No cricket could save him now, unless he took a bat to the head.
Alex felt it. The thick, hard ridge pulsing and growing against her belly. Her fingers froze in place. She’d already been overwhelmed by the scent and heat of him, and the solid wall of his chest. But this? The crude, unmistakable proof that he was feeling it, too? It set her brain spinning.
Thank heaven he was so tall. At least she was staring, crimson-cheeked, into his waistcoat rather than his face.
Ignore it, she told herself. Think of celestial navigation.
But his swelling groin proved difficult to ignore. Its size was an inconvenient wedge between them, making it even harder for Alexandra to work the knot loose. She would have a devil of a time freeing it with one hand.
“Perhaps we should talk.”
“Yes,” she jumped to answer. “Let’s talk.”
“So your friends call you Alex.”
“It’s simpler. Alexandra is quite the mouthful. And your friends call you Chase, I gather.”
“It’s Charles, properly. But ever since school, I’ve answered to Chase.”
“Ah. So your schoolmates gave you the nickname.”
“You chose your own nickname?” She laughed to herself. “That is a bit pathetic, I’m sorry to say.”
“The name didn’t fit my lifestyle. Charles is dull. Chase sounds roguish. Exciting. No woman wants to cry out, ‘Oh, Charles! Yes, Charles!’ in bed. I mean, would you?”
“Forget I said that.”
Alexandra would try, but she doubted she would succeed.
“Tell me about your schooling,” he said.
“Boring lessons, grim schoolrooms. If by chance you had any dour, dried-up, snaggletoothed headmistresses, I’d love to hear about them right now. In detail.”
“My least favorite teacher wasn’t dried up or ugly at all. She was quite pretty, as a matter of fact, but she would spank us for misbehaving.”
“Really,” he said, groaning weakly.
“A smart thwack of the ruler, straight on the backside.”
“On second thought, let’s not talk.”
She managed to snag a fiber of rope with her fingernail. “I think I’m making progress.”
“Thank God,” he breathed.
“I’m not certain I can loosen it without a bit more slack. Is there any way you can press just a bit closer? A few moments, no more. All I need is a half inch.”
He made a strangled noise. “If you must, but do it quickly. Otherwise we’re going to move a good seven inches in the wrong direction.”
Alexandra leaned in, turning her head so that her cheek rested on his chest. His chin settled atop her head, heavy and square. The hollow thump of his heartbeat drummed in her ears and echoed in her belly.
For a moment, she forgot all about the knot. And the nursery, and the children, and anything else in the world that wasn’t his hard, lean male body. She was wrapped about him like a sailor lashed to the mast in a storm. And then his hand gripped her hip and pulled her closer still. As if they were lovers in an embrace.
He exhaled a shaky breath. The sigh gave her just enough space to work with. She wiggled her trembling fingers into the loop of rope, then pulled.
There. The knot was undone, and so was she.
They weren’t prepared. Pressed together so closely, they had all the stability of a lawn bowls pin. The sudden release sent them toppling, and his grip on her backside meant she tumbled with him.
And landed atop him, as they hit the floor with a thud. He cushioned the fall, taking the brunt of it.
Alexandra levered herself on her elbows. “Are you injured?”
“But you thunked your head.” She felt his skull. “Say something.”
She laughed, both relieved and nervous.
“Now I know what that dratted doll feels like.”
“Are you hurting terribly?”
“Tomorrow I will be. At the moment, I’m fine.”
“You’re certain? Perhaps I should—”
“Alexandra.” He cupped her chin and forced her to meet his eyes. “Enough.”
Goodness. The sound of her name from his lips, in that forceful, husky voice . . . He still clutched a handful of her backside.
“I know you don’t approve of the piracy game, but it’s the one way I’ve found to reach them. Daisy’s struggling with her lessons. She can scarcely read. Rosamund is so protective of her. Her instinct is to push me away rather than risk being hurt. They need patience.” She paused. “More than that, they need to feel safe and loved.”
“I’ve told you. I cannot give them that.”
“You could if you tried.”
“I thought you understood this from the very first day. I’m a bitter disappointment, remember. A poor excuse for a gentleman. A man incapable of understanding the consequence of stockings.”
“But you’re also a man who holds a little girl’s hand and eulogizes her doll every morning. A duke’s heir who builds cozy window seats and bookshelves by hand for his orphaned wards.”
“How did you know that?”
“I guessed. Downstairs, you were hanging your own paneling. Thank you for my verandah, by the way. You’re good with your hands.”