‘I am Mrs Samuel Hastings, but you may call me Evelyn.’
Maddie Cranston looked at the woman in front of her with suspicion. Mrs Hastings was smiling in a sympathetic, comforting way. But it had been her husband who had come to Maddie on that night in Dover, with apologies and lame excuses, as though any amount of money could make up for what had happened. It was possible that Evelyn Hastings was just another toady to the Duke of St Aldric and therefore not to be trusted.
The duke had said she was a midwife. It would be a relief to speak to a woman on the subject, especially one familiar with the complaints of pregnancy. Sometimes Maddie felt so wretched that she feared what was happening to her body could not quite be normal. If anyone deserved punishment for that night, it was St Aldric. But if that was true, why did God leave her to do the suffering?
This stranger insisting on familiarity of address did not look at all the way one expected a midwife would. She was not particularly old and was far too lovely to have a job of any kind, looking instead like the sort of pampered lady who would hire nurses and governess to care for her offspring, rather than seeing to them herself. What could she know of the birthing and raising of children?
When one was surrounded by enemies, it was better to appear aloof rather than terrified. Life had proven that weakness was easily exploited. She would not show it now. She would not be lulled to security by a soothing voice and a pretty face. ‘How do you do, Mrs Hastings. I am Miss Madeline Cranston.’ Maddie offered a hand to the supposed midwife, but did not return her smile.
Mrs Hastings ignored her coldness, responding with even more warmth and, if possible, a softer and more comforting tone. ‘I assume, since St Aldric sent for me, that you are with child?’
Maddie nodded, suddenly unable to trust her own voice when faced with the enormity of what she had done in coming here. She was having a bastard. There could be no comfort in that, only a finding of the best solution. She had been a fool to confront a duke, especially considering their last meeting. Suppose he had been angry enough to solve the problem with violence and not money? While she did not wish to believe that a peer would be so despicable, neither had she seen any reason to think otherwise of this one.
‘And you are experiencing nausea?’ the other woman asked, glancing at the water carafe on the table.
Maddie nodded again.
‘I will ring for some tea with ginger. It will settle your stomach.’ She summoned a servant, relayed the instructions and returned to her questioning. ‘Tenderness of the breasts? No courses for the last month?’
Maddie nodded and whispered, ‘Two months.’ She had known, from the first, what must have happened, but had not wanted to admit it, not even to herself.
‘And you are unmarried.’ Mrs Hastings stared into her face, as though it could be read like tea leaves. ‘You did not attempt to put an end to this, when you realised, what was happening?’
That was a possibility, even now. What future was there for her or the child, if St Aldric turned her away? She would be a bastard with a bastard.
She stiffened her spine and ignored the doubts. If her own mother had taken the trouble to have her, she owed nothing less to her own child. The woman who bore her was conspicuously absent; now that wise counsel was needed. She did not wish to leave her baby without friend or family, to be raised by strangers, as she had been. But what choice did she have? Her own presence in the child’s life would make things more difficult, for it could not be easy to have a mother who was little better than a whore in the eyes of society.
An unmarried but powerful father was another matter entirely. St Aldric had created this problem. Now he would be made to face the consequences of his actions. She returned her attentions to the midwife. ‘No. I made no attempt to rid myself of the baby.’
‘I see.’ Mrs Hastings coloured slightly, and changed the subject. ‘And you are experiencing changes in mood, as though your mind and body are no longer your own?’
Now this was a question that could not be answered with a shake of the head, for it struck at the heart of her fears. She stared up at Mrs Hastings for a moment, then surrendered her courage and whispered the truth. ‘I cannot seem to keep my temper from one minute to the next. First laughter, then tears. I have vivid dreams when I sleep. And waking I have the most outlandish ideas.’ This trip was but an example. ‘Sometimes, I fear that I am going mad.’
The midwife smiled and relaxed into her chair as though pleased that they had found a topic which she fully understood. ‘That is all quite normal. It is nothing more than the upset of humours involved in the growing of a new life. You are not headed for the madhouse, my dear. You are simply having a baby.’ As if there was anything simple about this, even from the first. The tea arrived, along with some flavourless biscuits. Maddie sipped and nibbled hesitantly, but was surprised to find she felt marginally better for the nourishment.
‘It is a wonder that anyone does it at all,’ Maddie declared, taking another sip of tea. ‘Much less allowing it to happen more than once.’
Mrs Hastings seemed to think this was amusing, for she made no effort to hide her laugh. ‘You have nothing to fear, from this point on. I will be here to take care of you.’
The woman could not possibly know what she was offering. But everything about her, from her soft-spoken words to the no-nonsense set of her body, was an assurance. Maddie risked relaxing into the cushions of the divan, if only for a moment. ‘Thank you.’
‘Before the onset of these symptoms, you had sexual congress with a man,’ Mrs Hastings reminded her gently. ‘Surely you understood what the ramifications of this behaviour might be?’
‘It was not of my choice,’ Maddie said, keeping her voice calm and level.
Mrs Hastings gave a small gasp of shock, but her smile remained as comforting as ever. ‘Do you know the identity of the man who is responsible?’
This woman was different from her husband. Perhaps she could actually help with something more than ginger tea and kindness. Maddie decided to risk the truth. ‘It was the Duke of St Aldric.’ There. She had said it out loud. Even to admit it to one other person made the burden of the knowledge lighter. ‘I was in an inn in Dover. In the night, he came into my room without invitation, and…’ She was past crying about it. But to tell the story aloud to a complete stranger had not been part of her plan.
Evelyn Hastings’s eyes opened wide again and her gentle smile turned incredulous. ‘The Saint forced his way into your room and…’
‘St Aldric,’ Maddie corrected. ‘He was inebriated. Afterwards, he claimed to have wandered into the wrong room.’ But how was she to know if that had been true? Perhaps he said the same to every woman he casually dishonoured. In Maddie’s experience, a title and a handsome face were not always an indication of good character.
Mrs Hastings seemed to think otherwise, for she was still staring in disbelief. ‘You are sure about this?’
‘Ask him yourself. He does not deny it. Or speak to Dr Hastings. He was there to witness it.’
Evelyn drew a breath, hissing it between her teeth. ‘Oh, yes. I will most certainly ask my husband what he knows of this.’ Her eyes were angry, but Maddie had no reason to think that anger was directed at her. It was more akin to righteous indignation for a fellow member of their sex. ‘And you have no family to help you in this? No one to stand at your side?’
Maddie shook her head. ‘I am alone.’ There was no chance that the school that raised her would take her back, after seeing what she had done with the training and education which should have got her a respectable position.
‘Then you shall have me,’ Evelyn said, firmly, with a matronly nod of her head that hardly suited her. She rose from her chair as majestically as a queen. ‘If you will excuse me, I must speak to my husband over this. And to the duke. It will all be settled, once I am through with them.’ Mrs Hastings drew herself up even taller, looking quite formidable, not just royal, but a warrior queen, heading to battle. Then she disappeared into the hall, closing the door behind her with a resolute click.
Maddie smiled and settled back into the luxurious velvet cushions of the divan, sipping her tea. Perhaps Boadicea had arrived too late to fight for her honour. But she appeared more than able to gain reparation for the loss of it. Maddie need do nothing but wait.
Michael Poole, Duke of St Aldric, stood in the hallway of his London town house, one ear to his brother and the other tuned to the conversation taking place in the salon. He could not very well open the door again and demand that the ladies inside speak louder so that he might eavesdrop on them. But he had to know the truth and the sooner the better. If there was to be a child, perhaps a son?
It changed everything.
‘She found you?’ His half-brother, Sam Hastings, was focused almost as intently on the closed door, staring hard enough to burn through it.
‘She found me.’ Michael had expected it, but not that it would come as such a relief. In each crowd he’d passed, he had wondered if he would see a pair of accusing eyes that should be familiar, but were not. Now, at least, he had a name and a face to attach to that night, which had been but a blurry memory.
‘I am sorry,’ Sam said, as though he had anything to regret in this.
‘You are sorry?’ Michael laughed. ‘What did you have to do with any of it?’
‘It should not have happened this way. I should not have let her escape. The matter could have been properly settled in Dover. When I spoke to her that night, she claimed she wanted no contact with you, then, or in the future. I promised to respect her wishes. But I could have done more.’
‘We had no right to keep her prisoner and force her to accept help,’ Michael reminded him. The evening had been enough of a disaster. She’d have thought even worse of him, if they had locked her door and demanded she stay until a proper settlement could be arranged.
‘God knows, I tried without success to find her.’ Sam was practically wringing his hands over the matter.’England is a very large country and there are many unfortunate young women in it.’
An unfortunate young woman. Michael had never thought that his name would be connected to one who could be described thus.
‘The fault is mine, not yours,’ Michael replied. ‘If I had drunk myself to unconsciousness that night, then I would not have caused her harm and you would not have had to bother to clean up my mess.’
‘Or perhaps you could have remained sober,’ Sam said as mildly as possible. ‘No matter what you chose to do, we could not have foreseen the outcome.’
Had watching his father taught him nothing of the need for good behaviour at all times? ‘I should have known better,’ Michael insisted.
Sam gave no answer to this, which was probably proof that he agreed. Then he relented. ‘You would never have sunk to this,’ Sam reminded him, ‘had you not experienced a shock from your illness,’
‘I was upended by a sickness that would hardly bother a child.’
‘The effects of the illness are not the same when the body has an immature reproductive system.’
‘What a gentle way you put it, Dr Hastings.’ Michael had lain for three days with a raging fever and balls swollen so that he could hardly bear to look at them, much less touch them. Then, the disease had left him. But not as it had found him.
Or so he had thought.
Now, for the first time in six months, he had reason to hope. ‘Miss Cranston has found me out and not because she is dissatisfied with your payment. She claims to be with child.’ He paused to allow the doctor to conceal his surprise. ‘Is that even possible?’
‘Of course it is possible,’ Sam said. ‘I told you, from the beginning, that the negative consequences of the mumps on an adult male are not guaranteed. Yet you insisted on blundering through the countryside, inebriated and trying to prove your virility.’
‘A bastard would have proven it well enough.’ It had been what Michael had hoped for. The fear that a simple fever had destroyed the St Aldric line had turned to obsession. And from thus had come the hope that an accident with a member of the muslin set would assure him a fruitful marriage.
To announce such a thing to his own illegitimate brother showed how far he had fallen. Now that he was sober, the plan seemed foolish and cowardly. Like father, like son. It had been Michael’s life goal to disprove the adage. He had failed.
‘If you wanted a by-blow, it seems you will have one now,’ Sam said, with a sad shake of his head. ‘What do you mean to do about it?’
Michael was amazed that his half-brother did not see what was quite obvious. ‘This current situation is much better than I’d hoped for.’
‘You hoped to deflower a governess?’ Sam realised how loudly he’d been speaking and dropped his voice to a whisper. ‘And without her consent? Are you mad?’
‘No. Certainly not.’ Yet he had done just that. ‘I never meant to enter that room. I lost my way.’
‘Because you were too drunk to know better,’ his brother reminded him.
He deserved the rebuke. His father had, at least, entertained himself with the willing wives of friends. But he had done worse than that. ‘The woman I was seeking that night was hardly an innocent. Had there been consequences, she’d have been paid handsomely. I’d even have acknowledged the child.’
‘As I assume you mean to do with this one.’ Sam was offering the faintest warning that Michael must remember his obligations, when dealing with the girl and her problem.
Sam had no reason to worry. After years of exemplary behaviour, Michael had made enough mistakes in the last few months to show him the ugliness of false pride and the lengths he must go to atone. There was no question in his mind as to what had to happen next.
The trick would be convincing the governess of it. ‘If Miss Cranston is truly carrying my child, it need not be as an acknowledged bastard,’ he said, cautiously watching for Sam’s reaction. ‘If I marry her and legitimise the heir…’
‘Marry her?’ Now Sam was staring at him with an ironic smile. ‘Now I do not know whether to laugh, or send you to Bedlam.’
‘Why should I not wed her? Is there anything about the girl that appears she will be less than suitable? She is a governess and therefore educated. She is healthy.’ And not unattractive. He was obligated to her. After what had happened, he owed her more than money. He should restore her honour.
‘She probably hates you,’ Sam said.
‘She has good reason to.’ He had seen the look in her eyes, as she had confronted him with the truth. He would not have given a second thought to the woman standing in the street before his house. She was tidy to the point of primness, simply dressed in dark blue, and hair bound painfully tight, as though she feared it would do her an injury if a single curl escaped from the pins. The lips that should have been soft and kissable were set in a determined frown and her brow furrowed above her large brown eyes as she recognised him. Everything about her announced her as just what she was: a disapproving school teacher.
She’d stepped in front of him, blocking his path as no one else in London would dare to do, and said quietly, ‘I wish to speak to you about the consequences of your recent trip to Dover.’
The coldness in her voice still lingered, with the memory of the words. But none of that mattered now. ‘I will give her reason not to hate me. A hundred reasons. A thousand. I will give her everything I have. If the succession is to continue, I must have a wife and a child, Sam. There may be no better chance than this.’
The door beside them opened suddenly and Sam’s wife Evelyn stepped between them, hands on hips. ‘Explain yourselves, the pair of you. Tell me what that poor girl is claiming has no basis in fact.’ She turned to her husband, growing even angrier. ‘And that you had no part in this shameful business.’
Sam held up a hand as though to deflect his wife’s wrath. ‘I went with Michael to Dover, but only in hopes of talking some sense into him. As the Duke of St Aldric’s personal physician, it is my job to keep him in good health, is it not?’
His wife responded with a frosty nod.
‘He was showing signs of what I feared was chronic inebriation and had been—’ Sam gave a delicate clearing of the throat ‘—doing things which I do not wish to discuss in mixed company.’
‘Consorting with whores,’ Evelyn said, refusing to be shocked. Then she stared at Michael. ‘That does not excuse what happened to Miss Cranston.’
‘It was all a mistake, I swear. I was on my way to visit someone else and took a wrong turning. It was dark…’ That was hardly an excuse. He should have been able to tell the difference between the buxom barmaid he’d been seeking and the diminutive Miss Cranston, even without a light. But he could have sworn, as he had come into her bed, that she was willing and expecting him…
‘When I realised that he was missing above stairs, I searched Michael ou, and heard cries of alarm,’ Sam finished. ‘By the time I found him, it was too late.’
Evelyn gave a noise of disgust.
‘It grows worse,’ Sam admitted. ‘Miss Cranston, who, as I understand it, was a governess, was visiting the inn to meet with a future employer. The man arrived two steps behind me and witnessed the whole thing. She was sacked without references before she could even begin.’
Michael winced. He had but the vaguest memories of the last half of that evening. What he’d thought had been a thoroughly delightful interlude had ended in shocked cries, tears and shouting. And he had stood swaying on his feet in the midst of it wearing nothing but a shirt, with Sam looking at him much as he was now, in disappointment.
‘I have been sober, since that moment,’ he reminded Evelyn. ‘And I would have settled with Miss Cranston the following morning, had she not fled the inn before we could speak to her again.’
‘It is too late to concern yourself with what might have been,’ Evelyn said with a shake of her head. ‘It is what you mean to do now that matters.’
‘Is what she says true?’ Michael asked, not daring to hope. ‘Is she with child?’
‘To the best of my knowledge, yes,’ Evelyn answered.
Michael took care to school his face to neutrality. It was wrong of him to be excited at the thought. Even worse, he was glad of it. To have a child… Better yet, to have a son…
When he was gone, there would be a new St Aldric to care for the people and the land. And this boy would be raised differently from the way he had been. It was as if, despite his reprehensible behaviour, a curse had been lifted from his house.
‘I said, what do you mean to do about it?’ Apparently, in his distraction he had been ignoring his sister in law.
So he explained his plan.