‘You owe me a life, Father.’ Alex made himself sit down in the great chair opposite the desk instead of leaning over and thumping his fist on the leather surface. He crossed his legs, smoothed a wrinkle out of his breeches. ‘We have skirted around this, but it is time to confront it. A young man died because of you. My friend. There is a debt to be paid and you are about to pay it.’
He had prepared himself for a temper tantrum of monumental proportions. Instead, his father picked up the pen from the blotter and stuck it into the inkwell. ‘That young woman, I suppose. Tell me. Tell me what you want.’
Alex resisted the urge to pinch himself. Apparently the reasonable tone was not an illusion and his father was actually prepared to listen. But this would be a negotiation and he would need all his skill. He took a long breath in through his nose, settled back in the chair and told his father what he knew about Tess and what he wanted the earl to do.
There was one explosion, a bellow of, ‘You want me to do what?’, a great deal of muttering and banging about, and then his father said, ‘Order the carriage and ring the bell for my valet. And tell your mother we will not be home for luncheon.’
The earl hauled himself to his feet with a grimace that Alex saw as he turned from the bell rope. Before he could think he found himself at his father’s side, his hand under the older man’s elbow. He had come to the house never thinking to touch his father again, certain that he hated him. Now he realised he was anxious, fearful for his father’s health. I care about him, he thought, confused by the rush of emotion.
‘Perhaps this is not the way to go about it. I will go by myself. You should rest, sir.’ His mother would never forgive him if he dragged his father out on a wintery journey and his precarious health suffered further as a result. ‘You could write a letter, perhaps.’
‘I’ll rest in my tomb,’ the earl snapped, even as he leaned his weight on Alex’s arm. ‘And I’ll see this matter sorted out before I do.’
* * *
Luncheon was served at one o’clock as usual. And as usual all the ladies were present. Matthew also appeared, explaining that if this was going to be the only hot meal of the day he would forgo his usual pie and tankard of ale down at the Moreland Arms.
Tess assumed Lord Moreland and Alex would take luncheon also, for the same reason, but there was no sign of them. Her hostess did not comment and finally she could bear it no longer. ‘I hope Lord Moreland was not too tired by the late night.’
‘No, not at all. He and Alexander have gone out, apparently.’ Lady Moreland sent Tess a disconcertingly straight look. ‘Did Alexander not tell you where he was going?’
‘I have not seen him since last night, after the service. And he said nothing then of going out this morning.’ For a moment she thought that Alex must have gone back to London, then she realised that his mother knew where he was, but, for some reason, was being mysterious about it.
‘Did he not?’ Lady Moreland. ‘No, I suppose he would not. He always was a secretive young man.’
‘I would have said self-contained rather than secretive,’ Tess said, more forcefully than she had intended. Lady Moreland’s eyebrows rose slightly. ‘But of course I have only known him as an adult.’
To judge by her faint smile Alex’s mother was more amused than irritated by Tess’s defence of her son.
Matthew removed his attention from a pile of lamb cutlets and potatoes. ‘I saw them drive off in the coach. Father was looking dashed serious.’
‘I hope Lord Weybourn returns before dinner time. His staff are expecting him to look in on their festivities below stairs.’ Tess chased a slice of carrot around her plate and wondered where her appetite had gone. Where Alex has gone, is more to the point. He is up to something.
She missed him, even though it was only hours since she had seen him. That was irrational because, if he was not there, then he was not breaking her heart with gallant attempts to offer her marriage or thoroughly ungallant offers of quite another kind.
The meal dragged to a close without any sign of the returning carriage. Lady Moreland rang for Garnett and dismissed the services of the staff once luncheon had been cleared and the cold collation set out for supper.
‘Maria, you and I must go and write letters. We have received so many with good wishes for the season I declare I am quite behind with my correspondence. Miss Ellery, I hope you and Mrs White will make free of the music room if you would like to play the pianoforte. Or there is a large selection of journals in the Blue Drawing Room. I gather you will be visiting the staff below stairs later?’