‘Tess.’ Alex pulled her in closer, apparently careless of the effect of her wet cheeks on his crisp linen. ‘If it wasn’t for you this would be a hundred times more difficult. I want to rant and hector and lay down conditions. My instinct is to give my father an ultimatum, to force him to surrender all the business of the earldom into my hands, to pay him back by making him weak and dependent on me and to kick Matthew out on half his allowance and see how he fends for himself. Then I look at you and tell myself not to do anything that would make you think less of me.’
There was a weight on top of her head, and she guessed he had rested his cheek there. What was it that his father had done? Whatever it was it must have been dire indeed to generate this much resentment and confusion.
‘You are a very civilising influence on me, Miss Ellery,’ Alex murmured. Warmth stirred her hair as his breathing steadied.
‘The earl hasn’t shown you the door,’ Tess ventured, wondering why his father might do such a thing. Alex seemed quite content to stand there all night holding her. It was lovely, but not...easy.
‘He knows he needs me. He is going to pretend he doesn’t know my mother went against his prohibitions to write to me because if she had waited much longer he would have had to do it himself and this saved his pride. My father might be stubborn, belligerent and bigoted, but he is not a fool and he is devoted to the earldom. He will do his duty by it and he is not going to cut off his nose to spite his face.’
‘It will make a great deal of work for you.’ It would turn his world upside down, the world that Hannah said he had created for himself from nothing. ‘You are going to do it, aren’t you? You’ll stay.’
‘I don’t see what else I can do. This is my duty. Not to him, but to the estate, and to my mother, of course. I will certainly not be able to concentrate on anything else. I’ll have to stop my own business, stop travelling, stop dealing.’
‘But you love it,’ Tess protested, pulling back against his arms to look at him.
‘I’ve had ten years of freedom.’ Alex shrugged. ‘Now it is time to bend my neck to the yoke.’ He made a disgusted sound. ‘Listen to me, full of self-pity for having to do my duty, for having to accept privilege and make some return for it. My family needs me, my inheritance needs me, our tenants and dependents need me. I can do some good for my mother and sister and for Matthew, if he’ll let me. And heaven knows, there should be satisfaction in mastering something I should have been learning from my majority.’
‘You are a good man, Alexander Tempest.’ Tess lifted her hand to his cheek so she could turn his head and look into his eyes. ‘A very good man.’
For a moment, as he met her gaze, she thought he was going to swear at her, throw her hand aside. When he spoke his voice was low and angry and fierce. ‘No, I am not a good man. If I was, then I’d forgive him and I’d do this willingly. But I cannot forgive, I cannot forget and I want to make the old devil beg me to do both. Does that make me any better than he is? I doubt it.’
It cost her an effort of will to keep still, keep her tongue silent with the questions clamouring for an answer. ‘I let myself dream about a life on my own terms,’ he added. All the old cynicism was back in his voice, his expression. Once she had believed he genuinely did not care. Now... ‘It was only an illusion, of course. This place, this title, was always waiting for me.’
‘It is not all bad.’ She made herself put into words the truths that had been haunting her. ‘You will marry now, have a family.’
The shadowed face became even starker. He turned abruptly, went to the table, picked up the Peerage and slammed it back into a gap on the shelves, one hand lingering on the spine as though to trap it there. ‘Go to bed, Tess,’ Alex said without looking round.
‘I wish I could help.’
‘You cannot help, little nun.’ His back was still a blank barrier. All she had to read was his voice, and that had lost all its flexibility, all its music.
She ignored the words, answered only the pain under them, went to him, pressed herself against that long, strong spine and held on to the broad shoulders, her cheek against his shoulder blade. She could hear his sharply indrawn breath, the hammer of his heartbeat.
‘I am not a nun.’
‘I wish you were.’
‘Why? Why on earth should you want that?’ She stayed wrapped around him as though touching would make him easier to understand.