Prologue, Part Two

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Bella spoke softly, so as not to be awaken Davey, who seemed to be nodding off as she rocked him. "I am grateful Haverford will be there when we make our return to court, for Nicky especially, though I am sorry the timing is such that you cannot attend. Nick is more nervous than he will say, which is still only half as anxious as I."

"Prinny is excited about Wellbridge's return and proud to be asked to stand as godfather," Haverford said. "He has missed Nick, though he would never say so and will pretend otherwise. You hurt his feelings when you wouldn't let him arrange your lives for you, but a little flattery and a purse dropped in a card game will mend all. Let him poke his fun and take his pound of flesh, and all shall be as it should."

Cherry dimpled at Bella. "Largely because the king admires Wellbridge's wife, it is said."

"At which, one cannot wonder," said Haverford, with a courtly bow, earning himself a scornful glare from both women and an assessing glare from his old friend.

Bella frowned. "I am not flattered by the king's interest. I would rather avoid this entire debacle. His Majesty is quite the worst part of marrying Nick. He has kicked us both in the teeth, and now the duke will crawl back and act as though all is well again. I am not so pleased to put on my Court smile. Especially not when the newspapers have finally, obligingly, forgotten our existence. There is no chance that will continue with His Majesty making much of us in all quarters. We shall be back in the gossip columns again in no time."

"My sovereign has decreed that all is well, my dear," Nick chided, "and so it must be."

"Wellbridge has the right of it," Haverford agreed. "If one has the opportunity to smooth rough patches with one's monarch before one loses one's lands—or one's head—it behooves one to do so. And not the gossip columns, surely. Wellbridge will star, along with his bride, in the Society news."

"I leave the gossip columns to you, Haverford."

"No more, Nick. Not for many years. The papers are not interested in one's personal life when one lives it in domestic harmony with a veritable angel." Haverford possessed himself of his wife's hand, and kissed it, a smug smile at his old friend, who they all knew would garner Fleet Street's unwelcome attentions once again in a matter of moments.

Under her breath, Bella muttered, "Just because one speaks in the ducal register, does not mean one's pronouncements have been sent from on high."

Cherry's lips twitched, but Nick and Haverford both laughed aloud. "My wife finds the ducal disposition more trying than the papers, Haverford."

"I daresay I have never met a duchess who does not, from time to time," Cherry offered.

"Time to time?" Bella asked archly.

"Minute to minute," Cherry conceded. "But, if we can forgive our esteemed husbands their innate arrogance, then surely, you can forgive Prinny, when a king's self-worth must be exponentially larger than a mere duke." She shrugged. "And while it is true, he is the king and so holds much sway over all of us, he is not the whole of England. I hope you will find some compensations in raising this lovely little boy in his own land, among his family and your friends. We are honored, by the by, to stand as godparents to him. Anthony was so pleased to get your letter."

"I am pleased my husband is so happy to be back in England," Bella said, without any conspicuous happiness reaching her eyes from her wan smile. "And for the chance to meet his dear friends, though Nick has promised we will return to Italy before the winter."

"Before the winter?" Haverford asked, leaning forward in his seat. "Nick? I say, London is a dead bore without you here. Stay through the Season, at least. It cannot be so bad without enduring the marriage mart, surely?"

"I hope you will consent to remain at least until..." Cherry rested her hand on her distended abdomen again, and her mouth curved in a soft smile. "I know Haverford wishes you and Wellbridge to stand up for our baby, as we will for little Lord Abersham."

"Oh!" Bella exclaimed, her hand covering her mouth, blinking away the beginnings of tears. "I... well..." She looked over at Wellbridge.

"Of course," he said immediately, slapping his old friend's shoulder. "Of course we will. I am so pleased to think our families will be so joined. If I must commandeer the ship wherever we are and sail back to England myself, I will return to stand up for your heir."

"No need to ask if you wish a boy or a girl," Bella said to Cherry, "with a dukedom in the balance."

Cherry's eyes clouded. "Haverford says he will be delighted with a daughter, but I have had so much trouble... We have been wed eight years, Your Grace. I have only once before carried so close to term and—" she stops short at the admission, and to blink back a tear, then looks from Bella to Nick. "Nick, Anthony will have told you, I suppose, of our sorrowful loss. I can only hope this is a boy, and healthy."

Haverford cut in, with a sharp edge to his pronouncement, "My brother Jon's eldest will be Archduke of Erzherzog after his mother, but Jon has four more sons. If this is a girl, I will petition the king to name one my heir presumptive and foster him here in England. I will not risk my lady's present-day health in pursuit of posterity."

"Davey is a miracle, truly, after many similar losses with my first husband," Bella said, "but I admit to being much relieved I provided the requisite heir when we hadn't thought to be blessed at all."

"I am overjoyed to have an heir," Wellbridge said, "but were Davey a girl, I could be no less pleased."

Haverford adjusted the curtains to keep the late afternoon sun from shining in his wife's eyes, then pushed a cushion behind her back and draped a blanket over her knees. He stroked a hand across the crown of her head as she bent over his friend's baby, tucking a curl behind his tiny ear. He grinned, leaning over them to drop a kiss on her shoulder. "I am quite decided. Cherry, my love, you shall give me a daughter, and we will marry her to little Lord Abersham here."

Cherry smiled at his whimsy. "Really, dearest? They may have something to say to that, themselves." She turns to Bella, and said, "But I do hope they will have the opportunity to grow up as friends. My little one will be so much younger than my sister's children, or the children of our other friends. And a duke's eldest son—to have a friend his own age, in the same circumstances, would be a treasure to our little boy, I think."

"Or girl," Haverford insisted.

"I make no promises to stay in England," Bella said, "but I am in complete agreement that our children should, at the very least, be friends."

"As to that," Cherry smiled up into her husband's warm hazel eyes, "they may be friends in Venice or Paris or Alexandria as easily as in Margate or Cornwall or London, can they not? We shall simply have to make an effort that our children should know each other, wherever life might take us all. Should that lead to shared grandchildren, we will rejoice, but I think, my lord dukes..." Her glance took in both Haverford and Wellbridge and caressed them with a loving scold, "the two of you must cease your meddling before it begins, lest you have your hearts broken when your children do not bow to the ducal will as easily as the rest of the world." 


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