Three Years Later
Juliana Huntington watched her eldest child tumble in the grass, trying to reach a butterfly that seemed intent on staying just above the wee one’s head. Little Marguerite’s face screwed up in what was sure to be a loud yelp of frustration, only Grace caught her up in her arms, distraction well in hand in the form of a soft cloth doll.
“She is amazing with the children,” she said to her guest, before turning away from the long stone balustrade that ran the length of the house.
“Your husband was good to take her on with the rest of your household after…” Susanne spoke softly, frowning a little. “I perhaps should not bring that up.”
Juliana laughed and turned to hug her friend, careful of her expanding waistline. Any day now, Marguerite would have a younger brother or sister.
“I do not mind,” she said softly. “We have had three years now to come to terms with things. Papa…well he did what he did, but he is paying the price for that now. And I think Mother is better for being away from him. I think she must have been dreadfully unhappy in her marriage and we have only just begun to realize by how much.”
“And you? Are you happy?” Susanne asked, maybe a little wistfully as they walked back into the house to escape the brightness of the sun.
Juliana looked around the spacious parlor at the tall windows, open to admit the breezes, decorated in soft, comfortable furniture, and coverings that mimicked the land and river below. “I love Martin more and more each day. He never stops surprising me with little gifts.”
“This house is hardly a ‘little gift’,” Susanne said with a laugh.
Juliana spun awkwardly in the center of the room, her arms were thrown out to indicate the entire room and everything beyond it. “I cannot believe he had this entire estate built just to please me. Have I shown you his book room? And the kitchen! Why Mattie is learning to cook now. You absolutely must taste her strawberry tart!”
Susanne caught her friend’s arm to keep her from flying away. “I think perhaps you should settle somewhere before you spin so hard the baby decides to come now!”
“What is my dear wife doing now?” Martin asked from the doorway.
Juliana looked up laughing. “Your Grace!” she said and curtseyed somewhat saucily.
“My Lady,” he replied, taking her from Susanne and kissing her soundly, company or not. Goodness, how she loved that about him.
Susanne, though turned away, cheeks flaming. “My word!”
Juliana rolled her eyes but stayed right where she was in her husband’s arms, propriety or not. “You would think a man never kissed his wife before,” she said, kissing him again before reluctantly retreating to her chair as propriety demanded. “At least you are in time for tea.”
“Mattie’s strawberry tart?” he asked, coming to sit opposite her.
Susanne did roll her eyes. “You would think that was all the poor girl ever cooked the way you both go on about it. Should I call in Marguerite for you?”
Juliana shook her head. “She will take tea with Grace in the nursery. We needed to talk to you.”
“Me?” Susanne looked from one to the other. “Whatever about?”
Juliana glanced at Martin, who reached over and took her hand. “We would wish you to be godparent to the child when he is born,” Martin said, smiling when Juliana nudged him and corrected him almost under her breath with a quiet, “He means ‘she’.”
Susanne’s eyes opened wide. “Not your sisters?”
Juliana waved the question away. “They are both godmothers to Marguerite. Let them have that. You have been my oldest and dearest friend, and I would be honored if you would agree when the time comes. I know ‘tis hardly proper to be deciding this so far in advance, but …well, I wanted to discuss this with you to make sure it was all right…” she looked awkwardly at Martin.
“We would be asking my cousin Allan to be the godfather,” he said softly.
Susanne recoiled as if struck. “No. I have not spoken to him. Not since father…”
Juliana reached for her friend’s hand, shooting Martin a concerned look. Martin seemed to know what she was asking and rose hastily. “Let me go and see how Mattie is coming with that tart…”
“I cannot!” Susanne said, fiercely. “You do not understand!”
Juliana rose and caught her friend in her arms and hugged her fiercely. “I do understand. It was a terrible scandal when the truth of what happened with Elisabeth Derbyshire came out, but no one expected that your father would…” she hesitated here, not sure how to put it. “Since your father…”
“Killed himself?” Susanne’s chin came up, and two bright spots appeared on her pale cheeks. “You have no idea what it has been like since we returned from the continent. The whispers…”
“I think I know very well,” Juliana reminded her gently. Her own scandal was still one whispered about. “Our fathers have not done us any favors, have they? But you must know, Allan still loves you. And he does not care about gossip and whatever rumors are popular at the moment.”
Susanne turned away, going to the window and staring out. “I do care. Very much. And he would have to lower himself…”
“Lower himself? You forget that none of us are free from the past. The point is, we all need to learn how to live with it. I have never been so happy in my life as I am now. And you could have that too if you only…” Juliana sighed a little and stopped herself from going further. “I’m sorry. I push you too hard sometimes.”
Susanne still stood at the window, her back to her. Juliana suspected she might be crying and debated stepping forward to confront her, when Martin came through the door with Mattie, gaily wheeling the tea cart for her, despite her protests.
“I have a strawberry tart, enough for all of us!” he sang out as he wheeled the cart to its place near to Juliana’s hand.
“I am sorry,” Susanne said, without turning around, “I fear I am not feeling well after all. If you will excuse me.” With that, she fled through the open doors out onto the terrace and disappeared down the stairs into the garden beyond.
Juliana sighed a little and looked up at her husband, blinking rapidly to keep from crying. “I pushed too hard again. I only thought to reconcile them…”
“The way you did my mother and her sister? Or the two of us?” Martin sat on a hassock at her feet, taking her hands in his. “You seem to enjoy meddling, my love, but you forget that not everyone appreciates being meddled with.”
“Three years have passed,” she said softly. “In three years, you would think they could come to terms with each other!”
“That is not for us to say.” Martin motioned for Mattie to bring the tart, having forbidden Juliana from serving until after her lying in. “Sometimes we have to let those around us find their own way.”
“Even when they go about it all wrong?” she asked, sourly, accepting a plate heaped high with tiny tarts. She eyed Mattie suspiciously. “I suspect you are under orders to overfeed me again.”
“A growing child requires much in the way of nourishment,” Martin said rather primly, taking his own plate with evident delight.
“Eating more will not guarantee you a son. It just means I might have a very large girl,” she muttered sourly, though smiled anyway, for, after all, this was Mattie’s strawberry tart they were discussing. She shifted a little uncomfortably in her seat, trying to ease the dull ache in her lower back that had been plaguing her since morning. “So, what do I do?”
“Do?” Martin asked, trying to speak around a mouthful of tart.
“Regarding Susanne. I have gone and upset her now. Truly I meant her no harm.”
“She will come around.” Martin rescued Juliana’s untouched plate from her, as once again she tried to shift to a more comfortable position. “Whatever is the matter with you? I have never seen you so restless.”
Juliana stared at the tart. It entirely wasn’t fair in the least. “You have. It’s just been…what…almost two years since you’ve seen me thisrestless.”
Martin stared at her, holding both plates still, one in each hand. “Surely you are not…and you invited Susanne this close to…”
“It needed to be settled. And it still is not,” Juliana said crossly, one hand going to her distended belly and rubbing it, trying to ease the ache.
“You cannot hold the child within until you have resolved things. Mattie, fetch Grace. And the midwife. And see if someone can bring out the doctor.” Martin turned in a slow circle still holding the plates. “What should I do?”
“I think you have done everything, though you might try putting down those plates before you send tart all over my nice rug. Oh, do relax, I am perfectly fine.” Juliana said, struggling out of her chair and rescuing her own plate from him, sneaking a bite with a sigh. “I know I am not allowed a morsel of food right now, but I refuse to let this go to waste.”
He snatched the plate back. “You will behave yourself or…or…”
“You will send me to my room? Oh, you are a troublesome thing. Fine, if you must, send for whomever you like, but I still want Susanne’s promise to be godmother. I am allowed to make imperious demands, for I am a duchess.”
“To your room, Duchess and I will see to the rest.”
Grace appeared in the door then, out of breath from running. “Whatever are you doing in here eating strawberry tart at a time like this. Come, my Lady, we must get you upstairs.”
“Exactly what I have been telling her,” Martin said sourly, setting both plates somewhat regretfully upon the tea cart. “Here, let me carry her before she does herself an injury.”
“I do not need to be carried!” Juliana protested, holding out her hands to try to fend them off.
Martin and Grace exchanged looks.
“I will carry her,” Martin said after a moment.
“Agreed,” Grace said with a sharp nod.
“Welcome to the world, little Martin,” Juliana cooed, lying exhausted against the pillows, her face still damp with sweat. She was truly the most beautiful thing that Martin had ever seen in his life.
He leaned forward to kiss her damp forehead, smoothing the hair back from her face, bending to kiss her again and again until she pushed him away, laughing with one hand, the other holding their son…their son…against her while he nursed.
“You have caught the entire household by surprise,” he said to the baby, gentle fingers caressing the soft downy head.
“Not the entire household,” Juliana said with a smile that was weary but absolutely elated.
“You are a wicked thing, inviting Susanne here when you knew what would happen.”
“I only knew she had but to see the baby to agree, but by the time she visited after the lying in she would have worked up all manner of excuses not to. I needed her here…now.”
Martin blinked. “You mean to say you wish to have a visitor outside of family…”
“Yes, my love. Now if possible. Oh, do not look so censorious. I have been bathed, and this is a fresh nightdress. A short visit will do no harm to either me or your son. Let Susanne in, only for a moment. I shall convince her to do what is right.”
Martin stared at his wife. “You are a wicked, conniving thing,” he said, but there was a hint of admiration to his voice. “You make me wonder if you had engineered this entire marriage to suit your needs after all.”
She swatted at his sleeve with one hand. “Hush you.”
He caught that hand and kissed it. “I will fetch her. But only for a minute, do you understand me? I will not have you worn out.”
“Only for a minute,” she agreed softly, looking up at him with luminous eyes.
“How I adore you!” he exclaimed, staring at the picture she made, wife and child, nestled among the pillows and blankets. The only thing missing was their firstborn, asleep already in her own nursery, unaware just yet that she had a brother.
“And I, you,” she replied, her heart in her eyes. Then she smiled, that bright, mischievous smile that he loved so well. “Now, shall we prepare for the next great romance?”
“You mean Susanne and Allan?” he asked, bending low to kiss his wife one final time before doing as she bid. “I certainly hope you know what you are doing.”
Juliana reached up to cup his face with her hand, her eyes never leaving his. “Trust me,” she said.
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