Connubial Friction (G. Heyer)
SUMMARY: A year or so after their unusual courtship, Sylvester and Phoebe are happily married and, at the story's outset, expecting their first child. As Sylvester's mother warned Phoebe, however, Sylvester "is determined to have his own way, and never more so than when he is convinced he is acting for one's good."
NOTES: Based on Georgette Heyer's Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle. It's all Richard Armitage's fault, though.
DISCLAIMER: The characters and settings of Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle are the property of Georgette Heyer and her heirs. This is a work of fan fiction, and derives no profit or material benefit therefrom.
Sylvester found Phoebe in the stables, brushing Firefly. She still wore her riding habit, though her hat and gloves had been laid on a nearby bench.
He had not needed to look hard for her; indeed, he had come directly here after leaving his mother. The stables, and Firefly's company in particular, were Phoebe's preferred place of refuge whenever she and Sylvester quarreled. Being a man and a woman of such passionate temperaments and strong wills as they, and also both very much in love with each other, they quarreled rather often, though rarely with such vehemence and acrimony as they had after breakfast when Phoebe had announced her intention to go for a ride before it grew too hot. Under normal circumstances, Sylvester would not have sought out his wife in the place she went to bring her inflamed temper under control, especially when he was the cause of her ire – he had enough familiarity with the caprices of the female disposition to know better, and even Mama had urged him not to intrude on Phoebe's sanctuary – but these were not normal circumstances.
He did not, at least, venture inside the stall, but instead remained outside, his arms resting on the gate. Phoebe had not looked up when he came in, but he could tell from the prim set to her mouth and the slight flick of her wrist as she reached the end of a brushstroke that she was aware of his presence. Neither of them spoke for several moments.
When Phoebe set the brush down and reached into her pocket for a sugar cube to give her horse, Sylvester dared breach the strained silence between them. "Sparrow--"
"You are the most pompous, overbearing, insufferable tyrant I have ever encountered!" Phoebe exclaimed. She turned to face him then, revealing the tear tracks on her face. His chest grew tight with remorse at the realization that he had been the cause of them. "I will not yield," she said. "I will not let you – Sylvester, you cannot stop me!"
"I can, and I must," he replied, though his voice was gentler than his words implied. "The future of the Rayne lineage is at stake."
She let out a snort. "'The Rayne lineage'," she repeated. "How unsurprising it is that that should be your first concern, rather than your own wife!"
"Phoebe, I--" he spluttered. He paused to give himself a moment to recover his composure. "You should know better than anyone else that you are always my first and greatest concern. If this were only about you, my feelings on the matter would be quite different. You are as fine a horsewoman as I have ever seen, with a seat none can rival. But it's not just you I have to think about any more. If you were to fall--"
"My mother rode until she was too heavy to mount unassisted," she said irritably. "She even went on hunts! Your mother told me so. She said Papa didn't even think twice about trying to stop her." Sylvester clenched his teeth; he was usually quite pleased that his wife and mother held each other in such mutual affection, but he did wish Mama would not encourage Phoebe's more outrageous conduct so. He had lately begun to wonder if the Dowager Duchess had been as much of a hoyden during her youth as Phoebe. The thought was a discomforting one, to say the least. "I see no reason why I should not be allowed to do as much," Phoebe concluded, stamping her foot.
"You know very well that it's because your present condition is a delicate one, and--"
"My condition is one women have endured and survived for time immemorial! I could as easily fall down a flight of stairs as off a horse. Would you insist I remove my bedchamber to a lower level? Or perhaps you'll require me to sleep on a pallet on the floor, lest I risk falling out of bed?"
His temper roused anew by her ridiculous accusations, Sylvester opened his mouth to protest, but Phoebe carried on, her hands clenched by her sides, swept along by the tide of her fury. "Shall I point out to you that your own mother gave birth to twins thirty years ago, when medicine was not nearly so advanced as it is now?"
"Shall I remind you that yours died two weeks after you were born, ten years later?" he retorted.
Her eyes flashed dangerously. "Of a fever, not from riding! Really, Sylvester, you are behaving most oppressively towards me. Do you intend to treat me as if I'm an invalid even before I've entered my confinement? Because if you do--"
"What will you do?" he challenged, curious to see what threat she'd employ against him.
"Well, maybe I will go live with my grandmother." Her temper deflating a little, she had turned away from him, but at his laugh whirled around again. "Oh, you think I won't?"
"What a delight it is to learn your penchant for running away from home hasn't left you now that you are a respectable married woman, Sparrow," he replied, smiling. "I daresay, though, you will not receive quite the same welcome at Green Street that you did when you fled Austerby."
"You – You don't think Grandmama will be pleased to have me stay with her again?"
Her underlip had begun to tremble. Realizing his moment of expiation had come, Sylvester unlatched the gate to let himself in and went to her, crooking his finger under her chin and raising her face until her eyes met his. "Oh, Sparrow," he sighed. "Why do you detest me so?"
She pulled him to her then, laying her head over his heart and closing her eyes as he put his arms around her. "I don't detest you, Sylvester, you know that. Must you be such an ogre, though?"
He chuckled. "An ogre, am I? True, I do grind men's bones into bread." He felt her quiver with laughter, and placed a light kiss on the top of her head. "Better an ogre than Ugolino!"
"I have a fair mind to model the villain of my new novel after you," she told him. "He locks his new bride in the tower whenever he's away from the castle."
Sylvester sobered quickly. "Phoebe, look at me," he commanded. Still in his embrace, she raised her head to look up at him. "I can't let you continue riding the way you're accustomed to. If anything were to happen to you or our child--" At this he rested his hand over her abdomen. "--I wouldn't be able to live with myself. After all I went through to win your heart, it would grieve me to lose you so soon. I fear it would be even worse than losing Harry."
Her hand came up to caress his cheek. "I'm sorry, Sylvester," she said with frank contrition. "I promise you, no harm will come to me or our child. I give you my solemn word that I will take every precaution, and no risk."
His eyebrows went up. "The same way you contrived not to be thrown into that stream and sprain your wrist the day before our wedding?" He chuckled at her blush. "Come now, Sparrow, we both know that for you no fence is too high and no ditch too broad. The moment you climb into a saddle, it's as if nothing else in the world exists. That – coupled with your genius for getting into scrapes that it seems to be my appointed task to rescue you from – persuades me that prompt action is required."
"Perhaps you will consider a compromise?" she asked haltingly, her eyes searching his face.
He considered her offer. "It's been my experience that a compromise with you means you getting what you wanted all along," he said with a grin. "Still, I suppose between forbidding you from riding at all and enduring your resentment for the next several months, and allowing you to ride with restrictions against my better judgment, the latter might be the wiser choice."
"What if I were to… modify my usual riding style? If it's a spill you fear, I could be persuaded to agree to avoid situations that might result in one."
That wide-eyed innocent stare of hers never failed to disarm him. After a thoughtful pause he said, "All right, a compromise." As her face brightened with hope and expectation, Sylvester forced his expression to grow stern. "I will permit you to continue riding one three conditions: First, I must always accompany you. Secondly, your horse – whether it's Firefly or one of your Ingham cousins' plodding old hacks – must never go at a speed above a trot. And, thirdly, when you are no longer able to mount without assistance, you cease riding altogether. Agreed?"
Her teeth worried at her lip as she considered his proposal. After a moment she tilted her head and inquired, "I can only go riding if you're with me?" He gave her a nod. "Starting today?"
A smile spread slowly across his face. "Starting as soon as Keighley can get the horses saddled, if you wish."
Her grey eyes sparkled as she smiled back at him. "No, I have a better idea. Let's both ride that big chestnut gelding of yours. I found the prettiest little grove the other day that I've been longing to show you. It's very secluded."
The look she gave him, full of meaning and mischief and promise, made Sylvester's heart pound. "Oh, my darling, wicked Sparrow," he murmured hoarsely, pulling her to him and kissing her thoroughly.
Phoebe's labor had been unexpectedly easy. The pains themselves had lasted the better part of a day, but when the time came for her to deliver, she had not had to bear down for long before her daughter slid out from between her thighs. The doctor had only needed to intervene when her brother became wedged in Phoebe's birth canal, and applied his forceps in extracting the infant. Nurse had scarcely had time to dry and swaddle the firstborn before she had to whisk the younger one away for the same attention.
"Twins!" Phoebe gasped, falling back on her pillows with exhaustion. She accepted the glass of port handed to her with a trembling hand and allowed the attendant to support her head as she sipped at it. "They are... healthy?" she finally managed to ask, echoing the fears and hopes of every new mother.
"As robust as any I've ever seen," Nurse assured her. A loud squall from the infant in her arms seemed to confirm her diagnosis, and made Phoebe smile and hold out her arms for the bundle.
It also summoned Sylvester, who had been waiting anxiously outside the birthing chamber from the moment he arrived from London in response to Phoebe's urgent message, not even taking time to change from his traveling clothes. He flung the door open with such force it banged into the wall and stood in the doorway, his face pale. "Sparrow!"
"Twins, Sylvester!" she informed him, a radiant smile almost, but not quite, masking the strain and fatigue on her face.
"Twins?" he asked, perplexed, his satyr look pronounced. "Am I to understand there's more than one?"
"A daughter and a son, your Grace," explained the doctor, bringing the second bundle to show the astonished father. Bemused, Sylvester peered down at the strange little creature, the tip of his finger moving the blanket's edge aside so he could look at his son's face. His mouth quirked to see the distinctive flying eyebrows, scarcely more than dark smudges on the tiny brow. "I understand you were a twin yourself?" Not looking up, Sylvester nodded.
"Strapping infants, too," the doctor continued. "I understand the Duchess is quite the horsewoman. I believe that may have helped ease her delivery. I didn't even have to use the forceps until the very end."
Sylvester glanced up at Phoebe just in time to see the triumphant gleam in her eyes. "I see," he murmured, his lips twisting to avoid a grin. "Well, Doctor, no doubt your skill and experience was a factor as well."
Remembering the tragic death of the Princess of Wales and her child three years before, Sylvester had spared no expense in providing Phoebe with all the latest innovations for expectant mothers, from a custom-made birthing bed to the country's foremost expert on obstetrics and gynecology overseeing the procedure. Phoebe had frequently bristled at his high-handedness – and, after one particularly memorable quarrel, he had been forced to agree to allow a midwife to attend the birth – but he had remained adamant. He had relented on allowing Phoebe to continue riding, but he would take no other chances when it came to the delivery of his firstborn.
He hadn't anticipated that Phoebe might have been carrying twins, however. A daughter and a son!
"I must tell Mama the good news," he said, speaking both to Phoebe and the doctor. He glanced down, finally noticing his attire. "And put on something more appropriate to attend to the mother of the heir of Salford." He strode over to Phoebe and, taking her hand, kissed it.
She took his hand to stay his departure a moment. "You won't be gone long, will you?"
"Of course not, Sparrow," he said with a smile. "Wild horses couldn't keep me away."
"Good," she sighed, releasing him then. "Pray, convey my regards, and tell your mother I will visit her myself as soon as I am able."
He leaned over and kissed her. "With pleasure. For now, though, you rest and regain your strength, and allow these capable women to take care of you." He acknowledged Nurse and the attendant, hovering nearby with a basin of water and a stack of cloths, with a nod. They, too, had been subject to his rigorous scrutiny before he would employ them. "I will return presently."
True to his word, Sylvester returned an hour later, bearing a bowl of broth on a tray and a message communicating his mother's rapturous joy at the news that Phoebe had been safely delivered of not one, but two, grandchildren for her to spoil. "The part about spoiling them comes from me," he admitted, setting down the tray beside Phoebe.
In his absence she had been cleaned and dressed in a fresh nightgown, a shawl draped around her shoulders, and her hair brushed and plaited. Though still pale and wan, she looked much improved. Her bedlinens had also been replaced, and through the partly-ajar door to the room beyond he could hear someone moving about and the faint desultory whimper of an infant.
"Not terribly fagged, I hope?" Sylvester asked Phoebe as he swung his legs up on the bed to stretch out beside her.
She made no immediate response, but instead allowed him to take her into his arms and laid her head against his shoulder. "Twins!" she sighed once she had made herself comfortable. "I own, I had some suspicion towards the end, and Mrs. Orde, when she visited last month, insisted it must be so, but I scarcely dared believe it."
"Do you think me a brute?" he asked after a moment's hesitation.
"Not at all!" she assured him. "You heard the doctor – all that riding you were so determined to forbid--"
He silenced her with a hand to her lips. "Let's not speak of that," he said brusquely, but in good humor. "You do realize what this means if word gets out, don't you?" She shook her head. "It means you'll have half the ton galloping up and down the paths in Richmond Park until their poor horses are permanently swaybacked!"
Her eyes glinted mischievously as she looked up at him. "Only the pregnant half, dear."
He laughed. "I daresay Fotherby will try to contrive some scheme that includes him," he replied. "You know he can't bear to be even half a step out of fashion." As Phoebe dissolved into giggles, Sylvester pulled her more closely to him. "Oh, dear Sparrow. What am I to do with you?"
"I'm afraid," she said, drawing back to wipe the tears streaming from her eyes, "you'll just have to learn to live with me."
Sylvester gently wiped his thumb beneath one of her eyes, then bent down to kiss her damp cheek. "Seeing as you've just presented me with two healthy children, it would be most ungentlemanly of me to put you out on the street now." When she nestled against him again he murmured, "There, there. I promise, as soon as the doctor declares you are able, we will go on a very long ride."
"Faster than a trot?"
He smiled. "You may gallop to your heart's content."
"You'll let me go over any walls or ditches in my path?"
"If Firefly is up to it, you can leap across any obstacle that dares impede your progress."
She looked up at him. "We will visit that glade, won't we, Sylvester?"
"Oh, yes, Sparrow, I promise you: we will visit that glade again." He sealed this promise with a kiss, until the return of Nurse and the attendant, their arms laden with his freshly bathed, weighed, and swaddled children, required him to withdraw.