His Christmas Countess(6)

By: Louise Allen


Time and time again Grant had repeated the same weary excuses. He needed more time, he had to find the right woman, to get it right this time. He just needed time. To do what? Somehow learn to read the character of the pretty young things paraded on the marriage mart? Discover insights he hadn’t possessed before, so he didn’t make another disastrous mistake? His own happiness didn’t matter, not any more, but he couldn’t risk Charlie. I promise, he had said the last time he parted from his grandfather. I promise I will find someone. And he had left for the Continent, yet again.

He neither needed nor wanted a wife, not for himself, but Abbeywell needed a chatelaine and Charlie needed a woman’s care.

‘What will you do when the baby is born?’ he asked, focusing on the exhausted woman beside him.

‘Do next? I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I can’t think beyond this. There is no one. But I’ll manage...somehow.’

She’s not a conventional beauty, but she’s got courage, she’s maternal. Time seemed to have collapsed, the past and the present ran together. Two women in childbed, one infant he could not help, one perhaps he would save. But even if he did, nothing would prevent this child being born illegitimate, with all the penalties that imposed.

The germ of an idea stirred. Kate needed shelter, security for her child. Would she make a good governess for Charlie? He pursued the idea around. Charlie had a tutor, he did not need someone with the ability or knowledge to teach him academic studies. But he did need the softer things. Grant remembered his own mother, who had died, along with his father, of a summer fever when he had not been much older than his own son was now. She had instilled ideas about kindliness and beauty, she had been there with a swift hug and a kiss when male discipline and bracing advice was just that bit too harsh.

A mother’s touch, a mother’s instinct. Kate was not a mother yet, but he sensed that nurturing disposition in her. Charlie didn’t need a governess, he needed a mother. Logic said...marry her.

What was he thinking? I’m too tired to think straight, my brain’s still scrambled.

In the stable the gelding snorted, gave a piercing whinny. Grant got to his feet, went to the outer door and peered through the faint mist the drizzle had left behind it. A couple of men, agricultural workers by the looks of them, were plodding along the track beside a donkey cart. He went back inside and Kate looked up at him. Her smile was faint, but it was there. Brave girl. Are you wishing for the impossible? Because I think it is walking towards us now.

‘We’re still in Scotland,’ he said, realising that his mad idea was possible to achieve. Am I insane? Or are those strangers out there, appearing right on the heels of that wild thought, some kind of sign? ‘There are two men, farmers, coming along the track.’ Witnesses. ‘Kate—marry me.’

* * *

‘Marry you?’

It was hard to concentrate on anything except what was happening to her, anything beyond the life inside that was struggling to be free. Kate dragged her mind back from its desperate focus on breathing, on the baby, on keeping them both alive. She remembered the mix of truth and lies she had told him and stared at Grant.

In the gloom of early-morning light he did not appear to have lost his mind, despite the blow to the head. He still looked as much like a respectable, handsome English gentleman as might be expected after a sleepless night in a hovel tending to a woman in childbed.

‘I am not married, I am not promised to another. I can support a wife, I can support the baby. And if you marry me before the child is born, then it will be legitimate.’ His voice was urgent, his expression in the morning light intent. He smiled, as though to reassure her, but the warmth did not reach his eyes.

‘Legitimate.’ Legitimate. Her child would have a name, a future, respectability. They would both be safe and Grant could protect her from the results of Henry’s scheming. Probably. Kate rode out another contraction, tried to think beyond the moment, recall why she couldn’t simply solve this problem by marrying a complete stranger. He could certainly hide her, even if unwittingly. She would have a new name, a new home, and that was all that mattered for the baby.

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.’

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