ImogeneHis Courteous Muse
One Year Later
The party was going very well, Imogene thought. At the height of summer, the night was balmy enough for the partygoers to drink, eat, and talk outside.
The couple at the center of the party barely noticed the other guests. They stared lovingly into each other’s eyes, quite enraptured.
Imogene smiled to herself. Lizzie and Lord Armitage’s relationship had come on in leaps and bounds. There had been problems, of course. Every new love affair always had them.
In their case, it was the dowager, Lord Armitage’s formidable mother. She had raised a veritable brood of children, but only one son. She was, naturally, extremely protective.
For the first time in her life, Lizzie had had to work hard on herself. The dowager would not allow her son to marry a weak, spoilt, unpleasant girl, no matter how large a dowry she had. Lizzie had to show herself worthy, worthy of Lord Armitage, and worthy of the position she would hold.
She had succeeded. This was their engagement party.
As Imogene watched, Lizzie tore her gaze away from her red-headed fiancé, and glanced up, catching Imogene’s eye. She smiled and raised her hand in a half-wave. Imogene waved back and turned away from the window and the party.
It was surprising how a baby could make a dinner party seem so . . . so very trite, even such a happy event as this.
Two babies—well, now. That was something else altogether.
As if she’d summoned him by thought, Lewis appeared.
“Are they asleep?” he murmured.
Imogene glanced over her shoulder at the two cots at the other end of the nursery.
“So far, so good. Diarmuid is sleeping soundly, but Regina keeps waking and crying, which wakes her brother, of course.”
Lewis let out a heavy breath. “I knew twins would be no picnic, but still. This is exhausting. I wish you’d leave more work to the nursemaid.”
Imogene smiled up at him. “That poor woman is overworked as it is.”
“You’re missing the party.”
“I don’t mind. We’ll have plenty of parties in the future. I imagine Lord Armitage and Lizzie’s wedding will be the celebration of the century.”
“Well, at least we won’t be press-ganged into Annie and Lord Drayton’s attempts to organise a country dance on the front terrace.”
Imogene chuckled at that. “Those two are getting on well, don’t you think?”
Soft footsteps approached the nursery, and there was a gentle tap at the door.
“Can I come in?” came Lady Lavinia’s voice, in a whisper.
“Of course, Mama.”
Lady Lavinia slipped inside. She was dressed in her evening best, dripping in pearls and ruched satin. She tiptoed over to the cots, and peered inside, smiling fondly.
“They’re asleep,” she whispered.
“Not for much longer,” Imogene observed. “They never sleep through the night.”
Lady Lavinia chuckled softly. “Lewis, Lord Rutherford is asking to speak to you. He’s getting rather insistent.”
Lewis sighed and rolled his eyes. “Excuse me, my love.” He leaned over and pressed a kiss to Imogene’s cheek.
She watched him go, glancing briefly at the babies asleep in their cots, and closing the door softly so as not to disturb them.
Imogene turned back to see Lady Lavinia smiling softly at her.
“What is it, Lady Lavinia?”
“Oh, nothing. I just see how much you two love each other, and . . . well, it’s touching, that’s all. A child can change the way a husband and wife see each other, and it’s good to see that isn’t happening to you two. Oh, by the way, I’m surprised Lewis didn’t complain about your naming both of your children after your parents. Not that I’m complaining, of course. It’s a pleasure to have Regina remembered in this way.”
Imogene smiled. “Well, I suppose we decided we would have more children later on. There’ll be plenty of opportunities for him to take his turn at naming our children.”
Lady Lavinia nodded. “Well, I’ll watch the children for a while if you’d like to enjoy the party. As you and Lewis were kind enough to host Lizzie’s engagement celebration, it seems a shame that neither of you should enjoy it.”
“Lewis is mingling.”
“Lewis is talking to Lord Rutherford,” Lady Lavinia observed dryly. “I’m not sure he’s enjoying anything. Go along now, I insist. Let a mature lady spend some time with her grandchildren.”
Imogene wavered for a few moments, but quickly gave in. Her mother-in-law was spectacularly good with caring for her grandchildren.
So, Imogene slipped out of the nursery, leaving Lady Lavinia whispering and cooing over the sleeping babies. She wasn’t particularly tempted to return to the party. It was nice, of course, but busy parties like these always brought back unpleasant memories for Imogene. She remembered all the lectures and scolding from her Aunt Karina over some misdemeanour, or Lizzie making fun of her. Of course, Aunt Karina and Lizzie never treated Imogene in such a way now, but the memories still lingered.
They still hurt.
Worst of all, Imogene would occasionally remember Lord Chalford. She shuddered. Even the one-day engagement still haunted her nightmares, it was hard to imagine what a full marriage to the man would have done to her.
And yet here she was now, safe in Brackley House. Her house. Their house. Her children would be raised here, and this is where Imogene would likely live out her days.
It was a beautiful house. It wasn’t showy and modern in the way Aunt Karina’s house was. It was tasteful, with a clever mix of modern appliances and conveniences combined with antiques and old-fashioned designs. It was cosy and spacious all at once, and Imogene had felt comfortable in the house immediately.
Imogene passed through the old long gallery, looking up at the familiar faces, portraits of Carmichaels long dead, whom Lady Lavinia had taken pains to teach Imogene about. She had told her the name of each sitter, their history, deeds, marriages, and their ultimate demise.
Imogene supposed it was interesting to somebody who loved to know of a building’s history. It interested Imogene, to an extent. Still, history was the past, and what counted— in Imogene’s opinion—was the future. Their future.
As if to highlight that point, Imogene glanced up in time to see the latest painting. Added by none other than Lewis himself, the painting was a self-portrait.
Lewis and Imogene sat side by side, each holding a baby. Lewis held Diarmuid, and Imogene held Regina, and Lady Lavinia stood between the two of them, looking regal in a beautiful gown.
It was one of the first pictures Lewis had painted after their marriage.
At least, he had begun to paint it. To begin with, the painting had featured the three of them. However, word had begun to spread of Lewis’ talents with a pencil and paintbrush. Members of the ton who liked the idea of a marquess painting them began to ask for commissions. It was usually a portrait of one kind or another, but Lewis was thrilled at the idea of being paid for his passion.
Unfortunately, his grand family painting was postponed and postponed, with Lewis only being able to spend a little time on it here and there. At one point, he painted in a round, pregnant belly for Imogene. By the time it was finished, two twin babies were painted in.
But it is finished now. Finished, lacquered, and framed, and hanging here in the hallway, with all the other paintings of long-dead dukes and marquesses, now immortalised between canvas and paint.
“I see you’re admiring my great work of art again,” Lewis said from behind Imogene, making her jump.
“Heavens, Lewis! You frightened me half to death.” Imogene tsked, smiling up at her husband even so. “I thought you were talking to Lord Rutherford.”
“I escaped. I came to find you.”
“Not enjoying the party?”
“Well, you aren’t there, so not really.”
Imogene hummed happily. Lewis wrapped his arms around her waist and Imogene leaned back against him. For a long moment, they stood like that, holding each other and contemplating the painting that captured their little family perfectly.
“I love you.” Lewis said after a while.
Imogene smiled. “I love you, too.”
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