‘Tired?’ Tess stifled her own yawn and smiled at Dorcas, who perched, heavy-eyed, on the seat beside her. Opposite them Annie was already asleep again, one hand on little Daisy lying securely swaddled on the carriage’s plush upholstery.
‘Retiring at two and up at six is not my favourite choice of bedtime, Miss Ellery.’
‘Not following on from the evening we had, that is certain.’ Tess held on tight to the strap as the carriage rounded the corner on to the Edgware Road and headed north.
‘It feels like a dream, packing everything and everybody up and leaving in such a procession.’ Dorcas stroked the upholstery with the reverence she would accord fine silk as she peered out of the window into the gradually lightening morning gloom. ‘And his lordship looking so dashing.’
Now Dorcas had drawn her attention to their outrider Tess allowed herself to stare. It was the first time she had seen Alex on horseback, and she was not at all certain she was glad she had seen him now. He was magnificent, so at home on the big chestnut that it would only add to her store of delicious, and thoroughly uncomfortable, images to be taken out for daydreaming and then severely closed away again. Ever since that kiss yesterday it had been even more difficult to close the mental door on those fantasies.
‘I wonder why he chooses to ride. It is such a damp, chill day and I doubt it is going to get much more pleasant.’ How easy was riding? It had never occurred to her before, but Alex was controlling the big animal with no apparent effort at all. Those muscles again, that deceptive strength.
‘Perhaps he does not want to be sitting with us because of the baby,’ Dorcas said, jerking Tess back from her reverie.
‘He could always tell Annie to take her to the other carriage if she became fractious,’ she pointed out.
‘I am sure he would not do that. He is such a gentleman and patient with her.’
Impossible man. He is nice to babies and kind to kittens, he looks wonderful on a horse. And he kisses like every sort of temptation I could imagine and more.
‘Do you think they’ll believe it, about me being a widow? Daisy’s so very young.’ Dorcas nibbled a fingernail as she looked at her daughter, fast asleep and blowing bubbles.
‘Of course they will. We worked it out that you’ll just be out of mourning. But you do need a wedding ring.’ Tess pulled the chain that hung around her neck out from her bodice and unfastened it. ‘Here, borrow this, it was my mother’s.’
‘But I can’t take something so precious.’ Dorcas put out her hand and then snatched it back.
‘Try it on.’ It was loose on the thin finger, but the knuckle was enough to hold it securely. ‘She would have been glad of you wearing it if it helped someone, and that is what we are doing, isn’t it?’ After all, it has never been a real wedding ring. ‘We are preserving my reputation and at the same time helping Lord Weybourn.’ That was what the thin gold band had represented, the appearance of respectability. The lie.
* * *
They reached the market town of Watford in the early afternoon and pressed on into rolling hills clad with the golden brown of beech trees that held their dead leaves into springtime. Finally, as the light hung at the edge of dusk, they halted outside an inn on a small village green.
Tess watched Alex dismount, hand his reins to one of the grooms and then go inside, followed by Byfleet carrying a portmanteau.
‘Strange,’ Tess mused, but Dorcas was feeding Daisy, and Annie tidying up all the paraphernalia from changing the baby, and both seemed to welcome the stop.
When the two men emerged again Alex was transformed. Gone was the rider in the low-crowned hat, the many-caped overcoat, the breeches and the long boots. In his place was a London swell, as exotic in the little village as a peacock in a barnyard.
Alex climbed into the carriage while Tess managed to close her mouth and stop goggling like a yokel.
‘Ladies.’ He settled onto the seat next to Annie, chucked Daisy under her fat chins with one exquisitely gloved forefinger and crossed his legs. Cream pantaloons. Skin-tight pantaloons. Tess shifted her gaze to the Hessian boots with silver tassels, then up to a waistcoat of cream moiré silk embroidered with lavender flowers. His coat was dark blue and his intricate, pale lavender neckcloth was secured by an amethyst stickpin. There was a gold seal ring on his left little finger, a quizzing glass hung around his neck and the subtle smell of his cologne filled the carriage.