He has shaved again, Tess realised, feeling travel-soiled and unkempt in contrast. ‘Lord Weybourn. Did you have an enjoyable ride?’
‘I did, thank you. Are you ladies comfortable?’ Annie giggled and he lifted his quizzing glass, reducing her to blushing confusion. ‘Miss Annie, chief nursemaid.’
No one would guess he was within miles of a reunion he was dreading and a meeting with a dying father, Tess thought. Although his manner was...strange. Almost artificial. The young ladies at the convent had once been allowed to attend the theatre to see an improving play. Tess, who had tagged on to the party, found her way backstage and watched from a corner, fascinated, as the actors transformed themselves from ordinary people into creatures of fiction.
And that was what Alex was doing, transforming himself. He was becoming more mannered; his accent carried a subtle affectation. He wore his beautiful clothes like a mask, she realised. Or armour.
She knew before he spoke when they were nearing their destination. Alex sat up straighter against the squabs and his eyes followed the line of the high wall to their left. The carriage turned between a pair of lodge cottages and began to follow a winding road through parkland. Tess watched Alex, saw the mildly bored expression on his face and saw, too, the way his hand tightened on the strap, the white knuckles.
‘Have we arrived?’ It was an inane question, but she could stand the silence no longer.
‘Yes. Welcome to Tempeston.’ Alex was looking through the misted glass with an intensity that was a kind of hunger.
She glanced at the other two women, engrossed with the baby. ‘You love it.’ It was not a question.
‘The river and the streams are my blood, the soil is my flesh, the stones of the house are my bones as they have been for generations of Tempests.’ He stopped. ‘And you have just caught me out in ludicrous sentimentality expressed in the most purple of prose. Forget it.’
Tess bit her lip to keep herself silent and leaned forward to rub her cuff across the window. Before her was the sprawling bulk of a house that formed a rough arc around a paved forecourt. The central block was lit, but the flanking wings were two dark arms waiting to close on them. She shivered as their carriage pulled up at the foot of the double flight of steps.
‘Yes, it takes me like that,’ Alex said, then smiled at Annie, who was visibly overawed. ‘Nothing to worry about, it is only a house.’
The stones are my bones... And what waits inside? His soul? Tess tied her bonnet ribbons and collected up her reticule. ‘Come along, Annie, make sure Miss Daisy is well wrapped up and stay close behind Mrs White all the time.’
‘Yes, Mrs...Miss Ellery.’
The baby, mercifully, seemed settled and not inclined to grizzle. Tess imagined Alex’s reception if he arrived with not only a strange young woman but an entourage that included a wailing babe in arms.
Light spilled down the steps as the double doors opened and two footmen ran down and opened the carriage door. Alex stepped out. ‘Lord Weybourn and party. My mother is expecting us.’ The second carriage drew up. ‘My people.’ Alex waved one hand in the general direction. ‘A wagon is also following. See to it that everything is unloaded.’
‘My... Yes, my lord. At once.’
One footman stood by to hand down the other occupants of the coach; the other doubled away and up the steps. By the time Tess reached the top, her hand on Alex’s arm, a butler and two other footmen had appeared. The butler, she noted, had his expression perfectly under control; the two footmen were having trouble keeping the avid interest off their faces.
‘My lord, it is a pleasure to see you at Tempeston once more.’ The butler bowed.
‘Garnett, good to see you. Mrs Garnett well?’ Alex might have been away for a month, not ten years.
‘Very well, my lord, thank you for asking. James, his lordship’s coat. William, the ladies. John, see to his lordship’s people.’ Daisy woke up and produced a loud gurgle. ‘I see we must have the nursery readied. I will—’
‘Weybourn. Alexander, you came.’ A tall woman, slender and grey haired, came down the stairs, her hands outstretched. ‘My dear boy, I knew you would not fail me.’
Alex stepped forward and caught her as she almost stumbled on the bottom step. ‘Mother, take care.’ He steadied her, then withdrew his hand. ‘Fortunately I was in the country.’
It seemed to Tess that Lady Moreland made a conscious effort to control all emotion. She was more than slender, she was thin—her wrists seemed too fragile to support the weight of the rings that sparkled on both hands. The older woman looked past her son. ‘We have guests, how delightful.’ Tess could only admire the implacable mask of courtesy that enabled her to sound genuinely welcoming in the face of unexpected strangers at such a time. ‘Alexander, you did not tell me you were—’