One year later
The ballroom of Countess Pirelli’s mansion was filled with guests. Italian royals, nobles and gentlemen had arrived en masse to listen to Helena sing. It had become a weekly occurrence, being invited to the homes of every rich Italian noble in order to raise money for the charity that had become Helena’s grandest venture.
Standing at the very front of the crowd, alongside Countess Pirelli, was Lord Edwin himself. He gazed up at her with admiration as she sang her heart out.
Her gaze connected with his and he held her there until everyone around them began to fade away.
In an instant, he was the only one she was singing to, as she had so many times before. The way he smiled whenever she performed caused her to sing better at every event.
Her confidence had grown like a rose from a small seedling into a brilliant red-petaled flower and she had begun to feel as though there was no crowd too big.
The music played on the piano and brass instruments rang out through the entire room, silencing everyone watching into a dazed and admiring state.
The black velvet dress she wore caressed her arms and legs with every movement, the heavy pearls around her neck reminding her that she had risen well above the station she had been born to. No matter how many times she brushed her fingertips over them she couldn’t quite believe her luck.
Even a year into her marriage she still couldn’t get used to the fact that the man looking at her so lovingly was hers.
Upon finishing, Helena gave a grand curtsey to the cheering and applause of every person in the room.
As she descended the steps of the dais, Lord Edwin was there to offer his support in the form of an arm. She took hold of it, graciously grateful.
Performing had always taken a lot out of her but just lately she was almost entirely exhausted.
“Lady Helena, you have quite outdone yourself,” Lady Isabelle said, as she was the first to sweep in to offer her compliments. “I am sure that the donations will come flooding in tonight.”
She offered a quick glance around the room at the nobles and gentlemen closest as though threatening that they would never hear the end of it if it was not so.
“Countess Pirelli is right,” one of the noblemen exclaimed. He was a broad-shouldered man with an equally rounded middle and Helena was sure she recognised him from several other events, though she couldn’t quite put a finger on his name. “You were absolutely marvellous, my dear.”
“I am sure that my wife thanks you for your compliment, Lord Regio,” Lord Edwin said on her behalf her as a servant offered her a glass of water. “Though as you can see she is quite exhausted.”
“Lord Edwin, perhaps you might take Lady Helena through to the library so that she can recover and re-join us when she is feeling better?” Countess Pirelli suggested.
“Thank you, Countess Pirelli,” Lord Edwin nodded. “I think I shall.”
Helena did not protest as her husband began to lead her through the crowd of people towards the hallway and the library beyond.
Even as Lord Edwin helped her to one of the couches she heard the door click closed behind them and looked over to see that Countess Pirelli had joined them.
“I am sorry to intrude,” she sighed as she came to stand before them. “But Lady Helena I feel I must thank you.”
“Whatever for?” Helena asked, finally finding her voice again after singing her heart out.
“You kept your promise to me,” Lady Isabelle pointed out even as she gestured around her. “I would never have accomplished all of this if not for your help.”
“I’m sure that you would have got there in the end,” Helena said, as she remembered the conversation she’d had in a drawing-room in Surrey such a long time ago.
“You have done more than I ever could have imagined,” Lady Isabelle assured her. “I never could have returned home with my head held high without your generous offer.”
“My wife is quite amazing,” Lord Edwin agreed, and he squeezed her hand gently.
Helena looked up from where she was seated on the couch and offered him a gracious smile. “None of it would have been possible without you.”
“I am sure that the two of you could have got on quite well without me,” he protested.
Helena knew that he was right. Her singing had got her where they were today and yet she knew one thing for certain. She would never have been as happy as she was now without him by her side.
“I must leave you to rest,” Lady Isabelle said as Helena did her best to hide a yawn behind the palm of her hand. “Please re-join us whenever you are ready.”
“I am sure we won’t be long,” Lord Edwin assured her.
Countess Pirelli swept from the room to return to her guests, leaving them alone.
Helena revelled in being with him for a moment, watching the way that the fireplace cast shadows across his handsome face.
It wasn’t until he dropped down into a crouch before her with concern on his face that she knew the time had come to finally give up her secret.
“Darling, are you quite well?” Lord Edwin asked. His voice dripped with concern as he took hold of both her hands and gazed up into her eyes.
His blue-brown gaze blazed, lit by the light of the flames to their left. Although one side of his face was darkened in shadow, she could see the love and concern written on his face.
“I am quite well,” she assured him though he still did not appear convinced.
“I know that singing takes a lot out of you, my love,” he sighed gently. “But these last few events seem to have taken a toll.”
“There is a reason for that,” Helena admitted, and she felt her cheeks begin to flush as they always did whenever he gave her his full attention.
“Well then you must tell me,” he insisted.
“Can a woman not have her secrets?” She chuckled gently as she reached out to cup his face in her palm. His skin was warm beneath her own and she took pleasure in stroking the ball of her thumb against his cheekbone.
“There are no secrets between us, Lady Helena,” Edwin scowled and Helena couldn’t help but smile. He only ever called her Lady Helena when she had done something to perplex him.
“Husband, I believe that I am with child.” Helena’s voice trembled as she spoke, and tears pricked her eyes when she watched his face spread in a wondrous smile.
“Please do not play games with me,” he sighed. “My heart could not bear it.”
“I am playing no games, Lord Edwin, I assure you,” she said lovingly.
Edwin was suddenly up on the couch beside her.
He pulled her into his arms and squeezed ever so gently as he planted his lips upon hers.
The joy coming off him was like a cure for all the wrongs that had ever befallen her.
“You are happy, aren’t you?” Helena asked, nervous. So many times she had heard of men who were less than excited about their wives being with child. She had always hoped that he would not be among their number.
“Happy?” Edwin exclaimed. “My love, I am the happiest man that ever lived!”
Again, he kissed her with such passion that her head began to spin.
“We must return to England at once,” he told her when he finally released her enough to look down at her. “Our child must be born on English soil.”
“Oh, Edwin, you know that I can’t,” Helena protested, and she pulled away from him so that she could gaze up into his startled blue-brown gaze.
“Why ever not?” He demanded.
“I have engagements that I must keep,” she reminded him. “There are several more balls and galas that I must attend and there’s the event at the orphanage next week.”
Lord Edwin’s face dropped with disappointment then.
In truth, Helena didn’t care much for the balls and galas. There was nothing she wanted more than to return home with her happy news. Yet she could not in good conscience leave Italy without performing for the orphans whose mistress had sent several letters to express how excited the children were to meet her.
“Is there nothing I can do to change your mind?” Edwin asked. “We had events planned months ahead. Perhaps we could reschedule for after the birth?”
Helena knew that as soon as they returned home, and their child was born everything would be changed forever. She had no idea whether she might ever see Italy again.
“I can’t bear the thought of you wearing yourself out,” Edwin insisted as though he was desperate for her to listen to reason. “You need all your strength right now.”
Helena’s heart swelled at the way he placed his hand upon her stomach, and she was almost sure she felt the child inside her move towards its father’s touch.
“Perhaps we could return to England once I have performed at the orphanage?” Helena suggested. “Everything else can wait.”
“Then it is decided,” Edwin’s face beamed with excitement. “I shall make all the arrangements to return to England next week.”
That was when he offered her one final kiss and pulled her back into his arms. Helena rested her head upon his chest. At first, she simply began to hum, but before long her happiness was overflowing, and she found herself singing again.
The orphanage children were the most marvellous crowd she had ever had the honour of singing to. Each child’s face lit up as they heard her. The little girls began to sing along to every word they knew, and she offered them each a smile of encouragement. Jolly songs caused a round of hand-clapping and merriment like none Helena had ever experienced before.
She thought of the child growing in her stomach and how they would recreate the experience on their estate back in England, and suddenly she couldn’t wait for the months to pass.
Countess Pirelli, who had insisted upon joining them at the event, had gifted the children with new toys and books, each one of them more grateful than the last. Helena could never have thanked her enough for her generous donation. Seeing the happiness of the faces of all those children was what Helena lived for. She couldn’t have imagined anything better to do with her newfound station in life and she was quite determined to continue to make the world a better place, one orphanage at a time.
Her great determination had only been strengthened by the arrival of several royals, nobles and artists who had come to offer their support of the orphanage. They mingled in with the children, offering their own gifts and donations as she sang.
It was a wondrous sight to behold, offering Helena strength even as her morning sickness threatened to overwhelm her.
Edwin was waiting for her as he always was when she finished singing. He helped her down from the makeshift stage in the orphanage dining room and offered her a kiss upon her cheek even as all the children began to crowd in to offer up their compliments.
One little boy in particular stood out from the crowd, offering up a bouquet of flowers that looked as though they had been picked from the orphanage garden.
The boy’s hard hair and green eyes reminded her of someone, but it wasn’t until she saw the nature with which he carried himself that she realised who it was.
An image of a portrait of her father as a young man flashed into her mind’s eye for a moment and a tear crept into the corner of her eye.
“Lady Helena, your voice is beautiful,” the boy told her and she realised he was much more well-spoken than she would have expected.
“Thank you,” Helena told him as she took the bouquet from him. “These flowers are lovely. Did you pick them yourself?”
“I did, my lady,” he said in all politeness.
“We have flowers much the same in England,” Helena told him as she lifted the bouquet to her nose to take in their sweet scent.
“I have always wished to see England!” the little boy who could have been no more than six exclaimed excitedly.
Helena’s heart gave a small squeeze. The likelihood that such a common boy would ever see such a dream accomplished saddened Helena.
“What is your name, sweet boy?” Helena asked as she dropped down into a crouch, feeling Edwin’s hand on her shoulder.
“Antonio, pleased to meet you, Lady Helena.” The boy smirked as her offered her his hand.
She clutched hold of the bouquet in one arm and took hold of his hand to shake it. Helena couldn’t help but give a charmed chuckle as the small boy leaned forwards to kiss her knuckles.
“Well aren’t you the little charmer,” Lord Edwin smiled down at him. “I must be careful, or you may steal my wife’s heart.”
“Antonio, why don’t you go and play with the new toys?” Helena suggested as an idea began to form in her mind.
She waited until the little boy hurried off to join the other children before standing.
Edwin’s hand landed on the small of her back and a shiver ran up her spine.
“I know what you are thinking,” Lord Edwin smiled even as she turned her face up to look at him.
“Our family is already growing,” she pointed out with longing. “What harm could one more do?”
“Lady Helena, your heart has always been far too big,” he chuckled back at her. “Would it make you happy?”
“It would make me very happy,” Helena assured him even as she placed her hand on her already swelling stomach.
“Then I shall discuss it with the orphanage manager and see what can be done,” Edwin promised.
“Oh, Edwin! You are the most marvellous of men!” Helena exclaimed and placed a kiss upon his cheek.
Unable to believe that she could have been any happier, Helena watched him go with the brightest smile on her face.
Little over an hour had passed. Helena found herself sat at one of the benches, watching the children play with the newly donated toys.
When she felt a hand land upon her shoulder, she turned to find Edwin standing over her. A bright eyed and bushy tailed Antonio stood beside him.
“Lady Helena, I believe you have some news you wish to share with Antonio,” Edwin told her, and the look on his face told her that he had made all the arrangements.
Helena twisted in her seat to face Antonio and held out her hands. “Antonio, come here.”
The little boy stepped forwards in his tattered shoes and slipped his hands into hers.
“Yes, Lady Helena?” he said just as politely as he had before.
“Antonio, how would you feel about not only visiting England but going to live there with Lord Edwin and me?” Helena asked and the boy’s eyes instantly began to brim with tears.
“Do you mean it, Lady Helena?” His lip quivered as he spoke, and she felt his little fingers clutch hold of her hands as though he was frightened to let her go.
“I most certainly do,” Helena assured him with a nod. “You shall be our son. You shall never want for anything.”
She remembered those same words coming from Lord Edwin and suddenly she realised he had kept his promise. In the year that they had been married he had never denied her anything.
“What will be my name?” Antonio asked and Helena couldn’t help but think it was an odd question.
“You shall be Antonio Martin-Atkins,” Lord Edwin offered up.
The gardens at the Martin-Atkins estate were as Helena always remembered them. Spring had brought with it a wonderful variety of colourful flowers that filled the air with their sweet scent, reminding her of the bouquet her son her gifted her so many months ago.
The sound of a babbling baby filled her ears as she watched Lady Claire and Sir Joshua ascending the garden path.
Sitting on the wrought-iron bench that had been painted white, Helena couldn’t imagine a time when she had been so free and happy.
She rested her hand upon her baby girl’s stomach as she lay in her basket, wriggling and mumbling in her own little manner.
Lord Edwin and Antonio paused in their game of ball to come to stand beside her. Feeling her husband’s hand on her shoulder, she reached up with her free hand to caress his fingers.
“Well if this isn’t the perfect picture of family happiness!” Lady Claire smiled as she approached.
“It is wonderful to see you cousin Claire, Sir Joshua,” Edwin greeted them.
“Yes, it is!” Helena agreed as she leaned forwards to pull little Lilliana from her blankets.
“We are sorry to simply drop in on you,” Sir Joshua sighed. “Though I fear my wife could not wait to come.”
“Why do I get the feeling that there is something you are keeping from us?” Helena asked with a raised eyebrow in Lady Claire’s direction.
“That is the very reason we have come!” The woman, dressed in a pale pink dress and matching bonnet, looked as though she was ready to burst with excitement.
“We have just had a visit from Doctor Jacobs,” Sir Joshua said and both Helena and Edwin glanced at each other with intrigue but turned back to their friends.
“We are with child!” Lady Claire burst out and her face swelled with such happiness that Helena remembered the feeling well.
She pushed herself up from her seat with Lilliana in one arm as she moved to congratulate her friend.
“Cousin Claire, this is the best news I have heard in months!” she assured her as she embraced her.
Lilliana offered up an excited chuckle and began to grab at Lady Claire’s bonnet ribbon.
“May I hold her?” Lady Claire asked, and Helena quickly offered up the infant who had begun to grow heavy in her arms.
Helena watched with great happiness as Lady Claire sat with her daughter upon her knee and offered her all of her attention.
“We shall have a whole party of children running around these gardens soon,” Edwin commented, and he placed his hand on Antonio’s shoulder. “I hope you are ready to teach them all you have learnt, son.”
“Yes, Father,” Antonio replied excitedly. Helena thought of how good he had been with his little sister. All the love and care he had given her since her birth was a sight to behold, and she was more than a little excited to see it spread further.
“I cannot wait,” Helena assured her husband and he gave her an agreeing smile.
All the wonderful possibilities began to open up in front of Helena and she knew in that moment that her children would never experience the scandal and devastation that she had. Edwin was a loving husband and an even more loving father. He had given her everything she had ever dreamed of and more.