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Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish
  • Текст добавлен: 9 октября 2016, 02:06

Текст книги "Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish"


Автор книги: Grace Burrowes






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Текущая страница: 3 (всего у книги 20 страниц)

The servants had decorated before leaving for the season—pine boughs scented the mantels, red ribbons decorated tall beeswax candles that would have been lit at the New Year and on Twelfth Night were the family in residence. Cinnamon sachets and clove-studded oranges hung in the hallways, and wreaths graced the windows facing the street.

“Their Graces must take their holidays seriously,” Mr. Charpentier observed. “Is that a Christmas tree?”

Sophie paused outside the half-open door of one of the smaller parlors. “Her Grace’s mother was German, like much of the old king’s court. The Christmas trees were originally for Oma, so she wouldn’t be as lonely for her homeland.”

She wondered what he’d say if he knew he was peering around at a duchess’s personal sitting room. Mama served her daughters and sons tea and scoldings in this room, also wisdom, sympathy, and love.

Always love.

Sophie stood for a moment, the baby cradled on her shoulder, Mr. Charpentier close by her side in the doorway. She was going to associate bergamot with this moment for a long while to come, the first time she’d shown a visitor of her own around the house—a visitor of hers and Kit’s.

She waited for Vim to step back then continued their progress. “Your room is on the first floor. The servants’ stair goes right to the back hallway, though the main staircase is the prettier route.”

She took him through the front entrance with its presentation staircase of carved oak. The whole foyer was a forest of polished wood—the walls and ceiling both paneled, the banisters lathe turned, and half columns with fanciful pediments and capitals standing in each corner of the octagonal space. The wood was maintained with such a high shine of beeswax and lemon oil that sunny days saw more light bouncing around the foyer than in practically any other part of the house.

“I take it Their Graces entertain a fair amount?” He was coming up the stairs behind her, as a gentleman would.

“His Grace is quite active in the Lords, so yes.”

“And Her Grace?”

“She keeps her hand in. They also have the occasional summer house party at the family seat. This room ought to serve for the night.”

She’d taken him not to a guest room but to her brother Valentine’s old room in the family wing. The wood box would be full, the coal bucket filled, a fire laid, and the bed made up in anticipation of his lordship’s visit to Town to collect his sister.

“I’m sorry it’s so chilly. I’ll bring you up some water for the room. Let me show you the bathing chamber. As far as I know, the fire under the boiler should still have some coals.”

The bathing chamber was across the hall, a renovated dressing room having had the ideal location between cisterns and chimneys.

“This is quite modern,” Mr. Charpentier said. “You’re sure Their Graces would not mind your sharing such accommodations with a virtual stranger?”

They’d mind. They wouldn’t begrudge him the best comforts the mansion could offer, but they’d mind mightily that he had Sophie’s exclusive company.

“A duke’s household doesn’t skimp on hospitality, Mr. Charpentier, though by rights we should be providing you a valet and footmen to step and fetch.”

“I’m used to doing for myself, though where will I find you should the need arise?”

“I’m just down the hallway, last door on the right.”

And it was time to leave him, but she hesitated, casting around for something more to say. The idea of spending another long, cold evening reading by firelight seemed like a criminal waste when she could be sharing those hours with Mr. Charpentier. The baby let out a little sigh in her arms, maybe an indication of some happy baby dream—or her own unfulfilled wishes.

“Shall I bring the cradle up from the servants’ parlor, Miss Sophie?”

The cradle?

“Yes. The cradle. That would be helpful. I suppose I should get some nappies from the laundry and clean dresses and so forth.”

He smiled, as if he knew her mind had gone somewhere besides the need to care for the baby, but he said nothing. Just set his bag down, went to the hearth to light the fire, and left Sophie standing in the door with the child cradled in her arms.

“You’ll find your way to the bathing chamber if you need it?”

He rose and began using a taper to add candlelight to the meager gloom coming from the windows. “I’ve made do with so much less than you’re offering me, Miss Sophie. Travel makes a man realize what little he needs to be comfortable and how easily he can mistake a mere want for a need. I’ll be fine.”

His circuit of the room brought him back to her side. He blew out the taper and speared her with a look. “Will you be fine?”

She liked standing close to him, not only because he wore a pleasant scent, but also because something about his male presence, the grace and strength of it, appealed to her dormant femininity. If all men had his manners, competence, and sheer male beauty, being a woman would be a much more appetizing proposition.

Sophie took her courage in both hands and gazed up at him. “I’d like to hear about those travels, Mr. Charpentier. About the worst memories and best memories, the most beautiful places and the most unappealing. I’ve lived my entire life in the confines of England, and tales of your travels would give my imagination something to keep when you’ve left.”

He studied her for a moment then lifted one hand. Her breath seized in her lungs when she thought—hoped?—he was going to touch her. To touch her cheek or her hair, to lay his palm along her jaw.

He laid his hand over the baby’s head. “If My Lord Baby gives us a peaceful evening, I’ll tell you some of my stories, Miss Sophie. It’s hardly a night for going out on the Town, is it?”

It was better than if he’d touched her, to know he’d give her some tales of his travels, something of his own history and his own memories.

“After you’ve settled in, then. I’ll see you in the parlor downstairs. We’ll see you.”

Except the baby in her arms was seeing nothing at that moment but peaceful, happy baby dreams.

Three

Vim’s little trip through the ducal mansion revealed a few interesting facts about the household. For example, money was not a problem for this particular ducal family.

The servants’ parlor was a comfortable place for furniture, carpets, and curtains that had seen some use, but it was far from shabby. The bathing chamber was a gleaming little space of pipes and marble counters that spoke of both available coin and a willingness to enjoy the fruits of progress.

The main entrance was a testament to somebody’s appreciation for first impressions and appearances. The whole house was gracious, beautiful, and meticulously maintained.

Also festooned with all manner of seasonal decorations, which usually struck Vim as so much wasted effort. Pine boughs quickly wilted and dropped needles all over creation. Clove-studded oranges withered into ugly parodies of their original state. Wreaths soon turned brown, and Christmas trees had to be undecorated as carefully as they were decorated—assuming they didn’t catch fire and set the entire house ablaze.

A lot of bother for nothing, or so he would have said.

But in this house…

He finished his bath and found a clean pair of pajama trousers as well as a clean pair of winter wool socks. Though the vast canopied bed beckoned, Vim instead appropriated a brocade dressing gown from the store in the wardrobe and made his way back through the house to the little servants’ parlor.

He opened the door without knocking and found Miss Sophie within, on her feet, the baby fussing in her arms.

“I don’t know what’s wrong.” Sophie’s voice was laden with concern. “He keeps fussing and fretting but he isn’t… it isn’t his nappy, and he doesn’t want for cuddling. I don’t think he has to settle his stomach either.”

Vim sidled into the room, closing the door behind him. “He’s probably hungry again. Marvelous accommodations upstairs, by the way.” And a marvelously warm silk lining in the dressing gown.

The child quieted at the sound of his voice, turning great blue eyes on Vim. Vim peered down at the baby cradled against Sophie’s middle. “Are you hungry, young Kit, or simply rioting for the fun of it?”

The child slurped on his little left fist.

“Hungry it is. Have you any cold porridge in the kitchen, Miss Sophie?”

“No doubt we do, but he just ate not three hours ago. Are you sure he isn’t sickening for something?”

In those same three hours, Sophie had apparently gone from benevolent stranger to mother-at-large, capable of latching onto every parent’s single worst, most abiding fear.

Vim laid the back of his hand on the baby’s brow. “He’s only yelling-baby-warm, not fevered, so no, I don’t think he’s sickening. Often when they’re coming down with something, they grow a bit lethargic. He’s at the mercy of a very small belly and has to eat more often than he will later in life. This belly here.”

He poked the baby’s middle gently, which provoked a toothless grin.

“Why didn’t I know he’d like that?”

“Likely because you yourself would not react as cheerfully did I make the same overture to you. Why don’t I take him while you hunt him up some tucker? A bit of warm milk to mix the porridge very thin and a baby spoon will get us started.”

Sophie nodded and stepped in close. It took Vim a moment to comprehend that she was handing him the baby, and in that moment, his eyes fell on her hair. Some women thought an elaborate coiffure adorned with jewels and combs and all manner of intricacies would call attention to their beauty.

Others cut their hair short, attempting boyish ringlets and bangs and labeling themselves daring in the name of fashion.

Still others went for a half-tumbled look, presenting themselves as if caught in the act of rising from a bout of thorough lovemaking.

Sophie’s hair was a rich, dark brown, and she wore it pulled back into a tidy bun. For the space of a heartbeat, Vim was close enough to her to study her hair, to admire the simple, sleek curve of it sweeping back from her face to her nape. He could not see any pins or clasps, nothing to secure it in place, and the bun itself was some sort of figure of eight, twisting in on itself without apparent external support.

Which was quietly pretty, a little intriguing, and quite appropriate for Miss Sophie Windham. And if Vim’s fingers itched to undo that prim bun and his eyes longed for the sight of her unbound hair tumbling around her shoulders in intimate disarray, he was gentleman enough to ignore such inconvenient impulses entirely.

“I’ve got him,” Vim said, securing his hands around the baby. “Though I have to say, I think a certain baby has gained weight just since coming home from his outing.”

Sophie’s smile was hesitant. “You like to tease him.”

“He’s a wonderful, jolly baby.” Vim raised the child in his arms so they could touch noses. “Jolly babies are much better company than those other fellows, the ones who shriek and carry on at the drop of a hat.”

His nose was taken prisoner once more, which had been the objective of the exercise.

“I’ll see to the porridge.”

But she’d been smiling as she left the room, which had also been an objective. To be a mother was to worry, but a worried mama made for a worried baby.

“And we cannot have you worrying,” Vim informed the child. “Not like I’m worrying in any case. I was supposed to be at Sidling last week—much as I dread being there this time of year—and there will be hell to pay for my lingering here, though have you chanced a look out the window, My Lord Baby? See all that snow?”

Kit kicked both legs in response and gurgled happily, then slapped his fist back to his mouth.

“I last saw snow like this in Russia. Damned place specializes in cold, dark, snow, and vodka, which explains a lot about the Russian character. And because it’s just us fellows, I need not apologize for my language. Can you say damn? It’s a nice, tame curse, a good place to start. Nobody curses as effectively as a Russian. Nobody.”

And nobody could lament like a Russian either, to the point where Vim had left the country with a sense of relief to be going back to England. Long faces everywhere, sad tales, sad songs, sad prayers, and vodka.

“Nearly drove me to Bedlam, I tell you.”

Africa hadn’t been any better though, nor Tasmania. The Americas were reasonably cheerful places, provided a man didn’t venture too far north or south, nor too far inland.

Kit whimpered and swung his fist toward Vim’s nose again.

“You want your supper or your tea or whatever. Don’t worry, Miss Sophie will be stepping and fetching for you directly. You’re going to be a typical male, relying on the women for all the important things—though you’re a little small yet for that discussion.”

“Mr. Charpentier, are you having a conversation with that child?”

Sophie stood in the doorway, a tray in her hands and her head cocked at a curious angle.

“He won’t learn to speak if all he hears is silence.” Though Vim had to wonder how much Miss Sophie had heard. “Do you want that cat in here?”

An enormous, long-haired black animal was stropping itself against her skirts.

“That’s Elizabeth. He’s earned a little nap by the fire.” The cat continued to bob around her hems, its gait a far cry from a feline’s usual sinuous movement.

“What’s wrong with him?”

She nudged the door closed with her hip and set the tray down on a coffee table. “Nothing is wrong with him; he’s simply missing a front leg. How do we feed that child?”

Indeed, upon closer inspection, under all the hair, the cat was managing on only three legs, and that in addition to the burden of being a tom named Elizabeth. “Let’s use the sofa. I’ll demonstrate, and then you can take over.”

He settled with the baby then waited while Sophie took a seat just a few inches away. The cat—lucky beast—curled himself up against her other hip.

“This is a messy proposition, but it’s all in good fun,” Vim explained. “You can’t load up the spoon with too much—his mouth is quite small, and he’ll manage to get the excess all over creation. You also have to prop him up a bit to help him get the food down rather than up. When he starts batting at the spoon or using the spoon like a catapult, you know he’s through for the time being.”

“How does a new mother learn all of this?”

“The baby teaches her, and I expect a mama’s sisters and cousins and grandmothers lend a hand. In my experience, the younger a man is, the more the ladies admire him. Isn’t that right, Kit?”

His use of the baby’s name had the child turning to regard him, which opportunity Vim used to slip a spoonful of porridge into the infant’s mouth.

“Success. There, you see? He was hungry.”

The baby kicked in agreement and opened his little maw again, fists waving while Vim navigated another spoonful of porridge down the hatch.

“We’re off to a great start. Would you like to try the next one?” He passed her the spoon and saw her expression shift to one of determination.

“It’s as you said earlier, isn’t it?” She dipped the spoon into the porridge. “One should be quick and calm, like with the animals.”

“Precisely.” She had the knack of it immediately, slipping the child his food without little fists or little feet interfering.

And she was so absorbed in her task, leaning over the child and talking to him of his great appetite and wonderful manners, that she was apparently oblivious to her full, warm breast pressing continuously against Vim’s arm.

She wasn’t his usual type—a bored wife looking for a casual diversion or a professional willing to spend an evening with a foreign lord. But then, it had been a long time since he’d indulged his sexual appetites.

Sophie would call them his base urges, if she referred to them in any manner. Except her breast against his arm didn’t feel base. It felt soft and lovely and almost as comforting as it was arousing.

He didn’t examine the problem in any detail because he was a man who’d long since learned to govern his lust. Neglecting his sexual recreation had simply taken a toll, catching him unaware before a warm fire with an attractive woman.

Not pretty, precisely, but attractive.

Sophie sat back, regarding the baby. “Is he finished?”

Vim glanced at Kit, who was wearing some porridge around his rosy cheeks. “Give it one more try.”

She got the spoon into the baby’s mouth, but Kit spit his porridge right back out again.

“My goodness. Rude but effective.” She produced a rag and got Kit’s little phiz cleaned up with a few brisk swipes. “Will he go back to sleep?”

“Is that hope I hear in your voice, Miss Sophie?”

She smiled sheepishly. “I don’t suppose it can all be cooing and sleeping, can it?”

“At first there’s a great deal of sleeping, but then they start to notice their world, and the fun begins. Let’s let him romp a bit, shall we?”

He rose with the baby before the urge to put an arm around Sophie’s shoulders overpowered his good sense. Babies did this. They created a capacity for maudlin sentimentality in all who beheld them. It was a response determined by God to give the little blighters a fighting chance in a world with little enough tolerance for sentiment.

Vim couldn’t resent the child for it, but neither would he fall prey to the baby’s charm. He was leaving in the morning, and that was that.

“How does a fellow romp at his age?” Sophie remained on the sofa, one hand stroking lazily over the cat. Vim could hear the animal purring from several feet away.

“We’ll see.” He patted Kit’s back gently on the off chance a burp was brewing. “I don’t think Kit is quite able to crawl yet, for which, God be thanked.”

“Crawling is bad?”

“Crawling is dangerous.” As he spoke, Vim arranged an afghan on the carpet then spread the baby’s shawl on top of the blanket. “I expect crawling is half the reason the Elizabethans strapped their infants to cradle boards, chamber pots, and cribs.”

A very small burp emerged from the very small baby.

Sophie glanced around the room, frowning. “How could it be dangerous to crawl? I thought it was a necessary prelude to walking.”

“Come down here with us.” Vim settled on his side along the blanket and patted the carpet. That she couldn’t see the dangers was vaguely alarming. As of tomorrow, she’d be on her own with the child until her brothers showed up—and they, being men, were a dubious source of aid at best.

She sat beside him, her legs tucked around to the side. “He’s getting up on all fours.”

He was, his little nappied fundament pointing skyward until he got his chubby arms braced under him. When he gained his hands and knees, Kit looked around, grinning gleefully.

“Well done.” Vim tapped the child’s nose gently with one finger. More grinning and even some rocking in place. “He hasn’t quite got it figured out yet.”

“He will soon?”

“Any day, but consider that he’ll soon be rollicking about and view the room from his perspective.”

“What do you mean?”

Vim stretched out on his belly. “Join me.”

She looked around dubiously then shifted to stretch out on the other side of the child.

“What do you see, Sophie?”

“I see the fireplace.”

“Kit will see it too. He’ll see the dancing flames and bright colors; he’ll feel the warmth; he’ll hear the hiss and pop of the occasional log; he’ll see the shower of sparks.”

“My goodness.”

“What else do you see, Sophie?”

She was quiet a moment while Kit started babbling his pleasure at life in general. “I see the set of hearth tools, ready to come crashing down on a curious baby. I see standing lamps and nice frilly table runners, all ready to be pulled over by a fat little fist. I see things a fellow could put in his tiny mouth, and things that could strike him on his precious little head. I see… trouble.”

She rolled to her back, eyes going to the baby. “How do they ever survive? How did Her Grace raise ten children?”

He shifted to his side to face her, so they were separated by one grinning, cooing baby. “She had help, I’m sure, but this is part of the reason the little ones are kept in the nursery. My guess is the hearths are raised there, so nobody can crawl into the ashes, and the shelves are built into the wall, so nothing can come crashing down on a fellow’s head.”

“They are.” She sighed, eyes going to the ceiling. “And there are no table runners, no pretty little glass bowls full of flower petals, only toys that are quite sturdy.”

“And a crib?”

“There are cribs up there, though Kit still fits nicely in his cradle.”

“Except he’ll soon be able to climb out of his cradle, won’t he?”

“My goodness.” She closed her eyes. She kept them closed when she resumed speaking. “I went to the maid’s quarters to see if Joleen left anything for Kit.”

“And?” Vim moved again, to lift the baby straight up over his chest. The child squealed with delight, paddling the air with both arms and legs.

“All of Kit’s dresses and socks and little blankets were in a tidy pile on her bed. She meant to leave him.”

He knew better. He should have pretended to be absorbed in the child’s play, but he could hear something in Sophie’s voice that had him bringing the baby down to his chest and regarding Sophie where she lay a couple of feet away.

“This upsets you.”

She nodded, eyes still closed. While Vim watched, a single tear leaked from the corner of her eye and made a silvery track into the dark hair at her temple.

“Sophie, do you cry for the child or for the mother?”

“I never cry.”

If he weren’t lying nearly beside her, he might have believed all the starch in her voice despite the evidence of his eyes. He secured the baby to his chest with one hand and reached over with the other, brushing the back of one finger from the corner of her eye to her temple. “Never?”

She turned her head toward him so his hand ended up trapped under her cheek. He did not retrieve it.

“I’m in charge of strays.” She spoke evenly, the tears still kept sternly from her voice. “All of my life, I was the one who could be counted on to nurse a rejected lamb, to find a litter to accept an orphaned kitten. Joleen went astray, so she became my charge to deal with. She should not have left Kit this way.”

“Maybe she should not have had Kit, and this was the only way she could cope. How old was she?”

“Sixteen.”

“Old enough to know better, Sophie.” He ran his thumb over the smooth skin of her cheekbone and withdrew his hand. The gesture had been meant to comfort her; it had in fact comforted him.

“Take the baby.” He lifted Kit high again. “He’s in fine fettle, ready to conquer the world.”

She glanced at Vim as if she suspected his suggestion was a tactic, which it was, but she took the child and cradled him on her sternum. “He is quite stout, isn’t he?”

“He’s just right for a man of his years, or months.”

“And what shall I do with him now that I have him?”

“That’s what’s bothering you, isn’t it?” Vim lay on his side, his head propped on a fist braced by his elbow. “You see the uncertainty Joleen introduced into his life with her decision, and responsibility for this stray is daunting.”

She lifted the baby up, touched noses with him, and set the child back on her middle. “Daunting about sums it up. He could crawl into the fire, take a chill, pull the bookends down on himself… all in the space of moments. His life should last decades, but only if I can keep him safe and teach him how to go on.”

“You could foster him.” Vim watched as Sophie stroked a finger down the baby’s cheek. The child turned to investigate the sensation while Sophie repeated the caress on the other cheek.

“I shouldfoster him. I should find some nice lady with an infant of her own and pay handsomely for Kit to have lots of love and attention, other children to play with…” She closed her eyes again, a gesture Vim realized was Sophie’s way of composing herself.

“Sophie, he’s old enough to be weaned, if needs must.”

“Is he? I don’t even know when that would be. I’ve seen children larger than Vim still…” She fell silent and blinked at the baby.

“At the breast.” Vim finished the thought for her.

“I was going to say dependent on their mothers. Nanny Fran said Joleen never had much milk. She said the girl was too fretful to nurse properly.”

“I suppose that’s possible. A fretful mare sometimes lacks enough for her foal. Kit looks healthy nonetheless.”

“He does.” She frowned at the child and tried lifting him up over her chest. When she had him positioned on straight arms above her, he started wiggling and paddling again. A slight smile bloomed on Sophie’s mouth, just as the child emitted a particular… sound.

“Oh, dear.” She lowered him gingerly. “I believe it’s time I learned to change a nappy myself.”

“Have we a clean supply?”

“In the laundry. I can get…” She started to rise, but Vim put a hand on her shoulder as he shifted to a crouch.

“You stay. I’ll fetch the goods.” He didn’t give her time to argue, but rather was out the door in no time, a single candle in his hand. Yes, it was important to retrieve what the baby needed for his hygiene, but it had also become important to get off of that floor and away from the woman lying on her back before the fire.

She cried for stray babies and probably for the stray mother too. If Vim did not mind the dictates of common sense, he’d be tucking himself close to her sweetness and heat, and when he left, she might be crying for the occasional stray baron as well.

* * *

“I’ve learned something.” Sophie addressed herself to the baby, who was giving off a certain scent, suggesting a clean nappy was an urgent need.

She told herself it was just a healthy baby smell. The equivalent of the scent of a stall that needed mucking, nothing more.

Kit made a swipe for her nose, which pleased her inordinately.

“I’ve learned something about why my parents are still so enthralled with each other after more than thirty years of marriage. It’s little fellows like you who are partly responsible.”

She let him catch her nose this time. It was lovely, to be caught by the nose. She kept talking, talking right into his tiny palm. “Their Graces raised ten such as you. Can you imagine how many nights they spent sprawled on the floor like this with My Lord Baby or My Lady Baby? Both of them watching the child, both of them feeling these sentiments of wonder and terror? It’s all your fault, yours and those of your ilk.”

Kit held on to her nose and smacked her cheek with his free hand.

“It is too. You coo and babble and smile at the world, more helpless than you even know, and you make us helpless too, helpless not to love you. Mr. Charpentier—Vim—has fallen under your spell.”

She rose with the child in her arms, which freed her nose from the pirate baby’s imprisoning grasp. “Mr. Charpentier is very charming too, isn’t he?”

Kit emitted another noise, a surprisingly loud noise for such a little person.

“That was not charming, Kit.”

Though to her, even that was a little endearing. The child didn’t care what sounds or smells came from his body. He cared that he was safe and warm, his tummy full, and people around him who would see to his well-being.

And thank God for Wilhelm Charpentier. Thank God the man was willing to breach propriety for the sake of the child. Thank God for snowstorms that allowed Sophie to ask for such a thing.

Because as much help as Mr. Charpentier was with the baby, there was a part of Sophie that was enjoying the man’s company just for herself. In the privacy of her thoughts, when Sophie beheld Vim Charpentier, she let herself dream a few naughty dreams and wish a few silly wishes. There was no harm in it—she was a lady and he was a gentleman and wishes were ever a waste of time.

She heard footsteps in the hallway and took a seat on the sofa, laying the child in her lap.

“There was warm water on the hob,” Mr. Charpentier said. It was difficult to say his first name—Vim—but not so hard to think it. Unusual, Teutonic, and consistent with a sense of energy and purpose. Vim.

“I want to try to do it myself this time.”

“And I’ll let you. Kit seems to enjoy healthy digestion.” Vim pushed aside the coffee table to lay a receiving blanket on the sofa, took the baby from Sophie’s lap, and laid the child on his back on the blanket. “Have at it, madam. I wish you every success.”

He remained kneeling beside the sofa, resting on his heels. Sophie was at once glad for his proximity… and mortified.

She untied the tapes holding the nappy onto the child and lifted it away.

“Careful.” Vim’s big hand folded the cloth back up over the child loosely. “He’ll make a mess all over you half the time if you don’t take evasive maneuvers.”

Sophie’s face heated as she realized the child was… wetting the already soiled nappy.

“Something about fresh air seems to inspire them. Probably saves you a change in the long run. I think it’s safe now.”

So matter of fact! Sophie unfolded the now damp and odoriferous cloth.

“My… goodness.”

“Quite a mess.”

She glanced over to see the blasted man grinning at her. “You put him up to this, Mr. Charpentier. Corrupted the morals of a mere baby.”

“Quit stalling. It isn’t good for him to be messy. He’ll get the nastiest rash and have to sport about in the altogether for days.”

Not grinning now, smiling from ear to ear. Smiling like a naughty man.

Sophie smiled too, and peeled the diaper away from the child. Mr. Charpentier slapped a damp cloth into her hand, wrung out but still warm.

“Do a proper job of it,” he said. “I wasn’t kidding about the rash. Poor little things scream themselves to exhaustion with it. For the same reason, you’ll also want to dry him thoroughly after his bath.”

Sophie tended the baby, though looking at even such little male parts was mortifying. Worse yet, the child started grinning and kicking as she dealt with a certain area.

“He likes it, Sophie. Best be grateful for it too.”

“Grateful?” Grateful the little beast had no more modesty than her brothers had had as adolescents?

“Can you imagine this same exercise if he didn’t want you touching him? Coyness would hardly make the business easier or tidier.”

He accepted the dirty nappy from her and passed her a clean one. Amid kicking feet and surprisingly agile little paws, Sophie managed to get the diaper changed. It took concentration and dexterity, and when she finished, the result was disappointingly asymmetric. “It doesn’t look as tidy as yours.”


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