‘The kitten goes with Tess—but what the blazes am I to do with her?’
‘Take her to bed by the looks of things,’ Hannah observed.
Alex winced. ‘You saw that? She meant to kiss me goodnight on the cheek. Things slipped. She’s an innocent, Hannah, not the kind of girl to take to bed.’
‘And you’d know. But I’d agree with that. She’s as green as spring grass, you’ve only to look at her.’ That was definitely a verbal cuff round the ear, he thought. ‘What’s she doing in London?’
Alex recounted the tale. ‘I need to find her decent employment,’ he concluded. There was no way he could wash his hands of her now.
‘You need to get her out of this house,’ Hannah countered. ‘She can come back with me tomorrow, if she’s up to it. I’ve a spare room in my apartment, nothing fancy, but she’ll be safe, comfortable and respectable. Then we can find her employment.’
The relief of it caught him by surprise, but not as much as the pang of regret that Tess would be leaving. ‘I’ll pay for her lodging, of course, and whatever you need to furnish her room. And she’ll need kitting out with some respectable clothes. I don’t know what that nunnery thought it was doing, sending her out at this time of year in those thin things.’
‘I’ll see to it. You’re used to setting up birds of paradise in bijou little houses, not respectable young women in decent lodgings.’ Hannah sorted through the items on the end of her chatelaine and came up with a set of tablets and a pencil. ‘Now, what are your plans? Where are you going for Christmas?’
‘I’m staying here, as well you know. Will you join me for Christmas dinner, Hannah?’
‘I will not, but thank you. I’ll be off to my in-laws like every year.’ She sighed. ‘I wish you’d go home, you stubborn man.’
‘I am home, and in the absence of a warm invitation to the ancestral mansion, this is exactly where I am staying.’ And there’d be the sound of trotters on the roof tiles as the flying pigs landed before that particular invitation arrived.
‘It is ten years past, Alex.’ Hannah looked into the fire, not meeting his eyes. ‘Surely it is time to forgive?’
‘When I forget, then I’ll forgive.’ Surely she knew it was not just for him? A young man had died that bitter Christmas because of his father’s blind prejudice and need to hit out at his elder son.
‘You’ll have to go back one day. You are the heir.’
‘Over his dead body or mine. If it’s the latter, then I suppose they’ll let me have my shelf in the ancestral vault.’ He smiled at her to show that this was something he did not care about, that it no longer hurt.
Hannah simply shook her head. ‘You’re as pig-headed as the earl is—you know that, don’t you?’ She cocked her head on one side and regarded him beadily. ‘Why not take a wife and produce an heir? That’s a revenge for you, Lord Moreland knowing that his precious lump of a younger son won’t inherit.’
‘And shatter all his fondly held beliefs about me? How unkind that would be. And what if I turn out to be as bad at marriage and fatherhood as he has?’
‘Impossible.’ Hannah grinned at him, suddenly finding her humour again. ‘No one could be that bad. I’m off to bed. I just hope that nice lass doesn’t have nightmares, bless her.’
When the door closed behind her with a soft click Alex sat on, stroking the kitten, his unfocused gaze on the sinking embers. Tess would doubtless tell him that Christmas, on top of everything else, was the perfect time for reconciliation and forgiveness. It was a good thing she was leaving. Just for a moment he believed that she might even convince him it was true.
* * *
‘I ought to say goodbye to Lord Weybourn,’ Tess said as Mrs Semple fastened the strap on Noel’s basket. ‘I must say thank you.’
‘You can send him a note.’ The housekeeper nodded to MacDonald, who opened the door and carried Tess’s bag down to the waiting hackney. ‘We need to get you to your new lodgings and work out what shopping you require.’
‘I haven’t much money,’ Tess ventured. She had very definitely been removed from the house, she thought, finding herself wedged into her seat with the cat basket deposited on her lap. Mrs Semple doesn’t approve of me. She saw that kiss and she thinks...
‘His lordship’s paying.’
She thinks I’ve slept with him, that now he’s paying me off. ‘It will be a loan. Just as soon as I have employment and a wage, I’ll repay him.’