The clock struck one. It felt very...gauche, sitting there bolt upright, the sheets clutched under her chin. Tess lay down. She could try to relax, just close her eyes. He wouldn’t be much longer, surely?
* * *
She woke to the sound of someone moving around the room. Glass clinked against glass, someone sighed, as though weary, there were two thuds that she recognised as shoes being tossed aside. Alex.
Tess eased herself up against the pillows and found he was standing with his back to her. He took off his coat, dropped it on a chair and began to untie his neckcloth one-handed while the other held a glass with a finger of dark liquid in it. He set down the glass, took off his waistcoat and then started to unfasten his evening breeches.
I should say something. But her mouth was too dry. The breeches dropped to the floor and, thank heavens for maidenly nerves, the hem of his shirt dropped, too. Even so, even covered to mid-thigh, the sight of a pair of strong, muscled, hairy male legs was shocking. Exciting... I cannot sit here spying on him. Tess cleared her throat.
Alex spun round. ‘What in Hades are you doing here?’
He sounded both angry and confused, but there had been one moment, one blink of an eye, when his face had lit up with welcome, with pleasure. It gave her the courage she needed to speak. ‘I wanted to be with you. I need to be with you, Alex.’
Now she could not read his face at all. Alex grabbed a robe from the end of the bed and dragged it on, yanked the sash tight. ‘If anyone discovers you are here, even if I come no closer than this, then you are ruined, Tess.’
‘Ruined for what, exactly? I am not some young miss about to embark on her Season, someone whose virtue and purity is as important as her bloodlines and her dowry. I am destined to earn my living, not to wed. Will knowing what it means to lie with a man make me any less able as a companion, any less competent as a teacher?’
‘No.’ Alex picked up his glass again, stared at it, then slammed it down.
‘I will not go from your bed to some den of vice to take part in wild orgies,’ she said. ‘I am not going to sell my body as a result. I know you desire me. I did not need you to tell me that in the library this evening. I desire you, too, and you know that, also.’
‘What if I get you with child?’
‘Then, you will provide for us, I imagine.’ She felt calmer as his vehemence grew. ‘I would never make any further claim on you and you are not betrothed, or even courting another woman, are you?’
‘Tess, desire is not enough reason to risk your reputation.’ Alex stood at the end of the bed, his hand on the post supporting the canopy. She knew him too well now to believe he was furious with her for being there, or that he wanted her to leave. But he was angry with himself for wanting her to stay, for wanting her at all: that she could believe.
‘No, it is not,’ she agreed, her fingers cramping on the edge of the sheet. ‘But the need for comfort is, the need to be with someone. Curiosity is, too. I am never going to marry, Alex. I am never going to find another man I trust as I trust you, one that I could risk an affair with. I would wish for memories to warm my future dreams and I think you would welcome some warmth now.’
He was so still that time might have stopped if it were not for the tick of the clock, the crackle of the fire, the beat of her heart echoing the pulse she could see in his throat.
‘No,’ Alex said.
She had one card left in her hand, and she had no idea whether it was an ace or worthless. It cost enough to hazard, so perhaps it had some value. Tess released the sheet, threw back the covers, slid from the bed and stood naked before a man for the first time in her life. She closed her eyes.
Was that good or bad? She was no beauty, she knew that. She was skinny and her breasts were small and she knew men liked breasts. But her hair was down and perhaps that covered some of the sharp angles.
‘Tess.’ Right in front of her. She could smell him now, smell his warm skin, his familiar citrus cologne, the plain soap from the bath he must have taken before dinner. ‘Look at me.’
She opened her eyes, knowing she must be one whole blush, not having any idea what to do with her hands. Alex was so close she could see his irises were dilated, so close she could hear his breathing, see his slightly parted lips.
‘I told you to run.’ His hands were on the knot of his sash.
‘I did. I ran here. I am a grown woman, Alex. I know what I want, what I need. Must I plead with you?’
‘No. Never that.’ He untied the knot at his waist, shrugged off the robe, pulled the shirt over his head and stood in front of her as naked as she was. Behind him the glow of the fire cast a nimbus of gold around his body. From in front the steady light from the little lamp threw sculpted muscles, long bones, taut tendons into sharp relief.