Tess became still, her eyes wide and questioning. She’s an innocent, he told himself. Even if she can deal with illegitimate children and speak frankly about what has happened to Dorcas. She needs warning, scaring a little, even.
He loosened his grip on her fingers and her hand slid up to cup his cheek. She was not wary, not at all alarmed by him. The touch was not sexual, not even sensual. It was intended, he realised with something like shock, to comfort. When was the last time anyone had touched him like that?
‘You are very hard on yourself, aren’t you, Alex?’ Tess murmured. ‘You aren’t a saint, you certainly aren’t a monk, so why do you expect it of yourself?’
‘I am a gentleman,’ he said, his voice harsher than he’d intended. ‘The least I can do is try to behave like one around decent women.’
‘You are trying. Very hard, I think.’ She cocked her head to one side with that questioning look he was learning to beware of. ‘I may be a virgin, and that may have been my first kiss, but I am quite capable of recognising sensual attraction when I experience it. There is something between us, isn’t there?’
Alex found himself incapable of answering her as she wrestled so honestly with things no young lady was supposed to think about, let alone articulate.
‘I am quite capable of saying no, at least, I am when I haven’t been hit on the head and frightened half out of my wits,’ Tess said decisively. She lowered her hand and stepped away. ‘We got carried away, we both did. But the onus should not be all on you to be prudent.’
‘Prudent?’ Alex found he had to move away from her. If it was a retreat, he didn’t care, and the big desk was a reassuringly solid barrier. ‘Naturally it is down to me to behave properly.’
‘If I was the sort of young woman who has a hope of marrying, then of course it is,’ she agreed. Tess perched on the arm of a chair and he wondered if, for all her calmness, her legs were a bit shaky. ‘But I’m not, am I? So I need to make decisions based on different criteria, such as, do I want to be your mistress? What would make us happiest, while it lasted?’
‘Tess, stop this! You cannot discuss being my mistress, and happiness is the last thing we should be considering.’
‘Is it?’ She frowned at him, her brow wrinkled. ‘But what is the point of a...liaison if it doesn’t make people happy? What is the point of life, come to that?’
‘Frankly? I do not know about the meaning of life. I just get on with living it as best I can. But a liaison? It is about sex on one side and financial gain on the other,’ Alex snapped. He drove his fingers through his hair and tried to get his feet back on solid ground. This was like finding oneself knee-deep in fast-flowing water when one thought all one was doing was having a stroll beside a stream. ‘It is commerce. It is not something you should even think about.’
Her expression seemed to indicate that she was thinking about it, very carefully, very seriously.
Alex fought the urge to run his finger around a neckcloth that seemed far too tight. He coped with sophisticated ladies, wanton widows, expensive high-fliers, all without turning a hair. Why the devil was he finding it hard to deal with one outspoken innocent? ‘Look, Tess, men and women find themselves physically attracted all the time. We have to deal with it like everyone else does. You just pretend it isn’t happening.’
She nodded. ‘I can see that is usually best. But this isn’t making you happy, is it?’
‘It is making me damnably confused, if you must know.’ Did she think he expected sexual favours as a payment for giving her shelter? Did she think that in return for shelter she had a duty to make him happy, whatever she meant by that? She certainly wasn’t casting out lures or flirting, although he doubted she knew how. ‘But that is beside the point. You are a lovely young woman, Tess. I would have to be a plank of wood not to be attracted to you.’
That made her smile, at least. ‘Thank you. It wasn’t that I had decided we should have an affaire, you understand. But I don’t want you feeling guilty all the time if things happen. I expect I will learn not to notice when we touch by accident, or when I meet your eyes and I seem to read things in them.’
She could read him like a book, he was sure, even if she didn’t understand some of the long words. ‘It will do me no harm to feel guilty occasionally.’ Alex made his tone lighter. ‘We’ll not speak of this again.’ Who do I think I am deceiving? ‘Now, about Dorcas—make certain she understand she’s safe here. I’m not going to throw her out if the baby cries. I won’t have her hiding it away for fear of that. A baby should be with its mother.’