Gregory de Challon felt the waves of disapproval coming off Sir Rodric Shelley as the two men traipsed silently through the empty streets of London. Today had proven hot and the heat seemed to linger into the night as the midnight hour approached. The streets stunk of waste that had been dumped from windows, reminding Gregory why so many of the nobility left London during the summer months. At least it wouldn’t take long to reach the cottage he’d leased for Celia since the teeming crowds were now tucked into their beds for the night. He needed it that way because he didn’t want to be seen visiting the girl, heavy with child.
It was her fault for being so damned beautiful. Gregory had been tempted beyond measure when he first spied Celia Achard at court. Only ten and six, she was small in height when compared to most women, but her full breasts and tiny waist had caught his attention, as did her glorious mane of golden hair. But it was her eye color that truly whetted his appetite. The sprite’s eyes were amethyst in color, like two jewels set in a perfect face.
He’d had his share of women—and then some. Growing up, he’d bedded anyone in a skirt, be it a servant or local village wench. When his father brought him to the royal court in London, Gregory had plowed through a bevy of pretty widows before working his way through a dozen or more married lovers, both at court and in the city of London.
That was before Celia arrived. Why a naïve virgin had turned his very experienced head was something Gregory didn’t understand, only that she made his blood sing. He had thought to steal only a kiss from her in a darkened alcove. Mayhap two. Then kisses had turned to touch and touch crashed out of control until she found herself with child. She hid it for as long as she could and then told her father she’d been asked to visit a friend at her family’s country estate. Lord Americ Achard rarely saw his daughter and had only given her a cursory glance when she told him of her travel plans for the summer. Celia said her father seemed relieved that she had somewhere to go so that he wouldn’t be responsible for her.
That had allowed Gregory to rent the tiny cottage in the heart of London while Celia’s time to deliver drew near. He’d stolen away from the palace to visit her a few times, not nearly as much as either of them would have liked, but that had to end. Today.
When he broke her heart.
Oh, she wouldn’t know right away. He would make gallant promises tonight and cover her in sweet kisses. She would deliver the child and Sir Rodric would take her back to Nesterfield. She had no mother and her two younger brothers had come to court for their summer break to spend time with their father, a man heavily involved in court politics and the royal treasury. Once he’d taken a few days to show his sons London, Americ and the boys left to join the court’s summer progress. Because of that, Celia could recover from childbirth alone at home, with no one the wiser.
Except for the babe.
As they drew near their destination, Gregory paused. His companion halted and looked at him with wary eyes.
“Today is the last day I will see her,” he promised the knight, who’d gotten Gregory out of more scrapes that anyone could imagine.
“And I’m to take her to Nesterfield after she gives birth. To your babe,” Sir Rodric said, his tone even but accusing Gregory all the same.
“Aye. Offer to pay the midwife to take the child away.”
“If she refuses?” the knight asked boldly.
Gregory swallowed. “Then get rid of it on the way.”
Sir Rodric’s brows rose. “You want me to kill it. A babe. Your babe.”
He steeled himself. “Do whatever you have to do, Rodric. But Celia is not to arrive home with a child in her arms.”
“What should I tell the lady happened to her babe?”
“Whatever you wish.”
Gregory turned away and strode off, knowing the loyal knight would follow. He’d been in service to the de Challons his entire life and would do his duty, no matter how much he despised the outcome.
They reached the cottage and Gregory opened the door, leaving his soldier outside to make sure no one else entered behind him. A single candle glowed in the one room. Celia lay atop a pallet on the floor, fast asleep. He went and knelt beside her.
In sleep, she looked even younger but she still resembled an earthly angel. Her face had grown slightly fuller. He placed a palm against her rounded belly. A moment later, he felt a strong kick against it. He jerked his hand away, not wanting to think about the child they’d made together. Lowering his mouth to hers, he pressed a kiss against her soft lips.
She awakened and opened her mouth to him. He accepted the invitation, kissing her deeply, knowing it would be the last time their lips met. Breaking the kiss, he helped her sit up, her back supported against the wall behind her. Gregory pulled a small, velvet pouch from his pocket and handed it to her.
“A gift?” Celia’s face lit up.
“A little something to remember me by,” he said lightly.
She loosened the strings and reached inside, withdrawing an amethyst brooch. It had taken going to three jewelers until he found what he wanted but the smile that lit her face made his troubles worthwhile.
“’Tis the most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” she swore.
“I thought the gems matched the color of your eyes. Here, let me pin it on you.”
Gregory opened the clasp and slid the pin through the material of her nightdress. Celia fingered the brooch lovingly.
Cupping her face, he said, “I have to go away for a little while, love.”
“To Egelina?” she asked, her mouth turning down.
“Aye. She is my betrothed and we are to wed in three days’ time.”
“But you will stop it, won’t you, Gregory?” Her large eyes pleaded with him.
“I will do what I can, Celia,” he said, knowing he would never dream of halting the marriage between him and the homely cow whose bridal price was large enough to ensure she would be taken off her parents’ hands for good. “To do so, I must convince both her and her parents—as well as my father—that we should not marry.”
“But you are so good with words, Gregory. You are intelligent. You will be able to reason with them. Make them see why you cannot marry Egelina.” Her mouth set in determination.
He shrugged. “I cannot predict what will happen, love. A betrothal is as good as being wed. Persuading all parties involved will be difficult.”
“But not impossible.” She gave him a tender smile. “I believe you can do anything, Gregory. Even guarantee that we will always be together.”
“Not for a while,” he reminded her. “If they knew of you and the babe, that would not be reason enough to break our arrangement. I must find a way that appeals to all sides. Try not to worry. You and the child will be safe at Sturnwick. Your father and brothers will be gone for a few months and then most likely, Lord Achard will return them to where they foster before he arrives back at court. By then, I hope I will have worked out a solution to our problem.”
Celia’s eyes misted with tears. “You think of me—and the babe—as a problem?” Her lips trembled and he knew she was on the verge of breaking down.
“Nay, love. You misconstrued my meaning.”
Tears leaked from her eyes. “I’m sorry. ’Tis being with child. I find myself so emotional.” She paused. “I think my time draws near.”
“Rodric has been tasked to take care of everything. He will bring a midwife for the delivery. Then he will wait a few days until you are strong enough to travel before he escorts you home.”
“I wish I could go to your home. Our home,” she said stubbornly.
Gregory knew he needed to leave before her demands became unreasonable. Brushing his lips against hers a last time, he then said, “I must go. Take care.”
Celia threw her arms about his neck. “I love you, Gregory.”
He felt the hot tears against his skin. Wrapping his arms around her, he inhaled one final time the sweet scent of her innocence. An innocence he’d ruined. Guilt flushed through him, knowing he would marry his betrothed and live a hundred leagues away from a woman who just might have captured his hard heart. Gregory told himself it was all for the best. There would be no child. Hopefully, it wouldn’t live but if it did, Rodric would see that Celia Achard arrived home with only herself. Her body would heal. Eventually, her heart would, too.
Or so he told himself.
“Let me help you.”
Gregory eased her back onto the pallet. On her back, her belly rose like a majestic mountain. A belly filled with his child. He shrugged off the thought and brushed back a lock of hair from her face.
“Go to sleep, Celia.”
“I hope my dreams are of you,” she said. Her eyes closed and within seconds, she appeared asleep.
Rising, he drank in one long, last look and left the cottage. Nodding at Rodric, who would remain behind, Gregory slipped back through the quiet, dark streets, regret rending his heart in two.
Rodric’s anger at his liege lord’s oldest son rippled through him. The boy had played with fire his entire life, never being burned, thanks to always having someone to clean up his messes after him. Rodric could understand a boy seeking adventure but Gregory de Challon’s attraction to danger would cost him dearly someday. The boy had become a man who knew no boundaries. He’d dallied with every eligible woman at the royal court without consequence and now he had walked away from any sense of duty to Lady Celia Achard. By now, the fool was wed to that ugly Egelina and either counting the money she’d brought or seducing some serving wench in the nearby village. Rodric knew Sir Gregory would never look back at the trouble he’d caused.
Fortunately, Lady Celia had lived through the delivery, though he thought her blood loss great. Rodric had worried at her small size, as had the midwife, but the young noblewoman had managed to give birth to a healthy girl after a day and half in agonizing labor. The child thrived—but her mother grew weaker by the minute. He wasn’t certain the lady would live through the journey to her home. He’d bought a cart and had thought she would ride next to him in it on the way to Sturnwick but now determined she would need to lie in the back with the babe and conserve what little strength she had left.
The midwife refused to entertain the idea of accepting the child after its birth. The woman told Rodric no one wanted a newborn, least of all a nobleman’s cast-off, and she’d be hard put to find the girl a home in London. Though no names had ever been exchanged, he knew there’d been no way to hide the fact that Lady Celia was nobility. Her speech, her dress, her very manner gave that way.
Now, Rodric was to take his two charges out of the city. The rent on the cottage had run out, so they would be leaving for Sturnwick in minutes. He’d already put a small trunk of Lady Celia’s in the wagon bed and laid blankets out for her to rest upon. The midwife had left a basket behind for the child to sleep in. He’d bought a small blanket at a vendor’s stall and placed the brown wool inside the basket for the child to sleep upon.
Returning inside, he saw a pale Lady Celia standing, wobbly on her feet.
“Come, my lady. Let me help you to the cart.”
“I’ll return for the babe. She’s fast asleep in her basket. You needn’t worry about her.”
He led her to the wagon and gingerly lifted her into it.
“Lie down and settle yourself. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Rodric returned and glanced around the cottage one last time, making sure they left nothing behind, especially anything that might give a clue as to who had stayed here and what had occurred. He’d already paid the midwife enough to keep her lips from flapping. Turning to the basket, he lifted it by its handle, the sleeping child not stirring at the subtle movement.
Gazing down, he couldn’t see anything of Sir Gregory in the babe. She had blond fuzz atop her head, which would grow out one day to be the same shade as her mother’s. She also possessed the delicate nose and mouth of Lady Celia. He fought the bile rising in him.
How could he kill a babe?
Rodric didn’t have it in him. He’d killed on the battlefield. Done things he wasn’t particularly proud of—especially when cleaning up the multitude of troubles Sir Gregory left behind. But he had to draw the line at murdering an innocent child. His code as a knight prevented it. He’d vowed to protect the weak, including women and children.
Yet, he knew he couldn’t go against Sir Gregory’s wishes. Somehow, he would have to find a place for the babe along the way before they reached Sturnwick.
And lie to the mother about what happened to her child.
Returning outside, he climbed into the back of the cart. Lady Celia lay there, looking even more ashen than before. So far, she’d been able to nurse the babe but he worried that time might soon run out.
“Let me have her,” the noblewoman begged.
“You are too weak, my lady,” he warned. “I will place the basket next to you. She will be fine.”
Rodric knew how ill Lady Celia must be for she didn’t argue with him. He nestled the basket against her side and then covered the babe with a portion of the blanket and then her mother with another one.
“Call out if you need anything and I’ll stop the cart right away,” he said cheerfully, trying to placate her.
“All right.” She gave him a sad smile. “Thank you, Sir Rodric. For everything. I know how much Gregory counts upon you.”
“That he does, my lady. Don’t you worry. I’ll get you to Sturnwick, safe and sound,” he promised.
“And my child.”
He gave her a tight smile and a nod—but couldn’t force himself to speak an untruth.
Rodric climbed into the driver’s seat and steered the horse through the busy London streets. It would take almost a week to reach Sturnwick. That gave him time to decide what to do.
As the days passed, he realized Lady Celia would not reach her childhood home alive. She grew punier by the day and the babe had trouble nursing at her breast. He’d thought to tell the mother that her child had died and he’d stopped to bury it while she slept but realized he might not have to lie to her—for she would be the one who passed on.
He stopped in a village and bought some bread and cheese and a jug of ale at a tavern. While waiting for the maid to gather up what he’d purchased, Rodric listened to a conversation occurring next to him because he heard the name de Montfort mentioned. He had met a couple of the same name at court, Lord Geoffrey and Lady Merryn. He’d been impressed by the pair’s intelligence and kindness and obvious affection toward one another. Others at court had nothing but good to say about the two and how devoted they were to each other and their children.
As he listened, he learned the very same couple’s estate lay not far from this village, in the direction he now headed. A plan began to form in his mind.
Rodric thanked the maid and gave her a coin and returned to the wagon. He drove it through the village and down the road two leagues until he spied the castle on a hill up ahead. He stopped the cart and climbed in the back. Lady Celia had begged to hold her child when they’d stopped at the village. He’d taken the girl from her basket and handed her to the mother to nurse and allowed the babe to remain with her mother.
Glancing down, he saw the little one was wide awake, a small dribble of her mother’s milk on her chin. Rodric wiped it away with his finger. The babe cooed at him. He lifted her and placed the girl in her basket. Turning to Lady Celia, his jaw dropped.
The lady looked at peace though her eyes stared up at the sky above. He touched his fingers to her throat and found no pulse beating within. Brushing his hand over her eyes, he closed the lids. Lady Celia seemed to wear a small smile of thanks.
Rodric jumped from the wagon and reached for the basket. He lifted it and walked to the edge of the woods near the road. His fervent prayer to the Virgin implored Her to intercede and have someone from these lands find the babe and take her in. Setting the basket on the ground, he saw the babe look up at him with her large eyes, as if she questioned his actions.
“’Tis the best I can do for you, my little lady,” he said softly. “I hope you will find a home near here and happiness, as well. I will take your sweet mother to her own home to be laid to rest.”
A thought occurred to him. Quickly, he strode to the cart and, with trembling fingers, removed the brooch that Sir Gregory had gifted to Lady Celia. She had worn it each day next to her heart, telling Rodric how that kept her love close to her.
Returning to the basket, he opened the blanket. Not trusting his fingers in fear of pricking the babe, he slipped the piece inside the blanket, pushing it to the bottom, then folded the blanket again so that it wrapped snuggly around the child. He pressed his lips to the babe’s head.
“Godspeed, Child. May the Good Christ watch over you and bring you peace.”
With a heavy heart, he returned to the cart and brought the blanket over Lady Celia’s face, tucking it underneath her to secure it in place. Rodric climbed into the driver’s seat and lifted the reins. He would see Lady Celia home.
And pray every day he lived for her daughter to be happy and safe.