The Widow’s Christmas Surprise – Jenna Jaxon

The candle’s flickering light cast ominous shadows onto the piece of foolscap on which Alan, Lord Kersey, was scribbling his last will and testament in the early hour before dawn. Pausing to peer into the gloom of his study, walnut paneled and dark on the sunniest of days, he laid down the quill and stretched his cramped fingers. Writing for any length of time hurt his fingers horribly. Not something one wished to do before a duel, but the document must be exact in the wording that spelled out his final wishes. Although the bulk of his estate was entailed and would ultimately pass to the heir his wife, Maria, was hopefully carrying, other bequests that did not fall under that settlement were his to make. He’d suspected for years that such a moment as this would come. Living his entire adult life as a rake and a cad had given him enormous pleasure. The insatiable taste for bedding women he’d acquired at the early age of fifteen had never abated. Even though he’d sworn to change his ways eight months ago, to his uncle who lay dying in the upstairs chamber Alan now called his own, he’d managed to refrain from his debauched ways for only a few weeks. Then he’d resumed his habits with a vengeance. The addition of the title Earl of Kersey had been amazingly helpful in drawing women to him who would not have cared a jot to bed plain Mr. Alan Garrett. The title had been good for that, he had to admit. Even now, when he might have only an hour or so left to live, he still could not summon any regrets, save that he wished he’d become a better shot over the years. Luck only lasted so long, and his had apparently run out in a spectacular way at Lord Remington’s manor two weeks ago.

Lady Remington’s assertion that her husband had gone off to a final fox hunt in Scotland had been more wishful thinking than absolute truth, with the result that in approximately one hour Lord Remington would be aiming a gun at him and not some wretched animal. Alan picked up the pages, perusing the words he’d been writing for the past two hours. There were mistakes here and there, crossed out in tiny x’s, and one section where he’d decided the wording would not do at all and thus he’d blackened it out entirely. The resulting document was neither neat nor very pretty; however, he believed it would be accepted by the family solicitor, Mr. Hezekiah Clarke, and carried out in the event of his death. Picking up the pen, he mended it neatly, then signed his name. A hollow knock sounded on the door, making Alan flinch. God, he needed to steady his nerves if he’d any hope of surviving the coming ordeal. Glancing to his right, he looked longingly at the decanter of excellent cognac that his butler faithfully refilled every morning. It stood at a third full, more than enough to take the edge off him, but he shook his head and, pulling a blank sheet of paper over his document, rose.

While a drink might steady him, it might also take him off his aim just enough to keep him from disabling his opponent before he could kill Alan. A sober head was needed, no matter how much he thirsted. “Come.” The door opened and Hugh Granger, the steward he’d inherited from his Uncle Kersey back in August, strode into the room. Granger had been a good man all these months. Apparently his uncle had hired the man years ago, as a favor to the steward’s father. A favor that had worked out well, for the Kersey estate had run effortlessly in Mr. Granger’s capable hands, at least for the time Alan had been in residence. Hopefully it would continue to do so. “I saw the light, my lord, and wanted to take my leave of you.

” The man nodded deferentially. From his initial interview with the steward, Alan had discovered Granger was a second son to a very prosperous landowner in Suffolk, his uncle’s friend who had died several years before, leaving Granger’s elder brother the entailed estate. A rather uncomplicated man, Granger was excellent at management, having a bent for organization and attention to detail. “I’m for London to see to the repairs to the townhouse. You’d asked me to oversee them.” “Yes, I remember.” Bad timing, that. Should something untoward happen this morning, Kersey Hall would need a steadying hand here. He shook off the image of himself lying on the damp ground, a bullet in his head, which unexpectedly popped into his mind. Perhaps ask Granger to remain until tomorrow .

His gaze fell on the pages he’d been writing. No. Better Granger leave and post haste. Alan would have no better emissary to deliver the will safely into the solicitor’s hands. “I have an additional task for you when you get to London, Granger.” “Yes, my lord?” The man’s dark gaze gave no indication if he knew about his master’s indiscretion and the coming consequences, although Alan suspected he did. “Can you summon Chambers, please?” Granger blinked, but moved back to the door and then into the corridor. He returned in a moment, followed by the butler, another holdover from his uncle’s staff, impeccably dressed and ready to begin the day’s duties, even at this ungodly hour. Did the man ever sleep? “Good morning, milord.” Chambers stood straight, his eyes slightly averted.

“Good morning.” Alan adjusted the piece of paper covering the will, leaving the blank bottom half of the document uncovered. “If you will, Granger, Chambers, I would like you both to sign the paper here on the desk.” Chambers’s eyes met his, somewhat larger than before, but he nodded. “Of course, milord.” “Very good. You first, Chambers. Mr. Granger will sign after you.” The butler stepped forward, bent over and grasped the quill with suddenly awkward fingers.

With hesitant strokes, he scratched out George Chambers. He then placed the pen carefully next to the paper and righted himself. “Thank you, Chambers. Direct Lawson to bring the carriage around.” “Yes, my lord.” With one fleeting look at Alan, the man bowed and left. “Granger.” Alan nodded toward the desk. The steward met his gaze, his lips firming into a straight line. He opened them, then closed his mouth without a word and took up the quill.

With a bold hand he wrote his name, then laid the pen down and stepped back. “Thank you, Granger.” Alan sanded the ink, waited a moment to make sure it had dried, then folded the document. He dripped black sealing wax onto it, then pressed his signet ring into the warm blob. Under the circumstances, this was the best he could do. Of course, his best had often fallen short of what had been expected of him. He hoped this would not. Turning back to his steward, Alan held the document out to him. “Take this directly to Mr. Hezekiah Clarke of Messrs.

Grimes and Clarke, Solicitors, in Milford Lane in London.” He gripped the foolscap sheet until it crackled. Pray God this would remain nothing but a precaution. “Put it into Mr. Clarke’s hands directly.” Mr. Granger looked at him askance, but nodded and grasped the document. “I will, my lord.” With a nod, Alan let go the paper, sudden regret filling him. This was a sorry business, and totally of his own making.

If he survived, perhaps he could turn over the proverbial new leaf, as he had promised his uncle as he lay dying. He shivered. Goose walking over his grave. He straightened his shoulders. Then so be it. “That is all, Granger. Safe journey.” “Thank you, my lord.” The steward looked as if he would speak again, his gaze shooting directly into Alan’s eyes, a gleam of sympathy—or more likely pity—in the blue depths. Granger must have thought better of the comment, for he simply nodded and left.

Clenching his jaw, Alan went to the window and pulled back the blue and black damasked drapes. The seemingly unrelenting darkness had lightened several degrees. A glimmer of the approaching dawn shone in the east through the trees that had just begun to bud. Time to meet Beauchamp, his second, and get this farce over with. With a jerk, Alan turned and strode back to the desk. From a deep drawer he withdrew the polished mahogany box that contained a set of French dueling pistols. Why his uncle had bought the guns was a complete mystery to Alan. He’d found them when he first took stock of the estate after his uncle’s death, looking brand-new, as though they’d never been taken out of their case. Now both pistols had been fired repeatedly. Beauchamp had informed him yesterday that Remington would not, under any circumstances, accept an apology.

So Alan had practiced as best he could out in the yard until it had grown too dark to see. Securing the smooth box under his arm, Alan glanced once more around the familiar room; then, raising his chin, he turned and strode out of the room to face his destiny. Chapter One May 1817 Kersey Hall, Essex “I can’t do this. I can’t. I—Owww.” In the grip of an exquisitely painful contraction, Maria, Lady Kersey, squeezed the already mangled hand of her cousin Jane, Lady John Tarkington. “Stop talking and breathe, Maria.” Jane smiled at her through clenched teeth, wiggling her fingers against the death grip. “You’re almost there, my lady.” Mrs.

Middleton, the village midwife, looked up at her, a fine sheen of sweat on her brow. The birthing room had been prepared for the delivery, the windows closed off, dark coverings erected over every wall, so the fireplace and the myriad candles burning gave off incredible heat. The airless chamber was suffocating, though by now Maria had ceased to care. “I’m going to need you to push with the next one.” “I’ve been pushing forever as it is.” Lying on her left side, Maria had been instructed to draw her legs up toward her stomach, a position she’d been in for several hours. Comfortable at first, her body now seemed ready to split in two. The pains were almost constant, one long, searing cramp after another. “When is this going to end?” “Very soon, my lady.” Leaning forward, the midwife, a local woman from Kersey Village, shifted Maria’s stained and sweat-soaked nightgown away from her body.

“You’ll have your son in your arms before you know it, Maria, and you’ll forget all about the ordeal.” With her free hand, Jane wiped a cool sponge over Maria’s hot skin. “Trust me. I know.” Her cousin should indeed know. She had birthed four children in the years before her husband had been killed at Waterloo. How on earth had she managed it? Right now, every inch of Maria’s body seemed on fire. If she survived this nightmare, she’d never have another child as long as she lived. Gritting her teeth in preparation for the coming pain, she forced herself to think only about her son. The one duty she had left to accomplish for Alan.

Her husband was dead—she still could scarcely take that in. There was so much she’d had to endure the past month, from the disagreeable effects of late pregnancy, compounded by the shocking discovery that Alan had been unfaithful to her, to the equally stunning news of his death less than a month ago. Anger had fought with despair the past few weeks, leaving her exhausted, morose, and weak even as her time had drawn near. Pain seized her belly, threatening to tear her apart, and she sat up in the bed, shrieking. “Push, my lady. Now. A big push.” Face eager and intent, the midwife crouched closer at the end of the bed. “Nooo.” The sharp agony in her belly mirrored the one in her heart.

She’d loved Alan, and he’d betrayed that love in the bed of another woman. When she’d learned of it she’d wanted only to die. Perhaps now she would get her wish. “Almost there, my dear.” Jane had disengaged her hand and now slid an arm around Maria’s shoulders, steadying her when all her strength seemed to have drained away. “Just a bit longer and your baby will be here.” Her baby. Hers and Alan’s. He’d been so pleased as her pregnancy had progressed. So proud to have sired a child to carry on after him.

Despite her fury at Alan’s betrayal, she owed it to him to bring his son safely into the world so the Garrett line could continue here at Kersey Hall. Another pain swept through her body, forcing a cry from her lips as she instinctively bore down. There was a moment of pure agony, then Maria sagged back against the pillows. “Good, Maria, good.” Jane smiled as she peered over at the midwife. “I believe that did the—” A piercing wail cut off Jane’s words. Maria raised up as Mrs. Middleton stood, the shrill squalling continuing to emanate from the swath of white cloth she carried. “Well done, my lady. Very well done, indeed.

” Her heart beating strangely as the woman crossed to the head of the bed, Maria stared helplessly as the woman placed the wiggling bundle into her arms. The baby’s red and wrinkled face below a shock of almost black hair ceased its crying for a moment and stared directly at her, its eyes round and blue. Maria’s heart melted. Every inch of her exhausted body pricked with excitement, her pain forgotten. “Oh, look at you. You are so beautiful, my love.” The baby opened its mouth and screeched anew. “He’s likely hungry, my dear.” Jane bent over, adjusting the pillows so Maria sat more fully erect. “Why don’t you put him to your breast?” Smiling broadly, unable to take her gaze from her son, Maria nodded and Jane adjusted her nightgown, opening the placket at the neck.

Carefully, Maria moved the baby to her nipple and gasped when he latched on with a vengeance. Jane smiled, pushing a stray wisp of hair out of her face. “Oh, he’s a grand one, Maria. Not all babies catch on so quickly.” “It’s quite, um, startling, isn’t it?” The baby’s deep pulling on her breast was a strange, yet satisfying sensation. “You’ll get used to it quickly, my lady.” Mrs. Middleton had finished cleaning up evidence of the birth and was washing her hands at the basin. “It helps your body heal itself from the childbirth.” She shook her hands, then grabbed a piece of clean toweling to dry them.

“And the longer you have the child at the breast, the longer it’ll be before you’ll conceive again.” The midwife turned white, Jane gasped, and Maria clenched her jaw. The pain of Alan’s death, mixed with the equal anguish of his infidelity, shot through her. Her body tensed and she flinched, as from a blow. The movement pulled her nipple out of the baby’s mouth and he set up another hungry wail. “Beggin’ your pardon, my lady.” Mrs. Middleton wrung her hands. “It’s just that’s always been my advice to new mothers, so it just popped out. I’m that sorry to upset you.

” Though Jane looked daggers at the woman, she nodded. “That will do, Mrs. Middleton. I believe I can carry on with Lady Kersey from here.” Taking a deep breath, Maria nodded as well and steered the baby’s mouth back to her breast. “Thank you for your help, Mrs. Middleton.”

.

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