My birth pangs came in the night. I lay awake and counted them, making sure this was the real thing before I woke Richard. He stirred, raised his head and smiled sleepily, his short blond hair tousled and boyish. When he saw me tense, he snapped awake, sitting up to study me closely. "Is this it?"
I nodded. "Yes, without a doubt."
Another man would have slept elsewhere, particularly in recent months when I'd slept so restlessly, but not Richard. He slipped an arm over my bulk and kissed me, one for the baby and one for me, as he'd taken to putting it. He got out of bed and fetched his robe, and I sighed when I looked at his well-muscled, lithe form. I might never get my figure back after this.
He sat on the bed and took my hands in his, blue eyes blazing into mine. "Every time you breathe, remember I love you. Even if they deny me your presence, I'll be here in spirit, and if you need me, nothing will keep me away. I'll come, and damn the conventions."
A sharp pain cut off my answering smile.
"That's it," said Martha. "You can lie back now, Rose. You're done."
I sank against the banked-up pillows with gratitude as Martha helped the midwife to smooth the bedclothes over me. The process had exhausted me more than I thought possible, even though the midwife had assured me I'd had an easy birth. I listened to the lusty cries of my newborn infant and wondered if Richard could hear them too. They'd sent him away as soon as the midwife arrived and I hadn't seen him since, but the room was full with my midwife Mrs. Rooke, my accoucheur Mr. Simpson and my sister-in-law Martha, Lady Hareton.
My newly born, newly washed child was put into my arms, and for the second time in my life, I felt the rush of sudden love. I gasped with astonishment and joy. I had expected to care for my child but not like this. We gazed at each other for what seemed like an aeon. "Welcome, sweet baby," I said.
The baby mewed a little. A physical tug came from somewhere deep inside me.
"Can I feed--?" I stopped. This child, this miracle. I hadn't thought to ask.
Mr. Simpson's wide face shone with pleasure. "A fine girl, my lady. Perfect in every way. Lie still, and we'll make you comfortable now. Yes, you may suckle her, but it will only be foremilk, and she'll need a proper feed afterwards."
"Bring the wet-nurse in here," I ordered. "Let me watch."
I loosened my night rail and let the baby reach my breast. She seemed to know what to do better than I did, which was just as well because I felt clumsy, a giantess next to this tiny scrap. I took one of her hands in mine and watched her curl her fingers over my thumb. I lost my heart all over again.
Martha got to her feet. "I'll go and tell him, shall I?"
I nodded. "But don't let him in just yet. I don't want him to see me like this." Hot, tousled, still recovering.
"I'll give you some time." She kissed me and left.
I watched the wet-nurse, Anne Potter, a respectable woman who had a six-month-old child of her own, and milk to spare. Unlike me, she knew exactly what to do and handled the baby with sure confidence. I could only hope I would feel the same way soon.
While I watched the babe feed, they made me comfortable. They washed me, dressed me in clean garments and changed the sheets.
The baby had fallen off the nipple asleep, completely sated, before the nurse put her in the crib brought forward to the side of the bed.
My attendants left the room, and I gazed at my child, filled with love for her. I heard the door open, but I didn't look up immediately.
It was only when the bed sank next to me that I turned my head. His eyes were riveted on the baby. "My God." He turned to me and smiled before he kissed me very softly on my forehead and on my mouth. "Clever girl."
"I'm sorry," I said.
He leaned back and stared at me, startled. "What on earth for?"
"It's a girl."
"So?" He took my hand. "She's healthy and perfect. My parents are downstairs. They're thrilled."
"Truly. My father has already planned the ball at Eyton, and the next addition to the family." He gave a light laugh. "But there's no chance of that just yet, if I can help it."
Something had dropped away from him, the anxiety he fondly thought I hadn't noticed. He took my hand to his mouth, kissed it, and kept hold of it afterwards. "Gervase sends his love."
"It must be crowded downstairs. Do they want to see me?"
"I've forbidden it. Simpson says you need to sleep, so Nichols will sit with you while you get some rest."
"What time is it?"
"About eight. You can receive people tomorrow, if you're up to it." He took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. His gaze never left my face. "You know how relieved I am to see you again, dearest love. Say the word and you need never go through this again."
It was the last thing I expected him to say. "But the title, the estate. It's why they let you marry me."
He smiled tenderly. "Let me? Nothing could have stopped me. None of it matters. That's not what I married you for, you know that. I love you."
"I know. And I love you too." I glanced at the sleeping baby. "I can do this. I can give you sons if you want them." I couldn't believe I was saying this after what I had just gone through, but I knew it was true.
His reply was to kiss me. "I'm very proud of you."
"Do you want to hold your daughter?" My heart ached when I remembered his other children. He'd only discovered their existence last year, and it had caused him great pain. I let the thought pass. Now was not the time.
He got up and walked around the bed to the crib. He looked down at our child for a long time. "She doesn't seem to look like anyone I know except perhaps the Duke of Newcastle."
I laughed. "Oh dear, I hope not."
He glanced back at me, and his attention turned to the baby again. He didn't move to pick her up.
I wanted him to. "Will you pass her to me?"
He bent down and gently lifted her.
Richard seemed to know how to hold babies, or perhaps it was instinct. She slumbered in his arms as he stared at her, and he touched her hand, which was outside the shawl she was wrapped in. I refused to allow her to be swaddled. The minuscule fingers clutched his thumb, and at that moment he was lost. I watched my husband fall in love with his daughter as I had done, and I thought I would burst with joy.
When he tore his gaze away from her, he must have seen my tears. He laid the baby in my arms, straightening up and studying us. "I don't think I've ever seen anything so beautiful before."
I heard the emotion in his voice, and I smiled. "Fool," I chided tearfully.
He sat by us and the baby opened her eyes, so blue, heavenly blue, not at all like the deep sapphire of my husband's. He smiled. "Pleased to make your acquaintance. What shall we call you, sweetheart?"
We hadn't really discussed names. If it had been a boy, it would have been Richard, because all the Southwood heirs were called that, but with a girl we were free to call her what we chose. We didn't want to call her anything too unusual, but on the other hand, nothing too common. We knew a lot of Elizabeths, Georgianas and Annes. Pamela and Stella had become popular because of the literary associations, and there were many Sophias, Carolines and Charlottes, called after members of the royal family.
I frowned. "Frances, perhaps." We looked at our daughter and she looked back at us. "Ancilla, Emily."
"Helen." He looked at her, watching the rosebud mouth pucker in sleep. "Or how about Eglantine, or Richenda?"
His seemingly genuine suggestion made me stare at him in amazement before I saw the teasing glint in his eyes. We burst into laughter.
The baby opened her mouth and roared. We both laughed a little more from relief and joy as much as genuine amusement before our daughter drowned out our paltry efforts.
To my surprise, I knew what she wanted. "I should feed her."
She couldn't be truly hungry because she had fed such a short time before, but my breasts ached and I thought it might comfort both of us.
"Shall I go?"
"Only if you want to. You may take her downstairs afterwards to show her off."
He drew up a chair next to the bed while I held her to my breast. She caught hold and reached up one tiny hand to touch me. "This won't satisfy her much, it's only foremilk. If she's still hungry we'll have to call the wet-nurse."
He smiled as he watched. "You could have been born to it."
"I shan't do it for too long, but Mr. Simpson says it's good for me. You can have me back soon."
He touched my shoulder. "You never went away."
What I had to offer did seem enough for the baby, and she fell asleep. She had been working, too, and perhaps she felt as tired as I was. I tucked myself away. "I like Helen. Can we call her that?"
"I like it too," he answered, and he came back to take her up.
He laid her gently in the crib, came back to sit on the bed and took my hand in his. "I'll sleep in my room tonight, but the connecting doors will be open. Or, if you prefer it, I'll sleep in here."
"I don't mind, sleep wherever you're most comfortable. Nichols says she'll sleep in my dressing room so she's within call." I sighed. "I'll miss you."
"And I'll miss you, but you'll need to get better before I can come back." He smiled wryly. "I'll miss not waking up with you in my arms. But it's more important that you get better." He stood, leaned over me and kissed me lovingly. "I'll go now. I'll send for the nurse--what's her name again?"
"The wet-nurse is Potter and the nursemaid is Whitehouse. And could you ask them to get me something to eat, please?"
He smiled, kissed me again and left.
I woke in the early hours at about the time my pains had started the previous day. When I turned over I saw Richard, sitting in the chair by the cold fire, his head back, sound asleep. He looked most uncomfortable. I slid out of bed, wincing with soreness, and went into my dressing room for the necessary, almost tripping over the truckle bed that had been moved in there for Nichols.
I didn't wake her and returned to the bedroom when I had finished. I couldn't bear to see him so uncomfortable so I touched Richard on the shoulder.
He started awake and got immediately to his feet. "You shouldn't be up."
"If you don't tell anyone, I won't," I replied.
Putting one arm under my legs and the other around my back, Richard lifted me and carried me to the bed. "I wouldn't have been able to do this so easily yesterday," he remarked fondly as he set me down.
"I somehow imagined I would spring back into shape, but it will take some time, I'm told."
He laid the bedcovers back over me and sat next to me. "You've performed a miracle. It's bound to take some time to come back down to our level."
"Do you love her?"
"I love her," he answered, in the same level tone. "As I was bound to." He smiled. If his colleagues at Whites' could see him now, open and loving, they wouldn't have recognised him. "Can I get you anything?"
"No, no thank you. You should sleep. Did the family like her?"
"Of course they did." He lifted his legs onto the bed and slipped his arm around my shoulders. "They all sent their best wishes, of course." He kissed my forehead. "And the babe slumbered through it all. I went to see her before I came here. She's not as red as she was, and she's still beautiful."
I felt myself drift. "You should go to your own bed, my love."
"Hmm. Be quiet and go to sleep."
He stayed with me all night.