‘What happened to it?’
‘The nuns took it when I went to the convent.’
‘But you were, what, twelve by then?’
‘Thirteen, and far too old to play with dolls, of course. I didn’t play with her, though, I talked to her. She was my friend,’ Tess said simply.
When they were outside on the pavement she blinked as if she had been miles away. Or years, perhaps, Alex thought. ‘Did you not have friends?’
‘Not really.’ Her expression went blank. ‘We moved an awful lot. And not when we were travelling, of course. I was perfectly happy,’ she said hastily when he opened his mouth. ‘I had Mama and Papa. But you know what it is like when you are a child, you need an ear to whisper your secrets into, someone to tell your troubles to. Some children have imaginary friends, Patty was my confidant, that is all.’
Yes, I know. Peter was all of that to me, but he was real. Friend, confidant, someone to tell my troubles and my secrets to. Only he hadn’t been able to tell me his biggest secret and because of that, he’s been cold in the ground these ten years.
‘Where do you want to go next?’ Alex asked and fished out his clean handkerchief for Tess.
She blew her nose briskly, stuffed the linen square into her reticule and said, ‘A bookshop. Dorcas enjoys novels.’
* * *
Alex left Tess browsing amidst the stacked tables in Hatchard’s in Piccadilly. ‘Will you be all right here for half an hour? I’ve just remembered something I need to do.’
By the time he came back she had accumulated a pile of six books, two new notebooks and some sheets of wrapping paper with gold stars stamped on it. ‘The notebooks and two of the books are for me,’ she explained as he carried them to the counter for her. ‘You must take those out of my wages.’
‘Don’t be foolish.’ Alex looked at the spines. ‘Cookery books and notebooks are essential housekeeping equipment.’ He waved aside the assistant waiting to carry the parcel out to the carriage. ‘Now we are going to Bond Street and Madame Francine’s.’
‘Madame—a modiste?’ Tess stopped dead on the pavement. ‘I am not going to help you choose garments for your light of love, my lord!’
‘Foolish,’ he repeated, marching her firmly towards the carriage. ‘Garments for you. Hannah gave me a list, said that she had not finished outfitting you.’
‘She had. I have everything I need.’ She was beholden to him enough.
‘What do you know about it, little nun?’ He waved a folded sheet of paper under her nose.
‘But nothing. Here we are.’ He helped her down, swept her into the shop, deposited her firmly in a chair and proceeded to charm the pantalettes off Madame Francine, as Tess said bitterly to Dorcas later.
She was taken off to a fitting room, measured, clucked over and finally allowed back to where Alex was waiting, perfectly at his ease on a spindly gilt chair, his nose in a copy of La Belle Assemblée.
‘All will be ordered as you desire, my lord.’ Madame Francine glanced at the list. ‘We have taken foot tracings so the shoes will be delivered at the same time.’
Tess knew better than to make a scene in the shop, but she began to protest as soon as they reached the carriage. ‘Alex—my lord—I cannot have you buying me more clothes. It is not at all proper, beside any consideration of the cost.’
‘Do I appear to be poverty stricken? Unable to afford a modest wardrobe for a lady housekeeper?’
‘No, but that is not the point.’
‘Those old crows sent you out into the world dressed like a skivvy. Do you expect me to leave you like that?’
‘You outfitted me as you would have a footman with his livery. That is understandable. And what you gave me was quite sufficient.’
‘Sufficient is a mean, tight, word. You are a pretty young woman, Tess, not a footman. It gives me pleasure to see you dressed nicely. You bring colour to the house.’
She felt the blush burn upwards and with it the anger. ‘Pretty. I see. You expect me to show my gratitude, I suppose? Madame Francine knows you very well, doesn’t she? I suppose that is where you take all your mistresses.’ As soon as she said it she knew she had misjudged him.
‘Yes, I have taken mistresses there before. You think that is how I regard you? You think that of me?’ Alex’s face was an expressionless mask.
‘No. No, I do not. I am sorry, I reacted without thinking. I hate the idea of some sort of financial transaction, but... You want me. I may be inexperienced, but when we fell on the floor of the carriage...’ Her vocabulary failed her.