Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish
The Duke's Daughters - 1
This book is dedicated to my dear sister, Maire. Like other Notables (our mother) she arrived in December, and she is the closest thing to a saint I ever hope to meet on earth, being good, fun, and easy to love. No family ever received a better holiday present.
“Ain’t a bleedin’ bedamned room t’be had in all a bleedin’ Lun’nun, guv!”
The innkeeper raised his voice to holler over the racket created by one screaming infant. “Stables is full up too, and more bleedin’ snow on the way! Beg pardon!”
He hustled away and started bellowing over the din in the common for somebody to mop the bleedin’ floor. Not surprised at the lack of accommodations, Vim moved off in the interest of sparing his bleedin’ ears.
Though moving wasn’t easy in the crowded confines of the common.
The floor was a slick expanse of that particular type of mud created when snow, horse manure, and dirt were tracked in from the semifrozen quagmire of the inn yard, and yet it was hardly the worst feature of the crowded room. The stench rising from the floor blended with the aromas of wet wool, unwashed bodies, and overcooked mutton stew to offend even the lowliest nose.
Overlaying it all was the incongruous scent of cinnamon, as if a little spice would confer on the scene some sense of seasonal good cheer.
Which was not bloody likely.
Piercing the noisome air, over the cursing and muttering of stranded travelers, over the scrape of boots and the swearing of the hostlers in the yard beyond, came that sound most capable of driving Wilhelm Lucifer Charpentier to madness.
A crying baby.
Vim had noticed the little blighter when all the passengers on his stage had been told to debark here in the very heart of London, because the weather was precluding further progress on the journey south. Like benumbed sheep, they’d all stumbled into the inn, toting their belongings with them only find an assault on their ears was to be the price of thawing their toes.
The child’s crying ratchetted up, from indignant to enraged. The next progression would be to inconsolable, which might last hours.
Happy bedamned holidays.
Vim knew people in London. People who would act pleased to see him. People who would smile and welcome him as an impromptu guest for the duration of the foul weather. Happy people, offering him wassail while they laughed their way through the same hopeless madrigals and selections from Handel’s Messiah.
He shifted his gaze from the scene beyond the window to the woman holding the unhappy baby a few feet away.
“I beg your pardon, madam. May I be of assistance?” He tipped his hat and had to fist his hands at his sides, so strong was the urge to pluck the offending infant from her arms. “The child appears distressed.”
She bobbed a curtsy while holding the child. “I’ve explained to him that such a tantrum is hardly seemly, and I do apologize for the noise.” She focused her gaze on the child. “You are a naughty fellow, young Kit, banging your tankard and shouting down the rafters…”
She went on softly remonstrating the baby while Vim recovered from the prettiest pair of green eyes he’d ever beheld. Overall, she wasn’t a pretty woman—she had a full though solemn mouth in the usual location, underscored by a definite chin and a nose somewhat lacking in subtlety. Her hair was dark brown and pulled back into a positively boring bun at her nape. But those eyes…
And her voice. It was the voice of a pretty lady, soft and luminous with good breeding and gentility, though she was using it to try to gently scold the child into better behavior.
“May I?” He held out his arms, meeting those green eyes when she looked faintly puzzled. “I have some experience with children.”
She passed him the child, moving close enough to Vim that he realized she was not particularly tall. She had a dignity about her, though, even holding a bellowing baby.
“His mama should be right back. She just went around to the back for a moment.” The lady cast a hopeful look at the door—a hopeful, anxious look.
Vim took the child, who appeared distracted by the change in venue—though likely only temporarily.
“You will hush,” he said to the baby. This pronouncement earned him a blinking, blue-eyed stare from his burden. “This good woman is tired of your fretting, as is the entire room and likely half the block. Behave your little self, or we’ll call the beadle to haul you off to gaol. That’s better.”
He put the baby to his shoulder and began to gently pat and rub the small back. “He just finished his luncheon, didn’t he?”
The woman colored slightly. “I believe he did.”
Still on the breast then, which was going to be a problem.
“I don’t believe his mother will be returning.” He said it calmly, an observation about the weather, nothing more.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Voice down, madam, lest His Highness start to fretting again, hmm?” He turned his body to provide the woman a little privacy, his larger frame effectively blocking her from the rest of the room.
“Sir, you just said you aren’t sure his mother will be coming back. A trip to the necessary will hardly keep her until spring.” She hissed the words, suggesting she lacked a parent’s instinctive capacity for dissembling before children.
“The necessary is not in the direction of Piccadilly. She took off at as smart a pace as this footing will allow.”
“You must be mistaken.” Except a certain shift in the lady’s expression told him the mother’s behavior might not be entirely out of character.
“She’s a solid young woman, blonde, attired in a purple cloak?” The baby rooted on his shoulder. “I have a handkerchief in my pocket. Would you be so good as to extract it?”
Again he’d spoken calmly, babies being fiendishly perceptive even before they learned their first words. The lady was perceptive too. She stuck a hand into the pocket of his greatcoat and produced the handkerchief without further comment.
“Lay it on my shoulder.”
She had to go up on her toes to do that, which meant amid all the stink and filth of the common, Vim caught a whiff of something… lovely. A hint of late spring. Cool, sunny, sweet… pink-throated roses and soft climbing vines of honeysuckle.
She stepped back to watch him warily.
“I suspect his recent meal has left him a tad dys”—the baby burped loudly and wetly—“peptic.”
“My goodness.” She blinked at Vim’s shoulder, where the infant was now beaming toothlessly at all he surveyed. Vim shifted the child and retrieved the handkerchief, which had protected his greatcoat more or less from carrying the scent of infant digestion for the rest of the day.
“How long do you intend to wait for his mother?” The child swung a tiny hand and caught Vim’s nose.
“Joleen was to board the Portsmouth stage.” Another anxious visual sweep of the surrounds.
Vim took a step back so the lady might have a view out the window. He also disengaged his proboscis from the baby’s surprisingly strong grip.
“I was told the coaches are all putting up for the duration, madam. My own travel has been interrupted because of it.” The baby knocked Vim’s high-crowned beaver straight at the woman beside them. She caught it deftly in one hand. When Vim dipped his head, she positioned the hat back where it belonged.
“That is a naughty baby,” she said, eyeing the child.
“He’s a boy baby. They all have more energy than they know what to do with, until they sleep like the dead, restoring themselves for their next round of mischief.”
This recitation seemed to please the little fellow, for he smiled directly at Vim, a great drooling expression of benevolence disproportionate to his tiny size.
“I think Kit likes you.”
“He likes having food in his tummy and a warm place to cuddle, the same as the rest of us. You can linger here, but I honestly do not think the mother will return. May I have your coach brought round for you?” Though the pandemonium in the yard suggested it would be far simpler to escort the lady to her conveyance.
“I only brought the gig, and it’s right around the corner.” She reached for the baby, but Vim took half a step back.
“I am happy to carry him for you.”
“But he’s…” She fell silent, regarding the baby gurgling contentedly on Vim’s shoulder. “He does seem quite happy there.”
“And I am happy to enjoy his company, as well. If you’d lead the way?” He nodded toward the door to encourage her, because her eyes bore a hesitance, suggesting she knew better than to allow a strange man to accompany her down the street.
“I neglected to introduce myself,” Vim went on. “Wilhelm Charpentier, at your service.” He left off the title, as he usually did with strangers, but he did bow with the baby tucked against his chest. The child laughed, a hearty, merry baby-chuckle calculated to have Vim bobbing around the room for the pleasure of My Lord Baby until one or both of them succumbed to exhaustion.
“I’m Sophie Windham.” She dipped another curtsy while Vim cast around mentally for why the Windham name sounded vaguely familiar. “I should have known Joleen—his mama—was up to something when she took her valise to the necessary.”
“You were occupied with a certain unhappy little gentleman. Shall we be going? I don’t like the look of that sky.”
She glanced out the window and got moving. It took some minutes to navigate through the crowd; then they had to pause inside the door for Miss Windham to wrap the child in a thick woolen shawl.
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