“I cannot believe that I will be seeing this day!” Suzanna, the Duchess of Lorchester, laughed as she watched the younger girl descend slowly from the staircase. She turned to her husband, the Duke of Lorchester, and winked at him over her shoulder. “I never thought that I would be able to witness our Beatrice in such an ensemble.”
“It’s Trixie,” the young lady huffed beneath the layers of lace and fripperies. “And I feel like I am about to drown in all this.” She turned to her older sister, who had just come out to accompany her to her Presentation.
Claire, the Duchess of Minsbury, smiled affectionately at her, her hand resting over the swell of her belly. Already seven months along with her second child, she was finding it very hard to get to anywhere without the help of her husband, Oliver.
“Claire, help me!” Trixie wailed.
“Oh, do not be such a baby, Trixie,” her older sister admonished her with a smile. “It will all be over before you know it and you will not have to wear it again.”
“Precisely,” Suzanna agreed. “It is very much like a wedding gown, is it not? You wear it once and then keep it as a souvenir of one of the milestones of a lady’s life.”
“I would think you would look upon your wedding gown with more kindness, my love,” Artemus muttered, dropping a peck to her smooth cheek. “Considering how much we have had to endure just to be together.”
“Oh, pish-posh you!” she chuckled, patting his handsome face with a gloved hand. “Now, we must all go before you lose your breath and succumb to the vapors before the Queen has had a good look at you! And for goodness’s sake, do not slouch.”
At Suzanna’s words, Trixie managed to straighten her back and shoulders as she tried her very best to look as dignified as possible in her cumbersome attire.
As with her older sister, Her Grace was going to sponsor Trixie for her Presentation to the Queen, seeing as Claire was heavily pregnant. Trixie had wanted to postpone her coming out but both her sister and Suzanna had declared that it was high time she was Presented.
Trixie, herself, couldn’t care less what happened as she had no intention of going through the entire debacle of balls and gowns and romps, hoping to find a man willing to marry her.
If those gentlemen that used to call upon her older sister and the Duchess of Lorchester were anything to go by, Trixie had no doubt they would all drive her mad within a fortnight.
She had already declared that she would rather spend her life as a spinster, enjoying her inheritance on her own, to which the two older ladies had laughed and merely shook their heads.
Well, they can certainly laugh about it as they have found such wonderful husbands, Trixie thought to herself. The majority of young ladies are not quite as fortunate!
Why, she heard that Lady Templeton was close to losing her mind at her husband’s philandering ways and she was scarcely three years into her marriage!
Trixie was quite opposed to being subjected to the same agony many young ladies suffered. She would much rather be alone than in pain.
“Now, hurry along,” Claire nudged her.
“You do not suppose I can fit through the door?” Trixie mused with a most unladylike snort. “Or that I would even fit in the carriage?”
“Oh, you, fret not. We had the carriage modified to accommodate you for precisely this day,” Oliver grinned at her. He took one look at his wife and held her close to his side while Trixie rolled her eyes at them.
“Do take care not to make a mess of things before the Queen,” her sister reminded her. “You may not care so much for the rules of Society but do keep in mind that you may have nieces that will come after you.”
“Yes, yes, I understand,” Trixie groused. “I just wish that the life of a lady was not so dreary as Society expects it to be.”
“Oh, I am sure you will find ways to foil their expectations,” Claire winked at her. “I have great faith in your capabilities.”
The younger Rowley sighed helplessly and turned her gaze towards her sister. “You promise I do not have to marry if I do not wish to? You will not foist these dandies at me?”
“What if one of them catches your fancy?”
She pursed her lips. “It is so very hard to find a man who will appreciate me for my own self rather than that obscene dowry that Father left for me.”
“When that time comes, I trust you will be able to discern for yourself if the man is right for your or not,” Claire smiled, her gaze flickering over to her husband, who looked adoringly at her. “You might stumble for a while, though.”
“I would rather not.” She sighed and picked up her skirts. “Well, I suppose I should just make my curtsey and then worry about things as they come.”
“Yes, that is the best thing you can do.”
Claire watched as her sister sailed out of the doorway easily. Marley, their old butler, had tears in his eyes as he regarded Trixie with no small amount of nostalgia.
“She was a curious and lively young girl,” he reminisced. “And now, she is being Presented to the Queen. Heavens, time does fly by so fast!”
“Do you think she will be all right?” Claire asked her husband, leaning into his strong embrace. “I fear, sometimes, that she is too headstrong and she does tend to defy convention.”
Oliver just smiled at her and held her closer in reassurance. “She is your sister and between you and Suzanna, she has become a fine young lady. Her concerns are valid, but the ladies of our family have always been blessed with intelligence and common sense.”
His duchess laughed and shook her head. “Well, if worst comes to worst, she does have an ‘obscene’ dowry, as she calls it. There are many men who would overlook what they would perceive to be character flaws for a lady’s money.”
The Duke smirked at her. “Your intelligence and creativity, my dear wife, are not character flaws.” He paused and looked at her thoughtfully. “I do hope that you will be able to publish your designs under your true name, one day. I cannot wait to tell everyone that my own dear wife is responsible for the most beautiful buildings in London.”
Claire laughed at him. His indulgence and boundless faith in her had pushed her to finally complete her masterpiece, which was used to renovate Artemus and Suzanna’s home.
The ducal seat of the Duke of Lorchester, which had been crumbling due to neglect, was repaired according to her designs. Artemus himself declared that it looked much better than it did before, to which Oliver agreed wholeheartedly.
As it was, her designs were still signed with the name J. Thornton.
“Society has its own peculiar rules for how ladies of breeding are to act, what hobbies we may indulge in,” she mused. “It loves to dictate our every movement but I suppose there are women making strides. Miss Austen, for example, seems to be doing quite well.”
Oliver frowned. “She will most likely end up a spinster, too.”
“I fear Society has yet to catch up with your novel ideas, my dear husband,” she teased him. “Who knows? Maybe Trixie will turn their heads and change the way they perceive us women.”
“And I have no doubt she will take much pleasure in doing so,” the Duke grinned. He laid a hand on her swollen belly and felt something move against his hand.
To this day, he could not believe he had been fortunate enough to see the day he was able to hold Claire and their children. He had come so close to losing everything when he hid himself from her and then, when they were kidnapped and faced death.
Oliver would never forget the awe and love he felt when he first held their son, Henry, in his arms, his tiny hand curling around his one finger. He had felt that his heart would explode then and he could only look at Claire with undying devotion as his lips struggled to find the words of his gratitude.
And now, they would be welcoming an addition to their family in no more than two months.
“I hope it is a girl,” he told Claire quietly. “A girl with your eyes and spirit. A little Claire with your ingenuity and your creativity.”
“Why?” Claire teased him. “Has Henry worn you out already?”
He thought of his rambunctious son, whose curiosity and agile mind had often landed him in the most curious situations. Like his mother, he was innately inquisitive and like his aunt, he had never cared much for rules.
“I love Henry and I will love this child, whether it is a boy or girl,” he admitted. “But I do think a girl will be a nice addition to our family. Somebody who can keep Henry and Theo in check.”
Theo was his two-year old nephew and like his mother, he mostly did as he pleased, much to the consternation of his parents.
Claire tilted her head and smiled at him. “I think I would like a girl, too. Maybe she will keep you company while you and Henry are off to…whatever it is that you will be off to.” She paused and looked at him. “But what if it is a boy?”
Oliver laughed and held her close. “If it is a boy,” he murmured, “we can always try again for a girl.”
Claire looked at him and burst out laughing. Oh, she had no doubt that he would be enthusiastic in that endeavor. He was quite ardent in performing his husbandly duties with her.
“I fear that you will tire of me then,” she teased him. “When I am old and fat and gray and have many, many children…”
“Never,” he vowed vehemently. “In my eyes, you will forever be my Claire…the only woman I have ever loved my whole life. The only woman I will love for the rest of my days.”
She looked at him and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. “And don’t you ever forget that.”
He laughed and held her close, just as the baby in her stomach gave another mighty kick. Oliver laughed and shook his head.
“I think this is a rather jealous one,” he mused. He crouched down until he was eye-level to her belly. “Your father loves you very much, little one. Your mother and I cannot wait to meet you and hold you in our arms.”
As he talked and crooned to her protuberant belly, Claire felt her gaze soften as she beheld her husband.
Through it all, Oliver had stood by her—whether silently in the background or more actively when he went out of his way to bring her out of her grief.
He had never once left her side.
Not even when she had ventured so far from his heart that he despaired of ever reaching out to her.
She reached out and gently stroked his head of soft brown hair so very much like their son’s. When he looked up at her, she smiled tenderly at him.
“I love you, Your Grace,” she told him softly. “With all my heart and with all my soul.”
His green gaze was full of love as he echoed her words back at her.
“And don’t you ever forget that.”
So many things had happened but one thing she knew for sure—she found love when she did not seek it but she would hold it close to her heart for the rest of her life.
Ah, before you go...
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