The staff were waiting patiently. Tess jerked her thoughts away from the prospect of employment agencies and smiled. ‘I have been discussing Christmas with his lordship. Mrs Semple is much better, you’ll be glad to hear, but she’ll be going off to her in-laws in Kent very soon to recover. Now, how many of you will be spending Christmas at home with your families?’
Annie held up her hand, realised it was holding a dripping brush and gulped. ‘Me. I’ll be at me lodgings, I s’pose, Mrs Ellery, ma’am.’
‘No one else?’ Heads shook. ‘And who’s at the lodgings, Annie?’
She shrugged. ‘The other lodgers, ma’am.’
Tess had a fairly good idea what home must be like for Annie. ‘Do you think you would like to join us for Christmas, Annie?’ The girl’s jaw dropped, then she nodded energetically. ‘You can have one of the upstairs rooms for a few nights. What do the rest of you usually do?’
‘Make do,’ Byfleet volunteered. ‘We’re all men, so we get in some food from the cook shops, his lordship lets us have extra money and plenty of beer and a bottle or so from the wine cellar. We smoke, play cards, yarn a bit.’
‘We’ll be a mixed party this year,’ Tess said briskly. ‘I can cook a proper Christmas dinner if I have some help.’ I hope. She glanced at the row of cookery books on the mantelshelf. ‘Then we can go to church afterwards, for midnight service. Christmas morning we’ll exchange presents and enjoy ourselves for the rest of the day.’ She looked around the room. ‘What do you say?’
‘I say yes,’ MacDonald said with a broad grin. ‘I’ll get out my fiddle and Will there has got his flute. And with the youngsters we’ll have a proper Christmas.’ He started counting heads. ‘There’s the three from the stables, me and Phipps, Mr Byfleet, Dorcas and little Daisy, Annie and you, ma’am.’ He grinned. ‘That’s ten, a snug little party, Mrs Ellery.’
‘It is indeed,’ Tess said. And if I can work a miracle there will be eleven of us. So far, so good. We have a party. Now we need presents.
* * *
Alex tossed the sale catalogue aside. Nothing in it got his acquisitive juices flowing. He felt bored, he realised incredulously. No, not bored exactly. Stale? Tired of London, tired of routine. Unsettled. It was ridiculous. He was normally so involved with his work and with his social round that Christmas was a welcome opportunity to sit back and relax. He regarded his drawing room with disfavour. It was too damn tasteful, too blasted orderly.
It was Tess who was responsible for this mood, he suspected. She was turning the place upside down. Hannah had been efficient, but mostly invisible. She left him to himself except for the occasional evening when she would shed her housekeeper’s cap and come and curl up in a chair in the drawing room and gossip over a glass of wine. She was an old friend, she had a busy life of her own beyond his front door and she left him alone to live his life as it suited him.
But Tess was there, in the house, day and night. And she expected things of him beyond the regular payment of housekeeping money and a list of meal times when he wanted to be fed at home. She expected him to react, to involve himself with the concerns of the other staff. And she was up to something with this Christmas obsession of hers. And that was leaving aside the nagging awareness of her physically, the effort it took not to think of the slim figure, the soft mouth, those wise, young, blue eyes.
There was a tap on the door, the modest yet definite knock he was learning to associate with his temporary housekeeper.
‘Come in.’ Yes, it was his little nun with her confounded notebook. He got up from the sofa where he’d been sprawled and waved her to the chair opposite.
Not such a little nun now, he thought as she settled her well-cut skirts into order. With good food and a warm house she had lost that pinched, cold look. Taking command suited her, put a sparkle in those blue eyes and a determined tilt to that pointed chin. And the food had done more than keep her warm, it had given her curves that were most definitely not nun-like.
My staff, my responsibility, he reminded himself, sat down and dumped the Christie’s catalogue firmly onto his lap.
‘Are you all right, my lord? I thought you winced just now.’
‘Alex, for goodness’ sake.’ He smiled to counteract the snap. ‘And it was just a touch of...er...rheumatism.’
He shrugged and the catalogues slid helpfully, painfully, into his throbbing groin. ‘What can I do for you, Tess?’