‘Because then you would be out of reach, forbidden, protected by your vows. I want you too much, Tess. I want you in my bed, I want you naked under me, to be inside you, possessing you. Is that clear enough?
‘Yes.’ Oh, yes.
‘Then, run. Cling to Dorcas, stay at my mother’s side, make Maria your inseparable companion, because I am just about at the end of my tether, Tess, and I want you to be safe.’
I love you. Her lips formed the words, silently. Why had she not admitted it to herself before? It wasn’t simple desire, or even liking that she felt for him, it was love. Should she say it? No. Alex is not for me and never could be, not forever. But for one night, two or three, while he needs me...
It went against everything she had been taught about morals and virtue. But where was the morality in denying Alex comfort? Where was the virtue in denying her own feelings for him? Tess lifted her hands from his still body and stepped back, away. ‘I would never run from you, Alex. I would never feel I had to. But I will go now.’
* * *
In the luxury of the Chinese Bedchamber, with its painted scenes of exotic gardens and groups of figures, Tess surrendered to the ministrations of the highly trained lady’s maid that the countess had allocated to them. She wondered how Dorcas had coped with being waited on for the first time in her life. Well enough, she supposed, for when she eased open the door and looked into the Rose Chamber Dorcas was fast asleep in a nest of pink satin bedcoverings.
After she had washed and undressed, the maid helped her into her nightgown and robe and then proceeded to let down her hair and brush it. ‘One hundred times, Miss Ellery?’
‘Yes, thank you.’ It would give her time to gather her courage. There were bottles of scented waters on the dressing table and she sniffed each in turn and wondered whether to dab something more exotic than her usual lavender water behind her ears. No, it was the unsophisticated Tess whom Alex seemed to want, not some elegant lady. It was going to be nerve-racking enough without pretending to be anything but what she was.
The first thing was to find Alex’s bedchamber, otherwise she would be wandering about blind and, knowing her luck, would probably end up in the earl’s room. ‘This is such a large house,’ she remarked. ‘I have never been in one so extensive. I suppose all the family rooms are clustered in the middle for convenience and the guest rooms out in these wings.’
‘Oh, no, miss, they are all spread out. Lord Moreland has his suite in the West Wing, her ladyship and Lady Maria are in the central block and Mr Matthew prefers the tower rooms. Lord Weybourn has the suite with the park view, just at the other end of this wing.’
Hardly a close and loving family, Tess mused as she made conversation about the lovely views from all aspects. But it was wonderfully convenient for her. She had been quailing at the thought of tiptoeing through the silent corridors, no doubt patrolled by attentive servants, but now she knew exactly where she was going.
The maid tucked her up in bed, moved the Argand reading lamp to the most convenient side and tried Tess’s patience to screaming point by enquiring if Miss Ellery required some hot milk? Or some biscuits? More blankets, perhaps?
Alone at last Tess lay still, listening to the clock ticking. Finally it struck the half hour. Past midnight. Surely everyone would be in bed by now? Alex always sent Byfleet off once he had changed for dinner, apparently preferring the solitude to having someone help him out of his evening clothes, so there was not even that to worry about.
When she opened the door all was quiet, the corridor dimly lit by a shielded lamp on a table. Tess walked rapidly, her bare feet silent on the polished boards. She found the door, eased it open and tiptoed into a dressing room. It was unoccupied and she stood listening, inhaling the faint aroma of Alex’s cologne. When she plucked up the courage to try the door the bedchamber was deserted, also. She crossed to the far side and found a sitting room, equally empty.
Where was Alex? Surely not still in the library? The room was lit by three Argand lamps, the fire was banked up behind a guard and decanters were ranged on a dresser, so he was obviously expected to be sleeping there. Tess unfastened her robe and folded it on to a chair, climbed into the bed and sat there, prey to nerves. Should she take of her nightgown, as well? That seemed very bold, but then, being here in the first place was so shocking that nudity could hardly make things worse. Besides, it was hardly a very seductive garment—always assuming Alex would need seducing. Tess wriggled out of it and got back under the covers. She had never slept naked before.