He steadied the vase, ran his thumbs over the fragile white purity of the Wedgwood medallions that decorated it. Tess had rocked his life, unsettled his certainties. She had taught him a tolerance and forgiveness that made this painful reconciliation with his family negotiable. She had burrowed into his affections and curled up there, trusting and straightforward, just like that accursed kitten.
His offer of financial support had shocked her in a way that his uncontrolled lovemaking had not, he realised as he paced down the Gallery. She had told him the truth when she came to his bed. She had wanted, and asked for, the right simply to be with him for a short while, to share whatever it was between them.
The portrait he was staring at came into focus. Lucinda, wife of the second earl. Beautiful, the daughter of a duke, well dowered and, by all accounts, a profligate little madam who had brought her besotted husband to the brink of financial ruin. He walked on a few paces to Wilhelmina, the first countess. Impeccable breeding, the face of a horse and the temper of a cornered cobra, so legend said.
For all their blue blood, what had those two carefully selected brides done for the Tempests, other than bring unhappiness? ‘Damn it,’ Alex said in the face of Wilhelmina’s haughty disapproval. ‘I’ll marry the girl, bring in some affection and honesty and caring, and society can damn well think what it likes.’ She might not think much of him any longer, but with good fortune he would give her children to love and, God willing, she’d stop him being such a disastrous parent as his own father had proved.
The prospect should have filled him with satisfaction, not a faint feeling of queasy foreboding. Nerves. He turned on his heel and strode towards the double doors. A man proposing marriage had a right to feel a degree of anxiety. He would sweep her off, down to the stables, take her up in front of him and ride off to the old castle, propose there. Tess would like that, enjoy the romance of it.
He diverted to his room, shrugged into his greatcoat and took his hat and a heavy cloak for Tess.
‘My lord?’ Byfleet hurried out of the dressing room. ‘I’m sorry, I did not hear you ring.’ He stopped at Alex’s gesture of dismissal. ‘Are you quite well, my lord? Only you seem a trifle pale.’
‘Need some fresh air.’ Was he coming down with something? Alex caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, dark under the eyes, white around the mouth. He hadn’t looked as bad as this, or felt as bad, before his one and only duel, an affair involving an Italian contessa, a dubious Old Master drawing and a jealous husband.
Then his life had been at stake, reason enough to feel a cold lump in the pit of his stomach and an encroaching sensation of dread. Now there was no excuse. All he had to do was make his peace with an intelligent, sweet and forgiving young lady who would be swept off her feet with joy at the thought of finding herself a future countess.
* * *
Tess was in the dining room, filling vases with holly and trails of ivy. No servants, he was pleased to see and, thankfully, no sign of Matthew, either.
She dropped the ball of twine from which she was cutting lengths when he marched up to her and stopped in a swirl of coat-skirts and cloak. ‘My lord.’
No one who did not know her as well as he did now could have told that she was unhappy. Her self-control was as impeccable as ever, and it gave him no pleasure to see the tension in the way she held herself, the slight droop of her mouth. ‘Tess, come riding with me.’
‘I cannot ride.’
‘I’ll take you up in front of me. Tess, I am sorry, I should not have offered you what I did. I should have offered you marriage.’ So much for a romantic interlude on horseback, a gallant knight making a powerful declaration to his lady in the castle ruins.
Her eyes were huge and dark and deep. A man could drown in those eyes. She was amazed that he had offered marriage; she was in shock. At any moment a smile would dawn and she would be in his arms.
‘No,’ Tess said. ‘No.’ She backed away from him, her hands clenched tight by her sides. ‘You must not. No.’
Alex made no move to stop her when she ran from the room. From him. So that was that. He had disgusted her with his violent rutting and insulted her with his crass offer and she had punished him in a far more effective way than she could ever have dreamed, leaving him unable to do the honourable thing.
* * *
I can’t. I mustn’t. Tess ran blindly away from temptation, ran as though all the devils in hell followed after her whispering inducements and false promises. She pushed open panelled double doors and found herself in a long gallery. It was mercifully empty, so she sat in one of the window seats and uncurled her cramped fingers. There was blood in her right palm where the nails had bitten in. She had wanted to say yes so much. Had wanted to reach for him, be held close, kiss that tight unhappiness from his face. She wanted to have her Alex back, her knight in slightly tarnished armour, her cynic with a soft heart, her lover with magic at his fingertips.