Beyond Scandal and DesireBy: Lorraine Heath
He was scared. More scared than he’d ever been in all of his twenty-four years.
For sixteen hours, drowning in more scotch than was wise, he’d prayed for the torment to end while his love screamed. Odd, then, that when the silence finally arrived, it filled him with such unheralded terror. His gaze never leaving the door that opened into her bedchamber, he sat as still as death in the straight-backed chair in the dimly lit hallway. Unable to make his limbs move, he merely waited, barely breathing, listening intently, praying now that he would hear no cries, that the babe would be stillborn.
But the howls of outrage at being forced into a cruel world eventually came, strong and robust, and he cursed heaven and hell for the unfairness of it.
The heavy oak door opened. A young maid—damn, what was her name? He didn’t remember; he didn’t care—gave a quick curtsy. “It’s a boy, Your Grace.”
Swearing harshly, he squeezed his eyes shut. The gender shouldn’t have mattered, and yet the pronouncement hit him like a solid blow to the chest.
After setting aside his glass, he slowly, laboriously shoved himself to his feet and, on legs that did not seem to belong to him, staggered into the room that smelled of sweat, blood and fear. The child had ceased its bellowing. Wrapped in a swaddling blanket bearing the ducal crest, it was now cradled in the arms of another maid.
She smiled hopefully at him. “He’s a fine one, Your Grace.”
He took no pride, no comfort in her words. Cautiously he approached. He saw the thatch of thick black hair, the same shade as his, the pinched face. It was difficult to believe something so tiny could be the cause of so much pain, grief and despair.
“Would you care to hold him, sir?”
Knowing he would be lost if he did, he shook his head. “Leave us now. All of you. Get out.”
She placed the bundle into the bassinet, before scurrying after the midwife and other maid, closing the door in their wake, leaving him to face what must be done in this room that still seemed to echo his love’s agony.
Quietly, hesitantly, he wandered over to the four-poster where she lay, her face averted, her gaze on the windows and the inky midnight blackness beyond them. It seemed appropriate for the child to arrive in the dead of night, in this residence where his own father had kept his mistress. They were both long gone, but the dwelling still had its uses, assured no memories of this night would haunt his beloved estates or London residence.
The woman on the bed was another matter entirely. Having endured what she had, how could she not be haunted? He’d never known her to be so pale, so lifeless, all joy and dreams sucked from her. Taking her hand, he wasn’t surprised to find it as cold as ice. “Have you seen him?”
Her head barely moved in a shake. “He’s a bastard. You know what you must do,” she rasped, then turned imploring tear-filled eyes toward him. “For me. We must be rid of him. You know we must.” She released a sob, bit down on her knuckles and began to cry in earnest.
Sitting on the edge of the mattress, he enfolded her into his arms and rocked her gently. This child should have never come into existence. He knew its presence would plague her unmercifully. “Shh, my love, don’t fret. I shall see to it.”
“I’m sorry, I’m so incredibly sorry.”
“You are not to blame. If I’d taken greater care . . .” His voice trailed off, the incriminations clogging his throat. He hadn’t taken the precautions necessary to protect her. Now he would do everything necessary to save her from scandal.
He held her until she quieted, until she fell into a fitful sleep. Then he took the babe from the bassinet in which it had been placed. It. It. He would not think of it as a child, but as a creature. It looked up at him with huge blue eyes. Carrying his burden, he strode from the room without looking back.
The journey in his coach was the longest of his life. It seemed wrong to set the child down, so he held it, all the while sensing its gaze upon him, knowing he would feel that unblinking stare until the day he died.
At last the coach came to a stop outside a ramshackle dwelling on the outskirts of London. The thickening fog swirling silently over the stoop made it seem all the more ominous. Hesitating, he shook his head. Now was not the time to turn cowardly. With the babe clasped against his chest, he disembarked and made his mind go blank so he couldn’t consider the ramifications of what he was doing.