“The south fields again?”
He growled an affirmative answer as he suckled her earlobe. “Flooded ankle deep.”
“Oh, dear,” she sighed. “What about the drainage canals from last year? I thought—”
With a brisk push, he whirled her around to face him. The intensity in his eyes told her there’d be no more talk of drainage canals just now.
He pulled her into a deep, stormy kiss. It told her everything another woman might wish to hear in words: I want you. I need you. I love you. The whole time we were apart, I thought of no one but you.
“Let’s go upstairs.” He fisted his hand in the back of her dress. “It’s been an eternity.”
She laughed against his lips. “It’s been since Tuesday.”
“Like I said. An eternity.” He lifted her off her feet, as though he meant to simply toss her over his shoulder and haul her to the nearest mattress.
She put her hands to his chest, stopping him. “We can’t. Not right now.”
The gravity in her expression didn’t escape his notice. As he set her back on her toes, his brow furrowed with protective concern. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, just . . .” She swallowed hard. “Please don’t be angry.”
He took her by the shoulders. “Tell me. Now.”
“Don’t worry. No one’s ill or bleeding.” Yet. “And it’s not really something I can explain. You’ll have to see for yourself.”
She took him by the hand and led him down the corridor. They walked slowly, quietly. He looked like a man marching toward his own funeral.
“I know how you hate these things,” she said in an advance apology. “But the boys have been asking ever since last summer, and then Bryony seized the idea and wouldn’t let go.” They came to a stop just outside the drawing room.
“It’s too quiet,” he suddenly noted. “Katie, I don’t like this.”
“I don’t even know how it happened. It all spiraled out of control. But please know they had the best of intentions.”
With a final, silent prayer for courage, Kate pushed open the double doors.
The drawing room erupted in color and noise.
“Surprise!” came the shout from several dozen of their closest family, servants, neighbors, and friends.
“It’s a party,” she said. “For you.”
She cringed, watching him as he surveyed the room, filled to bursting with people. She’d invited all the landowners from neighboring estates, and as many old friends as she could lure to Ambervale. Lord Rycliff and Lord Payne had brought their families. Calista and Parker were there, and Harry and Ames. As always, Evan greeted Samuel with a warm handshake. They’d long been close friends.
“The children wanted to give you a birthday,” she whispered, waving in Aunt Marmoset’s direction. “Last summer they were asking why we never celebrate it, and I didn’t know what to say. I just plucked a date from the air, because I thought they’d forget. But they didn’t. They’re stubborn, like their father.”
“They’re clever,” he said. “And that’s entirely your fault.”
The children stood waiting in the center of the room. All three of them just bursting with self-satisfaction, knowing they’d managed to rattle their formidable papa.
Bryony Claire, almost eight years old now.
Brent Christopher, a few years behind.
The smallest, Benjamin Charles, tottered across the room and attached himself to his papa’s boot.
They’d given all of them the initials B.C. With the first child, she’d talked Samuel into it. He’d suggested Simon or Elinor, for her parents, but she desperately wanted to give those letters inked beneath his heart a different meaning.
There was nothing of Bad Character in him now, if there ever had been. Only Doting Father, Fair-minded Employer, Loyal Friend . . . and Loving Husband. There wasn’t a soul in this packed, unruly drawing room who didn’t admire him.
But Kate didn’t think anyone could love the man more than she.
She put a hand to her belly. If her suspicions of the past few queasy weeks proved true, they’d soon be racking their brains for another set of names. As virile as the man seemed to be, she only hoped they could stop short of using Bathsheba Cabbagewort.
When she caught his gaze, his eyebrow arched into a chastening bow. But she’d developed a talent for reading the subtle changes in his stony expression, and she could tell he wasn’t angry.
He scooped little Benjamin off his feet and put him on his shoulders.
“Come see your cake!” Bryony tugged at her father’s sleeve, pulling him toward a table laden with refreshments. In the center was a lumpy, slightly listing cake.
“Bryony iced it herself,” Kate said.
Bryony went up on her toes with pride. “There’s apricot preserves inside. We’re going to sing for you later. Mama’s taught us a new song.” She twisted to and fro, swirling the skirts of her best gown. “Do you like your party, Papa?”
“No, I don’t like it.”
Kate sent him a pleading look. Samuel didn’t care for fuss—much less cake—but she hoped he could bear it for the one evening.
With a big, weathered hand, he cupped his daughter’s chin and tilted her hopeful face to his. “I love it. And I love you.”