He had certainly forgotten she was there if he was discussing buttocks.
* * *
Alex waited until Matthew closed the library door behind him and was looking at him before he knocked him on to his backside with a sharp right to the jaw.
‘What the hell was that for?’ Matthew stared up at him, rubbed his jaw, but seemed disinclined to get up and return the punch.
‘Swearing in front of Miss Ellery, fooling about with unguarded foils and generally being an ass.’
‘Fair enough.’ His brother grinned, then winced. ‘At least, for the first two, guilty as charged. But what am I supposed to think when Father loses his temper, throws accusations at you and you walk out and are never seen again?’
‘Let me think.’ Alex leaned back against the edge of the long table. ‘That he’d severely wounded my feelings? That his temper tantrum ended up with a young man blowing his brains out? That your seventeen-year-old brother didn’t take kindly to having his manhood called into question? And I could have been easily seen if you’d bothered to look. There was no secret about where I was, and I’ve never been out of contact with our mother.
‘You could have come and visited me in London any time you chose, when I was in the country. Or did you think the house would be full of macaronis and fops and we’d drag you off to some molly house and make you wear macquillage?’
‘Er, yes, more or less.’ Matthew got to his feet and showed admirable common sense, in Alex’s opinion, by putting the width of the table between them. ‘At least, thought it might be damned embarrassing.’
‘Have you ever been to London?’ Matthew shook his head. ‘Long past time you did, then. Come and stay for the Season and I promise I’ll protect your virtue.’
‘Don’t need it protecting.’ Matthew hunched a shoulder, then burst out, ‘I wanted to go, but the old devil wouldn’t let me. Says there’s nothing there for real men, no decent sport, just a lot of fancy balls and boring crushes.’
‘Our father has an eye to his pocketbook. You’d enjoy London. I’ll put you up for a couple of my clubs, introduce you around, get you some decent boots—’
‘Hoby?’ Matthew looked as though someone was waving gold coins in front of his nose.
‘Hoby,’ Alex agreed. ‘Gentleman Jackson’s, Purdey’s or Manton’s, some of the less stuffy places of entertainment. Just don’t get into the claws of some Captain Sharp in gambling dens, because I’m not covering your vowels if you do.’
There was dead silence. Matthew opened and closed his mouth, then managed, ‘I’ve been a bloody fool.’
Alex shrugged. ‘So have I, I suspect. But I had a good time while I was at it and I don’t think you have.’ Matthew was growing up, wanting to achieve something of his own and emerge from under the shadow of his parent.
‘Father approves of your sporting prowess, he thinks you are a real man in his image, but I’ll wager he makes you feel you’re second best because you aren’t the heir.’ His brother’s face darkened. ‘It’s true, isn’t it? He’s obsessed with having an heir who is just like him. I’m not a sporting Nonpareil and you can never feel for the earldom as I do. Both of us miss being what he wants.’
Matthew stared at him, growing comprehension on his face. ‘You’re right. Damn it, I never could work out why nothing ever seemed to be quite good enough. And I’m bored here. I want something that’s my own. And when he said you suggested just that, I suppose...’
‘You were angry because I’d suggested it and it wasn’t his idea? I think we had both better stop hoping that one day our father is going to declare himself proud of the pair of us. I suggest we just get on with our lives the way we think we ought to live them.’
He had surprised himself by how calm he felt when the realisation came into his head, and it seemed he had surprised Matthew, too. ‘What has come over you? You have to be angry about the way you’ve been treated in the past and you’ve had a damn unfriendly welcome home from Father and me. Why are you being so forgiving?’
‘I’m not, not about Peter. But...I don’t know.’ He shrugged. ‘Christmas spirit, I suppose.’ Tess’s influence is more likely.
‘The love of a good woman?’ Matthew said with a grin. ‘Miss Ellery’s a very pretty girl, you lucky devil.’
She’s more than that. The odd pain under his breastbone was aching again, as though something was tight and fearful inside him. ‘You know perfectly well I’m expected to make a good match.’