His Housekeeper's Christmas Wish(7)

By: Louise Allen

 ‘I have a stud,’ Mr Rivers explained. ‘I import some of the more unusual Continental breeds from time to time.’

 ‘And you, my lord?’

 ‘Alex.’ He gave her that slanting, wicked smile. ‘I will feel that you have not forgiven me if you my lord me from here to London.’

 It seemed wrong, but perhaps that degree of informality was commonplace amongst aristocrats. ‘Very well, although Alex Tempest sounds more like a pirate than a viscount.’

 Mr Rivers snorted. ‘That’s what he is. He scours the Continent in search of loot and buried treasure.’

 ‘Art and antiquities, my dear Grant.’ Alex grinned. ‘Certainly nothing buried. Can you imagine me with a shovel?’

 Tess noted the flex of muscles under the form-fitting tailoring of his coat. Perhaps it was not achieved by digging holes, but the viscount was keeping exceptionally fit somehow. No, she thought, not a shovel, but I can imagine you with a sword.

 ‘I am a connoisseur, a truffle hound through the wilderness of a Continent after a great war.’

 ‘Poseur,’ Mr Rivers said.

 ‘Of course.’ Alex’s ready agreement was disarmingly frank. ‘I do have my reputation to maintain.’

 ‘But forgive me,’ Tess ventured, ‘is that not business? I thought it was not acceptable for aristocrats to engage in trade.’ And perhaps it was not acceptable to mention it at all.

 ‘Social death,’ Grant Rivers agreed. ‘So those of us who cannot rely upon family money maintain a polite fiction. I keep a stud for my own amusement and profit and sell to acquaintances as a favour when they beg to share in a winning bloodline. Alex here is approached by those with more money than taste. Gentlemen are so very grateful when he puts them in the way of acquiring beautiful, rare objects from his collection to enhance their status or their newly grand houses. Naturally he cannot be out of pocket in these acts of mercy. Gabe is a gambler, which is perfectly au fait. It is strange that he rarely loses, which is the norm, but you can’t hold that against a man unless you catch him cheating.’

 ‘And does he?’

 ‘He has the devil’s own luck, the brain of a mathematician and the willpower to know when to fold. And he would kill anyone who suggested he fuzzes the cards,’ Alex explained. ‘And before you ask, Cris is the only one of us who has come into his title. The rest of us are merely heirs in waiting. He’s a genuine marquess.

 ‘And you, little nun? Given that we are being so frank between friends.’

 He knew perfectly well that she was not a nun, but perhaps if she ignored the teasing he would stop it. ‘I, on the contrary, have not a guinea to my name, save what Mother Superior gave me for food and the stagecoach fare in England.’ Tess managed a bright smile, as though this was merely amusing. It had been quite irrelevant until Mother Superior’s little discussion a week ago.

 Dear Teresa had been with them for ten years, five since the death of her aunt, Sister Boniface. She had steadfastly declined to convert from her childhood Anglicanism, so, naturally, she had no future with the convent as a nun. Equally obviously, she could not go to her, er...connections in England. And then Mother Superior had explained why.

 Teresa was twenty-three now, so what did she intend to do with her life? she had asked while Tess’s understanding of who and what she was tumbled around her ears.

 I must have looked completely witless, Tess thought as she gazed out of the carriage window at the sodden countryside. She had been teaching the little ones, the orphans like herself, but that apparently had been merely a stop-gap until she was an adult. And, she suspected now she had a chance to think about it, until Mother Superior was convinced no conversion was likely.

 But it was all right; even if there was no money left from the funds Papa had sent to her aunt, she would manage, somehow. The dream of a family in England, people who might forgive and forget what Mama and Papa had done, had evaporated. She would not repine and she would try not to think about it. She could work hard and, goodness knew, she wasn’t used to luxury.

 Heavy clouds rolled across the sky, making it dark enough outside for Tess to glimpse her own reflection in the glass. What a dismal Dora! This bonnet doesn’t help. She sat up straighter, fixed a look of bright interest on her face and tried to think positive thoughts.

 * * *

 What was wrong with the little nun? Alex watched her from beneath half-closed lids. Beside him Grant had dropped off to sleep, and he was weary himself after a hard night of cards, brandy and talk, but something about the woman opposite kept him awake. If she was not a nun, what was she doing going to a convent, dressed like a wet Sunday morning in November? Her accent was well bred. Her manners—when she was not ripping up at him—were correct and she was obviously a lady.

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