‘Is there a convent on the coast of Greenland, do you think?’ Alex enquired. He could feel the anger boiling up, only just in his control. ‘Or on the slopes of some volcano somewhere? I would like to see her transferred there, I think. You are the child of parents who broke the law and you are an innocent in all of this.’
‘None of this is fair,’ Tess said. ‘But it is the reality. I will not be your mistress. I could not bear it. And I cannot be your wife, however often you gallantly offer to ruin your name and alienate your family for a woman who will never be accepted in society, simply because your honour demands it.’
‘My heart demands it.’ He could not believe he was saying it. Tess would laugh at him, just as she had when he had joined in the carol singing. He had worn the mask of cynicism for so long that surely no one would be able to see behind it now.
‘Oh, Alex.’ She reached up and caressed his cheek and he closed his eyes against the pain of it. ‘You were right. I was a silly romantic and now I have infected you with my sentimentality and you will be hurt, too. I am so sorry.’
Her fingers left his face, but he kept his eyes closed, standing in darkness as her footsteps faded away. The clock struck one. It was Christmas morning already.
His father did not appear at breakfast, which was hardly surprising. Everyone except his brother and sister and Dorcas had taken it in their room, it seemed. Alex made himself eat his way through bacon, eggs and toast, all of which tasted like straw. He finished a second cup of coffee before he asked Garnett if he knew the earl’s plans for the morning.
‘I believe his lordship intends to spend some time in the study, my lord.’ The butler gestured to a footman to replenish Alex’s cup. ‘Her ladyship expressed her concern that he should rest, but he remarked in my hearing that he intended to deal with some social correspondence and would not overexert himself.’
‘Inform me when his lordship comes down, please, Garnett.’
The butler effaced himself and Alex reached for some more toast he did not want.
‘Are you going to marry Miss Ellery?’ Maria’s question sent the strawberry preserve dish crashing from his fingers into the butter.
There was a flurry of attentive footmen. Alex waved them away. ‘Thank you, you may leave.’ When they were alone he rescued the spoon and dumped jam on the toast. ‘Why should you expect me to do that?’
Matthew snorted. ‘Because the pair of you look like agitated turtle doves, billing and cooing one moment and flapping about in a taking the next.’
Alex made himself bite off a mouthful of toast, chew and swallow. ‘I do not bill, nor coo, nor, for that matter, flap.’
‘But you love her,’ Maria persisted.
‘What do you know about love, Mar?’ Matthew enquired.
‘I have eyes in my head and I know more about it than you do with your raking about, I’ll be bound. And don’t call me Mar.’
‘Stop squabbling, children. You make me feel old.’ Alex found he was incapable of denying that he loved Tess. Even a prevarication refused to pass his lips.
‘You are getting old,’ Maria countered. ‘And it is certainly time you married. Mama likes her.’
‘I am not yet thirty and it is not that simple.’ Alex pushed back his chair and retreated to the library. It was a retreat, a full-scale, cowardly rout, he admitted it, but he dare not risk meeting Tess before he had this settled.
He pulled the Peerage from the shelf again and sat studying it. There were no answers there; he had to rely on his own wits.
* * *
The clock was striking eleven before Garnett came into the room. ‘His lordship has just entered the study, my lord.’
‘Thank you.’ This was it, then. Alex remembered the duel again and decided that had, in retrospect, been considerably less nerve-racking than this.
The study door was closed, as always. A cliff face of polished oak, armoured with brass knobs, massive hinges. The great gate to the ogre’s fortress when he was a child and had stood here stiffening his nerve after the summons to yet another lecture on how inadequate, useless, unmanly and generally unsatisfactory he was as a Tempest.
Alex flung it open without knocking, then closed it behind him with a satisfying thud.
‘What in Hades?’ His father flung down his pen. ‘Damn it, Weybourn, I’ve made a blot! What’s wrong with knocking, might I ask?’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘Something’s wrong.’