His Christmas Countess(10)

By: Louise Allen


 Grant came back down the steps. ‘In you come.’

 ‘Where are we?’ But he was already lifting her out, carrying her in his arms across to the steps. ‘Anna—’

 ‘I have her, Mrs Rivers. I’m right behind you, ma’am.’

 ‘This is Abbeywell Grange, your new home.’

 There was a tall, lean man, all in black, who bowed as Grant swept her in through the front door. A butler, she supposed, fleetingly conscious of a well-lit hall, a scurry of footmen. The smell of burning applewood, a trace of dried rose petals, beeswax polish, leather. There were evergreen wreaths on the newel posts of the stairs, the glow of red berries in a jug. She remembered Grant’s offering of the holly sprig and smiled. This was an old, loved home, its aura sending messages of reassurance. She wanted to relax and dared not.

 ‘Welcome home, my lord. We are all very relieved to see you. The staff join me in expressing our deepest condolences.’

 Condolences? On a marriage? Then the whole sentence hit her. ‘My lord? Grant, he called you my lord. Who are you?’

 But the butler was already striding ahead towards the end of the hall, Grant on his heels. ‘Master Charles... Lord Brooke, I should say, will be happy to see you, my lord. It has been quite impossible to get him to go to bed.’

 ‘Who is Lord Brooke?’ she asked in a whisper as the butler opened the door into a drawing room. A fire crackled in the grate, an aged pointer dog rose creakily to its feet, tail waving, and, on the sofa, a small boy sat up, rubbing his eyes.

 ‘Papa!’

 ‘Charlie, why aren’t you in bed? You’re keeping Rambler up.’ Grant snapped his fingers at the dog. It was obviously an old joke. The boy grinned, then his eyes widened as he saw what his father was carrying.

 Grant settled Kate in a deep armchair by the hearthside and Jeannie, with Anna in her arms, effaced herself somewhere in the shadows.

 ‘Charlie.’ There was deep affection in Grant’s voice as he crouched down and the boy hurled himself into his arms. So, this was why he had been so impatient to get back, this was what the discovery of a woman in labour had been keeping him from. He has a son. He was married? A lord? This was a disaster and she had no inkling how to deal with it.

 ‘You got my letter explaining about the accident?’ The boy nodded, pushed back Grant’s hair and touched the bandage with tentative fingers. She saw his eyes were reddened and heavy. The child had been crying. ‘It’s all right now, but I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you needed me. Then on my way from Edinburgh my horse picked up a stone and was lamed with a bruised hoof, so I lost a day and a night.’

 ‘Great-Grandpapa died on Christmas Eve,’ Charlie said. His lower lip trembled. ‘And you didn’t come and I thought perhaps you’d... Your head... That they’d been lying to me and you were going to...’

 ‘I’m here.’ Grant pulled the boy into a fierce hug, then stood him back so he could look him squarely in the face. ‘I’m a bit battered and there were a couple of days when I was unconscious, which is why I couldn’t travel, but we’ve hard heads, we Rivers men, haven’t we?’

 The lip stopped trembling. ‘Like rocks,’ the boy said stoutly. ‘I’m glad you’re home, though. It was a pretty rotten Christmas.’ His gaze left his father’s face, slid round to Kate. ‘Papa?’

 Grant got up from his knees, one hand on his son’s shoulder, and turned towards her, but Kate had already started to rise. She walked forward and stopped beside Grant.

 ‘My dear, allow me to introduce Charles Francis Ellmont Rivers, Lord Brooke. My son.’

 Kate retrieved a smile from somewhere. ‘I... Good evening, Charles. I am very pleased to meet you.’

 He bowed, a very creditable effort for a lad of—what? Six? ‘Madam.’ He tugged at Grant’s hand. ‘Papa, you haven’t said who this lady is, so I cannot greet her properly.’

 ‘This is Catherine Rivers, my wife. Your stepmama.’

 Kate felt the smile congeal on her lips. Of course, if Charles was Grant’s son, then she was his...

 ‘Stepmama?’ The boy had turned pale. ‘You didn’t say that you were going to get married again, Papa.’

 ‘No. I am allowed some secrets.’ Grant apparently agreed with the Duke of Wellington’s approach: never explain, never apologise. ‘You have a new half-sister as well, Charlie.’ He beckoned to Jeannie and she came forward and placed Anna in his arms. ‘Come and meet her, she is just two days old.’

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