’TIS THE SEASON FOR MISCHIEF!
Accidentally colliding with Tess Ellery on the icy streets of Ghent is definitely not the way resolute bachelor Alexander Tempest, Viscount Weybourn, intended to start the festive period. He might have mistaken her for a nun, but there’s nothing innocent about his reaction to Tess’s delicious curves…
When Tess is left stranded, Alex is honour-bound to take her home…as his housekeeper! And, despite his long-held rule of spending Christmas alone, Tess’s vivacity soon has this brooding Lord determined to make all her Christmas wishes come true!
Lords of Disgrace Bachelors for life!
Skidding round corners on the ice-slick cobblestones of Ghent, however, was not normal, not in the gloomy light of the late-November afternoon with his mind occupied by thoughts of warm fires, good friends and rum punch.
The convent wall was high and unyielding when he cannoned into it. Alex found himself rebounding off the wall and into a nun, dressed all in black and grey, and blending perfectly with the cobbles. She was certainly yielding as she gave a small shriek of alarm and went flying, her black portmanteau bouncing away to land on the threshold of the convent's closed gates.
Alex got his feet under control. 'Ma soeur, je suis désolé. Permettez-moi. ' He held out his hand as she levered herself into a sitting position with one black mitten-covered hand. Her bonnet, plain dark grey with a black ribbon, had tipped forward over her nose, and she pushed it back to look up at him.
'I am not'
'Hurt? Excellent.' He could only make out the oval of her face in the shadow of the bonnet's brim. She seemed to be young by her voice. 'But you are English?' He extended the other hand. Presumably there were English nuns.
'Let's get you up off that cold ground, Sister.' Her cloak, which seemed none too thick given the weather, was black. Under it there was the hem of a dark grey robe and the toes of sensible black boots. 'Take my hands.' Probably nuns were not supposed to touch men, but he could hardly get excommunicated for adding that small sin to the far greater offence of flattening her to the ground.
With what sounded like a sigh of resignation she put her hands in his and allowed him to pull her upright. 'Ow!' She hopped on one foot, swayed dangerously and the next moment she was cradled in his arms. After all, one did not allow a lady to fall, even if she was a nun. 'Oh!'
Alex braced his feet well apart on the slippery cobbles and looked down at as much as he could see of his armful, which wasn't a great deal, what with her billowing cloak and ferocious hat brim. But even if he couldn't see any detail, there was plenty for his body to read. She was young. And slender. And curved. He dipped his head and inhaled the scent of her. Plain soap, wet wool and warm, rapidly chilling, woman. Rapidly chilling nun. Pull yourself together, man. Nuns are most definitely on the forbidden list. Pity
'I'll ring the bell, shall I?' he offered with a jerk of his head towards the rusty iron chain hanging by the door. It looked like the sort of thing desperate criminals clung to when claiming sanctuary, although, judging by the small barred peephole set into the massive planks, the sanctuary on offer might be rather less welcoming than a prison cell. 'It seems as though you have twisted your ankle.'
Mentioning parts of the anatomy was probably another sin, but she made no attempt to smite him with a rosary, although the body that was already stiff in his arms became rigid. 'No. Absolutely not. Thank'
'I really think I should get someone to come out.'
'you. I am due down at the canal basin. Sister Clare is expecting me.' Crisp, polite and obviously furious with him, but constrained through charity or good manners from saying so, he concluded. An educated, refined voice masking some strain or perhaps sadness. He was used to listening to voices, hearing what was behind the actual words; anyone was who did much negotiating. What are you hiding, little nun?
But the polite irritation was what was on the surface. That was fair enough. He'd knocked her down; the least he could do was to take her where she wanted to go and not to where, from the way her body arched away from the door, she did not want to be. 'But you should see a doctor. What if there is a bone broken?' Alex bent, juggled his armful of cross woman as best he could, caught the handles of the portmanteau in his fingers and straightened up. 'Which canal, Sister?'
'I am going to Ostend early tomorrow morning. Sister Clare runs a small hostel for travellers down at the port here and I will spend the night with her. But I am not'
'This way, then.' Alex began to walk downhill. 'It just so happens I can take you to a doctor on the way.'
'I do not wish to be any trouble, but'
'You cannot walk and all the cabs have vanished as they always do when one most needs one. It is not out of my way.'
And they were not actually going to see a doctor, although Grant had virtually completed his medical education at Edinburgh when he'd been forced to give it up.
'Yes, but I'
'Have no money?' Nuns were supposed to be penniless, he seemed to recall. 'Don't concern yourself about that, it is my fault you were injured and he's a friend. What is your name? I'm Viscount Weybourn.' He didn't normally lead with his rank, but he supposed a title might reassure her.
Her body shifted in his arms as she gave the sort of sigh that needed a lungful of air. She was probably mortified at being carried by a man, but if she wouldn't go back into the convent then there wasn't much option. He made another valiant, and unfamiliar, effort not to notice the feminine curves pressed against his body. He wasn't used to getting this close to women unless they both intended to take things considerably further.
'Sister Teresa.' Of course, nuns were named for saints, weren't they? 'Excellent. Here we are.' The lights of Les Quatre Éléments glowed though the gathering dusk and he headed for them like a mariner spying a safe, familiar harbour.
'An inn? Lord Wey'
'A very respectable inn,' Alex assured her as he shouldered through the front door into the light and heat and bustle of a well-run hostelry. 'Gaston!'
'Milord Weybourn.' The innkeeper came hurrying out of the back. 'How good to see you again, milord. The other gentlemen are in your usual private parlour.'
'Thank you, Gaston.' Alex headed for the door on the right. And some tea? Coffee? What would you like, Sister Teresa?'
'Gentlemen? Private parlour? Lord Weybourn, put me down this'
'Tea,' he ordered for her. Tea was soothing, wasn't it? His little nun needed soothing; she was beginning to wriggle in agitation like a ruffled hen and, hell, if she didn't stop she wasn't the only one who'd need it. Soothing, that was, not tea. He really needed a woman. How long had it been? A month? That was far too long.
Alex kicked the door closed behind him and leaned back against it for a moment while he sought for his usual composure. Nuns apparently did not wear corsets. The discovery was seriously unsettling. The soft weight of a small breast against his forearm was damnably unsettling. He was reacting like a green youth and he didn't like the feeling.
'My dear Alex, why the drama?' Crispin de Feaux lowered the document he was studying, stood up and regarded the scene in the doorway with cool detachment. Possibly if he had erupted into the room pursued by sword-wielding soldiery Cris might have revealed some emotion, but Alex rather doubted it. 'Have you taken to abducting nuns?'
'Nuns? Surely not?' Over by the fireplace Grant Rivers swung his boots down from the fender and stood, too, dragging one hand through his hair. Characteristically he looked responsible and concerned.
'What do you bet?' Gabriel Stone dropped a handful of dice with a clatter and lounged to his feet. 'Although it hardly seems Alex's style. High-fliers, now '
Alex narrowed his eyes, daring him to continue stripping her with that insolent gaze. Gabe grinned and slumped back into his chair.
'I slipped on the ice and knocked Sister Teresa to the ground, injuring her ankle in the process.' Alex pushed away from the door and carried his burden over to the settle by the fire. 'I thought you should check it for her, Grant.'
'There you are, Sister Teresa, you're in safe hands now and tea is on the way.' The infuriating creature deposited Tess on the settee opposite the handsome brown-haired man and sketched a bow. 'This is Grantham Rivers, a very handy man with a sprained ankle.' She caught the grin Lord Weybourn sent the doctor and the doctor's eye roll in return as his friend turned on his heel and sauntered over to the other two men.
'I am not'
'A nun. I know.' The doctor sat down. He was polite, but didn't seem too happy. 'Unlike Alex, I know that nuns wear wimples and do not trot around the streets alone.'
'Do none of you allow a woman to finish a sentence?' Tess demanded. She had gone beyond miserable since her interview with Mother Superior a week ago had knocked all her certainties into utter chaos. She'd forced herself into the same state of stoical, unhappy acceptance that had kept her sane, somehow, all those years ago when Mama and Papa had died. Now the shock of being hurled off her feet had sent her into an unfamiliar mood of irritation.
Or possibly this was the effect men had on women all the time. As her association with the creatures since the age of thirteen had been limited to the priest, an aged gardener and occasional encounters with tradesmen, this could well be the case. For the first time in her life celibacy began to sound appealing. But now she was alone with four of them, although they seemed safe enough, sober and respectful.
'Normally, yes, we have much better manners. Alex is doubtless disconcerted at his very unusual clumsiness in felling you to the ground, but I have no excuse. How should I address you, ma'am?'
'Miss Ellery. Tess Ellery, Doctor.'
'Not doctor. Plain Mr Grantham Rivers. But I almost completed my medical training at Edinburgh, so I am quite safe to be let loose on minor injuries, Miss Ellery.' He regarded her as she sat there looking, she had no doubt, like a somewhat battered crow. 'May I take your cloak and bonnet? I will need you to remove your shoe and stocking so I can examine your ankle. Shall I send for a maid to attend you?'
He looked serious and respectable. Considering that she had not shed so much as a glove in male company for years, Tess wondered why she was not more flustered. Perhaps being knocked to the ground and then carried by a tall, strong, over-masterful aristocrat might have reduced her capacity for flusterment. Was that a word? More likely the fact that her world was so out of kilter accounted for it.
'Miss Ellery?' Mr Rivers was waiting patiently. She searched for normal courtesy and some poise, found a smile and felt it freeze on her lips as she met his eyes. He had the saddest eyes she had ever seen. It was like gazing into the hell of someone's private grief, and staring felt as intrusive and unmannerly as gawping at mourners at a funeral.
'No, no maid. I can manage, thank you.' Tess made a business of her bonnet ribbon and cloak clasp and murmured her thanks. He laid the garments at the end of the settle, then went to stand with his back to her, shielding her from the room as she managed her laces and untied her garter to roll down her stocking. 'I cannot get my boot off.'
'The ankle is swelling.' Mr Rivers came and knelt down in front of her. 'Let me see if I can remove it without cutting the leather.'
'Please.' They were her only pair of boots.
'Have you any other injuries?' He bent over her foot, working the boot off with gentle wiggles. 'You didn't bang your head, or put out your hand and hurt your wrist?'
'No, only my ankle. It turned over as I fell.' Removing the boot hurt, despite his care, so Tess looked over his head at the other three men for distraction. Such a strange quartet. Mr Rivers with his tragic eyes, gentle hands and handsome profile. Her rescuer, Lord Weybourn, tall, elegant and relaxed. Deceptively relaxed, given the ease with which he had lifted and carried her. The blond icicle who looked like a cross between an archangel and a hanging judge and the lounging dice player who seemed more suited to a hedge tavern frequented by footpads than a respectable inn in the company of gentlemen.
Yes, an unlikely combination of friends and yet they were so easy together. Like brothers, she supposed. Family.
Lord Weybourn met her gaze and lifted one slanting eyebrow.
'Ah, that made you jump, sorry.' Mr Rivers's fingers were probing and flexing. 'Tell me where it hurts. Here? When I do this? Can you wriggle your toes? Excellent. And point your foot? No, stop if it is painful.'
He certainly seemed to know what he was doing. He would bind it up for her and Lord Weybourn must find her some conveyance, given that the collision was all his fault and she wouldn't be able to get her boot laced again over a bandage. None of these men were behaving in a way that made her uneasy. There were no leers or winks, no suggestive remarks. Tess relaxed a little more and decided she could trust her judgement that she was safe here.
His lordship was half sitting on the edge of the table, laughing at something the dice player had said. Now he had shed his hat and greatcoat she could see that the impression of elegance could be applied to his clothing as much as to his manner. Ten years in a nunnery did not do much for her appreciation of male fashion, but even she could see that what he wore had been crafted from expensive fabrics by a master who could sculpt fabric around broad shoulders and long, muscular legs, and that whoever looked after his linen was a perfectionist.
Unlike his friends, the viscount wasn't conventionally good looking, Tess thought critically as Mr Rivers rested her foot on a stool and stood up, murmuring about cold compresses and bandages. Mr Rivers was the image of the perfect English gentleman: strong bones, straight nose, thick, glossy dark brown hair and those tragic, beautiful green eyes. The blond icicle belonged in a church's stained-glass window, giving impressionable girls in the congregation palpitations of mixed desire and terror at the thought of his blue eyes turning on them or that sculpted mouth opening on some killing rebuke. Even the dice player with his shock of black hair, insolent gypsy-dark eyes and broad shoulders had the attractiveness of a male animal in its prime.
But Lord Weybourn was different. Very masculine, of course Oh, yes. She gave a little shiver as she recalled how easily he had lifted and carried her. And he had a touch of something dangerously other-worldly about him. His hair was dark blond, his nose was thin, his cheekbones pronounced. His eyes, under winging dark brows, were, she guessed, hazel and his chin was firm.
It was his mouth, she decided, focusing on that feature. It was mobile and kept drifting upwards into a half smile as though his thoughts were pleasant, but mysterious and, in some way, dangerous. In fact, she decided, he looked like a particularly well-dressed supernatural creature, if such things ever reached a good six feet in height with shoulders in proportionone who ruled over forests where the shadows were dark and wolves lurked