Edward was jolted awake as the carriage hit another rut in the road. His gaze on Ellen and the boy, he lifted his head from the padded leather squabs, stretched his neck and arms, and took his feet from the seat opposite to set them on the floor. At their last stop, for dinner and a change of horses, when he’d told her his decision not to stop but press on as the night was bright, she’d insisted he take a rest and sleep. They had fallen asleep too. The boy was cradled beneath her arm, his head resting on her breast.
The child had clung to her all day, or perhaps it was Ellen who’d clung to the boy.
Edward recalled the moment she’d asked him to stay with John while she’d sought out the necessary after they’d eaten luncheon. Edward remembered the feel of a small uncertain hand clasping his. He’d been struck dumb when the child asked how Edward knew Ellen. He’d given a diplomatic answer, which was not an outright lie, explaining that they’d met through a mutual acquaintance.
The boy’s inquisitiveness moved on then to questions on the horses Edward had hired, and Edward had agreed to let John ride for an hour rather than return him to the carriage. A promise Ellen had not liked but did not refuse.
Edward felt a smile twitch his lips, inspired by the boy’s pleasure at the merest thing. It amused Edward. As they’d ridden together, the child on the pommel of Edward’s saddle, observing the wildlife and sharing anecdotes of boyhood carousing, Edward’s own renewed zest for life had grown. He had purpose again, Ellen and this child.
But there are still so many unanswered questions.
His mind searched through the possibilities as he watched them sleep. The boy was like Ellen in looks and nature. He was certainly not Gainsborough’s; he knew Ellen had only been with him five years. Who had sired John? How many men had there been in Ellen’s life? He took a breath.
His father would not have liked him bringing Ellen here. He would not have liked her immorality. But he would have appreciated his chosen bride’s remarkable beauty, her demure yet immovable courage, and if none of the former had won him over, he would have fallen for Ellen’s charm in the end, Edward was sure. Who could not? …
…In contrast Edward had been out of sorts, unable to look at her during dinner, knowing the moment had come for him to ask his questions, though he did not wish to hear the answers. They’d barely spoken on the way up here, the chasm between them widening with every mile, unasked and unanswered questions hanging between them.
She’d been silent through dinner, pushing her food about the plate with her fork, while John had rattled on about all sorts of nonsensical balderdash, wants and wishes. Edward knew the child was excited over his new home and hungry for adventure, and Edward liked John’s company, but wanted to speak to Ellen. Now she’d taken John up to bed, with a promise to return. When she did, Edward had not intended to push for answers immediately, but he knew he must, he needed to put her past aside.
He heard the door hinges creak behind him and turned back. She was standing there…
“I do not wish to force you in to speaking—”
“But you wish to know who John’s father is?” she interrupted, her gaze meeting his—challenging him—daring him to deny it. He said nothing, waiting on her words. He wanted to know who her husband was too. Were they one in the same?
On a sigh she began the tale, a slow yet deliberate note to her voice, “Very well. He was, is, the son of my husband, Major (Captain in the 2nd Edition) Paul Harding.” Edward sucked in a breath. “He is dead, Edward,” she said in answer to his response. “I met Paul when I was sixteen. We married in my seventeenth year. I followed his regiment with other wives.” Her gaze left his then, falling away to a memory Edward would never see. “He died at Waterloo, before I’d discovered I was carrying John. Paul never even knew.” That pale crystal-blue all absorbing gaze, met his again, sharp, unbending…