‘If you need evergreens, ask Matthew.’ Alex was on his feet, his face stony. ‘I don’t imagine for a moment that the staff want me down there, they’ll have much more fun if left to their own devices, and if you organise carol singers then don’t expect me to stay and listen to the caterwauling.’
‘Then, that will be your loss. I will go and speak to Mr Tempest.’ Pull yourself together, Tess, she scolded as she picked up her candle and left, managing not to sniff until she was outside the door. You knew he only tolerated your interference to be kind. Lady Moreland had been enthusiastic about the idea of evergreens and this was her house. She set out to look for Matthew.
Alex arrived five minutes late at the dinner table in a mood that more than matched his father’s.
‘You are late,’ the earl snapped.
Alex inclined his head to his father and smiled at his mother. ‘My apologies, Mama, ladies.’ He took his seat and slapped his best amiable mask over an inner scowl. An afternoon of mingled sexual frustration, irritation, awareness that he had blundered with Tess and the necessity to write a ream of instructions to his secretary was enough to both kill his appetite and leave him longing for the brandy bottle.
Tess spared him a glance and a smile, then turned back to Matthew, with whom she was apparently deep in discussion about holly.
‘I gather we’re to have a traditional Christmas.’ His father regarded Tess from under lowered brows and, as she answered, Alex braced himself to come to her rescue.
‘Only if it will not disturb you, Lord Moreland.’
‘Not at all, my dear.’
My dear? What had come over the old curmudgeon? It appeared he approved of Tess.
‘The best berry-bearing holly are those trees along the west boundary of Tom’s Covert,’ his father said to Matthew. ‘You should find something for a yule log in that area—three oaks went down in the big storm last year.’ He stared down the table at Alex. ‘What are you snorting about?’
‘Was I? I am sorry. But yule logs, Father?’
‘If Miss Ellery wants a proper traditional country Christmas, then we need a yule log. I gather she’s not seen one in all that time she’s been in Ghent. Don’t do these things properly over there. Foreigners.’
‘Their traditions are simply different, Father.’
‘I suppose it is too much to expect you to be getting your expensive boots dirty.’ Alex resisted the temptation to produce an artistic shudder. ‘You can go and tell the vicar he’s welcome to bring the carol singers round on Christmas Eve, that’ll liven the place up.’
‘And the handbell ringers, too, I suppose? Father, you should be resting, not having half the village in to create a racket.’
‘We haven’t had a proper traditional Christmas since you left. I think I’d like one this year.’
As if they were days of joy and harmony before! Alex took in the set of his father’s mouth and realised this was more than the desire to give orders. Hell, he thinks it will be his last one. ‘Of course, sir, if it would please you.’ He was rewarded by a speaking look from his mother and warm smiles from Maria and Tess. He still thought it sentimental nonsense, but if it gave his family pleasure he would smile and pretend. Which might put Tess back in charity with him, too.
* * *
Alex scratched on Tess’s bedchamber door as the clock struck one, slipped inside and braced himself for a thrown slipper.
‘Alex?’ She had blown out all the candles and the room was lit only by the glow from the banked fire. It turned the white bedcovers patchily to rose and gold and threw her shadow flickering across the bed hangings.
‘No, the headless ghost of the first earl. Who do you think?’ He turned the key in the door and padded over to the bed.
Tess gave a little snort of amusement and sat up. ‘I thought you wouldn’t come after we quarrelled.’
‘Was that what it was? A quarrel? I thought I was being chastised for insensitivity and a lack of Christmas spirit.’
‘And I was being snappish. You were kind to your father at dinner tonight.’
‘He may not see another New Year. I’m still angry with him, but barring the door to carol singers isn’t going to bring Peter back.’
Hell and damnation, she doesn’t know why I left home. She doesn’t know about Peter. ‘He was a friend of mine and he had a secret, rather a dangerous one. When I left home my father said things about him that led him to commit suicide.’