His hands tightened on the soft, slender body as he took one long stride towards the bed, his mouth still on hers. Her tumbled hair brushed over the knuckles of his right hand, the one around her shoulders, and it was every bit as soft and tactile as he had imagined. When it was all down it would reach her waist, would brush over his naked chest—
His foot hit the bedpost and jarred him back to the reality of what he was doing, with whom he was doing it. Alex snapped back his head, laid Tess against the pillows and stepped away as though a chain had jerked him.
‘I’m sorry. I did not mean to do that.’ As an apology that was wrong in so many different ways he couldn’t begin to count them. What the devil was the matter with him? He wasn’t usually this clumsy.
‘It was my fault.’ Tess was trembling, her face flushed, her eyes wide. On her cheek the ugly bruise was deepening. ‘I meant to say thank you and I didn’t think... I meant to kiss your cheek.’
Of course she had. After the day she’d had now he had taken her innocent gesture and turned it into another assault and she was blaming herself. ‘Tess—’
‘Thank you, my lord.’ Hannah came in, brisk and efficient and smiling, her words a clear dismissal. She had known him since they had both been children and, it was quite clear, she was going to take no nonsense from him now. ‘You can leave Miss Ellery to my care.’
‘Goodnight, Miss Ellery,’ Alex said formally. ‘Mrs Semple will look after you excellently, you may be sure.’
‘I’ll be sleeping in the dressing room, my lord.’ Hannah nodded towards the corner of the room. ‘With the door open. Then if Miss Ellery becomes alarmed in the night I am close at hand.’
With a poker at the ready for randy males was the unspoken part of that declaration. Alex managed a smile for her and took himself off. He needed brandy. No, he needed to strip off and stand under the stable yard pump, but he was going to have to settle for brandy.
Back in the study he flung himself into his chair and reached for his glass, raised it to his lips as an indignant voice began to yowl from inside the wicker basket by the fireside.
‘You took the words right out of my mouth, Noel,’ Alex said as he set down his glass untouched and went to open the basket. Somehow, in a matter of moments, he had acquired a cat, a nun, and his well-ordered, pleasantly selfish life was upside down.
* * *
Had the housekeeper seen them? Tess fought against the instinct to simply close her eyes and pretend that kiss had never happened. But that would be rude. She met the other woman’s gaze and read nothing but concern there.
‘I’ve got a nightgown for you,’ Mrs Semple said. ‘MacDonald had the sense to tell me why I was being called for, so I thought I had best bring some things, just in case. Let’s get you undressed and into bed, shall we, Miss Ellery?’
The other woman was not much older than she was, Tess thought as she did her best to help with the undressing. It seemed young to be a housekeeper. ‘Is Mr Semple the butler here?’ she asked with a vague notion of making polite conversation under extraordinary circumstances.
‘I’m a widow, Miss Ellery. I don’t live in as a rule, not with an all-male household, you understand.’
‘But you’re so young. Oh, I’m sorry, that was tactless, I’m not thinking very straight.’
‘And no wonder. My husband was killed at Waterloo. He was one of his old lordship’s grooms, but he was set on the army.’ She tucked Tess in with a brisk pat at the sheets, then stepped back to survey the room. From her nod she was satisfied with what she saw. ‘Now, what can I fetch you to eat, Miss Ellery? A nice little omelette with some bread and butter and a cup of tea?’
‘That sounds perfect, thank you.’ Tess closed her eyes and leaned back into the comfort of piled pillows. She wondered vaguely if she would be able to stay awake to eat it and drifted off to sleep.
* * *
‘She’s asleep.’ Hannah Semple closed the study door behind her and came to take the chair opposite Alex. ‘And what have you got there?’
Alex stroked his palm over the kitten’s body and smiled as the rumbling purr vibrated through his hand. ‘This is Noel. I set out to cross the Channel and come home alone with a pile of artworks, yet ended up with one kitten and a nun who isn’t.’
Hannah kicked off her shoes and curled up in the armchair. ‘And what, Alex my lad, are you going to do with them?’
‘I was hoping you’d be some help with that, Hannah.’ He looked at her with affection, his childhood playmate, the daughter of their estate manager at Tempeston. He’d watched her march off to follow Willie Semple to war when both he and Hannah were just seventeen, and she’d written to him five years later when she returned to England, a widow in search of a place. In front of the other staff she was meticulously formal; alone with him they were simply old friends.