Grace sat on her horse, looking down across Killarney. Hercules raced into the scene, Ingrid clinging to his back. Her light laughter floated up to Grace. Behind her on Rocky, Marcus scrambled to catch up. Grace laughed at the sight of them. They were so happy and Grace didn't regret giving up the love of her life.
She rubbed her stomach and smiled softly. His child grew inside of her and she would always have a part of him.
Something crashed and she jolted up out of the dream. Outside the wind smashed trees against the window and drove the rain down in torrents.
"Grace, are you okay?" Stevie poked her head in. "A tree fell onto the stable roof. I'm going out to check on the horses. Ingrid is still out there with Roxy."
Grace rolled to the side of the side of the bed and lowered her feet to floor. "I'll get some water boiling."
"Grace," Stevie said. "You shouldn't be up in your condition."
"I'm nine months pregnant, not cripple." Grace shoved her feet into a pair of fuzzy boots and threw her robe around her shoulders. "I'll boil the water and have some tea ready when you get back in."
The echoes of Stevie's hurried steps had disappeared entirely when Grace entered the kitchen. Taking the kettle off the stove she filled it at the sink and replaced it on the element. The wind and rain lashed against the house and she shivered. Even inside the house she was cold. Anyone who had to be out in that mess would freeze.
She slowly climbed the stairs again and gathered an armload of towels. When she got back to the kitchen the kettle was whistling merrily on the stove while steam raced to the ceiling. She turned the stove off and dumped the towels on the table.
The back door banged and Regan and Jaz hurried into the kitchen.
"Nice weather out there?" Grace handed her each of her sisters a towel.
"If you're a duck," Regan snorted. "Stevie said you would have tea ready."
"I will in a minute." Grace shuffled to the cupboard and pulled down a few mugs. "Stop dripping on the floor, Jaz."
Jaz grinned and stepped into the back room. "Grace, when did you start becoming such a little housekeeper?"
"Since you people banned me from riding. Someone had to take over from Moira." Grace dunked a tea bag in each of the mugs. "Here, drink your tea."
Regan leaned over and kissed Grace's cheek. "You're the best, Grace."
Grace flapped her hand and dropped a towel on the puddle Jaz had made. A now dryish Jaz came into the kitchen and sat down beside Regan. Wrapping her hands around the mug she drew her legs up to her chest.
"What's going on out there?" Grace sat down with her own tea and sipped the hot liquid.
"Roxy's colic is gone but Ingrid wants to keep an eye on her for the rest of the night," Regan said. "Stevie's taking a shift and then Jaz and Ben are."
"We are?" Jaz asked looking sideways at her sister.
Regan nodded. "Sure are. Just think of the love you can make with the rain playing a symphony on the tin roof."
"Haha," Jaz muttered. "It's too cold to do anything besides snuggling."
"Who's snuggling where?"
Grace looked up and saw Ben lounging in the doorway. "Well, it's about time you got up. We've been running around for an hour or more."
Ben sauntered into the room and kissed Jaz's head. "Hey, baby."
Jaz lifted her face and kissed his chin.
"Awww, how sweet," Regan said mockingly.
"Shush, Regan. You're just jealous." Jaz stood up and let Ben sit down in her chair and then plopped into his lap.
"Oof, girl, you're heavy," Ben groaned shifting her body.
"Babies do that to you," Jaz grinned rubbing the small mound that was her baby.
"How is Junior doing?" Ben asked, laying his hand over Jaz's.
Jaz glared at the baby bump. "He's keeping me awake."
Grace laughed. "That's what they do. I'm just glad this one is ready to come into this world."
"They'll keep you up more after they're born, Grace." Stevie came into the kitchen shedding wet clothes as she went.
"Stevie, you're making my floor wet." Grace stood up and the pain spread through her body.
She grasped the table and closed her eyes. Something warm gushed from between her legs.
"Grace, are you okay?" Regan reached out for her and then stopped when she saw the puddle. "Oh, Grace, not now."
"It's not my choice. This McLeod isn't waiting for a hospital. He's coming now." Grace sank into the chair and took a deep breath. "I think you'd better get Ingrid."
"I'll do that. I'll watch Roxy for the night." Ben dislodged Jaz from his lap and rushed from the room.
"Great, is that what I'm going to get when I have my baby?" Jaz complained.
Stevie laughed. "Men are a bunch of wimps when it comes to babies."
"And you know that how?" Moira asked rushing into the kitchen, Ingrid at her heels.
Stevie grinned sheepishly. "I guess I don't."
"Well, let's see how far along we are," Moira said crouching in front of Grace. "How many contractions have you had?"
"Just the one. But my-" Grace broke off as another contraction hit. "Make that two."
"We'd better get you laying down," Ingrid said. "Stevie, where shall we have this baby?"
Stevie bit her lip. "Front bedroom. The bed's already stripped. I'll get a plastic sheet and some old sheets."
Ingrid nodded and hurried to Grace's side. "Regan, support her on the other side. Whatever you do, don't drop her. The contractions will hit and hard."
"Ingrid, do you know what you are doing?" Jaz asked, grabbing the kettle. "We need hot water, right?"
"Not now." Ingrid led the way out of the room and Grace leaned heavily on her friend.
"Ingrid, I think another one is coming."
Ingrid tightened her grip and Grace leaned over as the pain radiated through her body. She could feel Regan's arms holding her up and she squeezed her sister's hand. The pain slowly receded and Grace straightened.
"That wasn't so bad," she said as they walked into living room.
"Ha!" Stevie laughed from where she was spreading a plastic sheet on the bed. "We'll see if you are saying that in a couple of hours."
Moira hurried in with some old towels. "Grace, you were there when Xander was born, so you should know what to expect."
Grace nodded and then closed her eyes and gripped a chair as another contraction ripped through her body.
"Easy, Grace. You'll be okay."
Grace clung to Stevie's soothing voice. Stevie had done this twice and both children were healthy, even if Xander had been born in the middle of a paddock with no midwife. At least she was safe in a house with a vet and two mothers helping her.
"Ingrid," she said when she got her voice back, "do you have any idea what you are doing?"
Ingrid smiled. "I've delivered cows, horses, sheep, dogs and goats. I think it all works generally the same. Don't worry, Moira and Stevie have both done this. They'll be right here the whole time."
Grace sat down on the bed and pushed herself against the stack of pillows. She smiled at her two friends and grimaced as the pain hit her again.
"Damn you, Marcus," she muttered.
"What did you say?"
Grace looked up into Ingrid's face. "Nothing."
"You said my husband's name." Ingrid drew back. "It's his, isn't? You didn't go out and have a one night stand."
Grace looked at Stevie who shrugged. There would be no help from that quarter. Moira had left to get something and Regan and Jaz hadn't come into the yet. Besides, they had told her dozens of times to tell the truth.
"Ingrid, don't ask." Grace closed her eyes, hoping Ingrid would forget about her muttered oath. She should have known better. Ingrid was determined.
"Tell me the truth, Grace. We're friends. Friends don't keep secrets."
Grace sighed. "They do when the secret can hurt."
"Fine." Grace sat up. "But you have to promise me that you won't tell Marcus. I don't want him torn between us again especially since you are married."
"And pregnant," Ingrid whispered.
"Really?" Grace reached over and squeezed her friend's hand. "Marcus must be thrilled."
"Oh, he is." Ingrid's smiled faded. "I won't tell him."
"Thank you. It is Marcus's baby. I haven't slept with another man since I gave Marcus back. I was pregnant when we went on the big drove."
Ingrid shook her head. "Oh, Grace, why didn't you tell him?"
"I didn't know until about a month later. By then you were almost married and he was happy. I couldn't ruin it. I still can't."
Ingrid smiled. "You are a true friend, Grace. No matter what anyone says you are the kind of woman I'm glad Marcus has as a friend."
Grace reached over to squeeze her friend's hand but another contraction hit and she clutched her stomach.
"Stevie, Moira!" Ingrid leaned over and supported Grace. "Easy, hon. You'll make it through this."
Grace let out a breath when the pain eased and leaned back against the pillows. She felt better, more light now that the truth was out. Ingrid didn't hate her and she would have something precious to remember Marcus' love by.
The pain came faster and closer as the hours crept by. Moira and Stevie took turns sitting by Grace and sponging her forehead. Regan hovered outside the door and Jaz took off. Grace couldn't care less if anyone was with her. She just wanted the pain to leave.
Finally as the sky began to lighten, Grace gave one last cry. Dropping back against Stevie she closed her eyes.
"It's over, Grace," Ingrid laughed. "It's a boy. You have a beautiful baby boy."
Grace smiled and held out her arms. Ingrid carefully put the baby in her arms and all the pain of the last hours became a dim memory.
She looked at the child she had carried for nine months and cried. He was so perfect. From his red, wrinkled head to his tiny feet he was beautiful. He reached up with one small hand and she captured it gently.
"My own precious boy," she murmured. "I love you."
And though she had only held for mere minutes, the words were true. From deep down inside her came a feeling so deep, so wonderful. This child was hers and hers alone. No one would take him from her. He would always be hers to love and she would never have to hide it.
Stevie reached for the baby. "Let's get you two cleaned up and then we can get Baby McLeod fed. If he's like the rest of his family he'll be starving in a matter of minutes."
Grace smiled and allowed Ingrid and Moira to clean her up.
"Have you decided on a name?" Regan asked, coming into the room.
Grace nodded. "Channing Richard McLeod."
"Channing," Regan tested the name and nodded. "I like it."
It seemed an age before Stevie brought little Channing back to her. Grace reached eagerly for the bundle. His mouth was opened in protest and cries of hunger pierced her ears. She laughed, delighting in the sound.
"Give me a second, Channing. I'll feed you when I'm ready."
Moira leaned down and helped Grace guide Channing to her breast. Grace grimaced as he latched on and began to suckle.
"You are a hungry little thing," she murmured in delight. She looked up at Moira. "Thank you. I hope I didn't break anything."
Moira laughed and studied the hand that Grace had held throughout the ordeal. "I think it will be okay."
"Can I come in?" Jaz asked from the doorway.
"Yes, you wimp. Come in and meet your nephew." Grace beckoned her sister over.
Jaz sat gingerly on the bed and peered down at the baby. She had spent the night in the barn with Ben and Grace tugged a piece of straw out of her sister's hair.
"Jaz, meet Channing." Grace laid Channing in Jaz's arms. "Channing, this is your Aunt Jaz."
Jaz smiled. "He's gorgeous. Grace, I don't know if I can go through this."
"Jaz, you will do just fine. I'll be with you the whole time."
Jaz rolled her eyes and handed the baby back. "I'll leave you to rest and go tell Ben that he's an uncle."
Grace took her baby back and held him close. His warmth penetrated her shirt and she cuddled him. "You are my special baby, Channing. No one's going to take you from me."
"Grace, can I talk you?" Ingrid came back into the room.
Grace nodded. Ingrid tucked a blanket around Grace and Channing and sat on the bed.
"Are you sure you don't want to tell Marcus about the baby? I wouldn't mind."
Grace shook her head. "Don't lie, Ingrid. If I told him he would be torn between us again. Let's just leave it. He'll be an uncle to Channing like he is to Xander. What he doesn't know won't hurt him."
Ingrid bit her lip and nodded slowly. "Alright, but if I never give him a son, I want to tell him."
"Let's leave it for ten years." Grace reached over and squeezed Ingrid's hand. "Unless something happens to one of us, he doesn't need to know."
Ingrid sighed. "Deal. You are one incredible woman, Grace."
Grace shook her head. "No, I'm just dealing with things I brought about in my own way. He wants you and your baby. I was just someone to fill the emptiness. I'll always love Marcus but he's yours, Ingrid. Love him forever."
Ingrid smiled and took Channing in her arms. "You are going to be one lucky boy. Your mother is an amazing woman."
Grace watched as Ingrid laid Channing in the cradle. She closed her eyes and allowed the bed to gather her body in its warm embrace. Her body was begging for sleep. She had a part of Marcus that could never be taken from her. That alone allowed her to fall into a deep, peaceful sleep for perhaps the first time in her life.