Bella didn’t even realize she was unwell. The fever had started with chills that were so reminiscent to the cold of the Atlantic, that she didn’t realize that she was ill. She was playing with the children in the garden, Anthony pretending to be a bear as he chased them—but she had been the one who collapsed.
She remembered the strong arms of her husband lifting her in his arms, and then the shouts for the doctor.
When she woke up eleven days later, they told her that she had been lucky, but that she had lost the baby. The soup they fed her tasted like ash and she cried in her husband’s strong arms as he promised her that there could be others, but he cried just as deeply, even if his tears were silent.
The children came in for tea the next morning, wearing black.
She looked at her husband, and he said, “Lady Grantham was not so fortunate to survive, as you.”
“What was it?” she questioned, her voice still a rasp.
Charlie, despite being a large boy nearing four, crawled into her arms and held on tightly. She kissed the top of his head and cooed into his ear a lullaby.
“Spanish Influenza,” Anthony told her, his voice hushed. “It seems Carson took ill up at Downton, then the Countess. Lady Sybil is still in the grips of it.” His wounded hand clenched in a fist despite being in a sling to show his anger. “The whole county is infected.”
“Not just us, then,” she murmured, and he agreed.
“The point is, darling, that you’re well.” He tried to put a smile on his face, but his eyes were haunted.
After the children left, she asked, “Is it very much certain?”
He seemed uncomfortable, when he admitted, “Agnes says there was bleeding.”
Bella’s fingers skated down to her stomach, barely rounded, and pressed as she once had when she was first with child with Nerissa. She felt a warmth there—strange and foreign. “Has the doctor checked?” she asked, just as quietly.
“No,” he responded carefully. “I trusted a woman’s intuition.”
Bella breathed out shakily. “I’d like a doctor’s opinion,” she told him firmly.
His eyes, so blue and so wonderfully beloved, looked at her hopefully and he nodded. “I’ll ring down to the hospital at once. He might not be able to come immediately with Lady Sybil being so ill—”
“Of course,” she murmured. “Wherever is Lady Edith?” she inquired, knowing she was several months with child and would have had to get out of the house at the first sign of illness.
His gaze softened and he took her hand that was lying on the coverlet, kissing the back of it. “I understand she went to her Aunt Rosamunde’s—in London. I remember there was some conversation about her staying with Lady Branksome, her sister, but you know they don’t get on, and I barely left your side during the ordeal.”
Her lips quirked up. “Sending servants between the houses?” she guessed. “For news?”
He smiled at her bashfully. “You have the right of it. Clarkson served as messenger as well.—I wanted to send the children away, but by then there were reports of the Spanish Influenza from here to London. Nowhere was safe, so I kept them locked up in the Nursery and sent up letters on their tea tray.”
“Well,” she sighed. “They came out the other end.” Her eyes closed. “No signs of infection?”
“None,” he told her firmly. “You only seem to have contracted because of the old complaint.”
The old complaint, she thought grimly. That was one way to put the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
Then a thought occurred to her. Didn’t Edward Masen almost die of Spanish Influenza? Didn’t his mother beg Carlisle Cullen to save him as she herself died from the disease, and that’s how he made his first child, his first companion? He hadn’t been a vampire all these years, as she had first thought, but a living, breathing, human teenage boy, and the thought almost made her laugh. They had each contracted Spanish flu and Bella, weak as she was from nearly drowning in the ocean’s depths, had survived… and he hadn’t.
… yet Cora, the Countess of Grantham, hadn’t survived either. Sybil was fighting for her life, and the thought was a sobering one.
“What will happen?” she murmured. “Grantham? He’s lost his wife?”
The light of humor flitted out of Anthony’s eyes and his fingers squeezed hers upon the coverlet. “We, more than anyone, knows. You lost your husband, I my wife,” he reminded her. “He will grieve. He will find reasons to carry on. I do not believe he will marry again.”
“No,” Bella agreed. “I cannot see him doing that.” And, in fact, she couldn’t. Mary would never stand for her mother being replaced in any way. It might have been different, if he didn’t have an heir, but the Viscount was young and healthy and had survived this latest tragedy that had befallen them all.
Dr. Clarkson did not come for another four days, by which time Lady Sybil had succumbed to the Spanish Influenza.
It was an irony that Sybil’s husband, Captain Matthew Crawley, was able to stand with the use of a cane at her funeral, but he was silent throughout the entire proceedings. Edith had returned from exile, round with child. Both Mary, now the Viscountess of Banksome, and her husband stood wearing black. Bella sent her regrets, but came to the reception, dressed in her usual furs, which mostly hid her own pregnancy, which had yet to be announced.
“You were right,” Captain Crawley told her as he claimed a chair beside her half an hour before she left. “I would give anything for a day with my darling in my arms.”
She turned to him and saw his sad eyes looking back at her. “Are you back at Crawley House, Cousin Matthew?” she asked.
“Temporarily,” he agreed. “I can’t stay here.”
“Then back to Manchester?”
He nodded. “Mother said she will return to France—they need her there. The house will go back to the family. It will be as if we never existed.”
“Sybil existed,” Bella told him plainly. “She was a daughter of the house, and she was your wife.”
“Was she?” he asked, wistfully, before kissing her hand. “I know you and Mary planned it that way, very neatly, I might add, but sometimes women shouldn’t play at matchmaking. Real people might get hurt. We’re not Nerissa’s dolls, after all.”
She glanced over at him. “I never thought you were a doll, Captain Crawley. You’re speaking out of anger and grief.”
Granny at least was more charitable when she came to tea in her boudoir. “No, no, it’s best he go,” she decided. “He was the heir for all of a minute. He was good for our dear Sybil, but now he’s a reminder of a sweet girl who was taken from us.”
Bella looked out over the lawn and set down her tea. “I think everyone is acting far too rashly,” she pointed out. “Sybil just died. We need time to breathe.”
“We need to remember the living,” Granny told her, “like that babe inside of you.”
At this, Bella stilled.
“You think I did not realize?” Granny asked, smiling. “So precious, the life you carry. If it’s a girl, perhaps you might name her after her cousin.”
“Which one?” Bella teased slightly, smiling.
Changing topic, the Dowager Countess said, “Mary is staying for a protracted visit to help Edith with the child and to help with our young Viscount. I take it that all is not well with her and her husband.”
“It will almost be like old times,” Bella mused, “except with a reduced cast.”
“We have the younger generation,” Granny pointed out. “Young Patrick, Nerissa, and Charlie. Then there’s Edith’s child and the one you’re carrying, both expected within the next six months, I presume.”
She smiled at her great-aunt. “You presume correctly.”
The Dowager Countess looked pleased with herself and took another cake. Everything was as it should be.
It was several months later and a rather gray day when Bella was out walking with Nerissa, which was unusual. Usually Nanny would be along, as well as Charles and (most likely) Anthony, but today was Mothering Sunday and it was just the two of them.
“Do you think it is a girl, Mama?” Nessa asked, her voice soft and awed, and Bella nodded.
“Yes,” she agreed, “and I wanted you to help me choose the name. It’s to be our secret.”
“Oh,” Nessa sighed in happiness, “I can think of so many wonderful names—Elizabeth and Cordelia and Mabel and Winifred and—”
A twig broke off to the side and Bella looked up to see two golden eyes, “Alice,” she greeted.
Nessa stopped and looked up, her blue eyes curious.
Alice Cullen—or, rather, Mary Alice Brandon—came out from behind the tree wearing a pale pink frock with long dark hair tied in a ribbon. Her eyes flitted between Bella, visibly pregnant, and the young six-year-old Nerissa. She then curtseyed.
Bella took Nessa’s hand and nodded in response, not wishing to curtsey in her pregnant state though, with a tap on the back of Nessa’s hand, her daughter curtseyed to the stranger.
Her daughter, ever intelligent child that she was, greeted, “There’s a portrait of you in the Morning Room.”
Alice, whose skin was pale as snow and had bruises beneath her eyes, seemed at a loss.
Answering for her, Bella declared, “You must be a relative of my husband—Sir Anthony Strallan. The portrait is of a beloved aunt, Mary Alice Brandon. Is she your mother or grandmother, perhaps?”
The indecision cleared out of Alice’s eyes and she smiled kindly at them. “Yes. My mother.”
“Then perhaps you should like to come to tea this afternoon, Miss Brandon,” Bella offered, trusting the amber in Alice’s eyes. “I’m certain my husband should love to see a relative.”
After a moment, when it was clear Alice was undecided, Nerissa added, “Indeed. Papa so admired your Mother. He told me about her one afternoon, how she would tell him stories when she was young.”
“Did I—she?” Alice asked, clearly entranced. Then, decided, she looked to Bella and said, “Tea would be lovely.”
Bella blinked, looking at the vampire who had once been her friend, sensing that something was changing. “Lovely,” she echoed, and then led the way back to the house.