Joanna looked out of the carriage window, her eyes drawn to a young girl sitting on the side of the street. She looked dejected, her clothes filthy with a sleeve partially torn, and her hair matted. Joanna did not know if it was her pregnancy or her need to help those less fortunate than her, but she found herself asking her husband to stop the carriage.
“Lennie, please have the driver pull off onto the side.”
“Whatever for, my love? Are you ill? Is something wrong?”
“Not me, but that girl there.”
She pointed at the lone figure, hoping that her husband would take pity on her as well.
“But why? Do you know her?”
“My love, please do not ask me so many questions. Ask the driver to stop that I may get out and go to her.”
Leonard used his stick to bang on the roof of the carriage, the driver pulling to the side moments later. She waited for the footman to open the door before she waddled out, followed closely by her husband. He took her arm, keeping her close to him.
“Joanna, you do realise that you are a heavily pregnant woman and that your pregnancy has greater risks than the other four?”
What her husband of six years said was true. Her first pregnancies had been uncomplicated, but this pregnancy was totally different. She was far larger than normal, her belly distended so much that she could no longer see her feet and she was but four months along.
“But you are here to protect me, my love. I do not need to fear anything or anyone.”
“But what has drawn you to this girl? Why do you wish to help her? Do you know her?”
Joanna shook her head. “No, I do not know her personally, but something about her called to me. You know that my instincts have never let me down, Lennie. There is a reason why we stopped for this girl.”
As they neared the young woman, Joanna thought that she could see a bit of herself in her. Would she not have become like this woman had her mother not sent her to the Colbornes? The girl sat upon a crate, a single dirty bag beside her. Her whole life was likely in that bag, and she looked alone. Joanna wanted to help her, to give her a chance at life. It remained to be seen if the woman would allow her to help her.
“She cannot be more than seventeen or eighteen, my love, and she is all alone. I wonder what could have happened to her?”
“I do not know; all I am worried about is my heavily pregnant wife walking the streets of London when she should be in bed resting. Why must you always do things contrary to what you should be doing?”
“My love, we live on the outskirts of London, and there are times when I need to come here and purchase some things. Do not say that I should send someone else because you know that I am not like that at all. You are here with me, it is enough.”
“Insufferable woman,” he muttered.
“I heard that.”
“Yes, you were meant to.”
Joanna chuckled. “My love, do not be angry with me. This girl needs our help; that is why I am so drawn to her. Let us see what we can do for her, all right?”
“Very well, but at the smallest sign of danger, I am taking you away from here.”
The woman seemed to sense that they were approaching her because she quickly looked up, her eyes filling with fear.
“What do you want?” she demanded.
Dismay filled Joanna when she saw the true state of the girl. Her right eye was swollen shut, sporting a bright green and black bruise around it. Someone has taken a hand to her and treated her savagely. Who could do such a thing? How I hate it when people are cruel!
“We are not here to hurt you; we only wish to help you.”
“Help me?” The girl laughed. “The last couple who said that they would help me took me to a horrible house and tried to force me to do despicable acts, but I ran away. I am not that type of girl! I only came to London to find work, good honest work.”
“And we can help you, all right? We are not here to hurt you. You tell us what you would like, and we shall help you to achieve it.”
The young woman eyed them suspiciously. “Why? Why would you wish to help me?”
“Because my wife is a crazy woman who wishes to take in every helpless creature that she finds, including you.”
Joanna nudged her husband, giving him a warning sign. He only sighed, bringing her closer to his side.
“My husband is just overprotective; he does not mean anything by what he says. Well, he is right in that I like to help those who are less fortunate.”
“Do you really wish to help me? Can you give me a place to stay? Honest work? Food to eat?” She looked down at herself. “Clothing?”
Joanna nodded. “We can give you all this and more. What is your name?”
My mother’s name! This could not be a coincidence, her meeting this young woman had to be fate.
“Hannah, will you trust me? I only wish to help you. My husband and I are on our way home, would you like to accompany us? We can give you a place to stay, food to eat, and even clothing, and in exchange, you can work for us. We have four children, and we always need extra hands to help us for they are a handful.”
The woman looked at them for the longest while, mainly focusing on her.
“I feel that I can trust you, but I do not know.”
“You can trust me,” Joanna insisted. “You may come in the carriage with us, and we shall go home together. Does this sound acceptable to you?”
“But I am dirty; how can I ride with you?”
“We are not the type of people to judge others based on how they look, Hannah. Come, let us help you.”
The woman stood up, her expression still wary. She took her bag, clutching it to her chest. Joanna was entirely confident that she was doing the right thing; this young woman would only be good for her family.
Six months later
“Hannah, would you change the triplets for me? I need to make sure that the rooms are ready for my sister and her husband.”
“Yes, My Lady.”
Joanna smiled as the young woman curtsied, hurrying to the nursery. Hannah had come a long way in the last few months; she had become invaluable to her family. Her instincts had been right about her – was Hannah not the one who had come to find her in the garden? Fear still entered Joanna’s heart whenever she thought about the day, of the consequences that might have been had Hannah not been there to help her. Joanna had taken a walk in the garden as she usually did, but a sudden pain in her belly had caused her to become unsteady on her feet, and she had fallen. Fortunately, Joanna had landed on her hands and knees, but she could not get up again due to the pain. She had lain there on the earth, feeling cold, wondering if anyone would find her. Most of the servants had been given the day off to see the circus that had come to town, and despite her shouts for help, no one came to her. Hannah had found her an hour or so later, but by then Joanna had gone into labour. If the woman had been any later, she might have lost her babies.
Joanna shook the thought away, not wanting to think about it. Her babies were healthy, chubby, and growing at an alarming speed despite being so small when they were born. She hurried to the rooms that Teresa and Dystart would take, later on checking the rooms for their two boys. Everything looked perfect, and lunch was also ready to be served. Joanna was excited; she had last seen her sister several months ago when they had visited the Duchess in the countryside. The couple were more in love now than they had been six years ago, as it was with her and Leonard.
“So much time has passed, but not the love … that has only grown.”
Joanna thought to look in the kitchen once more to make sure that the food was indeed ready, but she was stopped by a familiar voice in the hallway.
Derrick! Her sister and her family had arrived!
“Lennie! Bring the children with you, they are here!”
Footsteps thundered down the stairs as her children ran down, rushing past her to get to the door first. Joanna followed them, watching her sister untangle herself from the arms and legs of her children.
“Teresa! Dystart! You are finally here.”
Teresa squealed, rushing to her. They embraced each other warmly, calling over their shoulders for their husbands to sort out the luggage and the children. Joanna led her sister to her private parlour, one where she spent her days painting, knitting, reading, or doing embroidery. She was also a deft hand at cards, but Leonard had forbidden her to play cards. It was not because she would lose, but that she would win too often, taking money off of the losers. She looked closely at her sister, noticing a little bump under her clothes.
“Teresa, are you with child?”
Tears shining in her eyes, Teresa nodded. “Dystart and I have been praying for another child, preferably a girl this time. When do I get to see my nieces? I cannot believe that you carried three babies all at once, Joanna, you must have been tired.”
“We can go and see them now, Hannah is just changing them. And to answer your question, I was certainly more tired during my last pregnancy than my previous ones put together, and Lennie was more so worried for me. Come, let me take you to them.”
Like Teresa, Joanna had had only boys, four to be precise, but with the addition of the girls, she no longer had a need to have more children. Seven were quite enough for her.
They entered the nursery, Teresa gasping when she saw them in their beds.
“Oh, how gorgeous they are! Oh, hello, Hannah, I did not see you there. Are you done changing them? Can I carry them?”
“Yes, of course.”
Hannah picked up Elizabeth, the one that most resembled Lennie. The other two resembled her more, but they all seemed to have her temperament. Teresa gently took the sleeping babe from Hannah’s arms, cooing at the child.
“Oh, how precious she is. This is exactly why I wish to have a girl; they are like little dolls, are they not? And how much hair they have! My boys were born hairless, their hair only coming in during their third month. Let me show Dystart, he is desperate for a daughter.”
“Hannah, take Emma for me, I will take Elsa,” Joanna said. “I am sure that Dystart would like to meet them as well.”
There was a large reunion in the drawing-room, the children chattering away, the babies – now awake – happily gurgling, and the adults reminiscing about the days gone past.
“If you will excuse me, let me make sure that the dining room has been set.”
Joanna handed Elsa to her father, quickly leaving the room. She spotted Molly coming out of the dining room carrying an empty tray. Upon her marriage to Leonard, the Duchess had asked if there was anything that she had wanted, and Joanna had chosen Molly. She had been the only friend who had sought to protect her from Allerton and the other servants, and although the butler had eventually stopped his terrible treatment of her and his overbearing ways, Joanna had not wanted to leave Molly behind.
“Molly, is the dining room set? Is everything in order?”
“Yes, My Lady, I have just placed the last dish on the table.”
Joanna smiled. “How efficient you are, Molly. I always know that I can count on you. What of the other servants, have they completed their chores for the day?
“Yes, My Lady.”
“And Aunt Marge? Is she still in the garden with her vegetable patch? I haven’t seen her since this morning.”
“I think that she went to the little church down the road, but she should be back soon.”
“Wonderful, thank you. Please let her know that we will be in the drawing-room when she returns?”
Molly nodded before Joanna sent her off to have a rest and a bite to eat. Joanna wondered why her aunt did not inform her of her trip to the local church. Perhaps I was so busy preparing that I did not pay her any mind. I shall apologise to her when she returns. Having her aunt live with her had been the best decision for their family. Joanna’s children absolutely loved her, and she loved them, always spoiling them when Joanna’s back was turned. Her niece and nephew were currently in boarding school and were both doing well, Joanna expected to have them home for the summer vacation. Joanna had everything that she could possibly want or need in her life; she still could not believe how fortunate she was.
How many women could boast of having such a close-knit family? She had grown up without a family of her own, although the Colbornes had welcomed her with open arms. It was her husband who had turned everything around for her, finding out about her family, and ending her feelings of inadequacy. Who would have thought that she would have married a Viscount? The cherry on the top was her status as the daughter of a Duke, yes, illegitimate, but no one in her family treated her as such. The Duchess had accepted her, even going so far as to call Joanna her daughter. That meant a lot to Joanna. Wiping a few happy tears away, she returned to the drawing-room, the room filled with the cacophony of many voices.
“Lunch has been served, but I think that the children must first wash their hands before touching any food, the parents as well.”
Hannah helped her to put the babies down while the rest cleaned up before heading to the dining hall.
“My Lady, you have a beautiful family,” the young woman said.
“Yes, I see that, too, thank you. Although it was not always like this, Hannah. My mother was but a commoner and had she not made the sacrifice to send me to live with Teresa’s parents, I would have likely been living on the streets or struggling to make ends meet. I am grateful every day for what I have, I truly am. I would not change any of this for the world.”
Hannah sighed. “If only I were just as fortunate as you were, My Lady. The only family that I ever knew died of the fever, and I was the only one remaining. I came to London to start over again, to find where I fit in, but as you know, I was tricked by a couple into going to a house that a woman should never be forced to work at. I am thankful to you for stopping your carriage that day and taking pity on me. If not for you and Lord Hethersett, I do not know where I would have been.”
With the babies in their beds, Joanna was free to embrace the young woman.
“You are a part of this family, Hannah, and I certainly would not be able to handle all of my children alone. I did not for once think that I would have seven children one day! Perhaps three or four, but seven? The boys are a handful, but the girls are like angels, do you not think so?”
“Yes.” The woman smiled. “My little brother was rather rowdy, but that was before he grew sick. I do not know why I was spared the sickness; perhaps it was to be with you and your family.”
“And we are fortunate to have you. Take a little break; I have told Molly to do the same thing. I will see to serving my guests, do not strain yourself.”
Hannah left soon after, leaving Joanna to stare lovingly at her triplets before leaving them. Upon entering the dining room, she found it as noisy as the drawing-room had been. It did not annoy her in the slightest; Joanna loved it. It meant that there was life in the house, that people were happy. She would rather have noise than silence, where you were alone with your thoughts far too much. Although she had had Teresa, Joanna had experienced moments when she had questioned her worth.
“I suppose it did not help that Allerton was so intent upon telling me how worthless I was.”
Joanna had endured it silently, always hoping that someday things would change for the better and she would be happier. For a moment, her life had seemed to grow worse by the day, and still, she had soldiered on, not allowing her circumstances to get the best of her. She had heard somewhere that just before a good thing can happen, a lot of pain would take place first. The people who had thought up such a notion must have been using the example of a storm and then a rainbow soon appearing afterwards.
Well, her storm had lasted many years, so long that she had despaired of change ever taking place in her life. When her rainbow had appeared, it had been the brightest she could have ever hoped for. Finding out about her parents, knowing that she was loved, having Lennie by her side, and now her children, Joanna could indeed count herself as being one of the most fortunate women to have ever existed.