‘Perhaps that’s why he’s being so tolerant. After all, kittens and babies underfoot wouldn’t do much for his carefully maintained image.’
‘Elegant, imperturbable, languid and cultivated. A fastidious pink of the ton on the surface. He’s a serious sportsman on the quiet, but unless you saw him after a hard round at Gentleman Jackson’s you’d be forgiven for not noticing.’
Tess laughed. ‘That’s just a mask. Underneath he’s funny and very kind. And the sparring explains the muscles.’
‘Hmm. You’ve noticed them, have you?’ Hannah gave her an old-fashioned look. ‘He’s thought about nothing but himself for ten years.’ Despite the thickness of her voice she sounded remarkably tart.
‘But he is kind.’
‘I didn’t say he wasn’t. He’s charming, he treats people well—and he organises his life so no one gets behind the mask or disturbs his well-ordered life.’
Tess kicked off her shoes and curled up in the chair. Outside the rain was threatening to turn into sleet and the wind howled in the chimney, making the flames dance and reminding them that December had most definitely arrived. Inside all was snug and comfortable, she had thought. Now Hannah was making her uneasy.
‘His mistresses must,’ she suggested with the sensation of jabbing her tongue against a sore tooth. ‘Get close, I mean.’
‘I very much doubt it. They can get inside those well-cut clothes, they can rumple his sheets—but lay bare the man underneath? No.’
‘But...’ But I get to the real man sometimes. I can touch more than his skin. She almost said it, then realised how pathetic it would sound. I’m different. He lets me in. He trusts me. And Hannah, who has known Alex for most of their lives, will smile and be kind about my illusions. She might even think I’m developing a tendre for him. How humiliating.
‘Why does he need a mask?’ she said instead. ‘What is he hiding?’
Hannah laughed and set off a coughing fit. She waved Tess back to her chair when she reached for the water glass. ‘I’m all right. He isn’t hiding, he is creating. He has remade himself from scratch these past ten years.’
‘Ten? But he’s twenty-seven now. What happened when he was seventeen?’
‘He left home.’ Hannah frowned at a harmless print hanging over the fireplace. ‘For good, I mean. He’d been at university for one term. He came home for...he came home for a visit, and when he returned to Oxford he never went back to Tempeston again.’
‘But seventeen is very young.’ What had she been like at seventeen? Full of questions and uncertainties, her body no longer that of a girl, her emotions torn between a yearning to be back in the safety of childhood and an uneasy impatience to discover the world. What must it be like for a boy, out by himself in that big, dangerous world?
‘Yes, it is young,’ Hannah agreed. ‘But he had friends and anger and intelligence to keep him going.’
Anger. ‘What happened? What drove him away?’
Hannah shook her head. ‘As I said, it is not my story to tell. If Alex ever does tell you about that Christmas, then you will know you really have got under the mask, under his skin. If he trusts you with that, then he has entrusted you with his soul and everything fragile within that tough carapace he has built around himself.’
They sat in silence. Hannah seemingly worn out after her outburst, Tess unable to find words. So it had been Christmas. Was that why he was so cynical about the festival? Eventually she said, ‘But don’t his parents want to be reconciled with him?’
‘Have you ever wounded someone badly?’
Tess shook her head. ‘I don’t think so. I hope not.’
‘If you had, then perhaps you would understand. If you injure a person close to you so cruelly that your own conscience is riven, then sometimes you become angry with them for making you feel so guilty. His father did something inexcusable, something that resulted in a death, something that slashed Alex to the heart. Lord Moreland is a man who never found himself at fault, who has never been known to own a wrong or to apologise. I expect nothing has changed.’ She shrugged, a complicated heaving of blankets and shawls. ‘Therefore, if he is not at fault, then Alex must be. If he had hurt Alex, then Alex must have been to blame. Do you understand?’
‘I think so. How dreadful.’ The words were inadequate, but she could find no others. Tess reached out a hand to the fire for some warmth. ‘Could Alex not make the first move to reconcile?’