‘I am a perfectly good plain cook.’ Now she was managing to look wounded, blast her. ‘You would never have known I was here if it wasn’t for the problem with the coffee and the toast. Your staff are highly respectable.’ Alex opened his mouth, but she sailed on. ‘And who is to know?’
‘I know.’ And I am finding it decidedly unsettling. ‘You are not a servant.’
‘I am acting as your housekeeper. That is at least as respectable as being a governess in many households.’
‘Not for an unmarried lady, it isn’t.’ Alex dusted crumbs off his fingers and stood up. ‘I’ll call a hackney to take you back to the lodging house.’
The door to the area opened and Phipps came in, gawped when he saw Alex and whipped off his hat. ‘Good morning, my lord.’
‘Good morning. And how is Mrs Semple’s headache?’
‘Not good, my lord. I didn’t see her, only Mrs Green, the lodging house keeper. She says it’s the influenza and two more of her lady lodgers have it.’
‘I must go and nurse Hannah.’ Tess was on her feet, pulling off cap and apron.
‘No, miss. Mrs Green said that she and her girl will look after the ladies and that Mrs Semple said you weren’t to go back and risk catching it. She’s had your bags packed and I’ve brought them here with me.’
‘Absolutely not. You cannot stay here,’ Alex began as the door opened and a thin woman came in.
‘Morning, all. I’ll get the copper on the boil and— Oh!’ She stopped dead at the sight of Alex and Tess. ‘Where’s Mrs Semple? I’m Nelly ’Odgkins, come to do the weekly wash.’
‘She’s sick,’ Tess said before Alex could intervene. ‘Can you carry on as usual, please, Mrs Hodgkins?’
‘Right you are, mum.’
‘I’ve got the coffee and three loaves, Miss Ellery... My lord?’ MacDonald grounded the shopping baskets and stared at Alex as a scrap of a girl slid into the room through the door behind him.
‘Mornin’, Mr MacDonald, Mr Phipps. Ooh...’ She stopped and stared, wide-eyed.
‘You must be Annie. Off you go to the scullery and start on the breakfast dishes,’ Tess said firmly.
Alex strode round to shut the door in the hope of stemming the flood of incomers and, hopefully, the evil draught of cold December air.
His shove met with resistance against a brawny shoulder and a head covered with a battered low-crowned hat appeared round the door. ‘Morning, all. I’ve got some fine mutton cuts here, Mrs Semple. Er?’
‘Good morning.’ Tess waved the butcher inside, then turned to Alex. ‘You need a housekeeper, my lord,’ she said, low voiced, then clapped her hands for attention. ‘Annie, come out here for a moment, please. Mrs Semple is down with the influenza, I’m afraid, and I am Mi—Mrs Ellery, the housekeeper in her absence. Phipps, please get a kettle boiling for his lordship’s coffee. MacDonald, pass me the loaf, then you can start making the toast. I’ll be with you directly, Mr—?’
‘Burford, mum. Don’t you worry yourself, I’ll be fine over here till you’re all sorted.’ He took himself over to a bench in the corner, grounded his basket with a grunt and sat down, hands on knees, with every appearance of settling down to watch a play, much to Alex’s irritation.
‘I’ll see you in the study after breakfast, Mrs Ellery,’ Alex said. Any trace of pleasure at being alone with Tess had vanished. Who, he thought bitterly, was going to appear next? The parish constable? He scooped up the kitten, who had bounced out in pursuit of the butcher’s trailing bootlaces, and retreated upstairs with as much dignity as he could muster.
‘Routed from my own kitchen, Noel. Now what am I going to do with her?’
Noel yowled and bit Alex’s thumb.
* * *
A fresh pot of coffee, hot toast and the last pot of what Phipps assured her was Mrs Semple’s best strawberry conserve would surely soothe a troubled male breast at breakfast time, Tess thought. Halfway up the back stairs she remembered her apron and went down again to take it off and straighten her cap, which showed a tendency to slide on her tightly coiled hair.
‘You look the part, Miss...er...Mrs Ellery,’ MacDonald said with an encouraging smile that only confirmed that what she looked was in need of encouragement.
At Alex’s door she knocked. I must stop calling him that, even in my head.