His Housekeeper's Christmas Wish(8)

By: Louise Allen

 A mystery, in fact. As a rule Alex enjoyed mysteries, especially mysterious ladies, but this one was not happy and that put a damper on enjoyable speculation. There was more to it than her sprained ankle and irritation over missed boats, he was certain. Tess was putting a brave face on things whenever she remembered to. No coward, his little nun.

 Alex grinned at the thought of his nun. The nunneries he was acquainted with were very different establishments. She raised one slim, arching dark brow.

 ‘Comfortable, Miss Ellery?’

 ‘Exceedingly, thank you, my lord...Alex.’ Yes, that smile was definitely brave, but assumed.

 ‘Ankle hurting?’

 ‘No, Mr Rivers has worked wonders and there is no pain unless I put weight on it. I am sure it is only a mild sprain.’ She lapsed into silence again, apparently not finding that awkward. No doubt chatter was discouraged in a nunnery.

 ‘So what will you be doing in London? Making your come-out?’

 She had taken her bonnet off and he remembered how that soft, dark brown hair had felt against his cheek when he had lifted her to carry her to her bed. It was severely braided and pinned up now, just as it had been last night, and he wondered what it would look like down. The thought made him shift uncomfortably in his seat and he wrenched his mind away from long lashes against a pale cheek flushed with rose and the impact of a pair of dark blue eyes.

 His... No, Miss Ellery laughed, the first sound of amusement he had heard from her, albeit with an edge to it. Her hand shot up to cover her mouth, which was a pity because it was a pretty mouth and it was prettier still when curved.

 ‘My come-out? Hardly. No, I will stay at the London house until the Mother Superior there finds me position as a governess or a companion.’

 ‘With a Roman Catholic family?’ That might take a while, there were not that many, not of the class to be employing well-bred young females of her type. Rich merchants were a possibility, he supposed.

 ‘No. Not only am I not a nun, I am also an Anglican.’

 ‘Then, what the bl—? What on earth are you doing in a nunnery?’

 ‘It is a long story.’ She folded her hands neatly in her lap and seemed to feel that ended the discussion.

 ‘It is a long journey,’ he countered. ‘Entertain me with your tale, please, Miss Ellery.’

 ‘Very well.’ She did not look enthusiastic. ‘I will make it as concise as possible. My father’s elder sister, Beatrice, converted to Catholicism against the violent disapproval of her parents and ran away to Belgium to join an order of nuns.

 ‘But Papa, after he came of age, started writing to her. My parents enjoyed travelling, even though there was a war on, and besides, it was often cheaper to live on the Continent.’ She bit her lip and her gaze slid away from his. A prevarication? ‘So just after my thirteenth birthday we were in Belgium and Papa decided to visit my aunt.’

 ‘And that was when?’ How old is she? Twenty? Alex tried to recall what was happening seven years past.

 ‘Ten years ago. I am twenty-three,’ Tess admitted with a frankness no other unmarried lady of his acquaintance would have employed.

 ‘1809.’ Alex delved back in his memory. He had been seventeen, half tempted by the army, finally deciding against it for the very good reason his father would probably have had a stroke with the shock of his son and heir doing something his parent approved of for the first time in his life. ‘Most of the action was towards the east at that time, I seem to recall.’

 ‘I think so.’ Tess bit her lower lip in thought and Alex crossed his legs again. Damn it, the girl—woman—was a drab little peahen for all the rainwater-washed complexion and the pretty eyes. What was the matter with him? ‘Anyway, it was considered safe enough. We arrived in Ghent and Papa visited the convent and was allowed to see my aunt, who was Sister Boniface by then. But there was an epidemic of cholera in the city and both Mama and Papa... They both died.’

 She became so still and silent Alex wondered if she had finished, but eventually, with a little movement, as though shaking raindrops off her shoulders, she gathered herself. ‘When Papa realised how serious it was he sent me to my aunt with all the money he had. I have lived there ever since, but now I do not want to become a nun and the money has run out, paying for my keep, so I am ready to make my own way in the world.’

 ‘But your grandparents, your aunts and uncles—surely you have living relatives? Cousins?’

 ‘There is no one I could go to.’

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