‘And Matthew?’ His brother, the perfect Tempest. Big, strong, physical. A hard rider, a hard drinker, a hard gambler, a hearty philistine. A man’s man and always the apple of their father’s eye.
‘Matthew drinks, gambles, whores,’ his mother said, her lips stiff with distaste for the words. ‘He was never an intellectual.’ Her raised brow dared Alex to comment. ‘Now it is obvious that he incapable of taking up the work of the earldom. The agents do their best, but your father was always a man who kept his hand and his eyes on every aspect of all the estates, the business interests, the finances. He thought that Matthew took after him.’
‘And that—as he did not believe I would marry, let alone father an heir, then—Matthew, or his son, would one day inherit it all. When did he realise?’
‘That Matthew was incapable of managing a great inheritance? Not until he became so ill and even now he will not admit he needs help.’
‘Of course not. That would mean calling me back.’ Alex settled back in the chair, took a deep breath, found some sort of control of his voice. ‘And possibly apologising. I imagine he is a very angry man.’
‘You must be angry yourself.’ His mother met his eyes. ‘You must be angry with me.’
‘You were in an impossible position.’ He had known that right from the beginning. His mother was of a generation that would support their husbands whatever kind of tyrant they were. It was simply how she had been raised. ‘Do you believe I am what he says I am?’ Lord, the last thing to discuss with one’s mother.
‘That you are...not interested in women? Of course not. I have eyes in my head, I knew you went sneaking out of the house at night down to see Mary at the White Swan.’ For the first time something like a smile twitched at her thin lips. ‘I imagine I could tell you the date you lost your virginity. And while your letters to me contain nothing that might shock a maiden aunt, I do have my old friends in London. I hear the gossip.’
Alex had thought himself beyond blushing like a youth, but it seemed he was wrong. ‘Does he know you sent for me?’
His mother got to her feet, as elegant and feminine as he always remembered her. ‘I told him I would, but he did not believe me. I have never disobeyed him before, you see.’
I never knew she had the courage. That I did not remember. ‘When will you tell him I am here?’ He got to his feet, went to take her arm.
The door banged open with no warning knock. ‘Hell’s teeth and damnation.’ The man on the threshold stared at Alex and then laughed. ‘It really is you, my popinjay big brother, all grown up. Come to see if the old man’s dead yet?’
‘No. And do not swear in our mother’s presence. Do you not knock on her boudoir door, or are you perhaps no longer a gentleman?’ Alex found himself toe to toe with Matthew without realising he had moved. ‘I will see you at dinner, Mama. You come with me.’ He took his brother’s arm, twisted it and had him out of the door before he could get his balance. He closed it behind them and pushed Matthew down the corridor out of earshot before he let him wrench free.
‘Get your hands off me.’
Alex held both of his up, palm out. ‘I imagine my appearance is a shock to you. Mother asked me to come.’
‘The hell she did! And Garnett says you’ve got women with you and a baby.’
‘There are two ladies. Gentlewomen, and you’ll do well to remember that,’ Alex said, keeping his voice soft, his hands by his sides. ‘The baby belongs to Mrs White, the widow who is the companion to Miss Ellery. They find themselves unfortunately stranded in London. Mother has kindly offered them hospitality for the Christmas season.’
‘We’ll see what Father has to say about this.’ Matthew turned on his heel and strode off towards the East Wing.
‘You do that, brother mine,’ Alex murmured as a door slammed violently in the distance. ‘I just hope your reflexes are good enough to duck whatever he hurls at your head.’
‘I am petrified,’ Dorcas whispered. ‘I’ve never been anywhere this elegant. I’ve never been anywhere except as a servant,’ she added with a tremble in her voice.
‘You told me your father was a doctor, Dorcas. You speak nicely, your manners are correct, your gown is perfectly acceptable. Besides, I don’t think companions are expected to do more than sit in the background under these circumstances.’