An Heir of Uncertainty

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After Lina, the young, widowed and pregnant Countess of Radbourne, summons the local doctor to attend her sister, the doctor gives her some startling news.

An Heir of Uncertainty

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Lina took the candlestick and escorted him from the room. “Thank you so much for coming here at such an early hour, and in such bitter cold.”

He waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. “It’s part and parcel of the profession.”

And so was being paid, though heaven only knew when she’d be able to settle his fee. “I’d offer you tea before you go, but Sarah bought a new supply, and our tea is almost as bad as the paregoric.”

He laughed. “Surely not as dreadful as that.”

“Well, perhaps not that bad, but it does have the most disagreeable taste, like sour spearmint.”

The doctor had been leading the way down the stairs, but at this he stopped and turned to look back at her. “Sour spearmint, you say?”

“Yes, it’s really quite horrid.”

A flicker of concern crossed his face. “Would you mind if I had a look at this tea, Lady Radbourne?”

What an odd request. But she’d sooner discuss the tea than the money she owed him, so she escorted him to the kitchen. She had to stand on tiptoe to take the tea caddy from its shelf in the cupboard. “Here it is.”

He set down his medical bag to accept the little rosewood chest from her hands. “You don’t lock the cupboard or the caddy?”

“No, why should we? Sarah is the only kitchen servant, and she’s been with us since Cassandra and I were children. We trust her, and she guards her domain like a hawk whenever Eli wanders in—though we trust him too, for that matter.”

Dr. Strickland lifted the lid and peered down at the tealeaves. Giving the caddy a shake, he inhaled deeply. “My God.” He looked up and met Lina’s eyes, his face slack with shock. “How much of this have you been drinking?”

“Not much. I poured a cup yesterday afternoon, but the taste was so strange I couldn’t finish it, and I was too queasy to have any in the evening. Colonel Vaughan recommended tea and toast for my appetite, so I was going to force myself to drink some with breakfast this morning, but—”

“Don’t. Don’t drink another drop of this.” The doctor snapped the caddy shut and pushed it back into Lina’s hands. “Throw it away, every bit of it, and see to it no one brings tea like this into the house again.”

The hair on the back of Lina’s neck stood up. “Why? What’s the matter with it?”

“This is pennyroyal tea. It’s the last thing a hopeful mother should be drinking.”

“Pennyroyal tea…?”

“It’s an abortifacient.” His lips firmed to a grim line. “Desperate girls have been taking it for centuries to rid themselves of unwanted babies.”

“Dear God.” Lina went cold all over. She had to sit down in the cane-backed chair Sarah kept by the hearth. “You mean it causes miscarriage? Do you think I’ve already—”

Dr. Strickland glanced at the clock above the hearth. “What time did you drink it?”

“A little after noon.”

“And you haven’t had any bleeding or spotting since then?”

She might have been embarrassed, but Dr. Strickland always employed a brisk, no-nonsense manner that made it clear such questions were more professional necessity than gross indelicacy. “No.”

“No back pain or spasms?”

She shook her head.

“Then I shouldn’t worry too greatly, Lady Radbourne. After sixteen hours, I expect you’d have had some sign by now if you’d ingested enough to pose a danger. But whatever you do, don’t drink any more of this. You say Sarah bought it in Malton?”

“Yes—or no. I don’t know. I assumed so, but I never asked her about it.” Lina recalled the front door and the broken lock. Could there be some connection? “Perhaps I’ve done Sarah an injustice. We had an intruder in the house yesterday.” She told Dr. Strickland how she’d met Colonel Vaughan and they’d discovered the door ajar, only to find her valuables untouched.

Dr. Strickland listened with a faint frown. “How curious. You say you and Miss Douglass waited outside while Colonel Vaughan went through the house?”

“Yes.”

He squatted down beside her chair, his gaze fixed on her face. “Has anything else out of the ordinary happened in the last few days?”

“Do you mean medically, or in general?”

“In general.”

She gave a shaky laugh. “Well, Colonel Vaughan arrived at the abbey.”

“Yes.” The doctor’s frown deepened. “I mean besides that.”

Why the grave look? Surely the doctor didn’t think there was anything sinister about Colonel Vaughan. The colonel had been with her when she’d discovered the door standing open—in fact, she knew the lock had been forced only because he’d pointed it out.

Then again, the wait outside while he’d checked the house had seemed surprisingly long…

She shook her head. “No. Nothing else out of the ordinary.”

“I’m relieved to hear it. Just the same, I do hope you’ll be careful.” The doctor reached out and pressed her hand—a gesture so at odds with his usual professional demeanor, it left Lina momentarily speechless. “A good deal depends on that baby you’re carrying, Lady Radbourne—not just for you, but also for Miss Douglass, to say nothing of the tenants and servants here.”

And for Colonel Vaughan. “I’ll be careful.”

The doctor gave her a heartening smile before rising to retrieve his medical bag. Lina saw him out, trying not to read too much into the episode.

Even so, for hours afterward she couldn’t help wondering about the pennyroyal tea, and whether Colonel Vaughan really might mean her harm.

 

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