Maria crossed her arms and speared Daphne with a stare. “You know the truth, Your Grace. You just don’t want to admit it.”
Daphne opened her mouth to speak, but she had nothing to say. She knew Maria was right.
“If the baby hadn’t taken,” Maria said, a bit more gently, “you wouldn’t be feeling so sickly. My mum had eight babies after me, and four losses early on. She never was sick, not even once, with the ones that didn’t take.”
Daphne sighed and then nodded, conceding the point. “I’m still going to wait, though,” she said. “Just a bit longer.” She wasn’t sure why she wanted to keep this to herself for a few more days, but she did. And as she was the one whose body was currently trying to turn itself inside out, she rather thought it was her decision to make.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Maria said. “We received word from your brother. He’s coming to town next week.”
“Colin?” Daphne asked.
Maria nodded. “With his family.”
“They must stay with us,” Daphne said. Colin and Penelope did not own a home in town, and to economize they tended to stay with either Daphne or their oldest brother, Anthony, who had inherited the title and all that went with it. “Please ask Belinda to pen a letter on my behalf, insisting that they come to Hastings House.”
Maria gave a nod and departed.
Daphne moaned and went to sleep.
By the time Colin and Penelope arrived, with their four darling children in tow, Daphne was throwing up several times a day. Simon still didn’t know about her condition; he’d been delayed in the country—something about a flooded field—and now he wasn’t due back until the end of the week.
But Daphne wasn’t going to let a queasy belly get in the way of greeting her favorite brother. “Colin!” she exclaimed, her smile growing positively giddy at the familiar sight of his sparkling green eyes. “It has been much too long.”
“I fully agree,” he said, giving her a quick hug while Penelope attempted to shoo their children into the house.
“No, you may not chase that pigeon!” she said sternly. “So sorry, Daphne, but—” She dashed back out onto the front steps, neatly nabbing seven-year-old Thomas by the collar.
“Be grateful your urchins are grown,” Colin said with a chuckle as he took a step back. “We can’t keep— Good God, Daff, what’s wrong with you?”
Trust a brother to dispense with tact.
“You look awful,” he said, as if he hadn’t made that clear with his first statement.
“Just a bit under the weather,” she mumbled. “I think it was the fish.”
Colin’s attention was thankfully distracted by Belinda and Caroline, who were racing down the stairs with a decided lack of ladylike grace.
“You!” he said with a grin, pulling one into a hug. “And you!” He looked up. “Where’s the other you?”
“Amelia’s off shopping,” Belinda said, before turning her attention to her little cousins. Agatha had just turned nine, Thomas was seven, and Jane was six. Little Georgie would be three the following month.
“You’re getting so big!” Belinda said to Jane, beaming down at her.
“I grew two inches in the last month!” she announced.
“In the last year,” Penelope corrected gently. She couldn’t quite reach Daphne for a hug, so she leaned over and squeezed her hand. “I know your girls were quite grown up last time I saw them, but I swear, I am still surprised by it every time.”
“So am I,” Daphne admitted. She still woke some mornings half expecting her girls to be in pinafores. The fact that they were ladies, fully grown . . .
It was baffling.
“Well, you know what they say about motherhood,” Penelope said.
“ ‘They’?” Daphne murmured.
Penelope paused just long enough to shoot her a wry grin. “The years fly by, and the days are endless.”
“That’s impossible,” Thomas announced.
Agatha let out an aggrieved sigh. “He’s so literal.”
Daphne reached out to ruffle Agatha’s light brown hair. “Are you really only nine?” She adored Agatha, always had. There was something about that little girl, so serious and determined, that had always touched her heart.
Agatha, being Agatha, immediately recognized the question as rhetorical and popped up to her tiptoes to give her aunt a kiss.
Daphne returned the gesture with a peck on the cheek, then turned to the young family’s nurse, standing near the doorway holding little Georgie. “And how are you, you darling thing?” she cooed, reaching out to take the boy into her arms. He was plump and blond with pink cheeks and a heavenly baby smell despite the fact that he wasn’t really a baby any longer. “You look scrumptious,” she said, pretending to take a nibble of his neck. She tested the weight of him, rocking slightly back and forth in that instinctive motherly way.
“You don’t need to be rocked anymore, do you?” she murmured, kissing him again. His skin was so soft, and it took her back to her days as a young mother. She’d had nurses and nannies, of course, but she couldn’t even count the number of times she’d crept into the children’s rooms to sneak a kiss on the cheek and watch them sleep.
Ah well. She was sentimental. This was nothing new.
“How old are you now, Georgie?” she asked, thinking that maybe she could do this again. Not that she had much choice, but still, she felt reassured, standing here with this little boy in her arms.
Agatha tugged on her sleeve and whispered, “He doesn’t talk.”
Daphne blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
Agatha glanced over at her parents, as if she wasn’t sure she should be saying anything. They were busy chatting with Belinda and Caroline and took no notice. “He doesn’t talk,” she said again. “Not a word.”
Daphne pulled back slightly so that she could look at Georgie’s face again. He smiled at her, his eyes crinkling at the corners exactly the same way Colin’s did.
Daphne looked back at Agatha. “Does he understand what people say?”
Agatha nodded. “Every word. I’m sure of it.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I think my mother and father are concerned.”
A child nearing his third birthday without a word? Daphne was sure they were concerned. Suddenly the reason for Colin and Penelope’s unexpected trip to town became clear. They were looking for guidance. Simon had been just the same way as child. He hadn’t spoken a word until he was four. And then he’d suffered a debilitating stutter for years. Even now, when he was particularly upset about something, it would creep back over him, and she’d hear it in his voice. A strange pause, a repeated sound, a halting catch. He was still self-conscious about it, although not nearly so much as he had been when they’d first met.
But she could see it in his eyes. A flash of pain. Or maybe anger. At himself, at his own weakness. Daphne supposed that there were some things people never got past, not completely.
Reluctantly, Daphne handed Georgie back to his nurse and urged Agatha toward the stairs. “Come along, darling,” she said. “The nursery is waiting. We took out all of the girls’ old toys.”
She watched with pride as Belinda took Agatha by the hand. “You may play with my favorite doll,” Belinda said with great gravity.
Agatha looked up at her cousin with an expression that could only be described as reverence and then followed her up the stairs.
Daphne waited until all the children were gone and then turned back to her brother and his wife. “Tea?” she asked. “Or do you wish to change out of your traveling clothes?”
“Tea,” Penelope said with the sigh of an exhausted mother. “Please.”
Colin nodded his agreement, and together they went into the drawing room. Once they were seated Daphne decided there was no point in being anything but direct. This was her brother, after all, and he knew he could talk to her about anything.
“You’re worried about Geo
rgie,” she said. It was a statement, not a question.
“He hasn’t said a word,” Penelope said quietly. Her voice was even, but her throat caught in an uncomfortable swallow.
“He understands us,” Colin said. “I’m sure of it. Just the other day I asked him to pick up his toys, and he did so. Immediately.”
“Simon was the same way,” Daphne said. She looked from Colin to Penelope and back. “I assume that is why you came? To speak with Simon?”
“We hoped he might offer some insight,” Penelope said.
Daphne nodded slowly. “I’m sure he will. He was detained in the country, I’m afraid, but he is expected back before the week’s end.”
“There is no rush,” Colin said.
Out of the corner of her eye, Daphne saw Penelope’s shoulders slump. It was a tiny motion but one any mother would recognize. Penelope knew there was no rush. They had waited nearly three years for Georgie to talk; a few more days wouldn’t make a difference. And yet she wanted so desperately to do something. To take an action, to make her child whole.
To have come this far only to find that Simon was gone . . . It had to be discouraging.
“I think it is a very good sign that he understands you,” Daphne said. “I would be much more concerned if he did not.”
“Everything else about him is completely normal,” Penelope said passionately. “He runs, he jumps, he eats. He even reads, I think.”
Colin turned to her in surprise. “He does?”
“I believe so,” Penelope said. “I saw him with William’s primer last week.”
“He was probably just looking at the illustrations,” Colin said gently.
“That’s what I thought, but then I watched his eyes! They were moving back and forth, following the words.”
They both turned to Daphne, as if she might have all the answers.
“I suppose he might be reading,” Daphne said, feeling rather inadequate. She wanted to have all the answers. She wanted to say something to them other than I suppose or Perhaps. “He’s rather young, but there’s no reason he couldn’t be reading.”
“He’s very bright,” Penelope said.
Colin gave a look that was mostly indulgent. “Darling . . .”