She thought she could read Alex’s face now, but all she could discern was furious thought. Perhaps he was trying to work out a way to remove her from the house before his mother discovered just what she was harbouring.
‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’
‘Before you slept with me? Before you brought me into your family home?’
‘Before I fe— What’s the date?’
‘The date? Why, the twenty-third, of course.’ Perhaps she had tripped and banged her head and not realised. Or perhaps the shock had turned Alex’s brain.
‘No damned time,’ he muttered. He looked at her, his expression unreadable, then he took her by the shoulders, pulled her towards him and kissed her with a hard, possessive urgency.
That was goodbye, Tess thought as he released her as abruptly as he had taken her.
‘I knew Christmas was a bad idea,’ he said, turned on his heel, shot back the bolt and was out of the door and across the yard before she could speak.
* * *
Christmas Eve had been a strange day, Tess decided as she waited in the drawing room for the family to assemble for dinner. The earl had kept to his bedchamber, resting, because he was determined to go to midnight service. Lady Moreland and Maria had been out visiting friends and neighbours with gifts, calling on tenants. The servants had been busy with preparations and Alex and Matthew simply did not appear.
Annie reported that they had ridden off early together. ‘I heard Mr Matthew say, “I don’t blame you for running out on all the fuss,”’ she confided. ‘And his lordship said, “I need to think and I’m damned if I can do it in the house, so come and act like a brother for once and keep me company.” And Mr Matthew said a bad word and laughed and off they went.’
The earl, Maria and Lady Moreland came in as she was puzzling, yet again, about Alex. Was he simply finding excuses to avoid her? Tess stopped fiddling with her fan as she and Dorcas stood and curtsied, and then forced herself to make conversation while Dorcas retired to her usual corner.
‘Where are those boys?’ Lady Moreland said after half an hour of everyone avoiding staring at the door.
‘My apologies, Mama.’ Alex strode in, elegant in immaculate evening dress, Matthew, less polished but still correctly attired, at his heels. Both faces had high colour from having been rapidly warmed after long exposure to cold. ‘We have only just got back.’
‘From where?’ Lady Moreland demanded. ‘I shudder to think what state the goose will be in. Cook will probably hand in her notice this very night.’
‘I wanted to look at the estate, Mama. It has been a long time.’ He looked at his father and then at Tess. ‘I found it put things in perspective. I apologise for leaving our guests, but I see the house is most festively garlanded, so I assume you must have found occupation, Miss Ellery.’
‘I...I am sorry, Lord Weybourn, I did not quite catch what you said.’ Not with you smiling at me like that. The curve of his mouth was tender; the look in his eyes was regretful... Stop it. It means nothing. He is simply apologetic for leaving me all day without a word. That look is not...
He had been out all day thinking, looking at the estate with his brother. He had been reminding himself who he was, what was owed to his name. She could not deceive herself by choosing to see only that smile. Because she was fraught and nervous and aching for him, she saw in his expression what she longed to see. And that was impossible. Must be impossible.
Alex took her into dinner and Tess got through the meal somehow. It was true what the nuns had drilled into the girls: good manners and polite observances would carry you through the most difficult social situations. They would even cover up heartbreak.
Alex sent her no more of those achingly tender smiles. He, too, kept to polite conversation, teased his sister gently, drew out Matthew on the subject of horse breeding and endured his father’s observations on the state of the nation.
Finally Lady Moreland rose. ‘Gentlemen, if you are willing to forgo your port, shall we all retire to the drawing room for an exchange of gifts?’
She received no protests. Even Alex went meekly, Tess noted with relief—and promptly walked straight into Matthew’s arms. ‘Mr Tempest!’
‘Miss Ellery, behold, the mistletoe.’
She glanced up. ‘That is not where I told the footman to put it.’
‘Indeed not, but it is where I moved it to.’ He bent his head, his intent obvious, and then Tess found herself whirled round into Alex’s embrace.