Claudette chased everyone out of the room so that Mama and baby could rest. There were only so many felicitations a woman could take after giving birth. What she needed was sleep.
She plumped the pillows behind Abigail and smoothed down her hair, settling the baby gently in the crib next to the bed.
“Now don’t you worry about a thing. I shall be right here watching over the two of you, so get you some sleep.”
“Thank you Claudette,” Abigail’s eyes were already heavy with sleep and Claudette could see how much she was struggling to stay conscious. She kissed her friend’s forehead, urging her lower onto the bed.
She sat back, leaning against the wall as she watched her two charges with a watery smile. Abigail had been so brave in the last months, weathering the vilification of the ton, which strangely seemed to blameherfor the downfall of Lord Huntington. Of course, this view was actively encouraged by his daughter, Lady Rosaline, and it had resulted in a dangerous amount of stress being placed on Abigail and the baby.
Of course, the Duke had wanted to take them away somewhere, perhaps to the Isles but Abigail would not be budged from her home and was too ill to make the journey anyway. The difficulties she had been having with her pregnancy caused the ice with which she had been treating her parents to thaw. It took a while but she forgave them for hiding the truth from her for so long.
Reginald, with his customary flair, had offered to kill the entire ton and the Duke seemed inclined to take him up on his offer before cooler heads prevailed. Claudette smiled sometimes to recall the conversations she had heard. For a wanted man, Reginald Sinclair popped up very often. It seemed that once he made his daughter’s acquaintance, it was difficult to go back to being simply a legend she heard about.
Claudette was glad for her friend to have this piece of her history back. She worried sometimes, though, about what would happen if he ever got caught.
Lord Huntington sat in gaol this instance, scheduled to be hanged. He had applied for clemency on his sentence, and they all were waiting to see if the crown would grant it. As far as Claudette was concerned, hanging was too good for him. He deserved to be drawn and quartered.
Abigail was feeding the babe when Percival arrived home from his trip to Liverpool. She lifted her head for his kiss, smiling in welcome. He touched his lips to hers and then bent further down to plant a kiss on little Edward’s head.
“How was your trip?”
Percival took a seat next to her, picking up the one-year-old and placing him in his lap. Edward instantly clapped his food-stained hands, before smashing his palm flat against Percival’s lip. His father smiled indulgently.
“The trip was a success. How have you fared with the little terror without me to rein him in?” He grinned happily at Abigail.
“It has been a long week. Your son is the very Devil.”
Edward punctuated this sentiment by screeching with merriment, his two teeth on display.
Percival favored Abigail with a significant glance. “I think he understands you.”
“I would absolutely not be surprised.” Abigail smiled at her son, unable to keep from responding to his perpetual delight.
Tommy bounced into the room, joy etched on his face as he caught sight of Percival. “Your Grace, you’re back.”
“Indeed I am, young Tommy. What have you there?”
Tommy looked down at his hands as if he had forgotten he was holding something. “Forbes asked me to bring this for the baby. He just bought them from a passing tinker. ‘e says they’re good for building strong bones.”
He held out his hand so they could see what was in the bowl. Abigail leaned forward to examine them, a frown on her face. “What are they?”
“Why, stones o’ course.” Tommy said.
Abigail straightened up. “Forbes wants Edward to eat stones?”
“Naw, course not. He only has two teeth,” Tommy said as if Abigail was very silly to ask such a thing. “He’s meant to gnaw at them. Like a bone.”
“Ah-ha.” Abigail was still mystified. Tommy picked up one of the stones to demonstrate.
“You see?” he gnawed at the stone, little pieces breaking off quite easily.
“Hmm. Well, I don’t know that Edward’s quite ready for stones, but you go right ahead and eat them.”
Tommy shrugged, always game to put something in his mouth. “All right then.” He settled himself on the floor and proceeded to work his way through the entire bowl.
Abigail and Percival exchanged smiles.
It was disconcerting how fast one could go from well-heeled to dun territory. Lady Rosaline learned how quickly the ton could turn its back on you. Following that horrible day when a known brigand and a misguided cad had made completely unfounded accusations against her father, she had to watch as the ton cut her family dead.
Even worse than not being acknowledged in society, the money ran out so fast. Once they no longer had access to whatever resources her father had been skimming from, the money dried up.
Her mother went into confinement and Lady Rosaline was left to fend for herself. One by one, the servants left them, and soon there was no recourse but to call upon once dear friends and fall on their mercy.
Not many would even see her. She was persona non grata and it was made clear to her that she was no longer welcome in their homes. Lady Ahern took pity on her and let her know that she had family in Scotland who were in need of a governess.
Lady Rosaline swallowed her pride and wrote to them, but did not receive an offer. She was at her wit’s end when she ran into one of her former admirers at the market where she was trying to obtain some food.
“You know you have a marvelous singing voice, and I know of a theatre group who are looking for singers.”
Lady Rosaline blanched. A common singer on Drury Lane? She could never.
But all the vendors who had formerly delivered foodstuffs to them demanded outright payment now and she barely had two shillings to rub together. She swallowed her pride and went in search of the troupe.
“Have you come to audition?” an extravagantly dressed woman asked her as she lurked by the door.
She nodded jerkily, letting her hair swing forward to hide her face.
“Well, alrigh’. Auditions start in an hour. You’re welcome to clean yourself up a bit in the back. My name’s Claudette. And you are…?”
Lady Rosaline choked. She could not use her real name. “T-they call me, The Duchess.” She whispered.
The woman—Claudette—grinned. “Fine then, Duchess. Go on and get yourself ready. There’s always room for a bit of nobility on the stage.”
Lady Rosaline hurried off without another word.
They lay in bed, gleaming with sweat, and sated. Abigail turned to Percival, running a finger down his gleaming chest.
“Are we ever going to talk about what your aunt did to you?”
Percival huffed. “You want to talk about this now?”
“It’s been three years, Percival. If not now, when?”
Abigail propped her head on her elbow, staring down at her husband, her belly poking him where it was beginning to swell. “Your aunt has been confined to her cottage in Liverpool after turning on Lord Huntington, who has been transported. Henry has married at last and made peace with everything. Now I would like to know if my husband is all right. I do understand if you would rather not discuss this with me.”
“That is not why…”
“Then why? Why do you keep this one secret between us?”
Percival’s eyes brightened, shining with tears. “It’s such a waste, is all. I do not know why they could not just have found another way.”
“Another way to what?”
“To pay their debts? Acquire the wealth they wanted. Why did they have to take my family?”
Abigail cupped his cheek lovingly. “I cannot imagine how awful it must be to have members of your own family turn against you like that.”
Percival turned to face her. “Youare my family now. You, and Edward, and this little one growing in your belly.”
Abigail smiled. “Yes, we are. And so are Mama and Uncle Philip. Papa, too...as well as Claudette and her daughter.”
“Where is the little minx? I haven’t seen her in a while. Edward misses her.”
Abigail laughed. “Well, apparently the Earl insisted that they should winter in Spain, at his family chateau. It’s quite isolated she says, but beautiful nevertheless.”
“He really is quite taken with her, isn’t he?”
“Mmm. I think purchasing a theatre troupe for her might indicate so.”
Percival laughed. “Indeed. His wife is remarkably blasé about the whole thing.”
“Well, according to Claudette, she is having a torrid affair with her own cicisbeo.”
Percival’s eyebrows rose in amusement. “Ah, the lifestyles of the beau monde.”
“Aren’t you glad you married a tame little commoner like me?” Abigail smirked at him.
“More than I can say, my dear.” He reached up and captured her mouth with his in a searing kiss.
Ten Years Later
Tommy alighted from the carriage, his heart beating wildly in his chest. He did not know how his father would take his news but he would simply have to be a man and make his announcement.
Surely they would understand.
He walked toward the door and was unsurprised to almost be bowled over by a bundle of energy also known as his ten-year-old little brother.
“Tommy! You’re home!”
“Yes, I am. How are you, Edward? Shouldn’t you be at practice at the moment?”
Edward made a face. “Master Xu had a small accident.”
Tommy grinned at him, giving him a sideways look. “An accident, Teddy?”
His brother shrugged, biting back a smile. “Fine, I might have spread some cooking oil on the schoolroom floor and he might have slipped in it and hit his head.”
Tommy widened his eyes. “Teddy!”
“He’s not dead…” Teddy’s voice went higher with protest as he gave a one armed shrug.
“Not this time.” Tommy nudged him as Hermione emerged from the house, her face lit with delight.
“Tommy! Thank heavens you’re home. Teddy has been an absolute terror while you were gone.”
Teddy rolled his eyes as Tommy grinned at their youngest sister—seven going on seventeen. “Has he now? Is father totally unable to manage him?”
“Hey, I am right here!” Teddy protested.
“Father is able to manage him just fine but his palm is stinging from all the smacking he’s had to do.”
Tommy turned to see the Duke leaning against the paddock, one leg crossed over the other. He looked relaxed in his muddy Hessians and riding clothes. Clearly he had just returned from exercising the horses.
“Father.” Tommy said, and made a proper leg. The Duke frowned when he saw this and moved away from the fence he was leaning on.
“Come with me.” He said taking the steps to the house, “and leave your entourage behind.”
His brother and sister made grumbling noises as he told them to go get his bags from the coach. He narrowed his eyes at them to show that he was serious before following the Duke to his study. He closed the door slowly behind him and turned to face the only father he’d ever known.
“All right. Spit it out. What have you done now?”
Tommy’s heart sped up but he drew himself to his full height, taking a deep breath for courage. “Father, I…I have asked Miss Fleur De Vee to be my wife.”
His father merely regarded him impassively as if waiting for more. Tommy had to work harder and harder to fight the urge to quail. The sound of his mother’s voice in the corridor had his shoulders slumping with relief.
She burst into the room like the tornado she was.
“A little birdie told me you were home,” she threw herself unabashedly into Tommy’s arms, knowing he would catch her. “We missed you.”
“I missed you, too,” Tommy said and swallowed the lump in his throat. He really had missed his family while he was away at Cambridge.
His foster mother stepped back, looking him up and down. She did not look a day older than the day they had met in that dark and dreary prison. She was much cleaner though…and happier. Tommy smiled at his own jest, and she smiled back at him as if she knew what he was thinking.
“So, why are you both looking so solemn?” her eyes flew to her husband before returning to Tommy, her eyebrows raised.
“Apparently Tommy here is affianced.” The Duke said in that neutral tone that gave nothing away about what he was thinking.
“He is?” Mother Abigail’s voice was higher than normal, almost as squeaky as a mouse.
“So he says.”
Mother Abigail moved to stand beside the Duke, leaning against him ever so slightly.
“And who is the lucky girl?”
“One of Claudette’s dancers, I believe.” The Duke answered before he could.
“Oh…” his mother said.
Tommy awaited their verdict as they did that thing where they had entire conversations simply by looking at each other. Mother Abigail turned to him with a soft smile.
“Do you love her?”
“Very much!” he hastened to confirm, his face open and earnest.
“Well then,” the Duke said, “I suppose we have a wedding to plan.”
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