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Alex Tempest did not normally trample nuns underfoot, nor anyone else come to that. Alexander James Vernon Tempest, Viscount Weybourn, prized control, elegance, grace and athleticism – under all normal circumstances.
Skidding round corners on the ice-slicked cobblestones of Ghent, however, was not normal, not in the gloomy light of the late November afternoon with his mind occupied with thoughts of warm fires, good friends and rum punch.
The convent wall was high and unyielding when he cannoned into it. Alex rebounded off and into the nun, all in black and grey, blending perfectly with the cobbles. She was certainly yielding as she gave a small shriek of alarm and went flying, her black portmanteau bouncing away to land on the threshold of the convent’s closed gates.
Alex got his feet under control. ‘Ma soeur, je suis désolé. Permetez-moi.’ He held out his hand as she levered herself into a sitting position with one black-mittened hand. Her bonnet, plain dark grey with a black ribbon, had tipped forward over her nose and she pushed it back to look up at him.
‘I am not – ’
‘Hurt? Excellent.’ He could only make out the oval of her face in the shadow of the bonnet’s brim. She seemed to be young by her voice. ‘But you are English?’ He extended the other hand. Presumably there were English nuns.
‘Yes. But – ’
‘Let’s get you up off that cold ground, Sister.’ Her cloak, which seemed none too thick, given the weather, was black. Under it there was the hem of a dark grey robe and the toes of sensible black boots. ‘Take my hands.’ Probably nuns were not supposed to touch men, but he could hardly get excommunicated for adding that small sin to the far greater offence of flattening her to the ground.
With what sounded like a sigh of resignation she put her hands in his and allowed him to pull her upright. ‘Ow!’ She hopped on one foot, swayed dangerously and the next moment she was cradled in his arms. After all, one did not allow a lady to fall, even if she was a nun. ‘Oh!’
Alex braced his feet well apart on the slippery cobbles and looked down at as much as he could see of his armful, which wasn’t a great deal, what with her billowing cloak and ferocious hat brim. But even if he couldn’t see any detail, there was plenty for his body to read. She was young. And slender. And curved. He dipped his head and inhaled the scent of her. Plain soap, wet wool and warm, rapidly chilling, woman. Rapidly chilling nun. Pull yourself together, man. Nuns are most definitely on the Do Not Go There list. Pity…
‘I’ll ring the bell, shall I?’ he offered with a jerk of his head towards the rusty iron chain hanging by the door. It looked like the sort of thing desperate criminals clung to when claiming sanctuary, although, judging by the small barred peephole set into the massive planks, the sanctuary on offer might be rather less welcoming than a prison cell. ‘It seems as though you have twisted your ankle.’
Mentioning parts of the anatomy was probably another sin, but she made no attempt to smite him with a rosary, although the body that was already stiff in his arms became rigid. ‘No. Absolutely not. Thank – ’
‘I really think I should get someone to come out.’
‘ – you. I am due down at the canal basin. Sister Clare is expecting me.’ Crisp, polite and obviously furious with him but constrained through charity or good manners from saying so, he concluded. An educated, refined voice masking some strain or perhaps sadness. He was used to listening to voices, hearing what was behind the actual words: anyone was who did much negotiating. What are you hiding, little nun?