In which We have a glimpse of our Hero and Heroine’s Happily-Ever-After
An anguished scream rent the still afternoon air.
James’s hand tightened reflexively around the glass he was holding before he brought it to his mouth and drained its contents in one swallow. He slowly placed the glass back on the table, relieved to see that his hand was not trembling as he had feared it would.
“Should you be drinking quite so much?”
The duke looked up and shot his brother an arctic glare. “I would counsel you to hold your tongue until such time as you find yourself in my present circumstance.”
“That is a point in the future too far for me to even conceive. But I stand suitably chastised,” said Matthew, looking the exact opposite of his statement.
James stared balefully at him. “Just so you know, I hold you and Cole completely responsible for my current state of turmoil.”
His sibling gave him an affronted look. “I beg your pardon! How is Alethea being in the throes of birthing your child be in any way my fault? Because I swear to you, on every penny of the very generous allowance you give me, that I have not touched your duchess. I do not even dare look at her for fear that you will cut off my allowance, or cast me out onto the streets.” He assumed a forlorn look. “I swear would never do anything so low as to covet your beauteous wife, dear brother.”
James groaned at Matthew’s theatrics and leaned back into the chair, only to jerk upright at the sound of another scream. A prolonged one this time. “Oh God.” He raked his hands through his hair, causing it to fall into even more of a disarray around his shoulders. “I cannot take much more of this.”
“Well, perhaps you should have thought of that and kept your breeches buttoned.” Matthew’s eyes danced and the duke gave a low growl.
“One more word and I will cast you out on the street. And inform your creditors that I will no longer honour your notes.”
“All right, all right,” said Matthew, grinning. “Why do you not go and see her? You can assure yourself that Alethea is well, as I am sure she is. This is her fourth labour, after all.”
The duke grimaced. “I would, except that Cole has barred me from entering the birthing room.”
Matthew’s eyebrows shot up. “What is this? I know it is not the done thing for a husband to be by his wife’s side, but to prevent you from seeing her? That’s a bit presumptuous is it not? What happened?”
James felt his face heat. “We..ll. He might have had some justification.” Alcohol was loosening his tongue, otherwise he would not have voluntarily made himself a target for his brother’s teasing. “During Alethea’s first labour, at the precise moment of Caroline’s birth, I uh … I might have fainted.” The last word was mumbled.
There was a moment’s silence before Matthew started laughing raucously. “You fainted? My stiff, overbearing, controlled, arrogant brother swooned? The Duke of Trent had an attack of the vapours?” He broke into another round of laughter, not bothering to disguise his overwhelming amusement at the picture that James had painted.
James gave his brother a threatening glare. “Quiet.”
In the distance, an infant’s wail sounded, causing both men to leap to their feet. James felt his heart swell with overwhelming joy, and to his almighty embarrassment, his eyes started to tear.
“Well done, brother! Congratulations!” Matthew said nothing about the moisture he must have seen in his brother’s eyes, but instead seized his hand and pumped it enthusiastically, while giving James a hearty thump on his back. “There, you see, I told you Alethea would come through!”
James was in such a state of bliss at that moment that he barely even heard his brother. It was over. Thank God. He started towards the door, intent upon seeing his wife and new child but then stopped. He turned back to look at his brother. “Matthew.” Experiencing a rare moment where he was lost for words, he could only look at his only sibling.
Matthew’s enquiring look turned into a smile. “It’s all right, James. Allow your fears to rest. I will assume my responsibilities if they arise. But for now, go enjoy your family.”
James nodded, reassured. He headed for the stairs to Alethea’s room, but before he could knock, the door opened and Cole appeared in the doorway. His face wreathed in smiles, he stood back and James slowly walked in.
“Alethea, is she – ” The duke asked, mouth suddenly dry.
“She’s fine,” replied the doctor quickly. “Somewhat tired, as you can imagine, but she is doing very well. As is the babe.”
James let out a breath that he had been unaware he was holding, so relieved that his knees felt weak.
Cole looked over his shoulder. “Ah, I think your duchess is ready to receive you. Congratulations, my friend.”
“Thank you, Cole.” James put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I am forever in your debt.”
“Nonsense,” said Cole, smiling. “What are friends for? However, if you were of the mind to, my clinic does need to be refurbished.” His tone was light.
“Done.” At the doctor’s startled look, James smiled. “We’ll speak later.” With that, he strode towards the bed, where his wife lay. When he caught his first sight of her, his heart jerked violently in his chest and he had to pause for a moment to collect himself. God, how much he loved her.
“James.” Alethea lifted her hand up to him. She may have looked tired, but all he saw was how radiant she was.
“My love.” He took her hand and pressed his mouth to the back of it, holding it tightly.
“How are you?” she asked softly.
He gave a short laugh, shaking his head. “Should I not be the one to ask that question?”
She smiled. “You look much worse than I feel.”
“It seems you feel there is no more need of flattery now that we have been married seven years.”
“You know very well that I think you the most magnificent man in the entire British empire.”
“Ah,” he murmured. “That is more like it. How well you know your husband’s fragile ego.”
Alethea chuckled, and he saw her gaze shift to the other side of her bed. Her face lit up before she held out her arms. The nurse carefully placed a bundle into her arms and his wife looked up at him, her eyes shining with incandescent joy. When she spoke, the words were wholly unexpected.
“Your Grace, may I present your son, the third Marquess of Westbrooke.”
Shock flared on James’s countenance. “Alethea?” His voice was hushed with amazement as she gave him the infant. Tears filled her eyes at the sight of the awe and the great love on his face. It was an expression she had seen before, but it never failed to thrill her.
“I have finally provided you with an heir.”
He did not reply for a long moment, but simply stared at the babe, who appeared to be equally transfixed by the face in front of him. “Alethea,” he said again, his voice breaking with a surfeit of emotion. When he finally looked back at her, his eyes were wet with tears, and seeing them made hers spill over. “You know, don’t you, that it would not have mattered to me if you had given me another daughter. I would not have loved her any less.”
“I do know.” She did, for she knew how much he adored their three princesses. “But now you may rest easy. And so may Matthew. He has grown in maturity these past years and I know that he would assume the mantle if it came to it, but I think that he still does not wish it.”
“You, my dear wife, are very wise. And so beautiful that I can scarcely believe my good fortune whenever I look upon you. As I am doing now.”
Alethea laughed, causing the baby to start at the sound and begin to cry. “Oh dear, Mama is so sorry, my sweet.” She held out her arms for him and the duke handed him over, but not before kissing him tenderly on his forehead. “Hush now, darling, everything is all right. You can blame your father for uttering such a shocking lie. Shh, my little prince…” she whispered as she bared her breast and put him to her. Nuzzling her, he found the nipple and latched on before suckling with vigour, making her breathe in sharply at the strong pressure. She gave her husband a reassuring smile when he looked at her with concern. “He is definitely a male child. The girls were much gentler with their mother.”
She had adhered to convention after Caroline’s birth and a wet nurse had been engaged. However, the envy and jealousy she had felt each time she watched Caroline being nursed ate at her until she had finally vowed that she would not allow any other babes that she bore to be nursed by anyone else. Her mother had been appalled, but James had indulged his duchess, and Alethea loved him all the more for it.
She sighed, looking down at their son, her hand gently stroking the soft down on his head. “Is he not the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?”
“He is the most beautiful boy I have ever seen,” corrected her husband. “You, and our girls have no equal. Although his appearance will take some getting used to.”
Alethea smiled. “Yes, he is a little changeling, isn’t he?” Caroline, their oldest, and Hannah, their youngest, had inherited Alethea’s midnight locks, while Adelaide’s was a shade lighter, like James’s. The downy hair on their son’s head, however, was so blonde as to be almost white. In contrast however, his eyes were a dark indigo. “I think he is destined to break many hearts. It is possible that his hair may darken as he grows, but I do not think it will ever become as dark a shade as ours.”
“Matthew swore that he has never coveted you, but this child…” The duke’s tone was teasing.
Alethea shot him an exasperated look. “Oh, you are a dreadful wretch. Besides, my maternal grandmother had fair hair. You’ve seen her portrait, remember?”
“Yes, I do. She was a great beauty.”
“I loved her dearly. She was the only one who used to comfort me whenever I got into mischief and was scolded by Mother or Nurse.”
Just then, the sound of footsteps made by a number of small feet was heard at the door, and Alethea and James exchanged a look of amusement. “Speaking of mischief,” the duke murmured as they heard Nurse call out orders to stop. After much shuffling of feet and loud shushing, there was a knock on the door.
“Enter,” said James.
The door opened. The first person they saw was Nurse. “Lady Caroline, Lady Adelaide and Lady Hannah, Your Graces. I was told to bring them in?”
“Yes, Nurse, please let them in,” answered Alethea.
The duchess put her finger in the baby’s mouth to stop him from nursing and brought him up over her shoulder to pat his back. Biting her lip, she watched as their daughters walked into the room in a single file, from tallest to shortest, faces solemn. Even Hannah, who was barely two years of age kept to the slow pace, when ordinarily she would have run straight to her father. The girls walked up to the bed and stopped, their eyes wide as they stared at their new sibling. Alethea laid the baby down next to her close to the edge of the bed and motioned her daughters over.
“Come here, darlings and meet your brother.”
Hesitantly, they drew closer until they were crowded around the infant. They stared at him and then Caroline reached out and touched his cheek. “Oh, Mama. He is so soft!” she exclaimed.
“Indeed he is,” agreed Alethea. Caroline was six, and was already exhibiting her maternal side when she played with her dolls. Not to mention her tendency to order her younger siblings around when they were playing.
“May I hold him?” asked her eldest.
“Yes, but not right away. He is still very new.”
“Can he pway, Mama?” asked Hannah. “Hannah wants to pway with baby.” She reached up to touch her brother, but the bed was too high. In fact, her eyes were only just at level with the top of the mattress.
James picked her up and placed her on the bed. “He’s too little to play, sweetheart. But do you know what? Before you know it, he will be chasing you around the garden.”
Hannah shook her head, her round little cheeks almost jiggling at the vigorous movement. “I don wan baby to chase me. I wan to chase him.” It was obvious even before she had turned one that she was the most strong-willed out of the three sisters. Alethea wondered how many battles of wills she was going to have with her youngest daughter before she came of age.
James chuckled, bending his head so he could kiss the riotous curls atop her head. “I’m sure he would like that, too.”
Adelaide finally spoke, her voice utterly serious. “I like him, Papa. I think we should keep him. Even if he should look different from the rest of us.”
Alethea choked back a laugh and she heard James cough to cover his. Their second daughter was a quiet, introspective child. Even at four, her words were always considered before they were uttered and everything she saw, heard or read was thoroughly analysed. If she did not understand anything, she never hesitated to ask. She was Cole’s favourite, even if he tried not to show it.
“Yes,” said the duke, lifting Adelaide up too, and setting her on his knees. “That is the charitable thing to do,” he said mildly. “He is your brother, after all.”
“Mama,” said Caroline, biting her lip and looking a trifle anxious.
“Darling. What is it?” Alethea held out her arms and Caroline obligingly climbed onto the bed. “Careful of the babe, dearest.” Alethea slipped an arm around her child and she curled into Alethea’s side.
“You and Papa still love us, don’t you?”
“Of course we do, Caroline!” exclaimed Alethea. “Why do you ask?”
“Because the baby is Papa’s heir and we are not.”
Alethea exchanged a silent look with James.
“Linney, my sweetheart,” said the duke. “Mama and I love all of you with everything that is in us. You are all a part of us, a part of the love we have for each other and we will never stop loving you. No matter how many children we have, whether they are boys or girls. Nothing will ever make us love you less. Do you understand?” James looked intently at Caroline.
She nodded. “Yes, I think so, Papa.”
“Papa,” said Adelaide. “You said ‘no matter how many children we have’. How many children do you and Mama intend to have, exactly?”
“Gracious me, Adelaide. Are you four or forty?” asked Alethea, laughing. “Well, darling, the answer to that will depend on how well your Papa keeps his breeches buttoned.”
“I don’t understand,” said Adelaide, frowning.
“Neither do I,” retorted Caroline.
“Me neever,” piped up Hannah.
James groaned and put Adelaide down on her feet again, then Hannah. “Do not listen to your Mama, girls. She has been consorting too much with your uncle.”
Caroline gasped, immediately sliding off the bed. “Uncle Matthew is here?” Her face lit up, as did Adelaide’s and Hannah’s.
“Yes, he is. And he is waiting for all of you in my study. Why don’t you ask Nurse to take you.”
Squealing with excitement, the trio ran out of the room, closely followed by Nurse, who was again calling out instructions, this time to act like ladies. Her pleas were obviously falling on deaf ears, judging by the mad rush of footsteps. There was no one the girls adored more than Matthew, aside from their Papa.
Silence fell again as the door closed behind them. Alethea picked up their son and held him close. “What shall we name him?”
“I think we should name him Charles.”
Alethea’s breath stilled. “James.” A wealth of emotion was encompassed in that word. Her father had died last year and she had still not recovered from the loss she felt upon his passing. “Truly?” she whispered, tears filling her eyes.
“Truly. Your father was a fine man, and I believe he is watching over us, and especially over the children. This is one way we can honour him and his memory.”
“Oh, James.” She began to cry and he immediately came and took her into his arms.
“Hush, my love. Hush.” He murmured words of love and consolation into her hair until her tears finally dried.
Alethea looked up at her husband, her heart so full to bursting with love. “I love you so much. There aren’t any words.”
“I know, darling. And I love you. You and the children are my entire world. My everything.”
He bent down to kiss her, and in that kiss was a promise of a future that was filled with all that was light and laughter and joy.