Miss Madeline Archer was forced to eat her snack of fresh carrots in the solitude of a dirty kitchen corner deep in the cellar of her family home, Ivy Glenn Manor, where no one could see her. Her self-elected solitude was necessary to keep ridicule for a most disadvantageous genetic defect—large rabbit-like teeth. It was trait that first befell Sir Archibald Archer, family patriarch of the noble Archer family, some two hundred years ago. It was regularly passed on every few generations to Archer males, who eventually did themselves harm at the ridicule they endured daily from their peers. Never did such an affliction hinder the appearance of an Archer woman, known throughout the country and in Town some of the most beautiful women to ever grace England, until Madeline Archer, third daughter of Sir Reginald Archer and Lady Josephine Archer was born. Fifteen years ago, the child sprouted ungodly large baby teeth that, upon falling out, were replaced by even larger adult teeth. Nibbling on carrots in the presence of others, or even laughing and smiling with the joyous spirit of a child, only gave acquaintances and certain family members opening to call young Madeline horrid nicknames, among those: Chipmunk, Archy Weasel Bottom, Beaver Nibbler, and the ungodly Rabbit.
Such nicknames were abhorred and unavoidable, and often made the child cry. Madeline did try her best to avoid such taunts and cruelty by avoiding the very occasions that called for them. She didn’t want to hurt person and cause great harm, as cousins before her had done, and felt that the best plan of action was to stay away from those who were particularly cruel. Avoidance came at a cost and had taken away most things young girls her age should enjoy. Never were there carriage rides where she wasn’t asked to pull the buggy herself, nor long walks in the park where someone didn’t ask her to fall a tree with her teeth, and heaven forbid she eat a carrot or a nut in front of anyone, the taunts were endless. Some of the worst remarks came from her own sister! And more than once had a cheeky little boy or girl trapped her with their butterfly net and exclaim that they caught a wild rabbit, or worse, mistook her for their pony like that brat Elizabeth Marsh, who was Emily Archer’s best friend.
Oh, I’m so sorry my dear Miss Madeline!—She sneered the autumn of Madeline’s eleventh birthday.—I swear from the side you look just like my pony Babs!
Then there was Horrace Hunnicutt, a retched little boy with a gap between his teeth that he liked to shoot water out of at the most inappropriate times, he had said: Madeline, your teeth are monstrously large—however do you keep them clean? A horse brush?
And Benjamin Daring: I bet she could bite this piece of wood clean in half!
Or her own sister, Emily: Have you seen her eat carrots? That is a jolly fun show!
Not only was she teased in private by her peers, but in public as well, and sometimes under the watchful eye of adults. Just last week James Holder drew a picture of her with teeth that touched the hem of her skirt. He showed the entire class; even the governess snickered a bit before crumpling the parchment and punishing James by asking him to sit on a stool in the corner of the room. Later that evening at the Marsh Ball, a new drawing circulated—some of the adults laughed and pointed at her, their red faces inebriated with too much wine and biscuits. More than once Madeline had over heard a woman of the ton commenting on how she would never be married—not to any decent man.
Alexander Black, her only and dearest friend, always made an effort to tell her to ignore what old biddies had to say. She would marry and she would marry well, become a princess no doubt. Madeline appreciated his kind words and gallant behavior as he was constantly sacrificing himself to defend her honor. Alexander knew what it was like to be teased and tormented. Not a particularly handsome young man, he was a gangly and odd shaped with large hands and feet, a rail thin body, which was always draped in clothes that were too big, oily skin, and oily hair. His face was spotted and he was a somewhat clumsy dancer. He always said that he was no prince charming, but was okay with that. The two had become instant friends, bonding instantly, and although she was nearly four years younger, they were equals and defended one another. It was Alexander who finally captured the drawing and put it in the fire before taking Madeline’s hand and leading her to the gardens were they watched the fish in the Marsh’s large pond. Madeline never feared reticule as long as Alexander was by her side. Because he was older, he was sent to Eton a few years before Madeline was to attend Mrs. Rothright’s Finishing School for Girls, and she was left to face hordes of cruel taunts alone. She had never forgiven him for going to Eton. Now, in just a few days time he would leave for Cambridge for an even longer period of time—she wasn’t going to forgive him for that either. The moment he was gone, the teasing would start, and Madeline would find herself fin more dark corners and closets than she cared for.
Biting down into one of the carrots in her palm, Madeline closed her eyes and savored the slightly sweet taste of the vegetable. It was a shame that she enjoyed eating them so much; the solitude of the kitchens or closets left her lonely and with a dismal disposition and also quite dirty much to her mother’s dismay. She was shocked that she hadn’t been banned from eating carrots all together. Her mother found her quite hopeless and liked to say such things. Madeline knew that she would not grow to be any great beauty like her sister Emily, but did everyone in the country—and town—need to remind her of this on a daily basis? She was certain that she would be quite happy if left alone.
Alexander’s soft voice perked Madeline’s ears. She craned her neck to see which direction her friend was coming from and then tucked her legs to her chest, dropping her skirt around her stocking-covered feet. She hoped that he wouldn’t see her, because she sometimes liked to be left alone from him as well. Mostly because he confused her with the things he said and the way he looked at her. Two years ago, Alexander gave her the nickname Bunny. The name was not given in jest or to be cruel like the others, and it was completely unrelated to her teeth, so he claimed. He noticed that just before she sneezed her nose wrinkled up just like his little bunny Max. She remembered the way he had laughed and pushed himself up on his elbows to gaze up at her.
“My little Bunny,” he had said with a soft smile. Madeline had allowed the nickname because it was one that wasn’t particularly painful. In fact, she blushed whenever he said it.
“Come, Bunny—I saw you come down here. You can’t hide from me forever!”
In two days it wouldn’t matter, she thought miserably. When he went off to Eton two years ago, she told herself that she could endure the teasing for a short time, soon he would return and would duel anyone who called her horrid names. But he had only been back for a fortnight and was already leaving again to make a home at University. Who would be at her side to make her laugh, to dry her tears, and to promise her that the future would hold only positive things? She had asked him these things as tears traveled down her cheeks and neck. The thought of being separate from him for four years was unbearable. He had drawn her into his arms where they sat in the grass field surrounded by momentary sunlight and warm breeze. She touched her face to his shoulder and breathed in his scent, which she feared she would soon forget.
“In a few months you will leave this place to start finishing school,” he had said. “I certainly wouldn’t have been able to follow you to finishing school. This is a time when we would be separated regardless, Madeline. Spend your time thinking of the future—when we are both educated, you in the fine ways of ladyhood, we can look back at these times and laugh.”
“You may laugh,” she said. “I will never laugh again. I shall miss you more than you’ll know, Alex.”
He held her tighter and she felt his lips against her shoulder as he whispered, “And I you, Bunny,”
Madeline watched as Alexander moved around the kitchen and pressed herself to her dark corner and prayed that he wouldn’t see the top of her head or the white hem of her blue walking gown. He paused a few feet away and sighed heavily.
“Madeline, please,” he begged. “It won’t always be this bad—you still have much growing to do. And I can assure you that there is less hope for me—I am four years older than you. Most of my growing is done now and I will be this way forever. I will go to University and when I finish and come home you will be the bell of the ball!”
That was unlikely, Madeline thought before taking another bite of her carrot. It crunched loudly.
“I hear you, Bunny,” his affectionate voice was just over her head. Looking up to into his startling blue eyes, Madeline felt new tears forming. His expression shifted to something unreadable to her; he hoisted her up and pulled her into his arms. “Come out from the corner like a good girl.” He murmured smoothing down her hair.
“Why?” She whispered. “I shall spend the next three years here—I should make my self comfortable shall I not?”
He set her back from him and took her carrots away, wrapped them in his handkerchief and then stuffed the bundle into the inside pocket of his blue jacket “You intend to hide yourself away? Good, I think that will work nicely as I don’t wish to return for your hand and find myself having to fight off your many suitors.”
“Alex, please don’t jest, I will never marry.”
“Would I jest?” He gasped and took her hand. “Come, let us walk and spend much time together.”
“Oh, why bother?” she cried. “Give me my carrots and leave me to my solitude—you should prepare yourself for University.”
“Mother is taking care of my packing,” he said while drawing the handkerchief from his pocket and wiggling it above her. He laughed when even a little hop on her part wouldn’t allow her to reach the bundle dangling overhead. “Come… if you are a good girl, I shall feed you a carrot, but if you are bad, I will eat them myself!”
She smiled and followed him to the door that led out of the kitchen. “You don’t like carrots, Alex.”
“Nay, but I like you.”
Madeline smiled brightly and then remembered that she should not smile so big and clapped her hand over her mouth. Alexander stopped short and locked his fingers around her wrist; he pulled her hand down and grasped her chin between his fingers, forcing her to meet his eyes.
“You will never hide smiles from me, Madeline Archer—are my words understood?”
Another smile spread across her lips and she nodded and accepted his arm. As he walked her out into the sun light, she gazed up at him and smiled again. “I shall miss you Alexander.”
His eyes danced with delight and he nodded. “And I you, Bunny.”
He opened his handkerchief for a piece of carrot and winked before feeding it to her. With a sigh of delight, Madeline sank her teeth into the carrot and held his arm a little tighter.
* * *
“It’s been more than four years!”
Madeline’s sudden exclaim startled the Duchess of Roaning, Danielle Black, mother of Alexander Black, future Duke, and one of Madeline’s dearest friends, who had been peacefully partaking in a chocolate biscuit from their tea tray. The elegant woman touched a hand to her chest and batted large blue eyes at Madeline who seemed oblivious that she had startled the poor woman. Madeline was highly distressed and had been since arriving in Town for her fourth season only to find that Alexander has still not returned from his travels. The generously-sized Black Manor, in situated on the east of Hyde Park, had a perfect view of the lush green fields and trees of the park and yet Madeline could not enjoy their beauty. Her body itched with an anxiousness that left her sleepless at night and irritable during the day. Alexander finished his schooling and was due home nearly a year ago, but decided he wanted a little time to spend with new friends gallivanting over the continent. According to his last letter to her, dated nearly three months ago, he was heading home and should arrive at the start of the season. Madeline thought it silly that she be forced to wait so long for her friend’s return. It was time for him to come home and stay home more than a fortnight. She missed him dearly.
“I know you are frustrated—but he is on his way now, my dear. Let us both be patient.”
Madeline sighed heavily, most unladylike, and turned her brown eyes on Duchess B. “He didn’t tell me that his apprenticeship would take another two years after Cambridge—nor did he tell me that he wanted to spend another year tramping around the continent with his new friends! What of his old friends? Does he not cherish me anymore? Does he not wish to see me—I know that I am not much improved but I…”
“Oh, Madeline,” Duchess B laughed lightly and poured more tea into her little cup. “Here, have a honey biscuit—you know Alexander returns this very moment and yet you still complain! I’m sure he’s bringing you delightful presents from his travels, and you know that he still cherishes you. He writes you letters that could be seen as novels while he writes me short missives out of courtesy to a mother, not of love.”
Duchess B’s eyes flickered over Madeline who made no obvious reaction to the word love. She likely dismissed it as a brotherly love, as she and Alexander had known each other for many years, but Duchess B was more attune to the fact that when youth fades to adulthood some brother-sisterly feelings may change as well. She was certain that when her son visited home for a short while four years ago that he was desperately in love with the young Archer girl, now a grown woman of nearly twenty two. A woman, who at the time Alexander was last home, hadn’t quite grown into her features, but was now a lovely little creature—as far as Duchess B was concerned. And though somewhat plain and unremarkable, she had a spark of fire behind her brown eyes that was both challenging and highly expressive. No, she was not as attractive as her older sister, but she was charming and had a few men seek to pay her mind, at least for a short while.
“I miss him desperately and I don’t feel that he cares for my feelings—the boor.” She gently pulled at a threadbare handkerchief between her hands and looked out the window at the slowly drizzling rain that had overcome the momentary sunshine. Park goers were scurrying for cover while carriages and hacks zoomed by on the street below to pick up stranded patrons. “I think I shall slap his cheek when he arrives—it will serve him right for leaving me alone for so long.”
“Oh! You have not been leading a solitary life, my dear—we are dear friends are we not?”
Madeline smiled. Yes, she had become quite friendly with Alexander’s mother over the years. Friendly enough that the Duchess offered to host Madeline for her last season. If Madeline was again unsuccessful in finding a match, she would be placed on the shelf and hired as a governess or companion to a younger lady of the ton. Duchess B had been very generous with her time in hosting Madeline for what she was sure would become yet another failed attempt to enter society with some level of grace.
“Yes, thank you, you have been nothing but generous over the years,” Madeline said humbly. “I often think of you as my own mother, but I do not think Alexander is privy to sharing. We have a fine friendship; I cherish our tea times together as we have good conversation.”
“When you’re not fretting over my son or calling him a boor, yes, we do.”
Madeline smiled playfully and then pouted, “I will be highly put out if he brings home a wife—for I’m certain he has dawdled for so long because he’s afraid to let me know that he’s replaced me and found true love. That is it—is it not? Alas, we may have to stop our tea times should he have a wife. I would feel out of place monopolizing your time while you have a new daughter-in-law to become acquainted.”
“I sincerely hope that is not the case—I shall never forgive him.” Duchess B said forcefully. “Let us be patient—have more chocolate.”
“Nay,” Madeline patted her stomach. “Nay… chocolate will not make me happy.”
“Carrots perhaps?” Duchess B offered kindly. “Alexander often writes to tell me that I can pacify your moods by feeding you carrots. I shouldn’t feed them to you, as that would be highly inappropriate. I could, however, have cook bring some up.”
“Nay,” Madeline stood slowly and set her tea cup down. She strolled to the window and leaned against the stone wall. The rain fell lightly soaking the grass and causing muddy pools to collect on the street. People scurried under their open umbrellas taking refuge in the homes of friends or under enclosed walkways. Madeline glanced down at her hands, which gently pulled the soft handkerchief Alexander had given her some time ago and touched the threadbare material to her lips. For days she had burdened her worrisome mind with one thought: would he be pleased.
“Will he?” she whispered to no one but herself. It had been an age since their last meeting, and while things seemed as they always were in the past—although filtered with thoughts of propriety that had been drilled into their heads—something was different about him. His look, the way he held himself, the ease in which he could now talk to people. Madeline thought that perhaps he had gained confidence when he out grew his pubescent spots, but that wasn’t it. It was something more than that—something more than improvement with age and education. He looked at her differently.
“Perhaps he has come to his senses after all,” she whispered to herself. “I will surely decrease his popularity in the ton now as I have not changed.” A sudden thought caused her to whirl around from the window. She found Duchess B watching her with a strange little smile and bright, wet eyes. “He knows to come to London, doesn’t he? He won’t go to the country looking for us?”
“His last post came directly here,” Duchess B answered after taking a moment to collect herself. “Perhaps he is setting up his apartment here in town?”
“He won’t stay here?”
“My dear, I’m hosting you this season, it would be highly improper to have you both under my roof with no other chaperone.” Duchess B said gently. “Come, sit… there is no use fussing by the window. I think we both know that Alexander will arrive whenever he chooses, most likely for dinner, and not without a friend or two, I’m sure.”
“How right you are mother!”
Madeline spun about with a gasp. Her heart slamming against her chest with excitement and happiness as the double doors of the drawing room opened robustly and three men entered. Duchess B sprung to her feet and hurried to her son with a cry of delight as he took her into his arms and twirled her about as if she were a little rag doll. Madeline’s knees trembled, forcing her to take a seat in the small chair near the window. She watched with teary eyes as Alexander kissed his mother’s hands before tugging her back to his chest. The older woman cried out as he spun her in quick circles. The two men he had with him laughed. Madeline regarded them carefully: one was short with long brown hair that he wore in a pony tail, his eyes were hooded by thick eyebrows, and he seemed to stand in the stance of a solider; the other was tall and thin, much as Alexander had been, and had blond curly hair and spectacles. Both would be considered extremely handsome men and Madeline was less inclined to rush to her dear friend because of the presence of these strangers. But not only did his companions halt her from going to Alexander, she was stopped by the sense that something was very different about him. A sense that was confirmed when Duchess B finally released him and stepped back to cup his cheeks between her hands.
“My lovely little boy—I knew that you would grow to look just like your Papa!”
Madeline’s hand flew to her mouth and incased a little gasp, she was completely amazed at Alexander’s transformation from an awkward young man to a devilishly handsome adult. He was so altered that she wouldn’t have known him if not for his height and large electric blue eyes, which were the only things that had remained constant. He was no longer thin and awkward; now, built large and solid, he filled out his finely tailored coat and breeches appropriately—nicely, in fact. His dark black hair lay in soft waves around his head and his skin was clear, free of all adolescent spots scars that had once plagued him. Alexander wasn’t the boy she remembered—he had grown up and become the type of man that Madeline had only admired from afar. The kind of man she created silly stories about; the kind of man who had ridiculed her as a child and young girl.
“Are you healthy?” Duchess B asked her son.
“Yes mother, strappingly so,” he kissed her cheeks and hugged her again. Madeline watched him carefully and gasped again as his eyes moved over the top of his mother’s head and fell on Madeline herself. He lifted his chin from atop his mother’s head and brushed a kiss against her forehead before stepping back and moving toward Madeline with powerful strides. The closer he drew the bigger Madeline felt her eyes were bulging. Could this really be her Alexander? Was he the boy who defended her honor many times as children, could defend a whole army if he now chose—he was big strong enough now. And while she always thought him handsome—in his own special way—he was now the very definition of good looks and masculinity. Madeline was almost fearful of him. He was handsome enough to tempt so many to do his every desire.
“Madeline, darling, come here—hug me!” As he reached her chair and extended his hand to take hers, Madeline nearly fell out of the chair in effort to get away from him. She hurried a few feet away and hid her body behind a large wing-backed chair beside the fireplace. “What is it?” Worry etched over his handsome face and somehow made him even more handsome. He moved slowly toward her, touching his cravat to make sure it was straight and then running his hands over his lapels to tidy them. He reached out to her again and when she shrugged from his touch, he stopped short and stared at her with amazement. “Certainly you are not frightened of me, Bunny. And you are not the type to hold silly little grudges—so you certainly couldn’t be this upset with me, can you? Come… I’m home now, with no plans to go anywhere. Let me hold you—it has been so long.”
His fingers managed to brush her arm before she jerked back, her heart racing. “How dare you.” Madeline whispered.
“Oh, come now,” he laughed lightly. “You can’t be mad forever, I know you—I…”
“How dare you!” she slapped his hand away and then turned and fled from the room. Ignoring Alexander and Duchess B, who both called out to her, Madeline raced up the stairs and locked herself in her bedroom. It wasn’t fair. How dare he change and become handsome and strapping without her? Now they could never be as they were. He had no right to do this—no right to change into a handsome stallion while she remained Madeline Archy Weasel Bottom. He had no right at all!
* * *
“What in blood hell is wrong with her?” Alexander demanded as he re-entered the drawing room after twenty minutes of pleading with a sobbing Madeline through her bedroom door. He had not expected such a reunion. He had been gone for far too long, had made obligations that kept him from home longer, but he offset his lengthy absence with long letters and little gifts. Now he was back and there to stay—certain Madeline should have been happy to see him. But instead she glared at him as if he were the plague and then locked herself above stairs and sobbed harder when he begged her to open the door. He should have known that Madeline wasn’t the type to be pacified with a few letters and little trinkets from his travels. She had needed him over the years—how much he would probably never know.
“Darling, please!” his mother gasped. “Such language! Did you two teach him this?”
Fritz Callahan and Martin Wells both shook their head simultaneously; Martin pushed up his spectacles and glanced at Fritz who was sipping his tea.
“I apologize for Madeline’s… emotions, but I’m quite certain that she wasn’t expecting Alexander to appear so suddenly, or be with friends,” she set another platter of biscuits between the two men who instantly reached for the sweet honey treats. It was the third platter to be inhaled by the obviously famished travelers, who had made their own introductions to the Duchess as Alexander rushed after Madeline moments after her flight. Duchess B watched them eat with gusto and then rang the bell for more.
“I don’t know what is wrong with her,” Alexander sighed heavily. Duchess B watched her son slowly begin to pace the room, stopping occasionally beside the chair where Madeline had been standing. “Mother, has she expressed displeasure with me?”
“Only that you are far more interested in your new friends than you are her,” Duchess B answered.
“Caldswollup!” Fritz cried. “Bring the chit down—we’ll tell her how he made our ears bleed as he spouted love sonnets—”
“Fritz!” Alexander exclaimed suddenly. “Don’t speak of such things.” It was too late, however, the Duchess was staring at her song with a curious expression.
“—it was his Bunny this, his Bunny that—quite infuriating, yes Martin?”
“Quite.” Martin murmured before eating the last honey biscuit on the platter. He gave his slender midsection a satisfactory pat and then wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Of course, should I be the young girl, I would be quiet upset with you as well. You’re a lout for leaving her desolate for so many years.”
“It’s not that,” Alexander muttered, feeling shame for not returning home sooner. The guilt he felt flushed his cheeks and neck with warm blood. He tugged at his suddenly uncomfortable cravat and ran his fingers slowly through his hair. “It’s something else entirely—it’s the way she looked at me—so startled, so… shocked. I feel like an absolute ass” —The Duchess fanned herself and gave her son a disapproving look— “she wouldn’t be sobbing now, and refusing to see me had she been irked that I haven’t been home before this. No, it is something else—I am determined to find out what it is.”
He turned on his toes and marched from the drawing room and back up the stairs. He knew better than to barge into a single lady’s bed chamber, but under his own roof, with his mother to stop any rumors, Alexander took the chance and threw propriety out the window. He stopped in front of Madeline’s bedroom door and touched his ear to the wood. She was no longer crying, which was good—he’d always hated it when she cried. Drawing his dagger from its sheath, he carefully pressed it between the doors, wiggled it up and down until the lock caught and flipped open, and then slowly opened the door. It creaked, Madeline lifted her head from her pillow, and, when she saw that it was him, dove beneath a blanket and wiggled to the center of her bed.
Glancing over his shoulder to see if anyone was coming, Alexander slipped into her bedroom, closed the door, and walked across the room to her bed. He hesitated only a moment before climbed atop the soft feather mattress. Her body, a lump under a soft blue blanket, shifted down under his added weight. He smiled as her fingers peaked out around the blanket to pull it more securely over her head. She squeaked as he touched her side.
“Leave!” she hissed.
“Tell me why I’ve made you cry,” he said simply. “Don’t make me rip this blanket off—look at me, Madeline, and talk to me. You could always talk to me.”
“That was then—please leave.” When he made no movement to leave her be, she sighed heavily. “This is highly improper behavior for a new Duke, my Lord.”
“Oh posh!” he laughed. “Don’t give me such nonsense! My Lord… you know we are more familiar with one another than that. I do not intend to call you Miss Madeline, not even in public. I shall call you my darling and gently twirl your hair about my finger.” He touched what he hoped was her shoulder beneath the blanket, and grinned when she bucked away and slithered up toward the pillows. “And I am not Duke yet—the ceremony hasn’t taken place. My father, God rest him, would want things done appropriately. Come out, darling…”
“You shall not call me such an endearing term,” she said quickly. “And we’re not familiar anymore—you have made that obvious. You have been gone for years, you’ve written yes, but a letter is not the same as a face-to-face—”
“Face-to-blanket?” he suggested.
Madeline sighed, “Just go—we are different now. You are different; we are not brother and sister—you must leave my room before someone comes and starts spreading rumors. I should not think that you wish to be tied down to my side for your life. You are in my bed no less!”
If it there was one thing Alexander knew it was that she wasn’t his sister—for it would have been highly improper to stare at the soft curves of her body as he was if she were his sister. In fact, laying here beside her—so close and yet so very far—had worked up a feeling deep inside of him that would become telling in only a matter of moments should he not slip away as she asked. In fact, it was a feeling that had first afflicted him upon spotting her on the chair in the drawing room.
“You speak nonsense, Madeline.” He finally said.
“Good, then since we have nothing more to discuss, you may leave,” she said dismissively. A moment passed before she added: “Should you ever pick my lock again, I will scream bloody murder and…” she gasped as he reached over and yanked the blanket from over her body. As she scrambled for it, he caught her cheek in his hand and turned her head up so she was looking at him. Her brown eyes softened and she turned toward him.
“Ahh, hello my lovely Bunny.”
Her face flushed a pretty pink and her full lips pressed softly over her teeth. How much she had changed. Her face, though very familiar had subtle differences that he found himself very much attracted too. Especially the little splay of freckles over the bridge of her nose where she had been carless in the sun, the soft way her lips lay over her teeth, which also seemed not so prominent. She cowered under his scrutiny and pushed his hand away. Turning on her side so he couldn’t see her, she touched the corner of her pillow and then closed her eyes.
“I am not a child anymore; you should call me Madeline and nothing else.”
“I will call you whatever I like,” he smiled. “Such a bite you have now!”
Her hand flew over her mouth. “How dare you…”
Reaching over her, his arm brushing along her side, dangerously close to the swell of her breast, he drew her hand down. “I was speaking of your attitude, my darling, giving me orders—I am a Duke after all.”
Her eyes narrowed, “You just said that…” seeing that he was only teasing her, Madeline jerked her wrist free and rolled back onto her side.
“Come now, tell me why you are so horrified to be before me. You cannot seriously be upset with me for becoming educated and learned in my craft—how am I supposed to conduct business without an education?” he gently touched her hair at her nape, smiling at the goose flesh that spread across her bare shoulder. “Come Bunny, I know I have been gone for far too long, but you’ve always been on my mind. My friends Fritz and Martin—whom you rudely snubbed I might add—will say I speak of nothing else.”
“Please leave,” she whispered drawing her shoulders up as he touched the soft lace trim of her gown. “Please go and leave me be—tell your mother that I will have my supper tray here. I will not dine with strangers, but… tell them I’m sorry for snubbing them, that was not my intension.”
Alexander frowned deeply. She wouldn’t eat with strangers? Why ever not? “You are not still hiding, Bunny?” She adroitly touched her mouth with her fingers, her eyes sparkled with tears. After a moment she sat up and began to draw away from him completely.
“While you may have changed for the better Alexander Black, I have not.” She slipped off her bed, showing him a small sliver of skin on her calf, which did nothing to calm the rapid pace of his heart, and walked across the room to her wardrobe. He watched as she walked inside and closed the doors tightly. He remained on her bed for a moment longer, staring at the place where she hid herself, thinking of new ways to encroach on her and demand that she speak with him candidly. Her circles of confusing statements were tiresome, he wanted the old Madeline back, and he wanted straight statements and explanations from her.
“Leave, Alex!” she cried with desperation.
Frowning, Alexander swung his legs from the bed and was about to get up when he noticed a crumpled bit of cloth on the center of the bed. He picked it up and turned it around in his hands. He was amazed to see that it was the handkerchief he had given her before leaving for Cambridge—the same one he had wrapped her carrots up in. He hadn’t thought she kept it, but to see it so well used that it was practically translucent in spots, touched his heard. Glancing at the wardrobe doors again, Alexander slipped the handkerchief inside his jacket. If she wanted it back, she would have to ask him for it.
Because it would be rude to not join her hostess at meal times, and since Madeline was not a rude person, she joined Duchess B, Alexander and his friends for dinner. Mr. Fritz Callahan and Mr. Martin Wells were nice and gentlemanly, playfully ribbing her for snubbing them earlier. They were constantly chattering with stories of Alexander’s exploits—those meant for feminine ears anyway—and did claim that he talked about her endlessly and even read them snippets of her letters to show how smart and humorous she was.
“I decided that I should declare my love for you on the spot,” Mr. Callahan said with a gentle smile. “But Alexander gently informed me that it would not be so.”
Madeline blushed at Alexander’s intense look of his friends and then smiled at Mr. Callahan and said, “You may love me if you desire.”
“Do you hear that Alexander?” Mr. Callahan boasted. “Shall I declare my love and—”
“Fritz,” Alexander all but growled.
“You look quite lovely, Miss Madeline,” Mr. Wise said after a moment. “Alexander told us a great deal about you and said that you were immensely beautiful, but I daresay he didn’t capture the whole truth!”
Immensely beautiful, Madeline thought as she looked down at her dress, a new gown from Duchess B, that fit her nicely but it was still quite unremarkable. She smiled hesitantly and returned to eating, keeping her bites demure and little, not to let her teeth show. She smiled and laughed behind her hand, and tried her best to keep the two men engaged in their own conversations and debates so she would not have to participate.
“I remember the first time Alexander took in more port than he could handle—he was dead drunk,” Mr. Callahan said after their plates were taken away and coffee and brandy served.
Alexander moaned, “Please, not this story.”
“I’m sure it’s been edited for our delicate ears,” Duchess B said with a smile.
“Yes, quite,” Mr. Wise chuckled. “He only had two glasses of bourbon and he was tripping all over himself. He tried to mount his stallion—shall I tell you what happened?”
Another moan escaped Alexander and Madeline giggled and nodded.
“He fell on his backside in a pile of manure the horse had so graciously placed at the toe of Alex’s boots!” Mr. Callahan wailed with laughter and slapped his palm to the table top. Madeline laughed behind her palm while Duchess B twittered behind her napkin, her eyes dancing. “Shall I tell her the best part?”
“Please, don’t,” Alexander sighed, his face was so red Madeline thought he may pass out.
“He tried to mount the horse from the rear!” Mr. Wise shouted.
Madeline laughed so hard her sides hurt. She clapped her hand over her mouth in effort to control her mirth. When she looked at Alexander she found him frowning at her—not for his embarrassment but because she was covering her mouth. She dropped her hand to her lap, but kept her lips together as they slid into a tight, large smile.
“It was quite the show,” Mr. Callahan said as he wiped his tears. After finishing her drink, Madeline stood and began to excuse herself for the evening, but Alexander wouldn’t have it.
“Come, let’s all retire to the drawing room,” he said simply. “There’s no reason to separate so early, it is barely ten o’clock.”
“I have a headache,” Madeline said quickly. “I’d rather go to bed, if you don’t mind.”
“I do,” Alexander said with a soft smile. He walked around the table and extended his arm to her. “Come—let us to the drawing room.”
Because she had no choice in the matter, Madeline joined everyone but took no pleasure in it. She turned down a game of Whist to sit by the fire and read a novel that she wasn’t particularly interested in. She listened to Mr. Callahan and Mr. Wise’s stories about Alexander and absentmindedly turned pages in her book as if to seem that she wasn’t listening. Alexander joined her after spotting her laughing behind the pages to her book.
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” he said quietly as he lowered himself to a chair beside hers, resting his brandy glass on his bent knee, he sighed heavily and looked her over. “Your hair is lighter I think,” he murmured after a moment. “I see tones of cherry wood there, and near your neck.”
“It’s the same as it’s always been,” she responded carefully focusing on the words of her book. “The fire shines new light, that’s all.”
“Perhaps,” he sipped his drink. “Do you spend a lot of time riding in your spare time?”
“Not when I’m in town,” she answered. “I haven’t had the opportunity to ride often this season—I have not been asked, nor do I keep a mare in the paddock.”
“I am surprised—and pleased—that my mother is hosting you and not your own. She is in town is she not?”
“Yes, Emily claimed it was pointless for my mother to sponsor both of us—it makes logical sense, I have had four bad seasons, many had put me on the shelf. I am not invited to very many parties, and I do not have a great many callers to come see me. Mother thinks I will distract Emily’s chances of a good match.”
“That is preposterous!”
Madeline was touched that he thought so, but didn’t comment on it “—I think your mother is making a great effort to marry me off. Or at least make me more visible to those who may be interested.” Alexander nursed his drink and sighed. “Your mother is wonderful.” Madeline said as she brought her eyes up to meet Alexander’s for the first time in several hours. His smile was warm and his eyes flashed with the same type of affection she has seen in them as a child. “She’s been a dear friend to me, picking up where you left off. I cherish her.” His deep eyes sparkled as he nodded and didn’t look away from her. “Anyway, I’m certain that this season will be cut short as well—I’ve heard rumors that Emily is nearly betrothed to a Barron.”
“Who is she set to wed then?”
“Baron Ritchester,” Madeline answered. “He’s nearly twenty years older, but he has the money to keep her satisfied. We both know that Emily desires pricey trinkets above all—I’m sure she could overlook the fact that he has three mistresses currently. Something I could never see past—my heart could not take it.”
“It is something you shouldn’t have to face,” Alexander said simply. “A good man would not keep a mistress when he has a wife.”
Again, Madeline’s heart swelled with happiness—he was such a good man. She smiled at him and nodded, “Unless they are forced to marry out of circumstance.”
“I suppose,” he chuckled. “But you won’t have to worry about that.”
“Yes, because I am a spinster,” she ignored his heavy sigh and continued, “Mother once talked of me being a governess—I think I would like to be a teacher,” she looked away and stared into the fire. “Teaching is a noble thing to do… I can teach Emily’s children how not to be cruel, heartless little brats.”
“Or you can teach your own children such things,” he commented. “You will be married, Bunny—you are too good of a woman not to be.”
“Yes, well,” she closed her book and rose, bringing him to his feet as well. “I think it’s safe to assume that we have both stopped growing, and you won’t have to fight off the attention of men from me as you predicted all those years ago. I do think that I may have to help you beat off the hoards, Alex. You’ve changed greatly.”
“No I haven’t,” he said firmly.
“Yes,” she whispered. “You have. Goodnight.”
Madeline said goodnight to Duchess B and Alexander’s friends and then left the drawing room and headed up the stairs to her bedroom. She found the bed turned down and her bath waiting and gratefully took the pins out of her hair. As her loose brown waves fell against her shoulders and the tension in her neck eased, she stared at her reflection with a sense of foreboding and began to brush her hair. Alexander had changed so much she felt like so unequal to him, certainly he could see that she was the same as she had been as a child. To prove that point she smiled at herself and looked at her teeth. Perhaps they weren’t quite as big, but they were still noticeable, and she still couldn’t attend a single function without someone from her past commenting. Alexander would see eventually—nothing had changed in six years but him.
The next morning, Madeline woke to find a beautiful arrangement of red roses and white lilies on her nightstand. Drawing herself up away from the pillows, she plucked a small white card from the soft delicate petals and opened it:
Bunny, please forgive me for being away so long. I know that I have changed, but my heart is still the same. I miss you very much. Yours, Alexander.
Sitting up slowly, Madeline reread the card and then looked at the flowers. Never in her life had she received flowers from a gentleman, and while it was only Alexander who sent them, something deep inside of her blossomed with happiness. Leaning over she touched the petals delicately and felt her face warm. It was really a lovely gesture from him, but it didn’t surprise her because he had sent her flowers when they were younger. He would gather little bundles of wild flowers picked from the fields around the countryside, and every Sunday afternoon he would place them on her pew seat in the church and smile when she waved to him. She liked wild flowers very much, but these from a green house were even more dazzling and brilliant. More grown up as well—she could not recall how many times she stared at Emily’s flowers from her gentlemen callers with envy.
As her maid helped her dress for the day, Madeline gazed at the beautiful arrangement feeling more and more delight that he had given her something so beautiful. She was stilling thinking of it when she walked into the dining room for breakfast and found him sitting at the table with his friends. She could help but wrap her arms around Alexander’s neck in a tight embrace. It was a most unladylike display, embrace him in such a way, but she was completely lost her senses and clutched him tight.
“Well, this is a much better reunion,” Alexander quipped as she gently kissed his cheek before drawing away. “Should I have known, I would have had flowers precede my visit—or at least had a few to warm you up when I first arrived.” Madeline rolled her eyes and released him. She moved around the table, curtseying to his companions before stopping before the buffet table.
“Just because I am pleased with my flowers does not mean that my stance has changed—you’re still very different.” She added scrambled eggs to her plate. “But the flowers were lovely, thank you Alex.”
“You’re very welcome,” he murmured. “And for the record, I am the same... just a little older.”
“You are different.” She said as she passed his chair on her way to the opposite end of the large dining table, putting several feet between them.
“You may break your fast with us, Miss Madeline,” Mr. Callahan called cheerily. “We’re in dire need of female company; especially of the gentile kind. Come, we wish to know the woman our Alexander considers the most wondrous creation on God’s green earth.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to intrude on your conversation—my simple mind couldn’t tolerate such subjects, I’m sure.”
Alexander laughed out loud and stood, “Come now, Madeline, I know you didn’t pay heed to that silly finishing school rubbish.” He gestured to his friends they gathered their plates and glasses and took seats on Madeline’s end of the table. In the process of cutting her sausage, Madeline froze. How was she to eat with them in such closer proximity? She didn’t even want to eat around Alexander who she had once trusted to feed her carrots. She could fix the situation by taking her meal into the other room, but that would be rude and she had already been accused of snubbing. She could take small little bites, but certainly they would notice and inquire if that was the reason Alexander called her Bunny. It was a no-win situation. Luckily, Mrs. Kline, the housekeeper took that moment to present herself.
“Miss Emily Archer to see you, miss.”
Madeline’s eyes moved from the housekeeper to her sister Emily who stepped into the room with a smile on her face, her eyes instantly moving to the men Madeline was dining with.
“Oh, I’m sorry—I figured Madeline would be quite alone this morning and… why Alexander, is that you?”
Alexander, who had risen from his seat the moment Emily swept into the room, nodded and approached her. Madeline watched as he bowed to Emily and then kissed her knuckles. Mr. Callahan and Mr. Wise were introduced next. Emily absorbed their energy with a simple smile and a soft pouty lip. He was wearing a gold satin gown and a black walking coat buttoned to her neck. Her blond curls were tucked elegantly under her bonnet, which she removed slowly. She welcomed the men’s attention with a dazzling smile.
“Miss Archer, the years have been kind do you, I see.”
Emily stared at Alexander for quiet awhile before she let her hand slip from his. “And to you too, Alexander—please call me Emily, there is no need to be formal among friends.” Madeline closed her gaping mouth and set her hands in her lap; Emily had yet to greet her that morning. Madeline fidgeted slightly in her chair as she watched her older sister regard Alexander with an expression never before bestowed on the boy. Emily had been just as cruel to Alexander as she had to Madeline, but now she looked upon him as if he was a fine catch and suitable match. Madeline was highly uncomfortable with this.
“I came to see my sister, but I never thought she’d be dining with three handsome gentlemen,” Emily cooed. “Forgive me for staring Alexander, but you’ve changed so much in the past few years. I barely recognized you when I came in.”
“I haven’t’ changed so much,” Alexander said quietly.
“Of course you have! You’re barely a scrap of that awkward little boy you used to be—If foresee you being an instant delight to many young woman in Town. Don’t you Madeline?”
Before she could respond, Mr. Wise laughed boisterously and nodded in agreement, “Sometimes we need carry sticks to bat hordes of lovely young ladies away from him. Many of our friends are jealous, for if Alexander is with us, we stand quite alone.
Mr. Callahan chimed in next, “And you shall never have a few moments of peace with him at a ball; he is always engaged in a dance or a waltz.”
Mr. Callahan chimed in next, “And you shall never have a few moments of peace with him at a ball; he is always engaged in a dance or a waltz.”
Madeline looked up at Alexander who was watching Emily, his cheeks red from embarrassment. He danced? Alexander had always refused to dance with her because he was so clumsy and trotted so hard on her feet once she was abed for a whole day before he toes stopped throbbing. Now he was dancing with hundreds of young women. She wasn’t comfortable with that.
“Yes, but we think that will end soon,” Mr. Wise continued. “He’s come home to claim a wife.”
Emily’s eyes lit up. “You will find a fair share of willing young ladies, I assure you.”
“Oh, but I think he’s found her,” Mr. Callahan looked down at Madeline and smiled tenderly. Heart racing, Madeline stared back at him and then at Alexander, whose eyes briefly flickered to hers.
“I should say he has,” Emily touched Alexander’s arm in a very flirtatious way.
“I’ve heard that you are to soon be betrothed,” Alexander said simply. “To a baron no less.”
“Yes well, the words haven’t been spoken, they could change,” she winked and stepped back to a more appropriate distance from him. “It is so good that you are home, I must insist that you have my first two dances for the Witford Ball, you are attending correct?”
“I’m not sure if I’ve received an invitation, but I’m sure.” Alexander answered. “Have you had breakfast, would you like to join us?”
“Oh, I suppose I could eat a little something—not as much as Madeline eats, of course,” Emily said as she gestured to Madeline’s plate, “I could never eat so much, my stomach doesn’t hold it. But perhaps a little something would be okay. A young woman must watch her figure—Madeline.”
Had she gotten too much? She hadn’t thought so and she was quite hungry.
“There is nothing wrong with a robust appetite,” Mr. Callahan said as he Alexander and Mr. Martin went to the buffet with Emily, partaking in second helpings. Madeline watched Alexander’s back and frowned as he laughed at something Emily said. She didn’t like how he look upon Emily as if she were a princess—similar to the looks she received from all men—especially she was so cruel in the past. Madeline soon realized that she had become a shadow in the room, and that she had an out to leave. For if Emily was to dine, comments about Madeline’s eating and teeth were sure to come out and Madeline wasn’t sure if she could handle such embarrassment in front of Alexander. While everyone was distracted by Emily, Madeline carefully removed herself from the room and took her breakfast to the rear drawing room where sunlight poured through the windows. She settled herself comfortably on a soft sofa near the window and ate her chilled eggs and ham.
“Why are you alone?” Duchess B asked from the doorway. The woman was wearing a lovely yellow gown; her hair was pulled back into a simple chignon adorned with jeweled pins. “Your sister is here, were you told?”
“Yes,” Madeline murmured. “Mrs. Kline brought her to the dining room where she instantly captivated the men. Pay it no mind, I prefer to eat alone—I didn’t realize that Alexander and his friends would be having breakfast so early or I would have had a tray brought up.”
Duchess B clasped her hands together and smiled gently. “I saw Alexander looking for you, but told him that I hadn’t seen where you had gone. I thought you may desire a few moments of solitude.” Duchess B sat down on a chair with her morning correspondence. “However, it wasn’t very becoming of you to leave without saying anything.”
“I’m sure they don’t miss me,” Madeline muttered. “Not with Emily around.”
Alexander wished he was still a lad and Madeline a young girl. It was easier then, easier to overlook what was proper and what was not. Had they been but children, he would have burst into her bedroom and demand that she stopped hiding. He couldn’t do that now. The previous night he had pushed his luck by slipping in to her bedchamber, and his mother later scolded him profusely for the scandal he would have caused should he have been discovered. He was to be the Duke of Roaning! He was to be scrutinized heavily by the ton for the most subtle slight of propriety—he must watch himself. He was to stay away from Madeline unless in the presence of a chaperone. Madeline made it difficult for him to be caught alone with her; she was a slippery little thing and managed to avoid him at all costs. He had not been surprised to turn from the breakfast buffet to find her missing. Emily, Fritz, and Martin showed no concern at Madeline’s sudden departure; in fact, their conversation went on with flourish as if Madeline had never been present. Alexander noted her absence instantly and when she didn’t return he could think of nothing else and excused himself for several minutes to locate her. It was nearly fifteen minutes before a maid told him that Madeline had just left the townhouse to call on a friend and wouldn’t return until later that afternoon.
Alexander tried to take care of household affairs while Madeline was gone, but not knowing where she was didn’t sit well with him. She had neglected to mention friends in town in her letters, and certainly this wasn’t a new acquaintance was it? His mother was unhelpful in the matter and left Alexander to pace the floor of the front drawing room watching the roads for any sign of his lovely friend. As the sky grew dark with the passing hours worry overcame him.
“Should she be let out alone—without a chaperone?” He asked his mother just as a rumble of thunder in the distance announced an approaching storm. Madeline was long overdue, and if it started raining she would be trapped for the evening and he couldn’t have that. He was ready to take to the streets to find her himself. “Is she safe?”
“Of course, her friend lives but only a few blocks from here,” his mother smiled down at her needlework and then looked up. “You’re very worried for her?”
“Of course I am!” Alexander cried. “This isn’t the country after all, Mother, its London. There are unsavory people about and…” he stopped short when he looked out the window and saw Madeline approaching the townhouse from the east end of the street. She moved slowly and gracefully along the walk. He smiled as her hands flew up to catch her bonnet as a gust of wind lifted it off her forehead. Brown wisps of hair flutter into her face as she scurried forward at a sudden clap of thunder that was loud enough to rattle the window panes before Alexander. She hurried to the front gate and then stopped apprehensively. Releasing her bonnet and wrapping her gloved hands around the iron gate, Madeline stared up at the building. Alexander instinctively stepped back from the window so she wouldn’t see him.
“She’s scared of me.” Alexander realized. “Why would she be scared of me? I would never hurt her.”
“You have changed greatly,” his mother answered.
Groaning with aggravation, Alexander spun around. “If one more person says that to me I’ll—”
“It’s true, Alexander,” Duchess B laughed. “You are not the boy you were when you left here nearly six years ago; you’re not even the young man who left here 19 months ago. You are a very handsome, noble, eligible, wealthy, and titled man, which has not gone unseen by the Mamas and daughters of town. Certainly you realize this—we were onslaught with visitors today and I don’t particularly care for Mrs. Alberta Grenwich or her daughter Constance.
“You will be accosted right and left by eligible young women, at balls, at dinner parties, on the streets, everywhere. I am sure Madeline knows that very truth and wishes to avoid seeing her friend married off. I’m sure though that you will find a decent match.”
“I don’t wish to be matched, Mother, you know that.” Alexander grumbled. His eyes moved back toward Madeline who had made no progress of passing through the gate. “I know who I want.”
“Do you?” Duchess be murmured.
“Yes… how do I get her to trust me?”
“Oh, with time,” Duchess B sighed dreamily. “And tenderness and love. I commend you on the flowers you had sent to her room—such a nice touch darling. I saw her admiring them several times this morning before she left to call on her friend.”
“Did she?” Alexander’s chest filled with pride and turned from the window. “This is good to know, I will buy her flowers every morning so she will wake up to them and think of me. What else will help my cause?”
“It might be good not to dote on her sister too much,” Duchess B commented. “That young girl was very cruel to you as a child and is still cruel to Madeline now.”
“Still?” Alexander frowned. Madeline had stopped writing him of the verbal abuse some time ago; he assumed that it had ended. Something about her not telling him that it continued set uncomfortably on his chest—was she not telling him other things? Shaking his head, Alexander rubbed his mouth with his hand and sighed. “I didn’t realize that… well, it’s beside the point now—all verbal abuse will stop today. In regards to Emily…”
“You were positively ogling her, my son,” Duchess B said. “If it made me uncomfortable, I’m sure it hurt Madeline as well.”
Alexander frowned. “I suppose I was shocked at how much Emily has changed—her beauty is…”
“Perhaps it would be wise not to talk about other beautiful woman around Madeline, you know she feels inferior to such women,” she set her sewing aside. “While she has grown into herself, she is not a great beauty…”
“Mother!” Alexander turned from the window. “How can you say such things—Madeline has always been beautiful and delicate and unique.”
“Unique isn’t a trait most women desire,” his mother smirked.
“I don’t want her to fit a mold; I want her just as she is!”
“You don’t have to shout, I’m right here,” Duchess B scolded. “And I wasn’t doing a disservice to the girl; I was simply stating things that she’s said herself. She hasn’t had the attention she deserves because she’s locked in her little shell—you are overwhelming to her.”
“I am the same!” Alexander cried. “What do I have to do to prove that?”
“Grow spots?” his mother quipped. “I have always thought you quite handsome, but, well age has been very kind to you. Perhaps she feels that you deserve more?”
“Oh!” Alexander growled and turned away from her. “That is complete and utter nonsense!” Looking out the window again he saw that Madeline was gone. Taking large strides across the library, he pulled the doors open and hurried into the grand hallway, and spotted her at the bottom of the steps trying to make a hasty accent to the bedrooms above. “Madeline!”
She froze on the third step and after a moment turned to look at him. She held her bonnet in her hand, her brown hair was tussled and wind blown and her cheeks were pink. She captivated him with her hesitant look and he felt his chest tighten as he came to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. With her elevated position they were now eye-to-eye. He desired to loop his arms around her and draw her against his chest, but he restrained himself and bowed his head.
“Hello, Alexander.” Madeline said quietly.
“Hello,” he linked his hands behind his back and smiled. “Did you have a good afternoon away from me?”
“Delightful,” she answered quickly. It was only a second before her cheeks turned pink. “I only mean that I had a lovely time with Gretta Massett, do you remember her?”
“A former playmate of ours,” he nodded. “She had unfortunate red curly hair if I recall correctly.”
“Yes, she is married and has three unruly red-curly haired babies,” Madeline’s smile became distant and her eyes flickered away. “She and I always said that no one should want a woman with such big teeth or brilliant red hair, but she found someone and now has three children. Three… it doesn’t seem—” her voice trailed off for a moment “—anyway, I rarely see her in the country since she and her husband live in town, and she rarely attends parties of the ton. Well, I must change for dinner…”
“Yes, please be sure to not crawl out of your window—I’d like to spend some time with you today.” He winked at her affronted gasp and turned to rejoin his mother. Twenty minutes later, Madeline appeared looking refreshed and beautiful in a soft lavender gown. Her skirts and petticoat swished delicately as she moved to an open window in the drawing room and settled herself on a chair across the room from Alexander. He smiled at her obvious attempt to avoid him; she settled with her shoulders back, her neck straight. Quite a change from her previous slouching posture—it did great things to her breasts, which he shamelessly admired.
“Do you care to read with me, Madeline?” he asked laying his book across his knee. She acknowledged him with a flint movement of her eyes and pressed her lips together. “I pulled Cinderella from the shelves in the library; I know it’s your favorite.” She turned her head, her brown eyes sparkled. “Come sit by me here and I’ll read it to you.”
“It’s too warm over there.” She said after a moment. “I will borrow the book when you’re done.”
“Nonsense, I shall come to you.” He rose easily and walked toward her window. Picking up a chair he positioned it beside hers and sat down, his hip pressed her skirts and he considered it a good sign when she didn’t withdraw and pull away from him. “Come, relax a bit—you seem uncomfortable.”
“Did you just bathe?” she asked.
“Yes—do you like my soap?” he smiled and turned to the front page of the small volumn.
“It’s the soap you always use,” she murmured.
“See, I have not changed so much,” he held up the little leather bound volume and began reading: “‘Once upon a time… in a kingdom far, far away…’”
Entranced by the story and his every word, Madeline slowly moved toward the sound of his voice. He leaned close to her so she could read along with him and soon she was pressed against his side, listening intently. And to his delight, she even laughed when he changed his voice to sound like the step-mother and wicked step-sisters. He read slowly to give much detail and to prolong the reading for as long as possible, and stopped the story just before the fairy godmother was introduced, which happened to be Madeline’s favorite part.
“Don’t stop, please,” she begged as he marked their page with a bit of satin ribbon.
“Dinner has been announced, Bunny,” he murmured tenderly. “We will finish later.” He stood and offered his arm, which she took. Her hand slid warm along his wrist before slipping up to a more respectable location in the middle of his arm. However the slight touch of skin to skin had taken its toll on Alexander’s countenance. He was doomed, and throughout dinner he sat with an uncomfortable tension in his loins and an ache to finish reading the novel only to innocently touch her again. Because Fritz and Martin had elected to dine at the club, to give him some quiet time with Madeline and his mother, dinner was very enjoyable and free of embarrassing stories of Alexander’s somewhat rowdy ways. Madeline started the meal by eating with very small awkward bites, but after a few glasses of wine, she laughed and disregarded any care that she may have had about eating in front of him. Alexander was pleased by this. He had never been put off by her teeth as a child. They were bigger than average, and one did notice them when she smiled, but they were never as bad as everyone made them out to be. Now with the age they didn’t seem as large and certainly didn’t make her off putting. In fact, Alexander found himself transfixed with her mouth in general: her soft lips, full and pink, and probably extremely soft. He would love to test their softness with his own lips—he had always wanted to and wondered if any other man had gotten close enough to try. He sincerely hoped not.
“Alex, why are you staring at my mouth?” Madeline asked.
He brought his eyes up and saw tears pooling against her dark brown lashes. He sat forward in his chair and watched as her fingers touched her lips before she looked away from him, visibly more upset that she had been a moment ago. He wasn’t sure how to get out of this, or how to ensure her that he wasn’t being critical. She would hate him forever if he were to tell the truth and tell her that he had been admiring her lips—she would never forgive him either. He tugged at his tight cravat and leaned forward.
“I was noticing how… what I mean to say is…”
“I think I need a moment,” she slowly rose to her feet.
“Madeline,” he did the same, but she shook her head and disappeared through the servant’s entrance to the dining room.
“Leave her be, Alex,” his mother said softly when he made an attempt to go after her. “You were being unforgivably rude by staring—no matter your intent.”
“I wasn’t… I…” He turned his full attention to his mother, who smiled softly. “Am I so obvious, Mother?”
The Duchess smiled and nodded her head before sipping her wine. “She just needs a few minutes to collect herself—what are you doing?”
Alexander had disregarded his mother’s suggestion and was now walking around the table toward the small door where Madeline had disappeared. He couldn’t give her a few minutes to collect herself; he needed to talk to her now, he needed to explain. His mother looked horrified by his actions but he didn’t care.
“Leave her, Alex—honestly I…”
He pushed open the door to the servant’s entrance and slipped inside. He followed the narrow hallway into a room just off the dining room. A few maids lifted their heads from the platters they were organizing and one pointed in the direction Madeline had gone. Alexander quickly moved in that direction. He found Madeline standing outside the doorway, her face buried in her hands, her shoulder’s trembling as she wept. He curled his hands into fists and slowly released them. He stepped behind her and she turned away from him but didn’t run. To see her this way, so upset because of him, worked deep parts of his own resolve and he felt like a horrible monster, and was slightly irked that she would think him cruel.
“Have I ever hurt you?” he asked, closing his eyes as she whimpered and sniffled. “I have never hurt you—nor would I.”
“I know,” she whispered.
“I don’t think you do,” he placed his hand on her shoulder, swallowing as the feel of her warm skin ignited a new ache within him. “You have never cried over something I have said to you—this is… this is hard for me.” He brought his fingers to the soft skin on her nape. “I wish to comfort you, Bunny. It has been my life-long desire—since we first became friends—to never cause you sadness. And I have… I am a bastard.”
She gasped and turned.
“A cad, a swindler, a cheat, a miserable cur, an insensitive…”
She touched her fingers to his lips to silence him and then laughed lightly. Alexander wasn’t laughing, the simple touch swept through him like a wild fire on a dry barley field. His body trembled and his skin pimpled with goose flesh. He stepped closer, eager to touch for her to touch him again. “I am just overly emotional, that’s all….”
He withdrew his handkerchief and used it to dry her damp cheeks before handing it to her so she could wipe her nose. “Why are you crying?”
“I… I just…” she laughed and pulled the handkerchief with her fingers. “Hey… this is mine!” He glanced down and saw that he had accidentally handed over the cloth that he had given to her six years ago. The one he had stolen back from her. “I was looking everywhere for it and—hey!” she exclaimed as he plucked it from her hands.
“It was mine to give and mine to steal away—you must ask for it… and…”
“May I?” she whispered softly, her eyes sparkling. He smiled and set the handkerchief in her palm.
“Of course, I can’t deny, my little Bunny,” he leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Come, no more tears, please—I can’t tolerate it.” Drawing her against his chest, he sighed as she relaxed against him her face pressed against the underside of her jaw. As she sighed, her hot breath slid under his cravat, making the knot tight and unbearable. He spread his hand across the small of her back and held her to him. He finally set her back from his chest, feeling somewhat triumphant at the look of disappointment in her eyes. “Come… let us finish our dessert—I’ve asked cook to make your favorite, and I am anxious to watch you enjoy it.”
A few minutes later, after they rejoined Duchess B in the dining room, carrot cake was served. Madeline enjoyed every bite and, for the first time since Alexander had arrived, didn’t hold back her joy. After dinner they retired to the drawing room where Duchess B went over the invitations that had arrived that day. Alexander caught on quickly that without his mother’s friendship, Madeline wouldn’t be considered by the ton. Each invitation was addressed to his mother and listed Madeline as a guest; she received no personal invitations. She didn’t seem shocked by this in the slightest and Alexander began to wonder if she had ever had an invitation sent that was individually for her.
“Here Alex, these came in while you were reading to Madeline,” his mother handed him a small bundled of colored envelopes. Some were invitations and some were short missives from some of the young ladies who called on him earlier. To Madeline, Duchess be explained, “He had many visitors this afternoon.” Alexander glanced at his mother and then looked at Madeline for her reaction. She was watching him curiously, her brown eyes dropped down to the pile of envelopes in his hand. She returned to her needle work and after a moment looked up again, her hands still over her fabric.
“Are you to take a wife this season Alex?” She asked. “I could help you find a decent lady—I’m very observant.” She had sad such things in the past; then and now he wanted to tell her that he had found the woman he was looking for, but something deep inside of him was afraid of the words.
“I’m sure I won’t find anyone in the ton to satisfy me,” he said simply. “Most were rather cruel to me if you recall. I will attend whatever balls you two attend, mother.” He set his letters aside and didn’t look at them again.
“Well, we are to go to the Witford Ball tomorrow evening, I think I saw an invitation there for you,” Duchess B said. “Madeline, I’m sure your gown will come in sometime tomorrow morning, I’ve heard from the seamstress.”
Madeline sighed. “You must allow me to pay for the gowns—I’m sure Papa will…”
“Sir Archer should have bought you new gowns ages ago!” Duchess B exclaimed with disgust. “I will not hear any more of this, you are my friend and I am hosting you this year. The gowns are yours to keep—no payment in necessary. Besides, the gown is such a lovely color and looks swell on you—green, we do love green, don’t we Alex?”
“My favorite color,” he said truthfully.
Madeline smiled hesitantly and then looked down at her sewing which had remained untouched in her lap. “Your mother is too generous.”
“Or perhaps you need to be spoiled more,” Alexander smiled at her pretty blush and glanced at his pocket watch. “Ladies, I’m sorry but I promised to meet Fritz and Martin at the club and I’m long overdue.” He rose and went to kiss his mother first, and then stopped beside Madeline’s chair and brushed a kiss to her cheek. “Sleep well, Bunny.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. “Goodnight.” Alexander left them alone and headed out for the evening.
When he arrived at Witmore, a gentleman’s club, Fritz and Martin were heavy into their drink and a game of cards, and greeted him with a robust yell. He sat down, ordered a drink and considered joining the card game. His friends were drunk enough that he could win a small fortune off them; however, he wouldn’t take advantage of them in their inebriated state. Instead he nursed his sherry and thought about Madeline and what type of flowers he should get her the next morning.
As her maid tightened the soft ribbons at the back of her ball gown, Madeline gently touched the soft petals of the wild flowers that had been delivered to her that morning from Alexander, whom she hadn’t seen all day. Should she have been a more whimsical woman she would have sworn that he was trying to court her—woo her perhaps. She set the notion aside with a laugh, but managed to day dream about it and him all day long. Duchess B said that it was natural for friendships to change over the years, either ending or flourishing into something more. Madeline couldn’t believe that Alexander would have such feelings for her; after all, he was just a friend. He was being brotherly.
“Stop fidgeting, my lady, or the dress will fall off in the middle of the dance and you shall be a great scandal!” Henrietta exclaimed as she finished with the ribbons and led Madeline to a chair so that she could do her hair.
“You’re putting great effort into me tonight,” Madeline commented as the older woman carefully combed Madeline’s hair.
“Duchess Black requested it,” Henrietta said matter-of-factly. “She told me just this morning that I’m not to let you insist on the bare minimum. You are to look like a princess!”
Madeline rolled her eyes. “Then do your magic—for you must be a fairy godmother, with extraordinary magical talent.”
“Nay, just a servant with a dream, Miss.” Henrietta smiled at Madeline in the mirror and then went to work curling and pinning her hair into a beautiful arrangement, adorned with little petals of baby’s breath for enhancement. Twenty minutes later, Madeline descended the stairs and followed the sound of male laughter to the library. Pushing open the door, she moved in and saw Alexander talking with Mr. Callahan and Mr. Wise. Duchess B sat in a chair near the open window fanning herself; she spotted Madeline first and waved. Mr. Callahan was the first of the men to turn; the smile vanished from his face as she moved closer to them. Madeline touched her stomach which tightened with apprehension. When she was only a few feet away Mr. Callahan swept into a low elegant bow. She beamed and curtseyed to him.
“Enchanting, Miss Madeline,” Mr. Callahan took her hand in his and squeezed her fingers. “Don’t you think Alexander?”
Madeline held her breath. Alexander and Mr. Wise turned at the same time, but it was Alexander’s expression and reaction to her gown that kept Madeline’s attention. At first she could not read him, all she knew was that the look in his eyes made her stomach tickle. It several moments before he took her hand, bowed over it to kiss her knuckles, and then straightened up whispering her name.
“I was hoping we could finish Cinderella soon,” she stammered nervously. “I do know how it ends, but it’s always fun to pretend how stories are going to end, even if it’s obvious.” She smiled when he finally released her hand, suddenly as if he had just realized that he had been clutching it entirely too long. “Do you think we can read it then?” when she looked back at him she caught his eyes traveling the length of her body and felt warm under his scrutiny. “Do you approve?”
“Not in the slightest,” he said suddenly, his voice slightly cold.
She blinked and gazed up at him. “What’s wrong with it—it’s in style. It’s new.”
“It’s far to revealing… Mother!”
“This style is all the rage, Alexander,” Duchess B said as she came across the room. “You look ravishing my dear.” The Duchess’ warm eyes flickered to her son and then she laughed and kissed Madeline’s cheek. “I’m certain that no one will look prettier than you tonight—do you have your dance card?”
“What for?” Madeline asked innocently.
“You look beautiful, my dear—I’m sure you will be scooped up by many men tonight,” Duchess B answered. “Gentlemen, may I predict you filling your names to Madeline’s card before you have no chance.” Mr. Callahan and Mr. Wise jumped to do so. Madeline blushed hard and fanned her cheeks.
“Oh… I… well… thank you.”
Alexander was not pleased. “The gown is improper.”
Madeline knew that wasn’t true. Perhaps it showed a little more of her bossom that she liked, but, well it felt lovely. She gently touched the material that lay across her stomach and jumped when Alexander’s voice bellowed:
Madeline looked up in time to see Mr. Callahan turn away from her and shake himself; his apologetic smile didn’t quite reach Alexander as he walked across the room to pour himself a drink. Madeline watched Alexander’s darkened blue eyes turn to Mr. Wise, who was smart to continue to stare at the floor. Grabbing her shawl from the back of the chair, Alexander moved toward her. As he brought her shawl over her shoulders and wrapped it around her, Madeline noticed how very handsome he looked in his dark black coat, tan breeches, and black boots. His cravat was so white and elegantly twisted that she absent mindedly reached up to touch it. His head moved slightly and her knuckles brushed his soft jaw. Alexander’s breath caught sharply and he took her hand in his.
In a low voice, he begged, “You must change. Please…”
“This displeases you?” She looked down at herself. “Alright, I will change.”
“Nonsense!” Duchess B was outraged, she clucked her tongue and shooed Alexander away with her hand. “You will wear this gown, don’t listen to him—let us be off, fashionably late is acceptable, very late is not.”
“Perhaps a strip of lace could be added,” Alexander asked as he helped Madeline up into the carriage and then his mother. Madeline settled herself on the seat and did not hear Duchess B’s exchange with her son. Soon the door closed and the women were bathed in darkness. Madeline heard Alexander yell at Mr. Callahan again just as the carriage pulled away.
“Protective, isn’t he?” Duchess B quipped with a coy smile.
“I don’t know—perhaps there is an imperfection in this gown that displeased him,” Madeline whispered.
“Perhaps he doesn’t know ladies fashion,” his mother retorted.
“Oh, that’s a good point,” Madeline nodded. “Silly men. I do feel rather enchanting in this—oh, he never responded about reading Cinderella to me.”
“Perhaps you should play the part of Cinderella tonight, Madeline—let other’s dream for once.” Duchess B slipped a piece of candy between her lips and sighed. “It should be an interesting evening, my dear, just you wait.”
Madeline didn’t have to wait long. They arrived at the Witford Ball along with a throng of arriving guests. Bumped and bustled about, Madeline was announced with the Duchess moments before Alexander and his friends were announced. The moment her shawl was taken, she found herself surrounded by acquaintances who wanted the chance to tell her how wonderful she looked. The attention was overwhelming, especially when Alexander rooted himself at her side and the comments turned from oh, how pretty you are to my what a lovely couple you now make. Madeline was at a loss of words and soon said “thank you” to every comment. The people who made the most fuss were the ones who had given Madeline and Alexander such a hard time in childhood. Madeline was less able to forgive those few, whereas Alexander chattered gregariously as if nothing had happened just six years ago.
When it came time for the first dance, Alexander wrapped his hand around Madeline’s and pressed it to his arm. He led her away from a violently whispering group and toward the dance floor.
“That was intense, was it not?” he whispered into her ear. “Shall we really give them a show?” he bowed over her hand and kissed her knuckles. “Come Bunny… dance with me.” Feeling light and feathery, Madeline squeezed his fingers and nodded. However, no more than two steps onto the dance floor they were broken apart by Madeline’s sister who stopped in front of them breathlessly. Madeline instantly noticed Emily’s gown—a soft golden color, it highlighted all of Emily’s beautiful features: her honey-brown hair, bright brown eyes, and her ample bosom. Madeline no longer felt self conscious of how much skin she was showing—her sister took that prize. The bodice of the gown was practically lascivious.
“Alexander,” Emily smiled sweetly. “There you are—you haven’t forgotten that you promised the first two dances to me?” She showed him her dance card and then batted her long eye lashes and smiled. Madeline pulled her hand free of Alexander’s and smiled when he turned toward her.
“I’m sorry, I forgot,” he whispered. “Don’t fill your dance card too much, promise me one dance?” He winked and turned toward Emily. “Yes, I nearly did forget—may apologies, Emily. Shall we join the others?”
Emily lifted her stunned eyes from Madeline’s gown. “Why, I didn’t recognize it was you in that lovely gown,” Emily said in a tone that many would have thought genuine—Madeline knew better. “It… it is quite… quite nice.” Emily took Alexander’s arm and Madeline watched from the sidelines as the couple joined the dance. After a few minutes, Madeline heard soft voices whispering behind her.
“I heard that he was much improved—but I wonder if it is his new title that turns many an eye.”
“Miss Emily Archer looks very well on his arm—shall I predict an upset, my dear?”
“I’m sure the Baron Ritchester may have a few words to say about that—the man looks positively aghast.”
“She’s a flirt, that one—but I suppose she has much work to do to make her family proud, we all know that the youngest Archer girl is unfortunate in looks and won’t make a good match for the family.”
Madeline looked at her hands and then glanced at Alexander and Emily again. They really were beautiful together; the picture of perfection. They would have lovely, perfect children together, Madeline realized. Alexander would be a good father, Madeline had always thought so. He had always been attentive and careful of her needs as a child; she was sure that should his child suffer a similar misfortune of big teeth that he would feed her carrots and cuddle her endlessly. However, if Alexander married Emily, the child would not have big teeth. If Alexander were to marry Madeline, it was certain that such an affliction would befall her child.
Catching Alexander’s eye as he danced, Madeline forced a smile and waved to him when he caught her eye and winked. Slipping back into the crowd, carefully to avoid the twittering women who still gossiped behind her, Madeline made her way through the crowd hoping to find a friendly face. Instead she found her mother.
“I had heard that your dress was all the fashion, my dear,” Lady Archer said by way of greeting. Her brown eyes slowly appraised Madeline entirely; she then shrugged and sipped her wine. “You look so improved I barely recognized you—Duchess Black does you a great service you realize. I hope that you are not taking advantage of her hospitality.”
“Good, good… I see that Alexander has returned,” Lady Archer’s deep-set eyes moved slowly over the dancing couples. “I was afraid when Emily returned home with the news; she held such an air about her as she said that he and had quite redeemed himself in her eyes. Your sister is soon to be betrothed to the Baron of Ritchester you realize. However, Alexander is in line to be a Duke; Duchess is far more advantageous than a Baroness.”
“You plan for Emily to wed Alexander?” Madeline’s chest hurt. “I do not think he would desire that union—she was very cruel to us and…”
“Us?” Lady Archer laughed. “Please, child—you know he thinks of you as sister, this union would only make it law. He has never had an inkling of romantic feelings I dare say, and Emily is much improved from her former self.”
“But…” Madeline stammered. Her voice trailed off, mostly because her mother acknowledged another guest and left her standing alone. The idea of Alexander marrying Emily did not sit will in Madeline’s mind; she couldn’t allow him to do that. She would lose him forever should he chose Emily over her. Over her? Madeline touched her lips and licked the front side of her teeth. Over her? Shocked at the thought that perhaps she might want to marry Alexander, Madeline worked her way deeper through the crowd until she was comfortably pressed up against the wall near a window.
Did she want Alexander to be her husband? If she was honest with her self, she knew full well that she had daydreamed of that exact thing for many years. She especially thought that when his long letters seemed to spout romantic poetry about how he longed to see her again; often she wrote off such silly missives with a shake of her head. The more she thought about now, the more she wanted him to be in love with her, to want to marry her. If Emily had her hooks in him, and if Lady Archer said it was so, there would be no hope for Madeline and Alexander. She wasn’t sure if she could fight for him. Not against her own sister.
“There you are!”
Madeline was brought out of her reveree by her father, Sir Archer’s loud baritone voice.
“Papa!” she exclaimed as he enveloped her in his arms. “I did not know you had returned from the continent, are you well?” Her father nodded and set her back from him; he regarded her carefully and smiled.
“I dare say… you look very different, Madeline, much like your dear grandma.”
“Grandma?” Madeline whispered. “But… I’ve seen pictures of her, surely you jest! She was so beautiful.”
“Are you not beautiful, Madeline?”
“Not particularly, I have big teeth.” She tried not to smile, but when her father bared his own large wooden teeth, she giggled despite herself.
“Be grateful that you have all of your own teeth my dear.” Her father sighed deeply and brought her hand up to kiss her knuckles. “I was a way far too much, my love, not when you needed me.”
“The queen needed her commander,” Madeline smiled. “Are you well Papa?”
“Yes, I find myself quite delightful this evening,” he smiled kindly. “It will however be an early night; I wanted to see you, my little belle, and tell you how proud I am of you. I always knew you would amount to much and that you would grow into yourself.” He gently tapped her chin with his knuckle.
“Papa, are you confusing me with Emily?” Madeline laughed. “I know it would be amazing for you to do so, but I have not accomplished much of anything—I am single, with no marriage prospects and…”
Her father shook his head and winked. “Do not sell yourself short just yet, my dear. Your luck could be turning around at this very moment.”
“I wish I had your optimism, Papa.”
“Lemonade?” Alexander asked appearing as if by magic. He handed her a small cup. “Sir Archer, great to see you again.”
Madeline’s father laughed lightly and then cleared his throat. “Right, right… good to see you again as well, it seems like it was just yesterday that we—” Alexander cleared his throat with a loud cough and looked Sir Archer oddly, Madeline glanced between them both and saw that her father seemed quite abashed. “Um… tell me… how is your mother?”
Alexander answered quickly. “Fine, fine—well rested.”
“Excellent, I shall demand she dance with a crotchety old man!”
“Papa,” Madeline laughed.
“Yes, well, I shall leave you two alone, shall I?” he kissed Madeline’s cheek and shook Alexander’s hand. “I told Alexander to bring you to our home for dinner soon—you’d think you weren’t my daughter the amount time you spend away. I told him to watch out for Emily too—she’s set her cap for him, you know.” Alexander choked on his lemonade and Sir Archer dipped his head and kissed Madeline’s cheek again. “I love you, Poppet. Very proud of you, my dear.”
“I love you too,” Madeline blinked at the sting of tears in her eyes and watched her father pat Alexander’s shoulder before disappearing through the crowd. “I don’t know what’s come over him—he just told me he was proud of me. What for I will never know.”
“Perhaps he is happy that you have grown into a delicate, generous, and loving creature?” Alexander asked as he sipped his lemonade.
Madeline sighed and watched everyone around them. “I don’t know, Alex—I feel like he was confusing me with Emily. I have not accomplished anything worthy of noting. Even in finishing school I did nothing spectacular, nothing that warrants acclaim.”
“Bunny you are too hard on yourself.” He finished the last of his lemonade. “I have managed to avoid five young women and their mamas in order to mark my name on your dance card. Come, hand it over.”
Madeline offered her dancing card and watched with delight as he penciled his name in—her heart swelled when she noticed it was for the waltz. He was the first man to ever request a waltz with her. It was such an intimate dance that she had shied away from any meager attempts by other men to request that dance. She was happy that Alexander would be her first. As the orchestra began warming up for the second dance Alexander sighed.
“I must fulfill my duty to your sister; promise me you won’t leave from this spot?”
“I promise,” she said.
“I don’t believe you.” She raised her eyes to his and blushed as he smiled with satisfaction and touched the tip of her nose with his finger.
“Alex,” she caught his hand as he started away. He turned his full attention on her and waited patiently. She squeezed his fingers. “I never said welcome home.”
He turned her hand over and kissed her knuckles tenderly, “Thank you, darling. I will be back shortly. Don’t go anywhere; I have something to tell you when I get back.” Madeline watched him walk away and felt somewhat flustered and anxious for his return, which didn’t come for many hours. Madeline herself was kept very busy with conversation and dances. It was during his first dance with her that they were able to talk to one another without interruption or other obligations.
“I feel like I haven’t seen you all night,” he said after a moment or two as the music of the slow waltz began. “Are you having a good evening?”
“Surprisingly so,” she nodded. “And you?”
“Better now,” he answered, hesitantly holding her hand a little tighter. “I am glad I filled your dance card, I would have been highly upset to not take your hand in a dance. Do you realize that this is our first dance—in society.”
“Yes, and you have much improved, Alex.”
He laughed. “I should hope so… I always adored you for giving me lessons in the hills, even after I broke your toe.”
“You are my dearest friend,” Madeline whispered. “I would do it again and again—although I would guard my toes better and wear the gardener’s boots.”
Alexander laughed and nodded. “That might be good—should you have sons, be sure to do that.”
“Perhaps,” Madeline sighed. “I feel as if tonight is a dream, Alex—I have never had so much attention from so many people, and I really have a hard time believing that it’s due to my updated fashion.”
“The dress is… lovely,” he said softly. “I… do disapprove of it though, it is far too revealing. You will not wear it again.”
Madeline laughed, “You cannot tell me what to wear, Alexander—and is it really so bad?”
“I said it was lovely,” he smiled, his thumb slowly rubbing hers. “Very lovely. You are lovely Madeline—that is what I wanted to tell you. How beautiful you are—no… what I wish to said is how beautiful you’ve always been.” Speechless she gazed into his blue eyes and shook her head with confusion. “I have always seen the beauty in you Bunny—adulthood has only heightened all of those things. What I was afraid to say as a boy, for fearing that you would misunderstand, I am not afraid to say it now.”
“Scared to tell me I’m beautiful?” she whispered. “Why would you be scared to tell me this?”
“I don’t know,” Alexander answered. “I suppose that I didn’t think myself worthy enough of—” The dance ended suddenly and applause erupted, catching them both off guard. It had been entirely too short, and Madeline was very hesitant to part from him. But they separated and clapped to show their appreciation of the music. Alexander slipped her hand into his arm and he led her off the dance floor. “Come; let us get some air, yes? If we steal away perhaps we won’t have to honor our obligations. I have much more to say to you.”
“Mr. Black! Miss Archer!” a shrill voice called out.
“Hurry toward the balcony!” Alexander whispered in Madeline’s ear. She smiled up at him and stopped to turn toward the voice, which belonged to Lady Witford who was towing her youngest daughter Amanda with her. The robust woman was barging her way through the crowd, her deep purple gown rustled and her bosom bounced with each step. Miss Amanda Witford, similar to her mother in appearance, was red from exertion and embarrassment. Alexander groaned under his breath as Lady Witford stopped breathlessly before them. He moved behind Madeline and let his fingers brush her side. Madeline wanted to reach back and clasp her hand, but had become very aware of the amount of attention they were now receiving due to Lady Witford’s outbursts.
“Miss Archer, I must commend you on your overall look tonight—I barely recognize you in this gown. Mr. Black, welcome home—I trust University was good to you?”
“Lady Witford, thank you—I survived my time away tolerably, although I missed my dear friends here.” He touched Madeline’s side again.
“Yes of course,” she said dismissively. “May I present my youngest, Amanda.” Lady Witford brought her daughter forward and the three bowed and curtseyed as required. It was a moment later before Amanda was thrust in Alexander’s arms and pushed onto the dance floor. Amanda was frightfully apologetic about the matter, and Alexander, as gentle as ever, was good natured and elected to dance with her. Madeline made her way to the balcony where Alexander had intended to steal away too, and stepped up to the rail. The cool wind that touched her hot cheeks was refreshing and much needed. The words that Alexander had spoken on the dance floor had pushed a fuzzy feeling into her chest. Her jaws even hurt from struggling not to grin—he would never know how happy he had made her; she only wished he had been strong enough to say them when she needed to hear them the most. In many ways she felt the same—she had always thought him handsome and witty. She never saw him the way others did; perhaps she should have said something similar.
“You looked quite comfortable dancing just now, sister.” Madeline turned to see Emily in the shadows moving closer to her; two of her sister’s friends lurked behind but didn’t approach. “One would think you two were positively in love—it was near improper how he was holding you.”
“I…” Madeline wasn’t aware of anything improper about her waltz with Alexander—the very purpose of the dance was to be held close. “I don’t think that we…”
“And the way he was whispering in your ear—you will have the reputation of a spinster who is trying to trap a man.”
“Trap a man?” Madeline stammered. “Anyone who knows Alexander and I know that we are practically siblings, we grew up together.”
“You do not look at him the way a sister would,” Emily sneered before dismissing the thought with a shrug. “I’m only trying to protect your reputation—and repeating what is being said in the rumor pool. I knew he always had a tender spot for you—it seemed natural that two ugly children would befriend each other. But surely you know while Alexander has changed greatly, you remain the same. This is not a fairytale, Madeline. He is prince charming now, and you are certainly not his princess.”
“Oh, and I suppose you feel that you be a better fit?” Madeline asked. “You are quickly becoming known as a fortune chaser, Emily. I heard a few ladies talking about you and your relationship with the Baron. Alexander will take his title soon, but…”
“You feel that you are deserving of it?” Emily laughed. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but he told me as we danced that if he were to choose between us, he would choose the better of the two of us. He desires a woman who could elevate his position in society; a woman who can be seen. You received an invitation to this party because Duchess Black demanded it of Lady Witford. Without his mother you are nothing—so don’t lecture me on the characteristics of a fortune seeker, Madeline, because you are the very definition of the word.”
Madeline turned and felt her stomach clench when she realized that Emily’s lurking friends were Lady Elizabeth Valentine, formally Elizabeth Marsh, and Miss Isabella Marsh, the little sister. The two women were identical in looks and aged only a few years apart, like Madeline and Emily. Only they were the best of friends. Elizabeth’s eyes slowly moved up and down Madeline’s dress, she touched her fingers to her lips to hold in a giggle and then whispered something to Isabella, who let out a shrill laugh and nodded.
“That is a lovely gown, Madeline,” Elizabeth said quietly. “I nearly bought the same cut, but… well it looks better on someone plumper. You fill it quite nicely.”
“It’s positively scandalous in the bodice,” Isabella murmured as she sipped her wine. “But… we must agree that you have improved somewhat in your look—it is unfortunate that when you were laughing on the dance floor that you blinded us with your teeth. I was positive aghast—have they gotten bigger?”
“I dare say they have,” Emily laughed. “Mama said so just last week—when I asked Alexander how he could tolerate them he said…”
“I won’t hear anymore of this,” Madeline said firmly. “If you have nothing better to do than tell me how horrid I am, I pity your very existence for your must hate yourself a great deal. You may say what you wish about my clothing, my teeth, or any other materialistic item on my person, but I refuse to allow you to torment me any longer.”
“She’s under the illusion that Alexander Black is in love with her.” Emily told the others.
Isabella laughed shrilly again. “Everyone’s saying that you are offering your favors to him as a one-way ticket into his family!”
“You should be careful of how you dress and how close you stand,” Elizabeth said quickly. “It would be sad to thus label you a whore and a spinster—perhaps a man would take you as his mistress when this is all over. If you’re lucky and he can see past your unfortunate look.”
Isabella nodded excitedly and stepped forward. “I heard Mr. Clark telling Mr. Jameson that your teeth were positively large—but he could overlook them after a few drinks. Any man could….”
The women laughed and Madeline’s face grew hot. She tried to brush it off to them, she tried to rebuff their comments, but just like in the past her tender heart began to ache.
“I’m sure that’s why Alexander was spotted at the club drinking heavily with his friends just the other night—he knew what he would have to return home to,” Emily snickered. “Are you prepared for many years of the same behavior? Drinking just to find you tolerable?”
“Madeline?” Alexander’s voice broke the crowd that had surrounded her. Isabella and Emily stepped apart. Alexander was standing a few feet away with two glasses of wine. Emily and the others saw this and laughed.
“See—he is probably downed several of those tonight, I saw him finish two flutes of Champagne!”
“Is everything okay?” He asked as he approached with strong, quick strides. Madeline noticed that he no longer feared Emily and her friends; she wished she could say the same for herself. Accepting the glass of wine she took a sip and watched Emily and her friends rejoin the party giggling and looking over their shoulders at them. Madeline blinked several times and tried to steady her shaking hands. “Please tell me that it wasn’t the same old taunting and teasing that they did as children, Madeline; please tell me that ended a long time ago.”
She looked away from his searching eyes and shied away form his touch as two older women stepped onto the balcony, noticed them, and smiled at one another.
With a shaky sight, she looked at him. “What would you have me say, Alex?”
“That it stopped ages ago!” he exclaimed. “You never told me that it continued, Madeline, you never said that they were still tormenting you. Why didn’t you write me?”
“You were so far away—what could you do?” she demanded, turning away when tears stung her eyes. “Excuse me.”
“Don’t,” he caught her arm. “Please, don’t run away from me.” She smelled the wine on his breath and saw the way his eyes glistened and felt her chest burn. She shook her head slightly. He had had several drinks through the night, and at the townhouse, and with dinner—perhaps he was drinking to make her more tolerable to his senses.
“I need a moment, Alexander, please….” He released her reluctantly and Madeline hurried back inside.
He gave her a moment or two and then followed her through the crowd, careful to keep himself distracted enough that no one could grab his attention and stop him from pursuing Madeline. She quickly made her way outside and down to the winding garden paths. She walked through along quickly, moving deeper and deeper into the gardens, and farther away from the manor. She finally stopped beside a soft trickling fountain where she sat heavily on a bench and buried her face into her palms. Alexander stood still on the path and watched as her shoulders trembled. A moment later she touched her lips and then her teeth.
He moved forward, his boots scraping the path bringing her attention to him.
“Shall I never have peace when you are around Alexander?”
“You will never cry when I’m around,” he sat down beside her. He wanted to put this business behind them once and for all and he knew exactly how to do that. “Come, let me see then.”
“See what?” she asked with confusion.
“Have I not always been honest with you, Madeline? Let me see your teeth.”
“You saw them the other night—you were staring at my mouth intently. Please don’t make me show you.”
He covered her hands with his and cocked his head to the side until her eyes found his. “Show me.”
She smiled with her teeth and rolled her eyes at his close inspection. He even touched her lips with his fingers to get a better look.
“Well, I can’t tell in this light, Madeline,” he sighed heavily. “I suppose there is a better way to do this.”
“By leaving me alone?” she inquired.
“No, of course not,” he answered. “I want to be at your side for the rest of my life.”
“W-what?” she stammered. “What did you say?”
“That there is a better way of looking at your teeth, shall I show you?”
She shook her head with slight confusion and swallowed hard, her throat tight, her body feeling anxious. “No… after that… after you—”
Alexander didn’t give her time to finish, his mouth moved over hers in a slow steady kiss—Madeline’s first. It left her breathless, numb, and eager for a second, third, and fourth kiss. Leaning into him, meeting his mouth again she sighed and touched his chest with a tentative hand. His arms pulled her tightly against his hard body and his mouth moved warm over hers. He tasted of wine and sugar; his tongue tentatively explored her mouth, touching hers slowly and then deeply. When he drew back from the kiss, he sighed and cupped her jaw with his hand.
“Perfect teeth,” he whispered.
Not wishing her a moment to refuse him or reject him, he hurried on and refused to release her completely though she wiggled away from him. “I love you, Bunny.” He said huskily. “I am madly and truly in love with you. I could only want you, never Emily, never any of the others silly little girls who look at me now when they wouldn’t before. I’ve always known it was you—and… we’ve always been betrothed.”
“What?” Madeline laughed at this. “Of course we haven’t.”
“Before I left for University, I spoke with your father—I told him I intended to receive my education, ready myself to manage my family’s estate and other business ventures, and when I was ready for a wife, I would come and ask for your hand.”
“I asked him this afternoon, just a few hour ago.” Alexander laughed lightly and cupped her cheeks. He gazed into her eyes. “He gave me his blessing. He gave us his blessing.” He brought his mouth back to hers, this time wantonly pulling her onto his lap; his arms moved around her little body, holding her tightly to his body. He kissed her jaw first and then let his lips carefully seek hers, groaning when she leaned into him and moved her mouth imploringly against his. “Tell me you love me; tell you you’ll marry me.”
Realizing she was sitting on his lap, she wiggled to get away. He trapped her to his chest and nuzzled her throat with his lips. She was shocked at his behavior and even more shocked that she desired the feelings he was creating deep within her. “Alex!”
“I love you,” she responded after a moment of though. “I think I always have.” She reached up and touched his hair and the cupped his cheek. He closed his eyes at her touch and sighed. As she ran her palm against his chin he turned his head and began kissing her fingers. “You have always been so tender with me, Alex—you’ve always loved me haven’t you?”
“Always,” he nodded. “You will marry me?”
Madeline looked at her hands, which were trembling. “I am not well liked in the ton, Alexander—we will only be invited to parties because you are a Duke.”
“And you a Duchess,” he whispered. “I am sure the new title would privy you to many superficial friends who desire to know you to elevate their own position. But you need not worry about that—we shall spend our time in the country, walking in the fields and riding our horses. We can accept visitors who are our friends, and shun those who have shunned us. We will live a happy life together.”
“If we were to shun people then we’d be no better than those who hurt us in the past!”
He laughed and kissed her. “You are priceless, Madeline.”
“Bunny,” she whispered. “I like it when you call me Bunny.”
He touched her nose delicately. “You have not answered my question.” Moving her to sit on the bench beside him, he reached into his jacket and took out a little velvet bag. Inside was a beautiful diamond ring. He slipped it onto her finger and kissed her mouth again, so hard and passionately that she felt light headed when their mouths parted. Breathless he demanded, “Say yes.”
“Alex—what about my teeth?”
He kissed her again—hard. His fingers moved against her throat and down her shoulder. “Please say yes, my darling Bunny.”
“But.., what if our children have—”
“Say yes, you silly girl!”
Madeline and Alexander turned to see Duchess B and Sir Archer standing behind a large bush a few feet away. Duchess B yelped with shock at being discovered and ducked behind the bush. Sir Archer grinned and openly watched the couple on the bench.
“Madeline?” Alexander cupped her hand with his, and kissed her jaw. “You have made me immensely happy even in times of great sadness in my life. I always felt like an honorable knight in your eyes—and I went away and I completely felt lost and lonely without you. I need you in my life and I want to be a solid immovable figure in yours. Please, be my wife.”
She stared into his blue eyes, touched his lips with her finger tips and smiled. Alexander kissed her thumb and sighed. The sadness in his eyes made her heart hurt.
“Wouldn’t you like me to feed you carrots for the rest of your life?”
Madeline burst into laughter and buried her face against his shoulder. He chuckled and cupped the back of her nape with his strong hand. When she looked up again, he took a handkerchief from his pocket and unwrapped three pieces of carrot. She blushed as he held a piece to her lips and touched his knuckle delicately against her skin as he fed her the little bit of carrot. Laughing, she chewed the sweet vegetable slowly and met his eyes.
“How can I deny a man who has always been willing to feed this little rabbit her carrots?” she asked.
Alexander beamed and placed the handkerchief in her hand. “Is that a yes?”
“I would be honored,” Madeline answered as tears filled her eyes. “I have… unknowingly wanted this for so long. I have loved you unconditionally from the first moment I saw you hanging by your breeches in the apple tree. You were crying and I knew I wanted to clean your face and your cuts. I knew I wanted you to hold me in your little thin arms. I knew we would be best friends and only hoped that you would love me and desire me.
“Alex, I have—” he rose to his feet and held out his hands, she took them “—where are we going?”
“Come,” he took her hands and pulled her up. “Come, my darling—we have an announcement to make.”
“H-here?” Madeline stammered as they hurried along the path, joined by his mother and her father. “B-but, it doesn’t seem that we should—it doesn’t seem the place. I mean, I’ve only just said yes!”
“Do you plan to change your mind, Madeline?” Alexander kissed her knuckles. “You may if you choose, but I will not stop until you are mine. Even if that means I must ruin your reputation in a public place—forever. I can be done you know.”
“Alexander!” Duchess B exclaimed. Madeline’s father only chuckled. She sucked in a sharp breath as they rejoined the throng and went in search of Lady Witford. Within moments the orchestra had stopped and Sir Archer was standing on a chair. In a booming voice he announced the engagement of his youngest daughter, Madeline, to the future Duke of Roaning, Alexander Black. Everyone cheered, because it was proper to do so; wine was served and congratulations were given, because it was proper to do those things as well, and try as she might, Madeline couldn’t help but smile at the look of dismay on her sister’s face.
She didn’t want to be rude, but it felt joyously wonderful to have her sister say congratulations and return to the side of the pudgy Barron of Ritchester, taking his arm while the older man glowered and scolded her for straying. As the well wishers moved away and they became very much alone and very much unremarkable, Alexander bent his head and kissed Madeline’s lips.
“Carrot, my love?” Alexander whispered. He touched a soft tendril of her hair and eased her against his side. “I wish to ravish you now, do you realize this?” Madeline’s face became very warm. She ducked her head as he kissed her ear.
“We are in public,” she scolded.
“Quite,” he nodded. “But you are mine now—it’s been announced.” She held off his advances with a stern look. “You are no fun, wife.”
Laughing, Madeline nodded to two passing ladies and sighed heavily. She was quite bored with town now. “Do you think your mother would wish to return to the country now that we are engaged?”
“I’m sure she could be persuaded,” Alexander nodded. “Why?” He smiled and leaned down, inching slowly to kiss her, waiting for her to rebuff him and scold him for his public displays of affection. She did not.
“I have a sudden desire to be home—with you,” she whispered.
“Then, my darling, it shall be so,” he kissed her knuckles and then bent his head to steal a kiss—a highly improper, and yet highly satisfying kiss.