“Let me first say that I am thankful you decided to come home for the birth.” Mrs Livingston hovered over Charlotte’s shoulder, handing her yet another delicate biscuit. “I confess after all the adventures you’ve had with your new husband over the last two years, I half expected you to bring a baby back from some Saharan wilderness. Can you imagine the horror?”
“Actually,” Ewan said, sending a smile Charlotte’s way that made her heart melt, “Charlotte helped a woman give birth aboard a ship, and everything went to plan, so I can hardly imagine she’d be put off by an international wedding.”
“Ewan, don’t shock mama any more than she already is,” Charlotte teased, running her hand along her belly. The baby had grown steadily over the last nine months, and now she’d returned to her childhood home for the last month in the hopes that the last weeks of her pregnancy could be a bit quieter than the first months.
“Don’t tease Charlotte,” Lucy said with wide eyes, drawing near on the settee and curling her feet under her. Even though she was eighteen years old now and quite a lady, she still had a habit of returning to her child-like postures when around her big sister. “She’s gone on so many adventures now, and I’m very proud of her. At one point I thought it would be impossible for me to do all that she’s now doing, but just hearing about the exciting places she’s been and the things that she’s seen makes me want to see more.”
“You’re always welcome to come along on a journey. You didn’t half mind the little investigation we got into over Easter time, did you?” Charlotte winked at Ewan, her heart melting as it always did at the sight of his handsome face. “You gave that baker a run for his money.”
“You didn’t tell me that you helped with one of their shenanigans!” Sir Francis interjected, folding his hands over the top of his cane. “When was this?”
“Papa, she just said Easter time.”
The family was gathered on the back patio, soaking up the last rays of summer sun before making their way back inside for the night. There was a commotion from the livery, and in a few moments Ambrose emerged from that direction, striding towards them with his coattails flying out behind.
“You alright, old fellow?” Ewan called.
Ambrose waited to retort until he was close at hand, pausing behind Lucy’s chair with his hand resting lightly on the back. “Quite alright. It’s just that stallion we were given as payment for our last little bit of business. I rode him back from the village, but he apparently wanted more exercise than that. He’s giving the stable hands a rough go of it.”
Lucy giggled, and Charlotte cocked her head at her sister with interest. She’d seen something developing between Lucy and Ambrose over the last month, and she was curious to see if anyone else would notice it. So far, only Ewan had spoken to her on the subject—their parents seemed utterly oblivious to any affection between the young people.
“Well, I’m glad you’ve returned. They called us into dinner half an hour ago, but we were putting it off in waiting for your rude and tardy arrival.”
Ambrose raised his eyes at this mocking, but Mrs Livingston broke in with the motherly way she’d adopted of dealing with the two boys. “Now, don’t scold him, Ewan. You know that his business acumen and industrious attendance at town meetings is the very thing that rustles up all that good work for you and your team. If he wasn’t in town today running down leads, you wouldn’t have anything to go on after the baby’s born.”
“Listen to Mrs Livingston, Ewan,” Ambrose said, hiding a smile. “My business acumen is at stake here.”
“I have a suspicion you don’t know what acumen means,” Ewan retorted, and the assembly laughed good-naturedly.
Charlotte looked back and forth between the two friends with amusement and delight. Seeing their friendship was one of the many joys she had inherited when she agreed to accompany them on all their travels. She now laughed to think about the way she used to read about Alice Montgomery’s life and dream for adventure—what she’d found in the company of Ewan and Ambrose had been adventures far more exciting than she could have planned for herself, and she looked forward to a life of new and exciting things.
“Well, let’s not waste any more time. In to dinner.” Sir Francis led the way into the house, and Charlotte struggled to her feet, too heavily pregnant to run light-footed into the house after him as she would have when she was a girl. Ewan supported her to the door, pausing there to plant a light kiss on her lips.
“Do you want to know what I was thinking while we were sitting in the garden?” he asked softly as the others went inside behind him.
“I always want to know what you’re thinking,” she answered with a coy smile.
“I was thinking that for some women pregnancy is the thing that steals their youthful glow, but for you it seems to have made you even more girlish and beautiful.” He tucked her arm into his. “My own little lass.”
After dinner the family disbanded to their rooms, and Ewan made Charlotte comfortable in their bed upstairs. He had walked in on Ambrose and Lucy in the hallway, saying a brief goodnight, and had caught sight of their hands twined together for the briefest moment before they became aware of his presence and jerked their fingers back quickly. Sooner rather than later, he would need to deal with that.
For now, he had a wife to tend to, and he happily curled up beside her in the bed, opening a book of poetry that they’d been working through over the last year. Ewan had never much cared for the poets, associating them too much with the straight-laced boarding school education he’d received as a child, but since marrying Charlotte he’d grown to appreciate some of the more modern men and their romantic sensibilities.
He’d barely made it through the first line, however, when Charlotte gave a little gasp at his side and clenched her stomach. He turned, ever ready to help.
“What’s wrong? Are you hurting?”
She shook her head, breathing shortly. “Silly boy. I’m always hurting these days. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“If you say so.” He flipped the book back open, trying to stay calm for her sake as well as his own. “Shall we begin again? I find this Blake fellow interesting enough, although I will tell you his illuminations don’t add anything to the magic. So we read ‘Tyger, Tyger’—”
Another gasp, this time louder, swept the room, and Charlotte bent forward. “Alright I was wrong,” she said through clenched teeth. “This is real, and I think it’s happening tonight.”
Ewan leapt up, his heart in his throat, and ran to ring the bell. When a maid appeared—it seemed like an eternity later—he said, “The Midwife, now.” And she was off again as soon as she’d come. Ewan turned around, his blood running cold at the sound of his wife’s laboured breathing.
“How can I help?” He put a hand on her head, not even knowing what temperature he was looking for. He’d heard about things like this in the past—happy marriages cut short by death in childbirth—and he thought of his own mother’s passing and the hole that it had left in his life. He put an arm around Charlotte’s shoulders and she pushed him away just as the midwife came in on the heels of the maid. Charlotte took him by the shoulders and looked deeply into his eyes.
“You can help by going downstairs and sitting with the menfolk, and Ewan—” she looked at him sternly, “—I’m a strong lass, don’t forget that in your wild panicking, alright?”
He laughed weakly despite himself and allowed the maid to ferret him out of the room. As he walked, he passed Mrs Livingston, Lucy, and a host of maids heading towards the birthing room with cloths, a basin of water, and a tittering of excitement. Ewan tried hard to think about Charlotte’s goodbye, and how stern she’d been about her own strength. It was no use doubting the woman of his dreams now, he supposed.
In the parlour, he had no time or space to set about pacing, for as soon as he’d arrived, Ambrose and Sir Francis were at his side with remonstrations and dark amber liquor poured finger deep in crystal glasses. Ewan drank sparingly, wanting to keep his wits about him, and even that little bit took some of the edge off it all.
“Don’t worry, lad,” Sir Francis said, smiling paternally at Ewan. “We menfolk always feel this way, hustled aside from our own child to sit in silence and listen for the screams.”
“Screams?” Ewan gasped.
Ambrose rolled his eyes. “Sir Francis, I’ve the highest respect for your judgement in this matter, but I can assure you that telling Ewan about his wife’s impending trial won’t help him feel more relaxed.”
Ambrose came and sat across from Ewan, setting up a chessboard between the two. Sir Francis sniffed and sat far across the room, lighting a pipe and settling in with the paper. Keeping his voice low enough that his father-in-law couldn’t hear, Ewan said, “You might be careful of that, young man.”
“What do you mean?” Ambrose asked innocently enough.
“Just that if you’ve a mind to make that man your father in the foreseeable future, you should try buttering him up a bit more instead of scolding his attempts at compassion.”
Ambrose’s hand froze on the king that he was putting into place. He fingered it thoughtfully and then dropped his voice into barely a whisper. “I am sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Come now,” Ewan gave a little laugh, glad of a distraction to calm his high-strung nerves. “You and I have worked together on cases much more difficult than this. You’re not exactly subtle in your affection, either. Work a little harder at it—it’s a wonder the parents haven’t seen you mooning for the lass and touching her at intervals. You also laugh together a good deal.”
Ambrose cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable. “I don’t know of any rules against laughing.”
“Perhaps, but you might know of rules against wooing a man’s daughter under his nose.” Ewan pushed his pawn forward and waited for retribution. “I’m serious, Ambrose. She’s my sister now, too, and I’ve as much of a right as any to ask what the nature of your relationship is.”
Ambrose worked his jaw in mild frustration. “You’ve got a high horse, lad, having stolen one of Sir Francis’ daughters already, with no higher prospects than I have.”
“But I wanted to marry Charlotte. I was certain of it when I began wooing her—I think the first forward thing I said to her was actually about her hand in marriage. You are just treating Lucy like any other girl you met at a pub or in the street—flirting with her and leading her on without real plans of marriage. You should not be so inappropriate and untoward unless your affection has an end and not only a means.”
“You assume too much.” Ambrose countered with his knight.
“I think I assume the exact right amount. Ambrose, you’re a brother to me, and I care for you greatly, but you’ve been a romantic all your life and I don’t want Lucy to be another one of your conquests to be courted and then promptly cast aside.”
Ewan could see a bit of colour rising into Ambrose’s cheeks, and his words came out staccato and defensive. He pulled his queen forward. “Check.”
Ewan pulled his bishop out, levelling it against the queen. “You know that’s a foolish move.” He looked at his friend with a second layer of meaning in his words. “You shouldn’t act rashly when you don’t know the facts. Your heart will betray you.”
“Rashly!” Ambrose’s voice rose slightly. “Do you know why I have continued pursuing Lucy, even when I saw that she was a delicate flower and so clearly out of my social status? Not for a whim, I tell you?”
“My good man.” Ewan cast his eyes to the side significantly. “If I were you, I would lower my voice.”
“Because,” Ambrose went on, clearly losing sight of the fact that the father of the girl he was interested in sat only a short distance away, “I love her. I really, truly love her. And I would spend the rest of my life with her if I could.”
His words hung, clear and loud, in the air between them. Ewan swallowed and turned his head slowly from the chessboard to look at Sir Francis’, who had lowered his paper and was watching the two men with a hint of amusement on his lips. Ambrose followed Ewan’s gaze and then blushed deeply.
“Sir, I … I know this must be a shock …” he stammered.
“A shock?” Sir Francis stood with a grand gesture of his arms and took a few steps towards the lads. “You know, Ewan, over the years I’ve grown fond of you, even though when you first came to ask for my Charlotte’s hand I was appalled that the Hester Russell plague had claimed yet another victim.” He smiled indulgently. “But then I spent evenings talking with you about things that mattered, gathering your opinion on affairs of politics and working alongside you in business matters. Not to mention all that I learned simply from watching you love my daughter well.” His eyes twinkled. “And so I fell for you as my Charlotte did. But I fear that as I was learning all about you, Ewan Sinclair, you were learning nothing at all about me.” He leaned forwards with a conspiratorial whisper, clearly enjoying the paralysing effect his speech was having on the two men. “And this is the truth about Sir Francis: he is not quite so dense as you two seem to think.” He leaned back and let out a long, jolly laugh. “Do you think you two are the only ones with powers of observation? I’m glad this lad has finally come to his senses and realised that he loves our little Lucy, but I’ve known for some time, even before you returned for the birth that is currently underway. I was simply waiting to see how long Ambrose would wait to ask to court our little lass, and I’ll admit I’m surprised it’s taken this long.”
Ambrose fumbled to his feet, still blushing and clearly embarrassed. “Sir Francis, this is not the way I would have wanted this conversation to go down. I had plans … your daughter is a princess, worthy of the finest pursuit, and I wanted the opportunity to ask for permission to court her.”
“And you shall have it.” Sir Francis leaned forward. “I like your spunk, lad, and I’m ready and willing to give another scandalous adventurer a chance to show me his worth.”
It was hours later that Lucy appeared in the room, her hair all a mess and her sleeves rolled up over her soft forearms.
Ewan stood at once, his heart beating wildly in his chest. “Please,” he said, his voice breaking, “tell me all is well.”
“I am happy to oblige,” she said, glancing over in Ambrose’s direction with two bright spots in her pale cheeks. “While you lads have been down here talking about the weather and who is new in the House of Lords, we ladies have been hard at work. Charlotte gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and both the mother and the child are doing well. They’re ready to see you now.”
As Ewan followed Lucy out of the room he heard Sir Francis say pointedly to Ambrose, “We weren’t exactly talking about the weather now, were we lad?”
Upstairs, the maids cleared completely out of the room, and when Lucy brought him in he sensed rather than saw the midwife and Mrs Livingston leave as well. Lucy curtsied and was gone, leaving Ewan alone with his wife.
Charlotte sat up in the beautiful four-poster bed, her long red hair laying on the pillows stacked behind her head. She had a coverlet drawn over her legs, and when he walked in she looked up with those wild grey eyes he knew and loved so well. She looked tired, but beautiful and full of that raw energy that had carried them through so many adventures. In her arms was a little bundle.
She nodded for him to come over.
“Do you want to meet your son?”
“A boy.” He came and stood beside her, looking down at the sleeping pink infant in her arms. “He’s so very small.”
She reached up to hand him the bundle, and he took the baby in hand as gently as possible. He took the child in his arms, feeling the fragility of the little one, his heart swelling with a love he’d never known.
“We shall have to think of a name,” Charlotte asked. “But that is a question for another time. We shall raise him up to be brave like his papa, and gentle and kind too.”
“That’s right,” Ewan sat down beside her, the sweet weight of the baby in the crook of his arm, and kissed her gently on the lips. “And if we’re lucky he will be wild and strong like his warrior, adventurer of a mother, too.”