Two Years Later
“Over here!” Bianca called, waving her racket. “Hit it to me.” Hugh and his wife were engaged in a game of shuttlecock and battledores with Lady Madeline and Lord Seton. They were also joined by her brother, Alexander.
Alexander, who was returning the volley, aimed it right at his younger sister, and his wife, Lady Mary, who sat off to the side shouted, “Nice play, my love.”
“Thank you dearest,” Alexander replied.
Hugh focused on Bianca as she prepared to receive the birdie and she expertly swatted it toward Lord Seton. He laughed aloud.
“What’s so funny?” she asked as Lord Seton hit the shuttlecock toward Lady Madeline.
“You have improved at this game greatly,” Hugh answered. “I was remembering our first match together and…” He lost his train of thought as Madeline hit the birdie toward him.
“Less talking… more playing,” Madeline said in a sing-song voice.
Hugh popped the birdie up into the air, lofting it back across the field in Captain Sedgewick’s direction. He and his wife, Amelia, had joined them this afternoon. “I’ll take care of this,” James said as he stepped in front of his wife and hit the birdie, sending it near Alexander once more.
Alexander hit the shuttlecock to Lord Seton and turned to look at his wife. “Where are the kids? I thought they were the ones who wanted to play this game?”
Lady Mary gestured to the large Ash tree that grew in the distance. “They decided to climb the tree instead, and who can blame them? You adults claimed all the rackets before they even had a chance.”
“Oh,” Hugh murmured as he watched his wife keep the volley going by stretching over her head and hitting the birdie. “Perhaps I should give up my racket to young Alex. What do you think, Mary?”
“They are fine exploring, if you do not mind having two youngsters run about the place,” she replied.
Hugh glanced sidelong at Bianca, but she was not paying attention to him. Instead, her eyes were focused on the game, and she cheered when James’ wife, Amelia, hit the birdie beautifully. “Well done!” she called.
“My home is your home,” Hugh said as he took a few steps forward to field the shuttlecock. He and Bianca had moved to Middlebrook Place shortly after they were married. She was most comfortable living in the countryside, and he really only ever wished to return to the city when it was necessary to work. Sometimes, they still participated in events that were held during the Season, or they went to a ball or two that was hosted by a close family friend. But mostly, they stayed here. They spent their days interacting with Hugh’s tenants and reading, of course. There was also a bit of sporting, but Hugh was always careful not to overdo it. He never forgot how Bianca occasionally just wanted to sit next to the water and admire it, rather than be swimming in it.
But right now, the lady who loved reading much more than athletics was well-concealed. Bianca danced about the field, hitting the shuttlecock every time it floated anywhere near them. It was a good thing she was on her game today, as Hugh was hardly paying any attention. He was too preoccupied thinking about a great many other things.
“Ha!” Madeline shouted as she raced toward Bianca, flicking her wrist at the last moment to catch the birdie before it hit the ground. “You thought you could get one by me, but I am too fast for you.”
Lord Seton laughed. “Try not to exert yourself too greatly, dear. You know how you get when…” He did not finish his thought. When Madeline hit the birdie toward Alexander, he shot it right back in her direction, and Lord Seton had to dart out of her way to avoid being hit by her swinging racket.
“What was that, my love?” Madeline asked as she slapped at the birdie, sending it toward Hugh.
“Nothing,” Lord Seton replied. “Nothing at all.”
For the next few minutes, the game play continued with Madeline and Bianca mostly volleying the birdie back and forth. The count rose higher and higher as the ladies demonstrated their skills. Alexander eventually crossed his arms over his chest and said loudly, “We would like to play too, you know.”
Bianca giggled. “Here it comes,” she cautioned, and then reared back and swung her racket mightily. The birdie raced toward Alexander, who responded quickly, but his return hit was not nearly as speedy. It floated high in the air and Hugh had time to position himself underneath it and wait for it to fall.
“I’ll get it,” Bianca called out, so even though he had the better post, he stepped aside to allow her access. But when he moved out of the way, Bianca somehow lost her footing. The entire world slowed to a halt and as he watched her nearly stumble and fall, he quickly dropped his racket and reached out to catch her.
Her arms hooked right under her armpits, preventing her from hitting the ground, and Lady Mary gave a startled cry from her spot on the sidelines. “Bianca!” Madeline’s voice lifted above the others. Hugh had no idea what happened to the shuttlecock, but he did not care. He bent his knees and lifted her, helping his wife return to a standing position.
“Are you alright?” he whispered as she turned to face him. Gently, he brushed a lock of hair back from her face.
She nodded. “I think I just slipped on a clump of grass.”
“Perhaps we’ve had enough sporting for one day,” he suggested.
She reached up and took hold of his hand, which he was still using to stroke the side of her cheek. “Try not to worry about me so much, my darling. You caught me before I fell completely.”
“It is my job to protect you, Bianca,” he replied, “and I take that very seriously.”
“Very well,” she said. Madeline and the others came upon them then.
“Are you alright?” Alexander asked.
“I’m fine,” Bianca answered. Hugh dropped his hand away from her face but did not let go of it. Instead, he allowed his fingers to intertwine with hers. “Hugh thinks we really should give our rackets to the children and take a bit of a break.”
“I could use a spot of lemonade,” Amelia said.
“That sounds good to me, too,” Hugh added. While the others returned to the spot on the lawn where they had been playing earlier, he led Bianca and Amelia toward a few available chairs. Sir and Lady Haddington, Bianca’s parents, were already settled there in cushioned seats. His mother, the dowager viscountess, sat across from them. She was drinking a glass of lemonade, and as they approached, she sat up straighter in her chair.
“Bianca,” she called, “come sit next to me, my dear.”
Hugh squeezed his wife’s hand tighter. “You do not have to indulge her. You see her all the time. If you would rather sit next to your parents…”
She gave him a patient and indulgent smile. “We all are nestled here so closely. It really will not matter where I sit.” She yanked on his hand. “But try to sit next to me, my love.”
Hugh trailed after his wife, occupying the seat next to her. Amelia sat in a chair next to Bianca’s parents. Hugh liked Amelia. She was a little older than Bianca, but not quite his own age, either. When he had run into Lady Klimpton on the street all those years ago, as he raced toward Norman House hoping to confess his love for Bianca, it was Captain Sedgewick’s engagement to Amelia; she had truly announced.
Amelia was the cousin of Lady Hetfeld. She had grown up in Northwood, just as the Sedgewicks and the Haddingtons. Before his regiment traveled to London, he had spent time at home, developed feelings for Amelia, and asked her to be his bride before he came to town. Lady Hetfeld bragged a little that her cousin had scooped up the handsome captain before any of the other ladies in town had a chance to even meet him. Lady Klimpton manipulated the story only to make Hugh sweat a little more.
Nowadays, Hugh never saw Lady Klimpton. He ran into her husband regularly and had over time come to feel sorry for Lord Klimpton. He could not fathom what it would be like to be married to someone like Cassandra. She was so conniving and manipulative, unlike Bianca, in every way.
Hugh smiled around at the others. His eyes stopped on his mother, who was staring back at him, waiting expectantly. “Sorry,” he said, “did you ask me a question, and I missed it?”
“I was just telling Bianca’s parents that I was hoping we might have a grandchild in the family before Christmas.”
“Mama,” Hugh scolded her softly. “I do not think you should mention such things in polite conversation. It is fine to bedevil Bianca and me about it when we are alone, but…”
“Hush,” his mother told him. “Bianca’s parents are just as keen to welcome more members to their brood as I am.” She nodded toward Lady Mary and Alexander. “Their children are so adorable. Oh, I do hope to have grandchildren of my own very soon to dote on.”
Hugh exchanged a look with his wife. He nodded to her, and Bianca did the same in return. “Well,” she began to explain, “we wanted to wait until the whole family was here to share the good news. I am with child.”
“Bianca is going to have a baby?” The dowager viscountess cried.
“Yes,” Hugh answered. “You may get your wish after all, Mother. We are expecting the baby to be born right around Christmas day.”
“Ah!” his mother trilled as she clapped her hands together. Her condition had improved dramatically in the last few years, ever since he and Bianca married. She was still not a strong woman. She did not dance the night away at balls in London, nor did she like traveling very long distances, but when Hugh found Bianca and they began building their life together, his mother’s spirits soared. She often spent vast quantities of time with them at Middlebrook Place, and Hugh was never happier than when his mother turned to him, beaming with pride. “You both have made my day.” She clapped her hands once more. “A baby! At last!”
“I say,” Ewan asked as he came up behind Hugh. “What is all this about a baby?”
“Ewan!” Hugh exclaimed as he jumped from his seat and turned to greet his friend. “Did you just arrive?”
Ewan nodded. “There was a bit of trouble with the carriage on the way here, but my man sorted it out.”
“Where’s Carlotta?” Hugh asked, peeking around Ewan’s shoulders in search of his friend’s fiancée. Lady Carlotta was a woman Ewan met at the beginning of the last Season. He fell for her at once and spent several weeks begging her to be his wife. She was a very petite woman, with glossy black hair and full, voluminous lips. As he said her name, she appeared, with her lady’s maid, an older woman named Mrs. Chazton, in tow.
“Right here, Hugh,” Carlotta said as she came forward and hugged him. This was one of the things Hugh liked about Ewan’s bride-to-be. She had become easy with him very quickly and given up on using his title as well as curtsying whenever he was present. He felt that she suited his best friend very nicely for Ewan was always able to make himself comfortable around others and it stood to reason that he would need a lady by his side who was just as adaptable.
“Darling,” Ewan drawled, grabbing Carlotta’s hand just as she released her hold on Hugh. “I think I just overheard Bianca and Hugh making a major announcement. Did I hear correctly? Are we going to have a little Mowatt running around the place come Christmastide?”
Hugh laughed. “Our child will not be running about by that time, but Bianca is expecting.”
“Oh, this is wonderful,” Carlotta said, and she stepped right around Hugh so that she could place her hands on Bianca’s shoulders. “Congratulations!”
Ewan followed her and Hugh circled around them both so he could return to his chair next to his wife. She smiled beatifically at him. “I suppose congratulations are in order,” Bianca said quietly, and he nodded.
“This is wonderful news,” he added.
“Perhaps we should begin taking bets on whether the child will be a boy or a girl,” Ewan suggested in a joking manner. Carlotta, at his side, laughed loudly. She removed her hands from Bianca’s shoulders and used them to give her husband-to-be a light shove.
“Must you always bet on something?” she teased.
“Yes,” Bianca, the dowager viscountess, and Hugh said as a unit.
That only made Ewan laugh harder. “I was only mentioning the idea of placing a bet because this is an important event. In a few months, Hugh will have a son or a daughter and…”
“It does not matter,” Hugh interrupted. “No betting is necessary.” He looked at Bianca adoringly. “I am just happy to be with my wife and to know that we will be growing our family together.”
“Hear! Hear!” Ewan shouted and the others sitting around them joined in by raising their hands and glasses of lemonade, toasting to the couple, and celebrating their joyous news.
Hugh leaned in and kissed his wife lightly on the lips, not caring that they were surrounded by their family members and closest friends. Two years had elapsed since he declared his love for her in front of Madeline and the Dowager Countess, and maybe because that had gone so well, he never backed away from celebrating their love in public now. He was always holding her hand or kissing her softly. If he could have spent every hour of his day running his hands through her hair, he might have been tempted to do just that.
Bianca nuzzled her nose against his cheek. “If you wish to bet on this one little thing, I will not begrudge you that. You have largely given up going to the horse track, and I cannot recall the last time you lost more than a farthing while playing cards.”
“It really does not matter. Boy, girl… I will be happy either way,” he replied as he placed a gentle kiss on the tip of her nose.
“Perhaps we will have one of each,” Bianca said, as she pulled away and ran a hand affectionately over her still slender abdomen.
“Perhaps,” Hugh agreed, “but let us just take this one challenge at a time.”
Bianca nodded and leaned toward him once more. “Together?”
He reached for her hand and raised it to his lips, brushing a gentle kiss across her knuckles. “One challenge at a time… together. For with you by my side, Bianca, no obstacle will ever be too daunting. The way I look at it, I cannot lose.”
Hugh kissed her fingertips again, and she smiled. “We cannot lose,” she amended his statement.
As the rest of the afternoon drifted by, Hugh and Bianca stayed snuggled together. They mingled with all their guests, engaging with family members and friends alike. They spoke of their future and their hopes and dreams for the child that he and Bianca would someday soon welcome into this world. She talked to Madeline about amassing a library like Duncan still had at Norman House. And he shared with Ewan how he wished to teach his son, or daughter, how to ride a horse.
But as the day wound to a close and Hugh looked out across this gathering of people who meant so very much to him, his heart skipped joyously in his chest. “We cannot lose,” he whispered to the stars up above, “because we have already won.”