money after all."

Alex's grin fled. "Is she well?"

"She is better now," Rebecca murmured. "Go into the house, Emily. It's warmer there."

Emily stomped inside the house, while Mary jumped out of the carriage unassisted. "You shouldn't have lied to us. To me," she said in lieu of a greeting, turned her nose up, and sailed past Alex into the house.

"I'm sorry." Rebecca winced. "They took it hard, especially because of Emily's kidnapping.

"It's I who am sorry," Alex said quietly. "I shouldn't have left you alone. I should've known." He felt wretched to have left, while the girls had suffered. "Go into the house, Rebecca. You look frozen. I'll see to the unloading of your luggage."

"It was a hard journey," Rebecca said, "but we're home now." She kissed him quickly on the cheek. Before he could respond, she disappeared inside the house.

"You are," Alex said to no one and directed the coachman and the post boy to carry the trunks inside.

He found all three sisters in the small drawing room, clustered around the fireplace. They looked up at the sound of the door opening and regarded him with the emotional gamut in their eyes. Rebecca looked grateful and loving, and her gaze melted the cold knot of apprehension that had been growing in Alex's guts for the last week, the week he had been waiting for the news from New Oaks and receiving none.

Mary looked distant and hostile, glaring at him. Emily pouted, her large eyes full of accusations too, but her mouth seemed on the verge of a smile. She wanted to forgive him, to get her brother back. She had lost weight during her illness, and her thin, wane little face tugged at his heart.

He crossed the room and gathered her to his chest. Her cold nose tickled his neck.

"I missed you, pumpkin," he said into her ear. He caressed her slight body encased in a wooly blanket and felt her shivering. "I'm so sorry you had such a horrid time, with being kidnapped and ill. I would give anything to make it up to you. When you recover, I'll do whatever you wish, I promise."

She pulled away slightly to look him in the eyes. "Anything?"

He nodded. "Start thinking what you wish. You have a few days, so think hard. Come up with the best wish ever."

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