Tess regained consciousness suddenly and woke fighting. One moment she was limp under Byfleet’s hands, the next she had lashed out for his face. Alex caught her wrists before she could make contact. ‘Hush. Lie still, you are safe with me. This is Byfleet, my valet. He is helping you.’
‘Alex.’ She let him push her back against the cushions. ‘I’m sorry.’ She began to smile at Byfleet, then stopped with a hiss of pain.
‘The doctor and my housekeeper are on their way. Are you hurt anywhere other than your face?’
She lay still, obviously thinking about it. ‘My ankle—I had to run. And my shoulder. They grabbed me and I swung round and hit a wall.’
There had been more than one of them, and she’s a slip of a girl, defenceless. The instinct to punch something became a desire to get his hands around throats and not let go.
Byfleet moved to the foot of the chaise and began to unbandage her ankle. ‘The doctor will need to look at this, my lord. It is very swollen.’
‘Who was it?’ Alex asked, trying to keep the fury out of his voice.
Tess shrugged, winced. ‘Goodness knows, just two men who thought they’d found easy prey in the dark.’
‘How did you get away?’
‘I kneed one of them in the groin and then hit the other round the ear with my bag. Then I ran and there was a hackney. He’d just put down a fare, so I scrambled in.’
‘Yes. Of course you did,’ Alex said faintly. A defenceless slip of a girl? Perhaps not. ‘After you had hit one bully, emasculated another and run on a sprained ankle. Why the blazes aren’t you tucked up in bed at the convent?’ he demanded.
Tess grimaced at his tone. ‘Because I am a fallen woman, undoubtedly your mistress and unfit for decent company.’
‘Someone who knows Mother Superior was on the boat, she recognised me, saw us together on deck. I was asleep on your lap, if you recall.’ Tess closed her eyes.
Weariness, pain—or shame? How dare they make her ashamed. She was innocent. He was the one who had been fighting lascivious thoughts for two days and nights...
‘Mother Superior threw me out and I was looking for lodgings when this happened. I’m sorry to have bothered you, but afterwards, I didn’t think I could manage to find anywhere to stay...’ Her voice trailed away. Alex closed his right hand around her wrist and she rallied, opened her eyes. ‘I’m sorry to be a nuisance. Tomorrow, when it’s light, I’ll find somewhere.’
A bustle in the hallway announced the arrival of Dr Holt and Hannah Semple. Alex stayed where he was beside Tess and explained the situation to both of them. It was an effort to keep the fury out of his voice as he described what had happened.
His housekeeper cast her bonnet and cloak into MacDonald’s hands. ‘Poor young lady! I’ll stay with the doctor.’ She flapped her hands at Alex and Byfleet as though they were a couple of stray small boys underfoot.
Alex made himself get up and walk away, out into the hall. It was ridiculous to feel concerned. Tess was in good hands and he obviously couldn’t stay in the room while the doctor checked her over. But still it felt wrong to be doing nothing and the only things that occurred to him—descending on the convent and giving the Mother Superior a piece of his mind and then scouring the Soho area for a couple of men with scratched faces—were obviously equally unlikely to prove effective.
Besides, she was not his responsibility. He had delivered her safe and sound. Oh, for heaven’s sake! Of course she’s my responsibility. If I hadn’t decided it would be amusing to have the company of an innocent for a while, she’d never have been in this fix.
‘I will rouse the kitchen staff to produce some soup, my lord.’ Byfleet vanished through the service door. Trust his valet to come up with a helpful suggestion when all he could do was contemplate violence. Alex resisted the urge to kick the hall hatstand and went into the drawing room to wait with what patience he could muster.
To Alex’s relief Dr Holt emerged after only ten minutes. He accepted a glass of brandy and the offer of a chair by the fire. ‘An alarming assault on the young lady, but she is more shaken than hurt. There was no...er...interference with her person, if you understand me.
‘The bruised area will heal without a mark, although it will be temporarily painful and disfiguring, I have no doubt. Miss Ellery’s ankle appears to have been healing well after a slight sprain, from what she tells me, but the sudden strain has wrenched it again. She must put no weight on it for several days until the swelling subsides. I have left instructions with your housekeeper.’