So he sat there. He sat there for what felt like hours. He sat there and tried to remember to breathe. He sat there and covered his mouth every time he felt a huge choking sob coming on, because he didn’t want her to hear it. He sat there and tried desperately not to think about what his life might be without her.
She had been his entire world. Then they had children, and she was no longer everything to him, but still, she was at the center of it all. The sun. His sun, around which everything important revolved.
Lucy. She was the girl he hadn’t realized he adored until it was almost too late. She was so perfect, so utterly his other half that he had almost overlooked her. He’d been waiting for a love fraught with passion and drama; it hadn’t even occurred to him that true love might be something that was utterly comfortable and just plain easy.
With Lucy he could sit for hours and not say a word. Or they could chatter like magpies. He could say something stupid and not care. He could make love to her all night or go several weeks spending his nights simply snuggled up to next to her.
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered because they both knew.
“I can’t do it without you,” he blurted out. Bloody hell, he went an hour without speaking and this was the first thing he said? “I mean, I can, because I would have to, but it’ll be awful, and honestly, I won’t do such a good job. I’m a good father, but only because you are such a good mother.”
If she died . . .
He shut his eyes tightly, trying to banish the thought. He’d been trying so hard to keep those three words from his mind.
Three words. “Three words” was supposed to mean I love you. Not—
He took a deep, shuddering breath. He had to stop thinking this way.
The window had been cracked open to allow a slight breeze, and Gregory heard a joyful shriek from outside. One of his children—one of the boys from the sound of it. It was sunny, and he imagined they were playing some sort of racing game on the lawn.
Lucy loved to watch them run about outside. She loved to run with them, too, even when she was so pregnant that she moved like a duck.
“Lucy,” he whispered, trying to keep his voice from shaking. “Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.
“They need you more,” he choked out, shifting his position so that he could hold her hand in both of his. “The children. They need you more. I know you know that. You would never say it, but you know it. And I need you. I think you know that, too.”
But she didn’t reply. She didn’t move.
But she breathed. At least, thank God, she breathed.
Gregory started at the voice of his eldest child, and he quickly turned away, desperate for a moment to compose himself.
“I went to see the babies,” Katharine said as she entered the room. “Aunt Hyacinth said I could.”
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“They’re very sweet,” Katharine said. “The babies, I mean. Not Aunt Hyacinth.”
To his utter shock, Gregory felt himself smile. “No,” he said, “no one would call Aunt Hyacinth sweet.”
“But I do love her,” Katharine said quickly.
“I know,” he replied, finally turning to look at her. Ever loyal, his Katharine was. “I do, too.”
Katharine took a few steps forward, pausing near the foot of the bed. “Why is Mama still sleeping?”
He swallowed. “Well, she’s very tired, pet. It takes a great deal of energy to have a baby. Double for two.”
Katharine nodded solemnly, but he wasn’t sure if she believed him. She was looking at her mother with a furrowed brow—not quite concerned, but very, very curious. “She’s pale,” she finally said.
“Do you think so?” Gregory responded.
“She’s white as a sheet.”
His opinion precisely, but he was trying not to sound worried, so he merely said, “Perhaps a little more pale than usual.”
Katharine regarded him for a moment, then took a seat in the chair next to him. She sat straight, her hands folded neatly in her lap, and Gregory could not help marveling at the miracle of her. Almost twelve years ago Katharine Hazel Bridgerton had entered this world, and he had become a father. It was, he had realized the instant she had been put into his arms, his one true vocation. He was a younger son; he was not going to hold a title, and he was not suited for the military or the clergy. His place in life was to be a gentleman farmer.
And a father.
When he’d looked down at baby Katharine, her eyes still that dark baby gray that all of his children had had when they were tiny, he knew. Why he was here, what he was meant for . . . that was when he knew. He existed to shepherd this miraculous little creature to adulthood, to protect her and keep her well.
He adored all of his children, but he would always have a special bond with Katharine, because she was the one who had taught him who he was meant to be.
“The others want to see her,” she said. She was looking down, watching her right foot as she kicked it back and forth.
“She still needs her rest, pet.”
Gregory waited for more. She wasn’t saying what she was really thinking. He had a feeling that it was Katharine who wanted to see her mother. She wanted to sit on the side of the bed and laugh and giggle and then explain every last nuance of the nature walk she’d undertaken with her governess.
The others—the littler ones—were probably oblivious.
But Katharine had always been incredibly close to Lucy. They were like two peas in a pod. They looked nothing alike; Katharine was remarkably like her namesake, Gregory’s sister-in-law, the current Viscountess Bridgerton. It made absolutely no sense, as theirs was not a blood connection, but both Katharines had the same dark hair and oval face. The eyes were not the same color, but the shape was identical.
On the inside, however, Katharine—his Katharine—was just like Lucy. She craved order. She needed to see the pattern in things. If she were able to tell her mother about yesterday’s nature walk, she would have started with which flowers they’d seen. She would not have remembered all of them, but she would definitely have known how many there had been of each color. And Gregory would not be surprised if the governess came to him later and said that Katharine had insisted they go for an extra mile so that the “pinks” caught up with the “yellows.”
Fairness in all things, that was his Katharine.
“Mimsy says the babies are to be named after Aunt Eloise and Aunt Francesca,” Katharine said, after kicking her foot back and forth thirty-two times.
(He’d counted. Gregory could not believe he’d counted. He was growing more like Lucy every day.)
“As usual,” he replied, “Mimsy is correct.” Mimsy was the children’s nanny and nurse, and a candidate for sainthood if he’d ever met one.
“She did not know what their middle names might be.”
Gregory frowned. “I don’t think we got
’round to deciding upon that.”
Katharine looked at him with an unsettlingly direct gaze. “Before Mama needed her nap?”
“Er, yes,” Gregory replied, his gaze sliding from hers. He was not proud that he’d looked away, but it was his only choice if he wanted to keep from crying in front of his child.
“I think one of them ought to be named Hyacinth,” Katharine announced.
He nodded. “Eloise Hyacinth or Francesca Hyacinth?”
Katharine’s lips pressed together in thought, then she said, rather firmly, “Francesca Hyacinth. It has a lovely ring to it. Although . . .”
Gregory waited for her to finish her thought, and when she did not he prompted, “Although . . . ?”
“It is a little flowery.”
“I’m not certain how one can avoid that with a name like Hyacinth.”
“True,” Katharine said thoughtfully, “but what if she does not turn out to be sweet and delicate?”
“Like your Aunt Hyacinth?” he murmured. Some things really did beg to be said.
“She is rather fierce,” Katharine said, without an ounce of sarcasm.
“Fierce or fearsome?”
“Oh, only fierce. Aunt Hyacinth is not at all fearsome.”
“Don’t tell her that.”
Katharine blinked with incomprehension. “You think she wants to be fearsome?”
“How odd,” she murmured. Then she looked up with especially bright eyes. “I think Aunt Hyacinth is going to love having a baby named after her.”
Gregory felt himself smile. A real one, not something conjured to make his child feel safe. “Yes,” he said quietly, “she will.”
“She probably thought she wasn’t going to get one,” Katharine continued, “since you and Mama were going in order. We all knew it would be Eloise for a girl.”
“And who would have expected twins?”
“Even so,” Katharine said, “there is Aunt Francesca to consider. Mama would have had to have had triplets for one to be named after Aunt Hyacinth.”
Triplets. Gregory was not a Catholic, but it was difficult to suppress the urge to cross himself.
“And they would have all had to have been girls,” Katharine added, “which does seem to be a mathematical improbability.”