Tess blinked away the tears. She would never know whether her grandmother had cast her own daughter out and never forgiven her the horrible scandal or whether, like Alex’s mother, she had secretly tried to keep in touch, to send her loving thoughts. ‘It is a malign coincidence that your family’s lands march with the Ellerys’, is it not?’ She kept her voice hard.
‘Not really.’ Alex shrugged. ‘The aristocratic families are so entwined that it would be surprising if we did not adjoin some relative or another of yours.’
‘For my grandfather to be the enemy of your father, that has a certain...inevitability about it.’
‘Only if you are writing some damn stage melodrama,’ Alex snapped. ‘The gods and Fates are not hovering about trying to make life as difficult as possible for us with some pre-ordained doom. If you want to insist on making a production out of this, then let us assume we are supposed to bring about a reconciliation.’
‘Making a production out of this? What is this? The unfortunate fact that I have lost my virginity to you and now you have an attack of conscience about it?’ Loving someone did not stop them being hurtful, it seemed. I love you. She wanted to scream it at him, throw it in his face, watch him deal with that along with all the complications of male honour, family honour, love affairs real and imaginary, sexual scandal.
‘Miss Ellery, I’ve found your kitten.’ The groom came into the tack room, Noel clinging like a furry ginger burr to his shoulder, and stopped dead. ‘I’m sorry, my lord. I’m interrupting?’
‘Not at all,’ Tess said. ‘Please could you take Noel to the kitchen for me?’
Alex slammed the door behind the man and shot the bolt. ‘You are illegitimate, that is unfortunate, but if your mother’s family will recognise you, even as a distant relative, things will not be so bad,’ he said. ‘Who was your father?’
‘George Fenton, the younger son of Lord Melford.’
‘Why the blazes didn’t they get married then? I don’t know Melford. I think they’re a Cumberland family, aren’t they? Perfectly good match for the youngest daughter of a marquess.’
‘My father was married.’ There, she had said it.
Alex frowned. ‘Married? Then, you aren’t illegitimate. Tess—’
Her turn to interrupt now. ‘Married to someone else. And then he married Mama. It was bigamous. They were criminals.’
‘Bigamous? But I heard nothing of that.’ Alex stared at her as though she had announced she was the love child of the Prince Regent.
‘I think the Ellerys managed to hush it up,’ Tess said. ‘Mama didn’t know, you see, that Papa’s first wife was ill, with a disease of the mind. Apparently she became ill quite gradually and Papa tried to find medical help for her, but in the end she was completely deranged. He had her looked after in a quiet country house of his. It must have been awful for him. There was nothing he could do for her except give her good care. That’s where all the money must have gone, I think. Then he met Mama and they fell in love.
‘She thought he was a widower and couldn’t understand why her father forbade Papa to even speak to her. If he had only explained it would have been a heartbreak for her, but at least she would have understood before it was too late. I suppose in those days daughters were supposed simply to obey and not ask questions.
‘They loved each other. I do not know when Mama found out that his wife was still alive, but she must have forgiven him and they never told me, only that Papa had been married before and had loved his first wife, but he’d felt blessed to have found a new love with Mama. I think it must have been true. He was such a kind man he must have loved her until she changed into someone he no longer knew.
‘I had seen their wedding lines, but I had no idea they were invalid until Mother Superior told me when I was sent to the convent.’ Bastard, child of sin, daughter of depraved criminals. Unworthy. The words still rang in her ears. Only through hard work, humble acceptance of who and what you are, can you aspire to move in respectable company. You have no rights to the place where your parents were born, you have no place either amongst decent, God-fearing humbler folk...
Tess took a steadying breath. ‘I thought my name was Fenton until then, but of course, as the marriage was illegal then I am a bastard and must use my mother’s surname. So you see I am utterly impossible as a wife for you, or for any respectable man.’