Mrs Semple made a noise that might have been agreement, might have been disbelief. She was looking out of the window with a frown that wrinkled her brow.
‘Mrs Semple, I am not his mistress. What you saw last night—’
‘Was quite innocent on your side. Yes, I know.’ The housekeeper turned and smiled.
‘On both sides.’
‘He’s a man, and I doubt he’s been an innocent for many years, Miss Ellery. No, don’t bristle up, he’s no predator on decent girls, he won’t be after seducing you. Or worse. But, like I say, he’s a man, you are a woman, and a pretty one under all that drab clothing and bandages. If he didn’t take an interest I’d be worried about his health.’
A half delighted, half shocked snort of laughter escaped Tess. ‘You know Lord Weybourn very well?’
‘Since we were both six years old. My father was the Earl of Moreland’s estate manager. Alex is a good man. Stubborn as his sire, though.’ The frown was back.
‘You worry about him, don’t you? What has gone so wrong with his family?’
Mrs Semple’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. ‘That’s his story to tell you. But I will tell you something. He is flagellating himself for leaving you somewhere that wasn’t safe for you. You’ll hurt his pride, if nothing else, if you make a fuss about paying him back for a few bits and pieces and a decent wardrobe of clothes.’
‘He wasn’t to know there would be any problem,’ Tess protested. ‘And he certainly wasn’t to blame.’
‘If he had taken you to the canal boat in time, then none of this would have happened, and I know you should have insisted and so on and so forth, but Alex Tempest has an over-developed sense of responsibility for all that care-nothing air he pretends to have. So are you going to make him miserable or are you going to swallow your pride and enjoy some decent clothes?’
‘I’ll swallow it,’ Tess conceded. I’m so far down that Primrose Path I may as well face the fact that I’m ruined and have a man buy me clothes. It was a pity I couldn’t be ruined properly while I was at it though... The thought caught her unawares and she scrabbled in her purse for a handkerchief to turn her gasp into a cough. ‘But nice clothes aren’t suitable for someone looking for a post as a governess.’
‘We’ll see. I suspect when Lord Weybourn puts his mind to it he’ll be able to steer you in the direction of something rather more elevated than your convent might have done.’ Mrs Semple’s gaze rested on her speculatively. ‘Hmm. Yes, I can see all sorts of possibilities.’ The frown vanished to be replaced with a mischievous smile. ‘Now let’s get this kitten settled and make a list of what you need. And call me Hannah, please.’
‘Where the blazes is my coffee?’ Alex enquired of thin air. The dining room was bereft of footmen, his coffee jug had been empty for ten minutes, there was no sign of his toast and the fire needed making up. He should have known it was too good to last, the peace and quiet and order that had reigned for almost a week since the departure of Tess and the kitten.
He wasn’t helpless and it wasn’t above his dignity to grapple with the coal tongs, but even so... With a sigh he got up, mended the fire and then gave the bell pull a prolonged tug. Silence. The hall, when he looked out, was deserted, the front door still bolted.
It was not unheard of for housebreakers to raid London houses, tie up the staff and make off with the silver with the owners none the wiser for hours. Breakfast time was a strange time to attempt it, though. Feeling slightly melodramatic, Alex retrieved his cane from the hall stand and walked softly to the service door under the stairs.
He was halfway down, wincing as a tread creaked, when he heard a thump and a clatter and took the remaining stairs in three strides. In the kitchen, her back to him, was a strange woman in a green gown. He could see the large bow of the voluminous apron that was wrapped round her, her glossy dark hair was topped by a large white cap; she had a badly bent toasting fork in one hand and the remains of half a dozen slices of bread around her feet.
‘You useless male object, you!’ she announced in tones of loathing.
One glance around the kitchen was enough to show Alex that he was the only male in sight. ‘Madam? If you care to tell me who you are I will endeavour to be of rather more utility.’
She whirled round, trampling the bread in the process. ‘Oh, no,’ Tess said flatly. ‘You.’