His Christmas Countess(7)

By: Louise Allen



 She was so very tired now, nothing else except her child seemed important. Grant was a doctor living in the wilds of Northumberland, hundreds of miles from London. That should be safe enough. But why would he? Why would he want her and her baby, another man’s child? Legitimate. We would be hidden. The tempting words swirled through her tired brain, caution fighting desperation and instinct. ‘But there’s no time.’

 ‘This is Scotland,’ Grant said. ‘All we have to do is to declare ourselves married before witnesses—and two are heading this way. Say yes, Kate, and I’ll fetch them and it will be done.’

 ‘Yes.’ He was gone before she could call the words back. She heard his voice raised to hail someone. Yes, I will do it. Another miracle to go with my good angel of a doctor. A Christmas miracle. He never need find out the truth, so it can’t hurt him. What is the term? An accessory after the fact. But if he doesn’t know...

 ‘Aye, we’ll help you and gladly, at that. I’m Tam Johnson of the Red House up yonder and this is my eldest son, Willie.’ The accent was broad Border Scots. ‘You’re lucky to catch us. We’re only going this way to do a favour for a neighbour.’

 There was the sound of shuffling feet outside and Grant ducked back in. ‘May they come through now?’ Kate nodded and he stood aside for two short, burly, black-haired men to enter.

 They seemed to fill the space and brought with them the smell of wet sheep and heather and peat smoke. ‘Good morning to you, mistress.’ The elder stood there, stolid and placid. Perhaps he attended marriages in tumbledown cottages every day of the week. Beside him the younger one twisted his cap in his hands, less at ease than the man who was obviously his father.

 ‘Good day,’ she managed, beyond embarrassment or social awkwardness now.

 Grant produced a notebook, presumably from his capacious saddlebags. She wondered vaguely if he had a packhorse out there. ‘I assume we need a written record that you can sign?’

 ‘Aye, that’ll be best. You’ll be English, then? All you both need to do is declare yourselves married. To each other, that is.’ The older Mr Johnson gave a snort of amusement at his own wit.

 ‘Right.’ Grant crossed the small distance and knelt beside her, took her hand in his. ‘I, Grantham Phillip Hale Rivers, declare before these witnesses that I take you, Catherine—’

 ‘Jane Penelope Harding,’ she whispered. He was only a doctor. They did not put announcements of their marriages in London newspapers.

 ‘Catherine Jane Penelope Harding, as my wife.’

 Another contraction was coming. She gritted her teeth and managed, ‘Before these witnesses, I, Catherine Jane Penelope Harding, declare that I take you, Grantham Phillip...Hale Rivers, to be my husband.’

 ‘We’ll write the record outside, I think.’

 She was vaguely conscious of Grant standing, moving the Johnsons out of the room, then her awareness shrank to the pain and the effort. Something was happening, something different...

 Where was Grant? She listened and heard him, still in the stable.

 ‘Thank you, gentlemen.’ There was the chink of coins. ‘I hope you’ll drink to our health. You’ll bring the donkey cart back down here after noon?’

 ‘Aye, we will, no trouble at all.’ That was the older man, Tam Johnson. ‘You’ll not find it far to Jedburgh now the rain’s stopped. You’ll be there by nightfall. Thank you kindly, sir, and blessings on your wife and bairn.’

 ‘Grant!’

 He ducked under the low lintel and back into the inner room. ‘I’m here.’

 ‘Something’s happening.’

 ‘I should hope so.’ He took up the lamp. ‘Let’s see what this child of ours is doing.’

 * * *

 Grant made her feel secure, Kate thought hazily. Even in those last hectic minutes she had felt safe and when the first indignant wails rent the air he had known just what to do.

 ‘Here she is,’ he’d said, laying the squirming, slippery, red-faced baby on her stomach. ‘The most beautiful little girl in the world at this minute and very cross with the pair of us by the sound of her.’

 Time had passed, the world had gone by somewhere outside the bubble that contained her and the child in her arms. She was conscious of Grant moving purposefully about. At some point he took the baby and washed her and wrapped her up in one of his clean shirts, then washed Kate and helped her into a clean nightgown and wrapped them both up in his coat.

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