‘No,’ she told herself again. ‘You will not take advantage of his honour.’ She was being watched. The uneasy feeling stole over her as she sat there and she sat upright, got her face under control. How shameful to be found huddled miserably in a corner by the servants, or worse, her hosts.
When she looked around her the long chamber seemed empty, peopled only by the ranks of portraits with their guarded, careful expressions. It was foolish to imagine they were all staring with disapproval at her.
Chin up, back straight, Tess walked over to confront one particularly haughty dame. ‘Wilhelmina, Countess Moreland’, the gilded label on the frame read. ‘Daughter of Hugo de Vane, Third Marquess Peterborough’. Wilhelmina stared down at Tess as though she was a junior housemaid who had upended a chamber pot on the best Wilton carpet.
Her bloodlines would be traceable back to some uncouth and sweaty Norman baron who had come over at the Conqueror’s heels, Tess had no doubt. The countess would have been the culmination of centuries of dynastic breeding, careful alliances, political manoeuvring. There could have been no blots on her escutcheon or the earl would not have wed her. She was not illegitimate, let alone the product of a scandalous union .
Tess wondered rather drearily if she was ever going to find a place where she actually fitted, belonged. Everyone else knew their place, it seemed. She only wished Alex would let her find hers and stop filling her full of hopeless dreams.
She pulled a face at Wilhelmina. It was juvenile, but it relieved her even more childish desire to fling herself down and have a tantrum about the sheer unfairness of life. She had experienced what she had wished for—to lie in the arms of the man she loved and to share physical passion with him. Now she had to live with the consequences.
‘What I need,’ she informed Wilhelmina, ‘is a baby to cuddle and a kitten to play with. I will wager you never said that in your life. And I know where I can find both of those things.’
* * *
Baby Daisy was in the nursery with Dorcas and Annie. She had just been fed and changed and was at her adorable best, all gummy smiles and tiny waving fists. Ten minutes of cuddles and cooing restored Tess’s spirits enough to pay some attention to her companions. Dorcas looked plumper, healthier, happier than Tess had ever seen her and little Annie was acquiring quite alarming confidence with her new role of nursery maid.
Tess cradled Daisy and watched the other two women together. Annie had the rudiments of reading and writing, but Dorcas was encouraging her to read the newspaper and to keep basic nursery accounts. What was going to happen to them when the new year came? It would be a criminal waste for Annie to go back to her role as Alex’s scullery maid and Dorcas, with no references and the baby depending on her, could never hope for respectable employment.
‘Dorcas, may I tell Lady Moreland about your circumstances? I hope she may give you both a reference, and I will ask Lord Weybourn if you may both stay at the Half Moon Street house until you find employment.’
They both shot her startled glances. ‘But, Miss Ellery, won’t you be staying here? So can’t we stay, too?’ Annie said and was promptly nudged in the ribs by Dorcas. ‘What?’ she demanded inelegantly. ‘Miss Ellery and his lordship are all April and May, anyone can see there’s a wedding coming.’
‘I cannot marry Lord Weybourn.’ Annie opened her mouth so Tess snapped, ‘Because I am not eligible. I am illegitimate.’
‘But you love him,’ Annie protested. Little Daisy began to grizzle and she scooped her out of Tess’s arms. ‘And he loves you.’
‘He doesn’t and my feelings have got nothing to do with it,’ Tess stood up, the good effects of cuddling Daisy vanishing. All she could think of now was the children she could never have with Alex. ‘Lord Weybourn has his duty and he is perfectly well aware of it.’ He would be, and be relieved, once he had got over his momentary fit of gallantry. And as for the suggestion that he loved her, why, that was simply Annie’s romantic nonsense.
‘I am going down to the kitchens and then to find Noel. I will see you at dinner, Dorcas.’ She was running away, she knew that.
* * *
The kitchens were all a bustle with preparations for the Christmas Eve dinner, but Cook assured her that the sweetmeats she had made as gifts for the family were safe and sound in the coolest larder. One skill that Tess possessed to the satisfaction of the nuns was making the traditional candies that they sold in the town. She had created strong peppermint drops for Lord Moreland and Matthew and delicate rose pastilles for Lady Moreland and Maria, and Cook had found some pretty paper boxes for her to pack them in.