“Ho! This is a night for babies, it is,” the midwife said. “You’ll all be glad to know Mrs. Lyle has another boy baby, her fifth, would you believe it? I don’t know why she even bothers to call me. I just sit in the corner and knit until it’s time to catch the wee one.” Mrs. Stucker took off her wrapper and a great many scarves and threw them over a chair. “Do you have some water and a bit of soap, Meg? I do like to wash me hands before I help a lady.”
Dr. Billings was looking disapproving, but he made no protest at the midwife seeing his patient.
“And how are you, Mrs. Fairchild? Holding on well, despite that ankle? My, that must have been painful.” The midwife laid her hand on Rebecca’s tummy and looked at her face shrewdly. “The babe’s eager, isn’t it? Coming early just to aggravate his mother. But you’re not to worry about it. Babies sometimes have minds of their own about when they want to come out.”
“Will he be all right?” Rebecca licked dry lips.
“Well now, you know I can’t promise anything, luv. But you’re a good, strong lady, if you don’t mind me saying so. I’ll do my very best to help you and that baby.”
Things looked brighter after that. Mrs. Stucker got Rebecca to sit up in the bed because “babies slide better downhill than up.” Rebecca seemed to regain hope. She was even able to chat between pains.
Just as Anna felt as if she were going to drop from fatigue right there in the chair, Rebecca began to moan deeply. At first Anna was terribly alarmed, thinking something must be wrong. But Mrs. Stucker wasn’t perturbed and stated cheerfully that the babe would soon be there. And indeed, in another half hour, during which Anna came wide awake, Rebecca’s baby was born. It was a little girl, wrinkled and small but able to bawl quite loudly. The sound brought a smile to her mother’s exhausted face. The baby had dark hair that stood on end like a baby chick’s fluff. Her blue eyes blinked slowly, and she turned her head to Rebecca’s breast when she was snuggled against it.
“Now, then, isn’t that about the prettiest baby you’ve ever seen?” Mrs. Stucker asked. “I know you’re tuckered out, Mrs. Fairchild, but perhaps you’ll take a little tea or broth.”
“I’ll go see what I can find,” Anna said, yawning.
She slowly stumbled down the stairs. When she got to the landing, she noticed a light gleaming in the downstairs sitting room. Puzzled, Anna pushed the door open and stood there a moment, staring.
Edward sprawled on Rebecca’s damask settee, his long legs hanging off the end. He’d removed his neckcloth and unbuttoned his waistcoat. One arm draped over his eyes. His other arm stretched to the floor where his hand almost enveloped a half-empty glass of what looked like James’s brandy. Anna stepped inside the room, and he immediately raised his arm from his eyes, belying the impression that he had been asleep.
“How is she?” His voice was raspy, his countenance ghastly. The fading bruises stood out starkly in his pale face, and the stubble on his jaw made him look dissolute.
Anna felt ashamed. She’d forgotten about Edward, had assumed he’d gone home long ago. All this time he’d been waiting downstairs to see how Rebecca fared.
“Rebecca is fine,” she said brightly. “She has a baby girl.”
His expression didn’t change. “Alive?”
“Yes.” Anna faltered. “Yes, of course. Both Rebecca and the baby are alive and well.”
“Thank God.” His face hadn’t lost the strained look.
She began to feel uneasy. Surely he was overly concerned? He’d just met Rebecca tonight, hadn’t he? “What is the matter?”
He sighed and his arm returned to cover his eyes. There was a long moment of silence—so long she thought he wasn’t going to answer the question. Finally, he spoke, “My wife and babe died in childbirth.”
Anna slowly sat down on a stool near the settee. She hadn’t really thought about his wife before. She knew he’d been married and that his wife had died young, but not how she’d died. Had he loved her? Did he love her still?
He lifted his hand from the brandy glass, made an impatient movement, and then let it settle on the glass again as if too weary to find another resting place for it. “I didn’t tell you to elicit your pity. She died a long time ago. Ten years now.”
“How old was she?”
“She’d turned twenty a fortnight before.” His mouth twisted. “I was four and twenty.”
When he next spoke, the words were so low she had to lean forward to hear them. “She was young and healthy. It never occurred to me that bearing the child might kill her, but she miscarried in her seventh month. The baby was too small to live. They told me it would have been a boy. Then she started bleeding.”
He took his arm away from his face, and Anna could see that he was staring sightlessly at some inner vision.
“They couldn’t stop it. Doctors and midwives, they couldn’t stop it. The maids kept running in with more and more linens,” he whispered to the horror in his memory. “She just bled and bled until her very life bled away. There was so much blood in the bed, the mattress was soaked through. We had to burn it afterward.”
The tears she’d withheld for Rebecca’s sake ran down Anna’s cheeks. To have lost someone you loved so horribly, so tragically, how awful it must have been. And he must have wanted that baby very badly. She already knew that having a family was important to him.
Anna pressed a hand to her mouth, and the movement seemed to bring Edward out of his reverie. He swore softly when he saw the tears on her face. He sat up on the settee and reached for her. Without any sign of strain, he lifted her off the stool and onto his lap and settled her there so she sat across him, her back held by his arm. He brought her head to his chest.
One big hand gently stroked her hair. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you about that. It’s not for a lady’s ears, especially after you’ve been up all night worrying about your friend.”
Anna allowed herself to lean against him, his masculine warmth and the petting hand wonderfully comforting. “You must have loved her very much.”
The hand paused, and then resumed. “I thought I did. As it turned out, I didn’t know her that well.”
She tilted her head back to see his face. “How long were you married?”
“A little over a year.”
He pushed her head back to his chest. “We hadn’t known each other long when we became engaged, and I suppose I never really talked to her. Her father was very eager for the match, told me that it was agreeable to the girl and I simply assumed…” His voice roughened. “I found out after we were married that my face repulsed her.”
Anna tried to speak, but he hushed her again.
“I think she was afraid of me, too,” he said wryly. “You may not have noticed, but I’ve something of a temper.” She felt his hand touch the top of her head softly. “By the time she was pregnant with my child, I knew that something was wrong, and in her last hours she cursed him.”
“Her father. For forcing her to marry such an ugly man.”
Anna shivered. What a silly little girl his wife must have been.
“Apparently her father had lied to me.” Edward’s voice turned as icy as winter. “He desperately desired the match and, not wanting to offend me, forbade my fiancée to tell me that my scars revolted her.”
“I’m sorry, I—”
“Shh,” he murmured. “It happened a long time ago, and I have learned since to live with my face and to discern those who would try to hide an aversion to it. Even if they lie, I usually know it.”
But he didn’t know her lies. Anna felt cold at the thought. She’d deceived him, and he’d never forgive her if he found out.
He must’ve mistaken her tremble for continued sadness at his tale. He whispered something into her hair and held her closer until the warmth from his body had chased her chill away. They sat quietly then for a little while, taking comfort from each other. It was beginning to grow light outside. There was a halo around the closed sitting room curtains. Anna took the opportunity to rub her nose against his rumpled shirt. He smelled like the brandy he’d drunk—very masculine.
Edward leaned back to look down at her. “What are you doing?”
“I probably smell fetid right now.”
“No.” Anna shook her head. “You smell… nice.”
He studied her upturned face for a minute. “Please forgive me. I don’t want you to hope. If there were any way—”
“I know.” She got to her feet. “I even understand.” She walked briskly to the door. “I came down to get something for Rebecca. She must be wondering what happened to me.”
But she pretended she didn’t hear and left the sitting room. Rejection from Edward was one thing. Pity she didn’t have to take.
The front door banged open at that moment to admit a disheveled James Fairchild. He was like a vision from Bedlam: his blond hair stood on end, and his neckcloth was missing.
He looked wildly at Anna. “Rebecca?”
At that moment, as if in answer from on high, there came the wavering wail of a newborn baby. James Fairchild’s expression changed from frantic to dumbstruck. Without waiting for Anna’s answer, he bounded up the stairs, taking the risers three at a time. Anna noticed as he passed out of sight that he was wearing only one stocking on his feet.
She half smiled to herself as she turned to the kitchen.
“I BELIEVE IT’S almost time to plant, my lord,” Hopple said chummily.
“No doubt.” Edward squinted at the bright afternoon sun.
After a night of very little sleep, he wasn’t in the mood for chitchat. He and the steward were walking a field, checking to see if it would need a drainage ditch like Mr. Grundle’s. It appeared the local ditch diggers had an assured living for the foreseeable future. Jock bounded along the hedges lining the fields, poking his muzzle down rabbit holes. Edward had sent a note to Anna this morning to tell her that she need not come to the Abbey today. She could use the day to rest. And he needed a respite from her presence. He had come close to kissing her again last night, despite his word of honor. He should let her go; after he was married, he could hardly retain a female secretary anyway. But then she would have no source of income, and he’d a feeling that the Wren household needed the money.
“Perhaps if we put the drainage ditch there?” Hopple pointed to a spot where Jock was currently digging and sending up a spume of mud.
“Or perhaps—” Hopple turned and nearly tripped on a clump of debris. He looked down disgustedly at his muddy boot. “It was wise of you not to include Mrs. Wren on this outing.”
“She’s at home,” Edward said. “I told her to spend the day sleeping. You heard about Mrs. Fairchild’s confinement last night?”
“The lady had a difficult time as I understand. What a miracle that both mother and child are well.”
Edward snorted. “A miracle, indeed. Damned foolish for a man to leave his wife all alone, save a little maid, that close to her confinement.”
“I heard the father was quite appalled this morning,” Hopple offered.
“Not that it did his wife any good last night,” Edward said dryly. “Be that as it may, Mrs. Wren was up all night with her friend. I thought it only reasonable that she take the day off. After all, she’s worked every day excepting Sundays since she began as my secretary.”