‘Christmas presents,’ she said. She flipped open her notebook, produced a pencil and stared at him as though expecting dictation.
‘Whose Christmas presents?’
‘For the staff. The men, of course, Dorcas and little Daisy. And Annie. I think Annie should stay for a few nights, I don’t like to think of her having to go back to that lonely lodging house.’
‘Who the blazes is Annie? The scullery maid? No, don’t answer that. Do what you want about staff meals, but why presents? I give them all money on St Stephen’s Day.’
‘Of course you do and I am sure it is very generous. But Christmas presents are special, don’t you think? Personal.’
Alex considered a range of things he could say and decided it was probably safer not to utter any of them, not when faced with a woman armed with a notebook. ‘I’ll give you some money and you can buy them.’
‘I think the staff would really appreciate it if you chose them yourself.’ He could feel himself glowering and could only admire her courage as she continued to smile. ‘It is more in the Christmas spirit, don’t you think?’
‘Tess, you know perfectly well what I think about Christmas spirit. Codswallop. Humbug. Ridiculous sentimentality.’ Anyone else would have backed down in the face of that tone and his glare. All the men he knew certainly would have done. They obviously raised them with backbones of steel in convents.
‘But I know you value your staff,’ she said in a voice of sweet reason. ‘We could go out this afternoon unless you are very busy.’ By not so much as a flicker did her eyes move towards the pile of discarded journals, abandoned catalogues, crumpled newspapers and the other evidence of a lazy morning. ‘It isn’t raining. And I have a list.’
‘I’ll wager you have.’ Alex got to his feet. ‘I surrender. Wrap up warmly, I’ll get the carriage sent around.’
* * *
Half an hour later when he met her in the hall she was wearing a smart mantle that matched a deep-blue bonnet and she had decent gloves on. How pretty she is with the bruise gone and that bonnet framing her face. ‘Where is Dorcas?’ he snapped.
‘Daisy was fretful and Dorcas has a lot of work on her hands hemming petticoats for me and it would only distract Annie from her work if she has to watch the baby, as well. We don’t really need Dorcas, do we?’
The innocent question, the questioning tilt of her head to one side, got to him every time. He just wanted to kiss her silly. Which is not going to happen. ‘Not if you feel comfortable alone in a closed carriage with me.’ Alex kept his voice neutral, but she still turned a delicate shade of pink.
‘Of course I do. We discussed...that. I thought we had forgotten about it.’
Forgotten that kiss? Forgotten that you admitted that the attraction wasn’t just one-sided? When you become prettier and happier with every day that passes? When hell freezes over. Alex wasn’t going to lie to her. ‘I think we are doing a very good job of pretending it doesn’t exist,’ he said drily. ‘Best put that veil down in case anyone sees you. Now, where to?’
‘A music publishers first, there’s one in Albemarle Street. I want music for MacDonald and Phipps—good tunes, ballads, dances. MacDonald can play the violin and read music and Phipps plays the flute, but only by ear, so MacDonald’s going to teach him to read music. They’ve only got one or two pieces now.’
* * *
Alex helped her out of the carriage and into the shop, his ears ringing, while Tess talked. He had learned more about his footmen in ten minutes than he’d known in five years, he realised as he stood back to let her go through the door into the shop in front of him.
‘That was easy,’ Tess said fifteen minutes later as she gave a satisfied pat to the brown paper parcel on the carriage seat. ‘Now then, tobacco jars for Perring and Hodge. John Coachman says he’ll not be responsible for his actions if he has to deal with two grooms squabbling over which tobacco is whose much longer. And he takes snuff, so a new box for him, don’t you think?’
Alex directed John to Robert Lewis’s tobacconist shop in St James’s Street and sat back to digest the discovery that he was actually enjoying himself. Part of it, of course, was Tess’s company. Her enjoyment of the shops, her enthusiasm and cheerful goodwill was infectious, and he found he had no objection at all to the image he saw reflected in shop windows of the two of them arm in arm. But strangely, it was more than that.