His Housekeeper's Christmas Wish(3)

By: Louise Allen

 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.

Also By Louise Allen

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