The Lady's Honor
Lord Rushford clasped his hands casually behind his back as he watched a stable boy lead a handsome matched pair of chestnut horses around the yard at Tattersalls. He wasn't particularly in the market for any new horseflesh, but he had agreed to meet Lords Whitmore and Halston there.
In truth he was ready to quit London altogether and spend the remainder of the summer months at his country estate, Willow Hill. It had been an arduous month recovering from the wound inflicted by Lord Heller; Rushford hated being the invalid. Unfortunately, or perhaps it was fortunate, Isabella would not allow him to do a single thing on his own. He especially enjoyed the times when she offered to help him bathe. Once the doctor had given him leave to start bearing weight on his injured leg, however, she grew shy and reticent once more.
"Rushford!" Emmett's voice drew him from his thoughts back to the present.
"How goes it, Halston?"
"Well, very well. And how does the livestock look?"
Edward circled smoothly around the perimeter of the courtyard as Emmett trailed slowly behind.
"Still walking like you've got a dry stick in your boot instead of a leg, I see?" called out Lord Whitmore from behind the other two gentlemen.
Edward turned, a rueful grin on his lips. He had long ago stopped limping, but the friendly barb remained a jovial greeting.
Jasper stepped next to Edward and tipped his head a bit. "They are preparing the gallows at Newgate," he said in a low voice.
"I see," said Edward. "And has your Bow Street source heard anything that would be of particular interest to me?"
Jasper shook his head. "He wasn't able to get a look at the list of condemned."
"After shooting you in the leg, and then strangling his new bride to death, it would serve him right to dance upon nothing. I shudder when I think of the reports that were given as to her physical condition before death. The man is a monster." Emmett had grown impassioned as he spoke. He abhorred any kind of violence against women and was wont to dispatch Heller with his bare hands, were it in his power to do so.
"I couldn't agree more," Edward responded. "Though, I have to admit, it would require Herculean effort to prevent a towering rage from overcoming me if I were to find Isabella with another man—and in the very act, no less."
Emmett began to protest but Edward held up his hand. "No, friend, I understand. Her dalliance certainly did not merit her death. If Heller is to be hanged, he has certainly earned his fate."
The three stood in silence as the auctioneer started the bidding on a black thoroughbred race horse.
"Halston, are you bidding today?" asked Jasper.
Emmett's brows pinched together and he shook his head. "No, I haven't seen anything that strikes my fancy."
"Shall we be off to White's, then?" Jasper's brow rose expectantly as he looked between Emmett and Edward.
"Not for me, lads. I must see to a few last minute preparations before we leave for Willow Hill."
They strolled the short distance away from Tattersalls to where Edward's coach was waiting.
"We shall join you in a week's time," said Emmett.
"I look forward to a few weeks in the country. Though I daresay this house party will be quite different from those of past years, what with Lady Rushford now leading you about by the nose." Jasper chuckled and nudged Emmett with his elbow. They both shared a pitying glance at Edward who simply smiled and shook his head.
"I'll have you know that in addition to her Mama and Papa, Lady Rushford has also invited the Hales and the Brandons. I would not doubt she has matchmaking on the mind."
Jasper scoffed. "The day I fall into a parson's mousetrap, as you did, is the day I shall kick the bucket from under my own feet and take a short drop."
"Ah, my dear Whitmore, there are a great many advantages to having a wife," said Edward as he climbed into the carriage.
"Does that mean you're no longer living the life of a monk?" called Jasper as Edward gave two swift raps to the roof of the vehicle. Through the open window, Edward could hear his two best friends as they guffawed.
They had no idea the pleasure a loving wife waiting for one at home could bring.
. . .
The scene Edward encountered when he arrived home was chaotic at best. The maids bustled about, carrying armloads of linens and other household goods while the footmen hefted large trunks and portmanteaux down the stairs.
He nodded as he passed various servants who either bobbed curtsies or bowed stiffly before continuing on in their duties. When he reached the top of the stairs he heard Isabella directing her maid to leave certain items easily accessible.
"I'm afraid I'll need the basin with me inside the coach. Heaven help me if I should cast up my crumpets during the journey. Lord Rushford has yet to witness such a distasteful episode. I fear I shall die of mortification if he were to witness such unpleasantness."
He felt mildly irritated that Isabella had been concealing an illness from him. When he rounded the corner into their bedroom, he had every intention of chastising her roundly for keeping silent on matters of her health, but when he saw her bent over a valise, sorting through her chemises and nightdresses, any thought of confrontation flew from his mind.
The maid was the first to take note of his presence. He held one finger to his lips and nodded his head toward the door indicating his wish for the maid to leave them in peace.
She nodded once and silently left the room, taking care to shut the door without so much as a click of the latch.
Edward moved smoothly across the room, his foot falls muffled by the large woven rug that covered the floor, until he stood directly behind his still-leaning wife.
"Liza, have you already packed my tan kid glo—" She shrieked when Edward grasped her hips and drew her backside toward him. When she whirled around he caught her up in his arms. Her eyes were wide and startled as she continued to splutter her surprise.
"Hello, my love."
"Edward! How you startled me." She swatted her hand against his chest as the smile which crept across her lips melted the remaining tension from her flushed features.
"I am sorry for that, but I was loath to interrupt my view of your delightful figure."
He stroked one finger along her cheekbone, which bloomed with her telltale embarrassment. She studied him as he trailed the same finger down her throat and around the back of her neck. He delighted in the tremulous shivers that coursed through her at his touch. He leaned down and followed the same path with the tip of his nose, stopping momentarily to graze the tender spot of flesh behind her ear with his lips.
"My lord," she whispered.
Earlier in their marriage, her use of his title bothered him, but after she had screamed it out during their first intimate coupling, it took on an entirely new meaning. He quite liked it now when she addressed him thusly.
"Yes, my lady?"
He continued to kiss and nibble his way across her jaw and up to her lips. She gasped when his mouth finally closed over hers. He could not, in good conscience, waste such an opportunity, so he stroked his tongue alongside of hers, savoring the sweet aftertaste of the honey she took in her tea.
She met him with equal enthusiasm, suckling his lower lip and tipping her head for a better angle. After what seemed like hours, she ripped herself away and drew in several panting breaths.
"Edward, there is too much to do." She leaned away from him, most likely expecting that he would release her; instead, he tightened his grip around her waist and kissed her again.
"We have a moment, do we not?" he asked against her lips.
All of a sudden, she stiffened in his arms and he instinctively relaxed his hold. When her hand flew to her mouth and her eyes widened, he released her completely. She rushed to the washstand and proceeded to empty the contents of her stomach into the basin.
He crossed the room with purposeful strides and laid his hand gently on her back. When she was finished, he offered his handkerchief and waited.
She shuffled to the tea tray and returned to the basin with a cup full of what he presumed to be lukewarm tea. She swished several mouthfuls of the drink, spitting them into the basin with as much delicacy as she could muster, it appeared. When she finally turned to face him, her complexion was no longer flushed and rosy, but ashen and tired. How long had she been hiding her illness from me? he wondered.
"Must you look at me with such pity?" She set the tea cup on the dressing table and twisted her hands together.
"My sweet, how long have you felt ill? We can postpone our departure until you are well. Everyone coming to Willow Hill will understand." He lifted his hand to caress her cheek but she turned away from his touch and brushed past him.
He watched in some consternation as she paced back and forth across the room, muttering under her breath, until she finally cast herself on the bed, curled in on her side, and began to weep.
Edward was startled and frankly, quite concerned at the sudden change in her emotions. And despite all the good sense of his mind screaming at him to hasten to his wife's side, he remained paralyzed by the tears that flowed freely over her cheek.
As though there was a marionette string attached to her head, she sat up and swiped the moisture from her eyes and looked at him. When their gazes connected, he was propelled into action.
He hurriedly knelt in front of her and grasped her hands in his. "What is wrong, Isabella?"
"I did not…It was supposed to be…Oh botheration. I must look a fright," she said as she dabbed the handkerchief to her the corners of her eyes.
"Should I summon the doctor?"
Finally, the pinched lines of worry and sickness smoothed away, and a look of adoration replaced them. Edward felt dizzy at the marked shift in her demeanor.
"I have already seen the doctor."
"And what is his diagnosis?" Edward was all of a sudden nauseous at the very thought that his wife could be gravely ill.
She wriggled one of her hands free from his grasp—he hadn't realized he was squeezing her so—and cupped the side of his face. "I'm afraid you were quite successful in your quest for an heir."
His brow furrowed as the meaning of her words sunk far too slowly into his brain. "Do you mean…I say! Are you—" He sprang to his feet and nearly dragged Isabella off the bed in his excitement.
"I am increasing and it is all your fault, you insufferable man! I don't feel at all the thing, and of course there's nothing to be done for it but nibble dry toast when the nausea strikes."
He dropped to his knees and surrounded her with his arms, resting his head gently against her still-flat abdomen. Words failed him, but the thought I am going to be a father, repeated itself in a loop until he was overcome.
Isabella threaded her fingers through his hair and massaged soothing circles on his scalp. She murmured things that were incomprehensible to his mind until finally she grasped his chin and gently lifted him to his feet.
"I wanted to tell you at Willow Hill. The doctor confirmed the pregnancy only this morning."
"When will it be here?"
"He shall be born in early February."
He smirked and led her back to the bed. He wrapped one arm around her back and leaned down to scoop her legs from under her. With great tenderness he held her cradled in his arms as he said, "You are sure, then, that I have produced an heir for the title of Lord Rushford?"
"Of course. It is my greatest wish that the lineage for the earldom be secured, but…"
"But what, my darling?"
"What if it is a girl?"
"It gives us all the more reason to practice the arduous task of producing a male heir."
He kissed her soundly as he laid her on the bed. He hovered protectively over her, the length and breadth of his body completely encompassing her own, and settled down next to her.
"There are still so many things to prepare, Edward."
"Hush, my dear. Let the housekeeper do her job. The world will not fall apart if we steal a few moments of quiet together."
She pressed herself into his side and after only a few moments, he felt her body relax and her breaths even into those of a slumbering angel.
. . .
The next morning was again a smartly orchestrated chaos as the coaches were readied for the departure of the bulk of the Earl of Rushford's household. When Forbes gave the word that all was ready, Edward tucked Isabella's hand in the crook of his elbow and led her to the carriage. Once she was settled, he followed her in and sat down at her side. He cast a wary glance at the basin which sat on the opposite bench inside the carriage, a stack of lavender scented handkerchiefs and towels next to it. He really hoped that her sickness would not make the journey miserable for her.
The carriage lurched into motion and clattered off through the streets of London, destined for the quieter Hampshire countryside.
It was still quite early, the sun just barely shone over the rooftops of the city. The glass had been removed from the windows of the carriage allowing a blissfully cool breeze to circulate. He hoped the cooler temperatures prevailed for the duration of their journey. Only the rhythmic clip-clop of the horses could be heard; he closed his eyes and found the quiet to be restful and calm. Until, of course, Isabella spoke.
"Edward, why are we going in the wrong direction? This is not the road to Hampshire."
He opened his eyes and sat up straighter, his feeling of peace dissipating into the morning air. "I have a small matter of business I need to see to, before we leave town."
She frowned and sat back. "I thought you took care of all your business yesterday."
He shifted in his seat and refused to look in her direction. "Yes, well, one other matter came up."
She shifted away from him and continued to stare out the window. He really wished she would do anything but. The closer they came to Newgate prison, the more agitated he grew.
"Is something wrong?" she asked as she gave him a sidelong glance.
"Do you not have a book or some kind of embroidery with which to occupy yourself?"
"I fear I would grow ill if I was to read, and heaven forbid I should attempt any kind of needlecraft. I would most like to end up sticking myself and bleed to death."
He sighed and slumped back in his seat, defeated by her stubbornness. Minutes ticked by, and slowly the rattle of the wheels on the cobblestone streets was replaced by the jeers of the mob that had inevitably gathered for the hangings.
"Edward why is there such a crowd at this early hour?" He could feel her eyes on him but he still would not meet her gaze. She stood, head bent, shoulders rounded, and leaned over his legs to peer out his window. At least from hers, she hadn't been able to see the prison, but from his, it was in clear view, as was the gallows.
He grabbed her hand and tried to hold her back but she shook him off and pressed herself closer to the opening. Her sharp intake of breath told him all he needed to know.
The carriage stopped, still some distance away from the actual gallows, but they had a perfect view of the raised platform. When the gaoler stood and raised his arms, the crowd quieted.
As he read the name each of the condemned and their crime, the individual was brought forth, a hood covered their head, and a noose was cinched around their neck. All the while, the multitude hissed and jeered, even going so far as throw stones and other objects at the prisoner.
There was one final rope, hanging ominously at the end of the crossbeam. The gaoler shouted, "And last we have, James Bartlett, Viscount Heller, condemned to hang by the neck until dead for the murder in cold blood of Laurent Montford, Marquis of Calais."
Isabella gasped and scrambled backward, landing heavily in her seat. She panted and waved her hand in front of her face until that same wide-eyed look of distress he had witnessed the day before, overtook her. She lunged forward and heaved violently into the basin.
Once again, he handed her a clean square of toweling and waited for her to settle down.
"I had heard of the scandal. Lady Crowley was quite thrilled to be the first to share the news with your mother. But…He is not condemned for the death of Lady Heller?"
Edward shook his head. "No. Had he only killed her, he most likely would not be in this position. When he murdered the Marquis in front of his entire household, he sealed his fate." Though he glossed over the details for the benefit of his wife, he couldn't scrub the images of Lord Montford with his throat slit from ear to ear, lying in a pool of his own blood on the front steps of Heller's own house. It was damning to say the least.
Edward glanced out the window again. It was nearly time.
"Please, Edward, please. Let's go. I don't think I can bear it."
He nodded once and knocked on the front panel of the carriage. The horses whinnied as the vehicle leapt forward and rattled down the street.
Isabella rocked into Edward's side as they turned a corner a bit too fast. They'd only traveled a few hundred feet more when the roar of the rabble gathered about the gallows erupted into disgusting, triumphant cheers.
Isabella sobbed and covered her face with both hands. She bent forward at the waist and for a moment, Edward was afraid she would vomit again.
After a long silence, she arose and wiped her eyes. "I do not know why I have turned into a watering pot."
"It is the good and kind nature within you," he murmured.
"I suppose it is never really a good thing to glory in the death of one of God's children. Even though he was a very bad man." She sniffled into a scented handkerchief and slowly began to relax against the plush, tufted cushion of the carriage.
"He was indeed a most depraved individual, but one about whom we shall never have to worry again."
"Do you think he really would have followed through on his threats against me?"
"It is difficult to say with certainty, but if his crazed behavior in regard to his wife's lover is any indication, I must say I am glad I will not have to be anxious about his intentions toward you any longer."
. . .
28 February 1816
"I swear to God himself that I shall break down the door if I am not allowed to see my wife this very moment." Edward's voice echoed through the upper halls of Willow Hill, as he pounded on the door of the bedchamber he shared with Isabella.
She had been laboring for nearly twenty hours, and still the child was not born. The doctor had even consented for the local midwife to attend to Lady Rushford, though it was with much disapproval and warning that he'd done so.
Just as Edward was about to start kicking at the door, he heard the faint click of the lock. A frightened, doe-eyed maid opened the door and quickly stepped aside, narrowly avoiding the rampaging soon-to-be father as he barreled into the room.
Isabella sat crouched on a strange looking seat with beads of perspiration dampening her forehead and hair. Both his mother and her mother stood on either side, wearing matching scowls as Siobhan, the midwife, crooned instructions into his wife's ear.
When the grizzled woman glanced up, she had a gleam in her eye. Her hair was gray with wild curls shooting out from the knot at the back of her neck, her face looked like the old apple faces that the housekeeper would carve for him when he was a child, all wrinkled and desiccated.
"The babby is almost here, but she be waitin' fer her own special day. This'un is shore to be full o' spirit." The midwife's thick accent made it difficult for Edward to focus on her words.
"How do you know it's a girl?" grunted Isabella. "Oooh, another…"
"Bear down and push, lovey. 'Tis almost done. Are ye ready to catch, doctor?"
"Hush, witch. I know how to bring a child into the world," snapped the doctor, his irritation with Siobhan's presence clear in his every action.
"Rushford, come take my place," said his mother. But he hardly heard her.
"We've only ever talked about names for a boy," said Edward softly as he caught a glimpse of the doctor's bloodied hand reaching for a square of toweling.
"Och, there he goes," said Siobhan, her voice heavily laced with disapproval. It was the last thing Edward remembered hearing before his knees gave out and he felt like he was floating.
Everything was muffled and foggy and quiet. Edward's whole body felt stiff and sluggish. He thought he heard the faint cooing of his wife's voice. He tried to search her out but found it impossible to force his limbs to function.
Out of nowhere, his nose began to burn with an acrid, sharp smell. His eyes flew open and he bolted up, turning his head from side to side in an attempt to locate the source of the poisonous odor. He was on the floor in his bedchamber. The baby! he thought as he cast his eyes about the room. The strange chair was gone, neither of their mothers were anywhere in sight, and the disorder that had overwhelmed the room when he'd first entered was all put back to rights. How long had he been unconscious?
A wrinkled face popped into his view. "Ah, there ye be. 'Tis why we don't let the papas in until after the wee ones are born."
"Bella," he said, shaking the grogginess from his head. "Where is my wife?"
"I'm right here, my lord."
He stood on shaky legs and turned slowly toward the sweetest voice he would ever know. Isabella lay on the bed in a fresh, white nightdress, her hair brushed and plaited, hanging neatly over one shoulder, and in her arms was a tiny bundle of blankets and peacefully calm infant.
His feet moved toward his wife without any conscious thought on his part. Gingerly, he crawled over the empty space and perched next to her, unsure of what to do next. He grimaced when Siobhan started speaking.
"I'll be by on the morrow to check on ye, lovey."
"Thank you, Siobhan. I couldn't have done without you."
The old woman clomped her way out of the room and finally it was just the three of them.
Edward stared in rapt fascination at the little person in Isabella—no, Bella's arms. His wife deserved to hear that he thought she was beautiful every time he said her name. "Bella, my beautiful Bella. How do you fare?"
A knowing smile peeked out from the corners of her mouth. "You fainted, my lord."
He could hear the barely suppressed giggle that threatened to break free. "I have no idea what you're talking about." He remained silent, his eyes fixed on the soft little rosebud lips of his child. "I do hope that everyone was made to take an oath that all happenings in this room are to be taken to the grave?"
"Oh dear, I do believe we forgot to summon a magistrate to make such proceedings official."
"Then I will assume the entire township and I daresay the whole of Hampshire will know of my weak constitution before mid-day." He sighed and bowed his head, letting it rest gently on Bella's shoulder. After a contemplative silence he asked, "Was she right? Siobhan, I mean."
"Does it matter?"
"You are alive, the child is alive, of course it does not matter."
He looked down and watched as Bella stroked her finger gently over the shock of reddish brown hair that covered the tiny head. "She was right. You have a daughter, my love."
"A girl," he said in a heavy breath. "And was she indeed born on the twenty-ninth?"
"Yes. She waited until it was two minutes past midnight. Siobhan was right on both accounts. She wanted to have her own special day."
His next thought was that he would never survive having a daughter. He could already feel the anxiety building in his chest, twisting around his heart until it clenched painfully with every beat.
Bella must have noticed the change in his body as the directions of his thoughts turned invariably to how he would protect her honor.
"Please do not give yourself an apoplexy thinking of suitors and her coming out. We have many many years before that becomes an issue."
"You know me too well, my sweet. But it changes nothing. I would go to the ends of the earth to protect my ladies' honor."
He held out his hands and lifted the rousing infant into his arms. "What shall we call her?"
Bella straightened the blankets over her legs and smiled as she watched him hold their daughter. "I was thinking perhaps, Lady Caroline Marie Cullen, in honor of your late father."
"I think that is perfect. My mother will be deeply touched." He paused and marveled at the strength of the little fist that grasped his finger. "She will need a brother to protect her, and soon. When shall we start working on that endeavor?"
Bella arched one eyebrow and shook her head. "You may address that subject with me in three or four years' time. Until then, do I need to cloister myself in a separate bedchamber?"
Edward's grin turned mischievous as he shook his head. "I don't think I can bear to sleep without you, my love. I promise I will behave."
Surely, she couldn't really be serious, he thought. But it wasn't until the twenty-ninth of February, 1820, that Marcus Carlisle Cullen, the next Earl of Rushford, was born.
A/N: A big thank you to LJSummers for beta'ing this so quickly! Hope you all enjoyed Edward, Earl of Rushford, and his Lady Isabella. Thanks so much for reading. I'd love to hear what you thought about these two, now three!