He was flirting, she was almost certain. There was certainly a wicked gleam in his eyes.
Tess got to her feet with as much grace as was possible, given that she had a kitten clinging to her skirts, and assumed her best housekeeper’s expression. ‘You wanted me?’ she enquired.
Alex’s gaze seemed somehow heavier, warmer as his eyes rested on her. It must be the different angle she was seeing him from now she was on her feet.
It was a moment before he replied. ‘Only to tell you that I am dining at Brooks’s tonight and I will be out to dinner at Lord Hawthorne’s tomorrow night.’ He flashed her his rapid, wicked smile. ‘My last fling of dissipation and sociability before Christmas descends like a pall on London.’
‘It is still only the thirteenth.’ What is he going to say when he sees what I have planned for Christmas?
‘I know, but everyone will start leaving for the country by the fifteenth, if they have not already gone.’ He turned to leave, then glanced back over his shoulder. ‘I’ve got a carpenter to make a proper cradle for Daisy. He’ll deliver it tomorrow.’
‘Oh, thank you.’ Tess started forward, to touch his hand, kiss his cheek, then stopped as the realisation of what she was doing hit her. No, it isn’t fair, don’t make it harder for him to behave like a gentleman. She turned the movement into a clap of her hands. ‘That’s wonderful—an old drawer isn’t really deep enough to keep out the draughts.’
He smiled and turned to leave. ‘Thank you,’ Tess whispered again as the sound of his footsteps across the hall faded away. It had taken thoughtfulness to notice the makeshift crib and to do something about it. It had involved him making an effort, personal effort, when he could have easily ignored a servant’s child as something that was not his concern. ‘There’s hope for you yet, Lord Weybourn.’
* * *
The sound of the key in the latch froze Tess on top of the ladder. Around her in the hall both footmen and Dorcas stopped dead, their arms full of evergreens.
‘Oh, my God, it’s only seven o’clock, he’s not due back for hours.’ Phipps clutched the foot of the ladder, making it sway and Tess yelp and clutch the hanging lantern with both hands. The bunch of mistletoe she had been attempting to fix fell on to MacDonald’s head, Phipps burst into laughter and Dorcas gave a small shriek.
The front door swung open slowly to reveal Lord Weybourn standing on his own front step, fog swirling around him as he held his latch key in one hand and a large wreath tied with scarlet ribbons in the other. ‘This just fell off,’ he said. ‘I caught it. It appears to consist entirely of holly. Exceedingly prickly holly.’
‘I knew I should have used wire, not string, to hold it to the knocker. Sorry, my lord.’ MacDonald tossed the mistletoe to Phipps and strode forward to take the wreath. ‘Ow. Oh, bug—I mean, ouch.’
‘Oh, bug—ouch, indeed.’ Alex came in and closed the door behind him. ‘Phipps, do you intend to kiss me under that mistletoe or to take my hat and coat?’
‘Take your hat, my lord.’ Phipps threw the mistletoe to Dorcas and reached for Alex’s cane. From her perch Tess could see the tops of Phipps’s ears were bright red.
‘And what, exactly, is this?’ Alex enquired as he shrugged out of his caped greatcoat.
‘Christmas evergreens. It is the twentieth after all.’ Tess looked down into Alex’s upturned face and tried to read his mood. Obviously arms full of prickly holly and his hallway in chaos was not how he expected to be welcomed home, but was he annoyed beyond that? ‘We were not expecting you to return yet.’
‘That much is obvious. Why are you up a stepladder, Mrs Ellery, when there are two able-bodied males here and three more in the stables?’
Because Phipps is scared of heights and MacDonald is clumsy was the truth, but she couldn’t betray the footmen. ‘A woman’s artistic touch?’ she ventured.
‘I see.’ Alex retrieved the now somewhat battered bunch of mistletoe from Dorcas and held it up to her, took a firm hold on the ladder, waited until she had tied the angular fronds in place and then said, ‘Now come down, please.’
‘Yes, my lord.’ Tess attempted her best meek and obedient voice.
‘Did I order Christmas evergreens?’ he enquired when she was standing in front of him.
‘You didn’t forbid them, my lord.’
‘A major oversight. I did not forbid massed carol singers, handbell ringers and a full-size yule log in the front room either. Are those to be expected?’