After a record breaking sail from China, Alexi de Warenne’s moment of triumph quickly vanishes. At his welcoming party, his bewitching childhood friend Elysse O’Neill begins flirting with a shipmate, clearly punishing Alexi for his time at sea. But when Alexi finds Elysse desperately struggling in the man’s arms,, tragedy ensues. Within days, Alexi weds her to save her honor—and leaves her to forge a new life.
Elysse de Warenne rules the ton with her wit and grace, but the whispers of “abandoned bride” follow her ruthlessly. Elysse will never reveal the truth: that she hasn’t see her husband in six years—and they didn’t even consummate their marriage! When Alexi unexpectedly returns to England, Elysse will do whatever it takes to win his heart and claim her place at his side.
From Chapter One
Askeaton, Ireland--March 23, 1833
Alexi hadn’t been home in more than two years, but it almost felt like an eternity. Elysse O’Neil smiled at herself in the gilded mirror hanging over the handsome rosewood bureau in her pink, mauve and white bedroom. She had just finished dressing for the occasion. She knew that her excitement was obvious—she was flushed, her eyes bright—but she was thrilled that Alexi de Warenne had come home, at last. She couldn’t wait to hear all about his adventures!
And she couldn’t help wondering if he would notice that she was a grown woman now; she’d had a dozen suitors in the past two years, not to mention five offers of marriage!
She smiled again, deciding that her pastel green gown made her nearly violet eyes even more intriguing. She was accustomed to male admiration; she had been seriously pursued ever since she had turned sixteen, but boys had begun to look at her when she was still a preadolescent child. And Alexi had too, and she wondered what he would think of her now. She wasn’t certain why she wanted him to notice her now—they were friends, after all—but surely he would, and impulsively, she tugged her neckline down, adjusting it to show off just a bit more of her cleavage.
He had never been gone for so long before. She wondered if he had changed. Two and a half years ago when he’d made a run to Canada for fur, she hadn’t known that it would be years before he would return, but she recalled their parting as if it had been yesterday.
He had looked at her with that cocky grin he had. “And will you be wearing a ring when I get back?”
She had known what he had meant; she had been startled, but she had recovered and she had instantly become coy. “I always wear rings.” But she had wondered if some dashing Englishman would sweep her off her feet before he returned. She certainly hoped so!
“Not diamonds.”His grin had faded and his thick black lashes had lowered, shielding his brilliantly blue eyes from her.
She had shrugged, and then, flippantly, “I can’t help it if I have so many suitors, Alexi. There will probably be many suits. Father will surely know which one to accept for me.”
And that grin had returned and he had shrugged. “Yes, I imagine you will be offered for, and Devlin will make certain you are properly married off.”
Her heart had skipped so oddly then as their eyes had met and held. One day, her father would find her a great match, and because she had overheard her parents speaking about her, she happened to know that they both wanted it to be a love match as well. How perfect would that be?
“If I am not offered for, I will be vastly insulted,” she said, meaning it.
“Isn’t it enough that you are always surrounded by admirers?”
“I hope to be wed by the time I am eighteen!” she had exclaimed. Her eighteenth birthday would be in the fall. But as she had spoken, her heart had lurched oddly—October was only six months away. And with confusion, she had shaken off the odd feeling of dread, smiling brightly at him. She had taken his hands. “What will you bring me this time?” He always brought her a gift when he returned from the sea.
And he had simply stared. Then, after a pause, he had said softly, “I will bring you back a Russian sable, Elysse.”
She had been surprised. “You are sailing for Lower Canada.”
“I know where I am going,” he had replied, his gaze terribly direct. “And I will bring you back a Russian sable.”
She had scoffed at him, accusing him of teasing her, certain he was doing just that. He had simply grinned and then he had said goodbye to the rest of her family, and he had swaggered out of the salon, while she had rushed off to a tea where she knew her most recent suitors would be eagerly awaiting her...
And he had remained in Canada for several months, apparently having some problems acquiring a cargo for the run home. And when he had finally raced back to Liverpool, he hadn’t stayed. Instead, he had turned around directly for the islands for sugarcane. She had been surprised, and even somewhat disappointed.
Of course, she had never doubted that he would follow in his father’s footsteps; Cliff de Warenne had one of the world’s most successful maritime transport companies and Alexi had been at sea with his father for most of his life, from an even earlier age than when she had first met him. It was a foregone conclusion that when he came of age Alexi would take on the most lucrative trade routes, carrying the most profitable cargoes, as his father had once done. And he’d come of age at seventeen, to command his first ship. Elysse was the daughter of a retired naval captain, and she truly understood how much Alexi loved the sea— it was in his blood. Men like Cliff de Warenne and her father, Devlin O’Neil, men like Alexi, could never remain on land for very long.
Still, she had expected him to come home after his run to the West Indies. He always came home, sooner or later. He had not. He had refitted his ship in Liverpool and set a course to China!
When Elysse had learned that he had leased his ship, the Ariel, to the East India Company, which had a monopoly on the China trade, she had instantly become worried. Although retired, Devlin O’Neil frequently advised both the Admiralty and the Foreign Offices on matters of imperial and maritime policy. Elysse was well versed in the subjects of trade, economics and foreign policy. She had heard all kinds of talk about the China trade in past few years. The China Sea was perilous--it remained mostly uncharted territory, with hidden reefs, submerged rocks and unknown shoals, not to mention monsoons and, by far worse, typhoons. Beating up the China Sea was easy enough, if one didn’t encounter one of those half hidden rocks or reefs, with the southwesterly monsoons to aid you. But beating through the sea when homeward bound was difficult and dangerous at best--and Alexi didn’t know anything about it. However, he would think the danger the very best part of his voyage! Alexi de Warenne was fearless and he loved a challenge, and Elysse knew that very well.
But apparently Elysse had worried about him in vain. Last night, Alexi’s sister, Ariella, had sent her a note, telling her that Alexi had just arrived at Windhaven. It had been midnight when she’d gotten the hand delivered message and she had been stunned to learn that he was finally home. And not only had he safely put into Liverpool a few days ago, with 505 tons of silks and tea, he’d made the homeward run from Canton in 112 days—everyone was talking about that. For a captain new to the route to make that kind of speed was terribly impressive, and Elysse knew it. More importantly, he’d be able to command top dollar for his freight the next time he ran home from China. Knowing Alexi as well as he did, he would surely brag about that.
Elysse gave herself a final glance in the mirror and tugged at her bodice a last time, well aware that her mother would take her aside for being so daring. She had been told many times that she took after both of her parents—she was golden like her father, and petite, with amethyst eyes, like her mother. She was an acclaimed beauty—every suitor she’d ever had had raved about her striking blond looks. She had turned twenty in the fall. But there had been many suits, and in the past two years, five marriage proposals. She’d turned every suitor and each proposal down, and her father had not minded. She hoped that Alexi wouldn’t taunt her for still being single. Hopefully, he wouldn’t recall that her plan had been to be happily married by the age of eighteen.
“Elysse! We’re here—Alexi is home and he is downstairs!” Ariella cried, knocking on her door from the corridor outside.
Elysse inhaled, suddenly so excited that she felt a bit faint. She ran for the door, opening it. Her best friend’s eyes widened just before they embraced, and she said, “Are you going out tonight? Have I been excluded from an invitation to a dinner party?”
Elysse smiled. It was late afternoon, but she was in an evening dress. “Of course I’m not going out. I want to hear all about China and Alexi’s adventures! How do I look?” She swiftly pirouetted.
Ariella was a year younger than Elysse, with exotic looks—light eyes, olive skin and dark golden hair. She was also unfashionably educated—with a preference for libraries and museums, and an aversion to shopping and balls. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were hoping to impress someone.”
“Why would I bother to try to impress your brother?” She laughed. “But he had better notice that I am very grown up now—and the most desirable debutante in all of Ireland.”
Ariella was wry. “Alexi has shortcomings, but a failure to notice attractive women isn’t one of them.”
Elysse closed the door. Alexi was a notorious ladies man, but it was hardly a surprise—the de Warenne men were infamous for their rakish ways, which ended on their wedding day. It was an old family adage that when a de Warenne fell in love, it was once and forever, although it might take some time for that climactic event to happen. Elysse squeezed Ariella’s hand, as they started down the long corridor, lined with family portraits. “Did he say why he’s been gone so long?”
“My brother is a seaman and an adventurer,” Ariella said. “And I believe he is smitten with China—or the China Trade, anyway. It was all he could talk about last night—he wants to build a clipper just for the trade!”
Elysse looked at her as they went downstairs. “Then he will continue to lease out to the East India Company? I couldn’t imagine Alexi in someone else’s employ, and I was surprised when I had heard he’d leased the Ariel out.” Alexi had never leased out his ship before.
“He was determined to get into the Trade,” Ariella said. “I do believe everyone within a league of Askeaton has called, to hear firsthand about China and his run!”
Elysse could hear the murmurs of conversation downstairs, and clearly, they had many callers. But of course the neighbors would be interested in Alexi’s return from China. News of his return from China would have spread like wildfire. It was surely the most exciting event of the Season.
And as they reach the bottom of the stairs, she could see across the great entry hall, where her neighbors and family had gathered. Askeaton was the ancestral home of the O’Neill family, and the great hall was vast, with stone floors and walls, its ceilings timbered. Great, old tapestries were hanging on two if its walls. From one set of oversized windows, one could see out across the rolling green Irish countryside, and past the ruined tower behind the manor house. But Elysse did not look outside, or even at the crowd.
And her heart skipped wildly.
The eighteen year old boy was gone. A grown man had taken his place. He stood in front of the huge stone fireplace, his posture assured but indolent, clad in a riding coat, breeches and boots . He was surrounded by their callers. Yet his gaze lifted immediately, moved across the crowd, and their gazes met.
And for one moment, she paused and stared. He had changed so much. He was a man of experience now. A man of confidence. And she saw it in the way he stood, the way he shifted ever so slightly to face her directly, the way he stared. And then, finally, he smiled at her.
Her heart lurched oddly, and the happiness was instantaneous. Alexi was home.
Their hazes still held, but then her brother Jack slapped his shoulder. “Damn it, you can’t leave it there, tell me about the Sundra Strait.”
For one more moment, they stared at one another, that odd, half smile on his face, while Elysse beamed. But now, she couldn’t help noticing that he was even more handsome then when he had left her, and as her heart skipped again, she was determined that he notice all of the changes in her, too. And then she saw that three of her girlfriends stood beside him, more closely than the rest of the crowd, their expressions rapt and riveted on him.
“It took us three full days to beat through, Jack.” Alexi turned to her tall, golden brother. “I’ll even admit I had a moment or two when I wondered if we’d be cast up on the shoals there--and be spending the next fortnight in Anjers making repairs.”
Elysse now realized that she remained on the last step, her hand on the banister. Alexi turned and gestured and a tall tawny-haired man in a frock coat, a stock and waistcoat, and pale trousers came over. Alexi seized his shoulder. “I don’t think we’d have made our run in 112 days without Montgomery. Best pilot I ever had. Best thing I ever did was take him on board in Lower Canada.”
Elysse finally looked at Alexi’s pilot, who was probably a few years older than them both, and found him regarding her. Montgomery smiled at her as one of their neighbors, a gentleman squire, said eagerly, “Tell us about the China Sea! Did you weather a typhoon?”
“No, tell us about the tea,” Father MacKenzie cried, smiling.
“Will China really stay closed to all foreigners?” Jack asked.
Alexi grinned at them all. Then he looked across the crowd at her and said, “I got the first pick, black tea, the best you’ve ever had—I vow it.” He wasn’t smiling now. Although he spoke to the crowded room, his gaze never wavered from her. “It’s Pekoe. You won’t find any other ship’s captain bringing it home. Not this Season.”
“How did you manage that feat?” Cliff asked, smiling proudly at his son.
Alexi turned to his father. “That is a long story, one that involves a few pretty pennies, and a very astute and greedy compradore.”
Elysse wondered what a compradore was. But of course Alexi would get the best tea! She realized she had remained upon the last few steps like a statue—what on earth was wrong with her? She quickly started down the last few steps, still watching Alexi as he turned to one of her girlfriends, who asked him what Pekoe tea was like. Before he could answer, Elysse felt herself miss a step and stumble.
Elysse happened to be vey graceful; she was a beautiful dancer. She couldn’t believe she would trip, and as she fell, she seized the railing, mortified. As she grasped it, someone caught her arm, preventing her from crashing to her knees and utterly humiliating herself. And then Alexi slid his arm very securely around her.
As Alexi helped her straighten, Elysse looked up into his dazzling blue eyes, aware of the heat exploding in her cheeks.
And for one moment, she was in his embrace. He began to smile, amused. “Hello, Elysse.”
Her cheeks felt terribly hot, but she knew that was from the embarrassment of being so foolishly clumsy, and not from being in his arms—she was certain. But she was terribly confused and almost disoriented--she had never felt so small, so petite, and so feminine, and Alexi had never seemed so strong, so tall or so male. His body was hard and warm against hers. His chest was huge behind her shoulder. His hips were so narrow. And her heart was thundering now.
What on earth was wrong with her?
Somehow, she stepped away, putting a proper distance between them. His smile seemed to widen. Her flush felt as if it had expanded—even her chest was hot, now. “Hello, Alexi. I have never heard of pekoe tea.” She lifted her chin.
“I am not surprised. No one gets first pickings—except, of course, for me,” he boasted. But his gaze seemed to be on her décolletage. Then it was on her eyes, and she wasn’t certain what had just happened—but her heart was racing madly now.
It took her a moment to recover, for she was wondering if he now found her beautiful, as her many suitors did. “Of course you got the best tea.” And because she was strangely unnerved, she said lightly, “I didn’t know you were back. When did you get home?”
“I thought Ariella sent you a note last night,” he drawled, and she realized that he was amused and had instantly seen through her deception. “I docked in Liverpool three days ago. I got home last night.” He shoved his hands in the pockets of his riding coat, making no move to walk back into the salon.
“I’m surprised you even bothered to come home,” she said, deciding to pout.
He gave her an odd look, one she could not decipher, and suddenly lifted her hand. “So you’re not wearing a ring.”
She pulled her hand free. His touch had made her heart slam. “I have had five offers, Alexi. And they were very good offers. But I turned each gentleman down.”
His gaze narrowed. “And if the offers were such good ones, why would you do that? I seem to recall that your intent was to be wed by the time you were eighteen.”
He had remembered and he was laughing at her. Or was her? He was smiling, but he had glanced aside. “Perhaps I changed my mind!”
His gaze flickered. “Hmm, and why wouldn’t that surprise me? Have you become a romantic, Elysse?” He laughed. “Are you waiting for true love?”
“Oh, I had forgotten how annoying you can be! Of course I am romantic—unlike you!” but his teasing was familiar—and it felt safe.
“I’ve known you since we were children. You are not a romantic. You are an insatiable flirt!”
Now she was truly annoyed. “All women flirt, Alexi, unless, of course, they are old, fat or ugly!”
“Ah—you remain rather uncharitable. I am thinking that your suitors must not have had the necessary qualifications to become your husband.” His eyes danced now. “Have you set your sights on a duke, maybe? Or an Austrian prince? How suitable that would be! Can I play matchmaker? I know a duke or two!”
Surely he wasn’t serious! “I am very romantic, of course I am. So clearly, you do not know me at all. And no, you may not play matchmaker!”
“Really?” He was chuckling openly at her now. “We know each other very well, Elysse. So don’t pretend we do not.” He tilted up her chin. “Have I annoyed you, somehow? I am only teasing you, sweetheart.”
She slapped his hand away, while her pulse thrummed. “You know you have! Nothing has changed! I had forgotten how you love to infuriate me. And who are you to call the kettle black? I have heard there is a woman in every port.”
“Ah, a gentleman does not kiss and tell, Elysse.”
“Your reputation is well known.” She scowled. Oddly, she suddenly wondered if he really had a mistress in every port, and she wasn’t certain why she should care, but she did.
He touched her chin again. “Why are you scowling? Aren’t you pleased to see me?” He wasn’t smiling and his gaze became intent. His tone had softened. “Ariella said you were worried about me—that you expected me to vanish into the China Sea.”
She trembled. What did that murmur signify? “Ariella was wrong. I wasn’t worried about you.” She inhaled, suddenly furious with her friend. “She misunderstood. Why would I worry about you? I am too occupied to worry. I just got back from London and Paris, Alexi. In those salons we are not talking about tea or typhoons!”
“Or me?” he asked, straight-faced and trying not to laugh. “Everyone is talking about the China trade, Elysse. It’s a new world. The East India Company can’t possibly keep its grip on China, and China has to open up its ports to the world.”
“I don’t care about China, free trade, or you.” She huffed, aware of how hugely she was lying. After all, he had been her friend since they were children—he would always be her friend.
“God, my heart is forever broken.” He smiled slightly. “And we both know you do care—because you’re your father’s daughter.”
She folded her arms—his gaze slammed to her bosom. Very taken aback now—even if she had wanted him to notice how womanly she had become--she managed, “Will you lease out to the East India Company again and go back to China?”
“Oh, I am going back to China—I will get well over 5 pounds per ton, Elysse, after this last run, but there is gossip the Company will lose its charter—soon.”
So he would go back to China. “And when will you leave, this time?”
He grinned. “So you do care, after all—you will miss me!”
“I won’t miss you—I will be too busy, fending off my suitors!”
“Now my heart is truly broken.”
She trembled, dismayed. She would miss him, this time, perhaps because he had been gone so long, and she had forgotten how much she enjoyed his company—and even his horrid teasing. And he had guessed.
“When will you go to sea again?” she heard herself ask. The best time to run to China was the summer, and it was the end of March. She couldn’t imagine Alexi staying in the country doing nothing for another two months. But there were other, shorter, trade routes.
“So you did miss me,” he said swiftly, his gaze piercing.
She wet her lips, refusing to answer, and he leaned close and whispered, “I brought you a Russian sable, Elysse.”
She had never been more surprised. He had remembered his promise to her. Before she could answer, as they stared, one of her neighbors approached. “I hope I am not interrupting,” Louisa Cochrane murmured. “I should love an introduction to a China trader. I do love my Souchong tea.”
For one more moment, Elysse stared at Alexi, in some disbelief that he would bring her such a luxurious and precious gift, her heart racing, as he stared back. And then she realized that Louisa Cochrane, who was a very beautiful widow, had joined them.
Alexi finally turned Louisa. He smiled at her and gallantly bowed over her hand. “Alexi de Warenne, at your service, madam,” he said. He straightened. “And if you like Souchong, you will love Pekoe.”
“I cannot wait to try it,” Louisa smiled brightly at him.
Elysse had always liked Louisa. Now, having heard the sultry note in her voice, she couldn’t abide her. Was Louisa intent on pursuing Alexi? She turned to stare at him, but he was smiling back at Louisa.
“May I bring a sample to your door, say tomorrow? It would be my pleasure,” Alexi grinned, his intentions suddenly clear.
“I hardly wish to put you out, Captain,” Louisa murmured coyly.
“You can’t put me out, Mrs. Cochrane, you are far too beautiful to ever do so. I should enjoy delivering the tea, myself.”
Elysse was dismayed. Yet she had never really cared about his flirtations and seductions before. Louisa was blushing now, and assuring him that he need not go to the trouble, while her mind raced, feeling rather incoherent and confused. Somehow she realized that he was insisting that it was no trouble at all. Why should she care about his next illicit affair? And now, he was telling the widow that he would need directions to her home.
“You have so many admirers, Captain,” Louisa said, ignoring Elysse. “Won’t you escort me back into the salon so we can all hear your wonderful stories together?”
Alexi hesitated, glancing at Elysse. “Aren’t you joining us?”
Elysse smiled. “Of course I am. I can’t wait to hear about all of your adventures.”
For one more moment, their eyes held, until Louisa tugged on his arm. Elysse followed them into the salon, noting every detail now of Louisa Cochrane’s dress and figure. Hadn’t she heard that she was desperate to catch a wealthy husband? Had that been a mere rumor—or the truth? But Alexi was a determined bachelor. And she wasn’t jealous, was she? After all, she was a lady, not a merry widow. Still, oddly, she wanted Alexi’s attention. She had so many questions—she wanted to know what he’d been doing for the past two and a half years—and she wanted her Russian fur.
Inside, Alexi and Louisa were instantly surrounded, and Alexi was bombarded with more questions about his voyage, China, and the tea. Elysse began to relax. Alexi was home, and she couldn’t be happier about that, and now, she was fairly certain that he had noticed her charm, beauty and sophistication. She smiled as he responded to a question from Father Michael.
Ariella came over. “I am so happy that my brother is back! Isn’t it wonderful?”
“It is truly wonderful, but I hope Louisa won’t take up all of his time, as we both know he will not linger in the country for long.”
Ariella raised her brows. “Hmm, he seems very interested in Louisa, but I will make certain he doesn’t ignore us!”
Elysse heard herself say, “You know, Louisa is a bit long in the tooth, don’t you think?”
“She is a very nice lady!” Ariella exclaimed. “You aren’t….jealous….of her, are you?”
Elysse looked at her friend. “Of course I’m not jealous of her,” she scoffed.
Ariella leaned close and lowered her voice. “Why don’t you go speak with poor James Ogilvy? He is standing over there mostly by himself, ogling you with a moonstruck smile.”
She had briefly been interested in Ogilvy, but Elysse realized she had lost all interest now. Still, he was smitten, and he had been courting her for about a month now, so she smiled. He instantly came forward, and as he bowed gallantly over her hand, she saw Alexi turn to glance at them. Pleased, Elysse turned her entire attention on James. “You promised me a picnic at Swan Lake.”
His eyes widened. “I had thought you were not interested, as you did not bring it up.”
She smiled and touched his arm. “I am very interested, I can’t wait!”
“Then perhaps we can have our outing tomorrow afternoon?” he asked eagerly.
She glanced at Alexi, who happened to be speaking to the squire now. But she did not know how long Alexi would remain in the Irish countryside, and she wanted to be more available than not until he left for London. She beamed at James. “Would next week do? I have an engagement tomorrow.” That wasn’t quite true, but it was only a tiny white lie.
They spoke for a few more moments. It was terribly hard to carry on a conversation with James, while trying to hear every word Alexi uttered, and keeping him in the corner of her eye. As she carried on with Ogilvy, she became aware that she had another admirer. Montgomery kept glancing her way, although he was now chatting with Ariella. Elysse hadn’t paid much attention to him earlier, and she did so now, deciding that he was very good looking, and although a pilot, he comported himself like a gentleman. He kept glancing at her and she knew he wished for an introduction. It crossed her mind that he had spent the past two years with Alexi. She excused herself from James.
He smiled at her as she approached. “I don’t believe we have been properly introduced, Miss O’Neil. Of course, I have heard all about you from the captain, but that is not why I am so eager to meet you.”
Elysse comprehended the innuendo and was flattered, and she was very curious now; Montgomery had an unmistakably southern accent. “Cliff has spoken about me?”
Montgomery smiled. “No, I meant my captain, Alexi.” He shifted and stepped closer to her. “I am William Montgomery. It is a pleasure, ma’am.”
He wasn’t a gentleman, obviously—not well bred man wold ever pilot a ship, but Elysse was impressed by his charm. But most American men from the southern states were terribly gallant. “And it is my pleasure to receive you, sir,” she laughed. “It isn’t every day that I meet a fearless pilot who has sailed the high seas of China!”
He smiled warmly now, his glance quickly drifting down the bodice of her dress. “Our voyages are long, Miss O’Neill. Beautiful ladies are rare. I wasn’t sure you would speak with me.”
“You are our guest!” she exclaimed. She touched his arm lightly—flirtatiously. “Where are you from, Mr. Montgomery? My family has a tobacco plantation in Virginia.”
“Baltimore, Miss O’Neil. Like the captain, I come from a long line of seafaring men. My father was a ship’s master, and my grandfather was a pilot, as was my great grandfather, before him—but here in Britain. In fact, I grew up listening to my grandfather’s sailing stories, mostly about the Ivory Coast and the African trade--in the last century, of course.”
“My father was a naval captain, Mr. Montgomery, so I am fascinated.” Elysse meant it. But more importantly, Alexi had just noticed their conversation. “Of course, we no longer trade in slaves here in the Empire, but in your grandfather’s time, that was a very busy occupation, was it not?”
“It most certainly was,” he smiled. “In America, we outlawed the slave trade in ‘08, well before I was born. In my grandfather’s time it was a dangerous trade—I believe the African continent remains perilous, for those who dare to attempt to make their profits there still.”
“I am against the slave trade,” Elysse said firmly. The trade had been abolished in the British Empire in ‘07. “Even though my family has a tobacco plantation in Virginia, and we have slaves there, I also favor emancipation in the empire and throughout the world.”
“That is a bold position, Miss O’Neill, and in my country, abolition is an issue that divides us. And may I be bold?” He smiled, revealing strong white teeth. “I would love to visit Sweet Briar, if I was ever in Virginia again. I should especially enjoy such a visit if you were there to show me the plantation.”
Elysse smiled archly at him. “I would love to give you a tour of Sweet Briar! But how could we possibly arrange that? The next time I am there, you will undoubtedly be running for China!”
He laughed. “Yes, I could be crossing the Cape of Good Hope.”
“Or beating up the China Sea.” She laughed. “By the time you received my letter, I would have probably returned home.”
“Probably—and it will be my loss.”
They smiled at one another. “I heard Alexi say that you met in Lower Canada,” Elysse said.
“We certainly did—in the midst of a blizzard. In fact, poachers were trying to steal the furs Alexi had just bought for his cargo home. “ He laughed. “I saved his life and we have been friends ever since.”
Elysse stared closely, now fascinated. “How did you save his life?”
From behind her, Alexi said softly, “The French had a few natives in their employ and I was seriously outnumbered.”
She had been so engrossed that it took her a moment to realize that Alexi had come up to them. She turned, her heart exploding. He stood beside them his arms folded across his chest, smiling. But she knew him well, and his smile did not reach his eyes.
She was taken aback. “What’s wrong?” She smiled. Could he be jealous?
He returned her smile briefly. “And what letter will you send William?”
“I will be sending him an invitation to Sweet Briar,” she said lightly, then she turned her back on him and smiled at Montgomery.
“I so want to hear more about Lower Canada, the poachers and the natives,” she said eagerly.
“That is a long story,” the American began, glancing at Alexi.
“One unsuitable for a lady’s ears,” Alexi said flatly. He then said, “Would you excuse us, William?”
Montgomery hesitated, and then he bowed. “It has been my pleasure, Miss O’Neill. I hope we can continue this conversation another time.”
“Of course we can,” Elysse said, smiling at him. What was Alexi hiding? Did he really think her too frail to hear the truth about his travels? Had something terrible happened, which he didn’t wish for her to know about?
William Montgomery walked off to join Devlin and Cliff. Elysse realized she was alone with Alexi—and he was scowling at her. “What is wrong?” she asked. Surely he wasn’t angry with her for speaking to Montgomery? “Your pilot is a very interesting man. And a handsome one, at that.”
He took her arm, moving her into a corner by the drapery clad windows. “Don’t flirt with Montgomery, Elysse.” His tone was filled with warning.
“Why not?” She cried, pulling free of his grasp.
“He is a pilot, Elysse, my pilot--and he is also a rogue.”
She started. Then, “You are a rogue—but I am allowed to speak with you!”
He scowled. “He is not for you. I suggest you direct your flirtations at Ogilvy and his ilk.”
Was he jealous? She searched his eyes, and he stared back. He had never been jealous of her suitors before—and William Montgomery wasn’t even a suitor, because Alexi was right, as interesting as he was, he was a pilot, not a gentleman.
She began to smile. She touched his hand, which was large and hard, the knuckles cracked, the skin there sun-tanned. “You needn’t be jealous, Alexi,” she murmured.
"Don’t even try to flirt with me! And I am not jealous. Why would I be jealous?”He shook his head and shrugged. “I am merely trying to protect you from a dangerous ladies man, Elysse. Montgomery has a way with women, Elysse, and I don’t want you to fall under his spell.”
“I am hardly under his spell.” She slowly smiled up at him, from beneath her lashes, aware that she was flirting—and she didn’t quite believe him. “I’m glad you’re not jealous, Alexi. Mr. Montgomery is very interesting—fascinating, actually--and he is very handsome, and he is a guest in this house.”
For one moment he stared. Elysse knew him so well, but she couldn’t decide what he was truly thinking. Then he leaned closer, crowding her against the draperies. “Are you trying to play me?” he asked, very softly.
A little thrill swept her, perhaps in response to his tone. She could barely breathe now, for his shoulder pushed hers backwards. “I have no idea what you mean. But you can’t object to my having a pleasant conversation with your pilot—or my seeing him again.” She batted her lashes at him while her heart raced frantically.
He growled, “Montgomery piloted the Ariel to Lower Canada and Jamaica and then to Canton and back. I trust him with my ship, and the lives of my men, but I do not trust him with you.” His stare darkened. He added, “You are impossible, Elysse. I am asking you to avoid him—for your sake, not mine.”
Elysse wasn’t sure why his crowding her was so disturbing. His shoulder still pressed hers. It was becoming hard to think clearly. She whispered, “I will think about it.”
His eyes flashed. Suddenly his gaze dropped from her gaze to her mouth. Elysse tensed, but not with alarm—in that one moment, she thought he was going to kiss her. Instead, he straightened and slowly shook his head, appearing disgusted. “Fine. Think about it. But don’t say I didn’t tell you so.”