Two Years After the Baron’s Passing...
Sampson cantered his grey stallion across the line of green rolling hills, his friend Oliver, Earl of Egerton, at his side. Though he kept the worst of his nervousness from his face, he knew Oliver could read every nuance of his expression. They had been friends for too long for them to not know what the other was thinking.
“You are going to worry yourself into an apoplexy,” Oliver said, casting a sidelong glance at Sampson. “Women give birth every day. That is how we stay alive as a species.”
Sampson shot him a frustrated glare. “I will await with pleasure when your wife delivers your first child. And will happily snigger at your worry.”
“Your Duchess is a strong woman, and as tough as old oak bark,” Oliver said. “Both she and the babe will be perfectly fine. Have you decided on names?”
“If the babe is a girl, we will name her Margaret, after my mother,” Sampson replied. “If we have a son, he will be named Henry, after both my sister and Lucretia’s father.”
“Ah, very good names,” Oliver said, nodding sagely. “I, myself, hope your firstborn is a son.”
“I just hope and pray they both are well.”
“They will be.”
Oliver fell silent, and this time it was Sampson who offered him sidelong glances of confusion. “So, what is troubling you?”
Oliver slowed his horse from a canter to a walk, Sampson followed suit, reining in until they rode side by side. “George is what is bothering me,” he finally said.
Sampson gazed out at the green hills, the storm clouds building on the horizon. Deer burst from their hollows in the tall grass, bounding away in panic while summer flowers nodded their colorful heads under the light breeze. The events of two years ago constantly crossed his mind – his best friend, his half-brother in truth, tried to murder him in order to steal his estates, wealth, and titles. The passage of time had not completely healed the grief of losing his friend, the brother he did not know he had.
“I still find it so difficult to believe,” Oliver went on. “Of all the people in the kingdom, George was the one behind all the attempts to kill you. I still grieve for him.”
“As do I,” Sampson murmured. “He was my brother and I never knew it.”
“I expect this means you never truly know a person.”
“No. You do not.”
“Still,” Oliver said, smiling a little. “The Prince Regent awarding you his lands and titles is fitting.”
“The Prince Regent believed me when I told him what happened,” Sampson said. “And as there are no living relatives from the old Baron’s family line, he decreed I should have the estates. He told me he considered it justice.”
“And I suppose it is.”
Sampson’s steward, James, met them at the border of Gillinghamshire, bowing from his saddle. “Greetings, Your Grace, My Lord. Everything is prepared and ready for your visit.”
“Excellent,” Sampson said. “I would like to see the cattle first.”
Riding on, James explained what he had found during his weeks inspecting Gillinghamshire holdings. “It would appear the cattle are not the primary source of wealth, Your Grace. The Baron had over five thousand acres of good farm land rented to tenants, and that meant a steady stream in income into the Gillinghamshire coffers. Most of the staff remained, as your generosity in paying their salaries while this matter was settled kept them in place.”
“Do you know the number of cattle George owned?” Sampson asked.
“The Baron’s cattle manager told me there are approximately three thousand head of cattle grazing on yet another five thousand acres of land. Here we are, Your Grace, My Lord, at one of the fields.”
As James dismounted to open the wrought iron gate set into the low stone wall that encompassed the huge pastures, Sampson and Oliver rode through. James closed the gate, then mounted up again. They rode among the quiet, grazing herd, many cattle raising their heads, chewing, to watch them with mild brown eyes.
“They certainly look healthy enough,” Sampson remarked, observing the sleek, fat cows swishing their tails lazily at flies. “Has the herd manager been sending stock to the markets?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” James answered. “He carried on with his duties despite the Baron’s demise, keeping only what he needed to pay himself and his assistants. The rest went into the estate’s accounts. Yes, do not ask – I checked the books. The man is honest to a fault.”
“Excellent. Will he be available for me to meet today?”
“Yes, Your Grace. He is waiting for you, along with the rest of the staff, at the manor house.”
“This is not going to be easy,” Oliver said. “I have not been to the house since before he died.”
Sampson nodded agreement. “It will be hard on me, as well. Bloody hell! Why did he have to get so greedy? Had he kept silent, no one would have known he was bastard, that my father –”
He broke off, his throat thick. Sampson had asked himself those same questions over the last two years, and found no answers. As often as he felt angry with George for what had happened, he also blamed his father, the late Duke.
Why did he cheat on my mother? Of course, he had to keep George’s birth a secret, or risk the terrible scandal that would have followed. I am so glad my mother died not knowing of all this.
After viewing some of the vast herds the late Baron, and his father before him, had grown over the years, Sampson, Oliver, and James rode to the estate house. There, George’s former steward, now Sampson’s, had gathered the staff to the front of the house to greet their new employer. Grooms rans to take their horses, bowing low, as the assembled servants bowed and curtseyed.
Sampson walked toward them, inspecting their pristine livery and hope-filled faces. Not wanting them all to desert after George’s death, he had paid their salaries in order to maintain his friend’s estate in good working condition while the situation made its way through the courts and finally to the Prince Regent’s ultimate decision.
“Thank you all for staying on here at Gillinghamshire,” Sampson said, loud enough for them all to hear him. “I know it has not been easy on you the last few years, but from now on things will improve. I will not dismiss anyone unless I have cause. Thus, carry on with your duties and your work, and you will have a place here for as long as you want it.”
Walking through them, as the staff once again paid their respects to him, many smiling and murmuring among themselves, with Oliver and James at his shoulders, Sampson walked into the house. Like Oliver, he found it strange and uncomfortable to walk into George’s home without him there to greet them with jokes and smiles. Despite that George tried to kill him, Lucretia, and Henrietta, Sampson missed him terribly.
After spending the afternoon touring his newest estate, Sampson and Oliver remounted their horses to return to Breckenridge. James would remain for a few more days to complete the transition of ownership. Riding the miles back, neither of them spoke much, Sampson engrossed in his memories. From his mournful expression, he suspected Oliver, too, immersed himself in his memories of their friend.
“I would have acknowledged him as my brother,” Sampson said, his voice soft.
“I do not think I will ever understand why he did it.”
Oliver remained silent for a long while, then said, “I should have told you this before.”
“Told me what?”
“After his funeral,” Oliver continued, staring straight ahead through his horse’s ears. “I went to Wales. Spoke to various people –”
Sampson shut his eyes against the pain. “Do not say it.”
“George paid those men to attack us. You were supposed to die then.”
“I suppose I should have guessed.”
“Remember when he told us he got lost looking for us? He truly had been out setting up the ambush.”
“I should hate him for all this,” Sampson said. “I do not.”
Lucretia, Duchess of Breckenridge, listened absently to Henrietta’s governess, as she sewed. Deep inside her womb, the baby stirred and kicked, making her wince at the discomfort. The child grew more and more energetic with each passing day, as though aching to be free. Mr. Kirkwood examined her every day, pronouncing her and the babe both healthy, and he had told her she could go into labor any day now.
“History is so boring,” Henrietta announced, plaintive. “I do not understand why something that happened a thousand years ago in another country is something I must learn.”
Lucretia smiled. “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
Henrietta rolled her eyes. “Of course, I am going to lead the barbarians in an attack on Rome.”
She had grown considerably over the last two years. Almost as tall as Lucretia now, Henrietta had bloomed in other ways, with her body no longer straight, but curvy. Almost overnight, it seemed, she had developed tiny breasts and a confident attitude. She had also begun to notice boys, and spent many an evening with her sister-in-law discussing those mysterious creatures.
Busy sewing clothes for the baby, Lucretia found little for herself to do now she was the lady of the house. She had maid servants to help her wash and dress, who looked after her chambers, and who waited on her hand and foot. Outside of getting used to the fact that she helped kill a man, that transition from orphan to Duchess was the hardest for her to accomplish. With her close connection to the Foundling Hospital, she became a patroness of it, and did her best to help the orphans there. She planned for Rose to come and gain a position within her household, and for Willie to learn a trade.
However, with her handsome Duke at her side, Lucretia learned to accept both. Absorbed in her stitchery, she listened again as the governess continued tutoring Henrietta on Rome’s fall. The baby kicked again, but this time something felt different. Lucretia set her sewing down and rubbed her grossly swollen stomach. Ever observant, Henrietta paused in her recital and stared at Lucretia.
“Is the baby coming?” she asked.
Lucretia smiled. “I am not sure. Something felt odd. Oh!”
The contraction startled her and brought Henrietta racing to her side. “It is coming, it is time, is it not?”
“Yes, I do believe it is time.” Lucretia glanced at the governess, now standing with her eyes wide. “Will you please summon Mr. Kirkwood to my chambers? I think I should go there.”
“Certainly, Your Grace.” The woman curtsied, then departed with haste, holding her skirts as she hurried out of the solar. Henrietta helped Lucretia to stand, then, with her arm around Lucretia’s waist, assisted her out the door and down the hallways toward her private suite of rooms. On the way, they encountered John Kelley, who gazed at Lucretia with no little alarm.
Lucretia smiled. “Will you please fetch the Duke to my rooms, John? And the midwife.”
He bowed quickly. “Right away, Your Grace.”
By the time she reached her rooms and Henrietta assisted her out of her gown and petticoats, Lucretia developed more contractions. Settled into her bed, she lay comfortably with Henrietta sitting beside her, holding her hand. Both Sampson and Mr. Kirkwood arrived at the same time, the former anxious and worried, the latter with confidence.
Bending, Sampson kissed her brow. “Should I stay with you, my love?”
Lucretia shook her head, lost in another contraction. “I believe the pain I will be in soon will only distress you, Sampson. The physician and the midwife will care for me.”
“I am staying,” Henrietta announced.
“She is right, Your Grace,” Mr. Kirkwood said, glancing up as the midwife arrived and entered the room.
“I will stay,” Sampson said, his tone firm. “Your screams cannot drive me away.”
Lucretia, intent on her growing contractions, felt comfort at having him there. He waited at the foot of the bed, offering soft words of encouragement as her labor grew in earnest over the next few hours. Henrietta bathed her face with a cool cloth, wiping away her sweat, while the midwife and Mr. Kirkwood discussed the imminent birth in low tones. Outside, the sun set over the hills, and a cool breeze blew through the open window, scenting of flowers and fresh grass.
Her contractions grew in intensity, coming closer and closer together. Sweat popped out afresh on her brow, trickling down her cheeks faster than Henrietta could wipe it away. When her water broke in a gush, the midwife cleaned her up with towels, then sat between her spread legs. “When I tell you to push, Your Grace, push.”
Lucretia stared at Sampson, holding out her hand to him. “Please, sit with me. I am a little frightened.”
Sampson grabbed a stool and sat by the bed, taking her small hand in his strong ones. “Do not be afraid, my love. You can do this. You are strong.”
Yet, Lucretia saw the tell-tale signs of his own fears – that he would lose both her and the baby in childbirth. While she reassured him many times over the past months that neither she nor the baby would die, right at this moment she felt as though that fate was, indeed, a terrible possibility. When the pains struck, Lucretia almost longed to have never gotten pregnant in the first place.
Unable to prevent her screams from bursting from her throat, Lucretia felt as though she were being torn apart by hot pinchers. She clamped down on Sampson’s hand so hard she thought she might break his bones. He smiled at her, murmuring words of love and encouragement in her ear. As the baby made its way down from her womb, Lucretia heard nothing save her own screams of agony.
“I see the baby, Your Grace,” the midwife exclaimed. “Push, Your Grace, push. You are almost done.”
As Mr. Kirkwood joined the midwife, a clean knife to cut the umbilical cord ready in his hand, Lucretia pushed down hard on the baby straining to be free, her cries crashing around the room. Feeling another strong contraction, she once again strained to shove the baby from her.
“We have a head, Your Grace,” the midwife told her. “You are almost finished.”
Despite the red-hot agony, Lucretia obeyed her, screaming, pushing, until at long last she felt the baby leave her body. Gasping for breath, she gazed at the tiny, wet baby in the midwife’s arms as Mr. Kirkwood cut the cord, then wrapped the now crying baby in a soft cloth. The midwife turned to Lucretia and Sampson, holding out the bundle to Lucretia.
“You have a son, Your Graces,” she murmured, placing the baby in Lucretia’s arms.
“A son,” Sampson breathed. “Our son.”
Exhausted, feeling a little sick, Lucretia folded back the cloth from their son’s red face as he squalled. “Our beautiful son. Look at him. He is perfect.”
“May I see him?” Henrietta begged, almost dancing from foot to foot. “He is my nephew.”
Lucretia positioned him in her arms so Henrietta could see him better. “Is he not beautiful, Henrietta?”
The baby quieted, his face still reddish under a thick thatch of black hair. Henrietta gazed at him, a small frown crossing her face. “Is he supposed to look rather – odd?”
The midwife, waiting between Lucretia’s legs for her to pass the afterbirth, smiled. “Yes, My Lady, newborns do look a little odd at first. He and Her Grace will both be fine.”
“May I?” Sampson asked, holding out his arms.
As he had been tutored over the last month by Mr. Kirkwood on how to hold a baby, Sampson took his son into his arms, gazing down with pride. “A fine, handsome son, Luce,” he said, his voice thick. “Our little Henry.”
“Henry,” Lucretia repeated, smiling faintly. She felt so tired, so exhausted. But she would not let herself sleep until after Henry nursed. “Our son, Henry Claridge, the future Duke of Breckenridge.”
Taking one hand from Henry, Sampson squeezed Lucretia’s hand, grinning. “Welcome home, Henry.”
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