The Scoundrel in Her BedBy: Lorraine Heath
(Sins for All Seasons #3)
Breathing heavily, bathed in sweat, after hours of nearly unbearable pain and screaming, the discovery came as somewhat of a surprise. The midwife had warned her that her hips were too narrow for what was to come, terrifying her with the dire possibility of death, and yet the fear, the agony, and the doubts that had plagued her now faded away in direct contrast to the increasing volume of the indignant wails filling her bedchamber. The robust cries were a sign of health and well-being. A gentle smile curled her lips upward as unheralded joy pierced her heart and swept unerringly through her, taking up permanent residence in every nook and cranny of her being. How could a creature so small have such tremendous impact?
“Is it a boy?” she asked, unable to gain a clear view as the midwife quickly swaddled the babe in starched white linen before offering it to her mother, dressed all in mourning black, her face an immutable mask lacking in any emotion whatsoever, very much resembling a ghastly ghoul as she stiffly took the child.
“Mother.” She held up her arms imploringly, waving her fingers as a beggar in want of coins might. “Bring it here. Let me see for myself if it’s a boy or a girl.”
Without even glancing her way, the woman who had brought her into this world spun about smartly—her heels clacking out a steady and foreboding staccato as she headed with purpose for the closed door.
Terror gripped her, threatening to tear her world asunder. Despite her weakened state, she struggled to sit up, to scramble out of the bed, but strong hands, far too many hands, were suddenly there to hold her down as effectively as iron imprisoned the condemned. “Mother, no! Please don’t take the babe from me. Please. I’ll be a good girl. I’ll never sin again. Please! I beg of you! Don’t do this!”
A young female servant dutifully opened the door.
Tears stung her eyes, rained down her cheeks. “No! Have mercy! At least let me cradle it once—”
In my arms died on her lips as her mother swept through the doorway like an avenging angel bent on destroying all in her wake, disappearing into the darkened hallway beyond, taking the precious bundle with her. The door closed with a resounding and ominous snick that would forever reverberate through her soul. For a few more minutes she fought to free herself, race after her mother, and stop her from doing the unthinkable, from farming the child out to someone who could not possibly love it with all the fervor that she did. But the past several hours had not been kind, leaving her drained, exhausted, and faint.
“There, there, my dear girl,” a maid cooed to her. “Calm yourself. Tomorrow all will be as right as rain.”
With gut-wrenching sobs racking her body, she sagged down onto the mattress in despair, while all that remained of her young tender heart shattered into tiny shards that would be impossible to ever piece back together.
Early November 1871
With a shiver, Lady Lavinia Kent brought the hood of her pelisse up over her head. There was a chill in the midnight air that had been lacking on other evenings, and she wasn’t altogether convinced it was a result of autumn giving way to winter but had more to do with the possible peril awaiting her. She was a woman with a purpose, had been since August when she’d escaped her aristocratic life to seek something that would bring her more fulfillment than what had previously been mapped out for her without her consult and none of her desires taken into consideration.
Although her current mission brought with it dangers that lurked unseen in shadowy corners, she was beyond being frightened. Rather she was spurred on by a calling she could trace back a decade to a boy on the cusp of manhood she’d met when she’d been but a girl on the threshold of womanhood.
He’d been some unnamed lord’s by-blow, considered beneath her in every regard, in spite of his noble—albeit tainted—blood. Although he knew the identity of his father, he never confided that information to her. She still remembered the sadness in his voice when he’d confessed he knew nothing at all about—had no memory of—the woman who’d given birth to him because he’d been immediately taken from her and handed over to a baby farmer. Learning of his experiences had introduced her to a world she hadn’t even known existed, a world through which she now traveled, her bare hand tightening around the cold carved wolf’s head that decorated the walking stick that was a constant and reassuring companion when she made these late-night sojourns. Through him, she’d learned the truth of baby farming and the horrors that sometimes accompanied the practice. She learned how the women, usually widows, advertised their services. Recently she’d taken to searching out their adverts, writing to them, meeting with them, paying them. Not to take care of a child as her letter initially indicated, but to give the children presently in their keeping over to her. With the blessings of the Sisters of Mercy who sheltered her, she brought the children to their foundling home, regretting she hadn’t the means to open her own shelters. Theirs would soon be full, and then what was she to do?