A/N: So this is the first of two (possibly more) sequels to "Never Such Innocence Again." They've been busy. For anyone reading my other stories... this family exists only in the NSIA universe. I can't thank all of you enough for supporting that story. I hope you enjoy this.
Never Such Innocence Again: Abdication
They call her "The Voice," this lovely Lady Elizabeth Crawley, "Lily" to those in the know. She's a beauty, to be sure, but it's when she speaks that everyone pays attention.
She may not be a princess, but no one looked anywhere else when Lady Lily Crawley appeared in London last night.
Hair like rose gold, with eyes as blue as a cerulean sea, she is the most striking girl of this year's subdued season.
4 December 1936
It seemed a lifetime ago, not mere months. She felt a far cry from that creature in the photographs and society accounts, the talk of that odd summer, all beautiful dresses and cool, careful behaviour. The silliness of being presented at that rain-soaked garden party, being one of the few who had actually seen the bored-out-of-his-skull king before he'd sauntered inside never to return still made her giggle. Her father and mother, just as cool and careful in public, had not been able to stop laughing at the utter nonsense of it, her father going so far as to say he hoped the whole idiotic practice would be banned by the time his other daughters were old enough.
At least she'd gotten a few lovely dresses out of it.
Now, with her head aching from studying, her fingers ink-stained and worn out from writing, her eyes burning with the strain of reading, she looked more like what she really believed herself to be. She wasn't an earl's daughter, a debutante, a prize to be won, but a scholar. "They call her 'The Brain'," one of her fellow students had sniped in an attempt to slight her, but she took it as a compliment with a smile and had lived up to it. The train ride home was a welcome respite, the empty compartment a balm on her frazzled soul. She could close her eyes against the light, hold her hands to the icy glass to soothe the pain, and ignore the fact that she looked as tired as she felt. Essays and exams blurred in her head, a strain of a lecture on Plutarch combining with a Latin text in a way that made her want to sob uncontrollably. What had she been thinking, choosing Greats? Mamma was right, literature would have been far easier.
But then the pride slithered into her head, the glee at reminding herself that she was already favored by tutors, already considered one of the most promising scholars of her year, even only one term in, and the exhaustion suddenly could be borne.
She tried to sleep, but was far too restless, the minutes creeping by, the snow beginning to fall, and even though "The King and a Crisis" as a headline seemed quite ominous, the language that followed in her copy of The Times seemed deliberately misleading. The crisis in Europe was at least clearer, if far more terrifying, and when she finally switched for Downton, she left the paper behind, telling herself to ask Papa for yesterday's copy of the Yorkshire Post, since it seemed it had been the one to tell the story in far more detail, a story that had wound itself in her head and would not let go.
"I'm not pushing, Witch." Robbie put his hands up.
"And stop calling me that." Annabel tossed her hair back and leaned out over the track again, only to be picked up by her fourteen-year-old brother and held over the rails. "PAPA!"
"Oh, for God's sake, Robbie, leave her alone." It was not Papa, but Joseph who rescued her, his long arms pulling her back and lifting her up. "Stop leaning over the edge."
"I just want to see the train when it comes." Annabel's frown matched his, and he laughed.
"You think she's riding on the front?" Joseph rather unceremoniously dropped his little sister to the ground just as a whistle sounded and the train came around the bend.
"Lily's here!" Archie jumped down from the bench.
"Papa, Lily's here!"
Matthew, who was watching his offspring with a great deal of amusement, looked down to see his youngest, Issie, the tiny not-quite-four-year-old grinning up at him, tugging his hand and holding up her arm so he would pick her up. "Yes, my love, Lily's here."
Good God, Lily thought. They're like a mob.
She tried to muster as much dignity as she could. After all, she was Lady Lily Crawley, she was a junior member of Somerville College, Oxford, and she was eighteen years old. But seeing the smile on her Papa's face, on Joseph's, watching Annabel jump up and down, Robbie and Archie wave, and baby Issie clap, she could be nothing but herself as she opened the door before the train had stopped moving and flung herself into Joseph's arms. "Miss me?" she said softly as he hugged her.
"A little," he said, and she was swallowed up by the rest of the family, Annabel's arms tight around her waist, Robbie and Archie arguing over her bags, and Matthew's hand clasping hers as she took Issie into her arms. They had left the chauffeur behind at the house ("Not enough room if we all came along," Robbie pointed out) and after a short argument, Joseph took the wheel.
"Where's Mamma?" Lily asked Issie as they settled in the front seat.
"Home resting," she said.
"Resting?" She looked at Matthew, who busied himself with getting the bags in the car. "Papa, is Mamma all right?"
"Of course she's all right."
But it seemed too bright a response, and Lily's heart sank as the car started down the road to home, and she looked out the window so that Issie might not see her tears. "Why does she need to rest, Papa?"
The car was silent for a moment, until Robbie burst out laughing. "Because the Witch has been at it again."
"Stop calling me that!"
"It's true," Joseph said, drolly. "You say it, it happens. Lily, I warn you, don't let this one point her finger at you or make a wish."
And Lily turned in her seat and stared at Annabel, who was tucked under her father's arm looking remorseful. "Papa, she's not? Not again?"
Matthew could only look as remorseful as his daughter, and yet not quite as remorseful as he grinned at his eldest.
Annabel, at age four, had been entirely tired of being the baby of the family, and at a Saturday breakfast, after being told she was too young to do something, she announced she no longer wanted to be the baby. When Lily informed her she had no choice in the matter, Annabel stood up on her chair, pointed at Mary and said "I want a baby sister!" When her father, his amusement ill-disguised, told her to sit down, she wheeled on him. "Get me a baby sister!"
"Annabel!" Her mother was not amused.
"Please?" she replied.
The first result was banishment to the nursery for a few hours for being so rude at table. The second result, which Matthew swore was a result of Annabel's magic, was a baby sister, Cora Isobel Crawley, who arrived on a snowy night four days before Christmas, a delicate blonde creature who was as tractable as Annabel was recalcitrant. Matthew had, with a very serious face, told Annabel since she had asked for the baby, she must take care of it, and so she did, so much so that Mary feared tiny Issie would be loved to death.
"I only said to Issie if she wished for a baby sister, she might get one."
"Brother!" Issie cried. "No sister!"
Archie laughed. "No, you pointed at Mamma at the going-away party for Lily and did your little witch thing, and now there's going to be another Crawley, and no place for them to sleep in the nursery. You'll have to sleep in the stables."
"I won't! Papa!"
"Annabel, how could you?" Lily looked positively disgusted, and Matthew started to laugh.
"Lily, I hope I don't have to explain to you that's not..." At her appalled look, he laughed again.
"I know they don't come from witches," she said menacingly, and Annabel hid her face.
"Did you bring me presents?" Issie asked, and Lily looked down at her blonde little sister, the fair curls nearly white in the thin winter light.
"Of course I did."
"Yes, and Christmas ones too."
"Can I have them?"
"Not until your birthday, and not until Christmas."
Issie rolled her eyes and sighed. "That's what Mamma says."
"Well, Mamma is right." She kissed her sister's cheek and Issie nestled closer to her.
"Mamma said you was a present."
"Mamma said... a present? For Christmas?"
"No, for her. When I asked where you came from she said you was a present for her."
Lily steadied her voice before she answered. "And where did you come from?"
"Oh, we was all hatched. You was a present, but she hatched us."
Robbie snorted and Issie frowned at the sound. "Stop it, Robbie," Lily said. "So you were hatched like an egg?"
"Yes, like an egg. She keeps us under her dress until we hatch."
And Joseph made a terrible chicken sound, and Robbie joined in, and suddenly the entire car was filled with squawking as the spires of Downton came into view.
Lily greeted Armstrong as she entered, waved at Mrs. Hall who was coming up from the kitchens, and grinned when she was told Mrs. Robinson had made treacle tart just for her. Once again, she thought she ought to be dignified, and walked slowly up the stairs, away from Issie's howls and her father promising that she'd see her again at nursery tea. But the very second she turned the corner, the very moment she knew no one could see her, she set off at a run down the hall toward the Grey Room and toward the person she'd longed for more than any other in the long months of Michaelmas term.
Mary heard the quick footsteps and smiled up at the painting that still hung in their bedroom, the Sargent watercolour of Lily at barely six months old, holding Perseus in her hand. That she always expected someone resembling that baby to walk in the door had not changed, and every time, from when she was first walking and knew where to find Mamma and Papa to now, this moment, Mary was always surprised.
"Mamma?" The soft voice followed the quick knock, and tears, unbidden, flew into Mary's eyes.
"Come in, darling."
And it was not the baby, or the toddler. It was not the wise little four-year-old who, after a day and night of questions and tears, had crawled into her mother's bed and asked to hear about the first time Mamma saw her. It was not the clever child who'd gone off to school, or the excessively bright seventeen-year-old girl who'd told the whole family she had every intention of reading Greats at Oxford, and it was not the spectacular debutante who'd turned heads in London with her red-gold hair, stunning figure, and raspy, yet beautiful, voice. It was a trousered, serious-looking girl, her blue eyes worried as she peered around the door.
"There's my girl," Mary whispered from the bed and held out her arms.
And Lily did what she had done since the day she was born, since the first moment Mary held her, and as she lay down next to her mother and felt those still-slim arms wrap around her, she pressed her cheek a little closer, and felt all the worries of the past few months slowly melt away, save one. She looked down at the curve of Mary's belly and touched it gently. "Really?"
"Yes. April. A spring baby."
Lily grinned. "So it's not really the Witch's doing?"
Mary giggled. "No, her timing was off. I will admit, however, it was funny to watch her face when we told them."
"Is it safe?"
"As it ever can be." At Lily's concerned look, she smiled and kissed her forehead. "Darling, I'm perfectly healthy, and feel perfectly fine. Tired, but I was with all of you. Including you," she said before Lily could speak. "I used to think you were crying and creep into the nursery to check on you. I didn't sleep well for six months. Until your father came home."
"And he got you sleeping as fast as he could." It was Lily's turn to giggle.
"Rude," Mary murmured. "But yes, he did." Her arms tightened around Lily. "I'm so glad you're home. You're my present."
"That's what Issie said," Lily whispered, and burst into tears.
"Oh, my darling girl..." Mary held her even closer and kissed her over and over. "Darling, you're tired and worn out. Sleep."
"I have to have tea with Issie," she murmured, but her mother's hand was already stroking her hair hypnotically as she whispered to her girl.
"Sleepy Lily. Sleepy, sleepy, Lily."
And within minutes, it was as if Lily was six months old again, her head heavy in sleep on her mother's breast, and Mary closed her eyes in perfect happiness.
Seven, she thought some time later, as she awoke to Lily's delicate snores. Five births, six children, Downton a regular madhouse during school holidays, and now another one on the way. Mary sighed at the thought of another baby, that moment of the first cry, the first time seeing them, the face so new and yet it was always as if she'd always known it, as if she could have picked her child out of a thousand babies.
She did not know what had made her such an affectionate mother. After all, not even her American mother had been quite so cuddly, and to be honest, in public she would never show it. But here, inside Downton, as her brood grew, she found that each baby sparked even more of this need to hold, to kiss, to physically nurture in a way she had never been nurtured. She wondered if it was partly Isobel's influence, for Matthew was a marvelously affectionate father, but she believed it was Lily who had awakened it, Lily who had been such a loving baby that one couldn't help but want to hold her. Before Lily, she hadn't even been sure she wanted children, no matter what Richard had said, no matter what everyone told her about motherhood. Now she understood, and she stroked the hair of her eldest, asleep on her breast as if she were that baby again.
A small knock at the door made her jump, and Lily moaned slightly. Mary did not want to speak, and did not have to, for a dark head and a blonde one peered around the door. "Lily!" Issie piped up, and Annabel shushed her.
"Lily's asleep," Annabel hissed.
"No, I'm not," Lily mumbled. "Is it teatime?"
"Almost," Issie said.
"Not even close," Annabel replied.
Lily propped herself up on her elbow and looked at her sisters. "If," she said quite seriously, "If anyone tells you that you should study classics, you should laugh in their faces and run away."
"Is it that hard?" Annabel asked.
"Exhausting," Lily said, and put her head on the pillow next to her mother. "Mamma was wise and said literature, but no, I had to be difficult."
"You're doing well, though." Mary could not hide the pride in her voice, and Lily smiled.
"I think so." She pushed herself to a sitting position. "Still, it would be nice to be less tired."
Mary squeezed her hand. "You're home now, and you may sleep as much as you like."
"After teatime," Issie said.
Lily looked down at her wristwatch. "It's one hour to teatime, Issie. What if we read a book together and then have tea?"
Issie clapped and reached up for Lily. "Yes," she said. "I can read Little Golden-hood. All the Red Fairy Book. And you have to do voices."
"Please?" Mary's stern voice belied the smile that played around her mouth.
"All right." She swung down from the bed and picked up her littlest sister. "But you can't get scared at the wolf." She growled and Issie giggled as they left. Annabel watched them go, and turned back to her mother, a lost look on her face.
"Mamma," she began. "Do you think I'm a witch..."
Mary held out her arms and Annabel threw herself into them. "Oh, my darling, it's not you. It wasn't you last time and it's not you this time. It's.." She stopped herself. "It's natural, my Annabel. It's not magic, or wishing, or anything like that." She kissed the dark head. "You should go help Lily read to Issie."
"You should too," Annabel said softly. "Please?"
Each of them so lovely, Mary thought, but Annabel... there was nothing in the world quite as beautiful as this child, the angelic face, Matthew's face, the piercing blue eyes under heavy, pitch-black lashes, and then the hair, as dark as her own and even thicker, already waist-length. "Darling, I'm terribly tired. You go. I'll see you at dinner."
"I can..." Annabel's face split into a smile. "I can stay up for dinner?"
"It's a special occasion. Lily's home. Of course you can." She patted the blushing cheek and smiled. "Go to the nursery and help Lily."
And Annabel skipped out of the room and Mary closed her eyes again, her hands folding across the curve.
Seven, she thought to herself, and sadly realized it was in all likelihood their last.
Armstrong was at it again, Matthew thought as the dressing gong sounded, far more dramatic than usual, and he heard a roll of laughter from his children as they stormed the staircase. They had never thought it anything but funny, and Matthew believed Armstrong put on quite a show when they were all home.
Seven, he thought to himself. He knew it was a source of loving amusement amongst their friends, especially her sisters and those who had known Mary all her life and had never seen her in quite this light. To be honest, he hadn't either. And yet, every few years, the family expanded, and he could not imagine life without any of them. Baby Issie, who would not be the baby very much longer, was already showing signs of being exceptionally clever. Annabel, his wild little witch, was deeply sensitive and creative. Archie loved motors like his Aunt Edith, Robbie was keen on hunting and horses, the outstanding athlete of his year at Eton who was cheerfully scraping by in academics. Joseph, his heir, Lord Downton, was intelligent and thoughtful, welcomed in that terrible year of pain and sorrow during a long night Matthew feared Mary might not survive. And yet Mary did, and did again and again, even though that original fear still lurked inside him, and if he was to be perfectly honest, it was flaring back up again at the prospect of another baby, another birth, and they weren't getting any younger...
"Papa?" He lifted his head to see his eldest, his Lily, a small frown on her face. "Do you have the Yorkshire Post? From yesterday?"
He held it out to her with a frown. "It's only a little clearer," he said to her.
"But it's true?" She scanned the columns with a practiced reader's eye. "He'd give it up for her?"
"Apparently," Matthew replied. He watched as she focused on a particular paragraph, squinting slightly until he pushed the glasses off her head and down onto her nose. "Don't strain your eyes."
She peered over the top of the paper. "Would you give up everything for love?"
"What kind of a question is that?"
"Would you give up all of this if it meant you could have the woman you loved?"
He could hear a slight tremor in her voice and watched as her eye flicked to the shelf above his desk, the collection of photographs, knowing which one she meant. "I have the woman I love, Lily. I don't have to make that choice." She was about to speak again when Armstrong stepped in, his long face a silent rebuke to his charges who had not gone upstairs as the gong had commanded. Matthew gave Lily a meaningful look and kissed her forehead. "We'll continue this after dinner," he said softly.
Her father had not reassured her in the slightest, but she wondered, as she crept into the Grey Room after her father walked downstairs, if he had understood what she meant. Would Mamma? The chair in front of the mirror was empty, and at first Lily wondered if her mother had already gone down to dinner. But then the small anteroom door opened and Lily turned to see her mother, resplendent in an exquisite dark blue gown. "You look beautiful," Lily said softly.
"For now," Mary murmured as she stroked the soft roundness outlined by the drape of the dress. "I won't be able to wear pretty things for much longer." Her fingers reached out to Lily's cheek and patted it. "You look very beautiful, my darling girl. Did you come to walk me to dinner?"
"Yes," she said. "And we didn't get to talk much before tea."
"How was it?"
"Lovely," Lily murmured. "I didn't realize Issie had learned to read."
Mary rolled her eyes. "Your father is absurdly proud of that fact. I fear he'll expect this child to become a solicitor before the age of two."
"What a ghastly prospect." She linked arms with her mother and leaned her head on her shoulder. "Have you been reading about the King?"
"Yes," Mary replied.
"I can't believe it."
"It's true, apparently. Your Papa has heard from two friends in London that it will all be over by next week." Mary waited for Lily to close the door behind them. "And that poor Duke of York will have to be king."
"He's giving it all up for love." Lily's voice dropped, and Mary chuckled.
"A skinny, homely, divorced American. Yes, he's giving it up for love."
Lily stopped. "Could you give up everything for love? Would you have if..."
Mary turned. "Lily?"
"If Richard and my... mother hadn't died?"
Lily had never called her anything but Lavinia, even when she knew the truth. She had always been Lavinia, never 'mother,' only the woman upon whose grave she would dutifully leave flowers every year. She had never wavered in her devotion to Mary, never had a moment's romantic thought about the fragile woman who had died giving birth to her. Yet now, as Lily stood shaking in front of her, Mary noted how like Lavinia her Lily was, the shade of her hair, the worried look on her face, the way her hands twisted when she was uncomfortable. Tears were beginning to spill over the thick lashes, out of the eyes that marked her as Matthew's, deep-set and crystalline blue.
"Darling, whatever do you mean?"
"If... I know how much you love Papa, and how much he loves you, and that you loved each other before, but if... what if things hadn't changed? If you were still... and Lavinia.." Her eyes sought Mary's. "Would you give it all up? All this?"
"Give up?" Mary sat down on the hall bench and reached for Lily, who sat down beside her. "My dear girl, what are you asking? If.." She could not bring herself to say it.
"How could you not be together?" she whispered.
Not be together... Mary had never allowed herself to think it, not once in all those years. Not even that morning, curled up in Matthew's arms, his hands caressing her belly as they whispered about the abdication, had it even dawned on her to think that such a thing might have happened in her life. London, Richard.. we would have been married nineteen years. Children... different children. Matthew at Downton with Lavinia and..
And she suddenly understood why her darling girl was so upset.
Matthew had expected to find his wife and eldest child chattering away in their room when he went upstairs to bring them down to dinner, not crying on the hallboy's bench, Lily curled in Mary's arms as if she was a child again. "Would you have loved me?" he heard his daughter say in that broken little voice of hers, and the doubt in it cut him to the core. He made a soft sound to alert Mary to his presence, and she quickly wiped her own eyes, and kissed away Lily's tears. "Darling, go tidy up for dinner. We can't keep the others waiting."
Lily did not see him as she stood up and rushed down the hall toward her bedroom. Mary's old bedroom, Matthew thought as he joined Mary on the bench. "Shh," he said as she put her head on his shoulder. "I fear existentialism may have invaded our girl's head. Or this ridiculous idiocy of the king." He smiled. "I could see him doing it for you, but her?"
"Oh, Matthew," she murmured as she turned to kiss the strip of skin above his collar. "It's not funny."
"No, it isn't," he said grimly and squeezed her hand. "It's not even the worst of it right now."
"War, you mean," she replied.
They were silent for a moment, his hand gripping hers, his eyes far away and she knew what he was thinking, where his mind had gone, and she half-expected him to speak in German again. "Not for a while," he finally said, in English. "But it's coming again."
"Not tonight," she said as she stood and held out her hand. "And not before Christmas."
He took it, kissing the palm and wrapping it around his cheek, just as he had eighteen years ago when he returned from his war, from his hell. "What would I have done without you?" he whispered. "What would we have done?"
"I don't know," she said softly. "I can't think about it. I can't imagine..."
"An affair?" he asked.
She was suddenly cold, her body betraying her and she shook, so fiercely that he pulled her into his lap and wrapped his arms around her. "Matthew..."
"Shh," he muttered. "I'm sorry, that was awful. I wish Lily hadn't.." He looked at her. "I've never even thought about it."
"Then don't," she said, her mouth against his cheek.
"Why did she?" he mused.
"She's tired," Mary whispered back. "She's afraid of the war, afraid of the abdication and what both might bring."
"But why would she worry about what might have happened to us?"
Mary tilted her head to look at him. "Oh, Matthew, she wasn't worried about us. She was worried about herself."
She nodded and watched his face as it dawned on him, quite quickly, that his eldest child's irrational fear was tied up entirely in the idea that had Lavinia and Richard not died, Lady Lily Crawley would be Lady Elizabeth Crawley, and would have never known Mary as a mother.
Would you have loved me?
"Oh, Mary," he whispered.
For all the angst before the meal, the dinner was a happy occasion. Baby Issie had cheerfully gone to bed after tea with her sisters and kisses from all her family, and Annabel was so thrilled to be allowed to stay up for dinner that no one could help but smile as she watched them all, picking up her fork when they did, listening to Lily and Joseph's whispered instructions. This was how all of them learned, Mary thought, remembering first Lily, then Joseph, who worshipped his older sister and did everything she did. Robbie, who had been such a grubby little thing in the nursery, turned out to rather take to the whole charade, and was a charming dinner partner. Granny's favorite partner, she thought, the pain as fresh as it had been two years ago.
"Sybil rang," Matthew said. "They'll all be here in time for Issie's birthday."
"Is Aunt Edith coming?" Annabel piped up.
"Yes. She may be back for good." Mary looked at Lily. "The situation in Europe being what it is. Paris is safe, but..." She broke off and looked at Matthew. He shook his head gently. "So we'll have a full house for Christmas."
And as their children began to chatter about Christmas plans, Mary and Matthew could only look at each other in mute agony, in knowing that this, as it had been before, would be shattered, and that there were at least two sons... boys now, but soon to be men... who would likely have to go.
Annabel and Archie, after only a little grumbling, went up to bed after dinner, so it was only Lily, Joseph, and Robbie who joined their parents in the library. When Granny had died, they had stopped using the drawing room after family dinners, the memory of her in that particular chair too painful to think about. They would read or play games instead in the firelight of the library, a new tradition Matthew preferred, and even though Mary teased him about it being middle-class, she enjoyed it as well.
Tonight, however, the haven felt threatened from the outside, as she watched her boys at chess and Lily deep in conversation with her father. Mary felt from Matthew's quick look in her direction that it was back to the abdication for Lily, back to that fear, and she knew from the gentle kiss on Lily's cheek and the smile she gave her father that all was better. Yet Lily still looked worried as she kissed her mother good night, as Mary and Matthew left their children to their own devices in the library.
"Abdication again?" Mary murmured as they ascended the staircase.
"No," Matthew said and stopped on the landing. He turned and wrapped his arms around Mary, his cheek against her hair. "She's worried about you."
"So are you," she whispered back.
"Always," he said.
"How is it?" Joseph flung himself into the settee next to his brother and looked at Lily, curled up on the opposite sofa.
"Awful. Wonderful. You'll love it. Although you're going to that other place." She grinned at him. "Oxford is far superior, as you'll learn."
"Which one should I go to?"
The question was greeted with silence, and then Joseph began to laugh.
"Robbie, you won't go to university."
"I might," he said placidly. "I rather like history. It's quite jolly fun to read about old things. Especially living in this pile. Anyway, I can't make a living hunting and shooting. Need to find something to do. And no, I don't want to go into the army as a career." He stood up. "I'll be in it soon enough anyway, with what's going on over there."
"You think it's unavoidable?" Joseph unfolded his long legs and stretched out across the settee.
"I think it's been unavoidable since the so-called surrender," Robbie replied angrily. "Foch was right. It was an armistice for twenty years."
"When?" Lily asked suddenly.
"Two years. Maybe three. I can't see it any other way." He smiled suddenly, the happy-go-lucky Robbie shining through. "Anyway, plenty of time to worry about it. Right now, let's worry about tomorrow."
"What's tomorrow?" Lily stretched and yawned, her hand flying over her mouth. "Sorry."
Robbie suddenly bent down and slung his sister over his shoulder. "The hunt, you idiot. I can't wait to get out there, and you're not getting out of it."
He made for the staircase, Joseph running behind, and Lily screamed as they raced up the staircase, Robbie's purported disadvantage affecting his speed not a whit as he easily beat his brother to the top.
"Shh," Lily whispered as they collapsed at the top, stifling laughter.
"Exactly," a voice muttered from the shadows, and they scrambled to their feet as their mother came out of the nursery staircase. "Bed. Now."
The three, suitably chastened, each kissed their mother on the cheek and made for their rooms, but not before Mary pulled Lily back to whisper gently in her ear. "Promise me something?"
"Stop worrying. It's Christmas." And as Lily's mouth opened in protest, she put her finger up over it. "That's an order, my daughter. Mine," she added firmly as she held her close.
And Lily nodded as she closed her eyes, accepting every bit of her mother's love, and allowing that silly feeling of what-if to wash away in the warmth of Mamma's embrace. But she did not stop worrying, not until an April afternoon when she was told she had a telephone call and her heart pounded as she lifted the receiver, trying not to think the worst and nearly bursting into tears when she heard her mother's voice tell her she had another little brother and everything was fine.
"Percy," Lily said softly to herself. "For Perseus."
She could finally believe it was all right when, three weeks later, she arrived home with Joseph, Robbie, and Archie to find their mother waiting for them in the library, her arms full of a baby boy with a hint of his mother's dark hair and eyes that already looked exactly like his father's. Percy tolerated being handed about like a parcel, until Mary's eyes flicked to the clock and she collected him from Lily. "Feeding time," she said as she kissed her on the cheek. "Come up in a bit so we can talk?"
"I'm glad it's a boy," Robbie murmured to her as their mother went upstairs.
"Issie gets her wish?"
"No," he said, a grim, faraway look on his face.
She wondered at it then, but almost exactly three years later, as she ran down a London hospital hallway in tears, the look came back to her and she finally understood what he meant.
to be continued ...