Tess leaned back against his arms and looked up at him. ‘Of course you do, you stubborn man. You love them and they hurt you and now they need you and it hurts all over again.’
‘Tess.’ There were no words and no coherent thoughts either, just wanting. Alex bent his head and kissed her and the world righted on its axis. She opened to him with the generous innocence that was Tess, untutored, a little clumsy as their noses bumped. He remembered the taste of her, slightly tart under the sweetness, like new cherries.
Her hands cupped his head, her fingertips stroked his nape and her curves nestled against him as though a tailor had cut her to fit him. Only him. She gave a little gasp as he touched her tongue with his own, then bravely stroked back, gave a little wriggle and pressed closer.
He was going to have to stop. Through the incoherence that were his thoughts that imperative took shape, became urgent. Stop, stop now. This is Tess. And that, he realised, was why he did not want this to end.
When he lifted his head she blinked up at him, deliciously tousled and pink.
‘Tess, we must—’
‘Plan, I know.’ She released his head, stepped back out of his arms. For a moment he was shocked by how easily she could set aside what had just happened and then realised this was the only way she could cope with it: pretend it hadn’t happened, at least for a while.
‘I’ll ring for tea. There is a great deal to be done if you are to leave early tomorrow.’ She went to the bell and pulled the cord, then sat down on the far side of the desk and regarded him with, he thought, some anxiety.
At least he could put a decent distance between them. Alex sat down in his desk chair. ‘Your mother is going to need help,’ she went on. ‘An invalid in the house makes extra work for the male staff, I imagine, so our two footmen will be useful. Do your sisters live at home?’
‘Laura’s married and lives in Edinburgh. Maria is not at all practical. At least, she never used to be. She is...was, sensitive.’
‘You’ll need John Coachman and the grooms.’ She was thinking aloud, frowning as she reviewed the staff.
‘I take them all away and leave you alone?’
‘There’s Dorcas to keep me company. And Annie. The poor child is living in some lodging house. I cannot abandon her at Christmas after I promised she could come here. Three of us will be quite safe together for a few days.’
He’d have to go, he knew that. He couldn’t ignore his own mother in the face of a plea like that. ‘Come with me.’
‘Come... You think your mother will need help sick nursing? Dorcas and I could assist with that, I suppose. But your mother isn’t going to want to have strangers descend on her.’
‘Tempeston is a big country seat, and it has the room to absorb an entire house party and all the additional servants. It can certainly cope with this household.’
She bit her lip and he wondered whether she was nervous about the thought of the big house, or of being with him. Then she took a deep breath and smiled. ‘If you think I can help, then of course I will come, and Annie and Dorcas, too. We’ll all come. It’s the least we can do.’
Brave Tess. ‘At least we have not got far to go, only into Hertfordshire, and the weather is fine.’
‘Yes, the Hertfordshire-Buckinghamshire border.’
She went very still, then gave herself a shake. ‘Tempeston is so close? That is good news, we will be able to do the journey in the day.’ There was a tap on the door and MacDonald came in before he could query why the mention of Hertfordshire seemed to take her aback.
‘Tea, please. And some of the cake, thank you.’ Tess waited until the door closed behind the footman. ‘We will have to think about how to explain me.’
‘And a baby. That might well need some explanation, also.’ Alex found the everyday lunacy that was now his household was helping him get a grip. He realised with a jolt that he intended to go...home. He had jested about the family vault to Hannah; now there seemed to be a very real possibility that he would be expected to lay his father to rest in it in the near future.
‘We could try a version of the truth,’ he said, forcing himself to think of strategy and practicalities and not of the morass of emotions and anger and misunderstandings. ‘I escorted you to England from Ghent for you to stay with an elderly lady as her companion. The elderly lady has died, you are stuck in London with no friends or relations and only Mrs White, your companion. I put you up, all very shocking, but what is one to do right before Christmas? Dorcas is the widow of a man who died very shortly after Daisy was conceived, which is why she is out of mourning now. You’ll have to work out the details between you. If anyone asks me about you I can look convincingly blank—after all, I’m only acting as a courier.’