The hall in Holcombe was alive with action it hadn’t seen in years. There were trunks stacked all along the front entry overflowing with fabrics and exotic apparel, as well as an easel and two burlap bags of painting supplies. and beyond that the servants were running in and out from the carriage newly stopped in the drive to the various rooms in the house unloading all the things Gerard and Nora had brought back with them from their travels. Nora sat down, feeling suddenly tired, and watched for a moment or two on the edge of all the excitement while Gerard directed the melee.
“The larger landscape ought to go straight to the parlour, and if you can, have two of the footmen hang it in the place of that old thing my mother hates so much.” He waved by two maids carrying a wrapped painting Nora had completed during their trip to Italy. The two had been on a handful of travels already, and planned to complete more, but their recent travels to Italy had been ended so that they might return home and begin preparing Diana for her first London season. The season was still six months away, and yet Nora knew that her mother-in-law was particularly nervous about the affair and Nora wished to be there to offer her support and a level of normalcy before everything picked up again to a sickening pace.
“We don’t have to hang that in the parlour,” she interjected to Gerard, blushing at the thought. “It is hardly my best work, and I don’t know that your mother would appreciate a landscape of such simplicity hanging in her primary sitting room.”
“Nonsense,” the Dowager Lady Colbourne said, coming around the corner at that moment and peeling back the paper on the passing painting without hesitation or prologue. Nora winced at the abruptness of her motion, but the older woman merely looked at the painting for a moment in silent observation and then nodded to the two women carrying it. “I would be proud to have that hanging in my parlour,” she said with a smile, waving them onwards.
She stopped and peered at Nora. “Are you quite all right, dear? You look a bit peaked.”
“You would be peaked too if you’d travelled all day, Mother,” Gerard interjected. He was always careful to defend Nora to everyone, even family. But this time Nora wasn’t so certain she needed defending. She believed, from her mother-in-law’s expression, that the observation had been kindly meant.
“Thank you,” she said with a smile. “I am a bit green at present, but I suspect that is due to us climbing into a carriage so soon upon landing. I’ve hardly had time to regain my land legs after all the overseas travel.”
“We shall get you all a full meal and some rest,” the woman answered kindly.
At that moment, there was a great shriek of delight from outside, and Diana, who had been visiting a friend when they arrived, came tearing up the stairs and immediately into Nora’s arms.
“Diana!” her mother cried in alarm. “Propriety at all times.”
“I’ve missed you so much,” Diana said, eyes wide and turned upon Nora first and then Gerard. “I’ve been doing just as you suggested and have made every effort imaginable to make friends, and I have in part been able to do so, but there is absolutely no substitute for you Nora. You must tell me all about Italy, and you must promise to stay around in time for my season.”
Nora blinked in astonishment, and when she exchanged a glance with Gerard, she could guess what he was thinking. It was hard to imagine that this breathless girl was the same shy sister he had first introduced to her two years earlier. Diana had blossomed into a woman, and though her personality was still somewhat reserved around those she didn’t know, at the same time she seemed quite comfortable and alive as she hadn’t seemed since before his father died.
“I’m glad to see you’re excited for the season,” she said with a wide smile. “When we last spoke, you seemed reticent about all the crowds.” She leaned forward, however, and seized her friend’s hands. “But there is no need for me to plant worry that isn’t there. You and I shall go to London in two days’ time, when I am quite recovered from all this travel, and we shall go in search of a fine dress for your first ball.”
Diana stood up quickly, pulling Nora with her, and the two turned in a giddy circle. Then Diana stopped and embraced her once more, skipping off to her rooms with her mother close at her heels encouraging a little more decorum. Nora watched her go with a small smile and then turned back to Gerard and shrugged.
“She seems happy enough about it now. Perhaps some time apart from me has done her good,” she said with a smile.
Gerard took her into his arms, as he had done on the shores of the Mediterranean only a few weeks before, and kissed her gently on the forehead. “My dear,” he said quietly, “I know that you are teasing, but I must intercept such nonsense before it does damage unawares, for you have taken my quiet, careful sister and given her supreme courage. For that, I thank you.”
“And I thank you,” Nora responded, standing up on the tips of her toes to kiss Gerard’s cheek, “because you took a chance on me.”
“I am not a gambler,” Gerard said wryly, “but it is my understanding that you are not taking a chance if you are betting on a sure thing.”
The two days before the London trip passed easily enough, although Nora felt as though she was running some sort of race that she could not keep up with. Her energy, rather than growing during the resting period, seemed to flag all the more, and she found herself struggling quite genuinely to catch even a few moments of real alone time. Diana was always at her elbow prattling on about the season changes. And while Nora delighted in her company, she found it more and more difficult to hide the bone-deep weariness that settled in around her.
She didn’t want to tell Gerard, not when she was so uncertain of the root behind her condition, and she feared to alarm him. Instead, she waited and hoped that in time the situation would resolve without need for a doctor’s involvement.
When she walked down the stair to climb into the private carriage she and Diana were going to share with the dowager on their ride to London, she stopped just short of the last step and stood swaying for a moment in place as the world began to change rapidly around her. At first, she heard a rushing sound in her ears and felt a certain pressure there. Then all of a sudden, the world tilted to the side and she found herself lying down instead of standing up. It wasn’t clear what had happened, but Nora could hear the sound of Gerard calling out as though from a great distance away. Then she felt arms beneath her carrying her back up the steps from whence she’d come and lying her gently down on a settee. She closed her eyes against the nausea that accompanied this dramatic change of place, and when she opened them again she saw that it was her mother-in-law who had taken up a place at her side.
“That’s it, dear,” the older woman said gently. “Just lie still.”
Gerard came and put a hand on Nora’s forehead and spoke with a tone of barely concealed concern into her ear.
“Nora, what is the matter? Have you been feeling ill for some time?”
“Gerard,” his mother said, reaching out and laying a hand gently on her son’s arm. “There is absolutely no need to panic, but I do think it best if you send for the doctor at once so that we might be certain of your wife’s condition before continuing with any treatment.” She turned, still taking calm control of the situation, and frowned gently at Diana, who Nora saw hovering just on the outskirts of the conversation. “I’m sorry Diana, but I think we will have to postpone our trip for the time-being.”
Nora groaned softly. “I’m sorry,” she chimed in as well. “I know how much this meant to you. It will be just a few days. And then I will be quite able to go along with you I assure you. I believe I’m still adapting after the sea voyage.”
She turned and saw a smile hovering on the lips of the older woman.
“What is it?” she asked tentatively.
“If my suspicions are correct,” the lady said gently, “I would guess that your recovery period will be a bit longer than a few days. I think you can expect months at least before you ought to be going on long trips anywhere. Perhaps we ought to invite a tailor here to fit Diana for her gowns in this very house.”
“Months!” Nora tried to rise, but cool hands helped her back down onto the pillow. “No, that cannot be possible. I shan’t languish for months here under some mysterious illness.”
“It is not so very mysterious,” the dowager said with one last smile in Gerard’s direction. “If I am correct, you are with child. While that is certainly a miracle to behold, it is not such a shock considering your situation.”
Nora heard the news like a shock to her system. In all the travel, she had thought that the weariness and nausea of the past few months had all been a result of the strain they were under and the hot days they’d spent in the sunshine working at landscapes and the like. Now she saw that all along the symptoms had been there clear as day for one equipped to see.
“You are right,” she breathed with quiet delight. “I should have thought of it myself, but I didn’t know. How did you know?”
The dowager smiled benevolently. “A mother knows,” she said, “and when you first came in so tired and road-weary behind all those trunks of exotic goods, I felt it in my heart and saw it in the circles around your eyes. Rest and hydration should be your best chance at recovery. But I will of course wait for the doctor to determine.”
Diana came and sat down beside the settee, her head leaning against Nora’s arm. “I will say,” she chirped with delight, “that this is so much better than a new ball gown in London.”
Nora threw back her head and laughed.
The day of Diana’s first ball was magical. Nora was unable to attend the actual event, so heavy as she was with child and completely confined to bed rest. But she was in London with the family for the event and insisted upon being a part of every second of preparation. Diana’s hair was in a loose array of dark curls, her gown of a shimmering gold fabric, her ringlets bound up in a golden thread. She was brimming with excitement, and kissed Nora goodbye with the magic hanging all about her.
Gerard went with her as an escort, and his mother came as well. Nora was left behind with only a few servants and some of Diana’s poems to read and edit. She had been resting in a gentle repose for a few hours, having eaten dinner and settled in with a good book, when she felt a most startling sharp pain in her side and nearly doubled over with the pain of it.
“No,” she said softly to herself. “Not yet. Nobody’s here. You can’t come yet, my little one.”
She settled back, but in a few minute’s time the pain had resurfaaced, and this time with a ferocity that actually made Nora rather frightened. She rang for the maid, and when the girl appeared barely had the breath to gasp out, “The doctor, Elsie. I need the doctor now.”
“Wasn’t it glorious?” Diana clung to Gerard’s arm with stars in her eyes. “I have always loved dancing, but there is something so marvellous about doing it in a great group in such a fashion instead of at simple dinner parties. I felt like I was flying.”
“And you had some admirers too,” he answered her with a sobering smile. “I hope you know that they will have to prove themselves very worthy to chase after your hand.”
“I saw no one of interest as of yet,” she said, her nose prettily held high. “But I hope you will remember yourself when I do fancy someone, brother, and recall how very hard you had to strive for our dear Nora. Have a little mercy.”
They walked in through the great doors and began to go their separate ways at the stair when atop the landing a man appeared in dark clothes with a sober outlook. Gerard recognised him at once, and his heart flew into his throat.
“Dr Evans. Is everything all right that you should be here at our house so late at night?”
“Lord Colbourne, please follow me at once,” the man said, turning and scurrying down the hall ahead of them. Gerard exchanged a glance with his mother and sister and then hurried along without them after the doctor’s retreating figure. They went directly to Gerard’s own room that he shared with Nora, and when he opened the door he saw something he had not at all expected: his wife, sitting upright in the bed, with a little bundle wrapped in her arms.
“What?” he breathed, hardly believing it. He had left earlier that afternoon to attend a ball, and now, returning in the wee hours of the morning, he was a father. He stepped breathlessly to his wife’s side. She looked radiant. A little pale, but still stunning with her brown hair streaming about her shoulders and her eyes fixed so unwaveringly on his own.
“What took you so long?” she teased lightly.
“I’m so sorry you had to do this on your own,” he answered.
The doctor cleared his throat. “We will leave you two to your little son, but for now I will tell you that both child and mother are quite well. There is nothing to fear, and the delivery was, in fact, abnormally fast and easy.”
He and the maid left, leaving Gerard alone with Nora yet again. “He thought it was easy,” she said drily.
But Gerard’s eyes were fixed on the little bundle in her arms, and when she pulled back the cloth over the sweet little face, he was taken aback by the love that swelled in his heart. “A son, he said?”
She nodded. “I was thinking about calling him William. What do you think?”
He leaned down and kissed her. “I think it’s perfect, for William began all this, and now I have two of the greatest gifts because of his interference, and a misunderstanding.”
She smiled gently and tucked the little boy deeper into his blanket.
“Goodnight little William,” she soothed, rocking their first child to sleep.