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Maybe Nick was right, Ethan thought as he negotiated the steps up to the bed. Maybe the boys should stay here. Ethan didn’t like the idea, but he’d accommodated ideas he hated, and survived.

As his tired mind slowed then began to drift toward sleep, Ethan’s last thought was neither of commerce, correspondence, his feelings for his younger brother, his station in life, nor the prospect of parting from his children. His last thought as he drifted off was worthy of Nick prior to that fellow’s recent marriage.

It would have been deuced pleasant to snuggle up to a warm, sweet-scented governess and let her spin tales of ferocious wolves and brave little porkers, rather than battle storms in the mud, rain, and dark of night.

* * *

When the sun rose on a glorious summer morning, Ethan rode out with Nick to survey the storm damage. While the horses splashed along muddy lanes, Nick commenced the interrogation Ethan had no doubt been spared the previous night:

What was Nick to do with their dear brother George, whose left-handed tendencies were ever a worry?

Ethan suggested foreign service, the Continent being more enlightened in at least a few regards.

Would Ethan attend Nick’s investiture in the autumn?

Ethan replied in the affirmative, not feeling it necessary to add that the request touched him.

And why wasn’t a man as good looking and wealthy as Ethan Grey remarried?

Argus had shied spectacularly at that query, almost as if the beast perceived his master’s reaction to the question.

Ethan was equally leery of the afternoon’s planned diversion—a picnic involving women, children, and all manner of noise, bother, and uninvited insects. Rather than subject himself to same, Ethan decided on the more familiar torment of dealing with his correspondence.

He opened the door to the library, thinking it would almost be a relief to bury himself in commerce, when he heard an odd, muffled sound from the couch over by the hearth. A dog, perhaps, having a dream, but Nick didn’t have house dogs—he had house cats, instead, claiming they were prettier, quieter, better smelling, and capable of placating women and eradicating mice.

Ethan closed the door behind him and crossed the room, only to find the Belmonts’ small daughter hugging a pillow, obviously in distress.

“I beg your pardon?” Ethan wasn’t sure how one dealt with a balled-up little girl who had a death grip on a pillow. “It’s Priscilla, isn’t it?”

Big teary brown eyes peered up at him. The child whipped her braids over her shoulder and clung to her pillow. “Go away, please.”

“I’d like to,” Ethan said, lowering himself to the couch, “or better still, I’d like you to find somewhere else to wax lachrymose, but you are a lady, and I am a gentleman, so we’ll have to muddle through. Here.”

She glared at him past his monogrammed handkerchief, then sat up, scrubbed at her eyes, honked into the handkerchief, and proffered it to Ethan.

“You’re to keep it, child.”

“Is it a token?” Priscilla looked at the damp linen. “It smells ever so lovely, like fresh trees and Christmas. I’m too young to accept tokens, except from family.”

So young and so artlessly charming. Thank God he had only sons. “It’s a handkerchief. Now, why were you crying?”

“My heart is breaking.” She sighed a larger sigh than one little girl ought to contain. “I will write much better stories after this.”

“You will divulge the particulars of this tragedy, if you please. I have correspondence to tend to.”

“Miss Portman is leaving me. She’s says I have grown too smart for her, and it’s time I had tutors, not just a governess.”

Ethan settled in more comfortably on the couch, though the need to deal with his correspondence nagged at him. “You are suffering a consequence of growing up. These are ever more inconvenient than adults might represent.”

“I hate it. Next I’ll have to wear a corset, curl my hair, and learn to flirt.”

Her tone suggested a worse fate had never befallen a young lady. “Don’t panic. I think you have some time before those miseries beset you.”

“Papa says the same thing, but he never wants me to grow up. He had only boys with his other wife, and I am his only girl.”

“His only daughter for now.” Ethan’s eyes had told him Mrs. Reese Belmont was in anticipation of a happy event. “You will correspond with Miss Portman when she moves to her next post, will you not?”

“I don’t know.” The girl smoothed out the linen on her lap. She had a grass stain on one bony little knee, and her pinny was hopelessly wrinkled. “I am not too smart for her, and she can be my tutor. She just wants to go, is all. I am mad at her for that.”

Children were horrendously canny when it came to sniffing out adult prevarications. Little Priscilla’s governess might well be simply tired of the child.

“Maybe she wants to leave while you still think she’s smart and you still like her. She doesn’t want you to be smarter than she is. Word of advice, though?”

Priscilla nodded, apparently willing to entertain a confidence from a man who looked like her friend Wee Nick.

“You can be angry any time you please,” Ethan said, “but it could be that you are only picking a fight because you’re hurt, and maybe a little scared—scared because you like Miss Portman and you might not like your tutors as much.”

Priscilla kept her gaze on her lap. “I’ll miss her.”

And a child could miss loved ones passionately. A man, thank God, knew better.

“She’ll miss you too,” Ethan said, hoping it was true for the child’s sake. “If you’re really her friend, though, you want her to be happy. And I think you can trust your mama and papa to find you tutors you get along with.”

Outside the door, a herd of small feet thundered past, young voices shrieking about pony carts, kites, and a race to the orchard.

“I have to go now.” Priscilla scrambled off the couch, flung a curtsy toward Ethan, and raced to join in the happy affray.

Ethan closed the door as a rankling notion stole into his brain: Nick would see to it Joshua and Jeremiah had the best of tutors and nannies. He’d also play with them, as Ethan most assuredly did not. Ethan shoved that thought back into whatever mental dungeon it had sprung from and turned his attention to a pile of letters, some water stained around the edges. He was halfway through a reply to the steward of his sheep farms in Dorset when the library door again opened.

“Excuse me.” The governess—Miss Porter? no, Miss Portman—admitted herself to the room and closed the door behind her. “I’m returning one book and fetching another. My pardon for disturbing you, Mr. Grey.”

Ethan half rose from his seat and gestured toward the shelves. “Help yourself.” He paused to rub his eyes. They’d been stinging more and more of late, and sometimes watered so badly he had to stop what he was doing altogether and rest them. He rose from the desk and came around to lean against the front of it, watching as the governess bent to put the large volume of fairy tales on the bottom shelf.

“It’s Miss Portman, isn’t it?”

She rose slowly, as if feeling Ethan’s gaze on her, and turned. “Alice Portman.” She bobbed a hint of a curtsy. “You are Nicholas’s brother, Mr. Ethan Grey, father to Joshua and Jeremiah.”

“You call the earl Nicholas?” Ethan concluded she was one of those plain women who’d grown fearless in her solitary journey through life. He respected that, even as he had to concede there was something about Alice Portman’s snapping brown eyes he found… compelling. Her shape was indeterminate, owing to the loose cut of her gown, her dark brown hair was imprisoned in some kind of chignon, and her gaze had an insect-like quality as a result of the distortion of her spectacles. All in all, Ethan suspected she was a woman of substantial personal fortitude.

She held his gaze with a steadiness grown men would envy. “When I met your brother, he was mucking stalls in Sussex and content to be known as Wee Nick. I do not use his title now, because he has insisted it would make him uncomfortable were I to do so.”

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