‘Is Alex—Lord Weybourn—not coming?’ Tess felt something like panic, which was foolish.
‘He has gone up on the box. Said something about clearing his head,’ Lord Moreland said with a grunt.
At least mine is clear enough, Tess thought. No room for daydreams now. Two days to get through, then I can ask Alex to send me back to London. I can go to Hannah’s lodging house. I have enough money to support myself for a few weeks. Perhaps Hannah will give me a reference.
* * *
The church was ancient and simple, its interior glowing with candlelight and made festive with evergreen swags along the pews. Up in the gallery the band was readying their instruments; there was a scraping from the fiddles, the deep boom of the serpent, the quick tootle of a flute.
Tess followed the family to the great box pew at the front of the nave and settled into a corner created by the pew butting up against a medieval tomb, an ornate box with the full-size effigies of a knight in armour and his lady lying on the top.
‘That’s Hugo de Tempest,’ Maria whispered.
Tess was grateful for the embroidered cushion on the hard oak bench seat and the carpet on the stone floor. The hassocks were embroidered, too, and she knelt on hers and did her best to calm her thoughts and turn them in an appropriate direction. Then she sat and fixed her gaze on the haughty profile of the recumbent Hugo and tried not to think about his descendant sitting four feet away from her.
* * *
Alex sat, knelt, stood and sang with his mind fixed on one thing, one person. As the congregation settled down for the sermon he shifted slightly on the pew so he could see Tess’s profile.
She was no longer his little nun. She was groomed and well dressed and had found the confidence to fit in with his family. And she was beautiful, he realised, watching the still, calm profile set against the frigid stone carving of the tomb. He had fallen in love with a woman without once thinking about beauty, and yet he had always expected it of any of the women he had kept over the years.
He was dazzled by her body, there was no denying it, but it was Tess he had fallen in love with, not her face. His family liked her already, he had seen how competent, how caring she was with the staff in his own house. She would be a perfect countess—if only he could persuade her that she would be accepted. Damn the Ellerys. Why they had to build Sethcombe Hall next door and not in furthest Northumberland...
* * *
Alex was not certain afterwards when the idea had come to him. Possibly at some time between the end of the sermon and the blessing, certainly before he had shepherded his small flock down the aisle and abandoned his mother to Matthew’s support while he took his father’s arm.
‘Stop fussing, Alexander.’
‘As you say, sir. But I’d be grateful if you would be careful of your health. I have no wish to be using this signet except at your direction for many a long day.’
‘Ha! Humbug.’ But he smiled.
His mother hustled the earl off to his bed the moment they reached the house, Maria on their heels. Matthew had vanished. In front of him Tess was climbing the stairs slowly, back straight, cloak trailing behind her.
He followed her up quietly and caught her in the corridor. ‘Tess.’
‘Please, don’t.’ She did not turn. Her hood had fallen back and he looked at the nape of her neck. It was pale, vulnerable, soft. He knew how her skin felt under his lips, he knew how she smelled, just there, he knew the taste of her. Not to touch her now, not to pull her back into his arms so he could kiss that perfect place...that took an act of will.
‘Tess, do you hate me?’
‘Hate?’ She turned abruptly, so close he could have pulled her against his body if he had not linked his hands hard behind his back. ‘No, never. How could I? I—’ She broke off as his heart gave one hard thump.
What had Tess been about to say? I love you?
‘I wish I had never come here,’ she said fiercely. ‘I wish you had not skidded on those cobbles, that I had not fallen, that I had not overslept. I wish I was cold and lonely in that London convent because I knew my place there, I knew who I was and what I was. You made me dream impossible dreams.’
Alex dragged his hands apart, reached for her. ‘Tess. Darling Tess.’ She dreamed, he made her dream. Despite everything, despite her unhappiness, he wanted to cheer.
She stepped back. ‘But I cannot blame you. It is all my own fault. Mother Superior in Ghent explained very clearly that I am not only a bastard, but the child of a criminal liaison. I am old enough to understand that and to accept it, you would have thought.’