London ~ 1811
The infant’s howls drew nearer, penetrating even the flimsy walls and door of Annabelle’s rooms. The sound took her back to the nursery at Eastmuir and the endless succession of young cousins for whom she had cared. Would someone not take pity on the poor little creature and make an effort to soothe it?
Apparently not, for the cries grew increasingly loud and shrill as they approached. Then someone knocked frantically on Annabelle’s door. Suppressing a squeak of fright, she seized the poker from her small hearth and edged toward the door. Though this lodging house stood on the fringe of fashionable Mayfair, the immediate neighborhood was rather unsavory. She would be relieved to find work and move to a more respectable address.
“Who’s there?” she shouted, trying to sound bolder than she felt. “You must have come to the wrong place!”
“Annabelle?” A familiar masculine voice rang out, though she had never heard it sound so thoroughly rattled.
“Jack?” She stepped closer to the door but did not open it. “What are you doing here at this hour? I thought I made it clear I do not want your help.”
His charity – that was what she had spurned time and again since Frederick’s death. The more tempted she was to accept, the more irate her refusals had become. Why could Jack Warwick not take no for an answer?
“Never mind about that!’” he called back in a sharp tone. “It is I who need your help. Now please, just open the door!”
Through all this, the baby continued to cry harder than ever. Did Jack have a child with him? And what sort of help could he want from her? Her only hope of getting answers to those questions would be to let him in.
Annabelle dropped the fire poker then unfastened the bolts that gave her some illusion of safety. When she opened the door, Jack strode in without awaiting any further invitation. He carried a basket from which the insistent cries emanated.
“Is that a baby?” Annabelle demanded in a tone of disbelief as she shut the door behind him.
She did not bother to bolt it. In spite of the bewildering circumstances of his visit, Jack’s presence made her feel safe…in a physical sense at least.
An observer might have thought otherwise, for Frederick’s cousin had a wild, distracted look about him. He wore no hat and his golden brown hair fell in disarray, as if he had frequently plowed his fingers through it. Hazel eyes that so often sparkled with mischeivous high spirits, seemed shadowed as they darted restlessly. Jack’s ruggedly attractive features were tightened in a haunted, desperate look.
Annabelle had never seen him in such a state. It alarmed her.
“Of course it’s a baby!” He set the basket down. “What else could produce such a clamor?”
“Whose baby is it?” Annabelle dropped to her knees and lifted the squalling, squirming bundle of blankets from the basket. “How do you come to have it?”
Had he rescued the child from danger or abuse? That would certainly be in keeping with his character. Her antagonism toward him softened considerably.
“She is mine.” The words spewed from Jack’s mouth, bitter as bile. “At least she might be. Someone left her on our doorstep. She was crying when we found her but I got her back to sleep. Then she woke up and began to cry again. Nothing we did could make her stop. None of us know the first thing about infants.”
He spoke faster and faster, as Annabelle had heard old King George was apt to do when a fit of madness came upon him. Was Jack going mad or did this child truly belong to him? That last thought brought Annabelle a sharp pang of dismay, but she had no time to dwell on it.
The baby quieted a little when she plucked it from the basket and began to rock it in her arms while making soothing sounds. But the child did not stop crying altogether. That came as no surprise to Annabelle. Her nose wrinkled at the reek of ammonia and worse that the poor little creature gave off. When she wiped a tear from the baby’s flushed cheek, its head turned and the tiny mouth rooted toward her finger.
“Nothing you did could stop her crying?” she repeated in a tone of scathing contempt. “Did it occur to you to feed the child? Or change her linen? Or even pick her up?”
“Not exactly.” Jack sounded defensive and rather lost.
That was so unlike him, Annabelle could not stifle a flicker of sympathy – little as he deserved it.
“She is so tiny.” He sounded as if that made the child somehow more intimidating. “I was afraid I might drop her or…break her.”
Annabelle rolled her eyes. “Babies are not as fragile as you think. Now I must clean her bottom before she gets a rash…if she doesn’t have one already.”
She carried the child to the small table where she ate her meals. “Don’t just stand there, Jack, make yourself useful. Pour a bit of hot water from the kettle into the ewer to warm up what’s there. Test it with your finger to make certain it isn’t too hot.”
Jack regained a little of her respect by making haste to do as she bid him. The baby’s fussing quieted further when Annabelle pealed off her wet, soiled linen and prattled to her in a soothing tone.
As she washed the child’s bottom, she ordered Jack to fetch a pair of small towels. “Once she is dried off, I will wrap her in one of these for now. But she will need proper napkins very soon.”
Jack nodded meekly then watched with an air of awe as Annabelle folded and tucked the cloth snuggly around the baby’s bottom. When she picked it up and began to walk back and forth, the exhausted child snuggled against her shoulder.
“Bless you, Annabelle!” Jack sank onto the chair by the fire as if he had just survived a harrowing ordeal. “I felt certain you would know what to do. I am in your debt.”
His sincere gratitude was hard to resist. For her peace of mind, Annabelle knew she must resist it and everything else about Jack Warwick.
“The poor little thing is quiet for the moment, but she won’t stay that way long if she isn’t fed.” How could the child’s mother have abandoned her to the mercy of Jack Warwick and his equally irresponsible friends? Annabelle could not decide whom she was more disgusted with – the child’s neglectful mother or the man who’d gotten her with child out of wedlock.
“Can you not feed her?” Jack pleaded. “What does she need? Tell me and I will fetch it.”
Annabelle shook her head. Were all gentlemen as ignorant about anything to do with child rearing? “She needs a wet nurse. And before you ask – no, I cannot provide that service.”
Striving to conceal her embarrassment, she explained that only a woman who had borne and suckled a child recently could nurse another infant. Jack shifted in his seat, clearly uncomfortable with the conversation. No doubt a man with his rakish reputation believed the female bosom had been designed exclusively for his pleasure.
“It is not easy to find a good wet nurse in the city at a moment’s notice,” she warned him. “You don’t want one who drinks or is diseased. The best thing you can do is locate the child’s mother quickly, before her milk dries up.”
When Jack cast her a bewildered look, Annabelle could not contain her annoyance. “The child looks to be three or four months old. Locate the women you and your friends…bedded last winter. Surely it cannot be that many.”
“Between the three of us, over several months?” Jack winced then hung his head like a naughty schoolboy. “I could prove a challenge. What should we do in the meantime?”
“You could take her to the Foundling’s Hospital,” Annabelle suggested, though she had no intention of letting him do any such thing.
“No!” Jack shot to his feet as if he’d sat on a hat pin. “She has already been abandoned once. I will not do it to her again.”
His answer went a great way to soothe Annabelle’s antagonism.
“I don’t understand,” he continued. “Why did her mother not come to me or my friends as soon as she found herself with child? We would have assisted her.”
“Clearly the poor woman thought otherwise.” Annabelle held the baby protectively.
It had been several years since she’d last cradled a sleeping infant, yet the action came as naturally to her as breathing. There had been a time when she’d professed herself heartily sick of caring for babies. Yet suddenly she felt as if something missing had been restored to her.
But that was ridiculous. She did not miss walking the floor all night to prevent a colicky baby from waking the whole house. Nor changing smelly, soiled linen. Nor having her clothes spit up on.
Jack squared his shoulders and inhaled a deep breath. “First thing in the morning, we will begin looking for the mother. Until we locate her, can the baby stay here with you?”
“Absolutely not!” Annabelle was tempted to thrust the child back into his arms, but feared it might wake. Besides, she found herself strangely reluctant to part with the warm, soft armful. “This is not fit place to keep a baby and I am not equipped to care for one.”
Jack looked as if she had struck him a hard blow. Annabelle tightened her countenance into a severe look and steeled herself to resist his pleading.
“Then will you come back with me to Bruton Street?” Jack clasped his hands in supplication. He fixed her with an irresistible gaze like the one he might have used to coax this baby’s mother into his bed. “Our guest room is very comfortable and I will make certain you have everything you need to care for the child. Please, Annabelle. I do not ask for my sake but for the child’s. She needs you. If you’ll do this, I will give you anything you ask!”
Tempted as she was by the prospect of a warm, comfortable bed and the toothsome bounty of Jack’s kitchen, Annabelle hesitated. She knew all too well the dangerous folly of becoming attached to a child…or anyone else. Jack’s promise to give her anything she wanted was no particular inducement. The only thing she had ever wanted from him could not be granted simply for the asking.
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From the novel Scandal on His Doorstep
Publication Date: December 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Deborah Hale