His Christmas Countess(8)

By: Louise Allen

 There was something hot to drink, porridge to eat. Perhaps the Johnsons had left food or had come back. She neither knew nor cared. When Grant had spoken to her, asked her if she could bear to travel, she had nodded. He had sounded urgent, so she made herself agree, told herself that he would take care of them and all she had to do was hold her baby safe at her breast.

 * * *

 It was bumpy at first, and her nose, about all that was exposed, was cold, but that was all right because Grant was there. Then they were in his arms again and there was noise and people talking, women’s voices, warmth and a soft bed. They must have stopped at an inn to rest.

 Kate looked up at him standing over her, looking dishevelled and very tired. And...sad? This was the man she had married. It seemed unreal. ‘Thank you.’

 ‘My pleasure.’ He sounded almost convincing. ‘What are we going to call her?’

 ‘Anna, after my mother.’ She’d decided that in the course of the bumpy journey. Anna Rivers. And I am Mrs Rivers now. We are safe and all at the cost of a few lies. Not little, not white, but she would be a good wife to him, be happy in her modest home. He would never know.

 ‘Anna Rosalind, then, for my mother.’ When she looked up, surprised by the possessive note in Grant’s voice, he shrugged. ‘She’s an important small person, she needs at least two names. I’ve found you a nursemaid. She’s used to newborns.’ A cheerful freckled face appeared at his side. ‘This is Jeannie Tranter and she’s happy to adventure into England with us. It isn’t far now, only across the border into Northumberland.’

 ‘Oh, good.’

 I wonder whereabouts in Northumberland Grant lives...but it doesn’t matter, we’re safe now, both of us, hundreds of miles away from Henry, hundreds of miles away from a vengeful earl and the law. We can go anywhere and no one will take her away from me because she belongs to Grant now. That was all that mattered. We both belong to him.

 The thought drifted in and she frowned. Her baby had a father, but she had a husband. A man she did not know, a man who had total control over her life, her future.

 Something touched her hair and she opened her eyes. Grant was still looking down at them. She remembered to smile at him, then turned her attention back to the baby.

 * * *

 ‘I’ll take a bath, then I’ll be in the parlour if you need me,’ Grant said to Jeannie Tranter.

 The girl nodded briskly, her attention on the woman and baby in the bed. ‘Aye, sir, I’m sure we won’t need to disturb you.’

 And that’s put me in my place as an unnecessary male. It had been the same the last time. Don’t think about the last time. The bathwater in front of the fire was still hot, the pleasure of scrubbing away the grime of the past twenty-four hours or so blissful. He soaped his hair, ducked under and came up streaming, then found he had no inclination to get out. Baths were good places to think.

 * * *

 Grant had dozed a little, then woke without any sensible thinking done at all to find the water cool. He splashed out to dry off and find something from his depleted wardrobe to change into. A childbirth used up an inordinate amount of clean linen.

 By the time he was in the private parlour pouring a glass of wine, his legs stretched out on the hearthrug, his brain had woken up. Just what had he done? A good deed? Perhaps, although tying a woman, a complete stranger, to him for life was a risky act of charity. Or was it an entirely selfish act, a gesture to his guilty conscience, as though he could somehow appease his grandfather’s shade by doing what the old man had so wanted and thus fulfilling his promise? The uncomfortable notion intruded that he had found himself a wife and a stepmother for Charlie without any effort at courtship, without any agonising about choices.

 The easy way out? Too late to worry about motives, I’ve done it now. And the child’s a girl, so no need to worry about the inheritance, should it ever arise, God forbid. He’d married a plain woman of genteel birth with a social-climbing brother who was going to be very pleased indeed when he discovered who his new brother-in-law was. That could be a problem if he wasn’t careful. Grant rolled the wine around his mouth as he thought it all through.

 Pushing doubts aside, he had someone to look after the household, someone who appeared to be bright enough not to be a dead bore on the occasions when he was at home. And Kate had courage and determination, that was obvious enough. He had a wife and only time would tell if it had been a wise decision or a reckless gamble.

 There were fifty miles to cover tomorrow, over moorland and open country. If the roads were good and the weather held, they’d do it in the day and he would be only one day later than he had hoped. The inn had a decent chaise for hire, the stables held some strong horses by the looks of them—and they’d be needed, because there wouldn’t be a change to be had until they were over the border. The gelding was sound now, it had only been a bruised hoof.

Also By Louise Allen

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