His Christmas Countess(3)

By: Louise Allen



 * * *

 He was big, he was male, he seemed to fill the space and the bandage made him look like a brigand, despite the well-made clothes. But his quiet confidence and deep, calm voice seeped through Kate’s cramped body like a dose of laudanum. A doctor. The answer to her incoherent prayers. There were miracles after all.

 ‘Yes, this is my first child.’ And my last. No amount of pleasure is worth this.

 ‘Then let’s get this place warm.’ He shrugged out of his greatcoat and laid it over her. It smelt of horse, leather and man, all strangely soothing. ‘We’ll make you more comfortable when the fire’s lit.’

 ‘Dr...?’

 ‘Grantham Rivers, at your service. Call me Grant.’ He poked at the grate, went into the stable and came back with wood. His voice was pleasant, his expression, what she could see of it, unruffled, but she could sense he was not happy about this situation. For all the easy movement, the calm voice, he was on edge.

 ‘Grantham?’ Incredible the effect of a little warmth and a lot of reassurance, even if she was all too aware that her rescuer wished he was somewhere else entirely.

 ‘I was conceived there, apparently, in the course of a passionate wedding night at the Bull Inn.’ He was striking a flint on a steel cupped in his palm and surrounded by some sort of tinder. It flared up and he eased it into the wood, nursing the flame with steady, competent hands. ‘It could have been worse. It might have been Biggleswade.’

 She had never imagined laughing again, ever, at anything. Her snort of amusement turned into a moan as the contraction hit her.

 ‘Breathe,’ he said, still tending the fire. ‘Breathe and relax.’

 ‘Relax? Are you mad?’ Kate lay back, panting. Breathing was hard enough.

 ‘No, just male and therefore designed to be unsatisfactory at times like this.’ His mouth curved into a smile that she could have sworn was bitter, but it had gone too fast to be certain. ‘What is your name?’

 Caution resurfaced. She was at his mercy now. If he were not the good man he appeared to be, then there was nothing she could do about it. Her instincts, sharpened by the desperate need to protect her baby, told her to gamble and trust him. But with her life, not with her secrets. Should she lie about her name? But that would serve no purpose. ‘Catherine Harding. Miss,’ she added as an afterthought. Might as well be clear about that. ‘My friends call me Kate.’

 Dr Rivers began to break the legs off the table and heap the pieces by the fire. Either it was very rotten or he was very strong. She studied the broad shoulders flexing as he worked and decided it was the latter.

 ‘Where’s the baby’s father?’ He did not seem too shocked by her situation, but doctors must be used to maintaining a neutral front, whatever their patients’ embarrassing predicaments.

 ‘Dead.’ That was a lie and it came without the need for thought. Then, hard on the heels of the single word, the wariness resurfaced. This man seemed kind and promised to help her, but he could still betray her if he knew who she was. And, almost certainly, if he knew what she had been part of. He was a gentleman from his voice, his clothes, his manner. And gentlemen not only helped ladies in distress—or she hoped they did—but they also stuck together, protected each other against criminal conspiracies.

 ‘I’m sorry about that.’ Grant Rivers laid the tabletop on the earth floor, heaping up the drier straw on it. He was asking her something. She jerked her mind back to dealing with the present. ‘Have you any linen with you? Shifts, petticoats?’

 ‘In my portmanteau. There isn’t much.’ It had been all she could carry.

 He dug into it, efficiently sorting through. A nightgown went on one side, then he began to spread linen over the straw, rolling her two gowns into a pillow.

 ‘Dr—’

 ‘Grant.’

 ‘You are very efficient.’ A contraction passed, easier than before. He was making her relax, just as he had said.

 ‘I had a short spell in the army. Even with a batman, one learns to shift for oneself. Now, then.’ He eyed her and she felt herself tense again. ‘Let’s get you into something more comfortable and on to this luxurious bed.’ It was getting darker and she could not read his expression. ‘Kate, I’m sorry I’m a man, I’m sorry I’m a complete stranger, but we have got to get you into a nightgown and I have got to examine you.’ He was brisk, verging on the impatient. ‘You’re a patient and just now you can’t afford to be shy or modest.’

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