‘Be a country squire, in effect,’ Alex said.
‘Nothing wrong with that. I’m the younger son after all.’ The aggression was back in his voice and Tess cast around for a neutral topic of conversation.
‘I am so looking forward to seeing something of the English countryside. I have lived in Ghent for years.’ From the hallway came the sound of raised voices and she broke off as the door opened.
Lady Moreland came in, still speaking over her shoulder as she did so. ‘John, James, do be careful. Moreland, I do think—’
‘I am going to eat dinner at my own board and see what this nonsense about that popinjay Alexander coming back is about.’ The earl entered, batting irritably at the two footmen who were attempting to steady him on either side. ‘Get off, damn it, I’m not in my coffin yet.’ He stopped dead and stared. ‘My God, he really is here. I thought Matthew must have been drinking. Alexander?’
‘Father.’ Two syllables. Two perfectly civil drops of ice.
Tess, her gaze flickering between the men, wondered if Alex was as shocked as his father. He had made a barely discernible movement when the earl came in. Now he was stock-still.
It must be like staring into a looking glass, one that aged the viewer on one hand and stripped years away on the other. They were obviously father and son. Everything proclaimed it—their height, their bone structure with those high cheekbones and thin nose. Alex had his eyes from his mother, but that was all. Lord Moreland had once had the physique to match his son; now the broad shoulders seemed bony and, despite the careful tailoring, his evening clothes looked loose, as though he had lost a lot of weight recently. His hair was still thick, but faded into grey now, and the heavy eyebrows were almost white. How old was he? Fifty-five, sixty? He should be in his prime, and he certainly resented its loss as much as he suffered from his symptoms.
‘What in the blazes are you doing here, Weybourn?’ Lord Moreland wrenched his arm from the grip of the supporting footman, took two steps and sank down on to the nearest chair.
‘I have come to celebrate Christmas in the bosom of my family.’ A nerve jumped in the angle of Alex’s jaw, but his tone was bland. ‘And, naturally, to enquire after your health.’
‘Measure me for my coffin, more like. How did you hear I’ve had my notice to quit?’
‘A well-wisher wrote to me that you were unwell.’
The silence seemed to shimmer, or perhaps she was feeling faint with tension. Tess caught the involuntary movement of her hand towards Alex and willed herself to stillness.
‘And you brought guests with you.’ Hooded eyes turned in her direction.
Tess made herself step forward. Her curtsy, by some miracle, did not waver, nor her knees fail her. ‘My lord. I am most grateful for your hospitality to myself and my companion Mrs White at a most awkward time for us.’
‘Miss Ellery, Father. Miss Ellery, the Earl of Moreland.’
‘You’ll forgive me if I do not rise.’ The dark eyes assessed her gown, her lack of ornament, her ringless hands, then lifted to her face. ‘Ellery? One of the Buckinghamshire Ellerys, I presume, by the look of you.’
Now she really might faint. Tess clenched her hands until the nails bit into her palms and the sting steadied her. ‘I am not acquainted with the family you speak of, Lord Moreland.’ And they were most certainly not acquainted with her; they had made quite sure of that.
‘Very wise,’ the man in front of her said. ‘A top-lofty crew.’
‘They do have a duke in their ranks, which probably accounts for it, Papa.’ A pale version of Lady Moreland wandered into the room and blinked short-sightedly at its occupants. ‘They are most dreadfully proud. Is that really Alexander?’
‘Of course it is Alexander,’ the earl snapped. ‘Why don’t you wear your spectacles, you foolish chit?’
‘I’ve misplaced them.’ The young woman drifted closer and squinted. ‘Alexander, you’ve changed. How lovely to see you.’
‘I should hope I have changed after ten years. And so have you, Maria.’ Alex stooped and kissed her on the cheek. ‘You were eight when I left. When do you have your come-out?’
‘Oh, this Season, I expect.’ She smiled and Tess was suddenly aware that for all her vagueness and pallor the girl had intelligence and more than a share of Alex’s charm.
‘Unless I cock up my toes, which is more than likely, the way you crows all fuss and flap around me.’ The earl appeared to take a perverse pleasure in the prospect of ruining his daughter’s debut with a year of mourning.