Griffin shifted to make room for his wife on the settee. “Did the doctor know the child, by any chance?”
Justine nodded. “He’s almost certain she’s Lizzie Jenkins, although he hasn’t seen any of the family in several months. He confirmed that Mrs. Jenkins died in childbirth. Dr. Rogers was called in to attend her, but as so often happens in these situations, he was too late.”
“That’s awful,” Alec said, looking grim.
A moment later, Dominic came in, looking less than pleased.
Justine sighed. “Not good news, I take it.”
“No,” he said. “Lizzie Jenkins’ grandmother died last week. According to her neighbors, the woman used to care for the child on a regular basis while Mr. Jenkins plied his trade. It would seem that the grandmother’s death precipitated today’s event.”
“If only the man had come to us first,” Griffin said, shaking his head. “We would have been able to help him.”
“From what I’ve been able to gather, he was not the most devoted of fathers,” Dominic said. “We can at least be thankful that he left the baby here, instead of depositing her at an orphanage.”
They all contemplated that distressing thought in silence. Jack knew that given the conditions at most orphanages, it was a miracle any children survived such a fate.
“So, what happens now?” Aden finally asked.
“We must wait for final confirmation from the vicar, which should be coming momentarily.” Dominic opened the door and looked down the hall. “Yes, Reverend Paulson is just leaving,” he said over his shoulder.
A few seconds later, Chloe swept by her husband and into the room.
“Did you and the vicar have words, my love?” Dominic asked with a slight smile. “Again?”
His wife stopped in mid-stride. “How did you know?”
“You would have invited him for tea if he hadn’t annoyed you.”
She let out a rueful laugh. “I know I shouldn’t argue with him. He’s a kind man and does try his best, but he’s so old-fashioned. And he is a bit judgmental when it comes to my establishment and my girls.”
Griffin handed her a glass of whiskey. “He’s a vicar, Mother. That’s what they do—they judge. And he’s never gotten over that I’m your son. Every time I run into the man I’m convinced he’s making furtive signs against evil spirits and praying for my immortal soul.”
“That’s because he is,” Chloe said with a twinkle.
Dominic steered her to an armchair. “And what did the good reverend say to put you in such a stew this time?”
“He had the nerve to say we should place poor little Lizzie in an orphanage. He even offered to take her there himself.” She scoffed. “To suggest such to thing to me, of all people, is completely ridiculous.”
“Of course it is,” Dominic said. “But at least we now have confirmation that the child is, in fact, Lizzie Jenkins.”
Chloe nodded. “He recognized her immediately. More often than not, Lizzie stayed with her grandmother, but the poor old woman died last week.”
“So I was able to ascertain,” Dominic said. “And I assume Reverend Paulson also confirmed that the father is unreliable?”
“He all but stated that we should never expect to see Mr. Jenkins in this part of the world again. Apparently, the man is both feckless and dull-witted.”
“Well, the fact that he had the brains to bring the girl here showed some spark of wit on his part,” Griffin said. “Clearly, he’d heard about you, Mother, and wished for you to take her in.”
Chloe gave her son a lopsided smile. “Yes, and that’s what we’ll do. Although I must say that we’re full up right now. I have four girls in advanced stages of pregnancy, and two who’ve recently given birth.” She cocked an eyebrow at her husband. “We’ll have to hire more help.”
“Indeed,” Dominic said. “But our charity is already bursting at the seams, Chloe. At this rate, we’ll have to start building a new wing.”
“We’ll be happy to take her,” Justine said immediately. “We have plenty of room.”
Jack could tell by Griffin’s expression that he wasn’t enamored of the idea. He didn’t blame the man. Having a baby suddenly dumped on one’s household was sure to be disruptive.
“Are you sure, Justine?” Griffin asked dubiously. “You’re with child, in case you’ve forgotten. You’ve been quite fatigued lately, not to mention that you cast up your accounts on a regular basis. Adding a baby to the mix might be more than my delicate sensibilities can take.”
Justine rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so squeamish. I’m entirely capable of handling one little infant, as you know. Besides, I’ll have you to help me.”
Griffin gave her a slight smile. “I haven’t a hope of winning this discussion, do I? Very well, my wife, whatever makes you happy.”
“I’ll take her,” Vivien and Edie said simultaneously. They looked at each other, their eyes going wide.
“You want her, too?” Edie asked, slightly exasperated. “But you already have a baby.”
“I know,” Vivien said. “But my heart simply broke when I saw that sweet child lying there abandoned in the straw.” She glanced at her husband with an imploring smile. “Besides, I think it would be splendid if Maggie had a big sister, don’t you? And since we live so close to each other, Chloe and Justine can see Lizzie whenever they want.”
Aden stared at her, clearly dumbfounded. “Ah…”
“Well, we don’t have a baby,” Alec said, “and Edie isn’t breeding yet.” He frowned at his wife. “Are you, old girl?”
“Not for lack of trying on your part,” his wife said cheerfully.
“Perhaps I should just step out to the garden,” Jack said, starting to rise. Things were getting a bit too personal for his taste.
Griffin waved him back down. “Oh, no you don’t, Lendale. You’re in too deep to escape now.”
Jack shrugged and sat back down. He hated to admit it, but the embarrassing conversation was also rather entertaining in a demented sort of way.
Griffin turned his attention back to Alec. “You are not dragging that poor child up to the wilds of Scotland, Gilbride. And may I remind you that Justine was the first to say she would take her. As long as my mother agrees, that should resolve the matter.”
He flashed Chloe a charming and very smug smile, clearly expecting her to fall in line. His mother, however, studied him with an inscrutable expression. When Griffin raised an incredulous eyebrow, she gave a small shrug.
“You can’t just call dibs on a baby, old man,” Alec said indignantly. “Wee Lizzie isn’t some sort of ball to be tossed around.”
“Indeed not,” Aden said crisply. “And I believe Vivien is correct. We should take the child.”
“I am? We should?” his wife said, clearly amazed, as was everyone else. Only a few minutes ago, Aden had seemed flummoxed by the notion of taking on another child.
Aden nodded. “Vivien, if you want Lizzie to come live with us, and it will make you happy, then that’s exactly what will happen.” He punctuated his comment by directing lethal glares at Alec and Griffin, as if daring them to challenge his assertion.
“I do not believe this,” Edie said in a disgusted tone. “This is actually developing into a competition.”
Justine looked at her husband with disapproval. “You’re going to compete over who’s going to adopt the baby? That’s ridiculous.”
“Well, all you women want her,” Griffin said. “How else are we supposed to make the decision?” His manner suggested a competition for an infant was entirely rational.
“Perhaps through the application of a little common sense?” Dominic said sarcastically.
“My dear, if that’s what you’re looking for,” Chloe said, finally entering the conversation, “I do believe you’ve picked the wrong family.”