One year later…
“Oh, I do so love the opera!” Emma exclaimed, leaning over the edge of their private box to get just a little bit closer to the stage. She loved the lights glistening all around her, her anticipation growing as the musicians tuned their instruments.
“It should be you up there singing tonight, my love,” Henry leaned over and whispered in her ear. She giggled with the tickling sensation that his lips caused as they brushed against her ear.
She laughed, keeping her eyes trained on the great red velvet curtain still closed over the stage. “I do not think it would be proper for a duchess to pursue a career as a prima donna. But I appreciate the sentiment.” She reached over, and his big strong hand enveloped hers. “Besides, I would never be allowed to perform in my condition.” She rested a hand over her abdomen, now growing round with child. Henry placed a hand over hers so that he might feel the little kicks of his unborn baby.
“Perhaps not, but I do think it is a shame that London will never hear the most angelic voice on the earth.”
“It is enough for me to sing in front of you, my love. Now shush, the opera is starting.” She leaned forward as the curtains opened, and the beginning scenes of Fidelio commenced.
Emma had seen this opera several times before, but Henry still brought her anytime she asked. She knew every virtuoso, and as the prima donna playing Lenore began to sing, Emma joined in softly, harmonizing with her.
Perhaps she would have gone on the stage someday had Henry’s father kept to his threats and disinherited him. But he had never followed through. Fate had been kind to them, and the good Lord had seen fit to bring restoration between father and son before he had died of heart complications. They had only been married six months when he passed.
Henry’s father had softened toward Emma after the first few meetings. It had been slow going, but she supposed that his sudden illness was what finally brought him around. It was only natural that he would want to make amends with his family before he passed on. And she was certainly glad that he had done so.
Of course, they had had the difficult transition from Henry working as a simple tutor to head of the Aycliffe Manor and Duke of St. Albans. They had left their cottage with heavy hearts, but were overjoyed to be going back to the place where their love had really begun to blossom. It was a bittersweet moment that Emma looked back on, sometimes wishing they were back at their cottage. The pressure of manning servants and dinners and the rest of the many duties that came with the manor was exhausting. But she hoped she was learning, and that Henry would be proud of her.
Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a young woman staring at her. She was sitting across the theatre, glaring with large brown eyes and a snarl curling her lip. She squinted her eyes in the dimly lit theatre, her eyes going wide with shock when she saw that it was Lady Margaret staring at her. Emma elbowed Henry in the ribs, and he came to attention immediately. “Dearest, is that not Lady Margaret Brenton?” she whispered harshly.
Henry followed her gaze, and when he spoke, there was a smile on his tone. “Yes, it is. And she looks to be enjoying herself, does she not?”
She looked anything but, Emma thought. She gave Henry a rueful smile. “Who is that man sitting next to her?” Emma studied the older gentleman. He looked about fifty, with a large handlebar mustache, sideburns, and black suit that had probably been fashioned when he was in his thirties.
Henry had to stifle a laugh, and he left Emma wondering what was so funny as he tried to keep control of himself. “That is Lord Huffington. He and Lady Margaret were married a few months ago.”
Emma could not help but smile at this bit of news. “Margaret Huffington,” Emma said, trying out the name. She smiled at how ridiculous it sounded, covering her mouth with her hand as they both dissolved into muffled laughter.
“That is not even the best part. I hear that Lord Huffington does not cease talking about his hounds and hunting horses. Lord Burton tells me that he is driving her mad with all his talk. They spend most of their time locked away in the country with her aging Romeo. It would seem that no one wanted to marry her after the rumours of how her mother threw a vase at my head got out. They all thought that Margaret was crazy as well.” Henry let out a happy sigh. “Oh, well. Margaret had always wanted a life in the spotlight. But it would seem Lord Huffington only comes to town on very rare occasions. Margaret will spend the rest of her miserable existence locked with up in the country estate with her feeble husband.”
Emma frowned. ‘Do not be unkind, Henry. There is always a chance that people will mend their ways. And there is still hope for Margaret.” She looked out over the crowd, seeing how utterly miserable Lady Margaret was. When she looked back at Henry, he was watching her every move.
“What?” she asked as he eyed her with a mixture of awe and adoration.
“You are the only woman I know who feels sorry for the woman who tried to ruin your life. I thought you would be pleased to hear how the mighty Lady Margaret has fallen.”
Emma shook her head, reaching up to touch his cheek. “I feel sorry for her because she was obviously raised by a mother who taught her to be cruel. Cruelty and hate are not traits we are born with, they are imparted. How can I hold that against her when I know she cannot help it? It is not right to rejoice in the trials of others.”
Henry put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, so that she could lean against his chest. “That is why I love you, Emma. You do not hold people’s sins against them.”
Months later, Emma was not so sure she would not hold a grudge against Henry for making her endure so much pain. She clutched at the sheets as a wave of pain rocked her, making her vision blur and her stomach reel with nausea. She had been pushing for what seemed like hours, and she was not sure if she was going to be able to endure her misery much longer. The midwife whispered encouragement to her, assuring her that her ordeal was almost over. But she had said that nearly an hour ago, and she had still not delivered her baby into the world.
Fear gripped her heart. It was not uncommon for women to die during childbirth. She was exhausted and frightened, but she fought through one more contraction, determined to deliver her son or daughter safely into the world.
“Please, God,” she prayed through gritted teeth. She wanted to be there to raise her baby, to see them grow. As the pains ended, she collapsed onto the pillows, panting. She knew there was another one right on the heels of the last one, and she was not ready. “I can’t go on,” she said through clenched teeth. Her aunt stepped up to the bedside, taking her hand. She brushed the damp tendrils around her forehead, her tone soothing as she spoke.
“That is not true, dearest. You are the strongest woman I know.” Emma looked up at her aunt and tried to smile, but another pain took over her, and she let out a low groan.
“Alright now, Your Grace. Push!” the midwife said. “One long, last push, Your Grace.”
Emma did as she instructed, tucking her chin into her chest and leaning forward. She gripped her aunt’s hand on one side and one of the midwife’s attendants on the other. Sharp pains assailed her, and after one long push, it was over. She lay her head back on the pillows that had been piled high as a mountain behind her back. When she opened her eyes again, the midwife was placing a perfect little bundle on her chest.
“Congratulations, Your Grace. You have a son,” the midwife said, and Emma uttered a cry of complete and utter joy. The excruciating pain of a few seconds ago was wholly forgotten as she looked into the face of her son.
She could hardly believe it. She was a mother! A lifelong dream had been fulfilled that day, and she could not wait to see the look on Henry’s face when he met his firstborn son. The midwife and attendants cleaned her up and took care to wash and swaddle the baby. They put the room back in order, lighting a fire in the hearth to keep her and baby warm through the cold November night. Only when all was pristine once more was Henry allowed to come in.
He entered sheepishly as if he were afraid the slightest noise would break the child. Emma laughed, waving him over. Aunt Catherine had stayed, just in case she needed anything. But now, all Emma wanted to do was be alone with her husband and son, to soak in the moment.
“Oh, dearest. He is perfect,” Henry breathed as he sat down gingerly on the bed and looked into the face of the sleeping infant. He brushed a finger down his soft, downy cheek and sighed contentedly.
“Are you happy?” she asked.
Henry looked up at her and brushed a stray piece of auburn hair from her face. “I have never been as happy as I am in this moment.” He looked again at his son, taking his little hand in his so that he could count his fingers. “He is so tiny,” he breathed in awe.
“He will not be so for long. Someday he will grow to be a big, strong, strapping man like his father.” Emma beamed. Her eyelids were growing heavy, and she sighed. “We must name him,” she said. They had had a tough time landing on a name that they both liked. She had suggested that they name him after his father, but of course, Henry refused. He did not want to name him for a man he had been afraid of most of his life.
They had come up with a list of other names but had not landed on one they both liked. But as she lay there looking at his pale cheeks and fiery-red hair, she knew exactly what they should name him. “What about William?”
Henry screwed up his nose at first. “William? We don’t have any William’s in the family.”
Emma traced her son’s face with a gentle finger, admiring every inch of his sweet face. “It means ‘resolute protector’.”
Henry smiled at her and looked back at their son. The baby’s face began to scrunch up, and soon he was wailing, searching for food. Emma started feeding the baby, and Henry settled onto the bed beside her. “William,” he said, testing the name out on his lips. “I like it.”
Aunt Catherine had been standing off to the side, watching as the new little family got acquainted with their newest member. “I hate to interrupt, but you should get some rest now, Emma.”
Henry looked at her as if he did not want to be separated from them. It was customary for the husband to spend the night in his own quarters, especially after a baby had been born. But he and Emma were not like most couples.
“No, please stay, Henry,” Emma said. She tried to scoot over, but Henry held up his hand. He went around to the other side of the bed, careful not to jostle mother and baby too much. Aunt Catherine nodded, smiling at them sleepily. It had been nearly a full day since Emma’s labor pains had begun, and she knew they were all looking forward to a good night’s sleep. Aunt Catherine opened the door to the chamber and said goodnight, closing the door softly behind her. Emma breathed a sigh of relief when they were alone.
“I have never been so tired in all my life,” she said, her eyelids closing of their own accord. She moved down deeper into the bed, relishing the warmth of the thick coverlet. However, her eyes were open the next instant, checking to make sure that the tiny little bundle on her chest was alright. A profound love welled inside her chest, and tears started to stream down her face. Henry saw her tears and gently wiped them away.
“What is it, my love? Are you in pain?” he asked, sudden alarm furrowing his brow.
Emma shook her head, unable to speak for a moment as she tried to swallow the lump that had formed in her throat. “No,” she said finally. “No, it is just that I never thought I could love someone this much,” she whispered.
“Yes, it is amazing, isn’t it?” Henry said. “I thought much the same thing when we got married. I thought I could never love you more than I did on that day. I thought that I knew what love was back then, but over the last year, you have taught me so much more about it than I could have ever dreamed. My love for you has only grown and blossomed with each passing day. I assume it will be much the same with our little William.” Henry opened his arms to her, and she snuggled in close to him, leaning her head against his strong, broad chest. He leaned down and kissed her hair, and they listened to the fire crackling in the hearth for a few moments. “You have made me a better man, Emma. And I can never thank you enough for agreeing to be my wife. I never want to take you or our family for granted.”
Warmth and love welled within her and turned her face into his chest. “Neither do I, Henry. You are so good to me.” Emma’s eyes closed, her words slurring slightly as she started to dose. But before she gave in to sleep completely, she leaned up and kissed Henry on the cheek. “I love you so much, Henry. I hope you never question it.”
Henry kissed her on the forehead as she drifted off into a peaceful sleep, holding their son in her arms. He wrapped his arms under hers, steadying them as she slept so that William would not fall out of her embrace. He felt a wave of protectiveness come over him, and he wondered if all new fathers felt this way about their children. He turned his face into her hair, his lips brushing against her wavy red locks. “I love you too, my angel.”