A Suitable Affair
The late morning sunlight cast amber rays into the bedroom, stretching cautiously across Susanna’s peaceful face. She looked exhausted, Ian admitted to himself, and the idea tore at his heart. That she should put so much work and effort into bringing their child into the world, and he should just sit and… wait.
He’d waited years to find her. Months to marry her. And then even more months for his first child to be born. He essentially sat idly by and… waited.
Much as he did now.
Ian didn’t have the heart to wake her, couldn’t bring himself to disturb her peace when the past months-- probably years-- and the years to come would offer her so little.
She was lovely, this wife of his, and his love for her amazed him to this day.
His heart clenched, hard and tight against his chest. The delivery had lasted so long, she’d been so pale…
“Ian?” she asked, groggily, blinking away the forgiving vestiges of sleep.
He bent forward and kissed the top of her head. “Hello, darling.”
She moved to sit up but winced, the soreness from her now empty abdomen, and the muscles she had pushed to their limits, now protested against movement. Ian helped her sit, moving pillows behind her back to support her weight.
“I don’t need to be coddled,” Susanna reminded him, as she had for the past nine months. Her voice wasn’t as strong as it normally was, and the weakness in her body was evident in her tone.
“Yes, but you will let me anyway,” Ian replied, as he had many times before.
“The baby is perfectly fine,” he said, smoothing his palm along her cheek, across the dusting of freckles.
Susanna watched his expression carefully, studying the worry lines etched into his face. “What is wrong?”
Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes, grateful to hear her voice. “Everything is perfect,” he insisted, swallowing down the past four days of worry and fear.
“Then why do you look so upset?” she asked softly.
“I am not upset. I am relieved. You… you almost died,” he said, barely able to speak the words. The mere thought of her leaving him nearly tore him in half.
Her smile was soft as she grasped his hand. “But I did not.”
He kissed the top of her head again. “I know. You still scared the wits out of me.”
“I apologize, I suppose,” she said slowly. “But you know how much I love you. And I know your feelings in return. Should that have happened, you would be all right.”
Ian shook his head. “I couldn’t survive without you.”
Her smile was indulgent, gentle. “You could survive anything,” she whispered. “And you would, because there is a new babe counting on you, not to mention…” Susanna paused, her voice trailing off. “Do they know?”
Ian scoffed. “I’m sure they know more than I wanted them to.”
Susanna frowned. “I wouldn’t want to worry them unnecessarily.”
“I know,” Ian said, taking her hands and kissing them. “Which is why I’d ushered everyone out of the house. They’ve only just returned and are eager to see you.”
“You really worried for me,” she acknowledged. “I’ve not seen you this shaken in… a long while.”
Ian fought against the rush of tears and heartbreak that threatened to consume him for days. Had she died, he didn’t know what he would have done. “You know me, Minx,” he said flippantly, trying to find the levity, a place he was more comfortable. “There is little I care about in the world, but you and….” Ian paused, taking in her warm face, though pale, and the bright blues of her fatigued eyes. His love for this woman had only grown over the years, their life together far surpassing anything he could have hoped for.
He didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t need to, she knew how he felt about him and somehow sarcasm didn’t feel right, not in light of what she’d been through. Not after he’d almost lost her.
“Ian,” she said, squeezing his hand, and he glanced down to where her hand was entwined with his. “I cannot promise I will not leave you first, and you cannot promise the same, either. But you know you’ve made me happier than I thought possible. I love you more than I did when you waltzed me around a ballroom, threatening my reputation; more than the day you married me, and more each day as the years have passed. If I didn’t make it through this, or if I don’t make it through the next one, or the next, know that loving you was enough. You and I together against the world, that was always enough.”
Ian leaned down, gathering her in his arms and the few rebellious tears fell from his eyes. He was never able to hide anything from her anyway.
There was a sound in the hall, distracting him and Ian chuckled.
Leaning away from her, he kissed her forehead.
“You have some visitors,” he told her, a sly smile appearing across his lips. “But I’ve made them promise not to overwhelm you, and to be on their best behavior.”
Susanna felt exhausted, weak, and she could see how troubled Ian was. If only she could have a few more moments alone with him, just to make certain he was all right. But, it seemed, their moments alone were scarce these days.
Susanna smiled. “I should like to see them, if only for a few minutes.”
With a nod, Ian rose and strode to the door. The moment it was open, four small figures came bounding in the room, quick as lightning and just as exuberant.
“Mama!” the four girls cried, almost in unison.
“Ladies!” Ian said sternly, crossing his arms across his chest. “What did you promise me?”
The four stopped short and glanced guiltily between their mother and father.
“We would be quiet,” the oldest, eleven-year-old Lady Cassandra replied.
Her younger sister, Lady Hannah nodded. “And calm,” the nine-year-old agreed.
“We are ladies,” six-year-old Lady Alexandria added.
Lady Georgianna, Gigi to her sisters, grinned brightly, adding her bit. “And we have manners!”
The girls watched their father until he nodded. “Up you go then.” The four girls turned and rushed to their mother.
“Hello my loves,” Susanna said, holding her hand along Georgianna’s back as she pulled herself up onto the bed. Georgianna would not accept her mother’s help.
“Apologize to your mother, girls,” Ian said, his eyes flickering to Susanna’s. “She’s not well enough for your antics.”
“Sorry, Mama,” Cassandra said, coming to stand beside the bed. Her dark brown hair and bright blue eyes clearly hinted at her Macalister lineage. Hannah, climbed onto the bed also, sitting near Susanna’s feet.
“Are you well, Mama?” Hannah asked. Her coloring was much more her father’s, with green eyes and a mop of sandy blond hair, that no matter how hard Nanny tried, it always stuck up at odd angles.
Susanna sent her husband a scathing look and he shrugged before stepping out of the room.
“I’m simply tired, darling,” Susanna said. “Bringing a baby into the world is hard work.”
“Auntie Sarah took the baby,” Alexandria said, her nose scrunching up. “Babies cry a lot.” She was blond as her sister, but with Susanna’s bright blue eyes.
Susanna chuckled. “You would think you would remember that from when your sister was a babe.”
“Now I’m not the baby!” Georgianna laughed with excitement.
“That’s right, my darling,” Susanna said to her youngest daughter. Her hair was dark brown but her eyes had begun to turn from the bright blue of her mother’s to the green of her father’s.
Tears pricked in her eyes as she recalled Ian’s words. You almost died.
“You are all my babies,” Susanna said, pulling her daughters closer to her. “And you know I love you each completely, don’t you?”
Ian reappeared in the doorway, a bundle wrapped in blankets in his steady arms. He had turned out to be a phenomenal father, as Susanna knew he would. He loved his girls to distraction.
“And this is the lovely little fellow who made such a grand entrance two nights ago,” Ian said, settling the bundle into Susanna’s arms.
It was strange seeing the little person who had grown inside her for so many months. Like a piece of herself, but a piece of Ian as well.
“Well, hello, my newest little darling,” Susanna cooed at him, tracing her finger down the cheek of the sleeping babe. “We’ve met before, but I’ve yet to see your face.”
“Oh, Mama, he is so little!” Georgianna said, gently patting the whisps of sandy blond hair.
“Mama, what are you calling this one?” Cassandra asked. As the oldest of these five, she seemed least impressed with a new sibling. She’d been through this routine before.
“Are we still in agreement?” Susanna asked her husband and Ian nodded.
“This is Ethan,” Susanna said to the girls. “He is the Earl of Westcott.”
Alexandria looked up to her father. “Like Papa!”
“Not anymore, love,” Ian told his daughter. “I am Ashford now, remember? Grandpapa passed, and his name became mine.”
Hannah was poking her brother in the cheek. “He’s a rather squishy looking earl.”
“Your cousins are earls and they were once this small,” Susanna reminded her. “They will all grow up to be great men. One day, hopefully in a very, very long time, this little squishy earl will be the Marquess of Ashford.” She didn’t like to think of a time when Little Ethan might become Ashford, but she was grateful he was finally here. Ian had waited long enough to have an heir.
“Ethan will be a much better Ashford than I am,” Ian said, sitting at the edge of the bed.
The three older girls giggled, the idea their father not being good at something seemed ridiculous. Susanna had to agree with them.
“You’ve turned out to be a fine marquess after all,” she told him.
“Only because you do not allow me to mess it all up,” he replied.
“Mama, are you well enough to paint with me?” Cassandra asked, glancing at her father out of the corner of her eye. “Papa told me not to ask you, but he’s a man. He doesn’t know about childbirth and things. But if you tell me you are unwell, I will believe it.”
Susanna smiled affectionately at her oldest daughter. “I am still tired, my love, but as soon as I am able I will gladly paint with you.”
“Papa has been drawing with us,” Hannah said.
Alexandria nodded eagerly. “We have so many pictures to show you!”
“And me!” Georgianna piped up.
“And I cannot wait to see them all,” Susanna said sweetly to her girls.
“All right, ladies, it is time you found Nanny,” Ian said, standing from the bed. His gaze met Susanna’s. “Let’s allow your mother some rest.”
The girls nodded, planting kisses on Susannas cheek before scrambling out of the room.
“Do you want me to take him?” Ian asked, nodding to the babe in her arms.
Susanna shook her head. “Not just yet,” she said, gazing at her son. “He and I have some things to discuss.”
Ian chuckled. “If you insist.” He bent to kiss her head, but Susanna tilted her chin up and met his lips with hers. Warmth spread through her, the dizzying effect never truly leaving after all this time together. She would never grow tired of Ian’s kisses.
“Do get some sleep, Minx,” he said to her, kissing her forehead, and then laying a kiss to sleeping Ethan’s head as well.
“I will,” she promised.
Ian left her alone without argument.
“Well now, little Westcott,” Susanna said to the sleeping babe. “It is so lovely to see you, after all these months. I’ve held you in my arms for mere moments and already I am besotted. You’ve met your sisters, and I imagine they will lead you into all sorts of trouble in the coming years. You’ve likely met some of your aunts and uncles, and they are all so excited you are here. Your father will love you and protect you with his dying breath, so we keep him around.”
Susanna smirked, laughing to herself. “Now, you have quite a lot to learn before you are to be the marquess, and the best man to teach you everything. It is important you do not allow him to teach you how to drive, as he can be quite reckless. He will teach you all sorts of things about puzzles and solving riddles.”
Susanna yawned, her energy draining. No wonder Ian had been so terribly worried. She felt as though she’d just escaped the clutches of the undertaker.
“This is most important,” she said to Ethan. “There will come a day when you must find someone to love. My advice to you, little one, is to take your horse out for a run about the park, and hope some unsuspecting lady wanders into your path.”
Susanna’s eyes had closed for a briefest of moments, and she felt a kiss on her forehead, Ethan lifting from her arms.
“Sleep Susanna,” Ian’s voice said softly. “We can tell him all about that tomorrow.”
And they did.