‘No, my lord. At least, there will be carols downstairs. But no handbells, I promise, and the fireplaces are too small for yule logs.’
‘And are any other rooms infested with fir cones?’ Were his lips twitching? Just a little, perhaps.
‘No, my lord. Just the hallway and below stairs.’
‘I think I could tolerate a sprig or two of holly in the study. And fix that wreath back on the front door, MacDonald. We don’t want the neighbours to think we are lacking in Christmas spirit, now do we?’ Yes, there is a definite twitch. Almost a smile. ‘You, Mrs Ellery, are a very bad influence on my household.’ His gaze flickered up to the mistletoe immediately over her head. ‘And on me,’ he added softly.
Tess took three very deliberate steps backwards. ‘Shall I have tea brought up, my lord?’
‘Tea? No, brandy to the study, MacDonald. Is my post there?’
‘Yes, my lord.’ The footman doubled away; Alex vanished into the study.
Tess looked round at her remaining helpers. ‘We are almost done, I think. Phipps, just let me have that remaining holly, the pieces with lots of berries, and I’ll arrange it in a vase for the study. Dorcas, if you could tidy up and, Phipps, you remove the stepladder—’ From the study there was the clatter of something metallic falling, then rolling. Then silence. ‘What was that?’
‘Sounded like the silver salver, Mrs Ellery.’ Phipps hesitated, his arms full of stepladder. ‘Should I go and see?’
‘No, it is all right, carry on tidying up, I’ll go.’
* * *
One of the few advantages of the Christmas season was a definite reduction in the amount of correspondence, Alex mused as he hitched one hip on to the corner of the desk and spun the salver round to pick up the bundle of post that had arrived since Bland had left after lunch.
He began to shuffle though the pile. Invitation, bill, bill, circular, tickets from the Opera House, letter from Rivers, a journal... And a letter on thick cream paper with a heavy seal. He turned it in his hands, saw the impression in the blue wax, a jagged line of lightning against a stylised cloud. Tempest.
For a moment he was tempted to toss it onto the fire unopened. Alex looked down at it in his hand. His shaking hand. Coward. With an effort of will he stilled the tremor then broke the seal.
Weybourn. Alexander. I do not know whether this will find you in London or what to do if it does not. Or what will befall us if you will not come.
It was his mother’s handwriting. He hadn’t seen it since he was seventeen. Alex stood up and the salver went spinning off the desk, hit the polished boards, spun and fell with a clatter.
Your father is very ill. He will not admit how ill, or how weak he is. Dr Simmington tells me he will not recover, that it is only a matter of time.
The elegant handwriting faltered and became less controlled.
Matthew is not capable or able to take control of everything that must be done here. Alexander, I need you to come home. Your family needs you to come home. Your father will never admit he cannot cope, that he needs you. But despite everything, despite what your father did and said and what you vowed, I beg you, if you have any affection left for your poor afflicted mother, return to Tempeston.
The letter slipped from his fingers, drifted down to the carpet like a great falling leaf. Return to Tempeston. Come home. He closed his eyes.
‘My lord? Alex?’ A whisper of movement, a scent of lavender water, a touch on his arm.
Alex opened his eyes. Tess stood before him, the letter in one hand, the other resting on his forearm. Her face, puzzled and anxious, was turned up to his. ‘What is wrong?’
‘My father. Read the letter if you want.’ He didn’t seem able to move away, to think. Your family needs you.
‘Oh, Alex.’ There was a rustle of paper and then Tess’s arms were around him, her hand pulling his head down to her shoulder, her breath warm against his neck. ‘I am so sorry. What terrible news.’
She held him as though he needed comfort, as though he had broken down. What was wrong with her? Didn’t she realise he didn’t care? He hadn’t seen them for ten years.
Tess was murmuring nonsense in his ear, rocking slightly back and forth as she held him. Alex found his arms would move, that he could hold her, too, soft and warm and fragrant. Feminine and sweet and, under it all, a backbone of steel. ‘I do not need comforting,’ he said. But he let his cheek rest on the soft mass of her hair while he got his balance back.