The fact that as an H, she would follow perfectly after Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, and Gregory . . . Well, that simply made it all the more perfect.
There was a knock at the door, and Nanny Pickens poked her head in. “The girls would love to see Her Ladyship,” she said to the midwife. “If she’s ready.”
The midwife looked at Violet, who nodded. Nanny ushered her three charges inside with a stern “Remember what we talked about. Do not tire your mother.”
Daphne came over to the bed, followed by Eloise and Francesca. They possessed Edmund’s thick chestnut hair—all of her children did—and Violet wondered if Hyacinth would be the same. Right now she possessed just the tiniest tuft of peachy fuzz.
“Is it a girl?” Eloise asked abruptly.
Violet smiled and changed her position to show off the new baby. “It is.”
“Oh, thank heavens,” Eloise said with a dramatic sigh. “We needed another one.”
Beside her, Francesca nodded. She was what Edmund had always called Eloise’s “accidental twin.” They shared a birthday, the two of them, a year apart. At six, Francesca generally followed Eloise’s lead. Eloise was louder, bolder. But every now and then Francesca would surprise them all and do something that was completely her own.
Not this time, though. She stood beside Eloise, clutching her stuffed doll, agreeing with everything her older sister said.
Violet looked over at Daphne, her oldest girl. She was nearly eleven, certainly old enough to hold a baby. “Do you want to see her?” Violet asked.
Daphne shook her head. She was blinking rapidly, the way she did when she was perplexed, and then all of a sudden she stood up straighter. “You’re smiling,” she said.
Violet looked back down at Hyacinth, who’d dropped off her breast and fallen quite asleep. “I am,” she said, and she could hear it in her voice. She’d forgotten what her voice sounded like with a smile in it.
“You haven’t smiled since Papa died,” Daphne said.
“I haven’t?” Violet looked up at her. Was that possible? She hadn’t smiled in three weeks? It didn’t feel awkward. Her lips formed the curve out of memory, perhaps with just a little bit of relief, as if they were indulging in a happy memory.
“You haven’t,” Daphne confirmed.
She must be right, Violet realized. If she hadn’t managed to smile for her children, she certainly hadn’t done so in solitude. The grief she’d been feeling . . . it had yawned before her, swallowed her whole. It had been a heavy, physical thing, making her tired, holding her down.
No one could smile through that.
“What is her name?” Francesca asked.
“Hyacinth.” Violet shifted her position so the girls could see the baby’s face. “What do you think?”
Francesca tilted her head to the side. “She doesn’t look like a Hyacinth,” Francesca declared.
“Yes, she does,” Eloise said briskly. “She’s very pink.”
Francesca shrugged, conceding the point.
“She’ll never know Papa,” Daphne said quietly.
“No,” Violet said. “No, she won’t.”
No one said anything, and then Francesca—little Francesca—said, “We can tell her about him.”
Violet choked on a sob. She hadn’t cried in front of her children since that very first day. She’d saved her tears for her solitude, but she couldn’t stop them now. “I think—I think that’s a wonderful idea, Frannie.”
Francesca beamed, and then she crawled onto the bed, squirming in until she’d found the perfect spot at her mother’s right side. Eloise followed, and then Daphne, and all of them—all the Bridgerton girls—peered down at the newest member of their family.
“He was very tall,” Francesca began.
“Not so tall,” Eloise said. “Benedict is taller.”
Francesca ignored her. “He was tall. And he smiled a great deal.”
“He held us on his shoulders,” Daphne said, her voice starting to wobble, “until we grew too large.”
“And he laughed,” Eloise said. “He loved to laugh. He had the very best laugh, our papa . . .”
Thirteen years later
Violet had made it her life’s work to see all eight of her children happily settled in life, and in general, she did not mind the myriad tasks this entailed. There were parties and invitations and dressmakers and milliners, and that was just the girls. Her sons needed just as much guidance, if not more. The only difference was that society afforded the boys considerably more freedom, which meant that Violet did not need to scrutinize every last detail of their lives.
Of course she tried. She was a mother, after all.
She had a feeling, however, that her job as mother would never be so demanding as it was right at this moment, in the spring of 1815.
She knew very well that in the grand scheme of life, she had nothing about which to complain. In the past six months, Napoleon had escaped Elba, a massive volcano had erupted in the East Indies, and several hundred British soldiers had lost their lives at the Battle of New Orleans—mistakenly fought after the peace treaty with the Americans had been signed. Violet, on the other hand, had eight healthy children, all of whom presently had both feet planted on English soil.
There was always a however, wasn’t there?
This spring marked the first (and Violet prayed, the last) season for which she had two girls “on the market.”
Eloise had debuted in 1814, and anyone would have called her a success. Three marriage proposals in three months. Violet had been over the moon. Not that she would have allowed Eloise to accept two of them—the men had been too old. Violet did not care how highly ranked the gentlemen were; no daughter of hers was going to shackle herself to someone who would die before she reached thirty.
Not that this couldn’t happen with a young husband. Illness, accidents, freakishly deadly bees . . . Any number of things could take a man out in his prime. But still, an old man was more likely to die than a young one.
And even if that weren’t the case . . . What young girl in her right mind wanted to marry a man past sixty?
But only two of Eloise’s suitors had been disqualified for age. The third had been just a year shy of thirty, with a minor title and a perfectly respectable fortune. There had been nothing wrong with Lord Tarragon. Violet was sure he’d make someone a lovely husband.
Just not Eloise.
So now here they were. Eloise was on her second season and Francesca was on her first, and Violet was exhausted. She couldn’t even press Daphne into service as an occasional chaperone. Her eldest daughter had married the Duke of Hastings two years earlier and then had promptly managed to get herself pregnant for the duration of the 1814 season. And the 1815 one as well.
Violet loved having a grandchild and was over the moon at the prospect of two more arriving soon (Anthony’s wife was also with child), but really, sometimes a woman needed help. This evening, for example, had been an utter disaster.
Oh, very well, perhaps disaster was a bit of an overstatement, but really, who had thought it a good idea to host a masquerade ball? Because Violet was certain it had not been she. And she had definitely not agreed to attend as Queen Elizabeth. Or if she had, she had not agreed to the crown. It weighed at least five pounds, and she was terrified it would go flying off her head every time she snapped it back and forth, trying to keep an eye on both Eloise and Francesca.
No wonder her neck hurt.
But a mother could not be too careful, especially at a masquerade ball, when young gentlemen (and the occasional young lady) saw their costumes as a license to misbehave. Let’s see, there was Eloise, tugging at her Athena costume as she chatted with Penelope Featherington. Who was dressed as a leprechaun, poor thing.
Where was Francesca? Good heavens, that girl could go invisible in a treeless field. And while she was on the subject, where was Benedict? He had promised to dance with Penelope, and he had completely disappeared.
Where had he—
“Oh, my pardon,” Violet said, disentangling herself from a gentleman who appeared to be dressed as . . .
As himself, actually. With a mask.
She did not recognize him, however. Not the voice nor the face beneath the mask. He was of average height, with dark hair and an elegant bearing.
“Good evening, Your Highness,” he said.
Violet blinked, then remembered—the crown. Although how she might forget the five-pound monstrosity on her head, she’d never know.
“Good evening,” she replied.
“Are you looking for someone?”
Again, she wondered at the voice, and again, she came up with nothing. “Several someones, actually,” she murmured. “Unsuccessfully.”
“My condolences,” he said, taking her hand and leaning over it with a kiss. “I myself try to restrict my quests to one someone at a time.”
You don’t have eight children, Violet almost retorted, but at the last moment she held her tongue. If she did not know this gentleman’s identity, there was a chance that he did not know hers, either.
And of course, he could have eight children. She wasn’t the only person in London to have been so blessed in her marriage. Plus, the hair on his temples was shot through with silver, so he was likely old enough to have sired that many.
“Is it acceptable for a humble gentleman to request a dance with a queen?” he asked her.
Violet almost refused. She hardly ever danced in public. It wasn’t that she objected to it, or that she thought it unseemly. Edmund had been gone for more than a dozen years. She still mourned him, but she was not in mourning. He would not have wanted that. She wore bright colors, and she maintained a busy social schedule, but still, she rarely danced. She just didn’t want to.