“Welcome, welcome!” Benedict thrust opened the door to Rosewood, standing just in front of their new butler, and waved to his family unloading from the carriages below. Lord and Lady Baldwin had been the first to arrive, but although Sally and her new husband, the Viscount Reginald Williams, had pulled into the drive after the Baldwin carriage, they were the last to get all their luggage apportioned to footman and therefore climbed the stairs after Sally had already thrown her arms around Benedict’s neck in greeting and run off in search of Eliza.
“Son,” Lady Baldwin said, pausing by the door and pulling out her fan to dispel the hot summer heat. “I thought the whole reason for hiring a butler was that you didn’t need to stand at the door and greet people anymore. It’s plebeian.”
“It’s the way things are done around here, mother,” Benedict answered with a smile. “I think you remember as much from when you were in possession of Rosewood. The townsfolk would be truly shocked if Eliza or I wasn’t here to greet them—it seems imperious to always languish back in the parlour while your servants do the honours.”
“Then is your Eliza being imperious?” Lord Baldwin asked with a wink.
“Not in the least. She wanted very much to meet you all here, but I insisted she stay in the parlour considering her … condition.” Benedict led his mother and father through the halls, paused in the main entryway to give the servants a few instructions about where to take the bags and which rooms the guests would be staying in, and then moved on to the parlour.
He found his wife as he’d left her, sitting on a settee with her skirt arranged around her. She was in the final trimester of her pregnancy, and though she still had a few weeks to go as predicted by the village doctor, she was heavy with child and had, for worse or for better, been mostly stuck indoors out of the heat. Sally had abandoned her handsome new husband to perch on the arm of Eliza’s chair and pepper her with stories about her new home in the fashionable side of London.
“And when we first pulled up, I told Reggie that I wouldn’t stand for one of those posh carriages that people just can’t fit into—it doesn’t matter how fashionable the carriage is if it keeps me from wearing my fashionable gowns. You understand.”
Eliza laughed with that light joy that so intoxicated Benedict, even after two years of marriage. “Perhaps you have overlooked my condition, dear, but it has been some time since I have been able to look truly fashionable in any sort of gown.” She looked up and met Benedict’s eyes. He thought she’d never looked so beautiful, but then he thought that very same thing almost daily now. Her blonde curls were pinned up in a proper arrangement for a married wife, but she hadn’t lost that girlish quality around her face and in her arch smile. He thought, whenever he looked at her, heard her singing, or missed her presence during the work day, that marrying her had been the greatest decision he’d ever made.
“How are you feeling?” Sally asked.
Eliza blushed a little and looked at the gathered crowd. Benedict knew that frank discussion about pregnancy, while mildly discomforting in London, was atrociously unacceptable in the country. She just shook her head. “Another time, perhaps. Father and Helen are coming over later, and mayhap Benedict will let me slip out for a little walk.”
“Let you?” Sally asked archly, a little bit of laughter mixing with the sarcasm in her voice. “Has my brother become a bit of a taskmaster since my absence? I’m sure Reggie wouldn’t try to keep me from any such thing as a little walk.”
Reginald, tall with a swoop of blond hair leaping back from a noble brow and sparkling green eyes, shook his head. “Don’t be so certain. I might have your will under management yet.”
Sally pretended to be shocked, and Reginald came to her side and put a hand gently on her shoulder. “Or not,” he said gently.
“I have good reason,” Benedict interjected in defence of his motives. “You should hear the doctor speak about what is required. He says that Eliza is of a delicate constitution, and in these final months, it is of the utmost importance to keep her rested and safe. I know you like to explore,” he said to Eliza, turning his gaze on her, “but surely you can wait until you are quite out of danger’s way.” The unspoken addition to his statement hung between them—Eliza’s own mother had not fared well in childbirth, and the doctor was afraid that the dangers would be higher for Eliza herself. The idea of being without her so struck fear into Benedict’s heart that he could hardly bear the sight of her walking about or lifting even the lightest of objects. “I just want you to be safe.”
“There’s no harm in that, son,” Lady Baldwin said kindly, “but a short stroll to the edge of the stone wall and back shouldn’t hurt our dear Eliza, and I know that being treated like porcelain at this stage only worsens matters mentally. Fresh air can be soothing.”
There was a great scuffling at the door and “hellos” echoing down the hallway. Benedict went to greet the new guests, smiling to see that the voices indeed belonged to Parson Steele and his bride of one year, Helen. The older woman was looking particularly radiant today, dressed in a gown of violet silk Eliza had chosen for her a few months back. The two couples spent so much time together that they’d grown to be good friends, and for Benedict, he was more delighted to see the parson in his parlour than he had ever been for one of his dapper friends in London.
“Is your family here?” Helen asked excitedly.
“Just arrived a short while ago. We were thinking about going in to dinner soon, so I’m glad to see you’ve arrived.”
“Just in time,” the parson said with a wink and a smile. “I always try to schedule my arrivals around the presence of food.”
Helen raised her eyebrows. “This is true.” As they followed Benedict towards the parlour, she added tentatively, “Is our Eliza looking well today?”
“She’s asking to go on a walk again; you know how she is.” Benedict looked over at the parson, whose face had instantly paled. He knew that Eliza’s father had suffered much from the pain and anxiety associated with his wife’s death, and he feared for his daughter. “But she’s looking well,” he added quickly.
Eliza insisted on rising and embracing her father and Helen, and after their arrival it was some time before the conversation had stilled enough to make room for the meal. Everyone ate with gusto, and Benedict reached over many times to gently hold Eliza’s hand out of sight under the table. It was a sweet little habit they’d formed over their two years of marriage, and it gave Benedict confidence just to remember her nearness.
Afterwards, she gave him a kiss on the cheek and implored him to allow Sally to accompany her on a brief stroll.
“We won’t go far,” she said.
In the end, he relented.
Eliza closed her eyes when she stepped out into the late afternoon air and paused for a moment, just letting the cool breeze lift the tendrils from around her neck and face and toss them away from her skin.
“It feels so good,” she said blissfully, looping her arm into Sally’s. “You are a good friend to gain me reprieve from this prison for a time.”
“I am but your warden,” Sally said gaily, “and I’ve been given strict instructions from Benedict to keep a close eye on your condition.”
“Heavens, I’m still weeks away. If everyone’s going to watch me this closely for that amount of time,” Eliza complained, “then I fear I am in danger of withering away from the attention.”
Sally, who had never withered from attention in her life, but rather thrived on it, redirected the conversation in her direction as they wound their way down the path and through the gardens towards the field beyond.
“What do you think of Reggie? I know that you wanted to meet him before we got married, but we just didn’t have time to wait. We wanted to be together so desperately.”
“Well, Benedict had the chance to ride up to London and see him,” Eliza reassured her friend. “And he thought the lad was more than sufficient.” In fact, Benedict had said that Reginald Williams showed a remarkable knack for keeping Sally out of trouble without stifling her creativity and zest for life. It was a tall order, but exactly what was necessary under the circumstances.
“Well, he’s absolutely droll. Do you know that when we moved into his city estate I found that he’s a collector of French paintings? He has loads of them. Apparently, it’s a personal interest, and here I was thinking that he was all about the races and the hunting clubs in the north. He has a soft side.”
“One would only have to see him with you to know that he had a soft side,” Eliza teased gently. They were walking very slowly, perhaps for Eliza’s sake, perhaps because Sally found it difficult to talk without flailing her hands about and skipping backwards and forwards at intervals to punctuate her story. Eliza was glad of this, for though she was happy to be outdoors, she was already feeling the strain of carrying her child down the path, and was a bit out of breath. “Tell me more about Reginald. Where did you meet him?”
“Well, it all started with that first return to the London Season, which I know I’ve told you about in detail. That Season, there were multiple gentlemen at my disposal—”
“Yes, I heard that your father’s brief appearance in the scandal sheets didn’t do much to hurt your reputation after all.”
“No, after everyone determined that we were victims of a cruel crime rather than perpetrators, the lies only seemed to deepen the mystique and interest around our family,” Sally tilted back her head and laughed. “It was such a joy, as I know I’ve mentioned before, to see all those fine ladies and gentlemen who’d put us through such a hard time with their pretentious judgements suddenly scramble to have Father at their gaming tables and Mother and I in their tearooms again. Mother has a forgiving heart, though, but I found that I did not. I wasn’t so fond of all those young men careening over to my side at dances because of the drama of it all. They all seemed so foppish and self-centred.”
Eliza raised her eyebrows, and Sally rolled hers in response. “I know, that’s rich indeed coming from me, but you know what I mean. Anyway, this last season was different. I was less enamoured with all the gowns and the outings and was hardly looking for anything at all when—there he was, recently returned from a voluntary tour of duty on the sea. He had a slight set-back, a battle wound that had healed badly and set him in the hospital with a raging fever for weeks, and was deemed unfit to return to the navy afterwards. I was glad of it, for when I found him, we were in each other’s affections at once.” She blushed and looked uncharacteristically shy. “He’s dreadfully handsome, don’t you think?”
Eliza laughed. “He is very good looking, and alongside your classic Grecian airs, he’s a veritable—” suddenly a shooting pain rocketed through her abdomen. She’d had discomfort before, and all the normal wearying symptoms of being with child, but this felt different. She doubled over, clasping her hand to her side, and sucked in a breath of air quite suddenly.
“Eliza, are you alright?” Sally grasped her elbow to offer support and spirited her away to a nearby stone wall. It was covered with moss, decrepit to the extreme, but it offered a place to sit, and for the moment, it seemed like the plushest of settees.
“I just … I need to catch my breath.” But there would be no catching of breath, not right now. The pains came again, this time sharper. Eliza looked up towards the house and saw that during their conversation they’d strayed out of the garden and into the woods beyond—out of sight. For the first time, she felt a little bit of fear, and felt silly for having brushed off Benedict’s concern so lightly.
Sally was beside herself. “Is the baby coming? Now?”
“Sally, it’s going to be alright.” Eliza tried to keep her voice calm, even though another pain was already gnawing at her side. “I need you to keep your wits about you—for my sake—and run on back up to the house in search of Bene—” she leaned over and pressed a hand tight against her belly, gasping. “Now.”
Sally was gone in an instant, stumbling back up the stony path in the direction of Rosewood, calling for help as she ran. When she was gone, Eliza found herself fighting a monster greater than the pain in her side. She felt a dull terror, being left alone in the woods, and a strange sensation of doom. She thought of her mother, of all the stories that she’d heard, and tried to push those thoughts out of her mind.
“It’s alright, little one,” she said, caressing her stomach. “You have to stay put just a little while longer. Do it for Mama.”
When the trees had begun to look like looming ghosts, and Eliza’s mind was playing tricks on her about the pain in her side, she heard a familiar voice and felt Benedict’s arms around her, helping to carry her inside. She feebly protested; tried to tell him that she could walk, that she would be alright, but he would hear none of it.
“Your father’s gone for the doctor,” he said in her ear, striding with long, steady steps up the path. “All you have to do is rest now.”
“You told her that all she had to do was rest?” Reginald gave Benedict a sturdy swat on his arm and laughed drily. “You don’t know much about childbearing, Benedict.”
“And you do, I suppose?” Benedict retorted.
The four men were gathered in the study at the farthest end of the house from the bedroom where the women and the doctor had gathered to assist with the birth. They had been there for hours, smoking and drinking and straining for sounds from the other end of the house.
“She’s early,” Benedict said, biting his lip. He knew that Reginald was trying to keep him light-hearted and free of worry, but he couldn’t tear his mind from what was going on with Eliza. It went against every bit of his judgement to wait so far away from where she was labouring, not to be able to help in some way. “When he found her by the stone wall, she looked so pale …” he trailed off, catching sight of the parson’s worried face.
“Well, women are far stronger than we give them credit for,” Lord Baldwin interjected. He came and sat closer by his son’s side. “Have a little faith in your little Eliza.”
So Benedict tried to have faith. The hours stretched into the thin, worn-out early morning, and still no one left. Even Helen was back with the women at Eliza’s side, and Benedict found himself wearily grateful that after everything, they had such a reliable support group to usher this small gem into the world.
It was almost four in the morning when they heard running feet in the hallway. Benedict leapt to his feet, his heart pounding, and then the door opened. It was Sally. Her hair was all a mess, tangled about as though she’d pinned it out of the way and hadn’t tended to it in hours, but her eyes were shining and happy.
“She’s safe,” she gasped happily. “The babies are out and healthy.”
Benedict had been so relieved by the first statement that the second took a moment to fully settle in. It was Eliza’s father who asked the obvious question.
“Babies?” he said. “Plural?”
“A boy and a girl.” Sally tugged at Benedict’s sleeve. “What are you waiting for, brother? She wants to see you?”
The door to Eliza’s room was ajar, and when Benedict slipped in all the other helpers, the doctor included, slipped out of the room like water running out of a jug. Sally told him to come get help if Eliza needed anything, and then she left too. It was just Eliza, sitting in a halo of golden curls on the bed, two bundles cradled in each elbow.
She looked up with delight when she saw Benedict.
“You won’t believe it!” she exclaimed. “I thought I was finished, but then this little boy came tumbling out after his sister.”
Benedict crossed the room in a few long strides and planted a deep and tender kiss on his wife’s lips. Then his gaze dropped down to the faces of his two children, each more beautiful than the other, and took the one she held out to him in one hand.
“That’s your daughter,” she said. “I thought we could call her ‘Sally’ after her auntie.”
“And the son?”
“That’s up to you.”
Benedict looked over at his son with a warm smile. “Nate, after your father.” He looked at his wife with awe. “Do you know how much I love you, little woman?”
She tipped her head back and laughed. “Yes, but tell me one more time.”