His Housekeeper's Christmas Wish(10)By: Louise Allen
Please, no, Alex thought despairingly. If there was anything as bad as Christmas it was someone who was an enthusiast about it.
‘Evergreens...’ the confounded chit began. ‘Cutting them and...’
‘And it is so cold, but that is part of the fun, everyone wrapped up and the snow crunching underfoot, and that gorgeous smell of pines.’ Tess closed her eyes, the better to recall it. Memories of those wonderful English Christmases from many years ago, before Papa had said they must go abroad. There hadn’t been much money and it had been a different village each year.
She had never asked why they kept moving; she had simply taken it for granted, as children do. Now, from an adult perspective, she realised they had probably been keeping one step ahead of recognition and scandal and that was why they’d left the country—the Continent was cheaper and there would be less gossip.
But we were happy, she thought, recalling snowball fights at Christmas and unconditional love all the year round. When she opened her eyes again Alex Tempest’s mouth was pursed as though he had bitten a wasp. Grumpy man.
She pressed on, ignoring him, all the precious memories bubbling up, unstoppable. ‘And planning what presents you can give your friends and finding them or making them. That’s almost better than receiving gifts. There’s all the fun of hiding them away and wrapping them up and watching the other person’s face when they try to guess what’s in the parcel.’
Mr Rivers was smiling, even though his eyes were still sad. Tess smiled back. ‘And all the food to prepare. And church on Christmas Eve and the bells ringing out and being too excited to sleep afterwards and yet, somehow, you do.’
Lord Weybourn, Alex, looked as though he was in pain now. What was the matter with the man?
‘Have you done your Christmas shopping already, Miss Ellery?’ Mr Rivers asked. ‘You seem to be someone who would plan ahead.’
‘I had to leave my gifts with the nuns to give out. I sewed most of them and my stitchery is not of the neatest.’ She wished she believed the cliché about it being the thought that counts, but she could imagine Sister Monica’s expression when she saw the lumpy seams on her pen wiper. There was never any danger of Tess being asked to join the group who embroidered fine linen for sale, or made vestments for Ghent’s churches.
‘But next year I will have wages and I will be able to send gifts I have purchased.’ There, another positive thing about this frightening new life that lay ahead of her. She had been saving them up and had almost reached ten. Living with a family. A family. The word felt warm and round, like the taste of plum pudding or the scent of roses on an August afternoon.
Tess left the thought reluctantly and pressed on with her mental list. A room of my own. Being able to wear colours. Interesting food. Warmth. London to explore on my afternoons off. Wages. Control of my own destiny.
She suspected that the last of those might prove illusionary. How much freedom would a governess’s or companion’s wage buy her? She glanced at Alex, but his eyes were closed and he was doing a very creditable imitation of a man asleep. He really did not enjoy Christmas, it seemed. How strange.
Mr Rivers continued to make polite conversation and she responded as the light drew in and the wintery dusk fell. Finally, when her stomach was growling, the carriage clattered into an inn yard and, as the groom opened the door, she caught a salty tang on the cold breeze.
‘Ostend. Wake up, Alex. You sleep like a cat, you idle devil.’ Grant Rivers prodded his friend in the ribs. ‘May I take the carriage on down to the docks? You’ll be staying here the night, I’m guessing, and I’ll send it right back.’
Alex opened one eye. ‘Yes, certainly have it. Higgs, unload my luggage and Miss Ellery’s, then take Mr Rivers to find his ship.’ He uncurled his long body from the seat and held out his hand to Tess. ‘If you can shuffle along to the end of the seat, I will lift you down.’
She was in his arms before she thought to protest. ‘But I must find a ship, my lord.’
‘Tomorrow. We will both take a ship tomorrow. Now you need dinner, a hot bath and a comfortable room for the night. Now, don’t wriggle or I’ll drop you.’
‘Goodbye, Miss Ellery.’ Grant Rivers was climbing back into the carriage and men were carrying a pile of beautiful leather luggage, topped with her scuffed black portmanteau, towards the open inn door. ‘Safe voyage and I hope you soon find a congenial employer in London.’ He pulled the door shut and leaned out of the window. ‘Take care, Alex.’