‘I think perhaps he is a little low because of having to give up his art business,’ Tess suggested. ‘It must be making a great deal of correspondence.’ She wanted to throw the entire contents of an art gallery, preferably one full of marble busts, at his head, but it would be unfair on the rest of his family if she let her misery show. They had to live with Alex and she did not want their reconciliation spoilt by a sordid squabble.
‘That will be it,’ Lady Moreland agreed as she passed a cup of tea to Tess. ‘It must be very difficult, and I never expected him to make as much of an effort to be civil to his father.’ Tess’s expression must have betrayed something of her feelings for she added, ‘I do not scruple to mention the estrangement in front of you, Miss Ellery. I can tell you will be most discreet.’
Tess mumbled something that she hoped conveyed discretion, sympathy and a total disinclination to hear more. Lady Moreland steered the conversation on to London fashions and plans for Maria’s wardrobe for the Season and Tess was left to make interested noises and look out of the window onto the carriage sweep at the front of the house for the return of the brothers.
* * *
When they did come back it was on a wave of cold air and a bustle of servants all loaded with branches to heap in the entrance hall. Matthew was in high spirits and Alex’s unsmiling face was a healthy pink from the chill. He glanced at Tess and then looked back again, a long stare while, she supposed, he took in just how dreadful she looked. She nodded politely, then joined Maria and Matthew in a discussion of what needed to go where. Alex stalked off.
‘Don’t know what the matter is with Alex,’ Matthew commented as soon as the sound of boot heels on stone had died away. ‘Like a bear with a sore head.’
Maria offered Tess’s suggestion about the heavy workload with the art business and Tess was able to retreat into a corner with a pile of holly, stout scissors and wire to fashion some wreaths. She wanted to think calmly about Alex, but she was so tired that the same hurtful, jangling thoughts just kept circling and knotting in her head until all she was conscious of was pain and a deep sense of loss. Which is irrational, she told herself. He was never yours. You know there never was any hope of that.
* * *
At luncheon she managed to sit between Maria and Dorcas and listened to Maria’s anxieties about Almack’s, her hopes that she would make friends easily and her despair of ever winning her dancing master’s approval. On the far side of the table Alex endured his father’s trenchant views of the government’s foreign policy and then politely demolished them.
Tess, conscious that the four women at the table were all holding their breath, expected that outright opposition would send the earl into an apoplexy, but he grunted, ‘You don’t toad-eat, I’ll say that for you, Weybourn. You’re a damn fool Whig, of course, but at least you can construct an argument.’
Alex took the backhanded compliment with a wry smile and began to discuss felling some of the Home Wood. Across the table Lady Moreland exchanged a knowing look with her daughter.
Last night had apparently made no impact on Alex’s thought processes or his intellectual alertness. He obviously had slept perfectly soundly, Tess thought resentfully. A touch on her arm drew her attention to the fact that Matthew was speaking to her. ‘Shall we put up the mistletoe after luncheon, Miss Ellery?’
‘Why, yes. That would be fun.’ She managed a bright smile and was rewarded by a cold look from Alex. If he thinks I’m going to flirt with his brother under the mistletoe, then more fool he, she thought. Although it might be soothing to her bruised heart if Matthew wanted to flirt with her.
Alex told himself he was far too busy to waste time strewing greenery about the place, releasing spiders and earwigs and making every corner prickly with pine needles and holly.
If Tess wanted to giggle under the mistletoe with Matthew, then she was welcome to him. His brother was unlikely to offer her assistance that she could then wilfully misunderstand and throw back in his face, leaving him feeling like some kind of unsavoury rakehell preying on innocent young women and then buying them off.
Righteous indignation could only get him so far. Alex stopped halfway along the Upper Gallery and slammed his fist down on to a fragile side table, sending a vase rocking wildly. ‘Hell and damnation!’
Tess had been an innocent young woman and, in virtually every way, she still was. Thanks to her gossipy schoolgirl friends she might have knowledge of some things that society thought were kept from unmarried ladies, but her understanding of the big, dangerous wide world was virtually nonexistent. He had surrendered to temptation and had taken her virginity, and now he had made that world far more perilous for her.