‘Babies cry,’ he said with a shrug. Admittedly, they weren’t normally to be found doing so in the kitchen of a Mayfair bachelor household. Himself, he’d been brought up in a nursery so remote from the floors his parents occupied that a full military band could have played there without being heard and he’d had his earliest lessons in a schoolroom equally distant where no parent would have thought of dropping by. ‘I was not disturbed, merely curious.’
‘This is Dorcas White, my lord.’ Tess moved over to stand beside the woman. Did she think she needed to protect her from him? ‘She is my new lady’s maid.’
‘And the baby?’
‘Is mine, my lord.’ Dorcas looked ready to faint.
Alex looked down at her hands, clutched together in front of her. No ring. He met Tess’s blue gaze and read a steely defiance in it that took him aback.
‘The baby’s name is Daisy, my lord.’
‘Thank you, Mrs Ellery. I am aware that babies are people, too.’ She coloured up. Annoyance, he supposed. That made two of them. ‘So we have acquired another stray, have we? I suppose I must be thankful that the baby is already with us or I have no doubt I would be expected to house oxen and a donkey in my stables come Christmastide.’
Tess drew in a deep breath through her nose and narrowed her eyes at him. ‘I suspect that verges on blasphemy, my lord. Dorcas is very well qualified as a lady’s maid.’
‘And comes with excellent references, no doubt?’ It came out sharply and Tess’s chin jutted. So she didn’t like his tone? There was still an ache in his chest that he didn’t understand, memories of childhood he thought he had locked away in his head. His tight, small, bachelor household had become full of women, virtually a crèche. He was entitled to snap—he was amazed he wasn’t shouting.
‘Might we have a word, my lord?’ Tess enquired with a sweet, false smile. ‘Upstairs?’
He held the door for her and followed her stiff back along to the study. Tess did not wait for him to get behind the barrier of his desk and sit down before she attacked. ‘No, Dorcas White does not have references. A man who forces himself on a servant and then tells his wife that the slut flaunted herself at him when he’d had a few drinks, that she’d been asking for it, is not someone who writes a reference for his victim.’
‘Are you certain?’ Even as he said it he felt ashamed of himself. Those thin, desperate hands, those wounded eyes, the way she had held her child... No, that was not some little hussy who had taken advantage of Tess’s good nature. ‘Yes, of course you are, and I can see you are right,’ he said before the angry rebuttal was out of her mouth. ‘What does she need for the child? Buy it for her, whatever it is.’
If he had been looking for a reward, which he hadn’t, he told himself, he would have got it in the smile that transformed Tess’s face.
‘Who is the father?’ He suppressed his own answering smile. This was not a laughing matter.
‘I have no idea. I didn’t ask her. Why?’
‘Because he needs dealing with,’ Alex said, startling himself. What was he, some knight errant, dispensing justice for wronged damsels? ‘Still, I suppose you’ll never get the name out of her and I don’t want her worried that the swine will find out where she is.’
‘Oh, thank you,’ Tess said and clutched his hand. ‘Thank you for understanding. I knew you were Sir Lancelot really, however much you grumbled about Noel and things.’
Her hand was small and warm and strong in his and he closed his fingers around it, even as he said, in tones of loathing, ‘Sir Lancelot? Do I look like some confounded idiot clanking around in armour? And besides, he was a decidedly dubious type—making love to his king’s wife like that.’
‘I thought when you hit that sailor that you were a storybook knight and then you were grumpy with me so I changed my mind. But it is all a front, the grumpiness, isn’t it?’ Her eyes were dancing; it seemed she was as amused by her nonsense as he was.
His meek little nun was teasing him, he realised, and this time could not suppress the answering smile. Alarm bells were ringing even as he lifted her hand and pressed the back of it against his cheek, her pulse rioting under his fingers. Charm and sweetness. You cannot let yourself enjoy them, not for your sake and definitely not for hers.
‘Yes,’ Alex agreed. ‘It is all a front, but behind it is not your preux chevalier, there’s a real, live, flawed man with many masks and many, many faults.’ He moved her hand so he could nip lightly at her fingertips in warning and felt, more than heard, her shuddering indrawn breath. ‘A man who is hypocrite enough to despise the father of the child down there and yet who cannot forget the feel of your mouth under his, your body in his arms.’