‘Where is Miss...Mrs Ellery?’ After the chaos of the morning, the previous day had passed uneventfully. Alex had dealt with his paperwork, visited some art dealers and then gone to his club, where he had dined and spent the evening catching up with acquaintances and what gossip there was in London in early December. A good day in the end, he concluded, one mercifully free from emotion and women.
He’d had some vague thought of calling on Mrs Hobhouse, a particularly friendly young widow. When he had last been in London she had sought him out, had been insistent that only Lord Weybourn with his legendary good taste could advise her on the paintings she should hang in her newly decorated bedchamber. It was so important to get the right mood in a bedchamber, wasn’t it? It had impressed Alex that she could get quite so much sensual innuendo into one word.
At the time he had considered assisting her with viewing some likely works of art from a variety of locations, including her bed, and yet somehow, when it came to the point of setting out for Bruton Street, he found he’d lost interest.
This morning’s breakfast had been excellent. Alex folded his newspaper and listened. Everything was suspiciously calm. It was surely too much to hope that Hannah had made a miraculous recovery and was back at her post.
‘Mrs Ellery is in the kitchen, my lord.’ Phipps balanced the silver salver with its load of letters and dipped it so Alex could see how much post there was. ‘Shall I put your correspondence in the study, my lord? Mr Bland said to tell you that he has gone to the stationer’s shop and will be back directly.’
‘Very well.’ Alex waved a vague hand in the direction of the door. His secretary could make a start on it when he got back; he wasn’t ready to concentrate on business yet.
So Tess had spent the night upstairs in the bedchamber above his own, had she? Alex picked up the paper, stared at the Parliamentary report for a while. Hot air, the lot of it. The foreign news didn’t make much more sense.
Spain, West Indies, the Hamburg mails... He hadn’t heard so much as a footstep on the boards overhead, but then she’d doubtless been fast asleep when he’d arrived home and had risen at least an hour before he was awake. So far, so good. The heavens hadn’t fallen and he had obviously been worrying about nothing.
Alex tossed down the Times. He was wool-gathering, which was what came of having his peace and quiet interrupted. What he needed to do was turn his mind to the possibilities for offloading a collection of rather garish French ormolu furniture that he was regretting buying. He made his way down the hall towards the study, then stopped dead when an alien noise, a wail, wavered through the quiet.
A baby was crying. Alex turned back towards the front door. Surely no desperate mother had left her offspring on his blameless front step? Well, to be honest it was hardly blameless, but he had made damn sure he left no by-blows in his wake.
The noise grew softer. He walked back. Louder—and it was coming from the basement. Then it ceased, leaving an almost visible question mark hanging in the silence.
When he eased open the kitchen door it was on to a domestic scene that would have gladdened the palette of some fashionable, if sentimental, genre painter. Tess was sitting at the table with a pile of account books in front of her. Byfleet was standing by the fireside, polishing Alex’s newest pair of boots, while Annie sat at the far end of the table, peeling potatoes.
And in a rocking chair opposite Byfleet was a woman nursing a baby while Noel chased a ball of paper around her feet. The stranger was crooning a lullaby and Alex was instantly back to the nursery, his breath tight in his chest as though arms were holding him tightly.
A family. They look like a family sitting there. Alex let out his breath and all the heads turned in his direction except for the baby, who was latched firmly on to its mother’s breast. The woman whipped her shawl around it and stared at him with such alarm on her face that he might as well have been brandishing a poker.
‘My lord.’ Tess sounded perfectly composed, which was more than he felt, damn it. ‘Did you ring? I’m afraid we didn’t hear.’
There was a pain in his chest from holding his breath and he rubbed at his breastbone. ‘No. I did not ring. I crossed the hall and I heard a child crying.’
The stranger fumbled her bodice together, got to her feet and laid the baby on the chair. ‘My lord.’ She dropped a curtsy and he noticed how pin neat she was, how thin. ‘I am very sorry you were disturbed, my lord. It won’t happen again.’ Her voice was soft and her eyes were terrified.