ROMANCING THE EMOTIONAL DUKE
Duncan paced distractedly in the hallway outside his wife’s bedchamber. Two hours prior, he had sent for the doctor, who had taken an hour to arrive. He was growing restless, and, more than once, he had to restrain himself from barging into the room. Cynthia had been sick for some time, but, over the last few weeks, she had seemed to show a gradual improvement. Twice, she had even asked Duncan to help her walk into the gardens, and had been able to tolerate a brief picnic with him and the children the previous week.
Last evening, however, her fever had risen dramatically, and a terrible rash had begun forming on her skin. Duncan had sat up with her all that night, crying silently as she muttered deliriously in a restless sleep. Duncan had finally sent for the doctor as soon as the sun had risen. Now, exhausted and sick with worry, it was all he could do to resist the urge to rush into his wife’s room, grab the doctor by his coat lapels and demand the man do whatever it took to make his wife well.
At last, the physician came out of the room, closing the door gently behind him. Duncan rushed over to him, his face pale and drawn with fear.
“Well?” he demanded. “What is happening to my wife?”
The doctor shook his head sadly, looking at Duncan with a grim expression.
“I am afraid that the progression of typhoid has accelerated,” he said. “She is not responding to the treatments as I had hoped, and I fear that her condition has worsened beyond hope of recovery.”
Duncan stared at the doctor, dumbfounded. He could not allow himself to take in the doctor’s awful words.
“But she was getting better,” he said, sounding more like a petulant child than a concerned husband. “Isn’t there still a chance she could continue doing so, even with nights like last night?”
The physician gave him a small, sympathetic smile.
“These illnesses are tricky,” he said. “And some people have recovered fully from typhoid fever. However, once the delirium sets in and the fever spikes, as your wife’s has, there is nothing more doctors can do.”
Duncan shook his head, allowing his anger to overshadow his sadness.
“Then refer me to a good surgeon,” he said. “If there is nothing more you can do, perhaps a pair of more skilled hands can help her.”
The doctor put his hand on Duncan’s arm, still wearing his sympathetic expression.
“A surgeon is not as highly trained as a physician,” he said. “And the most that one could do might be to soothe the rash presently forming on your wife’s skin. Beyond that, no operation can reverse the effects of typhoid fever.”
Duncan’s shoulders sagged. He shook his head, still not wanting to believe there was no hope.
“I know this is hard,” the doctor continued. “But all you can do now is concentrate on the time she has left. My advice would be to make this Christmastide as special as you can for her and your family.”
Duncan simply nodded, too stunned to speak further. After a moment, the physician patted his shoulder once more, then showed himself out. Duncan stood, paralyzed, for some time after the doctor departed. He had known that Cynthia’s condition was dire, but had begun believing, after seeing her improve so much so quickly, that there must be a small chance she would survive. With a heavy, broken heart, Duncan entered his dying wife’s room to discuss what the doctor had said about making Christmastide special. He intended giving her everything she had ever wanted for the holiday celebration, especially as it might be the last thing he would ever be able to do for her.
That would never come to pass, however. Three days before Christmas Eve, Cynthia fell into another bout of delirium. The rash had begun to fade, giving Duncan a false sense of hope, but her fever rose and could not be brought down by any of the methods the physicians or the house staff tried. After several hours of failed efforts, Cynthia began calling for her husband. Duncan sent everyone else out of the room and took over the task of sitting at his wife’s bedside and dabbing cold water on her burning hot skin. As he did so, she reached out weakly and put a hand on his knee.
“Duncan, darling,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.
Duncan gently shushed her, patting her frail hand, his eyes filling with tears at how thin and fragile it felt beneath his touch.
“Save your strength, my dear,” Duncan said, struggling to keep his voice strong and steady. “I will sit with you again tonight.”
Cynthia shook her head slowly, giving her husband a sad smile.
“There will be no need for that, Duncan,” she said, looking at him with an intense expression he dared not question. Nevertheless, he shook his head, trying to pretend he did not understand what his wife was implying.
“Just rest, for now, Cynthia,” he said. “We can talk more in the morning when you’re feeling better.”
Cynthia gave Duncan another sad smile.
“Please, darling, listen to me,” she said. “I wish to say this now, while … while I have the strength.”
Duncan bit his lip, fighting against the tears already filling his eyes. He knew if he didn’t let her speak, she might never get another chance. While he could not let himself believe she was fading so fast, he also knew he would not be able to live with himself if he denied her what could well be her last words.
“Of course, my dear,” he said, putting down the damp cloth and taking his wife’s hand in his. “Tell me what is on your mind.”
Cynthia was still smiling at him, when suddenly, her eyes lost focus, and she started looking above her, at the canopy hanging over her bed, rather than at her husband. She started murmuring something that Duncan could not make out, and he began asking her to repeat herself, then stopped abruptly, watching with a growing sense of panic as she began reaching out toward the ceiling at something he could not see; he realized she was slipping into another delusion. His heart began to race, and he started patting her face with the damp cloth once more. She continued that way for several moments, and Duncan felt tears trickle down his cheeks. Gradually, she returned to her senses and turned her gaze upon him, wearing the same weak, sad smile as before, as though nothing had happened.
“Darling,” she said again, reaching for him. “I know that I’ve not much longer on this earth.”
Duncan squeezed his eyes shut, determined to suppress the emotional tidal wave threatening to swallow him, at least until he was out of her presence.
“Try not to think of such things just now, Cynthia, darling,” he said, his voice beginning to break, just as his heart was breaking. “Let us speak of happy things.”
His wife nodded, though her smile wilted.
“That is precisely what I intended to tell you,” she said. “I know that all this has been very trying on you, and the time ahead will be difficult for you and the children. All three of you have loved me well, and I shall rest easy. But I fear for your happiness. I fear you will hold onto your grief far too long and fail to make the happy life I would want for you and the children.”
Duncan shook his head, unsure of what Cynthia meant.
“Are you asking that I not grieve you?” he asked, surprised by his sudden defensive tone. “I love you, Cynthia, and, of course, I would grieve your passing. You cannot ask me not to feel grief at losing you.”
His wife shook her head. Her gaze suddenly as intense as it was loving.
“I do not ask you not to grieve,” she said. “Grieving is perfectly acceptable, and it is quite necessary.” She paused, and her eyes started to lose focus again. But just as Duncan thought her about to succumb to the feverish grip of delusion once more, she shook her head, harder than he would have thought possible, given her waning strength. Once more, she looked steadily at him. “But you must promise to do something, at the end of your grieving.”
Duncan bit his lip. What was she about to tell him? Whatever it was, it was clearly so important, and she was risking the last of her living strength to say it. However, he did love her, more than anything in the world, and if she made him promise to pluck the moon from the sky, he would spend his entire life trying.
“Ask anything of me, my love,” he said, trying to smile at his wife as he rubbed her hand, which felt preternaturally cold.
Cynthia nodded, her smile turning to one of relief.
“The twins are so young,” she said, her eyes filling with tears at the thought of her children.
“They cannot grow up without a mother figure.”
Duncan’s eyes widened in shock. Surely, she was not suggesting what he thought she was?
“Darling,” he said. “My mother loves the twins as her own. She will always care for them, as you would, in whatever way they need.”
Cynthia’s smile saddened once more, and, again, she shook her head.
“Duncan,” she said, her eyes shining with unshed wetness. “Your mother is, indeed, a wonderful woman, and the children could never have a better grandmother. But they need a mother, too. Just as they need you as their father.”
Duncan bit his lip, as much to remain silent and let his wife speak as to suppress the deep feeling of sadness that was slowly consuming him. Rather than answering his wife, he merely nodded, giving her another smile through trembling lips. Taking his silent gesture as her cue, Cynthia continued speaking.
“I understand that what I am asking is difficult,” she said, blinking and sending the tears gathered in her eyes, cascading down her pale cheeks. “But it is also important for you, just as much as for the twins.”
Duncan nodded, taking a moment to collect himself before speaking. He did not want to hear what his wife was about to say, but he could not bring himself to ignore her words.
“Of course, darling,” he said, at last, his voice hoarse and raw.
Cynthia took a deep breath and closed her eyes, as though she, too, was trying to compose herself. Duncan held his breath and waited for what was coming.
“You must go forward with your life and ensure the children’s future happiness,” she said. “You must finish your grieving—and remarry.”
While Duncan had anticipated her words, they nevertheless sent his mind spinning. He silently prayed his wife would suddenly make a complete recovery, leap from the bed, and embrace him that they could completely forget the things she was saying. He knew, of course, it was a vain prayer, but his desperation ran deep, and he could not fathom a life in which he did what his wife was asking. Nevertheless, he grasped her hand in both of his and kissed it, forcing his lips to stop trembling. No matter how impossible Cynthia’s request seemed, he would never say as much to her.
“I promise you, darling,” he said, gazing at his wife lovingly. “I will ensure the children have everything they need to grow into proper adults.”
Cynthia smiled, her urgent expression relaxing at her husband’s comforting words.
“I love you, Duncan,” she said. “And I always will.”
Duncan reached up and caressed her cheek. It was just as clammy as her hands but it was so hot he thought it might burn his fingers. Despite the shock of the heat, he did not flinch or wince. He smiled through the tears that, until that moment, he had not realized were falling from his eyes.
“I love you more, my dearest Cynthia,” he said.
Moments later, his wife fell into a deep sleep. He sat in the chair beside her all through the night, watching her deep breaths, comforted in seeing that she was resting better than she had in weeks. At some point just before dawn, Duncan dozed, falling into restless dreams of a life without his beloved wife.
When he awoke, the sun was well above the horizon. He stretched and looked over at Cynthia. She looked so peaceful that he hated to wake her, but he knew that she should try to eat. He reached over and touched her hand. It was stone cold.
“Darling?” he said softly, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.
When she did not stir, he released her hand and touched her chin. When he found that her face, too, was cold, he froze.
“Cynthia?” he asked, more loudly this time.
He studied the peaceful smile on her face and the stillness of her body, and he understood. He buried his face in his hands and began to sob. He did not realize how loud his cries were, or how long they had continued until he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. He looked up into the face of Cynthia’s lady’s maid, who had tears in her eyes.
“Send for the coroner,” he said through his sobs.
The day after Cynthia was buried, Duncan had the twins and his belongings packed and loaded into a carriage. Her funeral had been a devastating affair, but the days preceding it had been far worse. The twins had toddled around the house looking for their mother, and he had no idea how he could possibly explain what had happened to children so young. His family had offered generous support, but it brought him no solace. He spent his nights crying himself into a fitful sleep and his days staring out of the window, leaving his children to be tended by his servants. He knew the twins needed him then more than they ever would, but his heart was too shattered … he had not the strength to comfort them. Everywhere he looked, he saw his wife’s belongings, her favorite seats, her beloved trinkets, and memories of her that haunted and plagued him rather than brought comfort. So, he had decided to leave behind his London home and move the children to his country estate. He held no hope of finding peace there, despite the vast beauty of the countryside. But at least there, he could find solace in solitude and, perhaps, stop seeing his wife’s face every time he closed his eyes.
Anne Hathaway sat in a chair in the bedroom of her family’s small stucco London townhouse, watching the first snowflakes of the morning fall past her window. She had always loved the beauty of the snow at their country home, admiring the splotches of green foliage that peeked out from their white blankets. Even harsh blizzards took on a strange beauty out in the country, looking more like crisp, clean sheets blowing in the wind, rather than the cruel pellets of snow that one would see during the snowstorms in London. Now, as she watched the snowfall, she was only reminded that she would never again experience the beauty of winter in the country.
Her father, Isaac, the Earl of Eversfield, had recently had to sell his beautiful country seat, moving Anne and her family back to London. He had undergone a series of financial troubles after her brother, Adam, had departed to try to secure a deal in the sugar trade in the Far East. Just before her father decided to sell the country home, the family’s accountant met with the earl and told him that he was nearing bankruptcy. Anne had only heard of the situation from her mother and siblings, but she could not understand how her family could be so unstable financially, just from a single business deal. When she had asked her mother, the countess shook her head and gave her a gentle but pointed look.
“A lady has no place in a gentleman’s financial concerns,” she had said.
Anne well knew that ladies had no business in the affairs of men. However, she felt that her mother, as the matriarch of the family, should have more information about why they were in such dire straits. Anne knew better than to press the issue, but she could not help trying to continue learning all she could from the conversations she overheard. She kept waiting for Adam to return from his trip to the Far East, but he had yet to do so, which Anne felt was rather strange. The whole affair made Anne uneasy, but she knew there was little she could do about it.
The fact that Silas Gresham, the Viscount of Halsbrook and her father’s business partner, was visiting the house rather frequently, did little to assuage her concerns. While she supposed that it should, because he was as business savvy as he was wealthy, she could not shake the discomfort she felt around the forty-year-old man. He always seemed to be watching her with a particular interest, no matter what he and her father were discussing, which chilled her to the bones for reasons she could not explain. Nevertheless, she was always polite and courteous to the gentleman, as propriety dictated, and she did her best not to avoid him during his visits.
Saddened, Anne rose from her chair and examined the books on her bookshelf. None of the titles appealed to her, but she was desperate to distract herself. She selected one at random, paying no attention to the cover as she pulled it from the shelf. She sat back down, with the book in her lap, and began to flip through it absently. As her eyes scanned the pages, she picked up details that told her it was a story about Christmastide, but she still never bothered to peek at the cover.
With a sigh, she closed the book once more and put it in the drawer of a nearby table. Mention of Christmastide was just one more reminder to her of her family’s precarious situation, and she found that she felt little joy for the season. It bothered her that her mother and sisters seemed to be just as enthusiastic about the holiday as they always had been. How could they be so unconcerned about everything that was going on? They had not even had the entire family together during Christmastide ever since Adam went to the Far East. To her, it felt as though her family was trying to use Christmastide as a means to ignore the problems they were having, and Anne felt that it was a foolish thing to do. Yet she also understood that it was a difficult time for all of them, and she did not wish to be the one to ruin any happiness her family was fortunate enough to have, even in the midst of such trying times. Perhaps things would be well, after all, and she was simply allowing herself to worry more than she should. Though, deep down, she very much doubted it.
Later that evening, she dressed for dinner and went downstairs to join her family. The smells coming from the kitchen were enticing, and she forced herself to push away her dark thoughts and prepare to enjoy a nice dinner with her family. She entered the dining room, where her mother and father were already seated. To her surprise, there was an extra person at the table. She felt herself stiffen, even as she curtseyed and put on her best polite smile.
“Anne, my dear,” the Earl of Eversfield said, rising and greeting his eldest daughter as she approached the dining table. He quickly kissed her cheeks, then turned and gestured toward their guest. “You remember Silas Gresham.”
Anne kept the polite smile on her face as she nodded.
“Of course,” she said, looking at the man. “Good evening, Lord Halsbrook.”
The man rose and bowed, looking at Anne salaciously.
“Lady Anne,” he said, his voice matching his eyes, nearly causing Anne to shudder. “How have you been faring?”
Anne took her seat, which her father had pulled out for her, grateful for any excuse to break eye contact with the man.
“Very well, thank you,” she said, spreading her napkin on her lap with slow deliberation. She had no intention of returning the polite small talk, even if that was considered rude and unhospitable. While it was not unusual to see Lord Halsbrook in their home, it was highly irregular to see him at dinner, unless it was at a social event. It caught her by surprise, further fueling her unease.
“Very good,” the man said, seeming not to notice her discomfort or her lack of manners as he reclaimed his seat.
Just then, the younger Hathaway girls entered the dining room, chatting excitedly. They hardly seemed to notice the guest, and Lord Halsbook did not seem to mind. In fact, from the corner of her eye, Anne could see that he had his gaze fixed directly upon her. The countess turned to her younger daughters and cleared her throat lightly, getting their attention. They looked at her to see her glancing inconspicuously at the guest. Then, they took notice of the man, and they smiled.
“Good evening, Lord Halsbrook,” they said in unison.
The gentleman nodded.
“Good evening,” he said, never taking his eyes off Anne. She suppressed a shudder under his intense gaze, determined not to make eye contact with the man any more than was absolutely necessary. Fortunately, the first course of the meal was served then, and she began eating very slowly, using her food as an excuse not to look up in his direction.
Dinner seemed to drag on for an age. Lord Halsbrook and her father spoke of business and upcoming meetings, and Anne’s mother and sisters talked of the upcoming holiday festivities and social events. When asked a question, Anne would smile and nod and give nonchalant answers, doing her best to keep her focus off her father’s business partner. Yet she could see, each time she did take her gaze from her meal, that he was looking at her with that odd intensity, almost as though he was not looking at anyone else, even when they addressed him directly. That thought sent ripples of gooseflesh over her skin, and she prayed for the meal to end quickly. More than once, she glanced around the table to see if anyone else had noticed the gentleman’s blatant gawking, and each time she was surprised to see that everyone seemed to be blissfully unaware. How could they not see it? Was she paranoid? She did not think so, and each time she met his gaze without trying to do so, she became surer that she was not.
As dinner at last concluded, her father and Lord Halsbrook rose.
“Ladies, if you will excuse us,” the earl said, nodding to his wife and daughters. “The viscount and I have some other business to discuss. We shall adjourn to my study, and you may retire to the drawing-room if you wish.”
As he spoke, he looked at Lord Halsbrook with a strange, pointed expression. Anne could not be sure, because of her heightened unease, but she thought that her father gave her or her sisters a sideways glance before looking at the viscount again. She shook her head, certain that she was letting her discomfort get the better of her. After all, why on earth would her father look at her, or any of the women, when speaking of business?
The women rose and dipped their heads politely as the men departed the room. Anne did not miss the way the viscount looked over his shoulder at her as he exited. Rather than acknowledge that she noticed, she quickly turned to her mother and smiled.
“Shall I have the servants fetch us some tea?” she asked.
The countess thought for a moment, then shook her head.
“Have them bring champagne,” she said, winking conspiratorially at her daughters.
The younger women squealed in delight and embraced their mother. Anne gave them a small smile, then left to fulfill her mother’s request.
Once the orders had been given, Anne joined her mother and sisters in the drawing-room. Rachel was sitting at the harp, plucking at the strings, and humming a tune that matched each note that she played but did not quite make up an entire song. Gillian was dancing in a circle near where her sister played, and their mother was watching with bemusement. Anne smiled again at their youthful exuberance, feeling more than a little envious.
Once the champagne was brought, the women sat in chairs facing one another. Gillian took a sip and closed her eyes, sighing as though she had just tasted the nectar of the gods. Rachel giggled at her, dribbling a little of the bubbly liquid down her chin, causing their mother to laugh.
“Oh my,” Gillian said, covering a smile with her hand. “I do hope you learn to find your mouth better than that before the Christmastide celebrations begin.”
Rachel narrowed her eyes as she dabbed at the spill with her handkerchief.
“And I hope that you lose yours,” she retorted.
The remark sent Gillian into a fit of giggles, one which, despite Rachel’s best efforts to remain angry, was terribly infectious. Before long, the two younger women were giggling like children. The countess looked at her eldest daughter with an expression of feigned impatience, her eyes sparkling.
“It is hard to believe that I was so young once,” she said with another laugh.
Anne smiled, though it felt sad and heavy.
“It was not so long ago that I was,” she said, more to herself than to her mother. “And yet, I find it hard to believe that I was, too.”
The countess, not noticing Anne’s sadness, laughed and waved her hand.
“You are still quite young, my dear,” she said, taking another sip of her champagne. “Would that you enjoy it, before it slips away from you.”
Anne smiled at her mother again and nodded, looking once more at her sisters with envy. Perhaps, she was still young, but not for much longer. Certainly, not as young as her sisters. Nor would she ever be so again. At that moment, she said a silent prayer that her sisters would find husbands and happy lives before they reached her age, so they would never know the burden of stress she now carried on her slender shoulders.
For the rest of the evening, Anne listened half-heartedly as her mother and sisters talked animatedly about the holiday season. Anne tried to enjoy the conversation and find excitement, as the other women did, in the prospect of the upcoming festivities. Yet, no matter how hard she tried, she could not stop thinking about the way Lord Halsbrook kept looking at her throughout dinner. She had hoped that the strangeness she had felt emanating from him on his previous visits to their home had been the product of her imagination, but his behavior at dinner confirmed her suspicions rather than assuaged them. Moreover, she could not shake the feeling that her father had, in fact, given her a peculiar look, as the men excused themselves from the dinner table. Though she could not begin to guess precisely what, she was suddenly sure that there was something more going on between her father and the viscount.
Duncan sat, staring into the bright, leaping flames crackling in the library’s fireplace in his country home. The warmth from the fire filled the room, staving off the chilly winter temperatures. Despite the welcoming light and warmth emanating from the fireplace, however, Duncan shivered. From his seat on the purple velvet sofa, he could see the snow falling beyond the window, a reminder that yet another Christmastide was just a fortnight away. He sighed heavily as he swirled the brandy around in the glass he was holding, feeling no lighter of heart then than during the first holiday spent without his dearest Cynthia.
The year before she fell ill, their family had made a big celebration out of Christmastide. He and his wife had allowed their twins, Chloe, and Marcus, just two years old at the time, to join them in the tradition of ‘Stirring Day’, which took place just before Advent. They each took a turn stirring the Christmas pudding, which, of course, resulted in something of a mess when it came time for the twins’ turn, and he and Cynthia had laughed merrily. They had attended all the balls and dinners to which they had been invited, and Cynthia had even done her best to teach the twins how to help her, and the maids, make holly and laurel decorations for their home. Duncan’s heart had never been as full as it had been during that Christmastide in the year 1810.
Just one year later, that damnable typhoid fever had claimed the beloved wife and mother’s life. The children, then three, had been too young to understand the concept of death, yet they still grieved for their vanished mother. They only knew that they wanted her to come back and that their father had told them she never would. As the years had passed, the children had begun to become unruly and undisciplined, but Duncan did not have the heart to have a firm hand with them. He knew that they missed their mother just as much as he did, and he wanted to believe that, as they grew older, they would outgrow their boisterous ways.
With another sigh, he glanced over at the sofa cushion beside him, which was once Cynthia’s seat when they sat together by the fire, after the children had been put to bed. He spotted the opened letter resting there and chewed his lip. Rubbing his face and taking a long sip from his glass, he picked up the letter and read it once more.
I am writing to formally invite you to join all of us here in London for this holiday season. It has been some time since we have seen you, and we miss you dearly. I know that you would prefer us to visit you in the country, as we did shortly after you moved there, but Sarah is heavily pregnant with David’s and her first child, and she is in no condition to make the journey.
Please, darling, spend the holiday with us. It would do the twins some good to spend time with the rest of the family, and I miss them dearly, as well. I understand why you have spent these years at your country home. I was just as heartbroken when your father passed away, and my heart breaks for you now. But you must try to think of the best interests of the children. Bring them here, and I assure you that we will have a lovely Christmastide. I love you, Duncan.
All my love,
Duncan tossed the letter aside again. He loved his family, and he was certain that his mother meant well with her invitation. But he did not feel at all ready to celebrate Christmastide again. The last one he had spent with Cynthia had been so wonderful, so perfect that none could ever exceed it. And the first one he had spent without her had soured his attitude to the entire holiday indefinitely. He felt he had made good progress in continuing life without his wife. He was doing the best with raising his children without their mother and kept his mind occupied with business matters, though not as many or as often as before he lost Cynthia. But things getting back to normal took time after such a loss, and he had hoped that his mother would understand since she, too, had lost her spouse years ago to a sudden illness.
Duncan took another sip of his brandy, hissing at the burn of the liquid in the back of his throat. He closed his eyes, relishing the way that the liquor began to warm him as it went down, further pushing away the winter chill. He ran a hand through his hair and stared out of the window, able to see the flakes of snow that fell against the window, despite the settling darkness of night. Perhaps, he could write a letter to his mother, telling her that he did not wish to risk getting caught with the twins in a bad snowstorm, even though he knew the chances of such a thing were slim during that time of year. This was one of the early snowfalls of the season, after all, and the genuinely gruesome weather was not typically expected until just before Christmastide. The only thing he knew was that he was not ready to cope with being back in London, and certainly not during the holiday season.
The sound of feet that were trying, unsuccessfully, to be quiet pulled his gaze from the darkened, snow-speckled window. He turned and saw two identical, bright-eyed faces peeking around the frame of the open door. Duncan smiled, despite the clear fact his children had disobeyed him and their nursemaid, who had tucked them in hours ago.
“What are you doing out of bed, little ones?” he asked, gesturing for his children to come closer. “You were supposed to be fast asleep long before now.”
Marcus marched up, head held high, as though he had a perfectly reasonable explanation for disobeying his father.
“Can’t sleep,” he said with a firm, matter-of-fact tone.
“Nope,” Chloe said, her voice as brave as her brother’s. “Can’t sleep.”
Duncan chuckled. During moments like that, the twins reminded him of two very self-assured adults. Cynthia would have said that their behavior was ‘larger than their outfits’, if she could have seen them that way. But he had no doubt she would also be proud of their adult mannerisms. Duncan’s smile faltered as another thought occurred to him. If she were there, they likely would not have any reason for behaving as they were—‘larger than their outfits’. In fact, they probably would have had a perfectly normal childhood, and they would have no cause to behave as anything other than normal children.
“Papa?” Chloe asked, pulling Duncan from the thought.
“What, darling?” he asked.
His daughter pulled herself up into his lap with deft agility that only children possess. Duncan winced at the pressure of her hands and knees as he put his hands around her waist and positioned her on his knee.
“I asked you if you would read us a bedtime story,” she said, an edge of irritation creeping into her voice.
“I am sorry, sweetheart,” he said, giving her an apologetic smile. “I was lost in thought there for a moment. I did not hear you the first time.”
Chloe giggled and wrapped her arms around her father’s neck.
“The first two times, silly,” she said, resting her head on her father’s shoulder.
Duncan felt himself blush, and he wondered how long he had drifted, lost in thought, with his children trying to get his attention. That often happened since Cynthia died, and the older the twins got, the more they noticed and asked questions.
“That’s right,” he said, forcing himself to sound more chipper than he felt. “I am silly, indeed.”
“Well?” Marcus said, lacing his fingers together under his chin and resting it on his father’s knee, rocking back and forth. “Will you read to us?”
Duncan chuckled again, wondering how on earth two young children could have so much energy so late in the evening. Was he ever that young? It did not feel as though it were possible.
“Please?” Chloe begged, releasing Duncan’s neck to look into his eyes with her large, pleading ones.
“Please?” Marcus echoed, tilting his head to look at his father with eyes identical to his sister’s.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, gently lifting his daughter off his lap and prying his son’s fingers and chin off his knee. “If you will let me tuck you in the right this very moment, I will read to you for just a few minutes.”
The children clapped simultaneously.
“Hooray,” they cried in unison. Before Duncan could say anything further, they took off running back toward the stairs, their footsteps thundering loudly enough to wake the entire staff. Abandoning his brandy, he slowly rose from his seat and followed his children up to their room.
When he reached the door, both twins each had a book in hand, thrusting it in their father’s face.
“Read this one,” Chloe said, waving her book of choice frantically.
“No, I hate that one,” Marcus said, pushing his sister out of the way and holding up his book. “Read this book, Papa.”
Duncan sighed and held up his hands.
“Stop bickering, children,” he said, with very little conviction.
The twins seemed to hear that their father was less than a firm with his words. They continued to argue about whose book deserved to be read that night. Duncan rubbed his temple, just about to consider reading both of them, despite having told them he would only read a little. Then, another idea occurred to him.
“How would the both of you like it if I read you your mother’s favorite story?” he asked.
The children stopped fighting at once and froze in place, looking at their father in awe.
“Mama liked children’s stories, too?” Chloe asked, her eyes wide.
“She loved reading books to the two of you,” he said, smiling fondly at the recollection. “Even before you were old enough to understand the stories.”
He walked over to the shelves, where all the children’s books rested. He examined the spines and covers until he found the one he sought. He retrieved it from the shelf with another smile and gestured for his children to get in bed.
Now fully enraptured with the idea of hearing something their mother had once loved, the twins instantly obeyed their father, jumping into their beds and pulling their blankets up to their chins tightly. Once they were snuggled in comfortably, he began reading. As he did so, he could hear his wife’s voice reading along with him in his mind, bringing another smile to his lips and tears to his eyes. As Cynthia read to the children, he had often stood in the doorway, admiring his family with all the love and affection that his heart possessed. He felt a pang of guilt at having never read the book to the children before. He typically just chose one of two they brought him, without giving any thought to the others on the shelves, including that one. He could not give them their mother, but he could at least share with them the pieces of her that he had clung to.
After several moments, he realized that it was completely quiet, save for his voice as he read. He glanced up from the book to see both of his children fast asleep, wearing tiny, sweet smiles. He, too, smiled, thinking how much like angels they looked at that moment. He silently closed the book and returned it to the shelf, walking to the doorway. Before he left the room, he turned back to look at the twins once more. For a moment, he could envision Cynthia sitting where he had just been sitting, watching over the children, as she once had, as they slept. He blinked, and the apparition was gone. Of course, he knew it had never really been there. However, it did make him realize that he was grateful to his mother for her invitation to join the rest of the family for the holiday season. It would be good for the twins to spend Christmastide with their relatives. It had been two years since he and the children had been in London, and the twins were growing up quickly. As he quietly closed the children’s bedroom door behind him and made his way back downstairs, he made a decision. He would see to the packing preparations and make arrangements to leave for London as soon as possible.
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