Matthew’s grin became wicked. ‘Who said anything about—?’
His brother flinched when he saw Alex’s expression. ‘Do not say it. Do not think it. Miss Ellery is a guest under our roof.’ Perhaps the pain was simply his conscience.
‘Yes, of course. Sorry. Shall we have a look at the estate plans? If I can really choose one of the unentailed manors, I’ve got some ideas.’ Matthew began to unroll the maps from the end of the table and weight the corners with books. ‘I’d appreciate your advice.’
Alex found, suddenly, that it was difficult to speak. His brother wanted his advice, wanted what he had been able to give him, wanted to work with him. He had thought he had all the friendship and companionship he would ever want or need but this, he discovered, was different. This was family.
‘Sorry, frog in my throat. Yes, of course, although you know far more than I do, I’ve no doubt. Is this the one you favour?’
* * *
‘There you are. I’ve been looking everywhere.’ Tess kept her voice cheerful as she bustled into the library. Alex’s silhouette against the darkening grey sky beyond the wide windows looked bleak and brooding, and she made herself straighten her suddenly sagging shoulders as the flame of the candle she carried dipped.
She had been worrying about Alex and what was happening between him and his brother all afternoon, braced for the sounds of a fight or even, in her more anxious moments, a gunshot.
But as she touched the flame to the wicks of the unlit candelabras that stood around the room he turned and smiled at her, and the relief was enough to make her sit down with a thump on the nearest chair.
‘I’m sorry, I have been neglecting you.’
‘Not at all, only I have so much to report about my discussion with Garnett, Mrs Garnett and Cook that I wanted to tell you as soon as possible. I have a list, but essentially they think it an excellent idea and the staff are very enthusiastic. I spoke to your mother again and promised I would help organise the buffet upstairs in the evening, but we will have plenty of time to spend with our people. I mean your people.’ Lord, what a slip to make! ‘Handing out presents and so forth.’
She produced a notebook and Alex came over and sat next to her. ‘Ah, the infallible notes.’ Tess passed it over and watched him covertly while he read. He looked different, she realised. Younger almost, as though years had been lifted away.
‘Is everything all right?’
‘With this? Yes, excellent as far as I can tell—you know I have no recent experience of Christmas festivities. I have no doubt everyone will have a splendid time. You are a born organiser, Tess.’
‘I meant with your brother. I was rather worried. He seemed so angry.’
Alex gave a snort of laughter. ‘A masterpiece of understatement given that he made a spirited attempt to spit me on a blade. Yes, everything is all right with Matthew. I’ve found my way back to my little brother, Tess, and he needed me.’
‘I am so glad. Oh, Alex, that is such good news.’
‘It is all because of you, little nun.’ His smile was decidedly lopsided now, as though he was attempting to cover deep emotion with a joke. ‘You’ve infected me with your Christmas spirit. I am probably doomed. It will be handbell ringing and carol singing next and then I will be beyond help.’
‘You are such a good man.’ Tess leaned over to emphasise the warmth of her praise with a kiss on Alex’s cheek just as he turned his head towards her. She found herself on his knee, twined in his arms, his mouth on hers, not returning the warm affection she had intended, but with the hard demand of a lover.
It seemed a very long time since he had taken her back to her bedchamber in the pre-dawn gloom. It seemed an endless evening stretched before they could be alone together again.
‘I’ll come to your room tonight, if you still want me to.’ Alex traced the line of her eyebrows. ‘Don’t frown at me, little nun. If you don’t want me I will stay away. My heart will break—’
‘I am not a nun and your heart will do no such thing,’ Tess snapped. She got up and paced down the library. ‘Don’t give me all that flummery. There is a mutual attraction, that is all it is. I am not one of your society flirts who needs seduction wrapped up in sparkly ribbons.’ Of course I want you, you darling man. Are you blind? And I want your heart, not your teasing. And if I got it I would have to give it back, she thought drearily.
Safely on the other side of the table she took a deep breath and found a smile. ‘Now, we haven’t talked about all the details for the Christmas arrangements. We require a cartload of evergreens and then I’ll need to know when you’ll be coming downstairs to give your staff their presents. Do you think your family would enjoy it if they came upstairs at some point and sang carols? They’ve been practising.’