Thank you all so much for reading BARON, the second full-length book in The Knickerbocker Club series. I hope you all enjoyed Ava and Will’s story!
I should note, if you haven’t read BARON yet, you should stop right here! Read BARON first…otherwise, it’s cheating.
“Tom,” Ava snapped. “Elbows off the table. Now.”
“Sorry.” Tom sat perfectly straight and set his hands in his lap. “Though I had assumed turning eighteen meant you wouldn’t yell at me any longer.”
Her brother had been eighteen only for a few days, but Ava didn’t bother to point that out. “You are still at the table and I expect you to use proper manners. If not for yourself, than to set a good example for Mary and Sam.” She tilted her head toward their two youngest siblings.
“Come on, Ava,” Sam chimed in with. “Will’s not even here tonight. We don’t have to be so la-di-dah.”
This was a constant battle with the youngest Jones siblings. They acted perfectly respectable in the presence of Will Sloane, but the moment he was away . . .
“I expect good behavior from all of you, regardless of whether Will is here or not.”
Grumbling ensued for a few moments, though no one voiced an actual protest. “When’s he returning from Washington anyway?” Tom asked. “I thought he’d be here yesterday.”
A new United States Congressman, Will had been traveling between New York and Washington frequently. Ava’s schedule was no better, as she stayed quite busy reporting for the Mercury. As busy as she was, however, she missed her husband when he traveled.
“Yeah, and you’ve been hell on wheels since he left,” Sam said.
Ava narrowed her eyes on him. “Do not use that word, young man. Or I will be canceling those riding lessons.” Horses had become Sam’s newest obsession, one Will had indulged with fervor.
Sam held up his hands placatingly, and Mary leaned in, her face lined with concern. “You have been a bit…touchy these past three weeks. Are you working too hard?”
No, she was not working too hard. She wanted her damn husband back.
Everything would be better once Will returned.
“I’m fine. I apologize if I have been rude to any of you. I haven’t been sleeping well with Will away.” She pushed around the food on her place. “Now, let’s talk about something else. How was work today, Tom?”
Tom had been hired at East Coast Steel after Emmett Cavanaugh bought out Will’s Northeast Railroad. Cavanaugh had taken a shine to Tom, promoting him several times over in the last two years.
A sheepish smile twisted Tom’s lips, his cheeks turning a dull red. “I had a great day. Very productive.”
“Which means Katie Cavanaugh stopped by the office,” Sam said in a loud stage whisper.
“Shut up, Sam.”
Sam picked up a dinner roll and threw it at Tom. “I won’t, not when you know I’m right.”
Her head throbbing, Ava closed her eyes and massaged her temples. Perhaps she should’ve taken dinner alone in her room.
“Ho, what’s this? I leave for a few weeks and rolls are now being tossed about at supper?”
As if she’d conjured him up, Will stood at the dining room door, his handsome, patrician face ruddy from the winter cold. He was still in his heavy overcoat, derby in his gloved hands. Ava and her siblings all came to their feet. Sam reached Will first, the two exchanging a very manly handshake before Will slapped the fourteen-year-old on the shoulder. “We need to work on your throwing arm,” Will told him.
Her husband then leaned down to kiss Mary’s cheek. “Hello, Mary. Have your brothers been giving you any trouble?”
“No, sir,” she said shyly.
“Good. I brought a present for you from Washington.”
Mary’s eyes lit up. “You did? What is it?”
He shrugged out of his overcoat and handed it over to Frederic, their butler. Will’s broad, wool-covered shoulders were a sight for sore eyes, in Ava’s opinion. She was terribly relieved he’d finally come home.
“A group of suffragettes were gathered outside the capital building,” Will told Mary. “I asked for their pamphlets and a few buttons. They’re in my trunk upstairs.”
Ava hid a smile. Mary had become quite the social activist. She had campaigned for many causes, including women’s rights, over the last year or so.
“Thank you so much,” Mary gushed. “I’ll share them with the ladies here.”
“My pleasure. Hello, Tom. Nice to see you. I’m sorry I missed your birthday.” The two exchanged a handshake.
“That’s all right. Ava threw me a nice party with some friends and the gents from the office.”
“Good. I hope the worst of the debauchery occurred off the premises.”
“Yes, it did,” Tom said with a grin.
“Oh, mercy,” Ava muttered. She did not want to know the kind of trouble a group of wealthy eighteen-year-old boys could get into in New York City.
“I have a birthday present for you upstairs,” Will told Tom. “Let me greet my wife—”
“What about me?” Sam whined. “Everyone but me got a present?”
Will chuckled. “I have a present for you, too. But no one is getting anything until I spend a few minutes saying hello to your sister.”
“Thank God,” Sam said, elbowing Tom. “Maybe now she won’t be in such a lousy mood all the time.”
“Everyone get out,” Ava barked at her obnoxious siblings. “Supper is over. Go upstairs.”
“But I’m still hungry!”
“That is too bad,” Ava told Sam. “You should have thought of that before you started throwing rolls.”
Will frowned and gathered the Jones siblings off to the side. “Go to the kitchen and have them give you a little extra food. You can tell them I’d like a plate as well while you’re there.”
“We will!” All three children ran from the dining room toward the hall that led down to the kitchen.
Will faced her and cocked his head. “Everything all right?”
She crossed to where he stood, wrapped her arms around his waist, and fell into his body. He pulled her tight to his chest and kissed the top of her head. “Hello, darling. I’ve missed you.”
For some silly reason, the words brought tears to her eyes. “I have missed you, too. I’m so happy you’re home.”
“You look tired. Are you ill?”
“Merely haven’t been sleeping well. I grow lonely when you’re away.”
His chest heaved with a sigh, the sound amplified in her ear. “We talked about this. You knew—”
“Yes, I knew what we were getting into. It doesn’t make it any easier.”
“Shall we go up and lie down?”
She pulled back to see his stunning gray eyes, now brimming with heat and longing. “Now?”
“Yes, now.” He bent and pressed his lips to hers, the contact jolting her, obliterating her exhaustion and filling her with delicious tingles. “I am dying to be inside you at this very moment.”
“Are you?” She curled her fingers around his necktie and began leading him out of the room. “Perhaps that can be arranged.”
“Perhaps? Are you planning to make me beg, you devil woman?”
“Not tonight. You’ve been away too long.”
They continued through the corridor and up the main staircase. Will clasped her hand the entire way, as eager as she to keep connected. He pushed open their bedroom door and held it for her.
She slowly drew her hand over his chest as she passed. “No begging tonight, dear husband. But tomorrow is another story.”
Will rolled over, awareness rushing over him as he awakened. Morning light filled the room, his wife breathing deeply beside him. He glanced at the clock. Eight thirty. Ava usually woke long before this. She must have been truly exhausted without him here.
That troubled him. He would be spending more and more time in Washington over the next few years. They had agreed she would remain in New York, working at the newspaper and keeping watch over her siblings. Perhaps three weeks was too long a stretch for him to remain away. Even if he had to juggle his already insane schedule, he may need to return to New York more often.
He watched her sleep for a moment, her naked body stretched out, relaxed, all creamy skin and soft curves. Christ, he’d missed her. And more than her body. He’d missed her mind, her keen intelligence that never quit, never missed a beat. Her sharp sense of humor. Her smile. Washington had been dashed lonely without her.
Something had been off last night. Ava could be very demanding in bed. It wasn’t in her nature to be passive—ever—and Will loved her for it. But their reunion had been subdued, even short-lived, before she’d fallen asleep. Not that he was complaining. Every time she touched him, he lost his mind.
Perhaps he should get up and let her sleep longer.
Carefully, he began edging toward the side of the bed.
Her sleep-roughened voice stopped him. He turned to find her brown eyes open. “I apologize. I was attempting to let you sleep longer.”
“Do not leave just yet.”
Hope welled, his cock coming to life between his legs. Shifting closer, his fingers slid out to stroke the side of her breast. The nipple hardened and he plumped the full mound in his palm.
He immediately released her, lust forgotten. “Did I hurt you?”
“No, I’m a bit sore everywhere this morning.” She stroked his shoulder, her palm warm and soothing. “You were quite energetic last night.”
He was? He brushed the hair off her face and then kissed her forehead. “I apologize. You should sleep a bit longer before you come down to breakfast.”
Sliding out of bed, he reached for his silk dressing gown. Stacks of proposed legislation awaited him down in the study. He would bathe and shave quickly.
“I have been eating up here the last few days,” Ava said, curling into her pillow. “It’s just easier.”
Alarm bells went off in Will’s head. This was very unusual. Ava had years of getting up at dawn and usually popped out of bed brimming with energy. Hands on his hips, he studied her. She was pale, her face sallow. “Perhaps we should call the physician. I am worried, darling.”
A flash of panic went through her eyes, worrying Will even further. “No, please. That’s not necessary. I’ll get up.” She sat up and her skin tone went gray.
He rushed forward, unsure what to do. She raised her hand. “I’m all right. Just hungry. I’ll feel better after my maid brings up my breakfast.”
Will immediately rang for her maid. Ava’s symptoms began to join together into a coherent thought. Of course. Why hadn’t he seen it before?
Tenderness welled in his chest. A father. He was going to be a father. He dragged in a breath and spun to smile at her. “You’re expecting. My God, Ava, why didn’t you—”
“No,” she said sharply. “I am not with child. Definitely not.”
Disappointment was quickly replaced with concern. If she wasn’t expecting, then something truly terrible was wrong with her. Cancer? Malaria? “I’m contacting the doctor. If you aren’t expecting then we need to know what is going on.”
“Will, you are overreacting. Please, I’m just tired. You’ve been away and I’ve been busy at the paper. Nothing more than that.”
He didn’t like it, not one bit. Was exhaustion responsible? He decided to keep a close eye on her.
“I shall leave you to your breakfast, then—”
The color of Ava’s face went from pale to green. Throwing back the bedclothes, she dashed from the bed into the bathing chamber attached to their bedchamber. The door slammed behind her and Will raced over to help. “Ava? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing! Just need a minute.”
A few seconds later he heard the unmistakable sound of her retching in the basin.
He tried the knob and found the door locked. Damn it. He rested his forehead on the wood. “Ava, please let me in. Let me help you.”
“Go away. I’ll be fine in a few minutes.” Her muffled voice was full of misery, and his heart ached for her.
A brief knock sounded on the hall door and Will called out for Ava’s maid, Peg, to enter. The maid carried Ava’s breakfast, her gaze searching the bedchamber for her mistress. Will took a few steps toward the middle of the room and pointed at the small dressing table. “She is indisposed. You might as well put her breakfast there.”
She set down the tray and he saw it contained tea and what looked like broth.
He raised an eyebrow. How had Peg known Ava was sick?
The edges of her mouth turned up. “This’ll settle madam’s stomach as soon as she’s done.”
“How did you know . . .?”
“This is all perfectly normal, Mr. Sloane. The early weeks are the hardest.”
“You mean, she’s been sick every day?”
Peg glanced uneasily at the locked bath door. “I . . .I thought . . . Well, I thought madam had informed you about her condition.”
He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. “She’s expecting.” When Peg didn’t correct him, he exhaled. Why had his wife lied about the pregnancy? She’d been so adamant about this merely being exhaustion. Was she unhappy to be carrying their child?
Another knock at the door revealed a footman. “Sir, Mrs. Cavanaugh is downstairs to see you.”
His sister. Relief filled him. Lizzie was a woman. She would know how to handle this. He turned to Peg. “Should I stay to assist Ava?”
Peg shook her head. “No, sir. She’ll be fine. I’ll stay and get her settled.”
“Thank you, Peg.” He glanced at the footman. “Tell my sister I’ll be down directly.”
Will completed his morning ritual faster than ever before. Fifteen minutes after leaving Ava, he greeted his sister in the empty dining room. “Hello, Lizzie.”
She stood and smiled as he crossed the room to hug her. “Will. I am so happy you’re home.”
“Me, too. Three weeks was far too long to be away.” He held out her chair and she lowered herself in it. He then took his seat at the head of the table. A footman was clearing two place settings, so Mary and Sam must have just finished. He was relieved. He preferred privacy with his sister this morning.
“How was Washington?”
“Exhausting. How is my new niece?” Lizzie had given birth to an adorable baby girl three months ago.
“Margaret is just fine. Her brother is not thrilled with having to share all the attention, however.”
Will chuckled. Harry Cavanaugh was a force of nature, just like his mother and father. He picked up the silver coffee urn and poured himself a cup. “Will you excuse us?” he said to the two footmen hovering in the room.
Lizzie lifted an eyebrow and waited for the servants to leave. When they were alone, she said, “Is something wrong?”
“It’s Ava,” Will answered with no preamble. “She’s expecting.”
Lizzie’s expression brightened, and she beamed at him. Her hand found his and she squeezed. “Oh, Will. I am so happy for you both.”
“Thank you, but Ava didn’t tell me. In fact, she claims she’s not, but rather merely exhausted.”
“She said she’s not expecting?” Will nodded, and Lizzie’s face clouded over. “Well, Ava would most likely know. Why do you think otherwise?”
Will explained the symptoms and what had happened this morning while Lizzie sipped her coffee. “That sounds like a baby, yes. But why would she deliberately mislead you? Is it possible she doesn’t know?”
He shook his head. He could not share Ava’s secret, that she had carried and lost a child several years ago. “She definitely knows. And her maid knows. Nevertheless, Ava adamantly denies it.”
Lizzie reached for a roll. “She might be off-balance. All of these changes, it’s as if your body belongs to someone else. Perhaps it has her rattled.”
“And she’s in denial?”
“She could be.” She looked at him sympathetically. “You need to be patient with her. She’ll tell you in good time.”
Absolutely not. He did not want them to have secrets. And if Ava was scared, he needed to reassure her. This was a good thing. A baby was a welcome addition to their lives, in his opinion. “No, I cannot do that.”
He merely drank his coffee and stared at her over the rim.
She rolled her eyes. “Indeed, I recognize that look. It’s the same one you used to give me when I asked if you would take me to Coney Island. What are you going to do, hold her down and tickle her until she admits she’s expecting?”
“Would that work?”
“Doubtful. Knowing Ava, she would sock you in the jaw if you tried.”
True. “I need to convince her that she can trust me. That I am happy about having a son or daughter.”
“It’s not that, Will. Ava knows all of those things. There’s something else happening. You need to give her time.”
“And if I cannot?”
“Then you risk causing her more misery at a miserable time. Have some compassion for what she’s going through.”
Of course he had compassion. He loved Ava with all his heart. His soul. But he needed her to trust him. Waiting was not an option.
Then it all became clear. One thing caused Ava to retreat, to withdraw and try to shoulder her burdens alone: fear.
Suddenly, he knew exactly what he needed to do.
Ava arrived home later than she’d planned. With Cabot away in Chicago this week, the Mercury office had been busy today, everyone scrambling madly to turn in stories before the deadline. She left the carriage and dragged herself along the walk and up the stairs to the front door.
Frederic appeared, calm and proper as ever. “Good evening, madam.”
He’d warmed to her over the last two years. When the Jones family had initially moved in, Frederic had not been happy. Yet Ava hadn’t relented, hadn’t given up trying to win him over. Plus, she’d let the Sloane staff do as they were trained, without interfering. After all, she had no experience running a house this size and she’d much rather spend her time chasing down leads for the paper.
“Evening, Frederic.” She turned over her heavy coat, bonnet, and gloves. “Is Mr. Sloane at home?”
“He is upstairs and asked that you join him there when you arrived.”
Thank goodness. Her bed was upstairs. With its soft pillows and warm bedclothes. She gripped the railing and trudged up the steps, one by one. Her muscles ached. The nausea had passed earlier in the afternoon, and she had raced to the paper to submit this week’s story about a deadly fire on the Lower East Side.
When she opened her bedchamber door, she was surprised to find the room empty. “Will?”
“Here.” He walked out of the bath, wiping his hands on a small towel. Tossing the towel onto the bed, he crossed to where she stood and wrapped her in a fierce embrace. She leaned into him, grateful for his strength and support.
He kissed her hair. “Long day?”
“Yes, very—and if you tell me I look tired I am not responsible for my actions.”
A chuckle rolled through him. “I wouldn’t dream of it. Come along. I’ve run a bath for you.”
“A bath. For you.” He pulled back to see her face. “Shocking, I realize, but I am capable of operating the taps.”
He took her hand and led her to the small tiled room now filled with steam. Warm water beckoned from the heavy clawfoot tub. Ava nearly groaned. She could not wait to sink into all that heat.
“Let’s get you undressed.” Will began undoing the buttons on her shirtwaist. Ava started to reach for the ties to her skirts, but Will stopped her. “I’ll do it. Just relax.”
In very little time, he had her completely naked and into the tub. She sighed as the water surrounded her. Letting her lids fall, she rested her head against the porcelain. “This is exactly what I needed today. Thank you.”
“You are welcome. I’ll see about having some dinner sent up.”
“If I have not said it already, I am so glad you’re home.”
He pressed his lips to her forehead. “You have said it, but I do love to hear it. Almost as much as I love you.”
Her lips curved. Charming railroad man. He could still curl her toes these many months later.
“Relax,” he told her as he stepped away. “I’ll leave you to it and return later.”
She let her mind float as the water seeped away the day’s troubles. The aches and pains. The worry. She was hungry, but that would keep for a few moments. The world could wait until her skin wrinkled like an old prune left in the sun too long.
She must have slept because she started when Will opened the door. “Ready to get out, or would you like help washing your hair?” he asked.
Blinking, she said, “I’m ready to get out.” She could happily fall into bed at this very moment. Will entered, now dressed in a silk dressing gown, a large white cotton bath sheet in his hands. He helped her stand and step out of the tub, then wrapped her in the soft material. Instead of letting her walk to the bedroom, he bent and lifted her in his arms.
“Will, put me down. You’re being ridiculous.”
“If you could see the circles under your eyes, you wouldn’t think it ridiculous.”
Circles? She craned her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror as he traveled the length of the room.
“Stop wiggling.” He pressed his fingers under her knee where she was ticklish. She squirmed even more.
“No tickling,” she begged through her laughter. “Please, Will.”
He placed her gently on the bed, her head propped on a mound of pillows. A serving tray rested on Will’s side of the bed. “Is that dinner?”
“It is.” He brought the bedclothes up and covered her naked body. “I’ll get your plate.”
Soon he had them both settled, eating delicious roasted chicken and vegetables. “Why didn’t you eat with the siblings?” she asked him between bites.
“Because I wanted to wait to have dinner with my wife.”
“That was considerably nice of you.”
“You sound surprised.” He speared a turnip and waved it at her. “I’ll have you know, I am a very nice man.”
She snorted. “You’re a politician. You’re not allowed to be nice.”
He chewed and then licked his lips. “I shall make you eat those words later on, wife.”
Prickles rushed over her body, a familiar longing welling up in her blood. “I look forward to your trying.”
When she could eat no more, he cleared the plates and cutlery, placing it all on the tray and moving it to the hall. She yawned as he shut the door. His dressing gown hit the floor and he strolled back to the bed, naked as the day he was born.
Heavens, she loved watching him.
He slid under the bedclothes and rolled to face her. His palm cupped her cheek. “Do you remember what we said when we married?”
“I do?” she joked.
“Hilarious,” he drawled. “No, we agreed to be . . .?”
“That’s right.” His thumb brushed over her lips in a sweet caress. “Equals. That means we treat each other with respect. With honesty.”
A lump formed in her throat. She stared into her husband’s clear gray eyes and suddenly knew his purpose, what the entire evening had been about. Exhaustion and pampering had weakened her defenses. “Will . . .”
He gave her a patient smile and shifted closer, his long legs tangling with hers. “Darling, I love you. Nothing will never change that fact. But I cannot help if you won’t trust me.”
“I trust you. How can you possibly think otherwise?”
“Ava,” he said on a sigh. “I know you are expecting.”
“I am not expecting.” She tried to pull away but he caught her shoulder.
“Wait. Don’t leave. I want to figure this out.”
“There is nothing to figure out. I am absolutely not having a child.”
His gaze bored into hers, with no anger or judgment reflected back at her. Just calm, steady fortitude. As always.
Her palms grew damp, uneasiness creeping up her spine. “Do you think I would not recognize the signs? I lost a child before, as you well know.”
Will stroked her back, his large hand sweeping over her skin rhythmically while he stared at her. Waiting.
“You’re being ridiculous. I know you’re anxious to be a father, Will, but really . . .”
His chest rose and fell steadily, his placid expression never wavering. Her stomach clenched. She took in this gorgeous man, her husband, who was the strongest, smartest man she’d ever met. He had accomplished so much in a short time: running a successful railroad, raising his sister, serving as a U.S. Congressman.
And she was lying to him.
Her eyes began to burn, tears welling behind her lids, and her breath turned ragged. Her resolved crumbled like week-old cake in the face of his calm acceptance. “I’m scared.” She let her lids fall, hiding her panic from him.
“Oh, my brave Ava.” He pulled her into his bare chest, cradling her within his arms. He kissed her temple and her tears began to flow in earnest.
She cried freely—great, gulping sobs—for a long time. Will never spoke or expressed any sign of impatience; he just held her tight in their bed. Finally, she quieted, wiping her eyes with the corner of the bedclothes. He produced a handkerchief from somewhere nearby and she blew her nose.
When she’d caught her breath, he smoothed the hair off her forehead. “You’ve been holding all that in for quite some time, haven’t you?”
She nodded. “I just—I am not ready for a child. And I thought we were being careful not to conceive.”
“True, I’ve never come inside you, but that method is not foolproof.”
He rubbed her shoulder. “Why do you believe you’re not ready?”
“I love my job at the paper. I do not want to give it up. Once they know I’m expecting a baby, I’ll have to leave.”
“Cabot won’t fire you, so why would you leave?”
“Because women with babies do not work.” This was a well-known fact.
“I beg to differ. My wife does whatever the hell she wants. Always has, always will.”
She couldn’t hold back a smile at that declaration. “True, but wouldn’t you prefer me to stay home?”
“I want you to be happy, darling. We can hire an army of nannies and governesses, if that’s what you decide. And I can adjust my schedule to be home more often to help. Then you can return to a life of chasing down stories.”
Oh, how she’d underestimated her husband. She hadn’t expected him to be so understanding. There was one more fear lurking under her ribs, however. The biggest one.
“What if I lose the baby? Like before?”
His face softened, love shining in his beautiful gray depths before he pressed their foreheads together. “Then we’ll try again. Or not. But whatever happens, it is not your fault. Sometimes a baby dies, and it is heartbreaking. As long as you are unharmed, that is what matters to me.”
The reassurance, the conviction in his tone convinced her. She was the luckiest woman in New York. “Thank you, Will Sloane.”
“For making me feel better.”
He dropped a quick kiss on her lips. His hand slid to her belly. “May we call our physician tomorrow? Or a midwife, perhaps?”
“Is there any way I can prevent you from doing so?”
“No.” He looked down at his hand, now resting protectively on her stomach. “You have made me very happy, Ava Sloane.”
“Indeed. I cannot wait to meet our son or daughter.”
The tender words nearly had her crying again. She decided to lighten the mood instead. “I thought you were going to tell me how happy you were that we no longer needed to worry about preventing conception.”
She heard him inhale sharply. He immediately rolled her onto her back and loomed over her, a wicked smile curling his lips. “I had forgotten about that particular benefit. God, I cannot wait to come inside you.” As if proving his point, his shaft stirred, hardening against her thigh. Mouth dipping toward her breast, he murmured, “Clearly, I married the smartest woman on the planet . . .”
Her fingers slid into his hair as she arched up. “Yes, you did. And I plan on never letting you forget it.”