He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed, applying just enough force to put distance between them. “Listen, Winifred—”
She shushed him by putting a finger to his lips. The same finger that had mere moments ago been knuckle-deep in his ear. “Not another word until we’re inside, naked, and I have my mouth on your—”
Chase would never learn precisely where Winifred meant to place her mouth. Before the lady could finish her thought, she gave a shriek piercing enough to cut glass, and he found himself sputtering with shock.
Cold. That was the first decipherable sensation.
A deluge of water had sloshed over them both. He slicked his hair back with both hands and looked up. He spied Rosamund and Daisy hanging over the window sash far above. Each girl held an empty bucket in her hands.
“Ever so sorry!” Rosamund called down. “We needed to bail out the bilgewater.”
“Too many rats,” Daisy added, hand cupped around her mouth. “There’s plague aboard.”
“Oh, those little . . .” Chase completed the thought with a growl. They had better run and hide, or he would show them the meaning of plague.
Winifred hadn’t ceased shrieking. Her once-artfully arranged golden ringlets were now plastered to her face, obscuring her eyes. She swiped at them with gloved fingers, all the while vibrating with shock.
Chase saw his narrow window of advantage, and he took it. He shook his arms free of his topcoat and draped it over her shoulders, turning her to face the phaeton. To the groom, he said, “Lady Chawton will return home at once.”
What with the added weight of water, and her unwillingness or inability to assist, it took Chase and the groom several failed attempts and a final one-two-three-heave! to boost poor Winifred into the phaeton. Chase fought back clouds of purple satin and netting, stuffing them into the coach and slamming the door.
The groom took the driver’s seat, and Chase gave the lady’s address. “Lovely spending time with you,” he called out, raising a hand in farewell.
Then he turned on his heel and jerked open the door.
Four flights of stairs. Chase stomped on each riser with deliberate, ominous slowness, giving those hellions time to hear him coming and quake with mounting dread. “Rosamund and Daisy Fairfax!” he bellowed. “Pack your things for Malta!”
However, he never made it as far as the nursery. Just as he reached the third-floor landing, he found his march of doom intercepted.
By Miss Alexandra Mountbatten.
He looked like a wet cat, Alex thought. A wet, angry, ferocious, wild, and very, very large cat. Such as a tiger or a lion or a jaguar or—
“Miss Mountbatten,” he snarled. “Kindly step aside.”
“Wait.” She stretched her arms from the banister to the wall, obstructing his progress. “It wasn’t their fault.”
“Not their fault?” He flung a gesture at the ceiling, spraying her with water. “Are you telling me this is a mystery? That some unknown culprits are at large? Well, let me call in the Bow Street runners.”
Alex retracted her arm barrier and wiped the anger-propelled droplets from her face.
“Rosamund and Daisy were hanging out the window,” he went on. “Holding pails. It was, most assuredly, their fault.”
“Yes, but only partly. I was there, and I didn’t stop them.”
“You didn’t stop them.” He pronounced each word as a separate count in a list of felony charges.
“No, I didn’t. Because I—” Her courage faltered.
Because I was jealous. Irrationally, unspeakably envious in a way that made my toes catch fire.
“Because I believed you deserved it,” she said, lifting her chin. “How dare you conduct your amorous liaisons right under their noses.”
“That’s none of your concern.”
“The children are my concern. Don’t think they don’t know you bring women into that . . . libertine lair.”
“Libertine lair? Oh, that’s a new one.” He brushed past her, stalking down the corridor and disappearing into what she supposed must be his own bedchamber.
After a moment’s hesitation, Alex followed him, charging through the door and shutting it behind her. They were a full two floors below the nursery and at the opposite end of the house—but she lowered her voice anyway. “We’re not finished discussing this.”
“There’s nothing to be discussed. I know I’m a terrible guardian. I know this house is a masonry monument to scandal. That’s why I employed you. You’re meant to teach them proper behavior. Not plague me.”
“Plague you? When have I plagued you?”
“Aside from right now?” He tussled with his waistcoat buttons. “Only every hour of the day and night since you walked through my door.”
“I can’t imagine what you mean.”
He gave her a skeptical look. “Really. So all that rolling around on the schoolroom floor and groping in the Tower of London didn’t give you the slightest hint.”
Alex was coming to recognize his strategy—revealing his naked desire in an attempt to hide his heart and soul. She wouldn’t be fooled this time. “You said . . .”