"You are not" He paused on the steps as she bit her lip in pain. "You are, aren't you?"
"It will wait until after the wedding," she said determinedly, taking another shaky step.
"Charlie, are you going into labor?" Beth asked anxiously as she and Tomas joined them on the steps, her own gown burgeoning with the girth of a child. She was only a month behind her sister in her pregnancy. It did seem the twins liked to do things together. "You are, aren't you? Mayhap we should delay"
She fell silent as Charlie turned on her furiously.
"This child will not be born until his parents are properly wed."
Radcliffe was torn for a moment, then, cursing, he swept her up in his arms and hurried up the stairs with her, leaving the others to follow.
" 'Tis all right, husband, you can set me down, I think that the pains have stopped," Charlie murmured as he pushed his way through the church doors with her. When Radcliffe ignored her and strode purposely up the aisle of the crowded church, Charlie forced a smile for the benefit of the guests, who had turned as one and were now watching their approach wide-eyed. "Here we are," she called out in feigned cheerfulness. "Sorry for the delay."
"Get to it. Father," Radcliffe said grimly, pausing before the gaping man.
"Set me down," Charlie hissed, and after a hesitation, Radcliffe did so, setting her on her feet just as Tomas, Beth, Stokes, and the cobbler's boy reached their side.
"Father!" Radcliffe snapped impatiently, and the man gave a start, then cleared his throat and began.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here"
"We all know why we are gathered. Father. Please get to the important bit."
"Now see here, young man," he began, then glanced worriedly at Charlie as she suddenly gasped and clutched her stomach. "Are you all right, my lady?"
"She is about to have a baby. Father. Perhaps we could get this over with before it comes?"
"Well, aye, I know she is having aYou mean now?" The horror on his face knew no bounds. "Then you must get her home, see her comfortable and" His voice died on a choked sound as Radcliffe grabbed him by his vestments and eyed him menacingly.
"Marry us first." When the poor man nodded quickly, Radcliffe released him and put a comforting arm around Charlie. Not that she noticed. Holding her stomach, she had begun to pant in a worrisome way.
"Do you, Lord Radcliffe, take"
"I do," he snapped, and the minister frowned at him.
"At least let me finish" He paused and swallowed as Charlie released a sudden groan, pain on her expressive face. "Oh, dear Lord," he breathed, then straightened grimly. "All right,Lord Radcliffe takes Lady Radcliffe, and, my lady, do you take him too?" When she nodded, he glanced toward Tom and Beth.
"Lord Mowbray, do you take Lady Mowbray? And Lady Mowbray, what about you?"
They nodded as one and murmured, "We do."
"Good, good, then er what is next?" Sweat appearing on his brow, he floundered briefly, then cried, "The rings! Put them on." Once Tomas and Radcliffe had slipped the rings on their wives' fingers, he sighed with relief. "That is it.
You are man and wife again. Now kiss them and begone."
Kissing Charlie on the forehead, Radcliffe bent to catch her up in his arms, then turned and hurried down the aisle with her, Tomas and Beth hurrying behind them.
Radcliffe, Tomas, and Stokes were pacing ruts into the salon floor when they heard the coughing squall of a baby's cry. The clock on the mantel read five minutes to midnight. They had been pacing for more than twelve hours.
On arriving at the townhouse, Beth had had Radcliffe carry Charlie upstairs to their room, then relegated him and Tomas to the salon. Stokes had returned from the church shortly afterward with the cobbler's nephew, Mrs. Hartshair, her children, and Charlie's new lady's maid, Maggie, all in Mowbray's carriage.
Leaving the children in Stokes's care, Mrs. Hartshair and Maggie had hurried upstairs to see what assistance they could offer. And that was the last the men had seen of any of them except for the occasional sight of one woman or another flying past the door of the salon on her way to fetch this or that. At least, Stokes at first had had tending to the children to distract him, but then they had been put to bed and he had joined his master and Tomas in the salon to accompany them in their pacing.
Now, hearing the cry from above, the three men eyed each other with a combination of relief and trepidation; relief because it was obvious from the child's lusty cry that he was healthy, but trepidation because now they must await news of the mother's condition. For Radcliffe, the wait was interminable.
Charlie's screams had reached them clear down into thesalon, and every one had torn at his heart like the claws of a lion. A half-hour passed like a year as the men stood still, their pacing over as they stared at the stairs through the open salon door, waiting. Then Tomas murmured, "What do you suppose is taking so long?"
The question was enough to snap Radcliffe's patience. Muttering a curse, he stormed out of the salon. Tomas and Stokes glanced at each other, then moved as one to follow him up the stairs.
Beth had just finished remaking the bed and was helping Charlie settle back into it when the pounding started on the door. Mrs. Hartshair answered it, and Charlie heard Radcliffe's determined voice quite clearly: "I want to see my wife."
Mrs. Hartshair stepped aside at once, allowing him to enter before closing the door on the anxious gazes of Tomas and Stokes.
"Charlie?" Radcliffe hurried forward, then paused uncertainly at the side of the bed when he saw her. She looked exhausted; her face pale, hair disheveled and lank, and her eyes and expression incredibly weary as she glanced from the baby in her arms to him. She had never looked more lovely to Radcliffe, and he told her so as he eased carefully onto the side of the bed, one hand moving to cover hers on the baby and squeeze gently.
Charlie made a face at the claim, knowing just how bad she must look, then smiled slightly. "Do you not wish to seeyour son, my lord?"
"Son?" He peered down blankly at the bundle she held. "He's a boy?"
"Aye. Would you like to hold him?"
Radcliffe looked doubtful, but took the small baby. Holding him awkwardly and feeling incredibly clumsy, he peered down at the child and felt something tighten in his chest. He looked oddly like a little old man: his eyes were squeezed closed, his head nearly bald except for a fine feathering of fuzz, his face all squinched up in displeasure and an angry red from the ordeal he had suffered, and he was flailing one chubby little fist about. He wasthe ugliest little thing Radcliffe had ever seen, and the most adorable. "He is so tiny,"
he marveled, feeling tears well in his eyes. He and Charlie had made this miraculous new life.
"You would not say that, my lord, had he squeezed his way out of you,"
Charlie muttered with asperity, and her husband looked briefly stricken, then saw the amusement dancing in her eyes and smiled.
"Actually, he is not small at all," Beth murmured, moving to join them.
"For a baby, he is quite large, in fact. Larger than any of the babies I saw born at Westerly."
"Beth has always had an interest in healing," Charlie explained when Radcliffe looked curious. "Back at home, if there was a body that was ill, or a birth taking place, Beth was usually there to try to help."
"Shall I take the baby out to show Tomas and Stokes so that the two of you can have a moment alone?"
"Aye, please." Radcliffe handed the child over to his aunt, then glanced around.
The other women had already finished what they were doing and slipped out of the room. He waited until Beth closed the door silently behind her, then turned back to Charlie, bent forward, and kissed her gently on the lips.
"Thank you," he breathed into her hair as he hugged her carefully.
"You are welcome, my lord," she sighed, leaning into his embrace. "What for?"
"For our child."
"I seem to recall your having had a hand in that," she murmured with amusement as she pulled back to lean against the pillows, then heaved a sigh and grimaced.
"I am sorry for today, my lord."
His eyebrows rose. "For what?"
"For ruining our wedding. I did not mean to, but when I saw that cobbler beating that boy"
"You could not help yourself."
"Aye." She bit her lip. "I could not simply turn my head and ignore it."
"And I would not want you to," he assured her gently, and she raised her eyes to meet his gaze.
"Truly. Your compassion for the weak, and disgust for injustice are two of the things I love most about you. Though," he added wryly as she relaxed, "I am grateful that in your condition you were notthe one to jump on the man's back as you did with the farmer over the pups. I was quite relieved when I pulled who I thought was you off the cobbler's back and found it was Beth."
"I was attempting some restraint," she said with dignity. "It is something I am learning from you."
"Then we are each learning from the other. For I have been learning to live again from you," he murmured, and realized that it was true; even his guilt had left him.
Charlie had told him all that she had learned of Mary and Robert's murder from Norwich as soon as they were safely home that night. Learning this news had removed a world of guilt from him. There was nothing he could have done to save his sister. Even had he convinced them to take the carriage, an armed guard, or an army, Norwich would have killed them another day. He could not have protected her from him. Even Robert could not have.
None of them had suspected his intentions. He'd been quite mad.
"I am so happy and content just now, Radcliffe," Charlie murmured suddenly, and Radcliffe smiled and stretched out on the bed beside her, holding her gently.
"So am I, my love."
She was silent for a moment, then asked, "Radcliffe, would you really not change me for the world?"
"Not a bit," he assured her solemnly.
"Beth says there was no tearing and I should be up and about in no time.
You know what that means, do you not?"
Radcliffe blinked at what he thought to be a change of subject, but tried to follow it gamely.
"What does it mean, my love?"
"It means we can go to your club soon."
"Oh, Charlie," Radcliffe groaned, then started to laugh as he hugged her. "I should have known you would not forget about that."
"Oh, come now, Radcliffe. It will be exciting."
"Oh, aye, it will be exciting all right," he agreed wryly. "Especially when someone recognizes you as Charles, and knows Charles is really Lady Radcliffe, and I am thrown out of my club. That will be most exciting."
"That will not happen. Beth and I have devised a disguise we are sure will work."
"A disguise, hmm?" he murmured doubtfully, his gaze fixing on the excited gleam in her eyes.
"Aye. And just think of it, husband. Me in my tight breeches. You the only one knowing 'tis I." Her eyebrows waggled suggestively. "Mayhap we could find a room or a closet unoccupied and" She shrugged slightly as her voice trailed away, and Radcliffe wasn't surprised to feel excitement stirring within him. It seemed like forever since they had made love, though it had only been the last week or so that they had stopped for fear of hurting the child. Her suggestion now was raising a great deal of interest in him. Only Charlie would consider the possibility of making love under the noses of the ton.
"When did Beth say she thought you might be up to that sort of thing?" he asked in a growl, and Charlie beamed at him brightly.
"I always knew you had the soul of an adventurer, my lord."