Excerpt


CHAPTER 1
"What do you do with a pregnant duchess,
What do you do with a pregnant duchess,
What do you do with a pregnant duchess?
Ear-lye in the moooor-ning!"

Sarah Clarke-Townsend caroled the song to the heavens
as she guided the curricle into a green lane leading
away from Ralston Abbey. As she drew her breath to start
another verse, her very pregnant twin sister, Mariah,
Duchess of Ashton, burst into laughter, pressing one hand
to her abdomen. "Did you compose that song, Sarah?"
Sarah grinned. The sun was just rising over the horizon,
and she was wearing a daffodil-colored dress in honor of a
glorious spring day. "I altered the words of a sailors' song
I heard once. The original asks what to do with a drunken
sailor."
"A drunken sailor would be more graceful than I am at
the moment," Mariah said ruefully as she brushed back
the golden hair that was the exact same shade as Sarah's.
"Don't make me laugh so, or I might have this baby right
now!"
"Don't do that!" Sarah said with alarm. "It's bad
enough that I let you talk me into taking you for a dawn
drive. Everyone in Ralston Abbey will have strong hysterics
when they find out even though Murphy is following us
at a discreet distance."
"That's why I wanted to get out," Mariah said with exasperation.
"I feel so restless! My back aches and my temper
is on edge because everyone fusses over me as if I'm
made of porcelain. It's driving me mad!" Which is why the
Duchess of Ashton had dressed herself and tiptoed
through dark corridors to tap on Sarah's door and beg for
an early morning drive on the estate.
"That's the price you pay for having a husband who
adores you," Sarah said, her tone light to disguise her
envy. She didn't begrudge her sister having a wonderful
husband; Mariah had endured a rather irregular childhood
and deserved her happiness. But Sarah regretted having
lost her own chance for such happiness.
"True, and I count my blessings!" Mariah winced.
"Ow, the little devil is kicking! Adam has been a saint
about my moods. I was never this volatile before."
"Soon the baby will be here and you will once more be
the serene and laughing Golden Duchess." With one hand,
Sarah pulled her soft wool carriage rug close. She and her
sister were both warmly dressed and the curricle's hood
was pulled up to block the wind, but the morning air was
still cool.
"I hope you're right." Mariah hesitated. "I've been feeling
a ... a cloud hanging over me. As if something dreadful
is going to happen."
Sarah frowned, then quickly smoothed her expression.
"That's natural, especially with a first baby. But women
have been doing this since time immemorial, and you'll
manage with your usual efficiency. Mama isn't much taller
than we are, and she had twins with no trouble."
"So she claims now, but she may just be trying to cheer
me." In a swift change of mood, Mariah grinned. "I look
forward to being all calm and sensible when you're wildly
moody with your first child. And don't give me any of that
nonsense of how you're doomed to spinsterhood. Half of
Adam's friends would marry you on the instant if you
smiled at them."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "You are absurd. I have no desire
to be an imitation Golden Duchess." She slowed the pair
of matched chestnuts as they approached a junction. "I
don't know the estate well. Which way should we go?"
"Take the right fork," her sister said. "The lane leads up
to an abandoned church on the highest hill of the estate.
It's very, very old and not conveniently located, so eventually
it was abandoned as Ralston village grew down in the
valley." Mariah looked wistful. "Adam and I enjoyed riding
up there when I wasn't the size and shape of an overfed
cow. I look at you to remind myself what I used to look
like."
"And will again. Mother said that even though she had
twins, she regained her figure very quickly, so it's in our
blood to be beautiful."
"I hope she's right." Mariah squeezed one of Sarah's
hands. "I'm so glad you're here! I resent all those years we
were apart."
"We have years ahead in which to become gossipy
crones," Sarah assured her.
The lane had been climbing. As the curricle approached
the crest of the hill, they rounded a bend and a plain stone
church came into view. "Marvelous!" Sarah exclaimed as
they approached the structure. "It looks Saxon. That
would make it over a thousand years old. It's in very good
shape."
"Adam maintains the church. During the winter when
there isn't much field work, this is a project to keep laborers
employed." Mariah frowned as she rubbed the great
curve of her abdomen. "They even cleaned out the crypt
and built oak pews. When the church is all repaired, he'll
have to find them something else to restore."
The wind was sharp on the exposed hilltop. Reminding
herself that it was spring, not summer, Sarah said, "Shall
we head back now? We can't have you catch a chill. With
luck we'll be back at the abbey before people wake up and
realize you've escaped."
Mariah started to answer, then gasped and bent over,
wrapping her arms around her belly. "Oh, Lord, I think
this baby wants to come right now!"
Sarah's heart congealed as she pulled the carriage to a
halt. "Oh, please, no! Wait until we get back to the abbey!
Less than half an hour."
"I ... I can't!" Mariah clung to the edge of the curricle,
her brown eyes wide with panic. "Julia explained to me all
the stages and said sometimes birth is quick and sometimes
it's slow, and I'd probably be slow since this is my
first."
"But being impatient, you decided to produce this baby
quickly." Sarah tried to keep her voice light, but she was
terrified. She tied off the reins and leaped down to ease
Mariah out of the curricle. Blood and fluid were staining
the back of her sister's skirts. What to do? What to do?
The groom. Murphy had rounded the bend and could
see them, so Sarah waved her free hand frantically.
Murphy kicked the horse to a gallop and was with them
in seconds. "What's wrong, miss?"
"The baby is coming!" Sarah said tersely.
Murphy's face showed a flash of the horror most men
felt when confronted with female reproduction, but he'd
been a soldier. It took only an instant for him to collect
himself and ask tersely, "Shall I carry the duchess back to
the house on my horse? That would be the quickest way to
get her home."
"No!" Mariah straightened, her face strained. "I need
a ... slower way. And—oh, God, I need Adam!"
It would be dangerous for a pregnant woman to be carried
across a saddlebow, and the curricle was too small for
Mariah to stretch out in. What would be better? Mind racing,
Sarah said, "I'll take her into the church and make her
comfortable. Bring Ashton and a large wagon with a lot of
padding—straw and feather beds or some such. And bring
Lady Julia, since she's the duchess's midwife."
"Yes, miss." Murphy wheeled his mount and set off at
top speed.
"Can you walk?" Sarah asked her sister, trying to sound
calm.
"I ... I think so." Mariah closed her eyes for a moment
as she composed herself. "The contractions have passed
for now. Help me inside so I can lie down."
With her free hand, Sarah grabbed the carriage rugs
from the curricle before guiding her sister into the old
stone building. The door, like the roof, looked new and it
swung open easily.
Inside a dozen pews faced the chancel, which was a step
above the nave and held a simple stone altar. An arched
opening on the far side of the nave led to a small room,
probably the Lady Chapel. Narrow arched windows made
the interior dim, and since there was no glass, the church
was cold. But at le
(Continues...)