‘Yes, of course. Thank you, I will reassure her.’ Tess stood up. ‘Thank you for letting me stay. I know it is disrupting things, even if we leave aside...you know. But I work hard and I’ll earn my keep, I promise.’
‘You don’t have to work at all.’ Alex put as much bored languor into his tone as he could. ‘You could stay in your room with Dorcas to chaperon you until Hannah is well again or we find you a post. As you are well aware, if I’d delivered you where you asked, on time, none of this would have occurred.’
‘I have my pride, too, you know.’ Tess bobbed her infuriatingly proper curtsy and went out as though they had discussed nothing more momentous than a minor staffing problem.
Alex sat down took a deep breath and pulled his pile of correspondence towards him. Tess had been brought up to tackle issues head-on and without hypocrisy, it seemed. But hypocrisy was one of society’s main safeguards, and without it she was vulnerable. So was he. The widow who wanted to buy pictures was looking increasingly tempting. It was too long since he had been with a woman; that was all it was, this need to hold Tess, to take the pins from her hair, the clothes from her body, to lie down with her and...
* * *
She had shocked Alex, Tess realised. Seeing the baby had upset him for some reason, and it wasn’t the fact that little Daisy’s crying had annoyed him. He was angry with Dorcas’s employer, which was understandable, for any decent person would have been, but there was something else, something deeper in his reaction.
And that moment when she had taken his hand had been...startling. She’d had no intention of flirting and she had no idea how to. She certainly hadn’t thought of trying to provoke him into kissing her again, but the energy that had flowed between their joined fingers still sparkled along her veins. It had seemed to her important to try to understand where they stood, to tell him how she felt. But that had been a mistake. He had not wanted that kind of honesty from her. And she couldn’t simply take his protection, his money, and do nothing in return. She expected to work for her living, and she owed it to Hannah to keep her from worrying about the household while she was ill.
When Tess got to her feet and went into the kitchen it was empty except for Dorcas, who was hemming handkerchiefs with the baby fast asleep in a makeshift crib by her side. She looked up. ‘Is he...is his lordship very angry?’
‘Not at all, just startled. He says we are to buy whatever Daisy needs and you are not to be afraid that he will be annoyed if he hears her crying.’ Tess sat down on the other side of the fireplace. ‘Lord Weybourn is simply not used to having women about the house, that is all.’
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather come back to Half Moon Street? I could make up the room across the passage from mine, and now I have Dorcas with me we can nurse you easily.’
‘That is thoughtful of you, Tess.’ Hannah Semple groped for a handkerchief as she began to cough. ‘Oh, drat and blast this! We sound like a colony of seals I once saw on the coast.’ From the room opposite came the echo of the same sound. ‘But I’m better here in my own home with my things around me. And no one is very sick now, just laid low with this wretched chesty cough, so Mrs Green and her girls are managing to look after us easily enough.’
She curled her fingers around the cup of tea that Tess handed to her and sipped, her nose glowing pinkly though the steam. ‘Besides anything else, I’d drive Lord Weybourn mad with the coughing.’
‘He doesn’t seem to be disturbed by the baby.’ Tess poured herself a cup and settled back in the fireside chair. ‘And she cries a lot, bless her.’
‘I find it hard to imagine, Alex taking in a baby.’
‘You thought he would send her away? He wasn’t pleased, not at first, but that just was the surprise, I think.’
‘Oh, I don’t mean he would send them off into the night. But I’d have expected him to find her lodgings or something, not have them live in.’ Hannah sneezed, then sat regarding Tess over the top of the handkerchief. ‘You’ve turned his house upside down with your strays by the sound of it. I’m amazed he hasn’t reacted more strongly.’ She sat up against the pillows. ‘Has he had any visitors?’
‘No, he goes out a lot and there have been endless invitations, but there’ve been no callers. I don’t think he’s issuing invitations with me there.’