“What do you do with a pregnant duchess,
What do you do with a pregnant duchess,
What do you do with a pregnant duchess?
Ear-lye in the moooor-ning!”
arah Clarke-Townsend caroled the song to the heavens as she guided the curricle into a green lane leading away from Ralston Abbey. As she drew her breath to start another verse, her very pregnant twin sister, Mariah, Duchess of Ashton, burst into laughter, pressing one hand to her abdomen. “Did you compose that song, Sarah?”
Sarah grinned. The sun was just rising over the horizon, and she was wearing a daffodil-colored dress in honor of a glorious spring day. “I altered the words of a sailors’ song I heard once. The original asks what to do with a drunken sailor.”
“A drunken sailor would be more graceful than I am at the moment,” Mariah said ruefully as she brushed back the golden hair that was the exact same shade as Sarah’s. “Don’t make me laugh so, or I might have this baby right now!”
“Don’t do that!” Sarah said with alarm. “It’s bad enough that I let you talk me into taking you for a dawn drive. Everyone in Ralston Abbey will have strong hysterics when they find out even though Murphy is following us at a discreet distance.”
“That’s why I wanted to get out,” Mariah said with exasperation. “I feel so restless! My back aches and my temper is on edge because everyone fusses over me as if I’m made of porcelain. It’s driving me
!” Which is why the Duchess of Ashton had dressed herself and tiptoed through dark corridors to tap on Sarah’s door and beg for an early morning drive on the estate.
“That’s the price you pay for having a husband who adores you,” Sarah said, her tone light to disguise her envy. She didn’t begrudge her sister having a wonderful husband; Mariah had endured a rather irregular childhood and deserved her happiness. But Sarah regretted having lost her own chance for such happiness.
“True, and I count my blessings!” Mariah winced. “Ow, the little devil is kicking! Adam has been a saint about my moods. I was never this volatile before.”
“Soon the baby will be here and you will once more be the serene and laughing Golden Duchess.” With one hand, Sarah pulled her soft wool carriage rug close. She and her sister were both warmly dressed and the curricle’s hood was pulled up to block the wind, but the morning air was still cool.
“I hope you’re right.” Mariah hesitated. “I’ve been feeling a . . . a cloud hanging over me. As if something dreadful is going to happen.”
Sarah frowned, then quickly smoothed her expression. “That’s natural, especially with a first baby. But women have been doing this since time immemorial, and you’ll manage with your usual efficiency. Mama isn’t much taller than we are, and she had twins with no trouble.”
“So she claims now, but she may just be trying to cheer me.” In a swift change of mood, Mariah grinned. “I look forward to being all calm and sensible when you’re wildly moody with your first child. And don’t give me any of that nonsense of how you’re doomed to spinsterhood. Half of Adam’s friends would marry you on the instant if you smiled at them.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “You are absurd. I have no desire to be an imitation Golden Duchess.” She slowed the pair of matched chestnuts as they approached a junction. “I don’t know the estate well. Which way should we go?”
“Take the right fork,” her sister said. “The lane leads up to an abandoned church on the highest hill of the estate. It’s very, very old and not conveniently located, so eventually it was abandoned as Ralston village grew down in the valley.” Mariah looked wistful. “Adam and I enjoyed riding up there when I wasn’t the size and shape of an overfed cow. I look at you to remind myself what I used to look like.”
“And will again. Mother said that even though she had twins, she regained her figure very quickly, so it’s in our blood to be beautiful.”
“I hope she’s right.” Mariah squeezed one of Sarah’s hands. “I’m so glad you’re here! I resent all those years we were apart.”
“We have years ahead in which to become gossipy crones,” Sarah assured her.
The lane had been climbing. As the curricle approached the crest of the hill, they rounded a bend and a plain stone church came into view. “Marvelous!” Sarah exclaimed as they approached the structure. “It looks Saxon. That would make it over a thousand years old. It’s in very good shape.”
“Adam maintains the church. During the winter when there isn’t much field work, this is a project to keep laborers employed.” Mariah frowned as she rubbed the great curve of her abdomen. “They even cleaned out the crypt and built oak pews. When the church is all repaired, he’ll have to find them something else to restore.”
The wind was sharp on the exposed hilltop. Reminding herself that it was spring, not summer, Sarah said, “Shall we head back now? We can’t have you catch a chill. With luck we’ll be back at the abbey before people wake up and realize you’ve escaped.”
Mariah started to answer, then gasped and bent over, wrapping her arms around her belly. “Oh, Lord, I think this baby wants to come right now!”
Sarah’s heart congealed as she pulled the carriage to a halt. “Oh, please, no! Wait until we get back to the abbey! Less than half an hour.”
“I . . . I can’t!” Mariah clung to the edge of the curricle, her brown eyes wide with panic. “Julia explained to me all the stages and said sometimes birth is quick and sometimes it’s slow, and I’d probably be slow since this is my first.”
“But being impatient, you decided to produce this baby quickly.” Sarah tried to keep her voice light, but she was terrified. She tied off the reins and leaped down to ease Mariah out of the curricle. Blood and fluid were staining the back of her sister’s skirts. What to do?
What to do?
The groom. Murphy had rounded the bend and could see them, so Sarah waved her free hand frantically.
Murphy kicked the horse to a gallop and was with them in seconds. “What’s wrong, miss?”
“The baby is coming!” Sarah said tersely.
Murphy’s face showed a flash of the horror most men felt when confronted with female reproduction, but he’d been a soldier. It took only an instant for him to collect himself and ask tersely, “Shall I carry the duchess back to the house on my horse? That would be the quickest way to get her home.”
“No!” Mariah straightened, her face strained. “I need a . . . slower way. And—oh, God, I need Adam!”
It would be dangerous for a pregnant woman to be carried across a saddlebow, and the curricle was too small for Mariah to stretch out in. What would be better? Mind racing, Sarah said, “I’ll take her into the church and make her comfortable. Bring Ashton and a large wagon with a lot of padding—straw and feather beds or some such. And bring Lady Julia, since she’s the duchess’s midwife.”
“Yes, miss.” Murphy wheeled his mount and set off at top speed.
“Can you walk?” Sarah asked her sister, trying to sound calm.
“I . . . I think so.” Mariah closed her eyes for a moment as she composed herself. “The contractions have passed for now. Help me inside so I can lie down.”
With her free hand, Sarah grabbed the carriage rugs from the curricle before guiding her sister into the old stone building. The door, like the roof, looked new and it swung open easily.
Inside a dozen pews faced the chancel, which was a step above the nave and held a simple stone altar. An arched opening on the far side of the nave led to a small room, probably the Lady Chapel. Narrow arched windows made the interior dim, and since there was no glass, the church was cold. But at least they were out of the wind.
Sarah said, “I’ll use the carriage robes to make a pallet for you on the dais.”
Mariah nodded with mute agreement. Sarah folded one rug in half to soften the cold stone floor, then helped her sister lie down. As Sarah covered Mariah with the other carriage rug, her sister cried out as more contractions wracked her small frame.
Hiding her fear, Sarah held her sister’s clenching hand. “Impatient little fellow,” she said as calmly as she could manage. “But labor takes time. Adam and Julia will be here before you know it.”
“It will take close to an hour for them to get here.” Mariah closed her eyes. Her face was white and damp with sweat. “I should never have persuaded you to take me for a drive! If I don’t . . . make it, please look out for Adam and the baby.”
“You’re being morbid,” Sarah said, doing her best to sound calm. “There is nothing wrong apart from the baby choosing an inconvenient time and place to make his appearance. Just think, you may give birth to the next Duke of Ashton in a hay wagon! That will give him something to flaunt before the other schoolboys.”
Mariah made a face. “More proof that I’m not a proper duchess. If I were, I’d have stayed home in my own bed to have this child.”
“Since a proper duke insisted on marrying you, I think you’re fully qualified.” Sarah brushed the damp golden hair from her sister’s forehead. She always thought it strange that she and Mariah looked so much alike, yet were different in so many ways. “Steady on, my dear. Adam and Julia and a nice soft wagon will be here soon, and you’ll be back in your own bed by midmorning. This will all be just a bad dream.”
“I hope you’re right.” Mariah’s hand tightened on Sarah’s with bruising force. “Damnation, another contraction!”
Sarah held her sister’s hand, wishing she could do more. The contractions were so close together that the baby really might be born at any moment. Now that it was too late, she recalled that Lady Julia, an experienced midwife as well as Mariah’s best friend, had said once that women were often restless and full of energy just before their time. Exactly as Mariah had been.
The sounds of wheels and hoofbeats came through the empty window. “They’re here!” Sarah exclaimed with enormous relief. “They made good time. I’ll go out and meet them. Adam must be frantic.”
She rose and headed to the door, then froze in her tracks when she heard strange voices outside. Not Adam or Murphy or Major Alex Randall, husband of Lady Julia, but a hoarse, uneducated voice. “A bloody good stroke of luck that groom left,” the fellow said gloatingly. “He looked like trouble. Now he’s gone, we can kidnap the bloody pregnant duchess without having to kill anyone.”