It took a year for Jeremy to fulfill his pledge to have a ball celebrating Louisa. He could not blame himself entirely, seeing as they both had been exceeding busy. As the representative of the Crown in the area, and as his employer, Jeremy had been called upon to provide documentary evidence in the Gilbert Notley case. It turned out to be much bigger than anticipated as according to his confessions, he was just but a single cog in a gigantic wheel that eventually took down two earls and a viscount.
“I am just a recruiter and I collect monies as well.” Notley had said. He had confessed to embezzling Munboro funds which he used to entice several women in dire straits into working for him.
They lurked about certain taverns where itinerant clientele were of the well to do kind. They were not to target locals who might make trouble, as they could recognize the women. Only those people passing through. They must have robbed Jeremy as well because he was newly returned from the sea and they likely did not know who he was. He would be the first to admit that he did not stand on ceremony.
It was the scandal of the season.
He and Louisa had married in the midst of that furor and once it was discovered that the new Duchess was kin to that Notley, there was uproar of a different kind. They assumed that Jeremy had been cuckolded and that she was out to bilk him. When the Duke, and even his mother, defended her vigorously, the ton turned their back on them.
Jeremy hardly felt the loss. He had never enjoyed adhering to the narrow codes of behavior sanctioned by that group of people. It was not a hardship for him to miss all the ton events. He was concerned about how his mother might feel about the cut direct, but for the most part, she seemed content to putter about in her garden and socialize with Louisa’s father, when she wasn’t fussing over Louisa. Especially when his Duchess grew big with child.
“Did you have your porridge this morning? Tis good for the nausea. My mother swore by it.” She insisted and Louisa smiled uneasily but complied although like as not she would cast up her accounts a few minutes later.
“Mother, let her be,” Jeremy tried to insist but Louisa covered his hand with hers and shook her head.
“I do feel better for it…afterwards,” she said with a wry smile. “It's quite filling especially drizzled with honey and I like it.”
His mother smiled triumphantly at him. “You see! She likes it.”
Sometimes it is as if we are in some competition for Louisa’s affection. Which is silly, because she has quite enough affection to go around.
Things remained tense between Louisa and Americus for some time but the birth of the twins effectively healed that rift. There was nothing like new motherhood to create an understanding for the lengths one would go to protect one’s children. The reconciliation was also helped along by Americus taking a turn for the worse during the winter. He was unable to get around on his own and was forced to move into the manor where they could all watch over him. Being around the babies seemed to help him rally and with constant infusions from Mrs. Marni and a lot of fussing from his daughter, he was getting better every day.
Jeremy still woke up with a sense of wonder that the two little imps crawling all over him were his own. They could hardly walk yet but Zara Rose and Atticus Garfield had the entire household beneath their thumb. They had the run of the place, their nannies hard put to contain them.
Louisa had already managed three portraits of them; the first two had been easy as both children were too young to move on their own. The third was more of a challenge as left to their own devices, the twins were liable to crawl to the bottom of the garden and fall in the lake. Louisa had painted them surrounded by his mother’s roses, plucking petals and putting them in their mouths before a harried governess would quickly remove it. It had been painted over three chaotic days with the entire household engaged in containing them within the vicinity of the bushes.
That was an enjoyable time with everyone taking up the challenge with enthusiasm. Jeremy could hardly recall a time when he had felt so ecstatically happy with his life – not simply because he was at peace in his own soul, but that the entire village seemed rejuvenated and enlivened. In the last year, the village had seen five births, all the children and their mothers surviving the process. The harvest had been particularly good and the crofters had enough surpluses that they were supplying surrounding villages with corn, apples, and barley.
He knew he might be biased but he attributed it all to Louisa. She took her duties as Duchess very seriously, having instituted a program where food waste from the main house and any other surrounding taverns, inns and food shops was collected and redistributed free of charge to those in need. His tenants, seeing what she was doing, began to volunteer their own surplus food to what they called the Widows and Orphans Collective.
Jeremy was exceeding proud of her.
He returned from visiting with Daniel who was considering a property within the county. He meant to set up a lodging house to take advantage of Munboro’s new-found popularity among the younger members of the Establishment.
“They think of it as sort of a rebellious outlier. They enjoy defying parental control by showing support for your Duchess,” Daniel had confided in him, making Jeremy laugh for ten minutes straight.
What beautiful irony.
Walking into the parlor where his mother and Louisa were likely having tea at this time of day, he smiled wide as he caught sight of them. “There they are!” he intoned with enthusiasm, “the most beautiful ladies in the world.”
Louisa smiled back, open and happy. “The most tired you mean. Your children have worn us out.”
“Oh, have they? They only mean to keep you sharp. Soon it will be time for another portrait and then you shall have your work cut out.”
Louisa groaned even as her mouth stretched in a grin. “Yes. And your mother has commissioned me to do one of her and the twins.”
“Ah…,” he twisted his mouth with sympathy, “you’d best practice drawing fast.”
Louisa cast him a jaded glance. “Thank you for that piece of valuable advice. I appreciate it.”
Jeremy grinned wider. “You love it.” He reached down and bussed her lips before touching his mother’s shoulder in greeting. “Apart from that, have you ladies had a good day?”
Louisa looked to her mother-in-law.
“Well, yes. We have been reviewing the bolts of cloth we got from China. They just arrived today. The red silk shall make a fine backdrop for Louisa’s creamy skin,” the Dowager Duchess said with a proud smile at her daughter-in-law. “She was afraid it might be too bold a color but I think I have managed to persuade her otherwise. She shall be the belle of the ball for sure.”
“I agree. It sounds wonderful and I cannot wait to see her in it.”
Louisa’s cheeks pinkened becomingly, “Oh, stop that.” She told them both.
“I love how she still blushes when you pay her a compliment,” the Dowager Duchess said teasingly.
“Yes, it’s most endearing,” Jeremy agreed and they both laughed as Louisa covered her mortified face.
“Daniel thinks we should have an acrobat show at the ball,” Jeremy said to give her time to recover. He expected his mother to object so he was surprised when she agreed with him.
“It is going to be the biggest ball in the land after all. We can set them up in the garden and light them up so that they can be viewed from the ballroom. That is an excellent idea,” she said serenely as she sipped her tea.
Jeremy raised an eyebrow but refrained from commenting further. He made a note to keep Daniel’s wilder suggestions to himself lest he find himself hosting an entire circus in his garden.
Louisa clapped her hands excitedly. “I love it. What an enjoyable idea.”
Jeremy definitely made a note to keep all further party ideas from Daniel to himself.
“All right then, acrobats it is. Is everything else in order for the ball or is there anything else you need?”
“Hmm, let’s see. We have the bolts of cloth from China, I feel sure that Daniel could get us an acrobat troupe from Drury Lane,” his mother gasped, “and perhaps they could even do a play!” She looked excitedly at Louisa who nodded with enthusiasm.
The Dowager Duchess continued as if she had not interrupted herself, “The children’s wing has been set up not just for the twins but for anyone else who needs it. The north wing for guests has been aired out and cleaned top to bottom – I cannot recall the last time we had need of it! – and linens laid out. The kitchens are hard at work with the preparations for cooking, baking, and brewing. I expect we are all set.”
Jeremy nodded with approval. “It seems you do have everything under control. I salute you both.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Louisa smiled at him and Jeremy could not resist leaning toward her and placing a chaste kiss on her lips. His mother was quite used to their profligate displays of affection and did not bat an eye, simply sipped her tea.
Louisa’s heart was pounding as she prepared to go down to welcome the guests to her very first ball. It was an eclectic group they had invited. It consisted of several members of the ton who were unworried about getting censored for associating with the Duke. There were a few foreigners that Jeremy had met in the course of his journeys around the world including an African Prince and a Shaman from one of the native tribes in the New World. Also, some Spanish and French noblemen in addition to Louisa’s friends from the village like Betty and Mrs. Marni.
Louisa smoothed down the silk of her red dress; it hugged her figure faithfully from her bosom, still engorged by pregnancy and breastfeeding down to her slimmed-down waist – she had barely any need of a corset. It flared out wide over her hips and looking at the visage in the looking glass, she could hardly believe that it was her.
Her hair was piled on top of her head in unruly curls and around her neck, was a choker of emeralds that contrasted sharply, yet quite becomingly with her dress. Her only other jewelry was a gold bracelet around her wrist and emerald earbobs. If she did say so herself, she looked extraordinary.
I cannot wait for Jeremy to see me.
She met her father at the top of the stairs, resplendent in a shining white cravat, a red shirt, black breeches, and tail.
“We match,” she said with a grin.
“Of course we do.” Her father smiled back and she allowed him to escort her to the bottom where her husband was waiting, watching them come with awe in his eyes. She smiled at him and he returned her smile with interest. She slid her hand into his and released her hold on her father.
“Why does this feel like our wedding day?” he whispered into her ear.
She giggled, “I don’t know.” She batted her eyes at him and let him lead her to the ballroom, her father following behind. They stood at the receiving line, greeting guests as they were announced. Many of the foreign guests, who were staying at the manor for the weekend, were delighted to see Jeremy again, and have a chance to congratulate him on his marriage. Many brought gifts for them as well as the twins.
“You know in my tribe, twins are revered. They are thought to bring good fortune,” the African Prince informed them.
“That may well be true,” Louisa agreed and bowed respectfully, “they have certainly brought us even more happiness.”
Jeremy smiled proudly at her and she felt calm. She could do this.
Once they were done with the receiving line, it was time to open the dance.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Miles intoned, “I present to you, the Duke and Duchess of Munboro!”
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