‘Do you know, I find this oddly satisfying, like working out the attribution of a painting,’ he confessed as they emerged later from Gray’s the jewellers with a coral-and-silver teething ring for little Daisy. ‘Are we done now?’
‘Not yet.’ Tess looked back over her shoulder as she got into the carriage.
Alex closed the door behind him and then stayed on his feet to shift parcels on the seat. ‘More?’
‘Well, yes. There’s—’ Tess began as the carriage started off, then stopped with a lurch.
Alex twisted round, caught his balance and lost it again as the vehicle jerked forward, accompanied by a vigorous exchange of curses from on top of the box. He just missed the seat; Tess grabbed for him and he hit the floor with her on top, one sharp elbow planted firmly in his midriff. ‘Ough.’
‘Alex? Oh, I am so sorry, I’ve hurt you.’ She was sprawled down the length of him, the two of them wedged on the floor. He looked up, through eyes watering from the impact, into her face, so close. The tip of her nose was pink from the chill, her lips were parted, her eyes were wide with concern. Adorable. She’s adorable. And outrageously arousing with every inch of her pressed to him.
‘Winded...’ he managed. ‘That’s all.’ He closed his eyes the better to enjoy the sensation of her curves, the erotic, impossibly innocent, scent of plain soap and a dab of lavender water.
‘Alex! Alex, can you hear me?’ She squirmed, trying to get to her feet without, he supposed, trampling all over him. ‘Have you hit your head?’
Alex groaned, opened his eyes and found himself still nose to nose with Tess. This is more than any man can be expected to withstand, he told himself, gritting his teeth.
With a dolphin-like heave she got herself up at the expense of no more than an inch or two of skin scraped from his shin bones. ‘I am so sorry I squashed you, Alex. Just lie still. I’ll pull the cord and tell John Coachman to drive direct to your doctor.’
‘No need.’ He found his voice from somewhere and sat up before Tess observed the interesting effect her squirming had produced on his body. ‘I’m fine. Just...’ Hanging on to my self-control by my fingernails. Alex put both hands on the squabs and pushed himself up and onto the seat next to her. ‘Winded, as I said. What were we talking about?’ Something, please God, dull and non-inflammatory.
‘A donkey!’ For a moment he thought she meant him, which was nothing but the truth, given that he was an experienced man about town reduced to a quivering mass of sexual frustration by a chit from a nunnery.
‘Oh, isn’t it sweet?’ Tess pointed out of the window to a costermonger’s barrow pulled by an improbably fluffy little donkey.
‘Yes,’ Alex agreed cautiously. It was not the word he would have used. ‘But we do not need a donkey.’ The way she collected things he could expect to come home to find an ass and an ox in the stables, just for Christmas. He wouldn’t put it past her to go to Pidcock’s Menagerie and borrow a camel for atmosphere.
Tess smiled at him, apparently able to read his mind. ‘Of course not.’
Alex was seized with a contrary urge to buy her one, just to see that smile again. He repressed the whim. ‘Now where?’
‘A toyshop. I want a doll for Daisy.’
* * *
The shop, whose owner had obviously stocked up well for the approaching season, was a treasure trove. Alex restrained himself from buying a full set of lead soldiers just to arrange on the study mantelshelf. The display of dolls was astounding, and he blinked at the array of miniature femininity. Tess was studying the far corner where the plainest examples were arrayed.
Alex made for the most magnificent, complete with real hair and elegant clothing. ‘There’s no need to stint, I don’t expect Dorcas can afford to give the child many toys.’
‘She’s too young for one, really, but I think it is nice if she grows up with a doll who will become an old favourite. But a baby needs a simple, soft doll, like those.’ Tess lifted down a medium-size rag doll, then turned back to the counter past a row of wooden dolls, their hair and features painted on. She stopped and touched one, just with the tip of her finger, and something in her smile sent a cold shiver down Alex’s spine.
‘What’s wrong, Tess?’
‘Nothing. Only memories.’ Her hand hesitated for a moment over the brightly coloured skirt, then she gave herself a little shake and took the rag doll across to the counter. ‘I had a doll like that once.’ Tess was looking at the wooden dolls again. ‘Mama gave it to me for Christmas when I was six.’