‘Yes, ma’am. Thank you, we will be well entertained, I am sure.’
Dorcas went upstairs to play with Daisy, releasing Annie to join the other staff, and Tess curled up in the window seat overlooking the drive and waited.
My heart demands it, he said last night. What did that mean? If he loved her, then he would have said so, surely? Please do not love me, she pleaded, leaning close to the window so that her breath fogged the cold glass and she had to rub at it with her hand in case it obscured the first glimpse of the returning carriage. It would be unbearable to leave him if he loved her, but she must. If he had been the younger son and willing to live out of society, a country squire as Matthew aspired to be, then perhaps it would be possible.
But Alexander Tempest, Viscount Weybourn, was not an obscure country squire and never would be.
* * *
Tess woke with a start to find Dorcas leaning over her. She had fallen asleep on the window seat, her forehead against the cold glass, which was probably why she had a headache. That and the dreams. Alex naked in her arms, Alex in ermine-trimmed robes and an earl’s coronet being dragged into the House of Lords while all the peers turned their back on her. Mother Superior explaining patiently, while Noel and Ophelia chased each other around her desk, why Tess must be thankful for even a menial position in a respectable household.
‘I have been having such muddling dreams. What time is it?’
‘Past three.’ Dorcas jiggled Daisy in her arms and the baby chuckled up at her. ‘I can hear fiddle music from below stairs.’
‘He isn’t back yet, is he?’ Of course not, she would know if Alex was in the house.
‘No.’ Dorcas did not have to ask who he was, it seemed. Was she so very transparent? Tess could only hope Lady Moreland could not discern that Tess was head over heels in love with her eldest son.
* * *
The party downstairs was in full flow when she and Dorcas went down the back stairs, carrying the baskets of presents. As they entered the kitchen the Moreland staff fell silent at the sight of guests in their domain.
‘A Merry Christmas, everyone. Please excuse the intrusion, but Mrs White and I have gifts for Lord Weybourn’s staff.’
‘Of course, Miss Ellery.’ Garnett, almost unrecognisable out of livery and with a smile on his face, ushered them through to a second room. ‘They said that they were expecting his lordship, so we have made the servants’ hall available to them until after he has been down.’
‘His lordship appears to have been detained.’ Tess put a slight question into the statement, but the butler was too skilled to be taken in by a fishing expedition.
‘So it would appear, Miss Ellery. One trusts he will not be much longer as the light is fading fast.’
Tess was greeted with beaming smiles and a chorus of Christmas greetings. MacDonald played a flourish on his fiddle, then put it down. They all gazed at her expectantly.
‘I’m afraid Lord Weybourn had to go out today, unexpectedly.’ Unexpected for me, at least. ‘I know you will all be wanting to join the other staff here for your Christmas celebrations together, but I thought I ought to bring your gifts down in case his lordship is further delayed.’ She put her two baskets on the table and Dorcas added another beside them. ‘We’ll leave you to your festivities, and a very happy Christmas to you all.’
‘Won’t you stay Mrs...Miss Ellery?’ Annie said. ‘Hand the presents out, seeing as his lordship can’t?’
‘But they are from him and it isn’t my place—’
‘Reckon it is, Miss Ellery,’ MacDonald said. ‘You’re the lady of the house in London after all.’
‘But I was only acting as housekeeper while Mrs Semple was unwell...’ she began. How could they imagine for a moment that she thought of herself as anything else? Dreams, yes, but no one could be blamed for their dreams.
‘That’s not what I mean, ma’am.’ MacDonald pulled out a chair while she gaped at him. ‘Here, Miss Ellery, why don’t you sit by the fire?’
‘I... Thank you, MacDonald.’ To even protest at his words would draw attention to them. ‘Lord Weybourn chose all the gifts,’ she added as she lifted the first from the basket.
‘All by himself, Miss Ellery?’ someone called.
‘Mostly by himself.’ She found she could join in the laughter and, gradually, as the presents were handed out and greeted with exclamations of surprise and pleasure, she relaxed. But there was a sadness in it, too. These were her people in so many ways, and she was going to miss them, miss their warmth and kindness, their loyalty and humour.