Alex hastily remade the bundle, careful to replace the objects as she’d found them, and tied the twine with an identical knot. She reburied the packet at the bottom of the trunk and closed it.
One thing was clear. She would have to redouble her efforts with Chase. She didn’t want to betray Rosamund’s fragile trust by telling him about the bundle, but there was more at stake here than he knew. Rosamund was capable and determined, and if she decided to take Daisy and run away, no headmistress would be stern enough to prevent them, nor quick enough to track them down. They had squirreled away enough money to take them anywhere in England. Possibly farther.
If Chase wasn’t careful, sending the girls to school could mean losing them. Forever.
With a satisfying whack, Chase drove home the final nail.
He pulled his shirt over his head and used it to mop his face before casting it aside. Then he stood back to admire his work.
His gentleman’s retreat was, at long last, complete. Ready to be christened. By this point, he’d been presented with a myriad of options for its title: Cave of Carnality, Libertine Lair, Rake Room, Passion Palace.
Lately, it had been the Self-Pleasure Sanctum. He’d shared it with no one but his hand since Alexandra Mountbatten arrived in this house. To be truthful, even on those occasions when he satisfied himself, she was still there—in spirit. In fantasy.
It was as if the moment she’d strolled through that door, her dark hair neatly pinned and a weathered satchel in hand, she’d claimed the place. As he looked around at the products of several weeks’ labor, the space that was meant to have hosted a succession of meaningless encounters . . . it had meaning.
There was the chair where she’d been sitting while she enumerated the many deficiencies in his character.
There was the stretch of paneling he’d been hanging when he sliced his thumb and surprised her in the kitchen, and she’d given him the most stirring kiss of his life.
There was the glassware rack he’d pieced together on a night when he’d been aching with want, lost in fantasies of tying her naked to a bedpost mast and licking her body from bow to stern.
She was in every nook and niche of this room. He was having difficulty imagining sharing it with any other woman. If he didn’t act soon, the Den of Deviance would be boarded up before it had even opened for visitors.
Alexandra, Alexandra. What the hell am I going to do with you?
Nothing, of course. He couldn’t do anything with his tempting little governess, and that was his bloody problem.
Someone rapped at the door. When he didn’t answer it directly, the rapping became pounding. Whoever was standing out on the street sounded equally as desperate as Chase felt. He made a vow to himself in that moment.
If the person on the other side of that door was a willing woman, Chase was going to haul her inside and make hot, sweaty love to her. End of discussion.
When he opened the door, he was instantly reminded why he should never, ever make vows.
The woman standing on the other side of the door was Alexandra.
“Do you have company?” she asked.
She entered without waiting for his invitation, breezing past him and into the center of the room. “So sorry to intrude. I went out on the green to track a celestial object that was passing out of my view upstairs. In my haste, I locked myself out of the house. The night is unusually cold. Thank goodness you were awake.” She looked around her. “And alone.”
She wore only her nightclothes, and her arms were crossed over her chest to soothe her shivering. Good Lord, he’d seen her in her shift entirely too many times. All he could think of was seeing her out of it. He’d spent days struggling to banish this fantasy from his mind, and it was all for nothing in the end. She stood before him, a dream come to life, and he was seized with desperation to take her in his arms and hold her tight, lest she vanish.
He plucked a blanket from the chaise longue and wrapped it about her shoulders, in the interests of self-preservation.
“So was it a comet?” he asked.
“Not this time, I’m afraid.” She hesitated, looking him over. “I’m glad to see you.”
His heart made an embarrassing, giddy flip.
“We haven’t spoken in some time,” she said. “And the girls have been missing you.”
“Is that so?” he said in a low, flirtatious drawl. “And you, Miss Mountbatten? Have you been missing me, too?”
She looked away, flustered.
He was a coward, burying that question beneath jaded swagger when he secretly longed to hear the answer. For his part, he’d been missing her intensely.
She turned her gaze about the room. “My goodness. You’ve been busy, haven’t you? So many improvements. Have you done all the labor yourself?”