* * *
Alex broke the kiss when her knees were threatening to give way. Tess sagged into his arms and rubbed her cheek against his chest, the friction of the waistcoat edge a welcome irritation reminding her that this was real and not a dream.
‘I know you wanted a knight in armour, a Sir Galahad, and all you had was a prosaic soul trying to do this by logic and negotiation. You needed sweeping off your feet.’ His breath was warm in her hair as he nuzzled into it, pulling her close.
‘I don’t want a knight. I want my viscount—just as long as marrying me does not ruin you.’
‘Truly, Tess?’ Alex stepped back, let her go, his gaze fixed on her face. ‘I love you. I want to marry you, raise children with you. It might still be difficult—I can’t pretend it won’t, even with our families’ support. I won’t be ruined, far from it, but there will be talk, and you might not be received at court.’
‘I don’t care. I only want you, only need you.’ Once she had dreamed of seeing the Prince Regent. Once she had dreamed of a gallant knight. Now she had a family and a man she loved to build their own with.
‘You showed me the way home,’ Alex said. ‘You gave me my father back.’ A faint rumour of sound drifted in through the window with the cold breeze. The staff were singing carols. ‘You gave me Christmas back.’
Tess held out her hand, tugged him towards the door. ‘Let’s go and tell them. How soon can we get married?’
‘That long? Alex, I want to be yours the moment you can get a special licence.’
‘And I want the biggest possible wedding.’ He stopped at the head of the stairs and caught her in his arms, his smile a caress that made her dizzy with desire for him. ‘A society wedding, an announcement that I love you, that our families love you and we are proud of you. I want you to have the pleasure of buying a trousseau and I want the pleasure of buying you jewels.’
‘There’s still my grandfather.’
‘Just kiss his cheek, let him forgive himself.’ Alex took her hand and led her downstairs, into the small dining room where Maria was filling a plate for Tess’s grandfather and the rest of the family were carrying on what sounded like a desperately polite conversation.
‘Teresa.’ Her grandfather stood up. ‘I cannot undo the past.’
‘I know.’ She found it easy to release her grip on Alex’s hand, to go around the table and to stand on tiptoe to kiss the old man’s cheek. ‘But we can start afresh, can’t we? I love Alex. We are going to be married. I want you to know your great-grandchildren.’
The cheek her lips were pressed to was wet and his voice was gruff as he said, ‘I wish your grandmother was alive today.’
‘So do I.’ Tess put up one hand and wiped the tears off his cheeks. ‘Alex will fetch me some supper and we’ll talk about her.’
Maria was in tears, Lady Moreland fluttered a lace handkerchief, Matthew was slapping Alex on the back and Lord Moreland, seated at the head of the table, struck his knife against his wine glass.
‘A toast to the future Lady Weybourn, my new daughter.’
‘Your attention, please!’ Alex stood in the door of the servants’ hall, Tess by his side. Faces turned; the laughter and chatter died away. ‘I have the honour to introduce you to my betrothed. You all know her and many of you made her feel safe and welcome in a strange city. You will all understand why I cannot live without her—’
Whatever else he intended to say was lost in the hubbub. Dorcas, predictably, was in tears. Annie, her newfound dignity forgotten, was dancing up and down, the Half Moon Street staff were clapping, Garnett, his face split by a huge grin, was leading his people in a rousing chorus of cheers.
The noise showed no sign of abating. Alex eased back through the door, taking Tess with him. ‘Father’s told Garnett to open the champagne. Goodness knows if anyone is going to be sober by tomorrow.’
They reached the ground-floor landing of the backstairs, but Alex kept climbing. ‘Where are we going?’
‘To bed.’ He stopped at the next turn. ‘Unless you wish me to retire to my own bedchamber until the wedding night?’
‘Alex, you are scandalous.’ And a terrible temptation.
‘I am in love.’ He shrugged, the movement of those strong muscles sending a delicious frisson through her. ‘There’s nothing to be done about it but make love to me, or banish me.’ In the dim light he looked almost convincingly downcast. ‘Besides, I wanted to unwrap my Christmas present.’