‘You noticed I was aroused?’
It was possible that a thunderbolt might strike, or the carriage horses bolt or the king pass by in procession. No miracle occurred to save her. Tess jerked up her chin and made herself look Alex in the eye. ‘Yes.’ Yes, I did notice that hard ridge of flesh pressed into my stomach. Yes, I do know what it means and, no, I was not shocked. I was excited. Shamefully, achingly, excited.
‘You may also have noticed that I did nothing about it.’ Now his voice was as colourless as his expression. ‘I would have to be...a completely different kind of man not to be aroused by you. I can ignore this, just as any gentleman can. We are not all the victims of our animal natures like Dorcas’s previous employer.’
‘I know.’ She kept her chin up, even though she wanted to bury her face in the carriage rug. ‘It is on my mind because...’ Because I wish you were not such a gentleman. Impossible to say it. Tess closed her eyes and swallowed. ‘I wonder why you are not married.’
‘I do not intend to marry,’ Alex said, as calmly as if he was stating that he had no intention of visiting Germany.
That snapped her eyes open. ‘You don’t intend to marry? But that’s ridiculous!’
‘So is being quizzed on the subject by a convent-reared gentlewoman in my own carriage.’ There was a definite edge to his voice now and colour up over his cheekbones. If he resembled any of the mythical creatures of Sister Moira’s fairy tales, it was no longer a benevolent one. ‘Why is it ridiculous that I do not intend to marry? Are you of the opinion that everyone should?’
‘Of course not. In my case, for example, it should be obvious that I will not wed.’ One dark brow lifted, but she pressed on. ‘I am a penniless nobody with a living to earn. You are an aristocrat, heir to a title. Surely marriage is expected of you?’
‘Exactly. I do not choose to do the expected.’ There was an unfamiliar, bitter twist to his mouth now.
‘Then, it is simply a self-indulgent whim?’
Alex turned those slanting hazel eyes on her. ‘Throwing brickbats now I have made you uncomfortable, Tess? It is not a whim, it is a deliberate act by someone who is otherwise powerless to avenge a crime.’
His father. Hannah said someone died that Christmas ten years ago. ‘You are depriving your father of the hope of the succession, aren’t you? But you have a brother.’
His lips curved into a smile that sent cold chills down her spine. ‘Indeed I have. Let us just say that if I were a stockbreeder I could not hope for a more willing stallion nor fear having one who has proved so unproductive so far. According to gossip Matthew has spent his wild oats over three counties without so much as one bastard to his name.’
‘I do not think I like you very much in this mood, Alex Tempest.’ Tess dragged the carriage rug close around her legs.
‘Nor do I,’ he said, the dangerous smile vanishing. ‘I do not think I have ever come across a lady who is prepared to speak as frankly as you, Tess.’
‘Perhaps I just see the future more clearly. I will not marry and I am unlikely ever to find myself in a situation where I can discuss such subjects so openly with a man. I will be gone soon after all. Hannah will return after Christmas and I will have to take myself off to the employment agencies.
‘Are you not cutting off your nose to spite your face? After all, you are not a virgin, are you, my lord?’ There was a woman in the carriage who looked like her, sounded like her. The Tess Ellery who was listening to what this other Tess was saying, who seemed to be able to see her through Alex’s eyes, shrivelled inwardly with shock.
A sudden, surprised gasp of laughter escaped him. ‘No.’
‘I thought not, not after the mention of mistresses. Nor a monk, either, I imagine?’
‘No, not a monk, either.’
‘So you are not proposing a life of sacrificial celibacy. You will punish your father and wallow in sin at the same time.’
‘Wallow in sin? Tess, what have you been reading?’
‘No doubt I am very naive, but I do not think you are happy.’
‘And marriage would make me happy? I very much doubt it. I haven’t the models for doing it right, besides anything else. If I’ve inherited anything from my father, it is probably an ability to make an appalling husband and father. Don’t look at me with those great innocent eyes, full of righteous indignation, Tess.’ He studied her face for a moment, then smiled, a smile free from the bitterness and mockery. ‘Are you by any chance attempting to seduce me into happiness by using sweet reason?’