‘With respect, sir, you have nothing to say in the matter. Miss Ellery is of age. As you don’t recognise her your approval is irrelevant,’ Alex said, hanging on to the tail of his temper.
‘But you want me to acknowledge her. Will that be enough to see her received?’
‘It will go a long way. The problem may lie in getting Tess to acknowledge you.’
The glare swung round in an attempt to wither him. Alex glared back. Tess. I’m going the wrong way about this, locking horns with this old devil. I love you. I think you love me. Can I convince you that is all that matters?
He got to his feet and both older men jumped as though they had been off in a world of their own. They probably had, he realised. Thinking about old battles, old hurts. To hell with the past; he’d been entangled in it for too long. He had a future to build with Tess if he could only make her believe in it.
She had locked her door and he was not going to stand out there begging to come in. Nor would he act the lord and master by fetching a key and letting himself in. Tess’s life had been short on romance. Well, he might not be able to do it in armour, but, by God, he was going to try something romantic for once.
Outside the moonlight was bright on the frosted grass, the shadows darkly dramatic where the topiary yews marched along the edge of the wide lawns. The trelliswork along the south front was bare, but the stems of the ornamental vines were thick and strong and he found no more difficulty climbing them than he had as a boy escaping from his tutor.
There was light in Tess’s window, but when Alex reached it the room was empty. ‘Tess!’ He knocked on the panes, aware, suddenly, of the slippery soles of his evening shoes on the icy stems, the cold cramping his fingers. She was gone. ‘You fool, you waited too long.’ He let his head fall forward and banged it against the glass. Idiot. She’s run, gone off across the fields in this deadly weather.
The despair was as bitter as the wind. Could he find her again? Dorcas and Annie would be with her, and little Daisy. They’d be careful for the baby, that was his only comfort. Search parties—and the staff full of punch and mince pies. How long? He slammed his fist against the window one last time and shifted to start the climb down.
His head was just below the level of the sill when the window swung open. ‘Alex! What are you doing? Come in, for goodness’ sake, or you’ll fall.’ Tess was leaning out, hands outstretched.
His hands opened with the instinctive urge to seize hold of her—safe and warm and there.
Their fingers met, gripped, then he let go with his right hand and climbed up to face her. ‘You are falling out of that gown, Miss Ellery.’
‘Infuriating man.’ Both tears and laughter trembled in her voice. ‘You would be falling out if you were female and were leaning out of a window in an evening gown with an idiotic viscount dangling from your hands over rock-hard paving.’
‘I thought you had run away.’ He gripped the window frame and hauled himself through, then almost fell out again as Tess threw herself into his arms.
‘I’m sorry.’ Her face was buried in his neckcloth and the warmth of her body seeped into his cold skin like a caress. Alex held tight and prayed. ‘You brought Grandfather here and it cannot have been easy and Lord Moreland went, too, even though he is so ill. And I’d wanted you to make up with your family, forgive your father—and I can’t even forgive my own grandfather.’
‘He’s a curmudgeonly devil, but he’s coming round. He knows he is in the wrong and he wants you to forgive him, but he’s an old man and a proud one. I think you may have to meet him halfway, Tess.’ He laid his numbed cheek against her hair and breathed in the scent of Tess, of woman. My woman.
‘I had just gone out of the door on my way downstairs to see if he was still there when I heard the knock on my window,’ she mumbled into his shirtfront as she began to burrow her nose between the buttons. ‘Brrr, your chest is cold. What on earth were you doing?’
‘I thought it might be romantic,’ Alex said, attempting to resist the urge to pick her up bodily, toss her on to the bed and demonstrate that not all parts of his anatomy were frozen.
‘To almost kill yourself?’ Tess leaned back in his arms and glared at him. ‘Of all the—’
He kissed her. Her mouth was hot and opened on a gasp of surprise, then she was kissing him back, stroking her tongue over his, sighing as she pressed close into his arms. She was here, she was his and he was home.