Scandal in Spring Page 41

Daisy usually loved rainy days. Curling up next to a hearth fire with a book was the greatest pleasure imaginable. But she was still trapped in a fretful state in which the printed word had lost its magic. She meandered from room to room, discreetly observing the activities of the guests.

Pausing at the threshold of the billiards room, she peered around the doorframe as gentlemen milled lazily around the table with drinks and cue sticks in hand. The clicks of ivory balls provided an arrhythmic undertone to the hum of masculine conversation. Her attention was caught by the sight of Matthew Swift in his shirtsleeves, leaning over the table to execute a perfect bank shot.

His hands were deft on the cue stick, his blue eyes narrowed as he focused on the layout of balls on the table. Those ever-rebellious locks of hair had fallen over his forehead once more, and Daisy longed to push them back. As Swift sank a ball neatly into a side pocket, there was a scattering of applause, some low laughs, and a few coins changing hands. Standing, Swift produced one of his elusive grins and made a remark to his opponent, who turned out to be Lord Westcliff.

Westcliff laughed at the comment and circled the table, an unlit cigar clamped between his teeth as he considered his options. The air of relaxed masculine enjoyment in the room was unmistakable.

As Westcliff rounded the table, he caught sight of Daisy peeking around the doorframe. He winked at her. She pulled back like a turtle jerking into its shell. It was ridiculous of her to creep around the manor trying to catch stolen glimpses of Matthew Swift.

Scolding herself silently, Daisy strode away from the billiards room and toward the main hall and the grand staircase. She bounded up the stairs, not stopping until she reached the Marsden parlor.

Annabelle and Evie were with Lillian, who was half-curled on the settee. Her features were pale and tense, her forehead lightly scored with frown lines. Her slim arms were wrapped around her stomach.

“That’s twenty minutes,” Evie said, her gaze fastened on the mantel clock.

“They’re still not coming regularly,” Annabelle remarked. She brushed Lillian’s hair and braided it neatly, her slim fingers dexterous in the heavy black locks.

“What aren’t coming regularly?” Daisy asked with forced cheer, coming into the room. “And why are you watching the—” She blanched as she suddenly understood. “My God. Are you having birthing pains, Lillian?”

Her sister shook her head, looking perplexed. “Not full-on pains. Just a sort of tightening of my stomach. It started after lunchtime, and then I had one an hour later, and then a half-hour later, and this one came after twenty minutes.”

“Does Westcliff know?” Daisy asked breathlessly. “Should I go tell him?”

“No,” all three of the other women said at once.

“There’s no need to worry him yet,” Lillian added in a sheepish tone. “Let Westcliff enjoy the afternoon with his friends. As soon as he finds out, he’ll be up here pacing and giving commands, and no one will have any peace. Especially me.”

“What about Mother? Shall I fetch her?” Daisy had to ask, even though she was certain of the answer. Mercedes was not a comforting sort of person, and despite the fact that she had given birth to five children, she was squeamish at the mention of any kind of bodily function.

“I’m in enough pain already,” Lillian said dryly. “No, don’t tell Mother anything yet. She would feel obligated to sit here with me to maintain appearances, and that would make me as nervous as a cat. Right now all I need are the three of you.”

Despite her sardonic tone, she reached for Daisy’s hand and clung tightly. Childbirth was a frightening business, especially the first time, and Lillian was no exception. “Annabelle says this could happen on and off for days,” she told Daisy, crossing her eyes comically. “Which means I may not be as sweet-tempered as usual.”

“That’s fine, dear. Give us your worst.” Retaining Lillian’s hand, Daisy sat on the carpeted floor at her feet.

The room was quiet except for the ticking of the mantel clock, and the stroke of the bristled brush against Lillian’s scalp. Between the sisters’ joined hands, the pressure of their pulses mingled in steady throbs. Daisy was not certain if she was giving comfort to her sister or receiving it. Lillian’s time was here, and Daisy was afraid for her, of the pain and possible complications, and the fact that life would never be the same afterward.

She glanced at Evie, who flashed her a smile, and Annabelle, whose face was reassuringly calm. They would help each other through all the challenges and joys and fears of their lives, Daisy thought, and she was suddenly overwhelmed with love for all of them. “I will never live away from you,” she said. “I want the four of us to be together always. I could never bear to lose any of you.”

She felt Annabelle’s slippered toe nudge her leg affectionately. “Daisy…you can never lose a true friend.”

CHAPTER 9

As the afternoon spun out into early evening, the storm escalated beyond the usual springtime prank into a full-on assault. Rain-laden wind struck the windows and thrashed the meticulously trimmed hedgerows and trees, while lightning splintered the sky. The four friends stayed in the Marsden parlor, timing Lillian’s contractions until they were separated by regular ten-minute intervals. Lillian was subdued and anxious, though she tried to hide it. Daisy suspected her sister found it difficult to surrender to the inevitable process that was taking control of her body.

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