His Housekeeper's Christmas Wish
Louise Allen is one of my favourite Mills and Boon/Harlequin authors, so I was pleased to see that she has a new series underway, four books under the collective title of The Four Disgraces, of which His Housekeeper’s Christmas Wish is the first. I admit that I rolled my eyes a bit at the name of the hero – Alex Tempest – who sounds like he belongs in a 1960s spy series; but otherwise, this is a well-written, suitably heart-warming and not too schmaltzy seasonal story about an impoverished young woman who brings festive cheer back into the life of a man who has been estranged from his family for ten years and seems likely to remain so.
Orphaned a decade earlier, Tess Ellery has been brought up by the nuns at the convent in Ghent, but following the death of her aunt, Sister Boniface, and since she does not want to take holy orders, is being sent to a convent in England until she can be found suitable employment as a governess or companion. She is on her way to the canal to catch the boat to Ostend when a man slips on the ice and accidentally careens into her, knocking her down. Her ankle is sprained, and the gentleman – who later introduces himself as Viscount Weybourn – will not take no for an answer when he insists on carrying Tess through the streets of Ghent to an inn where, he assures her, her ankle will be tended to by a doctor. In a brief scene, we are introduced to the remaining three “disgraces”, Grant Rivers, Crispin de Feaux and Gabriel Stone, whose obvious affection and easy friendship fascinates Tess, who lacks anything that even vaguely resembles a family.
During the journey to England, Tess talks about how unlikely it is she will be able to find a position before Christmas and how lovely it would be to be able to spend such a special time with a family. She asks Alex about his Yuletide plans, and is disappointed when he curtly informs her that he doesn’t see his family and that he plans to spend Christmas as he always does, at his own home in London, comfortably surrounded by good food, good wine, a pile of books and a bottle of brandy.
While they are travelling together, Alex is becoming more and more intrigued by “his little nun”, because Tess, while her clothes are shabby and her circumstances unfavourable, has obviously been well brought up. He is also finding himself feeling unaccountably protective and, worse, attracted to her; but she is most definitely off limits. She’s an innocent, she’s in his care and besides, he has spent the last decade deliberately eschewing emotional attachments and isn’t about to abandon that determination for the sake of a drab slip of a girl.
When it becomes impossible for Tess to remain at the convent in London, Alex’s protective instincts are immediately at war with his sense of propriety. He wants to keep Tess safe, but she can’t live under the same roof as a young, unmarried man, so he arranges for her to go to stay with his housekeeper at her lodgings. But when that lady becomes ill, Tess returns to Alex’s town house and takes charge of the household, her goodness and lively nature very quickly winning over all the staff as she does so.
When Alex receives a letter from his mother begging him to return to his family home, he is conflicted. On the one hand, during the last Christmas he spent at home, he and his father had a blazing row which led to Alex vowing never to return. On the other, for his mother to be begging for his help means something must be wrong – and in the end, his conscience will not allow him to ignore her plea.
I enjoyed the story, which is sweet but not without its darker moments. Tess bears the stigma of illegitimacy, as well as that of the scandal of her parent’s elopement; and Ms Allen makes no bones about the perilous nature of her situation as a woman without friends or family. She is an odd but engaging mixture of innocence and… well, perhaps not experience, but definitely a kind of intuitive wisdom that enables her to see through the peripheries to the things that are really important. It is perhaps a bit of a stretch to believe that, with her convent upbringing, she would be as willing as she is to give herself to Alex outside of marriage, but Ms Allen has written her in such a way that her actions are in character and consistent with her love for Alex and her desire for his happiness.
Alex makes for a very attractive hero and is a genuinely good man upon whom circumstances forced self-sufficiency at an early age. Following the unfounded accusations thrown at him by his father, he left Tempeston determined to make his own way in the world and worked hard, both to earn his living and to wall off his emotions, forcing himself not to care too much about his separation from home the family he loves. He has cultivated a reputation as a man of imperturbable demeanour, and I enjoyed the way Tess gradually gets under his skin and he allows her to see a side of him not normally shown to any other than his closest friends.
Louise Allen has struck the right balance in this book between the love story and the need to include elements which make for a feel-good, Christmassy read without going overboard with the sugar. The historical background may not be especially detailed, but even so, this is no wallpaper historical in which the characters are modern people dressed in long frocks and tight breeches. The romance between Alex and Tess is allowed time to grow and the strength of their attraction is palpable. I enjoyed His Housekeeper’s Christmas Wish and will definitely be reading Grant’s story in His Christmas Countess when it appears in December.