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A Delicate Dilemma

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A christening in the Church of England was not so very different from what Marguerite remembered of the Catholic ceremony. Even though she was given a religious education through much of her young girlhood, she had little reason to attend ceremonies such as this. So by necessity, she searched her memory of a quarter century past, when a baby Armand was held in the arms of their dimly remembered papa. She dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a tiny square of fine lace.

Despite herself, Marguerite felt proud and protective of her little Suzanne, though perhaps as Lady Ffoulkes, she wasn’t quite so little anymore. Suzanne and Sir Andrew stood in front of the priest in almost the same position as they had when they’d married, but now Andrew held cradled in his arms a precious, small bundle. The baby was a little girl, not an heir as so many English aristocrats seemingly wanted so badly, but she’d not heard one word of complaint from Andrew. Suzanne’s dainty hand clung to her husband’s coat sleeve. Preparation for this ceremony had taken far longer than Marguerite expected, coming more than a month after the birth. She tried to tell herself that perhaps this was just the English custom.

She had not visited her friend during that time. She kept thinking that perhaps she and Percy should both go, but she hadn’t been certain Suzanne was recovered enough for the excitement of receiving visitors. Arrangements for the christening had been by letter. Her thoughts turned to realizing that, at least, Andrew would still need an outlet. She thought she should suggest to Percy then that he should offer to meet Andrew at one of their gentlemen’s clubs to avoid disturbing mother and child.

Her feet had swollen in her shoes, now causing her to shift subtly from one foot to the other trying to relieve her discomfort. Was the priest going to go on forever? Marguerite feared she was in danger of fainting if he did. As one of the godmothers—the other being one of Sir Andrew’s sisters—Marguerite was standing in the front of the church to the side of the parents. At her side was not her husband, but Suzanne’s little brother, the viscount de Tournay. Lady Ffoulke’s parents, the Count and Countess, sat near the front of the chancel. Sir Percy Blakeney was a few rows behind them.

She took a deep breath and tugged at front of her pet-en-l’air bodice with one gloved hand, trying to retrieve the pressure against her belly and lower ribs. She knew it wouldn’t help much, because the pressure was only imaginary. Even if—she hardly dared to think it—there would be nothing to show for many more weeks. Did her beloved Percy, of the lazy good humor, suspect he’d next be standing here with a wee head for the priest to anoint?

When she thought of him like that—of what was still a nervous secret—she glanced his way across the church and his eyes met hers directly. He was watching her, not his friend. Now she did feel caught out and awkward, and she blushed. And damn that vicar, if he didn’t at that moment choose to address the godparents. Percy’s eyes instantly cut away, but not before she glimpsed that slight narrowing of his eye and almost eagle-like darkening she recognized as his shrewder self, the one who commanded men to lay down their lives for loyalty’s sake.  But she hardly had time to put her own mask back on before that awkward boy, the young viscount, whose overly sensitive and brusquely aristocratic ways made her own foolish and impulsive younger brother seem mature and sensible by comparison, sharply jerked her arm up at the elbow, as if he were trying to call her to a military-like attention. His chin bobbed up. Marguerite merely rested her eyes on the priest. She knew what the man was saying, and so did the youth who held her arm, but he seemed completely absorbed in listening to the phrases.

Little was required of them except to give their consent, then to move from their position to the opposite sides of the happy parents. Marguerite was grateful for that small mercy as she stood next to her friend, and the young viscount flanked his brother-in-law with Andrew’s sister. When she turned to face the rows of pews she found herself under Sir Percy’s gaze again. The rest of the ceremony was mercifully short.

 

Perhaps to celebrate Suzanne’s recovery as well as the christening, the Ffoulkes had a small reception after the service. Suzanne presided from a divan, propped up prettily, little Alice on her lap. The men circulated at one end of the room, spilling into a study not quite so full of books as Sir Percy’s at Blakeney Manor but still indicative of a serious and studious mind. Sir Andrew and Sir Percy were well-matched as friends. It was fitting that their wives, both Frenchwomen, were nearly sisters, despite Countess de Tournay’s continuing disapproval.

 

The air wasn’t quite cold enough to sting Marguerite fully awake as Sir Percy drive them home. Normally he passed these in silence, seemingly enjoying his own relationship with the road, the horses, the whip and the night air. She was half-nodding off when he asked her a question.

“Speak again, my dear, I did not catch your words,” she was forced to ask, carefully schooling any astonishment or temper out of her tone.

“Didn’t you think Lady Ffoulkes looked a little pale still?” he asked again, unfailingly courteous, even if his question struck her with an almost uncharacteristic invasive curiousity.

“Surely Sir Andrew told you that she did not have a good time with… it.” That tiny, ugly pronoun was as close as Marguerite could get to the entire subject of pregnancy. Her stomach—thankfully empty of anything except tea—lurched uncomfortably. She still had not learned her way around the English reserve about it. Even the vocabulary provided only a mean selection of words. She supposed that, as intimates of the Ffoulkes’, she could speak carefully of Suzanne’s “lying in.”

“I did wonder,” she ventured, almost following thoughts without restraint, “if English christenings were always so tardy.” She bit her tongue after that, glancing away over the moonlit landscape, rough grass and clots of shadowy trees. The wildness of it always astonished her.

“Some families prefer it so,” he explained, his eyes on the road again. She pressed her handkerchief to her lips and had to blink hard to keep the tears from spilling down her cheeks. Life was so fragile, especially for mothers. She trusted that Suzanne was past the worse for this birth.

Another of those distant, but far too vivid, childhood memories flooded her mind. She could smell the iron tang of too much blood mixed with her mother’s familiar scent as Maman held her against her chest. Mother and toddler perched in a high-backed chair to the side of the shadowy bedroom while their single servant helped a midwife strip the sheets from the bed. When she returned to her bed, Madame St. Just had rested, her cheeks milk pallid, for several weeks in the bed by herself.

Another two years passed before Armand was born; he never knew he almost had a second sister or brother. The secret was Marguerite’s now, and her private fear. A little mewl of grief and terror crept out of her tight throat, and she had to swallow hard, until she was certain the sound had been carried away by the wind to disturb only the hunting owls of the English night skies. She pulled the hood of her cloak closer around her face. Percy glanced at her as she moved, a worried crease between his brows, but eventually put his attention back on the road when she didn’t offer an explanation. The team of horses sped onward into the night, as if goaded by her anxiety to get home. She thought that Percy was looking after her in his own way. Soon after, back at their estate, Marguerite curled into soft-scented sheets to sleep with her tall husband stretched beside her.

 

She could not face her breakfast the next morning. Instead of offering even the excuse of extreme fatigue to her husband and anxious maid, she requested a carriage so she could go to see her brother and his wife in their little cottage. Her heart was sore and far too full, even if she was not certain she’d be able to unburden to her brother, her only family and confidant so many years, when she could not speak to her husband. At least he wouldn’t be constrained by English sensibilities. She told herself all these things on the short ride, even though she feared she would yet keep her troubles to herself.

The small house, just four rooms under a thatched roof, belonged to Percy, who granted the use of it to Armand and Jeanne as long as they needed it, was situated at the farthest edge of the lands directly attached to the Blakeney estate. The distance and the modest allowance Percy gave them through his bankers, allowed Armand, still a bit touchy in his pride, the illusion of frugality if not real independence. An orchard backed the little house, roses and ivy covered the outer walls, almost overgrowing the kitchen window, and Armand virtuously tried to cultivate a kitchen garden. It only produced a token amount of food, because the city-bred St. Justs didn’t have the knack of growing things that country people did.

However, Marguerite didn’t tease him about it. Her own pride could sometimes be as brittle, and she knew her brother’s ways. Pointing out his failures would only goad him into a sullen pout. He seldom bristled anymore when he felt wounded, but his sulks were famous. Jeanne, for her part, learned to cook and mend, studying the role of country wife as arduously as she had any other in her short career on the stage.

True to the pattern of these last months, Marguerite’s arrival found Armand on his knees digging around some gangly plant. He waved a dirty hand at her, and then went back to work. Jeanne’s greeted her more hospitably, putting on water for tea and offering Marguerite a crisp, yellow-tinged apple and a peeling knife. “Try this one sister. We just picked them this morning. They’re the last of this harvest.”

“Already? The sun is scarcely above the horizon!” Marguerite protested merrily and self-consciously falsely, falling into the old habit of talking to a sister of the stage.

“I see the sunrise more often these days,” Jeanne explained, her quick dark eyes glancing toward the kitchen window where she might have glimpsed Armand. “He worries so, and if he won’t stay abed, I get up to help him.” Consequently, they likely didn’t stay up much past sunset if they weren’t visiting the Blakeney’s. It was almost the opposite of the days they’d spent as actresses on the stages of Paris, when they often greeted the sun only as they went to bed.

“Give him time,” Marguerite felt compelled to answer her. “He is a little slow sometimes, but not stupid. He’ll find his feet eventually.” Or so she hoped as much as she thought Jeanne did. Armand was no farmer. She supposed he was worrying over having to restart his professional education at Percy’s expense. “Listen to me!” She had to laugh. “He’s a good man, no stranger to working hard for all that his head is in the clouds. Keep his feet on the ground, and you’ll both manage.”

Her hopes of opening her heart to either of them faded when Armand came in to join them. With dirt smudging his cheek and caking his nails, he seemed too young to burden. And if Armand was young, then Jeanne was barely more than a child, even if hers was the more clever and stout heart. So Marguerite passed a happy few hours with them helping wash and snap the beans while the ladies teased Armand about his fingernails. Tears threatened to leak through her guard a few times, and she thought she’d hidden them well. As the afternoon progressed, Jeanne filled her with tea and didn’t let her do a thing for herself, while Armand pretended to be jealous of the attention, but they both kissed her warmly on the cheek when she took her leave at last.

 

Her secrets still burdened her heart and body when she returned home. Dinner at Blakeney Manor was always formal if Sir Percy was in residence. However, there was a certain simplicity even in a formal dinner if it was only for the two of them. The addition of even the St. Justs, more family to the two of them than anyone else in England, only altered that slightly, but it was still impossible to speak frankly at the table even if it were just husband and wife.

Percy, his hands long, pale and elegant, seated her first. Likely his nails never had had dirt under them. They spoke of her visit to the cottage. Armand had proudly sent a basket of the apples home with her, which would likely show up as a dessert tomorrow. Eventually, as they were poured coffee, the question she’d been dreading came.

“Are you well, Madame? I was worried when you left without breakfast.” She knew, uncomfortably so, that he was aware of how little she’d eaten yesterday as well.

“I had an apple at Armand’s,” she said, hoping her deliberate evasion wasn’t as obvious to him as it was to her. How could she speak of it here, at the dinner table? Even if she were ready, she wanted so desperately to shield him from the sorrow she’d know known in her father from that vivid day in her mother’s arms until her brother’s safe birth. Could she protect him entirely? She wondered if her maman had kept Armand a secret until she was certain of his arrival.

But how could she? Women gained weight. Sadly, even with her best friend in the entire world now safely past Alice’s birth, Marguerite still knew too little about the process. Actresses feared pregnancy, a tragic dilemma she’d sidestepped by remaining chaste before her marriage, no matter the rumors to the contrary. But the hurried advice exchanged backstage had concerned finding a safe way to escape the condition more than how to stay healthy enough to carry a child to term.

Never had Marguerite felt so alone.

“I only wanted to know if I should call a doctor.” Percy’s concern was perfectly reasonable.

“No, my dear. I was only tired. I trust that all will be normal again tomorrow after a peaceful evening at home.”

“Very well,” he said, grave for once instead of merely polite. Again, Marguerite’s guilty heart heard echoes of the Pimpernel in his voice, and inwardly winced. If Percy’s intellect pushed too hard at this, her fragile illusion would shatter. And what could they make of the pieces?

She gulped down her coffee, the bitter, hot liquid scalding the back of her throat. A doctor could help, but she’d call on one herself, lest someone Percy hired feel inclined to report it to him. Once she made a decision, her heart stopped fluttering so painfully and she thought the food she’d just consumed might do her some good instead of staying a hard ball in her stomach.

 

There were no lady doctors to be found in London—not that she knew of—and she’d been quite unable to voice her fears. She did not know how to search out a midwife instead. But the man confirmed her condition after examining her carefully. He encouraged her to eat wholesome foods, give up horseback riding, and forgo wearing a corset when her waist naturally thickened for the child. His measure of this was when she might need to have her gowns altered because her current ones no longer fit. At least in her position as Lady Blakeney, the fashionable wife of Sir Percy Blakeney, bart., taking her ease would be simpler than it had been for Madame St. Just, the hard-working wife to a busy merchant. Perhaps, she hoped, her indolent lifestyle would protect her child.

But she still couldn’t bring herself to tell Percy. He asked after her health again that night, and helped put her to bed. Then he left her alone to go to his study to work late into the night, leaving her alone in their huge bed.

Percy was gone from the house the next day, as he often used to be during the height of his career as the Scarlet Pimpernel, but he’d left word that he’d return for dinner. So she breakfasted, taking a bit of toast with a whole sliced apple and a cup of milky English tea, then answered some letters, and then slept again until it was time to dress for dinner. She toyed with the idea of leaving her corset off as an overt hint to escape having to tell him directly. She also wondered if taking to her bed for the evening and skipping dinner entirely would help. Both ideas seemed too wild for the situation.

When Frank announced the arrival of the Ffoulkes’, she didn’t let her surprise show, but she gratefully accepted knowing that the other couple would provide other conversation topics than her visit to town that day. She heard their voices as she descended the stairs, the men very soft in the distance since they were likely in Percy’s study. Who was Suzanne talking to? Marguerite entered the drawing room before she realized that it was Jeanne. The St. Justs were never announced by the servants, by their own request, unless they had an urgent need to see either her or Percy immediately upon their arrival. Of course, they had a standing invitation to the Manor for dinner.

Suzanne waved to her, her brown eyes startlingly bright as she and Jeanne bent their heads together. Both young brunette women had dark, lively eyes, but despite how petite and dainty she looked on stage, Jeanne possessed a plebian stoutness that Suzanne’s birdlike frame could never boast. Marguerite could never recall them being particularly close since Jeanne had been brought to England to be Armand’s bride, but it was possible that they’d become acquainted in that time. However, their low voices seemed almost conspiratorial.

The three women shared a cup of tea, neither of the guests requested sherry or any other aperitif, and Margot’s queasy stomach couldn’t handle it, so she didn’t offer it herself. Eventually, they joined their husbands in the dining room. A born actress, Marguerite could sense something theatrical in the way they all settled at the glittering table. Jeanne settled into a seat as if she were the great lady while Suzanne dropped her eyes away like a naughty schoolgirl hiding her guilt from the Abbess.

The china dishes were elegant, but the fare featured that evening was plain and English, perhaps not to humble the exquisite tart apple pie that was served for dessert. Armand actually blushed a little bit in pride when his plate was laid in front of him. Marguerite smiled. Maybe there was a little farmer in him from their mother’s side after all.

The bottle of champagne brought out after dessert alarmed her, since she could not imagine what was being celebrated. She accepted her glass despite not knowing if she’d even be able to swallow it. Was it for a toast to Suzanne’s baby or some successful business venture? Had she missed some important news from France? Her head was awhirl. When the glasses had been handed around, everyone stood.

Instead of Percy speaking as the host, Armand cleared his throat, lifting his glass up high, almost above his head. His voice, though, when he spoke was almost too quiet for even their small gathering to hear. “We have a reason to celebrate.”

Suzanne lowered her glass slightly and asked, “What was that, Armand?”

He blushed, ducked his chin and repeated, “We have a reason to celebrate,” but this time his words were loud if lacking any sense of formality. His hand shook, Marguerite noticed, and she grit her teeth, because his announcement was only half-finished. “Jeanne and I found out this morning that we are expecting a child next year.”

She followed Armand’s gaze to Jeanne, and wondered why she hadn’t noticed the other young woman’s glow before. Perhaps because she was so caught up in her own dilemma she supposed. She knew they were sincere, but she had to wonder if there was some mockery intended by this dinner party. No, she couldn’t believe that. Armand looked so very happy, and even Suzanne giggled as she met the toast. These were her friends and family.

“I thought—” Marguerite began, the words out of her mouth before she realized.

“Yes, my dear?” Percy asked. When her eyes met his, she thought his tone was far too light for that pleading she saw in them. The expression was gone so quick she wasn’t sure she’d even seen it.

By now their time together could be counted in years, including their dizzying courtship and marriage and then the long, cold year of estrangement. Even during that time, despite her barbed tongue and his suspicions, he’d tried to protect her from real dangers. Her brave husband, who she saw so seldom until recently, worked so tirelessly to save others. He wanted to know, she realized, and he needed to know. All her hope to keep this from him would just make it harder to explain when she had no choice. And if her little brother could bear the burden of impending fatherhood, surely Percy would bear up under the weight.

Her throat locked. After a moment, her theatrical training overcame the obstacle. Marguerite forced a trill of laughter. “I thought, my dear, that you’d found out my little secret. I didn’t want to say until—” But she could not say that, not with Suzanne and Armand and Jeanne in the room. Her fears had to stay private, for now. “I wanted my news to be mine alone for a little while longer. I hope you all can forgive me.”

“It seems that the impending little St. Just will have a Blakeney cousin near the same age.” She tipped a little of the fizzy wine into her mouth, and set herself down as abruptly as the glass. She must have looked a little unsteady, because she glanced up a moment later to find Percy at one elbow and Armand at the other.

“Tis all a bit sudden don’t you think?” she asked, trying to dismiss their fears. “Oh, don’t mind me. The giddiness will pass in a moment.” At her tone, Armand subsided, returning to his wife’s side. Percy, however, insisted on pressing a glass of water on her.

He leaned close as she drank, his breath tickling the hairs on her neck. Everyone else was out of earshot. “You were undone by your visit to your brother the other day. You had me very worried.”

“Sir?” she asked, after another hasty mouthful of water. “Why then? I didn’t even know myself.”

“Jeanne has a sharp eye, and Armand knew as soon as she did.”

“But—” she started to protest, but he had more to say, cutting off her words.

“They had no idea you had kept it a secret from me.”

Her eyes filled, and she leaned back against his arm over the top of the chair. “I was afraid, Percy. Can you forgive me?”

“Don’t be afraid with me, my dear. I’ll always take care of you.”

She could hear silence from the rest of the room. Were they watching? Then Percy moved aside and knelt by her chair. When he leaned forward to press his lips to hers was the first moment she realized that they were now alone.