Alex, ignoring the interjection, turned to Tess. ‘Miss Ellery, may I introduce my sister, Lady Maria?’
‘How do you do?’ Close up the hazel eyes focused and the air of vagueness disappeared. What had Alex said? That his sister was sensitive. Tess had taken that as meaning foolish or hysterical, but she rather suspected he had meant she was attuned to other people. ‘Mama told me what a fix you are in, Miss Ellery. Such a pity. Never mind, you’ll be comfortable here. Shall we sit down?’ She went over to the sofa and held out her hand to Dorcas, who shot to her feet and took it as though it was red hot.
Tess joined them, ready to deflect attention before Dorcas melted with nerves. Behind her she heard the earl growl some comment to Alex, but she was too grateful to be able to sit down to listen to his words.
* * *
‘Sit down, Weybourn.’
Alex took the chair opposite his father and made a business of crossing his legs, smoothing a wrinkle from his thin silk evening breeches, tugging a cuff. It gave him something to do with his hands and, after all, one could not hit one’s own father, not when the old devil was ill.
‘Why have you come back? To apologise?’
‘Certainly I owe my mother and sister an apology for my absence,’ Alex conceded. ‘I am not aware of any other apology owing. From me, that is.’
He had remembered his father’s eyes as brown. Now they seemed black against his pale skin. ‘You expect me to apologise?’
‘It is normal, when a gentleman wrongs another.’ Alex kept his tone mild and found to his surprise that it was easy. He was confronting the bogeyman of his memories and his nightmares and here was a sick, frustrated, angry man, old before his time. Someone to be pitied, if he could find it in himself. If he wanted to find the capacity to pity. There was Peter to remember and avenge. Peter, who was ten years in the cold ground thanks to the man in front of him.
‘But this is not something to discuss now.’ Alex glanced around him, saw his mother’s eyes on him, felt the weight of Tess’s anxiety behind him. She was upset and by more than tension over this scene or their deception. He tried to recall when he had first noticed it, then set the puzzle aside. He could not focus on it, not now, with his father’s sardonic gaze on his face and the hostility coming off Matthew in palpable waves.
‘Certainly not in front of the ladies,’ his father agreed with a bitter twist of his lips that negated the reasonable tone and words. ‘In my study at ten tomorrow.’
‘Naturally. The usual place and time.’ That was always the summons at dinner time whenever one of his sons had done something wrong, and that was usually Alex, not Matthew. Ten the next day, a time carefully chosen to ensure a night of anxiety and a lack of appetite at breakfast.
‘Dinner is served, my lady.’
Alex rose and offered his hand to his father to help him stand. The big hand with its rider’s callouses still hard on the palm hesitated, then closed around his and gripped, shifting over the evidence of Alex’s own hard riding, the strength that endless practice with the foils gave, the healed scars on the knuckles.
The older man allowed him to get him upright, then he shook off Alex’s grip. ‘Take your mother in.’
‘Of course, sir. Mama?’ Alex gave her his arm and saw his father turn to Tess, hesitating behind.
She came forward and rested her fingertips on his forearm. Had she ever sat down to a formal dinner before, even a small family affair? He doubted it. But her chin was up and she seemed confident enough. The woman who could stand up to loutish sailors and fight off randy attackers could cope. Not my little nun anymore, he thought with a twist of something remarkably like regret.
With four ladies and three men the table was, of necessity, unbalanced. Alex took the seat on his mother’s right and smiled encouragement at Dorcas, pale but determined, opposite him. Tess, diagonally across on his father’s right, was looking composed and appeared to be discussing Brussels lace, of all things, with Matthew, but the table was too large to hear clearly. She was on her own.
What was it his father had asked her? Whether she was one of the Buckinghamshire Ellerys, that was it; that was what had discomposed her so. Strange.
The meal seemed endless, with the quality of a dream. It was as though ten years had passed in ten hours with the wave of some malevolent sorcerer’s wand. The table was the same, the china service the familiar one, the decoration and pictures in the dining room unchanged and yet everyone in the room had aged and altered.