His Housekeeper's Christmas Wish(9)

By: Louise Allen

 There had to be, surely? Her gaze slid away from his again and Tess stared out of the window. There was some story here, something she wasn’t telling him, and she was too honest to lie. Alex bit his tongue on the questions. It was no concern of his. ‘And the convent was not for you?’

 Tess shook her head. ‘I always knew I was not cut out to be a nun.’ She managed a very creditable smile.

 There must be relatives somewhere, Alex thought, forcing back the query. Perhaps the runaway aunt had caused the rift, which was hard on Tess. He understood what it was like to be rejected, but he was a man with money and independence, and these days, power of his own. He knew how to hit back and he’d spent more than ten years doing just that. This was a sheltered, penniless young woman.

 ‘Now I know you better I can tell that you’re not suitable for the cloister,’ he drawled, intent on teasing her out of introspection. ‘Too much of a temper, for one thing.’

 Tess blushed, but did not deny the accusation. ‘It is something I try to overcome. You did provoke me excessively, you must admit, although I should not make excuses.’

 ‘Go on, blame me, I have a broad enough back.’ Alex smiled at her and noticed how that made her drop her gaze. Not at all used to men. A total innocent with no idea how to flirt. Behave yourself, Tempest. But she was a charming novelty.

 ‘I will spend December and perhaps January at the London convent, I expect. I do not imagine anyone will be looking to employ a governess or a companion just now.’ She fiddled with the fringe on the edge of the rug. ‘A pity, because it would be wonderful to spend Christmas with a family. But still, it is always a happy season wherever one is.’

 ‘Is it?’ Alex tried to recall the last Christmas he had spent with his family. He had been almost eighteen. His parents had not been speaking to each other, his batty great-aunt had managed to set the breakfast room on fire, his younger siblings had argued incessantly and at dinner on Christmas Day his father had finally, unforgivably, lost his temper with Alex.

 There are some things that a mature man might laugh off or shrug aside as the frustrated outpourings of a short-tempered parent. But they are usually not things that a sensitive seventeen-year-old can accept with any grace or humour. Or forgive. Not when they led to tragedy.

 Alex had left the table, packed his bags, gone straight back to Oxford and stayed there, taking care to extract every penny of his allowance from the bank before his father thought to stop it. When the news had reached him of just what his father’s outburst had unleashed he’d settled down, with care and much thought, to convince his father that he was exactly what he had accused him of being, while at the same time living his life the way he wanted to.

 ‘You will be going home for Christmas, surely?’ Tess asked.

 Alex realised he must have been silent for quite some time. ‘I am going back to my own home, certainly. But not to the family house and most certainly not for Christmas.’

 ‘I am sorry,’ she said with every sign of distress on his behalf.

 Beside him Grant gave an inelegant snort and woke up. ‘Christmas? Never say you’re going back to Tempeston, Alex?’

 ‘Lord, no.’ Alex shuddered. ‘I will do what I always do and hole up in great comfort with good wine, excellent food, brandy, a pile of books and a roaring fire until the rest of humanity finishes with its annual bout of plum pudding–fuelled sentimentality and returns to normal. What about you?’

 ‘I promised to call on Whittaker. I was with his brother when he died in Salzburg, if you recall. He lives just outside Edinburgh and I said I’d go and see him as soon as I was back in Britain.’ Grant shifted his long legs into a more comfortable position. ‘Can’t stay too long, though, I’ll go straight from there to my grandfather in Northumberland.’

 ‘How is he?’ Grant was the old man’s heir and he’d be a viscount in his own right when he went, given that his father had died years ago.

 ‘He’s frail.’ Grant was curt. He was fond of his grandfather, Alex thought with an unwelcome twinge of envy.

 ‘He will be helped by your company at Christmas,’ Tess said warmly.

 ‘He’d be glad to see Grant at any time.’ Alex managed not to snap the words. ‘What is it about Christmas that produces this nonsense anyway?’

 It was meant as a rhetorical question, but Tess stared at him as though he had declared that it rained upwards. ‘You are funning, surely?’ When he shook his head she announced, ‘Then I will remind you, although I cannot truly believe you are really such a cynic.’ She paused, as though to collect her thoughts, then opened her mouth. ‘Well, first of all there is...’

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