‘Escorting Miss Ellery. Yes, indeed. I assured her that she could rely on your hospitality. This is Miss Ellery and her companion, Mrs White. I brought them from Ghent on behalf of a mutual friend. Unfortunately the arrangements in London fell through.’
If anyone was going to lie to Alex’s mother it was going to be her, not him. Tess stepped forward, hand outstretched. She thought I was his wife, or at the very least, his betrothed. That mask slipped a little just then. ‘I do beg your forgiveness for my intrusion at a difficult time, Lady Moreland, but I found myself quite abandoned in a strange city with no hope of resolving my problems until the New Year. I hope I may be of assistance to you, and my companion, Mrs White, also. I am experienced in sickroom nursing.’
Good breeding was obviously enough to prevent Lady Moreland demanding why Tess found herself in such a predicament. ‘Not at all,’ she murmured, darting a glance at Alex. ‘I thought for a moment that you were... Oh, and a baby, too?’ There was the briefest betraying flicker of pain and hope in the fine hazel eyes. Alex’s eyes.
‘Mrs White’s child, ma’am.’ The hope died, leaving only the pain. ‘I trust she will not disturb anyone. We have her nursemaid with us.’
‘I have ordered the nursery to be put in order and the fires lit, my lady,’ Garnett murmured. ‘Young woman, if you follow John he will show you the way. His lordship’s rooms are readied as you ordered, my lady. I thought the Chinese Bedchamber and the adjoining Rose Chamber for the ladies?’
‘Excellent. If you and Mrs...er...White would like to go with Garnett, Miss Ellery? Alexander, I must speak with you in my boudoir.’ She turned back up the stairs with a distracted smile in Tess’s direction.
Alex turned to Tess, a perfectly pleasant, perfectly judged expression on his face. ‘Do ask Garnett for whatever you require, Miss Ellery. I will see you both before dinner.’
‘Thank you, Lord Weybourn.’ Tess dropped the ghost of a curtsy and turned to the butler rather than watch Alex’s erect back as he climbed the stairs behind his mother. He’s a grown man, he can cope. But at what cost?
* * *
‘Alexander.’ His mother sank down on a chaise and pressed a scrap of lace and lawn to her lips. ‘I hardly dared hope you would come.’ She looked as though only the boning of her stays and sheer willpower were keeping her upright. ‘I missed you so much, my son. Your letters have been a godsend, but I so longed to write back.’
His mother was fifty years old, he knew that, but looking at her now he could believe she was ten, twenty, years older. Her hair was almost entirely grey, she looked fragile to the point of breaking and the skin around her eyes was papery with a strain that was caused by something deeper and longer-lived than her husband’s recent illness. He had missed her with a deep ache he had learned to ignore as best he could, as he would an amputated limb. The realisation that she had been hurting, too, was a stab to his conscience.
He had written to her once a month, knowing his father would have forbidden her to correspond with him and that he could expect no answer to his letters. It was desperation that had made her disobey now.
‘You look tired, Mother.’
‘I look old, you mean.’ Her chin came up. ‘And you look well. More than well. How you have grown, matured. Who is that young woman? I thought, no, I hoped, you were going to introduce her as your wife or your betrothed.’
‘Really? After what my father says about me?’ She winced and he bit his lip. She was not the one who deserved to be punished.
‘Your father can be a great fool,’ his mother said. It was the first time he had ever heard her utter a word of criticism of her husband.
‘And a stubborn one. But, no, Miss Ellery is just what I told you, a young lady adrift in London because the arrangements made for her reception went awry.’ He shrugged. ‘At any other time of the year I could have found half a dozen ladies of my acquaintance to look after her, but you know what London is like before Christmas. And I could hardly deposit her in a hotel. And before you ask, no, the baby is not hers and most certainly not mine. The child is Daisy White. Now tell me what is wrong with my father.’
His mother sagged a little, then straightened her spine. ‘The doctors say your father has a disease of the blood, one they cannot cure. He is deteriorating steadily.’
‘Has he asked for me?’ He kept the hope out of his voice, ashamed of the weakness.
‘No.’ She did not seem to realise that she was shredding the fragile Honiton lace of her handkerchief.