Oh. So I am not going mad, I am not seeing things. Oh, Mama, I wish it had been you. Then the implication of Alex’s words penetrated her spinning thoughts. ‘My aunt? My cousin? Here?’
‘To meet you, yes.’ Alex straightened up and stepped back.
There was a moment of hesitation, then the three ladies came forward, the youngest dropping to her knees beside Tess. ‘I am your second cousin Charlotte. I am so pleased to meet you! I’ve been wanting to know all about my scandalous Cousin Jane and no one would tell me anything.’ She sat back on her heels, blonde ringlets bouncing, and beamed at Tess. ‘We’re muddling you—are we a great surprise?’
‘A...shock,’ Tess confessed. She swung her feet down from the sofa and sat up. The room shifted queasily.
One of the older women came and perched by her feet, the other—the one who looked like Mama—stood with her hand on Charlotte’s shoulder. ‘My dear Teresa. Did Lord Weybourn not warn you?’
Tess shook her head, looked round for Alex. He was standing with his father, both of them withdrawn from the group around Tess. He was watching her intently. ‘I do not know what to say. My aunt told me that the family wanted nothing to do with either of us.’
There was an uneasy silence. The three women all looked at the elderly man who was still on his feet. He stared at Tess from under beetling grey brows. Lord Moreland cleared his throat and the stranger shot him a fierce glare. ‘Don’t you presume to prompt me, Moreland. I’ll make up my own mind. She looks like a lady, I’ll say that, not a chit born in sin and raised by a Papist.’
Tess’s confusion cleared, leaving her oddly calm and very, very angry. With everyone. She got to her feet, ignoring agitated sounds from her female cousins. ‘Are you my grandfather, sir?’
‘I am Sethcombe. This is your younger uncle, Lord Withrend.’
Tess straightened her back, lifted her chin and took a deep breath. I will not break down. I will not scream at him. ‘My mother intended to make a legal marriage. If she was not in full possession of the facts, then you, my lord, must take responsibility for not advising her of them. As for my aunt, she was a good woman who followed her conscience and was true to her faith. I was raised as a gentlewoman and that is all I lay claim to. I most certainly have no wish to lay claim to a relationship with you, my lord.’ She turned and dropped a slight curtsy to Lady Moreland. ‘I apologise, my lady, for any embarrassment I may have caused. I had no idea who your neighbours were until after I entered this house.
‘I will retire to my room now and I would be most grateful if you would allow me a carriage to take me to the nearest stagecoach halt in the morning.’
‘Tess!’ Alex strode across the room to stand between her and the door as she turned amidst an echoing silence. ‘You cannot do that. Your family has come to meet you, to make their peace.’
‘I see no sign of it. My cousins are most kind, for which I thank them. But my grandfather considers me a child of sin by one daughter, raised by another whom he cast out for following a faith of which he obviously disapproves deeply.’ Her voice wavered and she brought it back under control with an effort that hurt her throat. ‘My presence in this house must only be a strain on relations between neighbours. An embarrassment.’ She sidestepped and reached the door before he spoke.
‘You are not an embarrassment to me and you ever could be. I wish you to be my wife, Tess.’
She closed her fingers around the door handle, the moulded metal cutting into her palm.
‘I thought you might care for me a little, Tess.’
How that must hurt his pride, to make a declaration in front of his parents, in front of their neighbours. ‘I do care for you, Lord Weybourn.’ She said it steadily and without turning. ‘I care too much to stay and bring scandal on your family. You have only just found them again. I would not have you lose them.’
Somehow she made it to her chamber and rang the bell. Dorcas arrived five minutes later, pink cheeked and cheerful.
‘I am sorry to disturb you, Dorcas, but I am leaving in the morning. Please could you ask one of the footmen to bring my portmanteaux down so I can pack?’
‘But don’t you want me to come with you, Miss Ellery?’
‘I can’t afford to pay you, Dorcas. I am very sorry. I will write a note for Lady Moreland and I am sure she will do her best to find you a respectable place where you may keep Daisy with you.’
‘We’ll come, too,’ Dorcas said stubbornly.