‘Then, why keep me here—?’ Tess broke off as his mother clapped her hands and ordered Matthew to begin.
Tess seemed flustered to be presented with a Kashmir shawl from his mother and a fan from Marie. Her own sweetmeats were received with expressions of delight, Daisy’s doll was instantly seized and sucked and Dorcas expressed delight with her parcel of novels. The floor was soon strewn with sheets of torn paper and tangled ribbons and Noel was in kitten heaven, chasing imaginary mice through the crackling heap.
When was Matthew going to get to his own gift to Tess? She had retreated as far into the corner of the sofa as possible, the tension crackling off her until he felt as though a thunderstorm was about to break. She’ll hate it, he thought with a fresh plunge into pessimism. She’ll think I am laughing at her.
‘For Miss Ellery!’ Matthew produced a rectangular package with a flourish and peered at the label. ‘With Christmas wishes from Alex.’
‘Thank you.’ Tess’s smile was warm as she took the package, but she was biting her lip when Matthew turned away.
‘Open it,’ Alex urged as she sat there making no effort to untie the knots.
It was almost the last parcel. She seemed to realise that all eyes were on her and scrabbled at the wrappings with uncharacteristic clumsiness. The lid came off the box and she pushed back the tissue paper and lifted out the contents.
‘A doll? Alexander, you’ve addressed a present for the baby to Miss Ellery,’ his mother said with a laugh.
‘No,’ Tess said before he could speak. ‘No, he hasn’t.’ Her hands were shaking as she held the stiff wooden figure with its froth of blue skirts and painted black hair. ‘It has sentimental meaning for me...something I told Lord Weybourn about. A memory from my childhood. Thank you.’ She turned to him and he saw her eyes were brimming with tears.
‘Tess,’ he said softly, taking the doll from her and making a production out of settling it back in its box to give her a moment to recover. ‘I never meant to make you cry.’
‘It was a lovely thought.’ Her hand on his was steady now, but he could feel the pulse hammering as he closed his fingers around her wrist. ‘And I know you do not mean to make me cry.’
It was not the doll that she referred to, he knew, as she set the box firmly on her knee and looked back at Matthew and the others with a determined smile. He had made her cry, even if she would not allow him to see it, even if she acquitted him of deliberate cruelty, or careless disregard of her feelings.
‘One last package, and it is for Alex,’ Matthew announced, handing over a small carved box.
Alex took it, puzzled. There was no wrapping, no label, just old dark oak rubbed smooth more by handling than from any refined finishing. He opened it and stared. ‘This is the Moreland signet ring, the seal.’
When he looked up his father was watching him, his left hand spread out, the fingers twisted and cramped and unadorned. ‘I cannot wear that ring any longer. I would rather give it to you now than have you take it from my dead hand. If you will stay, take on the business of the estate, then you will need it, Alexander.’
He found he could not speak. Beside him Tess made a little choking sound, perilously like a sob. Alex tugged his own signet off, moved it to his right hand, then slid the ancient ring onto his finger. It fitted easily. Looking down, he saw his grandfather’s hand, his father’s, and he found he could speak. ‘Thank you, Father. Of course I will stay.’
For a moment he thought his mother would weep and, to his horror, his father, also. Then the door swung open, there was a scrabbling of claws on the polished wood, Noel shot up his leg and onto his shoulder and James the footman skidded to a halt on the rug in front of him, both hands clinging to a leash with a panting hound puppy on the end of it. ‘Sorry, me lord, only I couldn’t stop her.’
The pup rolled over onto her back, waving huge paws and ungainly legs in the air. She grinned upside down at him, all teeth, tongue and slobber, wriggling with excitement, a ludicrous pink satin bow tied to her collar.
‘What the blazes is this?’
‘Your Christmas present from me,’ Tess said faintly. He realised she was suppressing laughter, probably hysterical. ‘Her name’s Ophelia.’