‘Ophelia?’ Alex leaned down and scratched the fat pink stomach and the puppy writhed ecstatically. ‘What sort of name is that for a hound? If it is a hound,’ he added dubiously.
‘I think there is some hound in there,’ Tess said. ‘She’s mostly hound. Perhaps the rest is mastiff. Look at the size of her feet.’
‘I am looking.’ And looking at the sullen gleam of the intaglio bloodstone in the ring on his hand. If he had been drinking hard all day he could not feel more dislocated from reality. He dragged himself back to the present, to one mongrel hound puppy busily licking his shoes. ‘The thing is going to be as big as a horse.’
‘Don’t call her a thing.’ Tess was still laughing, he could hear it in her voice. But she was wary, too. ‘The poor creature has had a hard life and deserves a proper name. She was found in a sack in the cattle pond. She would have drowned if one of the grooms hadn’t gone in and rescued her. That is why we called her Ophelia.’ She shot him a sideways glance. ‘All small boys should have a puppy. I thought a grown man might like one, too.’
He had never had a dog as a child. His father kept pedigree fox hounds, Matthew had been given a lurcher to go rabbiting with, but Alex had not expected to be allowed a dog, had not asked. He had never thought he wanted one. Ophelia rolled over and began to chew his shoe.
‘Stop that.’ He clicked his fingers at her and she sat up, tongue lolling out comically as she put her head on one side. ‘I don’t suppose you are house trained, are you?’
‘Er, no,’ Tess said. ‘In fact I think it would be a good idea if James took her out for a walk now.’
‘Thank you, Miss Ellery, for my present.’
The hound puppy gave his hand one last slobbery lick, then towed the footman out as his family got up, began to move about the room looking at each other’s gifts, talking. Beside him Tess sat, cornered by his body, the doll in its box on her knee.
‘I should have given you gloves or a reticule,’ he said, twisting the unfamiliar ring on his finger. A week ago, if someone had told him he would be wearing it, that his father wanted him to wear it, he would have thought them insane, or that he was drunk.
‘I should have given you a book or hemmed some handkerchiefs.’ Her fingers stroked the doll’s skirts and he imagined their caress on his skin like a remembered breeze.
You gave me something you knew was missing from my childhood, because you understand me. And you have given me something far more precious—your trust and your innocence. I only hope I can make this right for you, Tess. For us. Why couldn’t he talk to her? Why were the words so hard to find, so difficult to say, even in his head? I love you. I want to marry you. Can I make you happy?
No one was attending to them. ‘Tess, I wish you would let me do the right thing.’
She turned, her body shifting against his, firing all the memories of her naked in his arms, the passion and the trust. Where had the trust gone? ‘And I wish you would let me do the same,’ she murmured. ‘I do not want to marry you, Alex.’
‘Why not? To even ask that shows a great deal of self-confidence, my lord, if you cannot think of any reason that would outweigh your attractions as a husband. What can we put in the scale? On one side a title, wealth, a charming manner, kindness and, undoubted skills in the bedchamber. On the other the fact that I would bring a scandal into your family, that I can bring nothing else. You have only just begun to reconcile with them, Alex. Why would you throw that that away simply to do the right thing?’
‘If it were not for your birth, would you marry me?’ he demanded, cursing himself for beginning this whispered argument in a room full of people.
‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. A cliché, but a true one,’ Tess retorted. ‘I am no one, Alex. I have no family, no roots, nothing. I will not be your mistress and I cannot be your wife.’ She pressed a sharp, well-placed elbow in his ribs and wriggled out of her corner and onto her feet. ‘I am going to my room.’ As Alex stood she added, ‘And that was not an invitation.’
No, he could not make love to her again, not without fearing that he was putting unfair pressure on her, attempting to seduce her into doing what she did not think was right. Nor could he use words of love to her, not when he had no plan yet to counter the arguments she set out against a marriage. Tess, he was coming to realise, had as strong a sense of honour as he did.
* * *
It was all her fault for going to his bed. She was quite clear about that. There was no possible excuse. She had known that what she was doing broke every rule of good, modest behaviour and now she was reaping the reward.