‘So doing your duty is an aggravation, is it?’
‘Certainly. I doubt I’ll have any time for my own business or for travelling, not if I’m to do this properly.’
‘You’ll need a wife. Time you were setting up your nursery.’ He narrowed his eyes in calculation. ‘Not that young woman you’ve brought with you. Pleasant chit, unspoiled, I like that. But no family from what I could extract from her.’
‘No.’ No family that would acknowledge her, that was certain. The heir to an earldom did not marry an unknown miss straight from a convent. He certainly did not marry the illegitimate offspring of the daughter of a near neighbour. It had not struck him that he might want to marry Tess until he had seen the evidence of her parentage in black and white in the Peerage. Foolish that, to be so attracted to a woman, to feel so protective of her, so aroused by her and not realise that he was developing feelings that went far deeper than affection. Foolish and damnably painful.
It was tempting to announce that he would never marry and to stick the knife in that way, but that, too, was foolish. He had to wed; he knew that now. All he had to do was accept it.
‘I’ll squire Maria around for her Season. That will expose me to all the eligibles.’ It would make him feel like a buyer at a cattle market. How the devil did you come to know a woman that way? He knew Tess right through to her heart, and after last night he thought he probably knew her soul deep, as well.
He couldn’t just abandon her, not after she had given him everything, and all because she saw him as another stray to care for, like Dorcas and Annie or that damned kitten. Somehow he had to get her to accept an allowance.
‘What’s making you look so sour?’ The earl tossed back a mouthful of brandy.
My guilty conscience. And this damn pain round my heart. ‘The thought of Almack’s.’ Alex looked at his father and dug deep into his reserves of patience and diplomacy. He was far from forgiving, an infinity from accepting, but he had to make this work for the sake of his mother and sister, for the earldom. ‘Tell me what needs doing and we’ll work this out.’ Somehow.
* * *
Tess made her way to the drawing room, feeling absurdly conspicuous. No one had observed her whispered consultation with MacDonald, Dorcas and Byfleet, but she was sure Lady Moreland would thoroughly disapprove. What she would think about how her son had spent the previous night, Tess shuddered to think. The shudder turned into a frisson of remembered delight at the thought of Alex’s hands on her body, just as she turned a corner and walked straight into him.
He pulled her close and bent his head. ‘I need you.’
‘Alex, we can’t—not here.’ Yes, please, right here. Kiss me... ‘But we must talk, urgently.’
‘What is wrong?’ He opened the nearest door and bundled her into what proved to be a small, cold sitting room. ‘We shouldn’t be disturbed here, it was never used except in the summer.’ He sat down on a settee and pulled her on to his lap. ‘Snuggle up, you’ll get cold. Now tell me what is wrong. Is it about last night? I can’t regret it, although I know I should. Are you sorry this morning, Tess?’
‘No, certainly not. It was very...’
‘Nice? Adequate? Alarming?’
‘Stop fishing for compliments.’ She curled into his embrace and butted him gently under the chin. ‘It was surprising and wonderful and I feel very womanly this morning.’
‘Hmm.’ He nuzzled against her neck. ‘I think you feel very womanly, too. So what is concerning you?’
‘Christmas and our—your—staff. We had promised them a whole day to themselves—now what do we do? The staff here seem to expect to have to spend the entire day looking after the household.’
‘I suppose they do.’ She could hear the frown in Alex’s voice. ‘I never thought about it as a child, or a thoroughly selfish youth. Christmases just happened and they were crowded, noisy and involved a lot of people who spent most of the time arguing and eating and drinking too much. Are you sure you want to bother with this?’
She sat up straight and frowned at him. ‘I thought you’d accepted that we were going to celebrate Christmas. You bought presents, you let us decorate the house...’
‘That was back in London. You could have your Christmas downstairs, do what you like. If we start something here, goodness knows where it will end—the entire family glowering at each other around the dinner table while the carol singers serenade us, I expect.’