One Year Later...
Ethel Woodmore, the Marchioness of Kingshill and the Countess of Mattingley, wore a dress of fine, lilac silk. Her dark curls were pulled back and half-hidden by her silk hat, lined with delicate floral embroidery and peach-colored flowers. She’d began the morning feeling slightly ill, and although Ethel had suspicions about the cause of her sudden ailment, she chose to save them until she had Austin alone.
She walked alongside Austin, the Marquess of Kingshill. As the two passed, the villagers of Bridgeworth paused in their work to pay their respects.
The people of Bridgeworth doted on their young Lady, one of their own, and said that no couple had ever been so lovely or so well-suited for one another. It was an enchanting story: the country apothecary, the long-lost daughter of a countess, who married the handsome Marquess.
And how much has changed since then! Ethel thought, as she gazed around the village. It’s so strange! In some ways, I feel as though I married him only yesterday, and yet it also feels impossible that I ever lived without him!
Since their marriage, Ethel had been introduced to the ton, who accepted her initially as a curiosity, but through her efforts, she’d worked her way through high society. Despite her initial apprehension, she’d found like-minded women, including Lady Millicent, and together, they’d begun plans to build a women’s university, where young women could learn about biology and zoology.
Although Lady Millicent may be quite busy soon, Ethel thought, if the rumors are right and Lord Ronstadt proposes to her this Christmas. And I imagine he will. I’ve never seen a pair better suited for one another.
Despite Lord and Lady Hampstead’s initial misgivings, they’d eventually come to realize how well suited Lord Ronstadt and Lady Millicent were for one another.
Behind Ethel and Austin, Roderick Woodmore, the Duke of Dawntonshire, and William Pates walked, laughing as the latter recounted misdeeds from his youth. Although once ill, health slowly returned to both men. Color returned to their faces accompanied by renewed spirits and vigor.
Emma Baker, now engaged to a scholar from Oxford, led the procession through the village of Bridgeworth. “And you see here—” said Emma, waving a slender hand. “—we’ve rebuilt the road along this way, which has resulted in increased traffic to Bridgeworth.”
Where the road had once been rough and uneven was now smooth, water-worn cobblestones. The buildings looked better, too. They were no longer drafty, quickly thatched homes. Instead, they were rethatched and built stronger. The tiny village of Bridgeworth was quickly becoming a modern town and a major trade partner with London.
Ethel’s face glowed with pride, as she surveyed what had become of her tiny hometown. “It looks like it,” she said. “You did a wonderful job, Emma.”
“We did a wonderful job. I couldn’t have done all this without everyone’s support.”
Austin squeezed Ethel’s hand and flashed her a smile that still made her heart skip a beat even after three years of marriage. She’d never imagined that it was possible to feel so much love for another person, and she liked Austin’s father, too. He was a good man who treated her as the daughter he’d never had, and although Ethel initially worried Roderick might blame her for everything that happened with Charlotte, he never had.
As for Charlotte, she’d reluctantly admitted more details about her involvement in the death of Ethel’s parents. The former Duchess had hired a man, who was no longer living, and he’d sawed through the wheel of Lady Cordelia and Edward Pates’ carriage. When the constable recorded the incident, he initially wrote saying the carriage was tampered with, but after the Duchess threatened a few detectives and bribed a few others, the story was changed and the records destroyed.
And after Roderick’s marriage to Charlotte was annulled, she returned to her parents’ home and didn’t dare face the ton, once word of her misdeeds reached everyone’s ears.
“It does look quite nice,” Roderick agreed. “I’ll confess that I never imagined a tiny village like Bridgeworth could become something like this.”
“Nor had I,” Austin added. “Fortunately, my wife and Miss Baker have more sense than I do.”
Ethel flashed him a winning smile. “I’m glad to hear you finally admit what I’ve always known.”
“I’ve known it for a long time. I just chose now to give voice to my thoughts,” Austin teased.
Ethel smiled and stroked her thumb along the warm underside of Austin’s wrist. She batted her eyelashes at him and grinned mischievously. “It’s about time, then,” she said.
“Maybe so,” Austin replied. “I’ll admit that if it pleases you. I hope you continue to challenge and tease me, my lady. No matter what happens to us in the future.”
Well, I know one thing that the future holds.
Ethel smiled to herself and raised one hand to touch her belly. Although she’d gained a little weight, it was not yet visible beneath her dress. And she’d not yet felt any movement, but Ethel, having been an apothecary just a few years ago, had seen her share of expectant mothers and aided enough midwives to know what the signs meant.
“We shall see, my lord,” she said.
And once they’d surveyed the town of Bridgeworth, Ethel, Austin, and Roderick continued to London. Spring came, which meant the beginning of the season. Ethel sat in the carriage across from Austin and Roderick, watching as the countryside swept past the windows. As always, an excited tremor traced its way down her spine.
There was a time when Ethel would have thought she’d never travel to London. As a child, her parents made the occasional trip to London, but Ethel didn’t remember those trips. London always seemed like another world, unreachable and otherworldly.
“You always look as though you’re seeing London for the first time,” Austin said, smiling.
“It’s ever changing,” Ethel replied. “I am always seeing it for the first time.”
As they crossed the River Thames, Ethel gazed out the window. The carriage wheels thundered across the bridge, the water rushing beneath and sending droplets of white foam rising into the air. Her chest didn’t ache, and her belly didn’t churn. For the first time, she rode in a carriage without feeling the usual curl of anxiety twisting in her belly.
“I suppose it is,” Austin replied. “It’s significantly more interesting since you’ve arrived.”
Ethel grinned. “Somehow, I have a difficult time believing that.”
“So do I,” Roderick replied. “Why, if you’d known my son in his boyhood, you’d have found that London was exciting enough.”
Austin cast his father a look of mock offense. Ethel leaned forward and rested her chin between her hands. “I’d love for you to tell me all about my husband’s misdeeds sometime.”
The Duke grinned roguishly. “It would be my honor.”
Ethel smiled and returned her gaze once more to the River Thames. Her lips quirked into a small smile. She was safe with Austin and his father, riding over the river.
The Dawntonshire property in London was a vast estate with a large, white manor and sprawling gardens, presently in full bloom. While the gardens had always been pretty, Ethel ensured that they were useful, too. Now, rows of pink-white primrose and fountains of mint lined the water gardens, and sprigs of lavender edged the stone pathways.
And although she was now a Lady, Ethel sometimes still wandered through the gardens, so she could mix remedies for the Duke and Uncle William. With Austin’s encouragement, Ethel began writing down the recipes for the old remedies that she’d learned and improved over the years. She hadn’t compiled them into anything yet, but Austin kept insisting she write a book.
As Ethel walked through the gardens, Austin went with her. “This seems familiar,” he said, his lips tipping into a small smirk.
Ethel hummed. “I can’t imagine what you’re thinking of,” she said coyly.
“No?” Austin asked. “Do I need to refresh your memory?”
Ethel clasped her hands behind her back and smiled at him. “Please.”
Austin sighed. “Well,” he said, “there was this very beautiful, but very sharp-tongued apothecary.”
“She sounds like a charming lady,” Ethel said, grinning.
“She was,” Austin agreed. “I liked to torment her.”
“And was that deserved, My Lord?”
“Most definitely, My Lady,” Austin replied, with a smirk. “But I think I deserved a few tongue lashings, too.”
“Much has changed since then,” Ethel said.
“So it has,” Austin replied. “Now, I hardly need an apothecary. She’s written down all her recipes, and I’ve become better at identifying the ingredients.”
“Have you?” Ethel asked.
Austin smirked. “That is Queen Anne’s lace,” he said, pointing to a white cluster of flowers.
Ethel laughed. “Is it?” she asked. “Are you sure?”
Austin dipped his head and placed a quick peck on her cheek. “I know it’s belladonna,” he said. “Ladies use it in their eye drops to dilate their pupils and make their eyes look brighter. Not you, though. You don’t need such a thing.”
Ethel smiled. “Well done, My Lord. Perhaps, I’ll make an apothecary of you, then.”
“That seems only fair,” Austin replied, “considering all you’ve had to learn about being a Lady.”
There was a great deal to learn, but Ethel had already navigated the rough waters of hosting her first few parties.
But there may be something else on the horizon, something which even Lady Millicent and my own Austin can’t really help me with.
“Part of being a Lady is having heirs,” Ethel said, glancing at Austin from the corner of her eye.
Austin frowned and furrowed his brow. “Well, yes,” he said, “But often, that takes time. Why, my own parents were married for five years before I was born!”
Ethel caught the flash of sadness that passed across Austin’s face. Although he’d readily agreed never to see his mother again, Ethel knew that deep down, Austin still missed her sometimes.
“But let’s suppose,” Ethel said slowly, “that you were to become a father very soon.”
Austin suddenly fixed his gaze fully upon her, his green eyes blazing and intense. He sucked in a sharp breath and grasped her hands in his. “Do you mean what I think you mean?” he asked, his voice hushed.
Ethel smiled. “I mean,” she said, “that I think I already have an heir inside of me.”
Austin’s face brightened. Without warning, he put his hands on Ethel’s waist and lifted her, spinning her in the air while she laughed in delight. “How far along are you, My Lady?” he asked, placing his wife on the ground once more.
“I would estimate three or four months,” Ethel replied. “I’d best consult with a midwife for an exact estimate, but…”
“But you’re going to be a mother. I’ll be a father!” Austin exclaimed. “By God!”
Ethel laughed and continued walking, noting that Austin moved closer to her and followed along at a quick pace. Suddenly, he bristled with energy and excitement.
“I hope our child has your wit and your compassion,” Austin said. “Nothing would make me happier.”
Ethel smiled. “I think our child will be lucky to have your wit and compassion, too.”
“Do you think so?” Austin asked. “I can scarcely believe it. I’ll be a father! I hope I’m only as good as my father is to me!”
“And I hope I’m a good mother,” Ethel replied.
She had very little experience with motherhood, after all. Ethel’s memories of her own mother were scarce, and she realized suddenly that Austin’s mother wasn’t exactly the best example of motherhood either. And yes, Uncle William was wonderful, but having an uncle was not the same as having a mother.
“Oh, Ethel,” Austin murmured, his voice soft and fond, “my dearest lady.”
Ethel inclined her head towards him, and Austin cupped her cheek. A warm thrill raced down Ethel’s spine. Somehow, no matter how often Austin touched her, it always felt like the first time.
“You will be a wonderful mother,” Austin said, his voice infinitely tender.
It’s almost like magic how well he can guess my doubts, Ethel thought.
She cupped her hand over his and breathed in the delicate scent of blooming roses and knew, without a doubt, that Austin was right. They could face any challenge, as long as they were together.
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