His Christmas Countess

By: Louise Allen

Chapter One

December 24, 1819—the Scottish Borders

Becoming pregnant had been so easy, so catastrophically simple. An unaccustomed glass of champagne, a little unfamiliar flattery, a night made for romance, a careless, innocent tumble from virtue to ruin.

Somehow that ease increased the shock of discovering just how hard giving birth to the baby was. It is because I’m alone, I’m cold, I’m frightened, Kate told herself. In a moment, when these pains stop, I will feel stronger, I’ll get up and light the fire. If I can get there, if there is any dry kindling, if I can strike a spark.

‘Stop it.’ She spoke aloud, her voice echoing in the chill space of the half-ruined bothy. ‘I will do it because I have to, because I must, for the baby.’ It was her fault her child would be born in a tumbledown cottage on a winter’s day, her miscalculation in leaving it so late to run away, her lack of attention that had allowed the pickpocket to slip her purse from her reticule in the inn yard, leaving her penniless. She should have gone to the workhouse rather than think she could walk on, hoping for some miracle and safe shelter at the end of the rough, muddy road.

Her mind seemed to have turned to mush these past few days. Only one message had been clear: get away before Henry can take my baby from me. And she would do anything, anything at all, for this child, to keep him or her safe from her brother’s clutches. Now was the time to move, while there was still some light left in the lowering sky. She tried to stand up from the heap of musty straw, but found she could not. ‘Pull yourself together, Catherine Harding. Women give birth every day and in far worse conditions than this.’ Beyond caring that she was reduced to a lumbering, clumsy creature, she managed to get on to her hands and knees and began to crawl towards the hearth and the broken remains of the fire grate.

The weakness caught her before she could move more than a few feet. It must be because she had eaten so little in the past day and night. Shaking, she dug her fingers into the dirt floor and hung on. She would gather a little strength in a moment, then she could crawl nearer to the cold hearth. Surely giving birth could not take much longer? Learning some basic facts of life would be far more useful to young women than the art of watercolours and playing the harp. Learning the wiles of hardened rakes and the consequences of a moonlit dalliance would be even more valuable. Most of all, learning that one could not trust anyone, not even your closest kin, was a lesson Kate had learned too late.

If the mother she could not remember had survived Henry’s birth... No. She caught herself up before the wishful thinking could weaken her, before the haunting fear of what her own fate might be overwhelmed her. She was still in the middle of the floor. How much time had passed since she had thought to light the fire? Hours? Only minutes, from the unchanging light. Kate inched closer to the hearth.

Something struck a stone outside, then the sound of footsteps muffled by the wet turf, the snort of a horse and a man’s voice.

‘This will have to do. You’re lame, I’m lost, it is going to snow and this is the first roof I’ve seen for the past ten miles.’ English, educated. Not an old man, not a youth. Hide.

She backed towards the heap of straw, animal instinct urging her to ungainly speed. A plank table had collapsed, two legs eaten through by rats or damp, and she burrowed behind it, her breath sobbing out of her lungs. Kate stuffed her clenched fist into her mouth and bit down.

* * *

‘At least water’s the one thing we’re not short of.’ Grant Rivers dug a broken-handled bucket from the rubbish heap outside the tumbledown cottage and scooped it into the small burn that rushed and chattered at the side of the track. His new horse, bought in Edinburgh, twitched an ear, apparently unused to forming part of a one-sided conversation.

Grant carried the bucket inside the part of the building that had once been a byre. The place was technically a but and ben, he supposed, one half for the beasts, one half for the family, the steaming animals helping them keep warm through the long Border winters. There was enough of the heather thatch to provide some shelter for the horse and the dwelling section had only a few holes in the roof, although the window and door had long gone. At least the solid wall turned its back on the prevailing wind. He could keep warm, rest up. He was enough of a doctor to know he should not ignore the headache and the occasional dizziness, the legacy of that near-fatal accident a week ago.

He lifted off the saddle, took off the bridle, used the reins as a tether and tipped the bag of oats from his saddlebag on to a dry patch of ground. ‘Don’t eat it all at once,’ he advised the chestnut gelding. ‘It’s all you are getting until we reach civilisation and I’ve half a mind to steal it to make myself porridge.’