His Christmas Countess(2)

By: Louise Allen

There was sufficient light to see by to clean out the big hooves and find the angular stone that had wedged itself into the off-hind. It looked sore. He gave an apologetic rub to the soft muzzle that nudged at him. His fault for pressing on so hard even though he suspected he would be too late for his grandfather. At least he had been able to send a letter saying the things in his heart to the man who had brought him up, letting the old man know that only dire necessity kept him from his side at the end.

He must also get back to Abbeywell for Charlie’s sake. It was the last place he wanted to be, but the boy needed his father. And Grant needed his son, for that matter. Christmas was always going to be grim this year with his grandfather’s health failing, but he had not expected it to be this bad—him bedridden in Edinburgh with his head cracked open and Charlie left with his dying great-grandfather. Grant had planned to leave the city on the seventeenth, but that was the day a labourer, careless with a scaffolding plank in the New Town, had almost killed him. As soon as he had regained consciousness and realised he was incapable of walking across the room, let alone travelling, Grant had written the letter. The reply had arrived from the steward two days ago. His grandfather was not expected to last the night.

Grant had hoped to be with his son for Christmas Day. Now he might make it by that evening if the gelding was sound and the weather held. ‘We’ll rest up, let the bruising ease, stay the night if I can get a fire going.’ Talking to a horse might be a sign of concussion, but at least it made something to listen to beyond the wind whistling up this treeless Borders valley. Unless the direction of that wind changed, the makeshift stable was fairly sheltered and the horse was used to Scottish weather.

And for him the familiar cold of a Northumberland winter was no different from this. There was enough rubbish lying about the place to burn. He’d make a fire, pass the night with the food in his saddlebags and allow himself a dram from his brandy flask, or the illicit whisky James Whittaker had handed him as they’d parted yesterday in Edinburgh’s New Town.

Something in the air... Grant straightened, arms full of dry scraps of wood, nostrils flaring to catch that faint rumour of scent. Blood? Blood and fear. He knew the smell of both from those weeks in the summer of ’15. The killing days when he and his friends had volunteered to join the fight to see Napoleon finally defeated. The memory of them had saved his neck in more than a few dark alleyways before now.

A low moan made the horse shift uneasily. The wind or an animal? No, there had been something human in that faint wisp of sound. He did not believe in ghosts and that left someone hurt or in distress. Or a trap. The cottage would make a handy refuge for footpads. ‘Eat your oats,’ he said as he eased the knife from his left boot and tossed the armful of wood away.

He moved fast as the wood clattered into the far corner, then eased around the splintered jamb of the inner door to scan the single living room. It was shadowed and empty—a glance showed a broken chair, a scattered pile of mouldy straw, an overturned table, cobwebs and shadows. There was that soft, desperate sound again and the scent of fear was stronger here. Caution discarded, he took three strides across the earth floor and pulled away the table, the only hiding place.

It did not take several years of medical training to tell him that he was looking at a woman in labour and a desperate one at that. Of all the medical emergencies he might have confronted, this was the one from his nightmares. Literally. Her gaze flickered from his face to the knife in his hand as she scrabbled back into the straw.

‘Go away.’ Her voice was thready, defiant, and there was blood around her mouth and on the back of the hand resting protectively on the mound of her belly. She had bitten her fist in an attempt to muffle her cries. His stomach lurched at the sight. ‘One step more and I’ll—’

‘Deposit a baby on my boots?’ He slid the knife back into its sheath, made himself smile and saw her relax infinitesimally at his light tone. When he tossed his low-crowned hat on to the chair, exposing the rakish bandage across his forehead, she tensed again.

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ Her voice was English, educated, out of place in this hovel. She closed her eyes for a moment and when she opened them again the effort to stay focused and alert was palpable. ‘This baby is never coming out.’

‘First one?’ Grant knelt beside her. ‘I’m a doctor, it is going to be all right, trust me.’ There’s two lies to begin with—how many more will I need? I’m not qualified, I’ve never delivered a baby and I have no idea whether anything is going to be all right. He had, however, delivered any number of foals. Between theoretical knowledge, practical experience of female anatomy and years of managing a breeding stables, he would be better than nothing. But this child had better hurry up and get born, because he was trapped here until it was.