‘Poacher,’ Matthew protested. ‘I would call you out for that, brother, if I were not so dazzled by Mrs White’s new Christmas finery.’ He caught Dorcas’s hand and, despite her squawk of alarm, pressed a bold kiss on her lips.
‘No,’ Tess whispered, caught in the circle of Alex’s arms. ‘It is not...kind.’ He was strong and hard and so wickedly tempting. Just one kiss, a kiss his family would think of as innocent Christmas fun. One last kiss to break her heart.
‘On St Stephen’s Day, if you want to leave me, Tess, I will let you go. I will send you back to London, somehow find you respectable employment. But you gave yourself to me for Christmas and until then, you are mine.’ His whisper was urgent, fierce against her lips. And he kissed her, a kiss as light as a breeze, a mere brush of his mouth, an exchange of breath that left her trembling and close to tears. Then he released her and kissed Dorcas, a wicked smacker that made her laugh and blush before he passed on to kiss his mother and sister on the cheek.
St Stephen’s Day, the twenty-sixth of December. She had not agreed to any length of time to stay. But she had gone to his bed, given herself to him, agreed to come with him to his family for Christmas, so perhaps he was within his rights to make demands. Although to what end, she had no idea. Surely he would not want to make love to her now, not when he knew she was the skeleton in the neighbours’ closet, not when he had settled in his own mind where his duty lay.
And she had not helped the family much, not as she had intended. The earl was not bedridden, Lady Moreland seemed to need no assistance and Alex and his father were on speaking terms, of sorts, without any intervention from her.
‘Are you unwell, Miss Ellery?’
The earl’s abrupt question made her start guiltily. If he only knew who he is harbouring under his roof. ‘Not at all, Lord Moreland. I was deep in thought, that was all. This is all very different from what I am used to.’
‘A nunnery, eh? Not much mulled wine there, I’ll be bound.’
‘No, my lord.’ The footman opened the door on to a blaze of candlelight and a table laden with parcels and packages. The servants had been hard at work while the family ate. ‘Oh, this looks so festive!’
* * *
Alex found he was smiling. Not at the decorations or the presents, but at Tess’s obvious delight. She looked like a child for a moment, hands clasped to her heart with delight—and then she was a woman again, the woman he desired, the innocent whose life he had almost ruined. Might still, if he was not very careful, very lucky.
There had to be some way through this. He found he was looking at the portrait of his grandmother above the fireplace. Another dynastic alliance, another proper match for the Earl of Moreland. He had been infected by Tess’s ridiculous fantasy world of Christmas love and magic into thinking that, somehow, there was a happy ending to this. But if there was, he had to find it. He had fallen in love with a daughter of scandal, a woman disowned by her family who could bring nothing to the earldom.
Then his brain caught hold of his thoughts. In love. So that is what it is, this pain in my chest, this ludicrous optimism and plunging despair. Not just liking, not simply lust. I love her.
No one appeared to notice him standing like a stunned ox in the middle of the room. Alex shut his mouth with a snap and looked about him. His mother was ordering everyone to their places, grouped around his father like a conversation-piece portrait of a happy family. Maria had thought to send for little Daisy, so there was even the obligatory charming baby, he thought with a flash of his old cynicism. Even the dratted kitten had managed to find its way upstairs and was stalking a trailing ribbon on Maria’s gown.
Matthew had apparently been chosen as the distributor of gifts. Alex squeezed into a place on the sofa between his sister and Tess and was rewarded by a sharp elbow in the ribs.
‘You are squashing us,’ Tess whispered. ‘It is not kind.’
‘To squash you or to sit with you?’ he murmured back. Against his side she was warm and soft and smelled deliciously of rosewater and Tess. ‘Trust me, Tess.’ To do what? the cynical voice in his head jibed. Ensure her ruin? Make her unhappy?
‘To do what?’ Her voice cracked as she echoed his thoughts and he saw her hands clench together. ‘To set me up as your mistress? To keep my secrets?’ She had as much faith in him as he did in himself. Or perhaps she was just more realistic.
‘I have no wish to make you my mistress,’ he said, soft voiced in her ear. The soft curls tickled his nose; the scent of her was almost intolerably seductive. I can’t give you up.