‘Nicholas needs a brother.’
The sip of tea she had taken almost left by way of Olivia’s nose. Her coughing was so fitful that the occupants on the rug looked her way.
‘Are you all right, Mama?’ Nicholas asked with a wrinkled brow that indeed made him look like a small version of the man next to him.
Nodding her head, Olivia tried to stop the spasms in her throat. When the coughing had subsided and the burning in her nose had lessened, she delicately wiped her eyes.
‘Gabriel needs another son,’ Catherine reiterated.
Well, Olivia knew that was not about to happen—unless she had an immaculate conception. She would never allow Gabriel in her bed again. ‘Nicholas is a healthy boy. We already have our heir.’
‘Life holds no guarantees. It is wise to plan for unfortunate occurrences. This family is known for its unbroken line of boys. It should not be difficult for you to have another.’
Olivia refused to look at her mother-in-law. A sharp pain sliced her heart at the thought of the death of her precious boy.
‘Certainly you and Gabriel have discussed having more children.’
‘Oh, we’ve discussed it,’ muttered Olivia, taking a fortifying sip.
‘Then it’s simply a matter of nature taking its course?’
‘You could say that.’
The realisation that she would have no more children felt like someone had carved out a chunk of her heart. If Gabriel did intend to send Nicholas away to school, there would be another tremendous void in her life that nothing would fill. And then she would be alone with no one to love.
* * *
The flames of the candles flickered as Olivia walked towards Nicholas and Gabriel. ‘It is time for bed, my love,’ she said, approaching Nicholas’s side.
Gabriel recalled hearing those words before. It was the last night he had found release inside a woman—the last time he had bedded his wife. He bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from dwelling on the image of Olivia lying under him, with her soft legs squeezing his sides. All these years of frustration had done nothing to quell his desire for her.
‘Look at our fierce fortress, Mama. It’s almost as tall as me.’
‘Very impressive indeed. I commend your steady hand.’
Nicholas turned his large hazel eyes to Gabriel. ‘Do I truly have to go to bed, Papa? I want to stay awake as long as you do. I am almost a man, you know.’
Gabriel glanced at Olivia to gauge her reaction. Her head was angled down towards Nicholas, obscuring her features. Instinctively, his attention was drawn to the swell of her lovely breasts, hidden in the lemon-coloured satin folds of her gown. How he wished he could trace the curve of one breast over to the next. He curled his fingers into a fist to stop the aching. Being this close to her was always torture. ‘If your mother says it’s time for bed, you must obey. However, we cannot leave our fortress unattended. Why don’t you knock it down before the enemy attacks it while we slumber?’
‘Oh, that is an excellent notion.’
Gabriel imagined the sound emanating from his son was something close to the war cry issued by the Indians across the Atlantic when they rode into battle. ‘Well done, Nicholas. Now give us a hug.’
His son threw his arms around Gabriel’s neck and squeezed tight. When Nicholas relaxed his grip, his wide grin highlighted his two missing front teeth. ‘Goodnight, Papa. Thank you again for my prime bit of blood.’
Olivia smothered a laugh behind her hand at the exact moment Gabriel bit his lip to stop his. Their eyes met for an instant before she looked away.
‘Who taught you that?’ Gabriel asked, before holding up his hand. ‘Never mind, I think I know which uncle it was. That is not the way a future duke refers to his horse.’
‘Uncle Andrew told me my horse is a real sweet goer. He says for a gentleman to be a bang-up cove he needs to have a prime bit of blood the other gents would want to ride. He said I shouldn’t name him something a chit would, nothin’ flowery and such. Did you know some day I’ll be able to ride him in a foxhunt? A real hunt! Uncle Andrew says he will take me. I will skip my lessons for the day and he will take me on a foxhunt! Will you take me riding, Papa? Can I ride my horse tomorrow?’
It was a miracle his son was not out of breath. ‘Perhaps we could go riding in Hyde Park before breakfast.’
His son’s eyes widened with anticipation.
‘But you must rise early,’ Gabriel continued. ‘I have many things that require my attention and a gentleman always fulfils his responsibilities. Will you be able to rise with the sun?’
Nicholas threw his arms around Gabriel again. ‘Oh, yes! Oh, yes! I promise, I will be awake before you.’
Gabriel hugged his son tightly. It was always difficult to disengage his arms from the one person who meant more to him than anyone.
His son jumped back and turned to Olivia. ‘Oh, Mama, did you hear that? Papa is taking me riding tomorrow.’
‘Yes, I heard. I dare say you and Buttercup will make such a sight.’ Her lip twitched, giving away the mischief behind the serious tone of her voice.
Nicholas’s features hardened, making him look older than his five years. ‘I cannot be calling my prime bit o’ blood Buttercup. Uncle Andrew said I need to name him somethin’ fierce.’
Olivia chewed her lower lip and appeared to give his comment great consideration. ‘Oh, you mean like Rosebush.’
He scrunched up his round face. ‘Rosebush? That’s not fierce.’
‘Have you ever been pricked by a thorn? I assure you, rosebushes are quite fierce.’
Nicholas shifted his gaze between his parents. ‘Is she sincere?’
Gabriel stood and caught Olivia’s eye before giving Nicholas a slight shrug. ‘Your mama is a girl. Girls do not understand manly ideas,’ he teased. ‘We shall find a very noble name for your steed.’
‘Uncle Andrew said I should name him Cazznoah. I told him that was a silly name and he just laughed. Cazznoah is a silly name, isn’t it, Papa?’
Gabriel closed his eyes and took a breath. ‘Yes, Nicholas, Casanova is a silly name for a horse.’
Olivia cleared her throat and caught his eye. Her disapproving glare at his brother’s suggestion spoke volumes. Andrew always did like to have a bit of fun at Gabriel’s expense, but telling their son he should name his horse after a man who was known for seducing women crossed the line. Obviously Olivia agreed. It didn’t take words for him to see she disapproved.
‘Please bid your grandmama goodnight, Nicholas,’ she said, turning him away from Gabriel. ‘She would be disappointed if she did not get to wish you sweet dreams.’
Following the intimate picture of Olivia and Nicholas as they left the room, Gabriel stared at the doorway. How much longer would he have to wait for news of the interrogation?
His thoughts drifted to a stormy night long ago, when his body was chilled from the drenching rain that did nothing to wash away the sickening smell of blood from the air. He swore to himself that would never happen again. Andrew could be trusted and, God willing, he would be coming back.
Adjusting his cuffs, he walked towards his mother. ‘Are you certain Andrew was not given to you by gypsies as an infant?’
She laughed and handed him a cup of tea. ‘I do suppose that would explain many things, but I assure you he was not. What a pity he