Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish
Author:Grace Burrowes


“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.

He hoped.

“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.

“My conveyance is just around that corner.” She pulled on her gloves, nodding to the north, toward Mayfair. “We’re not far from home, but with Joleen’s valise, I thought the carriage would save us effort.”

She wasn’t wearing a bonnet, which allowed her to wrap a knit scarf around her head in such a way that her ears and neck and some of her hair were covered. Vim was relieved to get shut of the commons, relieved to breathe the relatively fresh air of the out-of-doors. They hadn’t gone very far when Vim stopped abruptly.

“God in heaven. What is that?”

“Not so loud.” Miss Windham turned to frown at him as the boy holding the reins darted off toward the inn. “You’ll hurt Goliath’s feelings. He’s a very sensitive pony.”

Her sensitive pony was almost as tall at the withers as the top of Vim’s head, which put the beast at something over eighteen hands. Such an animal would be able to cut through the snow without breaking a sweat, but his kind were seldom kept in the confines of Town.

“Did he escape from in front of some beer wagon?” Though escape was hardly the appropriate term. A horse that size went where he pleased—fences, stone walls, and human wishes notwithstanding.

“He did not enjoy a sanguine existence before joining our stable, but he’s the best of horses in bad weather. I’ll take the baby.” She turned to Vim as he noticed three fat, lazy snowflakes drifting down from the sky. He did not pass her the child.

“I don’t see a driver, Miss Windham. How will you manage to guide the horse and hold Kit?”

“I can put the reins in one hand,” she said, brow puckering. “Goliath knows the way home.”

“No doubt he does.” Or he knew the way to his barrel of oats. “Nonetheless, I would be more comfortable if you’d allow me to drive you. It seems we’re to be treated to yet more snow, and I would not want a lady and her very young charge relying on the good offices of her horse when a gentleman was on hand to see to her safety.”

It was a courteous, gentlemanly speech, calculated to reassure her and let him attend to an errand of conscience, though he’d meant what he’d said: he wanted to see her and the baby safely ensconced in a well-heated home before he set about finding his own accommodations. Call it vestigial chivalry or a rare manifestation of seasonal charity, but he wasn’t going to abandon her to her own devices just yet.

“It’s only a few blocks, Mr. Charpentier.” She gave his name the same emphasis he did, Shar-pen-tee-ay, in deference to his father’s distant Norman antecedents.

“Then you won’t mind if I drive you.” He tossed his haversack into the back, and with his free hand, he took her elbow, guiding her over to the gig. The angle of her chin suggested she had a stubborn streak, which was about to come inconveniently into evidence, but a chilly breeze came along at just the right moment—sporting more snowflakes—and her chin dipped.

“If you insist, then. I do appreciate it.”

He boosted her into the gig and glanced at the sky in silent thanks. If there was one thing he did not regard as a productive use of his time, it was arguing with a strange woman in the street while a blizzard bore down on the city and the baby in his arms grew closer to that moment when…

“My goodness.” Miss Windham wrinkled her nose where she sat on the bench. “Something…”

“Not something.” Vim handed her the baby. “Someone. He ate, he burped, and now he must treat us to a demonstration of the health of the other end of his digestion.” He climbed into the gig and unwrapped the reins from the brake. Beside him, Miss Windham was holding the baby slightly away from her body.

“I say.” She frowned at the child. “I do say. You’re sure they do this regularly?”

“With appalling regularity, if you’re lucky. I’d guess the boy’s getting some solid food too, which will make his situation a great deal easier if you can’t locate the mother.”

She didn’t ask him how he came to such a conclusion, though the evidence presented to Vim’s nose was unassailable. A child subsisting exclusively on mother’s milk wasn’t half as odoriferous as Kit had just been.

Vim flicked the reins, and the chestnut behemoth in the traces moved off. “Where are we heading?”

She rattled off an address on one of the great squares of Mayfair, prompting Vim to wonder just whom he was escorting.

Sophie Windham was well spoken, but she was also driving herself around London in the dead of winter. Her clothing was well made but not fancy enough to suggest wealth. She had the brisk competence of a housekeeper, and a position in service would explain her lack of familiarity with child care, as domestics seldom married.

“You were traveling today, Mr. Charpentier?” She’d relented and was holding the child against her body, despite the baby-stink emanating from the bundle in her arms.

“Heading to the family seat for the much-vaunted holidays.” The family seat, such as it was, for the holidays, such as they were. His tone of voice must have given him away, for she shot him a look. He could feel her scrutinizing his profile and see her female brain choosing the most delicate way to frame an awkward question.

But she said nothing.

“What about you?” He glanced over at her. “Is London home, or should you be traveling somewhere to join your family for Christmas?”

“My brothers are coming through Town later in the week. We’ll journey to Kent together, assuming they all arrive safe and sound.”

“How many brothers do you have?”

“I had five. Thanks to consumption and the Corsican, I now have three.” Her voice hadn’t wavered, hadn’t revealed any particular sentiment, but she cradled the child closer.

“I am sorry for your losses.”

She was quiet for a moment, while around them, the flurries were becoming a light, regular snow. She spoke just when he’d thought the topic closed. “My brother Victor died this time of year. I don’t think my parents will spend another Christmas in Town for some time. We’re still trying to find our balance with it.”

He had no idea what to say to that. The lady fell silent, as well, suggesting the admission wasn’t comfortable for her either. “This is a fairly recent loss?”

She nodded. “You can turn up that alley there; it will lead to our mews two blocks up.”

Not surprisingly, the alley was relatively free of snow. The neighborhood was such that droves of servants would be available to move snow, to dig out the stables, to shovel off and then sweep the walks and garden pathways.

“My father died at Christmas, as well,” he said as the horse trotted along. “He was not a well man in my lifetime. I think my mother was relieved to see him at peace.” The baby fussed, which provided a distraction. “Try patting his back.”

She did, gently and awkwardly.

“You aren’t accustomed to children, are you?”

She paused in her attention to the child. “I am an aunt, but it’s hardly a role that prepares one for…” She wrinkled her nose tellingly.

“Dealing with a baby is usually a matter of trial by fire. Is that your mews?”

The stable doors bore an emblazoned crest, something with a unicorn and a lot of vinery, which again tickled the back of Vim’s memory. A groom came out amid the thickening snow to slide the stable door back so Goliath and the gig could be parked right in the barn aisle.

Vim brought the horse to a halt and alighted, turning to take the baby from Miss Windham’s arms. “You’ll want to be seeing to his nappy.”

She opened her mouth as if to say something, then drew her brows down. “His nappy?”

The wizened little gnome of a groom looked up from where he was coiling the reins then quickly went back to work.

Vim brushed a finger down his own nose. “His nappy. I can show you if you would like.”

The offer was made before his brain had a chance to truss up his idiot mouth. The baby made another fussy noise, blinking up at Vim owlishly. So little, and the boy’s mama had just abandoned him. A clean nappy wasn’t too much of an imposition, really.

Miss Windham’s expression had cleared. “Higgins, Goliath stood for a bit in the cold. Perhaps he should have a bran mash?”

Higgins paused in the unbuckling of the harness straps to pat the horse. “Of course, Miss Sophie. Nothing’s too good for our lamb.”

“Precisely.” The smile she sent the groom would have felled a brace of sober stevedores. Holding the baby just a few feet away, Vim watched as her mouth curved up into the very arc of sweetness, her eyes lit with warmth, and her whole countenance beamed appreciation and approval at the groom.

Or perhaps at the horse.

She petted the gelding on his tremendous stern then moved toward to the animal’s bow and planted a kiss on his enormous nose. “Thank you, precious. Stay nice and warm tonight.”

The horse blinked at her or perhaps batted its eyes. When Miss Windham straightened, she wasn’t smiling.

“I suppose we should get the baby out of this weather. Higgins, you’re settled in for the night?”

“Right and tight, Miss Sophie. Any word from your brothers?”

“They’re due any day, though the weather might slow them down. Thank you for asking.”

She swept past Vim, so he fell in step behind her. Miss Windham did not float nor mince, as a society lady would have. She clipped along, all business, until she got to the barn door, where she stopped so abruptly Vim nearly collided with her.

“This snow means business,” she observed. “It will be difficult to send anybody out to search for Joleen as long as the weather is so foul.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

She moved off again, casting him a curious look over her shoulder. “She fell prey to a footman, Mr. Charpentier. Joleen was old enough, but she was innocent and not overly bright. I don’t hold it against her that she gambled her heart on a losing hand.”

She clearly held it against the footman, however. Vim pitied the man if Miss Windham ever laid eyes on him again.

They passed through a gate into a walled garden that backed up to nothing less than a mansion. In some parts of the city, the old great houses built in the reign of the last king had been broken up into multiple dwellings, each with its own narrow strip of back garden.

This house took up roughly half the block, with no divisions of the back lots to suggest it had been split into rental properties. There would be a ballroom in a dwelling this size, parlors, music rooms, and enough cheery fires to keep a baby nice and warm.

The baby squirmed in Vim’s arms just as both wind and snow became more intense.

“This way.” Miss Windham led him to a back door. As soon as Vim stepped inside, he was hit with the scents of clove, allspice, cinnamon, and yeast. A wave of nostalgia for Blessings up in Cumbria, with its big kitchens and familiar retainers, passed through him as the child began to squawk in earnest.

“He is telling us he has been patient as long as he’s going to be, Miss Windham. We’ll need clean nappies, a clean flannel, and some warm water.”

She paused in the act of hanging her cloak on a hook. “The fires in the nursery have likely been allowed to go out because Kit was to have been on his way south by now.”

“A servants’ parlor might do.” If any room in the house was kept cozy this time of year, it was the servants’ parlor.

“Follow me.”

She led him through a spotless kitchen and down a short, dim hallway that looked to be lined with pantries. The servants’ parlor at the end of the hallway was indeed snug and comfortable and enjoyed a view of the snowy back gardens. A fire burned cheerily in the hearth, though the room was with without occupants. The cradle sitting near the hearth suggested Kit had already spent a substantial amount of time here.

Vim spoke to his hostess over the baby’s increasingly loud fussing. “This will do. If you’ll bring flannel and warm water, I’ll get him unwrapped.”

She withdrew a little quickly, her expression suggesting a distraught baby unnerved her every bit as much as it did Vim.

“We can get down to business,” Vim informed the child. “But I need to get you unswaddled first, so be patient.” As soon as he set the baby down, the little fellow started kicking his legs out and waving his arms around.

“Getting bored, are we? Flail around all you like, little man. You’ll be off to sleep that much sooner.”

The habit of talking to people too small to join in the conversation was ingrained. Babies liked being talked to, just the way they liked music boxes and twittering birds and running water. In some ways, babies were the easiest people to like.

But as the warm air in the parlor picked up the scent of soiled nappy, Vim revised his judgment: clean babies were easy to like. He tossed his coat on a chair, slipped his cuff links in a pocket, and started rolling up his sleeves.

He soon had the child naked on a blanket before the hearth, the dirty nappy neatly folded and tucked aside. Fortunately, the mess was minimal.

At the soft click of door latch behind him Vim glanced up from where he knelt on the floor. Miss Windham stood there, some folded cloths in one hand, a steaming bowl in the other. Her eyes went to the baby, surprise registering at the child’s state of undress.

From her expression, Vim considered that the baby on the floor was very likely the woman’s first encounter with a completely naked male.