Annie looked as though she had grown two inches, she was so much the confident nursery maid, and the other staff seemed more knitted together, almost a family.
I helped with that, Tess thought and swallowed a tear as MacDonald began humming an air from the new sheet music and Phipps picked up the tune on his flute.
‘Miss Ellery.’ What had come first—the prickle of awareness at the nape of her neck or the sound of Alex’s voice?
‘Lord Weybourn.’ She was on her feet, turning, finding a smile that was merely polite and not a betrayal of what was in her heart. ‘I hope you do not mind, but we did not know when you would return.’
Alex looked...strange. Then she realised he was radiating tension, although there was a smile on his lips for his cheerful staff. ‘I apologise, everyone. I should have been here to wish you the very best for the season, but I had an unavoidable visit to make.’
He wanted to leave, she could tell, although she doubted anyone else did as they clustered around, thanking him for their gifts, pressing him to take a slice of plum pudding, a sugared almond. Annie wanted to tell him about Ophelia, Noel emerged from the safety of his basket to wind himself around his boots and all the time he smiled and laughed and teased while his long body seemed rigid with the desire to be gone.
Tess began to watch the clock. Five minutes, ten. Finally, after quarter of an hour Alex said, ‘Miss Ellery, I am sorry to drag you away from this delightful party, but I am afraid you are needed upstairs.’
‘Of course. Thank you, everyone, the pudding was delicious. Have a wonderful evening.’ She smiled and laughed at their rejoinders and rescued Noel from under Alex’s boots. She promised to take Ophelia for a walk the next day and followed Alex out, through a maze of corridors and up the back stairs to the hall.
‘Thank you for distributing the gifts.’ He sounded stilted, probably with annoyance.
‘I am sorry if I presumed, but—’
‘Presumed? Don’t be so foolish, Tess.’ It was definitely a snap and not in the slightest bit reassuring.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked after a moment. Apparently he had not marched her upstairs to reprove her for usurping his place with the staff in that little ceremony, but now they were in the draughty hall Alex seemed frozen in place.
‘We have guests I would like you to meet.’ He took her arm and made for the front salon. The grip was verging on the uncomfortable; his face was set. Tess almost tripped over her feet keeping up with him. At the door Alex stopped abruptly, looked down at her, then stooped and kissed her hard and fast. ‘Forgive me, Tess.’
He opened the door and swept her in while she was still gasping and flustered from the kiss.
The occupants of the room were grouped around the hearth. Lady Moreland sat on one sofa flanked by an elderly man and a middle-aged one. Two ladies sat on the opposite sofa with a young lady of about Tess’s age between them. Lord Moreland stood in the centre, his back to the fire. He looked as though he had been interrupted in mid-speech. The others all turned at the sound of the door closing and the two other men rose to their feet.
No one smiled, although their eyes seemed fixed on her.
Then Lady Moreland held out her hand. ‘Miss Ellery, do come in.’
Alex’s hand released its grip and moved to cup her elbow, guiding her across the deep pile of the carpet towards the fireplace. It felt like walking through sand in a dream. Perhaps this was a dream.
Then the nearest woman moved abruptly. Tess looked directly at her and the floor seemed to shift beneath her feet. ‘Mama!’
‘I do not faint.’ Tess heard her own voice, weak but indignant, and managed to open her eyes.
‘You had a shock, my dear, that is all.’ Lady Moreland’s face, thin, concerned, swam into focus above her.
‘I need to sit up.’
‘Is that wise?’ Another female voice, unfamiliar.
‘Yes. I want Alex... I mean, where is Lord Weybourn?’
‘I am here, Tess.’ His mother moved aside and Alex appeared in her place. ‘Let me put a cushion behind you.’
She managed to sit up, her gaze fixed on his face. ‘I thought I saw... I am seeing things. Ghosts.’
‘No, not a ghost. You saw your aunt’s eldest daughter. I think your cousin, Lady Wilmslow, must be about the age your mother was when she died. Apparently there is a strong resemblance.’