‘Come.’ It was hardly welcoming. Perhaps the jam had been a mistake, too obvious a peace offering.
Tess walked in, wishing this was rather less like being summoned to Mother Superior’s study and that she could manage a confident smile. But that still made her cheek ache. ‘My lord.’ She bobbed a curtsy, folded her hands and waited.
‘For goodness’ sake, Tess, sit down and stop play-acting.’ He was using the point of a paperknife to flip over a pile of gilt-edged cards on his desk.
‘I am not. I am endeavouring to behave like a proper housekeeper in front of your staff and any visitors.’
‘You cannot be my housekeeper. You cannot stay here.’ Alex jammed the paperknife into a jar of pens. ‘You are most certainly not going to come into contact with any visitors.’
‘I am perfectly competent and they taught us housekeeping and plain cookery at the convent. This is a small house. I can manage very well.’
‘That is not what I mean.’ His gaze, those hazel eyes shadowed, was on her mouth, his own lips were set in a hard line.
They had felt firm, yet soft on hers. Strong, yet questioning. They had asked questions she... Tess closed her eyes and Alex made a sound, a sudden sharp inhalation of breath. She blinked and he was still staring at her.
‘It’s about that kiss, isn’t it? You think I was throwing myself at you.’ The words were out before she could censor them. She had been so certain he knew it had been a mistake, so certain that he had disregarded it with an ease she could only dream of managing herself.
‘No. Yes. Partly.’ Alex had his elbows on the arms of his chair. Now he clasped his hands together as though in prayer and rested his mouth against his knuckles, apparently finding something interesting on the surface of the desk. When he dropped his hands and looked up she could see neither amusement nor desire in his expression. ‘You should not be in a bachelor household, it is as simple as that. I am not in the habit of pouncing on my female staff and, although I can find explanations for what happened the other night, they are not excuses, not acceptable ones.’
He frowned. ‘I can’t imagine what Hannah was thinking of, sending you here. She was as set on moving you out as I was.’
‘She is ill and perhaps she’d had long enough to think about it and know I was perfectly safe here.’ Tess stopped herself pleating the fine wool of her skirt between her fingers. ‘I think she was more worried about you than about me, at first.’
‘About me?’ That at least wiped the brooding expression off his face. Alex sat up and stared at her.
‘I suspect she thought I was attempting to seduce and entrap you,’ Tess said primly. It was ludicrous, of course.
Alex threw his head back and laughed, a crack of sheer amusement. ‘You?’
‘I know. Ridiculous, isn’t it?’ Of course it is. So why did his laughter twist inside her with a stab of what was perilously close to shame? She managed a little cackle of her own, just to show how funny it was.
‘She was obviously sickening for the influenza even then,’ Alex said, with a shake of his head for the preposterousness of it.
Yes, preposterous was the word. Teresa Ellery, as ignorant as Noel was about the big wide world, battered and bruised, dressed as a convent orphan, might arouse Lord Weybourn’s chivalrous instincts, but not his amorous ones. That kiss, the one she’d built all those castles in the air about in her dreams and daydreams, was nothing more than the instinctive reaction of any man to a woman in his arms foolishly pressing her lips to his.
‘Anyway, I cannot go back to the lodgings. As well as the risk of catching the influenza myself, the landlady is quite busy enough as it is with sick nursing,’ Tess said. ‘If I am not seen above stairs when you have visitors, who is to know?’
He scrubbed one hand across his face, an oddly clumsy gesture for such an elegant man. ‘I suppose I can hardly send you off to an hotel. There’s a bedchamber above mine you could use,’ he said with evident reluctance. ‘None of the male staff sleep on that floor and it has a door that locks. We must get a maid for you, one to sleep in the dressing room.’ He reached out and pulled the bell, then fell silent until MacDonald came in. ‘Take Mrs Ellery to our usual domestic agency and assist her in finding a suitable lady’s maid.’
‘A lady’s maid?’
‘You are a lady, aren’t you?’ One brow lifted.
‘Well, yes.’ No, I’m not. ‘But a housemaid would do.’