“Are you sure you should be up and about so soon again, Eveline?” Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, sat with her friend in the blue parlor, where she knew the morning light showed her impeccable complexion to best effect.
Lady Eveline sighed. “The doctor said it would be the best thing for me, that staying confined to bed would make me melancholy. And to be completely honest, Diane, it was driving me quite mad, the way Charles hovered over me.” She raised and lowered her shoulders in a delicate little shrug. “I am not the first woman to have lost a babe, nor will I be the last.” Eveline’s bravado was belied by the tremble in her voice. “You know, my dear. You know what it is like.”
Diane did, indeed. After bearing one healthy daughter, she’d suffered three pregnancies that had ended in miscarriage. She had nearly died with the last. At least the doctor had assured her that she would be spared such agonies in the future; she could not become pregnant again. Those losses were long ago, in her first years of marriage, when she had burned to give William an heir to Tremontaine—her wifely duty, but one which would also tie her to the duchy, safely, irrevocably. Instead, she had but the one daughter, and in the end, Honora had failed her entirely.
“I do know. It is a hard burden, and you bear up under it beautifully. But take heart; you are still young.” That was what one always said in such circumstances. In truth, like her, Lady Eveline was in her mid-thirties, late to be still trying to give her husband an heir. “There is time for you to bear a child for Charles.”
“You think so?” Eveline sipped her chocolate. When she lowered the cup, the fine porcelain rattled against its saucer. “I fear he will put me aside, Diane. And perhaps that would be better. There are days when I long for a quiet life, perhaps in a country manor, visiting the villagers and helping them through their days, attending their small fetes and fairs.”
“I cannot see you at a pig race.” The duchess won a faint smile from her friend. “No, Eveline, my dearest, you belong at a fine table decked with silver and crystal, presiding over a banquet of elaborate subtleties. Like that fabulous ship your chef built of spun sugar this summer! I had no idea that it was possible to create such a thing.”
But having learned that it was, Diane had promptly come home and instructed her own chef to beg, borrow, or steal the technique in time for this year’s Swan Ball. Perhaps a fleet of white swans, crowned in gold foil, sailing a molded chocolate river down the center of the long banquet table . . .
“Branwell is a genius,” Eveline said, dismissing the achievement with a flutter of her fan. “But what does it all matter, what does it signify, without children to share in one’s fortune?”
Diane suppressed her annoyance. Back to that unpleasant topic of motherhood. It was all very well to produce them; but children could be a terrible disappointment. Diane had invested years in Honora—in her education, her sense of taste and refinement, her accomplishment of a variety of skills. The girl had proven shockingly lazy, with no appreciation of how crucial it was for a woman to win her way in the world. Her daughter had taken every bit of her good fortune for granted, which had led to hours upon hours of Diane standing over the child like a dragon guarding its hoard, making sure that Honora actually worked on her needlepoint, held her breath properly during singing lessons, practiced the clavier and her dance steps. She was hopeless at the harp, but it hardly mattered, as Honora’s elbows had been downright bony; she got that from her father, of course.
Diane had often caught the girl reading a novel while she was supposedly practicing the keyboard—holding the book open with one hand, and running scales with the other. Finally, Diane had torn the book her daughter was holding to shreds and tossed it in the fire, over Honora’s animal wails of despair. It was all for her own good! It was for her survival. But the foolish chit couldn’t see that, and in the end, none of it had ended up mattering. In her very first season, when she was being presented to society in hopes of the most advantageous marriage her mother could devise, Lady Honora Tielman, only daughter of the Duke Tremontaine, had thrown herself away on a nobody and run off to some little estate in the middle of nowhere, where only the cows might appreciate her accomplishments.
Across the chocolate table, Eveline stifled a sob, and reached for her handkerchief. Diane murmured sympathy and grated more fresh chocolate into her guest’s cup. Lady Eveline had hinted broadly that she was dying to taste some of Tremontaine’s chocolate, known to be the best on the Hill. Her doctor had said that it might relieve the worst symptoms of her current unfortunate condition. How could the duchess refuse?
Diane wished she were sharing a cup and conversation with Esha instead. She suspected that the foreign woman...