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His Housekeeper's Christmas Wish - Page 81

 Tess propped the doll up on her dresser and returned the beady-eyed stare. ‘I have no one to blame but myself. Mama had no idea she was doing anything worse than eloping with the man she loved. I knew perfectly well what I was doing.’ And, like the dreamer that she was, she hadn’t thought beyond that moment in Alex’s arms. She hadn’t realised she was in love with him and that being with him would make that love real and painful. And impossible.

 ‘I suppose I ought to call you Patricia, not Patty. Patty was a child’s doll. You are a foolish grown woman’s, confessional.’ So sweet of Alex to remember her words in the toyshop, so like him to buy her a doll to replace the one taken from her. He pretended he was a cynic, that he didn’t believe in Christmas and gifts and traditions, but he did yearn after the magic, deep under that glossy shell of uncaring sophistication.

 He would make a wonderful father to those children she could never have. She imagined them growing up, the children of scandal, the rejected relatives of the neighbouring great house. If Alex had not been so careful then she might be carrying his child now. Tess folded her hands over her stomach, over her empty womb, as hollow as her heart.

 ‘I have lost nothing,’ she told herself, willing the tremor out of her voice. ‘I could never have Alex, never be anything else but his mistress.’ Imagine the anguish of seeing him court and wed another woman. She knew Alex—he wouldn’t keep a mistress then; his marriage vows would be sacred. Nor could she be with a married man. I have lost nothing, just a few weeks with him, perhaps. You see, it is not so bad, I am not even weeping.

 She lay down on the bed and closed her dry eyes. It would be prudent to rest for an hour before they left for the church and the midnight service. No one must guess how she felt, least of all Alex.

 * * *

 She must have drifted off to sleep because Dorcas’s discreet tap on the door woke her with a start.

 ‘The carriages will be at the door in thirty minutes, but Lady Moreland says to come down as soon as possible. Will that gown be warm enough, Miss Ellery? Or shall I find your flannel petticoat?’

 ‘Goodness, no.’ Tess went into the dressing room and splashed cold water on her face. She would never undress for Alex again, but she was not going to appear anywhere near him in such a garment as a flannel petticoat. Which was totally illogical and, she supposed, he would say it was feminine nonsense if he knew of it. She could imagine the mischievous expression on his face as he teased her.

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 ‘I must have the muff and the heavy cloak with the hood.’ Both were garments that Hannah had bought for her with Alex’s money. Should she try to pay him back? Or return them, perhaps? But she would never find respectable employment without respectable clothes on her back. He wouldn’t laugh about that, he would say it was foolish pride, and perhaps it was.

 It was difficult at first to keep the smile on her face when she went downstairs to join the family in the hall, but the view from the door when Garnett flung it open took her breath away.

 It had begun to snow and there, in a semicircle at the foot of the steps, was a group of carol singers. They launched into ‘Adeste Fidelis’ as the light spilled out down the whitened steps and illuminated their faces and beside her a fine tenor voice picked up the verse.

 ‘“Adeste fideles, læti triumphantes. Venite, venite in Bethlehem. Natum videte, regem angelorum. Venite adoremus...”’

 It was Alex. Beyond him Lady Moreland added her contralto and Maria joined her. Tess began to sing, translating in her head. ‘“Come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant...”’

 Soon they were all singing, footmen and butler as well, and even a deep bass rumble from Alex’s father. There was silence when the last notes died away, then the singers began another carol, one that Tess, raised on the convent’s hymns, did not know: ‘Christians Awake!’

 The rest of the staff had come out, too, and gathered round behind the villagers. Everyone sang and she stood and watched Alex, saw him smile at his mother, heard his voice, clear on the cold air, and knew she would remember this for the rest of her life.

 One more carol and the staff were passing round glasses of punch, the farm wagon came round to carry the singers back to the village and the family coaches pulled up.

 ‘You are a dreadful fraud,’ Tess said to Alex as he helped her into the first carriage. ‘The things you said about carol singers!’

 She expected him to joke, to pick up her rallying tone, but his face was serious as he settled her in the seat and stepped down. ‘I had forgotten the simple beauty of it,’ he said. Then he did smile. ‘Mama, mind that slippery patch.’ He helped his mother to her place, then Maria and his father. Matthew climbed in, assisting Dorcas, and Alex shut the door.

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