Alex made a conscious effort and pulled himself together. ‘That’s a relief. Poor Cousin Teresa.’
‘A cousin, is she?’ The doctor rolled the brandy glass between his palms, then inhaled the vapours and leaned back with a sigh. ‘Excellent cognac, this. I didn’t like to encourage her to speak. It will be painful.’
And thank heavens for small mercies. ‘She came up to London to visit an old friend on an impulse, I gather, hoping for an introduction as a governess,’ Alex improvised. ‘Found her away from home, became confused, ended up in the wrong place at definitely the wrong time. I’m a distant connection, but this was the only address she could recall in her distress.’ He leaned across to top up the other man’s drink. ‘I’ll send her home in my carriage as soon as she’s up to it.’
‘Awkward that, you being a bachelor and so on,’ Dr Holt remarked. ‘Still, who’s to know, eh? And you’ve an excellent housekeeper in Mrs Semple.’
Did he believe that piece of invention about Tess being a cousin? Not that it made much difference whether he did or not, considering that the presence of even a first cousin in the house would be considered shocking when there were only servants to chaperon her.
‘Damned awkward,’ Alex agreed. He made himself lean back casually, crossed his legs to appear relaxed. ‘Still, not much to be done about it at this time of night. Glad I could find you at home and didn’t have to call out someone upon whose discretion I cannot rely.’ The hint was as much of a threat as he needed to make. No society doctor was going to risk the wrath of a titled patient, especially when the young lady in question was some drably clad poor relation and not a source of fascinating speculation.
There was a tap on the door and Hannah Semple came in and bobbed a curtsy. ‘I’ve made up a bed in the Blue Chamber, my lord. Shall I get MacDonald to carry the young lady up?’
‘I’ll be with you in a moment, Mrs Semple.’ Alex shook hands with the doctor and saw him out, then went back to the study. Tess was lying back against the chaise longue cushions, her face pale, the bruise on her swollen cheek coming out in red-and-purple patches already. ‘I’ll take you to your room. You’ll feel more yourself in the morning.’
‘I’m sorry to be such a nuisance,’ Tess murmured again.
‘Stop talking and stop apologising.’ Alex bent and gathered her up. She was too thin, he thought as he went up the stairs, careful not to knock her foot against the wall. Didn’t they feed them in those blasted nunneries? No more than a wisp of a thing, for all her height and those distracting curves. He’d knocked her for six in Ghent, injured her, then two louts had set about her, and in between she’d had a tiring sea voyage with another attempted assault and a nasty shock when she reached what should have been a safe haven. Any other female of his acquaintance would be distraught by now.
What the devil am I going to do with you, little nun? he thought, looking down at the tangled mass of hair that obscured her face from him. Tess was safe for tonight, but by this time tomorrow he had to have a plan—and her out of the house.
‘Here we are.’ The door to the Blue Chamber was ajar and he shouldered his way in to find that a fire was burning cheerfully in the grate and the covers were turned back. Hannah Semple had even thought to provide a stool to go over Tess’s ankle to keep off the weight of the blankets.
‘What about Noel?’ Tess tipped her face up so she could look at him. ‘Poor thing, he was so upset with all the banging about.’
‘I’ll look after Noel,’ Alex promised, staring into the deep blue eyes fixed so earnestly on his. For some reason his breathing was all over the place. Must be out of condition. I’d better get along to Jackson’s for some exercise.
‘Oh, thank you.’ Her arm tightened around his neck and, before he could react, Tess’s soft mouth was pressed to his.
Heaven. Hell. Alex struggled against temptation and felt it slip under his guard like an opponent’s rapier entering his side. The smell of Tess was familiar, but the taste of her was like a new drug, a draught of best champagne, a mouthful of summer berries. He ran his tongue along the join of her lips and felt her surprise, swallowed the little gasp as she opened to him. There was innocence in that reaction, but this was no girl, this was a grown woman in his arms, a sensual woman, who was exploring her natural instincts, and the effect, after so many assured and experienced women, was deeply erotic.