That just left Noel to find. He was drawn to the stables, but Tess worried that the bigger, fiercer stable cats would hurt him and fetched him back whenever he strayed.
She left by the kitchen door into the service yard, dodged the laundry maids lugging wet washing into the drying rooms, waved to the woodsmen delivering a load of logs and went through the archway into the stable yard. There was no sign of the kitten but she could hear Alex’s voice coming from the tack room and went close to the door to listen. She should go before he saw her, but she needed to find out how he was after that last, fraught declaration.
‘I think we’d do better running them unicorn.’ When she peeped though the gap between open door and hinge she saw Alex was sitting on a saddle horse, his back to her as he spoke to one of the Tempeston grooms.
‘Showy, my lord, I’ll give you that, especially with the three greys. But Mr Matthew’s been having a devil of a time with them and unicorn is a tricky configuration.’
‘But it will remove the gelding who’s proving most troublesome. The remaining three work well together.’
Obviously he wasn’t nursing a broken heart, or even wounded pride, if he could chat so casually about carriage horses.
Tess began to back away, then her heel caught an upturned bucket and it tipped over with a clang on the flagstones.
The groom leaned sideways and saw her. ‘There’s Miss Ellery, me lord.’
Alex swung one long leg over the saddle horse and turned to face her. ‘So I can see. I wondered what had happened to you, Miss Ellery. You had seemed a little discomposed earlier.’
‘Oh, I have been busy, my lord.’ Tess smiled politely. ‘A little art appreciation, a visit to the nursery and the kitchens, then I thought I must see where Noel had got to.’
‘I saw him in the hayloft a while ago,’ Alex said. His voice was calm, his eyes were stormy.
Tempest eyes, Tess thought. ‘I was concerned, but I see I was mistaken to be so. Life goes on, does it not, whatever emotional distractions confuse us.’
‘You can call what there is between us an emotional distraction, Tess?’
She threw up a warning hand to remind him the groom was somewhere close.
Alex turned and called, ‘Hodgkin, see if you can find Miss Ellery’s ginger kitten, will you?’ The sound of booted feet faded away. ‘You have it all worked out now, do you, Tess? I cannot say I have.’
‘You are suffering from a fit of quixotic gallantry. I am utterly unsuitable for you, you know that. It is not just that I am an orphan with no connections, no dowry and no qualifications whatsoever for a place in society.’ She braced herself. Time to tell him, time to see the shock and distaste on his face. Time to watch the man she loved disentangle himself from this coil with cool finality. ‘I am—’
‘Illegitimate, I know.’ Alex looked impatient, as though that bombshell was merely a minor irritation, a firecracker going off.
‘But my mother—’
Again he cut in before she could finish. ‘“Jane Teresa Ellery, born 1775, died, unmarried, 1809.” Yes? That is what the Peerage says and she was your mother, I assume? The date and her middle name seem too coincidental.’
Silence. ‘Am I allowed to finish a sentence now?’
‘There is no of course about it. You do not listen to me. You have not right from the beginning. If you had, I would never have missed that boat, none of this would have happened. Now you will not allow me to finish a simple explanation when you must see how difficult it is for me.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Alex moved away abruptly, as though to leave, then swung back. ‘I am unused to difficult discussions with women. With a lady,’ he corrected himself. ‘But James Ellery, third Marquess of Sethcombe, is your grandfather, is he not?’
‘Yes. Is he still alive? My grandmother? I never met them, you see, or my aunts or uncles.’ And that sounded pathetic, as though she was pining for a family to love, whining that she wanted their love, admission to their charmed circle of belonging. Pathetic and true. Yearning for the moon.
‘Your grandfather is alive and, from what I gather, in his usual state of unarmed combat with my father over fishing rights on the river between the two estates, over fences, straying cattle, poaching tenants. My father said he inherited Sethcombe as a neighbour along with the title—like a bad debt or a mad relative in the attic. The old man was a cantankerous so-and-so even then. He must be a considerable age now if your mother was his youngest child. Your grandmother, I’m afraid, died some years ago.’