‘No. How dreadful.’ Tess reached out and caught his hand, tugged him towards the bed. ‘But what on earth could the earl have said for him to do that? Had he committed some crime?’
‘No, but he had wanted to. Tess, I can’t explain.’ He looked down on her bent head as she studied their joined hands and felt her concern and kindness like a caress.
‘Was he in love with you?’ she asked.
‘What?’ Alex realised he had almost shouted it and dropped his voice to a whisper. ‘What did you say?’ He tried to tug his hand away, but Tess held tight.
‘There was a scandal last year, the brother of one of the boarders. He wrote a very indiscreet letter to his sister and told her what had happened. He ran away to Italy with his friend.’
‘I had no idea sheltered young ladies knew about such things.’
‘Some of us do, and we aren’t idiots, Alex. It makes sense of the way Matthew was goading you. But they were wrong, weren’t they? I mean, you and I...’
‘Yes, they were wrong. My father’s an intolerant old bully and I was too artistic, too neat and precise for his liking. Then when he realised what Peter felt—which was more than I did in my innocence—he put two and two together and made fifty. I stormed out full of thoroughly embarrassed righteous indignation, stopped on the way to rant at Peter about the stupidity of my father, then left for Oxford without any idea of the bombshell that I’d dropped at his feet.’
‘If that hadn’t happened, then both you and your father would have calmed down, reconciled,’ Tess said.
The sadness in her voice was like a jab in the solar plexus. What had she to be sad about? Was he just another of her lame dogs to be taken in and cared for? It was his grief, his anger, and he hadn’t asked her to care, certainly hadn’t asked a sheltered young woman to understand variations of sexual preference that should have sent her into strong hysterics. Alex found he was becoming weary of maintaining an unruffled front, of not revealing his feelings, of appearing tolerant and self-assured and all the things that right at that moment he most certainly did not feel.
‘Are we going to bed or am I going to stand here all night discussing my family?’
Tess blinked at him, obviously startled by the harsh edge to his voice. Well, damn it, it was about time she realised that he wasn’t a nice man hiding bounteous goodwill to all God’s creatures behind a cynical exterior. Nor was he some hapless victim of cruel fate. Just at that moment he was a man who wanted a woman and who was on the edge of losing his temper for reasons he was not at all sure he understood.
‘Yes, of course.’ Tess flipped back the covers and moved across. She was wearing a nightgown tonight, he saw. A prim and proper flannel abomination, tight to the throat and the cuffs without a single frill or ornament to its cream plainness. ‘I hoped you would come,’ she added as he tossed his robe aside.
Her eyes widened. Had she seen him erect last night? Surely she had. Was she frightened? Then Tess ran the tip of her tongue over her lips and a surge of primitive power jolted through him. When he joined her on the bed she reached for the hem of her nightgown and pulled it over her head without hesitation, turned into his arms and lifted her face for his kiss. No, not frightened.
He took the lips that were offered to him, caressed the quivering, urgent body, found, without conscious intent, that he was already over her, nudging against the wet heat that was so ready for him. There was a rushing in his ears, a thunder of blood mingling with their panting breaths. Her mouth was open to him, sweet and fierce, her body closed around him, urgent, yielding, demanding. He surged in her, riding the pleasure like a wild horse, focused only on the turmoil of their two bodies, heard her cry and, somehow, found the focus to pull from her body before he crashed into his own shattering climax.
* * *
Pleasure, exhaustion, sticky heat, softness, the beat of a heart under his. Alex lay still, let his lax body come to itself while he gathered his wits, rubbed his cheek against the soft one next to it.
Gradually the human part of his brain gained some ascendancy over the triumphant, sated, animal part. He was sprawled with all his weight on the slender figure beneath him.
Tess. God, what have I done. He rolled off with a contraction of muscles that almost sent him off the far side of the bed. She was as near as, damn it, a virgin, and I used her like a courtesan.
* * *
‘Alex?’ Tess blinked her eyes open onto a chilly world where the lovely, big, muscled body that had been squashing her so deliciously was gone. Alex’s lovemaking had been a revelation. The excitement, the urgency, the sheer vibrant sexuality of it, had shaken her in a different way to his tenderness and care the night before. That lovemaking could be so varied had never occurred to her. What would it be like tomorrow?