His Christmas Countess(9)

By: Louise Allen

Chapter Three

‘Mr Rivers is a very good rider, is he not, ma’am?’

‘Hmm?’ From her position lying full length Kate couldn’t see more than the occasional treetop passing by. ‘Is he?’

Jeannie, the nursemaid, stared at her. ‘But surely you’ve seen him riding, ma’am?’

‘Yes. Yes, of course. I don’t know what is the matter with me.’

‘Not to worry, Mrs Rivers. My nana, who taught me all about looking after mothers and babies, she always said that the mother’s mind is off with the fairies for days after the birth.’

My mind is certainly somewhere and I wish it would come back, because I need to think. Anna was sleeping soundly in the nurse’s arms and Jeannie seemed exceedingly competent. The chaise had an extension at the front so that when the wall section below the front window was removed it could be placed in front of the seat to make a bed where a passenger could stretch out almost full length. Kate had slept heavily and although she felt weak and shaky she was, surely, in a fit state to take responsibility for herself. She should be thinking about what she had done and what the consequences would be.

I have married the man, for goodness’ sake! A complete stranger. What is his family going to say? Grant was persuasive enough, but surely he couldn’t convince them that he was the legitimate father of this child by a mother they’d heard nothing about before?

‘I want to sit up.’ Lying like this made her feel feeble and dependent. Besides, she wanted to see what Mr Rivers—what her husband—looked like on a horse.

Jeannie handed her Anna and helped her sit up. That was better. Two days of being flat on her back like a stranded turtle probably accounted for her disorientation. Kate studied the view from the chaise window. It consisted of miles of sodden moorland, four horses with two postilions and one husband cantering alongside.

Jeannie was a good judge of horsemanship. Grant Rivers was relaxed in the saddle, displaying an impressive length of leg, a straight back and a steady gaze on the road ahead. His profile was austere and, she thought, very English. Brown hair was visible below his hat brim. What colour were his eyes? Surely she should have noticed them? Hazel, or perhaps green. For some reason she had a lingering memory of sadness. But then she’d hardly been in a fit state to notice anything. Or anyone.

But she had better start noticing now. This was her husband. Husbands were for life and she had begun this marriage with a few critical untruths. But they could do Grant no harm, she told herself as she lay down again and let Jeannie tuck her in. There was this one day to regain some strength and get some sleep, then there would be a family to face and Anna to look after in the midst of strangers. But by then she would have her story quite clear in her head and she would be safe in the rustic isolation of the far north of England.

They stopped at three inns—small, isolated, primitive. Jeannie helped her out to the privy, encouraged her to eat and drink, cradled the baby between feeds. Her new husband came to look at her, took her pulse, frowned. Looked at Anna, frowned. Swung back on to his horse, frowned as he urged the postilions to greater speed. What was so urgent? Anyone would think it was life and death.

* * *

‘I think we must be here, ma’am.’ The post-chaise rocked to a halt. Kate struggled up into a sitting position and looked around. Darkness had fallen, but the house was lit and lanterns hung by the front door. Away from the light, the building seemed to loom in the darkness. Surely this was bigger than the modest home a country gentleman-doctor might aspire to?

She looked for Grant, but he was already out of the saddle, the reins trailing on the ground as he strode up the front steps. The doors opened, more light flooded out, she heard the sound of voices. She dropped the window and heard him say, ‘When?’ sharply and another voice replied, ‘In the morning, the day before yesterday.’

Grant came back down the steps. ‘In you come.’

‘Where are we?’ But he was already lifting her out, carrying her in his arms across to the steps. ‘Anna—’

‘I have her, Mrs Rivers. I’m right behind you, ma’am.’

‘This is Abbeywell Grange, your new home.’

There was a tall, lean man, all in black, who bowed as Grant swept her in through the front door. A butler, she supposed, fleetingly conscious of a well-lit hall, a scurry of footmen. The smell of burning applewood, a trace of dried rose petals, beeswax polish, leather. There were evergreen wreaths on the newel posts of the stairs, the glow of red berries in a jug. She remembered Grant’s offering of the holly sprig and smiled. This was an old, loved home, its aura sending messages of reassurance. She wanted to relax and dared not.