Duke Millington lay on his deathbed with his wife, stepchildren, and Lady Hinnings around him. As much as he had once loved Lady Hinnings, he had never been able to bring himself to act on the feelings he had had for her. Not after her father had expressed his discontent, anyway. Now that her father had passed away, he considered her too old for his tastes, and he had wanted children of his own.
“Easy, easy, Reginold.” His wife, Cynthia, helped him prop himself up on the pillows behind him. “Your cough is getting worse… the doctors say you may never recover, but we can always hope.”
Cynthia had expressed a wish to him when they started courting: she did not want to be widowed again. It seemed that he was going to add that to his list of failings; he was passing away before his wife. He could feel it.
“May I have some time with Lady Hinnings, alone, please, Cynthia? I have seen you all day, and I wish to express some of my dying wishes alone with her.” Reginold’s voice was quiet. He could barely project it to his wife, much less to Lady Hinnings across the room.
“Of course.” She shuffled the children out in short order.
How had he managed to marry a woman with six children of her own? And fall as in love with her as he had once hoped that Lady Sophia would have fallen for him?
He did not know, and he did not care. He would die happy, and he had a request to bestow on Lady Hinnings.
“What do you wish to tell me, Duke Millington?” Lady Hinnings came closer so that she could hear him, but she made no move to get beside the bed. As much as she had once hoped that he would marry her, she had learned her place in his household, something she seemed to never understand in her brother-in-law’s home.
“Lady Hinnings, we have been through so much…” He took in a breath. This would take a little effort to ask of her, especially considering what had happened with Sophia. If she would treat her niece that way…
“What do you wish to ask of me?” She seemed impatient. Perhaps she believed she would have a deathbed confessional with him where he confessed his love for her, that he was wrong to marry Cynthia.
That was not at all what he wanted to tell her.
“Please, help Cynthia with the children. I am dying, and I will not recover. I can feel it in my weakened bones, Lady Hinnings.” He took her hand in his. “This is all I ask of you as I lay dying: treat them better than you treated Sophia. None of them will hesitate to stand up to you, and Cynthia knows of your treatment of Sophia. Everyone does.”
Lady Hinnings’s face fell.
It seemed she had been waiting for some kind of confession of love. It was never coming, and he hated to be the one to break her heart this way.
“But, Reginold… I thought…” She tried to weasel something else out of him.
“That is final, Lady Hinnings.” He refused to address her by her first name. She was going to do anything and everything she could to make sure she got her way, and he was not going to let her have it. “I may once have had feelings for you, may once have loved you, but my tastes changed as I grew older, and I have let go of those feelings for you. I took you in because I pitied you and wanted to repay your efforts in attempting to get me married to Lady Sophia. That is all, and I am sorry you must find out this way that I am no longer in love with you.”
Lady Hinnings rose from where she had sat beside his bed.
“I cannot…I cannot be party to helping raise children I did not bear!” Lady Hinnings refused to do what he had asked.
“Lady Hinnings, this is the last time I will tell you.” He could feel it becoming harder to stay awake. He was slipping fast. “I ask you to take care of my wife. I must still care for you somewhere… you are the only person I trust enough to ask to do this.” He tried to hold onto her hand, but she pulled away.
“I will treat them as your own, but I will not treat them as mine. I am a nanny to them, and nothing more.” Lady Hinnings somewhat finally resigned to what she was hearing. “Do you wish me to fetch them for you, sir?”
Her cold tone hurt him, but he only nodded.
It was time, and he did not want to be alone when he passed away.
His family slowly came back in. Each of the children – Anthony, Ferdinand, Sarah, Alice, Dorothy, and Catherine – sat beside his bed and took his hand. They all gave each other turns, knowing that this was only temporary.
“I want the six of you to behave for your mother and Lady Hinnings.” He spoke quietly. He did not want to have to repeat himself, but this was going to be a difficult thing to hear. “I have asked her to act as a nanny until all of you are married. With Catherine being older than even her niece was when she was asked to do the same for Lady Sophia Colfield, I believe she will do wonderfully.”
“But, Reginold…” Cynthia attempted to speak against his orders, but a soft look from him quieted her fears.
“She will treat them as a nanny ought to. She is not to take my place in raising them.” He felt himself collapsing into the pillows.
“Take care of each other, and Anthony, Ferdinand… take care of your sisters and mother as they get old, please.” He looked to each of his children.
And then, he closed his eyes for the last time.
Louisa had been out with Cynthia, Sarah, Dorothy, and Catherine this morning. It had been a year since Duke Millington passed away, and there was a cold drift between her and the children. Even Cynthia was being colder to her since her friend – Louisa’s old love – had passed away.
It probably had something to do with the fact that he had asked her to help with the children, despite her past and her history with Duke Millington. Alice had gotten married shortly after the duke passed away, and Sarah was soon to be married. With Dorothy not courting anyone, and Catherine close on Sarah’s heels, she worried that she would still have to fulfill her requested duties for another year.
How the youngest was to marry before her older sister, she did not understand. Then again, she was the older sister and had watched the same thing happen to her family. Perhaps Dorothy did not understand what it could mean for her if she was not yet married soon, or if she did, she did not care.
That was one way to approach it.
“Lady Hinnings. What a surprise.” A male voice caught her attention.
“Go ahead; I’ll catch up.” She shooed her company forward, ahead of her, and then turned to face the man who had called her name.
Lord Sebastian Colfield stood in front of her now. Lady Sophia was nowhere to be seen; she was probably out with friends or home with the children.
“Lord Colfield, what a pleasure.” Lady Hinnings forced a smile.
She did not want to dwell on her past, and this was only bringing back painful memories of having to wait long and hard for Jonathon to propose… only to be completely let down when he refused to even acknowledge her as more than a helper around the house.
“I did not know you were still helping with the lady’s children.” He smiled. “Seems a fitting way to see you today, helping children that your lover helped father.”
“I am their nanny, not their mother, Lord Colfield,” she snapped. “I am nothing to them, and they are nothing to me. As soon as the last of the daughters are married, then I am leaving them.”
“Is that in accordance with Duke Millington’s wishes? I hear he had wanted you to stay until all six were married.” Lord Colfield furrowed his eyebrows.
“His sons were killed in a highway robbery last year.” She remained cold and constant. “Lady Millington has only her daughters now, and when the last of them have been married off, I will be released from my position as nanny. I plan to retire far away from here, and you will never hear from me again.”
“You know what I find odd?” He did not pay any attention to her final remark. “We have stood here five minutes, and not once have you asked after my wife, your niece.”
“She was only a means to an end to me, Lord Colfield. She means nothing to me now, especially since she was unwilling to marry Duke Millington when she had the chance.” Louisa pursed her lips. “If you will excuse me, we have more fittings to attend, and I will be late if I continue to speak to you.”
“Good day, then, Lady Hinnings, and I hope the door hits you on your way in.” He left with a sour face.
Louisa turned on her heel and returned to attending to her duties. She did not take long to find the shop – she had once come here with Sophia to get her fitted. It was a good shop, and she would not allow Lady Millington to dress the bride in anything less than the best.
She sat to the side as Sarah tried on her bridal gown. It was a beautiful gown, but Lady Hinnings found herself quietly stewing in the corner.
Now that Duke Millington had married and passed away, she had no other recourse. She would be an old spinster for the rest of her days. Though she had not told anyone, she could feel a little piece of herself dying each day.
She worried that she would not wake up each morning, but the doctors could find nothing wrong with her. She had stopped going because they threatened to take her to the insane asylum. She did not belong there; there was something wrong with her, but she did not know what it was.
She sat down on a stool, her feet throbbing from standing for so long.
“Lady Hinnings, do you require more assistance?” One of the young seamstresses walked over to her.
“No, thank you. I am fine; I simply need to sit on the stool.” She took in a deep breath.
Why did her chest feel tight? She did not feel as though she could catch her breath, nor did she feel as though she could get back up.
She said nothing about it, though. Instead, she took the pain in stride, and watched Sarah twirl in her dress.
A pang of regret hit. Why had she never married any of the men that had asked her to marry them? She had had a couple of men propose to her after her father had forbidden her to marry Duke Reginold Millington, and they had been good men…
Perhaps if she had married one of them, she would not be sitting in a bridal shop in pain.
“Lady Hinnings!” She hit the ground as someone called her name. The world faded out, and she found herself slipping into unconsciousness.
She let the black blanket slip over her. She was finished fighting; she wanted to see the men on the other side, and perhaps, just perhaps, she would find peace with her life over there. That was all she wanted, peace, during her life, and she had never got it. Societal peace…
Her chest heaved one last time as she stopped fighting to stay.
Anna and William returned to London, as they had planned, but sooner than expected. She remained half-sick for the entire ride, and she did not know what else she was supposed to do. This had been her first major excursion in a month, and she had come by carriage so that she would not aggravate her body more than needed. Whatever had gone wrong, she wanted to know so that she could avoid it the next time she was pregnant.
If there was a next time.
She had had a rough time becoming pregnant, and this child, this child, was the first one that had taken.
When they arrived in London, William immediately called upon the doctor on the way home. He met them at their home, and they both helped her into the sitting room. Upon arriving, the doctor proclaimed that she was in labour and wanted to get the midwives.
Anna spent hours upon hours in labour, and when she finally delivered her baby, the cry that filled the room was heavenly. The baby had survived her difficult pregnancy, even though the doctors had been sure he or she would die before being born if she was not careful.
When she finally was able to hold her baby in her arms, she found that she had given birth to a beautiful baby girl.
“She’s beautiful, William. Look at her.” She had insisted her husband stay in the room for the birth, even though that was against every social convention.
He had stayed, insisting that if his wife wanted him there, he was not going to abandon her to smoke and play cards with his friends. She was thankful she had had him stay; he took the child from her and let her rest her head against the pillows.
Her entire body ached. She wanted to pull the blankets around her and snuggle up close to her husband and child, and just fall asleep right there, with her family beside her.
“Sleep, Anna. I will take care of the child for now.” William kissed her forehead. “You did wonderfully today. You have brought a new joy into my life, and I will be forever thankful for all the risks you have taken carrying this beautiful girl.”
He took the child out of the room.
She closed her eyes and fell fast asleep. There would be time to find a name for the child when she woke up, and when she was better rested, she would be able to be the mother hse had always dreamed of being.
Anna woke up to the sound of the curtains being pulled back. She groaned and rolled over, expecting William to be in the bed with her. When she found only a pillow, she looked up from the bedcovers.
William had been the one to pull the curtains back.
“I did not mean to wake you, Anna.” He frowned. “Do you wish me to close the curtains again?”
“No, no… ‘tis all right.” Anna sat up slowly. “How long did I sleep?”
“All night long.” He smiled and walked towards her. “You slept all night, and you needed it. The baby is in the crib right there.” He pointed towards a form in the distance, and Anna realised the child was fast asleep too. “She has your eyes and face, Anna. She is an adorable little girl.”
William kissed her cheek.
Anna stood up to go to the crib but found that she was incredibly sore. She moaned and fell back on the bed softly.
“Do you want me to bring her to you?” He frowned.
He did not hesitate to bring the child to her. She took her daughter in her arms and gazed lovingly at the face and body of this beautiful creature. She had helped make this creature… and she had carried her in her stomach for nine months.
Then, a name came to her.
“Rebecca,” she said softly. “Rebecca… she looks like a Rebecca to me, William.” She held the child up for William to look.
He tilted his head to one side, and then nodded.
“I agree. She is a Rebecca. Rebecca Droft… the name has a ring to it. I like it.” He sat down beside her. “Welcome to the family, Rebecca… you’ll always be loved here. Always.” He tapped their daughter’s nose softly.
“Always.” Anna smiled.
Sometimes, she could barely believe that she had ended up with such a loving, caring man at her side. After all, love was a chance made in marriage, and marriage was usually made to align some party with an advantage.
“What are you thinking about now, Anna?” William brushed some hair out of her face. “You’re staring again, and you only do that when you have lost yourself in thought.”
“I am thinking about how lucky Rebecca and I are to have you as the father figure in this family, William.” She could not hide the truth, especially when it was such a good thing to hear for any man. “You are the man of my dreams, and I often wonder what I have done to deserve you at my side.” She put a hand on his knee.
He put one of his hands over hers.
“You deserve me and so much more in your life, Anna. Don’t you ever forget it.” He smiled at her, kissing her forehead softly. “You will always deserve me.”
“I love you, William.” She then looked down at her daughter. Their daughter. “And I love you, Rebecca. I do.” She smiled.
This would be a new chapter in her life, and she was excited to start it with William at her side.
As she held their daughter, she and William began to discuss all the things that would need to be done in preparation for hiring a nanny. Pregnancy had not been kind to Anna, and she would need all the help she could get.
William was not surprised that Anna wanted a nanny. Now that Rebecca was a few weeks older, he realised exactly how much work went into raising a child. He had never thought of it in terms of being able to do only so much and needing help.
He was able to take a few weeks to help out around the house – unheard of and making him a laughing stock in some of his circles, but he was willing to do it at Anna’s request – and he now realised that he had been a horrible boy to his mother.
He had run crazy around the house, and he had never regarded any of his nannies as anyone he ought to have listened to. Now, he saw how much work went into making sure someone as small as Rebecca made it into childhood, and further into adulthood, and he was floored.
Today, he was going to make some visits and see some of his business contacts. He wanted to become an advocate of fathers staying at home to help out the mother, but he had no idea where to start. He knew that it would not be a popular idea on the whole; many men saw childcare beneath them, but he would have to start somewhere, with someone other than himself.
His best chance was an old friend of his who had been raised by his mother and his mother alone. His father had died when they were still in the crib, and his mother had never saw it fit to hire a nanny to keep the fortune intact for this friend. He went by Harrison, but to his friends, he was Harry.
“Look at you, Bill!” Harry left the house as he was coming up the stairs. “You’ve caught me at a bad time, I’m afraid. I am heading out to lunch.”
“Perhaps I could join you? What I wish to discuss cannot be postponed.”
His request caught Harry off-guard, but Harry nodded slowly.
“We will take the carriage then.” Harry motioned towards the stable. “How is your wife? I hear you had a child a few weeks ago.”
“Anna and the child are doing well. We named her Rebecca.” William smiled. “They are both doing wonderfully, and the nanny we have hired has been so much help.”
“Good to hear it, William. Good to hear indeed.” Harry hooked everything up as they spoke. “Is there anything specific you came to speak about? Did I forget you were coming over?”
“No, you forgot nothing. This visit was quite spontaneous, for lack of a better word for it.” He smiled. “I thought it would be easiest to start with you before taking my proposal to anyone higher.”
“Proposal? For what?” Harry was now intrigued.
That was exactly what William had wanted.
Sophia carried little Elizabeth out of the house. The door shut behind her, one of the butlers taking care of it for her.
Sebastian had the boys for the day, and she was taking Elizabeth for a walk around the gardens. Elizabeth Colfield… it had a ring to it that she quite enjoyed saying aloud, and she had been introducing her daughter to all the visitors today as “Lady Elizabeth Colfield,” as she would one day be known.
“Come along, Elizabeth.” She smiled as she spoke to her little girl. Elizabeth was barely old enough to speak, nor did she very well understand what Sophia was saying to her, but Sophia liked to think otherwise.
As she walked along the pathway in the garden, she bounced her daughter softly. She had learned that every child was different when she had had Jonathon, and neither of her boys had enjoyed walks like this until they were old enough to get into trouble running away from her.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, loved to be carried and would happily look around at the world from her mother’s arms. Sophia could not have been any happier with what she had learned of her daughter, and she wondered if she would be this docile through her entire life.
If so, then Sophia worried that men would easily take advantage of her and lead her on when the time for marriage came around.
“Do not worry, Elizabeth. Mother will protect you from being used.” She kissed her daughter’s head softly. “Mother has been there, and I remember all of that. It’s hard to be a woman in this world, but I will make sure you grow up properly. I will not, will not, meddle in your love life as my aunt tried to do to me. I promise you that, Elizabeth. I promise you.”
She wanted to do this right. She had only been blessed with one daughter, and she would do all she could to protect her daughter from experiencing what she had.
Sebastian came out to the gardens a little while later.
“I thought you were going to be out with the boys all day, Sebastian.” She smiled at her husband. “Would you like to hold Elizabeth?”
“I would love to hold our daughter. The boys were too tired to do anything more, and we came home early.” He shrugged and then took Elizabeth. “How has she been for you today?”
“Wonderful. I was just telling her of the antics I had to put up with when my aunt tried to marry me off to a man I did not love.” She refused to say his name aloud, especially now that he was dead.
Sebastian only nodded before kissing her forehead.
“You’re with me, and no one is going to change that. If anyone tried to, they would have to face me for it.” He frowned deeply. “What brought this up?”
“Nothing, Sebastian. I was just passing time.” She shrugged.
Though it had hurt in the moment, to talk about it was easier than she had ever thought it would be.
Sebastian nodded slowly, and they told the story to their daughter together.