Three Dukes and A Baby
Jonathan Bradshaw hated dukes. To be specific he hated one duke.
The day a duke ruined his life he’d ended up face down in a ditch on the Scottish side of the border, stunned and aching from the beating he’d suffered at the hands of His Grace’s lackeys. The smell of whisky cut through the mud clogging his swollen nose. That was the last straw. His pocket flask, fully charged against the chill of a northern journey in early spring, had cracked. If he managed to lug his bruised body out of the dirt, he wouldn’t be able to console his bruised soul and broken heart with the Scottish breath of life.
Waiting for his miserable existence to evaporate along with his last source of comfort, he became aware of a faint lapping sound close to his ear. Then a tiny snuffle and a wet little tongue licking his cheek. Something else was chewing on his boot. The ignominy of ending his life a meal for rats lifted him out of his torpid despair. Rolling onto his arse he found himself surrounded by a trio of puppies. Funny little things, they were, with snub noses and floppy ears and madly wagging tails. They must have been abandoned since their breeding was, to put it kindly, indeterminate. He felt a kinship with the mongrels. Had he not also been rejected by the Duke of Windlesham for his lack of the proper parentage?
The creatures yelped with joy, butting their little heads against his legs and nuzzling his hands with wet noses. One of them demanded to be picked up. When he obliged a wet warmth trickled through his fingers.
The little devil had wet himself.
Jonathan averted his eyes from his housekeeper’s festive sprig of holly and checked that the decanter was full. It was Christmas Eve, an occasion he’d dreamed of celebrating in his elegant hundred-year-old house with his wife. If he had a wife. The Duke of Windlesham said not, when he dragged his daughter from the Gretna Green smithy where the smith had just declared Mr. Jonathan Bradshaw and the Lady Anthea Winslow man and wife. A Scottish marriage apparently didn’t count unless it was consummated. As it happened the consummation had taken place, but before the ceremony. In any case, the question was moot. All efforts to find his bride had proved futile. Anthea had vanished from society, from her father’s many mansions, and, as far as Jonathan could discover, from the face of the earth.
So he’d returned to the estate he’d purchased in a vain attempt to impress the duke, who’d declared he’d never give his daughter to the son of a tradesman, however rich. Jonathan wasn’t in the habit of indulging alone, but tonight he intended to get rip roaring drunk.
Something was missing. Or rather three somethings.
“Dukes!” he called into the garden where moonlight glittered on frosted trees. “Come in boys!”
In his loathing for all things ducal, he’d decided to insult the highest rank of nobility by bestowing the title on his brood of curs. Clarence, who had a penchant for spirits, was named for the duke who was unfortunately drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. Wellington was the boot chewer. And the dog who peed on him was honored with the title of Windlesham. But since he was fond of the little fellow, he usually just called him Widdle. Except when he widdled.
“Clarence! Wellington! Widdle!” he shouted. Ill-bred yapping arose from the shrubbery. The dogs had either cornered a creature or found something vile-smelling to roll in. “Come, boys. If you stink it’s the stables for you, and not a bite of my supper.”
Jonathan’s amble across the lawn turned into a run when a new sound joined the cacophony of barks. Good Lord! A capacious basket wedged into the shelter of a rhododendron emitted the unmistakable howl of an angry baby.
In short order he carried the foundling inside. Without knowing much about infants, he was sure this one was very young. His ridiculously small and very red face was topped by a spindly mop of dark hair. With eyes screwed shut he emitted a level of noise astonishing for such a tiny body.
“Hey there,” he whispered, touched by such fragile helplessness. “What’s the matter?” Was he hungry, cold? Both? The only response was a continuing howl. “What do you want, little one?”
The child was tightly wrapped, a good idea outside, but his library had a good fire. He gently removed a blanket and loosened the swaddling. The perfection of the miniature hands tempted him to touch. Little fingers clutched at his giant one. The baby fell silent and regarded him with big, unfocused eyes.
The dukes sat around him, regarding him with adoring trust. He’d cared for them as orphaned babies and now it apparently fell to him to do the same for a human one. Reaching below the child’s bottom, he smiled. “Well, well,” he told the dogs. “We’ve acquired another widdler.”
His competent housekeeper, whom he’d previously dismissed for the night, responded to his ring. “Newborn, sir. I’ll take care of him and we can decide what to do tomorrow. The mother must be in a sad way to abandon her child at Christmas.”
“Bring him back here when you’ve made him comfortable.”
The infant had fallen under his protection and he’d care for it, as he would any one in need. But he felt more than casual charity for this waif. His company for Christmas was far more appealing than the bottle.
Her company, as the housekeeper informed him when she returned. “Ring again when she cries, sir. She’ll be hungry in the night. I’ve rigged up a bottle and teat for her but tomorrow she’ll need a wet nurse.”
“Show me what to do. I’ll see to her.”
For now the tiny girl slept peacefully while he watched. Dry napkins, a wet nurse, a foster mother. The needs of so helpless a creature were overwhelming. Perhaps he’d keep her. The notion surprised him. When he’d persuaded Anthea to elope with him to escape her arranged marriage, his mind had been possessed by love and earthy passion, the consequences of domesticity little regarded. He wondered if she had wed the middle-aged earl with his two dead wives and a rakish reputation. Surely he would have heard.
Unmanly tears prickled his eyes yet his heart was lighter. Fortune had brought him someone to care for, besides his trio of dukes.
He didn’t know how long he kept vigil. It was the dukes who disturbed the silence first, starting up from their sleeping heap of fur on the hearth rug. Distantly he heard the front door knocker. A glance at the mantle clock told him it was after midnight.
He opened the door to a pathetic and wondrous sight. She was bedraggled and shivering but he’d recognize her in a full face mask in the dark. His one and only love.
“Anthea!” he cried and she collapsed into his arms.
“Joanna? Do you have her? I put her down because I couldn’t carry her another step. I was coming to the house but I fainted. When I awoke she was gone.”
“She is safe, my love. Come.”
He lifted her up and bore her trembling body into the library. Her care was all for her daughter but he could wait.
Their daughter. He was a father.
“What happened?” he asked, when he had his wife curled in his lap in a large armchair, their child in her arms.
“Father kept me locked at his hunting box until the birth. He was going to take her away from me and I couldn’t bear it. Finally I found a way to escape and come to you. I’m sorry it took so long, Jonathan. I love you and I’ve never loved another.”
“Nothing matters now. I love you, I love Joanna, and we’re together.”
“I was so afraid I’d never see you again.”
He stroked her smooth dark head and drank in the lovely face he’d feared lost forever. Her cheek was chilled beneath his palm, as were the lips he traced with his thumb. Then he kissed her and felt nothing but warmth and the promise of a blissful future.
A tug on his boot interrupted the tender interlude. There was a puddle on the carpet, and one pair of eyes gazed longingly at the untouched decanter.
“My darling,” he said. “I must introduce you to the dukes.”
For my previous Christmas reads see A Gift For A Princess and A Deranged Marriage
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