Edward looked up from the documents on the desk in front of him. "Hm?"
A maid curtsied. "Your lady wife, your grace. Her hour has come."
Edward jumped to his feet so quickly that he knocked over his chair. He bolted around the desk and headed for the door. The maid hopped out of the way just in time to avoid being bowled over. She watched as the Duke took the stairs three at a time in his eagerness. She shook her head. Her employers were strange people, but they were the happiest she knew.
Edward ran down the hall to their chamber. Bella had only gone into confinement a few days ago, as much concession as she was willing to give to custom, and she had done by simply remaining in their own bedchamber, rather than have a separate lying-in chamber created for her. The midwife clucked her tongue at this and stared at the walls pointedly, as if to blame him for the lack of tapestries. He wanted to tell her that he would have spared no expense for his beloved wife, had she allowed him, but this is what Bella wanted and whatever she wanted, she would get.
Bella's return had been greeted with joy by the family and the community at large. Edward's refusal to discuss the subject had left an opening for her return, though that hadn't been his specific intent. The explanation they gave was that Bella had been sent to a convent to be tended by the nuns until her wounds healed, which was a common practice in the day, and understandable. Of course the Duke would want to wait to see if her injuries healed properly and if she would lose the child she carried. If she were disfigured or too injured to have another, she could have been quietly left in the convent to stay, put aside for a new wife.
He entered the chamber and found Bella at one of the window sills, sniffing the flowers and he paused in the doorway to watch her. Alice hovered anxiously nearby lest Bella should be struck by a contraction and need her support, but Bella flitted from flower to flower like a woodland sprite, seemingly unaffected by the fact that she was in labor.
"You want me to do what, your grace?" the gardener had asked, his voice colored by incredulity.
"I want you to dig up the flowers and put them in bowls so that we can bring them inside." Bella had sighed in disappointment at the idea of sealing herself in her chamber away from the sweet spring blossoms. So, Edward had come up with an idea: if Bella could not go outside into the spring, he would bring the spring inside for her.
The gardener looked at him as though he had gone mad and Edward chuckled. "They'll live, won't they?"
"Oh, aye, they'll survive, but your grace ... why?" He hoped the Duke wasn't enraged by his presumption in asking, but he'd never heard of such a thing and couldn't understand the intent.
Edward had explained what he wanted, and looking around at the dozens of bowls and hastily-made pots covering every flat surface, overflowing with colorful blossoms that perfumed the air, he thought he had succeeded.
Bella smiled brightly when she saw him and ran over for a kiss, Alice hanging anxiously by her side.
"Oh, Edward, thank you!" Bella said, and threw her arms around him. "They're so beautiful! I never would have thought to bring the garden inside the house! How clever of you!"
He beamed with her praise and after giving him a kiss on the cheek, she darted back over to stroke the soft, silky petals of a lily.
"Can you get her to sit down?" Alice asked. She twisted her hands in anxiety.
"When she's ready," Edward replied. "Trust her, Alice." It was all he could say with the midwife's listening ear cocked toward them.
"The midwife said that second children come quicker and easier. I'm afraid she'll drop the babe right onto the floor."
Edward laughed. "You need have no fear of that happening, I assure you."
"Walking about helps draw down the babe," the midwife agreed. "Worry not, Lady Alice."
Alice was too worried to correct the title. Edward drew her aside. "You needn't fret so. Bella knows her body -"
He was interrupted when Bella froze and looked over at them. Her nose had a dot of yellow pollen on it. "'Tis time," she announced.
Edward helped her into the birthing chair and whispered into her ear, "Don't forget to cry out." He left the smudge of yellow in place, because it was so adorable.
Bella groaned with every push and matched her panting breaths to the pattern Alice coached. Through the rest of her labor, Alice held her hand and patted her forehead with a damp cloth. She wiped off the pollen smudge before Edward could object. He held Bella's other hand and offered words of praise and encouragement. It didn't take long. Within half of an hour, a baby slid into the midwife's hands, screaming with impressive volume and vigor.
The midwife sighed. "A girl, your graces." Her tone was doleful, for usually fathers of girls were greatly disappointed and did not give a vail over her usual fee. She handed the baby to Alice, after tying and cutting the cord, so she could bathe the infant in the basin of warm, red wine. The midwife had been shocked to find that the Duchess had only one maid. Usually, dozens of women crowded the birthing chamber, some employed solely as "gossips" to tell the expectant mother tales to keep her mind off of the pains of childbirth She was further shocked to see the Duke himself come into the chamber, amazed that a man wished to witness his wife's delivery, but she certainly wasn't bold enough to tell him he could not.
"A girl," Edward repeated, and he couldn't hold back the huge grin that stretched his face. "We have a daughter!" He wanted to sweep Bella out of the chair and spin her around in joyous circles.
The midwife seemed to read his intent. "Not yet, your grace. I will be done with her in just a short while."
"Bella, she's beautiful," Alice announced, raising her voice to be heard over the baby's outraged squalling. "She has your eyes. And her father's temper, it seems."
"Please hurry, I want to hold her," Bella pleaded.
The midwife finished her tasks and was delighted when the Duke awarded her with a purse of gold. Strange these people might be, but she would say naught about it to anyone. She watched, awestruck, as the Duke gently lifted his wife from the birthing chair and carried her over to the bed. He climbed in right beside her and Alice lay the freshly washed baby between them. Both of them cooed at the baby and examined her little fingers and toes with delight. The midwife could only shake her head in amazement. No one would believe it, she thought, even if she tried to tell the tale.
Alice helped the midwife collect her belongings and gently shooed her out of the chamber, following her out and firmly closing the door behind them.
"I have never seen the like," the midwife marveled. "Such delight at the arrival of a girl-child!"
"The Duke loves all of his children," Alice said, her tone a bit defensive.
The midwife shook her head. "Not that there is aught wrong with that. 'Tis just rarely seen, is all."
Alice smiled. "They are special," she agreed. She led the midwife down to the front door and saw her out to her horse. Jasper, who was just returning from his daily rounds in the village, gallantly assisted her up into the saddle.
"The babe has come, then?" he asked, as the midwife rode away.
"Aye, a girl," Alice replied. "The most beautiful little girl you ever saw."
Jasper shook his head. "Not as beautiful as our daughter, for she looks just like her mother." He pulled Alice into his arms and planted a kiss under her ear, a place which always made her shiver. She stared up into his eyes when he drew back. He looked down at her with nothing but love, no lingering shadow of the guilt which had plagued him for so long. When they had returned to England, her father had petitioned the church to have her marriage dissolved, but a quick note from Edward to Queen Elizabeth had taken care of that. Disowned by their respective families, she and Jasper would never have their own estate or title for their children to inherit, but they were happy here at the Dower House. (Unbeknownst to both of them, Edward was building a house for them near the church in the village where Jasper performed services when he was not in the Cullen family chapel.)
"Did I ever tell you 'thank you' for stealing me away?" she asked.
He chuckled. "No, I don't believe so."
She threaded her arm through his. "Then let us retire to our chambers where I can do so properly."
"I would like to name her Mary," Bella said. She stroked the fine red down on top of her daughter's head. The baby had dozed off as she nursed and now Bella moved her into her father's arms while she pulled up the neckline of the fine linen shift she wore.
"Why?" Edward patted his daughter's back gently until she gave a large belch and then he settled her down in his arms.
"For the Queen, who once was my friend," Bella said. "This Mary will be happy. This Mary will have a father who loves and cherishes her. This Mary will have a husband who worships her and babies to love. This Mary will be able to fulfill her potential and we will never have to wonder what might have been. And also for your wife, for you loved her deeply at one time and she gave us our other beautiful, brilliant little girl."
"God only knows where she got that intelligence," Edward said, his voice low and gruff. "'Twasn't from her father."
He rarely mentioned little Elizabeth's true parentage. Bella laid her head on his shoulder. "It is a gift she has been given. We mustn't squander it, or give her to someone who will not appreciate it."
Edward said nothing for a moment. He had been considering the matter of selecting a husband for little Elizabeth for a while now, but he'd been thinking along dynastic lines, to find her a husband worthy of her bloodline. What Bella was proposing, a love match for her, was unthinkable in their world. They were no longer claimants for the throne, but they were still the highest nobles in the land. Surely Bess would never give permission for Ward or little Elizabeth to marry below their station.
He tried to think of a way to break this to Bella gently, but the words wouldn't come. She wasn't paying attention at the moment, so rapt was she with their new baby. She took one of Mary's tiny hands and laid it on her palm, marveling at the difference in size. His heart ached at the thought of that innocent baby never knowing the love that her parents shared because he was too bound by convention to allow his child to follow her heart.
He reached out to touch the tiny hand that lay on his wife's palm. "I promise," he said. "They'll marry for love, or they won't marry at all. I won't arrange a union."
Bella smiled at him, and he kissed her, soft and lingering. They snuggled closer together, their beautiful new baby between them, happy, safe and loved, as they would be for the rest of their lives together.