His Housekeeper's Christmas Wish(4)

By: Louise Allen

 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 proportion—one who ruled over forests where the shadows were dark and wolves lurked...

 He glanced across at her again and stood up, which snapped her out of musings that probably had something to do with Sister Moira’s frisson-inducing tales of Gothic terror, told at recreation time when Mother Superior was not listening. Only Sister Moira’s fantasy beings never provoked feelings of...

 ‘Is Rivers hurting you?’ Lord Weybourn came over and hitched himself onto the table opposite. His boots were beautiful, she thought, watching one swinging idly to and fro. It was safer than meeting his gaze. ‘I haven’t managed to break your ankle, have I?’

 ‘No, you haven’t, fortunately.’ Mr Rivers came back and hunkered down by her feet. ‘This will be cold,’ he warned as he draped a dripping cloth over her ankle. ‘I’ll bandage it up after you’ve had your tea and a rest.’

 ‘This seems a very pleasant inn,’ she said for want of a neutral topic. Conversation with men was a novelty. ‘Do you use this place frequently?’

 ‘From a long way back,’ Lord Weybourn said. ‘Even when the war was on some of us would slip in and out in various guises. Very handy, Les Quatre Éléments.’ He grinned. ‘We called ourselves the Four Elementals as our names fit so well.’

 ‘Elementals? I know the four elements—air, water, fire and earth. So which are you?’

 ‘Alex Tempest—air.’

 ‘So you are water, Mr Rivers? That works well with your soothing medical skills.’

 He gave a half bow in acknowledgement. ‘Cris is de Feaux, hence the French feu for fire.’

 ‘Of course.’ She could easily imagine the blond icicle as an archangel with a burning sword. ‘And earth?’

 ‘Gabriel Stone is nothing if not earthy.’ Lord Weybourn titled his head towards the dice player, who was playing left hand against right hand, dark brows lowered in a scowl of concentration.

 Mr Rivers changed the cold cloth on her ankle again. Tess smiled her thanks, then forgot both injury and elements as a maid deposited a laden tray on the settle beside her. Tea, she had expected, but not pastries dripping with honey, little cakes and dainty iced biscuits. Lord Weybourn stole a biscuit and went back to the others.

 ‘I should—’

 ‘Eat up. Sorry,’ Grant Rivers said. ‘Interrupting you again.’

 ‘I fear I will not know when to stop.’ Vegetable soup and wholemeal bread had made a warming midday meal, but they had tasted, as always, of practical, frugal worthiness and sat lumpily on a stomach fluttering with nerves. There was nothing worthy about the plate beside her. Mr Rivers simply nodded and strolled off to join his friends, leaving her to sip her tea—with sugar!—while she contemplated the temptation. Perhaps just one of each? To leave them untouched would be discourteous.

 * * *

 Half an hour later Tess licked her fingers, feeling slightly, deliciously queasy as she contemplated a plate empty of all but crumbs and a smear of cream.

 Mr Rivers strolled back and shifted the tray without so much as a smirk or a frown for her greed. ‘I’ll strap up your ankle now. Let’s put this blanket over your knees and you can take a nap when I’m done. You were chilled and a little bit shocked, I suspect. A rest will do no harm.’

 He was almost a doctor, he knew what he was talking about and she supposed there was no great hurry, provided she was with Sister Clare for the evening meal. And this was...interesting. Watching men, relaxed and friendly together, was interesting. Being warm and full of delicious sweets was indulgent. A mild sensation of naughtiness, of playing truant, was definitely intriguing. She knew she shouldn’t be here, but they all seemed so...harmless? Wrong word. Perhaps it was her innocence deceiving her...

 Tess blinked, on the verge of a yawn. Last night had been cold and her head too full of churning thoughts, hopes and worries for her to sleep much. Mr Rivers was right—a little nap would set her up for an evening of doling out stew to humble travellers who would otherwise be huddled in their cloaks on benches for the night. Then she would have to try to sleep on a hard bed in a chilly cell alongside Sister Clare’s notorious snores before an even chillier dawn start. Sister Moira always said those snores counted as a penance in themselves, so they would be enough to pay for the consumption of a plate of pastries, Tess decided, as she snugged down in the corner of the settle and let the men’s voices and laughter wash over her. Just a little nap.

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