‘It might help bring everyone together,’ she ventured.
‘I don’t want bringing together.’ There was silence. ‘I suppose you are going to be disappointed.’
‘Yes.’ She was not letting him wriggle out of this.
‘Very well. I’ll talk to Mama. In fact, we’ll both talk to her. I’ll explain that you were organising it for me because Hannah was sick.’
He did not seem to be in any hurry to move. ‘Alex?’
‘Wriggle like that again.’ His huff of laughter tickled her ear, his good humour apparently resorted. ‘Come on, then, let’s find Mama.’
* * *
Lady Moreland was in her sitting room with her household accounts spread out before her. ‘Alexander, can you explain why we appear to be consuming three times more wax candles than this time last year?’
‘No idea, I’m afraid. Mama, I brought my household staff with me as you know. I had promised them the whole of Christmas Day off for their own celebrations, now I find myself in a difficulty because we are here.’
‘The entire day? You are very generous, Alexander.’
‘I normally just have a cold meal that day. Miss Ellery and Mrs White profess themselves willing to make do, as well.’
‘We wondered,’ Tess ventured, ‘if perhaps a hot luncheon would be sufficient for above stairs, with a cold buffet laid out for the evening. All of the downstairs staff could then celebrate together.’
‘We could forgo dressing for dinner, just this once, Mama,’ Alex said. ‘An afternoon and evening doesn’t seem too extravagant, once a year.’
‘Unless that would be too disruptive for Lord Moreland?’ Tess said, suddenly wondering how that sickly and irritable despot would take to the idea.
‘If Alexander can persuade his father, then I have no objection. To tell you the truth, a quiet Christmas would be a blessing just now.’
‘Forgive me, Lady Moreland. I do not wish to presume, but would it be helpful if I speak to the staff about it—provided we have his lordship’s consent? I would wish to be of assistance.’
The countess looked at Tess, a small, considering smile on her lips. Tess shifted under the gaze. Was no longer a virgin emblazoned on her forehead? Or perhaps she was allowing her feelings for Alex to show. But his mother was definitely smiling. ‘Thank you, my dear. I think that would be very...appropriate. Alexander, tell your father I am in favour of this scheme.’
Tess glanced at Alex, relieved, but surprised, and found that he was looking at his mother with a quizzical expression as though he, too, was taken aback by those smiles and her agreement. She shrugged inwardly. Provided no one found out that she was sharing Alex’s bed and no one discovered who she was, then there was nothing to worry about.
‘We will go and find Garnett and take his advice on how to proceed with our party.’ Alex steered Tess in the direction of the main hall.
‘Your mother... I expected her to be reluctant,’ Tess confessed. ‘And yet she seemed quite approving of it.’
‘I suspect the approval is for you rather than the scheme,’ Alex said.
She wished they were in private so she could rub away the lines from between his brows. It took her a moment to realise just what he was frowning about. ‘For me? She thinks you and I... But surely she knows I am a nobody?’
‘Does she? Besides, you are not a nobody, you are very much yourself.’
How could he pretend to make light of it? ‘I mean, does she realise that I am quite ineligible?’
‘Probably not,’ Alex conceded.
So there goes that foolish little daydream, the one where your King Cophetua falls for you, the beggar maid, marries you and defies all convention. Of course Alex has more sense than that. ‘Then, you had better tell her before she comes to any embarrassing conclusions,’ Tess said, more snappishly than she intended. It wasn’t Alex’s fault that he was heir to an earldom and she was the illegitimate child of a scandalous liaison. Not that he knows that, she mused as they came out into the hallway. He knows I am ineligible enough, even if he believes I am legitimate. No money, no connections...
‘Alex! What in blazes do you think you are doing?’ Matthew thudded down the staircase, his boot heels like thunder on the old polished oak.
‘Organising Christmas dinner, since you ask,’ Alex drawled, coming to a halt under a trophy arrangement of swords and rapiers that fanned out across the entire wall.