"She's upset about the dress," Caine decided.
"Do stay out of this," Alesandra ordered.
Caine raised an eyebrow over that command. Alesandra was acting very like a princess now, and she was treating Caine like one of her subjects. He didn't dare smile, fearing his amusement would push her temper right over the edge. She looked furious, and miserable.
"Oh, Lord, look what you've made me do," she told Colin. She folded her arms in front of her and glared at him before turning to his brother. "Pray forgive me for snapping at you. I don't usually let anyone notice when I'm upset, but that man makes me forget Mother Superior's golden rules. I wouldn't be in such a state if he hadn't cut his hair."
"That man?" Caine repeated with a grin.
"What golden rules?" Jade asked, curious over that remark.
"Isn't the wedding dress the reason you're so upset?"
"Dignity and decorum," Alesandra explained to Jade before turning back to Colin. "No, it isn't really the dress," she announced. She took a deep breath and ordered herself to calm down. Colin couldn't help being such an insensitive clout, she supposed, and he was giving up his freedom. "Oh, never mind. Yes, of course I'm upset about the dress. Your mother's going to be most upset. She paid a fortune for that lace. It will break her heart if she finds out it was destroyed."
"Then you're worried about my mother's feelings?" Colin asked, trying to get to the heart of the issue.
"Didn't I just say I was? Colin, how can you smile at a time like this? I don't have anything to wear."
She wouldn't let him finish. "Promise me you won't tell your mother," Alesandra demanded. "I want your word, Colin. It would ruin her wedding if she finds out."
"It's your wedding, Alesandra, not hers."
She didn't want to listen to reason. "Promise me."
Colin let out a sigh. "I won't tell her." He didn't add that his mother was damn well going to notice Alesandra wasn't wearing the gown. She was still too rattled to think about that, and he wasn't going to remind her.
She made Jade and Caine promise, too. Everyone's quick agreement calmed Alesandra. Colin had to shake his head over her bizarre behavior. He grabbed her by her shoulders, pulled her close, and kissed her. Then he let go of her and walked out of the room. His brother followed him.
"She seems a little nervous, doesn't she?" Colin remarked to Caine.
His brother burst into laughter. "I can't imagine why," he replied dryly. "Your bride has been mauled, nearly kidnapped by two of the ugliest bastards I've ever laid eyes on, and certainly terrorized. She has also made it perfectly clear she doesn't want to marry you, and her wedding dress was torn into shreds. No, I can't imagine why she would be nervous."
Colin's shoulders slumped. "It has been a difficult day," he muttered.
"It can only get better," Caine predicted. He hoped to God he was right.
Neither brother said another word until they reached the foyer. They exchanged jackets on the way down the stairs. The fit was almost exact, for Colin had filled out through his shoulders over the past few years and was now every bit as muscular as his brother.
Colin noticed the crowd gathered in the salon, started to go inside, then suddenly stopped and turned to Caine.
"It won't get better?"
Colin shook his head. "You said Alesandra didn't want to marry me. You're wrong. She does."
Caine smiled. "So you realize she's in love with you?"
He'd made that remark as a statement of fact, but Colin treated it as though it were a question. "No, she doesn't love me yet, but she will. In five years, after I've made my fortune, then she'll realize she didn't make a mistake."
Caine couldn't believe his brother could be so obtuse. "She already has a fortune, Colin. She needs…"
"To get married," Colin finished for him. "What are all those people doing here?"
The switch in topics was deliberate, of course. Colin didn't want to get into a heated discussion about Alesandra's motives now. He didn't particularly want to think about his own reasons for marrying her, either.
The ceremony took place an hour later. Colin stood with his brother in front of the minister. The wait for his bride was taking its toll on him, and it was a struggle to hold on to his composure. His own agitation was appalling to him, for he liked to believe that he was a man who was always in control. Nothing ever rattled him, he reminded himself. Hell, he admitted with a sigh, he was rattled now, and the feeling was so foreign to his nature he didn't know how to fight it. He blamed his lack of discipline on Alesandra. Until the day she came into his life, the mere idea of marrying made him blanch. Now, however, his agitation was for the opposite reason. He wanted to get the deed done before anything else could go wrong.
He could still lose her.
"For the love of God, Colin. This is a wedding, not a burial. Quit scowling."
Colin wasn't in the mood to accommodate his brother. His mind was occupied thinking about all the things that could still go wrong.
And then the Duke of Williamshire escorted Alesandra into the salon. She held on to his father, but Colin didn't give him any notice. His gaze was centered on his bride. The closer she came, the more his composure returned. A feeling of contentment rid him of his need to worry, and by the time she reached his side he wasn't scowling at all.
She was going to belong to him.
Alesandra was so nervous she was shaking. She wore an ivory-colored satin gown. The cut was simple, yet elegant. The neckline wasn't overly revealing, but it was still provocative. Alesandra wasn't wearing any jewels. She didn't carry flowers in her hands, and her hair wasn't confined with pins. The dark curls that gently swayed around her shoulders when she moved were all the adornment she needed.
Dear God, she pleased him. He smiled over her shyness. She wouldn't look at him, but kept her gaze downcast, even when her guardian kissed her cheek. She didn't want to let go of him, either. He had to pry her hand away and place it on Colin's arm.
The crowd of family and friends gathered around them. Alesandra almost bolted then and there. She felt trapped, overwhelmed, and terrified that both she and Colin were making a mistake. Her trembling increased until she could barely stand still, and she couldn't seem to catch a proper breath. Then Colin took her hand in his and tightened his hold on her. Odd, but his touch made her trembling ease a little.
Caine's four-year-old daughter helped Alesandra get rid of the rest of her fear. The little girl couldn't see what was going on and squirmed her way through the crowd to stand next to Alesandra. She pretended she didn't see her mother frantically shaking her head at her and reached up to take hold of Alesandra's hand.
The minister had just opened his book of prayers when he happened to glance down and see the child. He immediately coughed to cover his amusement.
Alesandra wasn't as disciplined. She took one look at the dark-haired, green-eyed imp and burst into laughter. Olivia had obviously been having the time of her life and whoever was suppose to be watching her hadn't done his duty. The child was a disaster. The lower part of her skirt was smudged with dirt, indicating she'd spent some of her time running in the garden, and there was another spot the color of the red punch the duchess planned to serve after the ceremony, indicating she'd gotten into the kitchen too. The sash was hanging down around her hips, but what made Alesandra completely lose her composure was Olivia's fat pink bow. It was precariously perched over her right eye, and while she smiled up at Alesandra, she kept trying to bat the thing back on top of her head.
Jade was probably having heart palpitations over Olivia's appearance. Caine bent down and tried to reach behind both Colin and Alesandra to grab hold of his daughter. She wiggled back and giggled with delight.
Alesandra took charge. She couldn't do anything about the smudges on Olivia's dress, but she could straighten her appearance. She pulled away from Colin's hold, retied Olivia's sash, then repinned the bow on top of her head. Olivia suffered through the minute of fussing, and when Alesandra finished, she took hold of her hand again.
She straightened back up and turned to the minister. She still wouldn't look at Colin, but she reached over and brushed her fingers against his. He took the hint and held her hand again.
She was in control now. Her voice barely shivered when she answered the minister's questions. She noticed that as soon as she agreed to become Colin's wife, he visibly relaxed. She looked up at him then and found him smiling at her. The sparkle in his eyes made her heart pound a bit quicker.
It was finally over. Colin gently turned her to face him and leaned down to kiss her. Everyone cheered, and Colin had only just brushed his mouth over hers when he was pounded on his back and pulled away to be congratulated.
He took Alesandra with him. He wasn't going to let her out of his sight… or his touch. He put his arm around her waist and pulled her up against his side.
Alesandra didn't remember much of the celebration that followed the ceremony. She felt as though she were walking around in a fog. Toasts were given before, during, and after the supper, but she couldn't remember anything that was said. She was surrounded by Colin's family and friends, and their immediate acceptance of her was both pleasing and overwhelming.
Sir Richards insisted on having a word with Colin and his brother in the library, but Colin kept putting him off. The director wouldn't be denied, however, and finally, after Alesandra promised to stay within sight of her guards, Colin agreed. He and Caine followed the director up the stairs. They had their conference and were back downstairs less than fifteen minutes later.
Colin found his bride in the salon. She was trying to listen to three different conversations at the same time. Marian Rose was demanding permission to go home with her, Catherine was asking her when she would see her again, and
Colin's father was telling anyone who would listen an amusing childhood story involving his sons.
Alesandra looked overwhelmed by it all. Colin decided it was time to take her home. She didn't argue with his decision and, in fact, seemed relieved.
It took twenty minutes to say thank you and farewell, and just when Colin's patience was all used up, they were in the carriage and on their way back to his town house.
The silence inside the carriage was a stark contrast to the chaos they'd just left. Colin stretched out his long legs, closed his eyes, and grinned.
He was thinking about the wedding night.
Alesandra sat across from him. Her posture was rigid and her hands were tightly folded together in her lap.
She was also thinking about their wedding night.
Colin opened his eyes and saw her frown. He noticed she was wringing her hands together, too.
"Is something wrong?" he asked, already guessing what that might be.
"Are you going to insist I share your bed?"
Her shoulders slumped. The color left her face and, damn, she looked forlorn. He almost laughed. He caught himself in time, and he felt like a cad for finding any amusement at all in her distress. She was innocent, obviously frightened of the unknown, and it was his duty to help her get over her fear, not increase it.
He leaned forward and captured her hands in his. "It's going to be all right," he told her, his voice a husky whisper.
The look she gave him told him she didn't believe him. "Then you aren't interested in renegotiating?"
He slowly shook his head. She pulled her hands away from him. "Alesandra, everything will be fine," he told her again.
"So you say," she countered in a bare whisper. "But I don't have any information to prove you're right. Do you happen to have any material on the subject I could read before going to bed?"
He leaned back, propped his leg against the opposite seat, and stared at her. To his credit, he didn't smile. "What kind of material?"
"I thought you might have a manual… or something," she explained. She was trying to stop herself from twisting her hands together so he wouldn't notice how nervous she was. "Just something that would explain what's going to happen," she added with a deliberate shrug. "I'm only mildly curious, you understand."
He understood she was completely terrified. He nodded so she would think he believed her lie, then asked in a casual tone of voice, "Didn't you say that the mother superior told you everything you needed to know?"
She didn't answer him for a long while. Colin patiently waited. Alesandra turned to look out the window. It was dark outside, but the moon was bright enough for her to recognize the street they were on and to realize they were almost home. She wasn't going to panic, she told herself. She was a fully grown woman and it was ridiculous to get so upset.
"Alesandra, answer me," Colin ordered.
She tried to hide her embarrassment and sound nonchalant when she finally explained. "Mother Superior did have a private talk with me, but now I realize she didn't give me sufficient information."
"Exactly what did she tell you?"
She didn't want to continue with this topic and was sorry she'd ever brought it up. "Oh, this and that," she whispered with a shrug.
Colin wouldn't let it go. "Exactly what this and that?"
The carriage came to a stop in front of his town house. She all but lunged for the latch. Colin grabbed her hand and held it. "You haven't answered me yet," he reminded her.
She stared at his hand on top of hers. It was at least twice the size of her own and, dear God, why hadn't she paid attention to his size before? She hadn't thought she'd be sharing his bed, she reminded herself. At least not for years and years, until she'd grown comfortable with the idea… and, Lord, how naive that ignorant belief was. Alesandra suddenly felt like a complete fool.
She really should have insisted on becoming a nun after all, she decided.
"Mother Superior said I wasn't suited for the holy order." She blurted that thought aloud, then let out a sigh. "I'm not humble enough. She told me so."
She was deliberately trying to turn the topic. Colin knew exactly what she was up to, of course. "And what did she tell you about the marriage bed?"
She turned her gaze back to his hand when she finally answered. "She said that a woman's body is like a temple. There, I've told it. Now will you let go of me? I wish to get out."