As the cold winter nights draw in, there’s nothing more comforting than curling up by a roaring fire with a good book.
See below for a sneak preview of a powerful and moving tale of lust, lies, deceit and intrigue that has gripped readers’ imaginations for more than 30 years – Chantal by bestselling author Claire Lorrimer – out now.
On the 8th of March, 1821, the woman died. The four-month old child in her arms wailed fitfully as her mother’s body froze in the bitter night air, waking the exhausted man huddled beneath his cloak nearby.
Gideon Morris, known to all but a handful of people as Sir Peregrine Waite, was roused from sleep to the bitter discomforts of cold, hunger and a renewed awareness of the throbbing pain of the half-healed wound in his leg.
“Maria,” he called gently, “the child is hungry and needs feeding!”
He reached out a hand to the hunched figure of the young woman lying beside him in the bitter night air. The stiffness of her body brought him fully awake. As the baby’s crying intensified, a sudden fear that the mother was dead made him hesitate to touch her a second time lest that fear was proved justified.
“Maria!” he called again, this time urgently.
He was deeply shocked and distressed to realize she was dead although this tragedy was not altogether unexpected. He had never loved the young Neapolitan woman in the way he knew a man could love the woman of his dreams, but he had nevertheless felt a deep affection for Maria. For all she was but a simple peasant without breeding or education, her loving devotion to him these past twelve months had earned his gratitude and respect. Not only had she proved courageous and loyal, but her nature was essentially passionate and caring.
As the child’s wails became weaker, Perry’s stunned immobility gave way to action. With difficulty he prized the baby from her mother’s stiffened arms. The minute face was pinched and blue with cold. Hurriedly he unbuttoned his thick cape and the jacket beneath, and removing his pistol, pressed the small body close to his chest where his own body heat might impart some warmth to it. At once the tiny hands began to search instinctively for the mother’s breasts, the hunger in her little body of overriding concern.
With a renewed sense of shock Perry realized that the woman’s death would almost certainly result in the death of the child. It had not been weaned and the chances of his finding a wet nurse here in the mountains of Italy were highly improbable, even had he the money to pay for such services.
It was now over a week since they had left the comparative safety of the encampment in the hills above Potenza. They had lived there with other members of the resistant force called the Carbonari ever since he had led them into hiding after an uprising against the Government in Naples nearly a year ago.
The uprising had failed and they had been chased into the hills. Perry was so severely wounded that had it not been for the care of these poor peasants he would certainly have died.
The men, driven by poverty and a burning sense of injustice, were in war-like mood and anxious, as soon as he, their leader, showed signs of recovery, to renew their resistance. But most had lost their weapons and there was no money to buy more. From his sick bed, a straw palliasse on the floor of a shepherd’s hut, Perry dispatched a messenger to Pisa with a written request to his friend, the poet Percy Shelley, to send funds. He had given Pietro his last remaining valuable – his gold watch, with which to guarantee his authenticity to the Shelleys.
For several months the small band of Carbonari waited, living on the meagre rations supplied by the poor people in Potenza who were themselves close to starvation. Maria nursed Perry, attending to his dreadful wound as best she could. She was a dark-haired, comely young woman approaching thirty and already widowed, her farmer husband having been killed in an earlier uprising. The intimate bond between nurse and patient deepened as Maria’s passionate nature revealed itself. When in an unguarded moment, she shyly declared her love for the handsome English aristocrat, the essence of their relationship changed and they became lovers. She was never in doubt about the true nature of their association.
“I know we cannot be married – it would not be right for a titled Englishman to wed a Neapolitan peasant girl!” she had said in her simple, direct way. “But I love you – io t’amo – and I know that you need a woman. I want you to take me even if you cannot love me.”
Perry had not resisted her for long. He had come to Italy for the very purpose of forgetting the one woman in his life he could ever love or marry – Scarlett, now the wife of the Vicomte Gerard de Valle.
Not a night passed that he did not think of her, long for her, wonder whether she was happy now that she shared her life with the man she had loved for so long. He hoped that perhaps with Maria’s soft arms enfolding him, his dreams might at last be haunted less often by his memories of the passionate love he had once known with Scarlett.
When Maria told him she was with child he had received the news with deepest misgivings. The privations of their lives in hiding in the hills were extreme and in any event he had no wish for a child, far less an illegitimate offspring for whom he could not disclaim responsibility. But for the sake of the woman who
cared for him so selflessly, he tried to hide his reaction. Maria was clearly proud and delighted to be bearing his child. When the babe was born in the early hours of a chill November dawn, he had allowed her to believe that he, too, was delighted as she placed the tiny girl in his arms.
“We could call her Maria after me or Lucia since she was born at break of day,” the proud mother had whispered. But Perry was unable to share Maria’s pride or radiant joy and gave no thought to the baby’s naming.
One by one the men began to return to the farms which they had left to join the Carbonari, for it was becoming clear to them all that the messenger, Pietro, had never reached the Shelleys and no funds would be forthcoming. Word came from other members of the Carbonari that resistance was weakening and that their cause no longer justified the neglect of their farms and families. By the end of January all had left the encampment and Perry, too, would have departed but for the unhealed leg wound which forbade walking any but the shortest of distances.
For a while he contemplated sending Maria into Naples to see the British Consul, Sir Henry Lushington, to ask for aid since he was, after all, a British subject. But he feared for her safety should she be recognized as an associate of the Carbonari. Her former husband had been well known to the authorities and he dared not risk her recognition.
“We will remain here a while longer,” he told her. “You, too, need to regain your full strength. By March the weather will be better. Then we will make our way north where my friends are living. They will care for you and the baby.”
But he had underestimated the seriousness of his leg injury which, despite Maria’s care, had not healed properly, for splinters of bone were still buried deep within his thigh. With unwelcome frequency abscesses occurred and he was seldom without fever and pain.
The child thrived on her mother’s milk, but Maria tired quickly and was clearly losing weight as they began their travels northward. They survived on the rabbits Perry snared, a skill he had learned in his youth when he had first had to live on his wits.
Occasionally a farmer would give them milk, but often they were turned away because they had no money to pay for their requirements. The milder Spring weather was late in coming, and the bitterly cold nights with only the roughest of shelters to keep out the winds, added to their misery and ill health.
To Perry it was clear now that Maria had kept from him the true state of her weakness. Rather than be a burden, she had walked beside him uncomplainingly until he, himself, had given in to weariness and pain. With the child needing food every four hours or so, Maria’s strength ebbed and unrecognized by her, she had developed milk fever.
Perry’s self-condemnation was acute as he closed the lids over her eyes and covered her drawn, beautiful face with her cloak.
But for the child, he thought bitterly, she might have survived; and he felt a moment’s anger as the baby began to wail its frustration within the warm confines of his jacket. There seemed little doubt that it too must die for he had no means of feeding it. Perhaps, he thought wearily, it would be for the best. There was no great future for an illegitimate girl, motherless and with a father who cared not whether she lived or died. Death might be the best solution and the kindest for the baby, since to die slowly of starvation could only prolong its misery.
With a feeling born partly of exhaustion, partly of despair, Perry reached for the small moist bundle and withdrew it from his jacket. The shock of the cold air silenced its cries. With miraculous rapidity the crumpled red face paled, uncreased and became a tiny replica of its mother’s, the petal smooth, creamy-olive skin curving gently over delicate cheekbones. The long dark lashes, wet with tears, lifted suddenly and two beautiful almond-shaped eyes stared up at him in mute appeal. From beneath the rough-spun shawl in which Maria had wrapped the child, one small clenched fist appeared, and as the minute fingers uncurled, Perry noticed for the first time the dainty perfection of the pearl-pink nails.
For the rest of his life, Sir Peregrine Waite was never to forget the magic of that moment when fi rst he felt the full force of fierce paternal love for his daughter. The awareness of her perfection, of her dependence upon him, of the fact that she was part of him, overwhelmed him. Tears that he could never have shed for her mother, now filled his eyes as he realized the baby’s helplessness and frailty. In that same moment, he knew that he could never again contemplate her death; that somehow he would find a way to save her.
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