And then Tess turned her head, looked directly at him and smiled. If she had reached out and touched his hand, he could not have felt the gesture more directly. This is the right thing, the smile told him. Take courage, you can do this.
* * *
Somehow they all got through the meal, maintained a light, empty social chatter through every course. When his mother rose to lead the ladies out Matthew went to take his father’s arm and supported him from the room. Alex did not make the mistake of offering his own assistance.
He went to present himself in the drawing room, but found only Maria. ‘Miss Ellery and her companion have gone to bed and Mama is with Papa.’
‘Not very entertaining for you.’
‘I am used to it,’ Maria said with a shrug and her faint smile. ‘Matthew will be off to some local alehouse or another, I have no doubt, so at least we may be comfortable and I am all agog to hear about your life in London.’
* * *
It was almost eleven before Maria yawned her way off to bed, to dream, she assured him, of mantua makers, Almack’s and strolling in Hyde Park with her brother, to the envy of every other young lady.
Alex found the decanters, poured himself a brandy and made his way to the library. It still had the old familiar look of neglect, despite having been polished and dusted. Alex trailed a finger along the edge of a shelf and it came away clean. No doubt his mother and sister had their own books in their boudoirs and bedchambers, not in this bastion of male importance with its leather bindings and gold tooling, massive furniture and imposing lecterns and atlas stands.
Did his father or Matthew ever set foot in here? When he had lived at Tempeston the library had been one of his refuges, a treasure trove of stories and facts, imagination and mind-stretching realities. No time for those now.
He found the massive volume bound in red leather and lifted it down, flipping through the pages. Eden, Eldridge...Ellery. James Augustus Finmore Ellery, third Marquess of Sethcombe, married...had issue... Four sons, five daughters. One son and two daughters died in infancy, the other three sons married with families of their own. Two of the surviving daughters also married. No familiar names amongst that host of hopeful youngsters. His finger reached the bottom of the list.
Jane Teresa Ellery, born 1775, died, unmarried, 1809.
1809. Died unmarried. This was Tess’s mother, surely. He stood there, his fingernail scoring a line under the name. Why did that matter so much, to him? To Tess, obviously, the stigma of illegitimacy must be why she was so resigned to a life in service. But for him? He could pity her, admire her stoical determination to overcome her heredity and make a living for herself, but it was more than that—he felt winded as though he had received a blow in the diaphragm.
When the reason hit him it rocked him back on his heels. The heir of the Tempests did not marry anyone but a pure-bred aristocratic heiress. But marriage? Where had that come from? Surely he had not been thinking of Tess in those terms? The door handle rattled. Someone was coming.
The room was deserted, but there was a branch of candles on the table next to a untidy pile of journals that seemed out of place in the rigidly ordered space. Tess lifted them and flicked through. Notes and Queries, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Proceedings of the Royal Society. She straightened them into a neater pile and set it next to the thick red book they had been balanced on, the Peerage.
‘Drat the man. Where is he?’ It seemed as she stood there that she had been mistaken and the silent room was not empty after all. Tess told herself firmly that there was nothing to be alarmed about. This was not a Gothic novel, there were no ghosts and her nerves were merely a trifle overset. She had disturbed a servant setting things to rights, or perhaps the earl employed a librarian or— ‘Alex!’
‘I’m sorry, did I alarm you?’ He rose to his feet and emerged from what must be an alcove behind a massive atlas stand, an open book in one hand. He seemed pale in the candlelight.
‘Oh. Oh, Alex.’ Tess was not conscious of moving, let alone running, but somehow she was in his arms, her own tight around him. And she was crying, with no idea why.
‘Hey, what’s this? Tess?’ His fingers were under her chin, tipping her head back. She managed a comprehensive, unladylike sniff and blinked the tears away. ‘Who has upset you?’
‘No one. Everything. I’m so sorry, I should never have come here with you. Your mother doesn’t need us—Dorcas and me, that is. Your father is... I had some stupid idea that you only had to walk in and he’d forget whatever had made him reject you and he would welcome you with open arms. But he is hard and angry and bitter.’ She stared fixedly at the amethyst in the folds of his neckcloth. ‘You were quite right. I am sentimental and foolish. There isn’t some Christmas magic that will make this all right. It is hard enough for you without having me and all your staff here.’