She had been right; this had made them both happy. Now he had to make certain nothing went wrong for her. He was most certainly not going to allow her to go off to some employment agency in the new year and tie herself to some form of genteel drudgery. Somehow he had to persuade her to accept his support without her firing up and declaring it was payment for coming to his bed.
Now, despite the lack of sleep, he felt alert and much calmer than he had last evening. More accepting of a fate he could not, in all honour, avoid, he supposed, although a desire to forgive still eluded him.
The clock struck ten. He knocked and entered. ‘Good morning, Father.’ He would not give way to the urge to say my lord. The man was his parent.
‘Sit down.’ His father sat behind the great mahogany desk that still looked vast, even from an adult’s viewpoint. ‘Let us not beat about the bush. Your mother would have me understand that you are not the effeminate pervert I accused you of being.’
‘Well, that is certainly to the point.’ Alex settled himself in the chair opposite. ‘Let me be equally clear. I have never been attracted to my own sex. I have never been with a member of my own sex. However, I do have—and had—friends who have that sexual inclination and I will not stay in this house to hear them insulted in the terms you have just used.’
His father’s pale face flushed an unhealthy red. ‘It is a hanging offence.’
‘Indeed it is. And let us be clear about something else, as well. You accused Peter Agnew, my best friend, of being my lover.’
‘He was older than you, he had a reputation—’
‘He was my friend. Never my lover.’ Alex fought to keep rational, not to shout and rant, throw all the anger that had seethed inside over the blind prejudice that had led his father to leap to conclusions. ‘We had grown up together and he was like an older brother to me. He knew very well that I was attracted to women, and only women. God, I must have bored him to tears, pouring out all my youthful infatuations with this girl and that, confiding all the things that worried me before the first time.
‘He would have no more tried to seduce me than any man of honour would attempt to seduce the daughter of a friend. In my ignorance, I had no idea how he felt about me until I read the letter he sent me before he blew out his brains. And he did that because you’d broadcast his name around the neighbourhood. Would you have had the restraint and the decency to suppress everything you felt for someone because it was for their own good? Would I? That keeps me awake at night sometimes, wondering. I have no idea if I can ever forgive you for it.’ Somehow he had said it without losing his temper, without raising his voice.
He had never spoken of it except to his four friends at university. He had fled back to Oxford, angry, guilty, racked with shame and grief. They’d listened, Cris and Grant and Gabriel. Cris had simply flung his arms around him in a bear hug and then Gabe handed him a large brandy and Grant had said, ‘Whatever you want to do, we’re with you.’ He knew then he could stand on his own two feet and that they would always have his back, just as he would have theirs.
His father was still glowering. Strangely it made it easier to stay calm. ‘I really do not understand why you feel I had to fit into the mould of hunting, drinking, wenching masculinity you favour in order to be an adequate heir to the earldom. I was bookish, interested in art. That was, apparently, enough to label me less than manly.’ Alex shrugged. ‘If you had taken the trouble, you might have discovered that I am an excellent fencer, a more than adequate rider and that I actually perform quite well in the boxing ring. I just tend to do it all rather quietly and while dressed with elegance.’
His father glowered at him. ‘You had no idea about young Agnew? Damn it, rumours were flying about his behaviour at Cambridge. I assumed...’
Alex stared back at the red face opposite him. If his father was going to bluster and rant, refuse to accept he had been wrong, then he was going to walk out of this house and never come back.
‘I was wrong.’ Gradually the hectic colour in his father’s face subsided.
Alex let out the breath he had been unaware of holding, unclenched his hands from the arms of the chair. You stubborn, thickheaded old devil. Why not just ask me? Alex got up, poured a glass of brandy and set it by his hand. ‘You look as though you could do with that.’
‘What are your debts?’ the earl snapped.
‘Debts? None at all. I am a rich man, Father. I don’t need your money. I most certainly do not need this aggravation.’