‘That is brilliant, Alex.’ Tess poured tea and passed him a cup. Her blushes had subsided, but her smile when she looked at him was still shy. He tried not to look at her mouth, pink and slightly swollen from his kisses. ‘You will organise the carriages? There are rather a lot of us, and the luggage and the Christmas presents and the food.’
‘We can’t leave a goose, a turkey and a ham to rot, let alone all the puddings and the cakes. It will be less of a burden on your mother’s cook if we take it.’
‘Then, that’s both of my carriages and the wagon for the heavy luggage.’ Alex put down his cup, demolished a jam tartlet in one mouthful and stood up. Tess and her entourage were like an anchor, tethering him to safety. There were practical things to do, things involving a baby and a fat goose, things to keep his feet rooted in reality and the nightmares at bay. ‘Tess?’
‘Mmm?’ She looked up, blushed and dropped her gaze to her notebook, already open on her lap.
‘Thank you. Thank you for the comfort and the practicality. Thank you for that kiss.’
Alex locked away the thought of how much more he wanted than her lips as he pushed open the kitchen door. ‘We are going to Tempeston tomorrow, all of us,’ he announced. ‘We’re taking our perishable food, the Christmas presents, everything. Mrs Ellery will be down in a moment to give you instructions.’ He looked round at their expressions, confused, excited and, in Annie’s case, awestruck. ‘And when we leave this house you will kindly remember that I never had a housekeeper named Ellery and if I did, she has nothing to do with Miss Teresa Ellery. Is that clear?’
There was a moment while they all stared at him, taking in the enormity of what he was asking, then Dorcas said, ‘Annie, you run home and pack your bags then be back here, sharpish. I’ll pack for Mrs...Miss Ellery, then I’ll come down to help out here.’
Alex did not stop to give any orders. They were competent and Tess would take control. He went out to alert the grooms, then, as they hurried to check over harnesses and dust off the wagon they usually used for transporting the bigger pieces of statuary and furniture he dealt in, found himself alone in the stall with Trojan, his hunter.
The big chestnut, apparently delighted with the company, rested his shoulder against Alex’s and leaned his weight on him. ‘Daft fool.’ Alex rubbed him under the chin in the sweet spot that always reduced the animal to jelly and put up with having his palm dribbled into. It was peaceful here, smelt of warm horse and straw and saddle soap. Horses were an indulgence that still gave him a lot of pleasure. His father, having decided that his willowy elder son would never make a horseman, had lavished the best mounts on Alex’s brother, Matthew.
Strange that he had never felt jealous of his brother. His father’s opinion that Alex was a disappointment had hurt, but then, he had never known anything else. As a child he was the undersize one, the dreamer, the reader. He’d retreated back into his own head, his own company when punished or lectured, which must, he could see now, have made him even more infuriating to his noisy, energetic, utterly nonintellectual father.
His mother had worried and fussed—which had only made his father more dissatisfied and irritable. But the man hadn’t been a monster; he’d obviously wanted to be proud of his sons and yet he hadn’t been able to cope with one of them not fitting his mental image of the perfect heir. Were all parents like that, wanting perfection, expecting too much? Would he be like that in his turn if he was ever rash enough to contemplate a family? It was one of the unpleasant night thoughts that weighed against marriage.
Now his parents needed him; even Matthew needed him, although he was unlikely to admit it. Alex suspected he was going to be a bit of a shock to all of them. ‘That’s an interesting thought,’ he observed to Trojan, who merely snorted. ‘The power balance has shifted. What do I want now? An apology, but not for me. To be loved? Ridiculous. To be approved of? Now, there’s the rub. There’s some part of me that’s still seventeen and wants approval, that hasn’t learned that the only approval worth having comes from people whose opinion you value.’
And that was quite enough introspection for one evening. He slipped Trojan a carrot and shut the stable door. He had his mother to worry about—she’d sounded at her wits’ end—and Tess. Tess, who, for reasons he failed to understand, trusted him. Desire was one thing; he understood that. But what possessed the foolish chit to trust him? It was that quality of innocence about her, he suspected. She had decided that he was redeemable from his cynicism and his self-centred lifestyle. Seduce him into happiness of all the wild ideas. It was going to take more than a few wreaths of evergreens and a wassail bowl to do that.