Northamptonshire, England, 1817
A screech exploded through the clear, dark night. The sound slashed across Brett's deep voice and the slurred words of the bawdy song he bellowed. Ceasing his off-key performance, he cocked his head. His equilibrium upset, he swayed in the saddle but righted himself before he plunged face down onto the muddy road.
The annoying noise increased in pitch. He should pass by, but his instinctive curiosity that had vanished for nearly a year reemerged. He urged Glory to the right and entered the murky forest, shutting out the brilliant stars and a bright moon that bathed the world in a glow.
Only twenty minutes earlier rain had poured from pregnant clouds, and drops slid from disturbed branches and leaves, splashing onto his dry clothes. Brett congratulated himself on retaining a bit of common sense--though he attempted to drink himself into a stupor as he had every evening--and hadn't left the inn until the storm passed.
A bead of water plopped into his tired eye and he dashed his hand across it to clear his blurred vision. When he saw what lay sprawled on the ground before him, he squeezed his lids closed, positive his sight had been damaged by too much drink, but his ears verified the truth.
Brett jerked his eyes open again, hoping the image had disappeared, but the woman still remained on the ground with a howling baby beside her.
He should never have investigated. Why hadn't he continued on his way? Why the devil hadn't he guzzled more gin? In his youth, his blasted curiosity often dragged him into situations he would rather not deal with. After tonight, he'd make sure it died a final death. He didn't need this trouble.
He could leave her here. Someone would eventually find her. Maybe she was sleeping and would awaken in the morning.
His mind screamed the certainty. She needed help, and he was the only one who could provide it.
Brett threw an unsteady leg over the saddle and slid from Glory. Four wavering steps brought him beside the silent woman, who breathed normally, and the squawking baby whose wails increased the throbbing in his head. Afraid to touch him, Brett closed his eyes, hoping to ease the agony, but the high-pitched shrieking intruded.
He couldn't stand it anymore. He lifted his reluctant lids and leaned over. A loud moan spilled from his lips as the blood rushed to his head. Steadying his stance, Brett eased the infant from beneath the mother's protective arm and picked it up.
Holding the baby in front of him, he was not quite sure what to do. Visions of his nurse dealing with his crying younger brother years ago seeped in, and he leaned the fragile, damp body against his shoulder and jiggled it up and down.
Until a night of drinking combined with the motion caused bile to rise into his throat. He tried pacing back and forth instead while rubbing the child's back, singing a favorite lullaby he remembered, and stared down at the woman. Who was she? Was she from the village? The curling strands of dark brown hair draped across her face looked like...
No. He spun away and fought the thought back into the deepest recesses of his mind. Once more in control, he strode toward her. Her wet, ripped dress encased a petite frame. He would think her a child but her ample breasts that rose and fell with each breath proclaimed otherwise. The baby was probably eager for their sustenance.
The infant's cries eased, and its light, exhausted body slumped in slumber. Brett sighed in relief. His pounding head couldn't take much more.
He crouched beside the female lying on a bed of dead, wet leaves, careful not to disturb the sleeping child. The smell of moist earth and rotting foliage rose from the ground and surrounded them. He brushed the soft tendrils away from her filthy, long face. Beneath the smudges of dirt lay a beautiful woman with high cheekbones, upturned nose, and full lips.
Maybe if he woke her, she'd be perfectly able to care for herself and her child and he could send her on her way. Then he'd continue his own journey home to the bottle of gin always waiting for him.
He nudged the dainty shoulder. "Madam."
"Wake up, madam. You can't stay here."
She moaned and hope grew within his chest. He shook her a little harder. "Your baby is hungry."