‘Me,’ Alex agreed and propped the cane unobtrusively in a corner. So not burglars, but an invasion that was far less easy to deal with. He told himself that the feeling in his chest was the after-effects of stalking burglars. Or dread. ‘What are you doing here—other than pulverising bread and breaking the kitchen equipment—and where is Mrs Semple?’
Tess moved into the light. Oh, my God, her face. The bruise was now multicoloured and she had the fading remains of a black eye. ‘And you are supposed to be resting that ankle.’ Alex trampled on the urge to scoop her up and make her lie down. She wouldn’t thank him for mentioning the way she looked, and thinking about it would probably only make it hurt more. And once I have my hands on her I may not be able to let go.
‘Hannah is very much under the weather and in bed with a headache, so I am attempting to make your breakfast. Everything was going well, wasn’t it?’ She tossed the toasting fork on to the table and frowned at him. ‘The ham and eggs? The sausage? The hot rolls? They were all perfect, I thought. Only there is no more coffee and Noel knocked the bread off the table the moment I had sliced it and I bent the toasting fork when I made a dive for it.’
‘Where are MacDonald and Phipps? Or Byfleet, come to that?’ One end of the table was laid for four breakfasts with plates at various stages from egg smeared to laden but scarcely touched.
‘MacDonald has run out for coffee and bread. I sent Phipps to the lodging house with some medicine that Hannah asked for. Byfleet has gone to Jermyn Street, I think. Buying shirts.’ That was delivered in a rapid mutter from a crouched position on the floor where Tess was retrieving broken slices of bread.
‘Dare I ask why he needs to buy shirts at this time in the morning?’ The nape of her neck was exposed, soft and pale and vulnerable, begging for his lips. Alex took the toasting fork, braced the wrought iron handle against the tabletop and leaned on it. It was more or less straight when he squinted down the length. His brain was more or less in control of his animal instincts, too.
Tess stood up with her hands full of bread, flinched when she found herself facing the prongs and looked round for somewhere to deposit her load.
‘On the fire,’ Alex suggested.
‘Throw food on the fire? I can’t do that. Sister Peter says it goes straight to the devil if you do that.’
‘And you believe her?’
‘Of course not.’ Tess found the slop bucket and tossed in the broken slices. ‘But it’s like not walking under ladders and tossing salt over your shoulder—one just gets into the habit.’
‘And I suppose nuns get into more habits than anyone,’ Alex observed, as he hitched one hip on to the table. He found a crust and buttered it lavishly. He should be both irritated and worried to find Tess back in the house; instead he felt oddly cheerful. Uncomfortably aroused, but happy.
Tess’s harassed expression transformed into a grin. ‘That is a terrible pun!’ She picked up the toasting fork and studied it. ‘My goodness, you are strong.’
‘It is all the exercise I get tossing nuns about. Shirts?’ Alex prompted, resisting the instinctive grin in return. It would be dangerous to let things get too cosy.
‘All your clean ones were in the ironing basket in the scullery this morning, apparently. Then Noel found them.’
‘More urgh, actually, although Mr Byfleet expressed himself rather freely on the subject.’ She eyed him warily. ‘I can make you some tea and bring it up if you like.’
‘No, I would not like. I will sit down here and wait to find out why my infallibly efficient housekeeper has run out of coffee, why when she has never, in all the years I’ve known her, succumbed to a headache, she has taken to her bed with one and why, when she has, she sent you to make my breakfast.’
‘Hannah has been spending a lot of time with me, I’m afraid, buying clothes and settling me in. I expect she’s been distracted and forgot to check the store cupboard. And she was very quiet yesterday evening. I thought she was simply deep in thought, but perhaps it was the headache.’
‘Have you had your breakfast?’ Alex found the honey and spread it on another crust.
‘I had mine first.’ Tess began to gather up the dirty crockery and took it through to the scullery. He noticed her limp had completely vanished. ‘Hannah says a scullery maid will come in later.’
‘So I believe. Tess, come back here and sit down.’ He waited until she returned and sat, neat and composed in her new dress and clean white apron. She folded her hands in her lap and regarded him, head on one side, like an inquisitive bird or a child waiting for an eccentric adult to do something entertaining. Very meek, very attentive. Why did he have the suspicion that she was laughing at him? ‘You shouldn’t be here.’ All he had to do was put his foot down; it should be a simple enough matter.