“Pleasure helps, too,” Marthe said, adjusting my feet on the mattress in such a way that my back immediately relaxed.

“Pleasure?” I said, confused. Marthe nodded. I looked at her in horror. “You can’t mean that. ”

“She does,” Sarah said. “It can make a huge difference.”

“No. How can you even suggest such a thing?” I couldn’t think of a less erotically charged moment. Walking now seemed like a very good idea, and I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. That was as far as I got before another contraction seized me. When it was over, Matthew and I were alone.

“Don’t even think about it,” I said when he put his arms around me.

“I understand ‘no’ in two dozen languages.” His steadiness was annoying.

“Don’t you want to yell at me or something?” I asked.

Matthew took a moment to consider. “Yes.”

“Oh.” I’d expected a song and dance about the sanctity of pregnant women and how he would put up with anything for me. I giggled.

“Lie on your left side and I’ll rub your back.” Matthew pulled me down next to him.

“That’s the only thing you’re going to rub,” I warned.

“So I understand,” he said with more aggravating control. “Lie down. Now.”

“That sounds more like you. I was beginning to think they’d given you the epidural by mistake.” I turned and fitted my body into his.

“Witch,” he said, nipping me on the shoulder.

It was a good thing I was lying down when the next contraction hit.

“We don’t want you to push, because there’s no telling how long this will take and the babies aren’t ready to be born yet. It’s been four hours and eighteen minutes since the contractions started. There could be another day of this ahead of you. You need to rest. That’s one reason I wanted you to have the nerve blocker.” Matthew used his thumbs to massage the small of my back.

“It’s only been four hours and eighteen minutes?” My voice was faint.

“Nineteen minutes now, but yes.” Matthew held me while my body was racked with another fierce contraction. When I was able to think straight, I groaned softly and pressed back into Matthew’s hand.

“Your thumb is in an absolutely divine spot.” I sighed with relief.

“And this spot?” Matthew’s thumb traveled lower and closer to my spine.

“Heaven,” I said, able to breathe through the next contraction a bit better.

“Your blood pressure is still normal, and the back rub seems to be helping. Let’s do it properly.”

Matthew called for Marcus to bring in the oddly shaped, leather-padded chair with the reading stand from his library and had him set it up by the window, a pillow resting on the support that was designed to hold a book. Matthew helped me sit astride it, facing the pillow.

My belly swelled out and made contact with the back of the chair.

“What on earth is this chair really for?”

“Watching cockfights and playing all-night card games,” Matthew said. “You’ll find it’s much easier on your lower back if you can lean forward a bit and rest your head on the pillow.”

It was. Matthew began a thorough massage that started at my h*ps and moved up until he was loosening the muscles at the base of my skull. I had three more contractions while he was working, and though they were prolonged, Matthew’s cool hands and strong fingers seemed to soften some of the pain.

“How many pregnant women have you helped this way?” I asked, mildly curious about where he had acquired this skill. Matthew’s hands stilled.

“Only you.” His soothing motions continued.

I turned my head and found him looking at me, though his fingers never stopped moving.

“Ysabeau said I’m the only one to sleep in this bedroom.”

“Nobody I met seemed worthy of it. But I could envision you in this room—with me, of course—shortly after we met.”

“Why do you love me so much, Matthew?” I couldn’t see the attraction, especially not when I was rotund, facedown, and gasping with pain. His response was swift.

“To every question I have ever had, or ever will have, you are the answer.” He pulled my hair away from my neck and kissed me on the soft flesh beneath the ear. “Do you feel like getting up for a bit?”

A sudden, sharper pain that coursed through my lower extremities kept me from responding. I gasped instead.

“That sounds like ten centimeters’ dilation to me,” Matthew murmured. “Marcus?”

“Good news, Diana,” Marcus said cheerfully as he walked into the room. “You get to push now!”

Push I did. For what seemed like days.

I tried it the modern way first: lying down, with Matthew clasping my hand, a look of adoration on his face.

That didn’t work well.

“It’s not necessarily a sign of trouble,” Dr. Sharp told us, looking at Matthew and me from her vantage point between my thighs. “Twins can take longer to get moving during this stage of labor. Right, Marthe?”

“She needs a stool,” Marthe said with a frown.

“I brought mine,” Dr. Sharp said. “It’s in the hall.” She jerked her head in that direction.

And so the babies that were conceived in the sixteenth century opted to eschew modern medical convention and be born the old-fashioned way: on a simple wooden chair with a horseshoe-shaped seat.

Instead of having a half dozen strangers share the birth experience, I was surrounded by the ones I loved: Matthew behind me, holding me up physically and emotionally; Jane and Marthe at my feet, congratulating me on having babies so considerate as to present themselves to the world headfirst; Marcus offering a gentle suggestion every now and then; Sarah at my side, telling me when to breathe and when to push; Ysabeau standing by the door, relaying messages to Phoebe, who waited in the hall and sent a constant stream of texts to Pickering Place, where Fernando, Jack, and Andrew were waiting for news.

It was excruciating.

It took forever.

When at 11:55 P.M. the first indignant cry was heard at long last, I started to weep and laugh. A fierce protective feeling took root where my child had been only moments before, filling me with purpose.

“Is it okay?” I asked, looking down.

“She is perfect,” Marthe said, beaming at me proudly.

“She?” Matthew sounded dazed.

“It is a girl. Phoebe, tell them Madame has given birth to a girl,” Ysabeau said with excitement.

Jane held the tiny creature up. She was blue and wrinkled and smeared with gruesome-looking substances that I’d read about but was inadequately prepared to see on my own child. Her hair was jet-black, and there was plenty of it.

“Why is she blue? What’s wrong with her? Is she dying?” I felt my anxiety climb.

“She’ll turn as red as a beet in no time,” Marcus said, looking down at his new sister. He held out a pair of scissors and a clamp to Matthew. “And there’s certainly nothing wrong with her lungs. I think you should do the honors.”

Matthew stood, motionless.

“If you faint, Matthew Clairmont, I will never let you forget it,” Sarah said testily. “Get your ass over there and cut the cord.”

“You do it, Sarah.” Matthew’s hands trembled on my shoulders.

“No. I want Matthew to do it,” I said. If he didn’t, he was going to regret it later.

My words got Matthew moving, and he was soon on his knees next to Dr. Sharp. In spite of his initial reluctance, once he was presented with a baby and the proper medical equipment, his movements were practiced and sure. After the cord was clamped and cut, Dr. Sharp quickly swaddled our daughter in a waiting blanket. Then she presented this bundle to Matthew.

He stood, dumbstruck, cradling the tiny body in his large hands. There was something miraculous in the juxtaposition of a father’s strength with his daughter’s vulnerability. She stopped crying for a moment, yawned, and resumed yelling at the cold indignity of her current situation.

“Hello, little stranger,” Matthew whispered. He looked at me in awe. “She’s beautiful.”

“Lord, just listen to her,” Marcus said. “A solid eight on the Apgar test, don’t you think, Jane?”

“I agree. Why don’t you weigh and measure her while we clean up a bit and get ready for the next one?”

Suddenly aware that my job was only half done, Matthew handed the baby into Marcus’s care. He then gave me a long look, a deep kiss, and a nod.

“Ready, ma lionne?”

“As I’ll ever be,” I said, seized by another sharp pain.

Twenty minutes later, at 12:15 A.M., our son was born. He was larger than his sister, in both length and weight, but blessed with a similarly robust lung capacity. This, I was told, was a very good thing, though I did wonder if we would still feel that way in twelve hours. Unlike our firstborn, our son had reddish blond hair.

Matthew asked Sarah to cut the cord, since he was wholly absorbed in murmuring a stream of pleasant nonsense into my ear about how beautiful I was and how strong I’d been, all the while holding me upright.

It was after the second baby was born that I started to shake from head to foot.

“What’s. Wrong?” I asked through chattering teeth.

Matthew had me out of the birthing stool and onto the bed in a blink.

“Get the babies over here,” he ordered.

Marthe plopped one baby on me, and Sarah deposited the other. The babies’ limbs were all hitched up and their faces puce with irritation. As soon as I felt the weight of my son and daughter on my chest, the shaking stopped.

“That’s the one downside to a birthing stool when there are twins,” Dr. Sharp said, beaming.

“Mums can get a bit shaky from the sudden emptiness, and we don’t get a chance to let you bond with the first child before the second one needs your attention.”

Marthe pushed Matthew aside and wrapped both babies in blankets without ever seeming to disturb their position, a bit of vampire legerdemain that I was sure was beyond the capacity of most midwives, no matter how experienced. While Marthe tended to the babies, Sarah gently massaged my stomach until the afterbirth came free with a final, constrictive cramp.

Matthew held the babies for a few moments while Sarah gently cleaned me. A shower, she told me, could wait until I felt like getting up—which I was sure would be approximately never.

She and Marthe removed the sheets and replaced them with new ones, all without my being required to stir. In no time I was propped up against the bed’s downy pillows, surrounded by fresh linen.

Matthew put the babies back into my arms. The room was empty.

“I don’t know how you women survive it,” he said, pressing his lips against my forehead.

“Being turned inside out?” I looked at one tiny face, then the other. “I don’t know either.” My voice dropped. “I wish Mom and Dad were here. Philippe, too.”

“If he were, Philippe would be shouting in the streets and waking the neighbors,” Matthew said.

“I want to name him Philip, after your father,” I said softly. At my words our son cracked one eye open. “Is that okay with you?”

“Only if we name our daughter Rebecca,” Matthew said, his hand cupping her dark head. She screwed up her face tighter.

“I’m not sure she approves,” I said, marveling that someone so tiny could be so opinionated.

“Rebecca will have plenty of other names to choose from if she continues to object,” Matthew said.

“Almost as many names as godparents, come to think of it.”

“We’re going to need a spreadsheet to figure that mess out,” I said, hitching Philip higher in my arms. “He is definitely the heavy one.”

“They’re both a very good size. And Philip is eighteen inches long.” Matthew looked at his son with pride.

“He’s going to be tall, like his father.” I settled more deeply into the pillows.

“And a redhead like his mother and grandmother,” Matthew said. He rounded the bed, gave the fire a poke, then lay next to me, propped up on one elbow.

“We’ve spent all this time searching for ancient secrets and long-lost books of magic, but they’re the true chemical wedding,” I said, watching while Matthew put his finger in Philip’s tiny hand. The baby gripped it with surprising strength.

“You’re right.” Matthew turned his son’s hand this way and that. “A little bit of you, a little bit of me. Part vampire, part witch.”

“And all ours,” I said firmly, sealing his mouth with a kiss.

“I have a daughter and a son,” Matthew told Baldwin. “Philip and Rebecca. Both are healthy and well.”

“And their mother?” Baldwin asked.

“Diana got through it beautifully.” Matthew’s hands shook whenever he thought of what she’d been through.

“Congratulations, Matthew.” Baldwin didn’t sound happy.

“What is it?” Matthew frowned.

“The Congregation already knows about the birth.”

“How?” Matthew demanded. Someone must be watching the house—either a vampire with very sharp eyes, or a witch with strong second sight.

“Who knows?” Baldwin said wearily. “They’re willing to hold in abeyance the charges against you and Diana in exchange for an opportunity to examine the babies.”

“Never.” Matthew’s anger caught light.

“The Congregation only wants to know what the twins are,” Baldwin said shortly.

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