She was none of his business. Alex gave himself a mental shake, sat up and reached for the pile of letters his secretary, William Bland, had produced when he’d gotten home.
‘The financial matters are all docketed and on your desk, my lord. There is nothing of pressing importance. There are a few invitations despite the fact that your return date was uncertain.’ He’d handed over a stack of gilt-edged cards. ‘And these items appear to be of a personal nature and have not been opened.’
By personal, William meant he had separated out all those with fancy-coloured wafer seals and any that had a whiff of perfume about them. They could wait, too, Alex decided, dropping them back on to the table beside his glass and picking up the invitations again. No, no, possibly, definitely, no...
There was the sound of the knocker. Curious. No one, surely, knew he was home yet? Alex squared off the pile of pasteboard rectangles and listened to the murmur of voices from the hall. Because he was away from home so often he did not trouble to employ a butler, and MacDonald, the younger of the two footmen, was on duty tonight.
The caller was still talking. Alex swung his feet down off the fender and pushed them into his shoes. Damn it, MacDonald was inexperienced, but even he should be able to get rid of unwanted visitors in less time than this. Alex stood up as the door of the study opened.
‘A Miss Ellery has called, my lord.’ MacDonald, who had a fine set of freckles to go with his red hair, was blushing painfully. ‘I have told her that you are not at home, my lord, but she says she will sit on the front step until you are. So I have seated her in the front room because she does seem to be a lady, my lord. Only—’
Hell, what had gone wrong with the confounded female now? Alex told himself he was exasperated, not pleased. Not anxious. Certainly not pleased. ‘Show her in, MacDonald.’
‘Miss Ellery, my lord.’ MacDonald opened the door.
There wasn’t a female member of staff living in, either, Alex recalled. The scullery maid and Hannah Semple, his cook/housekeeper, came in by the day. Damn, this got stickier the more he thought about—
‘Hell’s teeth, Tess, what’s happened to you?’
She stood there on the threshold swaying slightly, the basket in one hand, her bag clutched in the other. Her hair was half-down and a great bruise was coming up on her left cheek. Tess set down her luggage as he started towards her. ‘I’m so sorry to disturb you at this hour, my lord. Only...’
Her eyes rolled up and her legs gave way as he reached her. Alex caught her now-familiar weight in his arms, laid her down on the chaise longue against the wall and bit down hard on the stream of oaths that fought for escape. ‘MacDonald, send Byfleet down with the medical kit, tell Phipps to go for Dr Holt and you get round to Mrs Semple’s lodgings and tell her I need her back here to spend the night. Go!’
Then he sat back on his heels and took a deep breath. His hands, he was shocked to see, were clenched, ready for violence, and he glared at them until they relaxed. She had been walking unsupported, he told himself; she had been able to argue with MacDonald. She couldn’t be seriously hurt. He still wanted to punch whoever had done this to her.
‘My lord?’ Byfleet came in and set down a tray of gauze pads, small bottles and jars on a side table, the familiar kit for when Alex had overdone things in the sparring ring.
‘This is Miss Ellery, a young lady I escorted over from Ghent. She should be in a convent in Golden Square, which is where I left her. I have no idea how she got here, nor what happened, but you can see her face.’
The valet, who specialised in never being flustered, bent over the couch. ‘A nasty bruise. I would hazard the guess that she has come into violent contact with a brick wall. I suggest we remove her outer clothing, my lord, and that I clean the area before she wakes, in case the skin is broken.’
Between them they got Tess out of her bonnet and cloak, took off her boots, one of them unlaced already over the bandaged ankle.
‘No gloves, my lord,’ Byfleet observed, and held out Tess’s right hand for Alex to see. There was a dark red stain under the nails. ‘One concludes that she scratched her assailant.’
‘Excellent,’ Alex muttered and held the bowl for Byfleet as he began to clean her cheek. ‘Is that going to scar?’ Bad enough that they’d hurt her, worse if she had to look in the mirror at the results for the rest of her life.
‘I doubt it, my lord.’ Byfleet took a fresh piece of gauze, covered it in ointment and laid it over the bruise. ‘She is young and seems healthy, and the skin is not broken.’ He probed with his fingertips. ‘Nor is the cheekbone.’