It's Christmas again, and how quickly another year has flown by. I hope you are all well, and have the opportunity to celebrate the holidays with your loved ones. I'm sorry I haven't been able to post earlier, I have written plenty this year but nothing related to Revelations. I've saved this extra long chapter to enjoy during the shortest days of the year, and if that is not enough I hope you enjoy re-reading books (or re-watching movies and series) as much as I do. Merry Christmas everyone!

Chapter 193

One evening, a week or two after their wedding, Caitlin was snuggled up against her still-new husband and best friend, relishing his warmth and his manly scent, when he said, 'Mr Darcy came to me with a proposal today, my love, and he wants your opinion before making a decision since it concerns all three of us. He knows your services are very much in demand.'

Caitlin supposed this had something to do with that new stable boy Mr Darcy wanted Jean's approval of before hiring him. His current master, some colonel who raised hunters, also wanted Jean's opinion on some breeding stock before incorporating it in his new line of more even-tempered hunters.

'There has been a new development and a change of plans. I offered to drive our gig to Newcastle since I really cannot imagine claiming Mrs Darcy's carriage and Mr Darcy's prize team for my personal use. But Mr Darcy wants us both to go and spend some time together as well, in a quaint boarding house he discovered in a little village by the sea, as a kind of honeymoon. Now you know we cannot fit a sixteen-year-old boy in the gig with us.'

Not a complete stranger, that was out of the question. Imagine if he were as tall as Patrick! Fitting Ben and Rover in was a squeeze but they were family and they rarely did that for more than half an hour, not three or four days!

'Wouldn't it take far too long with the gig and a single pony to drive all the way to Newcastle anyway?'

'Well, I was thinking of borrowing two of Mr Darcy's horses, but he has a much better plan. Though it will take a little longer than you may like to leave your patients. You know Mr and Mrs Fielding are planning on going to London for the summer?'

Gossip said the Fieldings had decided to leave Pemberley after receiving a message from Prince George begging them to return, offering them a fortune and a knighthood if they would only entertain him through the summer. Jean had told her he didn't take that last bit very seriously, though a message from the prince wasn't unthinkable in itself, certainly a shipment of precious orange trees had arrived for the conservatory once it was finished, and everybody knew they had been promised to Mrs Darcy by Prince George.

'Well, Mr Fielding's parents live in the north, and he hasn't seen them since his patron took him away from there to send him to school. He has discovered they still live in the house in the highlands where he spent his first years and he wants to visit before going south to London. It's not really close to Newcastle but not too far either, and Mr Darcy hopes we'll agree to drive them there, then drive on to Colonel Drummond. I think it's an excellent idea, you and I can sit on the box together and enjoy the scenery, apparently Mr Fielding's parents live in a very wild area which is very pretty to look at though not very easy or pleasant to live in.'

'I can think of some plants I'd like to gather in a highland moor or a heath,' Caitlin offered, and she really did. She had grown up among both kinds of moors, the swampy filled-up lake they had here but also the much more extensive and more dangerous moors unique to the highlands, and she knew every plant with healing properties there. If they were at all comparable to Ireland, but she'd find that out soon enough once she was there.

'Of course you can,' Jean said with obvious fondness, 'I should have known. And your patients? Can they do without you for two or more likely three weeks?'

'If Fowler promises not to break any bones they can. There are no babies due or really sick people now, but they've done without me for years, haven't they? I really want some time on a heath.'

'You can have that anyway in Newcastle, though it might be more difficult to gather plants on Colonel Drummond's estate, some groundskeeper may take exception.'

Jean obviously didn't believe that, but Caitlin didn't object at all to having Jean to herself for a few days extra and see more of the country, and to travel with that beautiful little carriage would be such a treat.

'I'll tell Mr Darcy that you agree to it, he promised to arrange all the details.'

Just incredible, to travel such a distance and have Mr Darcy arrange it and pay for it. Working for a gentleman did have its advantages!

'I suppose it will be next week or the week after, by then most of the guests will have left and Peter can take over from me. Mr Brewer has assured me they'll love having Ben and Rover over for the time we're away, and I suppose Mr Wright will see to the goats and chickens, I've promised to do the same for their animals when they visit their children in town.'

'We couldn't have wished for better neighbours, I'm sure they would have liked Ben to stay with them as well but they'll understand a boy likes to be with other boys. Will Mr Wright take care of Spot as well?'

'I pushed Darren to take him, he'll want his own gig when he finds out how much time it saves him.'

Well, that was something Caitlin couldn't deny. But first she wanted to know more about two of her patients who were set to leave.

'Is Mr Hurst returning to London? I'm afraid he'll revert to his unhealthy habits without Peter's riding lessons.'

'And your tonic, Caitlin, he is very open towards the stable staff and he praises it through the roof.'

If Mr Hurst ever discovered how little was in that tonic it would quickly smother his praise. It tasted very pungent and thus interesting, but its effect was mostly to make the patient feel heard and special, there were no actively medicinal plants in it. But Caitlin was not going to betray her secret, Mr Hurst didn't need real medicine, he needed healthy food and exercise most of all, and more of the latter than the first.

'I'm glad it makes him feel better. But he can easily do without once it runs out, I think he is over the worst of his affliction.'

'I suspected as much. Fortunately for him, Mr and Mrs Bingley took him with them when they left today, they're not going to London but to their new estate, I suppose to oversee the improvements there. If you want work to be done well it's better to keep a close eye on the progress as well as the results. Do you think Mrs Bingley wants to stay close to you as well?'

'They will both be fine, Mrs Bingley is very sensible and she will make certain Mr Hurst keeps up his good habits. I kind of like him, though he is not particularly admirable or impressive. Maybe I like him because he is so fallible.'

'There is something very human about him these days, he loves to chat with the stable staff and nonetheless hardly keeps them from their work.'

That would please Jean, he saw it as a sign of respect from the gentlemen if they didn't interfere with his staff's duties.

'And who else is leaving this week? Taking their horses and stable staff with them?'

'Mr Gardiner and his family, though he has been a pleasure to have around even if he is a real city man at heart. His riding skills are most respectable for a man his age and weight, and he endeared himself to Oliver as well with his love for fishing. But a tradesman like Mr Gardiner cannot bury himself in the country, business doesn't come to a halt in summer though everything else does. Mrs Gardiner might have liked to escape the London summer and have her children play in the gardens all day.'

Caitlin was certain Jean had never considered the fate of London children before he had become a parent himself, and she congratulated herself on finding such a perfect father for Ben. Though it had mostly been dumb luck that he'd fallen for her, and not one of his other bed partners.

'I suppose Mr Bennet will travel with them, though it will be a squeeze.'

'I don't think the old man will want to be stuck for days in such a close space with four small children, no matter how excellent the company of his brother- and sister-in-law. My guess is he'll amuse himself in Mr Darcy's library until we return from our excursion to Newcastle, after which he can accompany Mr and Mrs Fielding as far as London. He left his horse in the stables there, much to the chagrin of Bruce's successor. He didn't very much like to suddenly have another horse to exercise and muck out after. Mr Darcy told me he complained to Mrs Annesley over this mistreatment, and since both she and Cook prefer to let him go and have Bruce back instead, Bruce is the winner here. I suppose he will take the offer and accompany Bob to London, it's not a real challenge but a nice steady position close to his mum and sisters.'

'You haven't mentioned Fowler yet, will Mr and Mrs Manners leave as well?'

'I haven't heard of any plans to leave, no. Surprising if you ask me, you'd think the formerly most beloved bachelor of London would not let his newly married state keep him from the entertainments of town for very long, on the contrary, he should be eager to show off his bride. It is said the entertainment at Carlton House goes on all summer. Do you really think they'd be invited there?'

'According to Mrs Darcy, most certainly. She told me the food was incredible. And it's really true, Prince George loves Mr Fielding's music and would have him over permanently if he could. I suppose Mr and Mrs Manners would be as welcome there, but I have no idea what people of such rank find suitable company.'

'Anything that relieves their boredom if the situation resembles France. Maybe they want to stay at Pemberley and close to you until Fowler's arm has healed.'

'Well, as far as I'm concerned, Fowler is as good as cured, though he needs to refrain from using that arm for another week or two. But you had promised to help him get back into shape, hadn't you?'

'I did, and I will, though he may not like my methods.'

'You're not that bad, my love, Mrs Darcy assures me you are the most patient teacher she has ever had.'

'That is because she is the most eager and intelligent student I have ever had. Besides you and Ben. Though I suppose Fowler may be even more determined to do well. If so, I won't mind a bit. I've even grown resigned to having Bates about the stables, he has been much less offensive since I've taken some pains to get acquainted. I do have to admit I'm glad to see the back of Pauline, with all the guests gone she was no longer needed. Mr Darcy wouldn't have her in London, and I suppose she really will be better off marrying some local farmer. Life in town isn't for everyone.'

'Not for me, I'm very certain, though I've never been to a real city.'

'Not for me either. I liked to visit for a few weeks every other year or so, but life is so much harder there, people have little compassion with others since their own lives are far from easy. I know you had a hard life but it never soured you like it does some other people.'

'It did, though, my love. But when you came into my life it got better, you brought out the best in me. And Ben, of course, he has been such a blessing all these years. And now I'm perfectly happy, spending all our time off work together, sharing chores and cooking dinner together. Just simple things made so much better because I have you.'

'It's the same for me, my sweet. I always thought I craved excitement, I never imagined I'd relish being calm and content. Nothing exciting, just one constant flow of happiness.'

'I think that's because you are getting old. You can use a little shaking up.'

Suddenly Caitlin's mood had changed and she was on top of him, and to his immense surprise she seemed to want to wrestle with him. Aware of her past, Hugo had always refrained from using his strength against her, even in play, but now she was clearly challenging him. Very carefully, he gave her a little resistance, and in return she gave her all. He did not engage with all his strength, he just matched hers, and slowly a new form of intimacy grew between them, as she gave him more of her trust than he'd ever dared ask.

Though it was very exciting to wrestle with a strong yet pliable woman whom he loved to distraction, Hugo did not dare take any initiative to make love. He still feared Caitlin's brazenness might turn to fear by a wrong move from him. But he didn't have to wait long before Caitlin took that upon herself, kissing him eagerly and laying his hands on her breasts. Her hands started on his buttocks, slowly gliding forward until they were stroking his manhood eagerly, still kissing. Of course, Hugo had always found ways to perform the act of love that did not in any way remind his beloved of her past, and when their kiss ended he kneeled between her legs and made her gasp with ardour and pleasure, until she hooked him with one of her legs and pulled him on top of her.

'Jean Hugo, how did I ever live without you?' she asked, snuggling his chest muscles, her arms holding him as tightly as they could.

'I'm afraid I was a fool for most of my life, my love, or afraid to love a single human being like this. But at least we have found each other, haven't we?'

'We have, and now I need you to take me, until we're both mad with lust. Can you do that?'

He wanted to, though he'd always been careful with her.

'Are you sure?'

It was too dark for her to nod, and he needed to hear her voice as well.

'Yes, I want you to take me hard, to not hold back, let yourself go as you never have until now. I'm no longer afraid, I trust you with my life.'

So he let go, and indeed she was as forward as she'd ever been, encouraging him, driving him on shamelessly, until they both indeed lost themselves in lust and rutted like wild creatures. When he heard her groan with another climax he felt free to chase his own, and she laughed in appreciation.

'Yes, that will do, my skinny froggy, I'm so glad I caught you. I bet you can go even faster!'

Such a change in his beloved! Hugo felt his heart swell with joy, but his lust insisted that he indeed go faster so he gave his all, and when his own high washed over him it was so intense he almost cried with the release.

She took him in her arms and kissed and cuddled him, until they had both caught back their breath and lay still in each other's arms.

'It was never like that before, Jean. You must have held back so much. For me?'

Well of course he had, overwhelming her would have frightened her senseless.

'Making love with you has always been perfect, my love. I've never held back much, you were always more forward than I'd expected with your past. But this, to wrestle, you're so strong! I love you. More so every day, if you can believe me.'

'I do, for I feel the same. I've always trusted you, my love, and yet I had to grow used to your strength. This was so good, I feel so... complete. As if I've had every part of you.'

They talked a little more, and snuggled a little more, until they finally fell asleep in each other's arms.

To suddenly wake up with someone banging on the front door, and Rover raising the alarm with a full-throated bark. They could hear Ben talking to him, and the barking stopped.

'It's an emergency, Jean, you go open the door whilst I put on some clothes and gather my stuff. Try to get some detail on what is wrong, it takes a bit of time now but it saves time later.'

And off she was in a heartbeat, rummaging under the bed where she kept a whole set of clothing just for this purpose. Hugo wished he'd done the same, he didn't want her to go out all by herself. He jumped out of bed and found his shirt over the back of a chair, hopping into his work trousers first. He'd don the shirt while he opened the door and saw who was there.

No-one from the village would come to the front door, maybe he should have dressed before opening after all, but it was too late now, the door was open and on the other side was...Mr Darcy! And he was holding a horse, Barley?

'Sorry to disturb you at this time of the night, Hugo, that's a good dog you have there, by the way. I had a visitor tonight, a farmer from Ripley. Banging on the front door like I did on yours just now, everyone was asleep but I woke up, he said he needed your wife's address in Witham, one of his baby daughters was choking. I said I couldn't break your confidence like that but promised to rush over myself. Do you think she'll go? I'll come with her for her protection.'

'She is a healer, she can't not help. Though I'm afraid it's the farmer whose son threatened her, the fellow had twin sisters. So I guess I will go with her myself, hopefully with your permission to teach the lad a lesson if he so much as looks at her the wrong way?'

'But your boy?'

'Ben can stay by himself, he is used to it. We'll leave Rover with him, he'll understand. Let us ready the horse, and you can tell me why you are riding Barley and not your own horse, sir.'

'I'm almost ashamed to admit I've never saddled a horse in the dark. I couldn't find the black in the paddock and then I remembered I wouldn't even recognise his saddle in the dark. I called Barley by name instead and he came to me, I knew where his saddle was because Elizabeth always insists on saddling him herself. So I took him. He's small but damned if he isn't as fast in the dark as by day, I'm glad I took him, he didn't shy even once. What in the name of all that's holy is that thing!'

Well, poor Spot wasn't very handsome but he wasn't as ugly as that!

'That's Spot, our pony. He won't give Barley competition but you might spare his feelings a little, sir!'

'I'm sorry, he looked like a ghost with the white face and the dark ringed eyes. Is there something we need to do for Mrs Hugo?'

'I don't think so, she knows we're preparing the gig.'

'Well, then I'd like to know why you have bought such a hideous horse, Hugo. I thought you were like me, that you loved beautiful horses?'

Hugo couldn't help laughing despite the serious situation, a poor baby girl suffocating was no laughing matter. But if Mr Darcy didn't see Spot's qualities when Hugo was done he'd eat the straw hat he used to work in the fields.

As he led Spot by the halter he could hear his employer gasp with surprise at the unfamiliar way in which he fastened the harness, which was already attached to the gig. Speed was usually of essence on nightly calls, and everything was ready for a fast ride through several villages.

Within minutes, he had the willing pony hitched up, and he attached the reins straight to the halter the horse was already wearing. Showing off a bit, Hugo didn't lead the horse out of the barn but merely asked him to follow, which the faithful soul did.

'I've never seen anyone hitch a horse to any kind of carriage or cart that fast, Hugo! Is that enough to guide him? No blinkers, no bit?'

'It's why I bought this horse, sir. He may be lanky and he may be ugly, and Ghost may be a much better name for him, but I didn't buy him for me, he is for all of us. Ben can ride him, Caitlin can drive him. And he is smart, he understands nearly everything the first time I explain, and as soon as he understands he obliges us. He is pretty fast and won't stray. Look at him, Barley is trying to make friends but he knows it's time for work, he will not engage. And there's Caitlin.

It's one of the girls you delivered, I'm afraid. Apparently she's choking.'

'Croup most likely, she cannot have swallowed something bad at night. I have everything I need. I've warned Ben, Rover woke him up anyway. Will you come with me?'

'If you'll have me in work clothes with mucking boots on, yes. You can have Mr Darcy instead, he offered to come?'

'I'd rather you drive so I can prepare something on my way. If it's croup we may need to act fast. You don't expect any trouble, do you?'

Both Mr Darcy and Hugo replied, simultaneously. 'Certainly not,' and 'He wouldn't dare.'

Caitlin did take the time to address Mr Darcy, 'Thank you, sir, for not giving my address. You sent the man home?'

'I did. I do advise you to take the road, the Black Forest is not a place to cross at night. It won't even save much time from here.'

He was right, though it felt wrong. But if Spot broke a leg or fell the child would surely not benefit from Caitlin's help in time.

Within fifteen minutes from Mr Darcy's knocking, they were on their way to Ripley. Hugo judged the pony could trot the whole distance, maybe even gallop short stretches in between. They had done a lot of driving in the six weeks they'd owned him.

Mr Darcy kept up well with Barley, apparently he planned to come after all since the path towards Pemberley had split off the road almost a mile earlier.

'You were right about the horse, Hugo!' he said loud enough for Hugo to catch his words.

'The creature is faster than I expected, it should be since it consists of at least two thirds legs. Of course you don't mind whether your horse is beautiful, it needs to be fast and tractable.'

'And smart, sir. He is keeping an eye on everything, me, the road, but you as well. And he seems to understand the gig is attached to him, he knows to account for its size. Most horses don't even know their own behind belongs to them.

Barley is holding up fine as well, with a grown man riding him. Of course it's just for the picture that your sizes don't match, he can carry your weight easily. Do you like him?'

'Oh, yes, he is much more steady than I imagined such a small horse to be. And it's as if he has night vision, he doesn't seem to even notice it's dark. Yours doesn't either.'

'Well, that's me, mostly. It's the only thing he needs me for, help him find his way in the dark. By day he could do this all by himself, he'd just need a bit of help at crossroads, no need to keep contact with the reins. But now he really appreciates my hand on the reins, he looks for it when I slacken it. Look.'

And Hugo let go of his contact with the horse for a few moments. Immediately, Spot flicked back an ear and stretched his neck to restore contact with the rein, and Hugo took it back up to give him what he needed.

'Incredible, Hugo, just incredible. Where do you think he's come from? A travelling salesman, or even an entertainer?'

'He seems at least half Irish cob, but that doesn't explain the length and cleanness of his legs. I wouldn't dare guess his ancestry, sir, but I know he was taught well and used well. He was just like this when I bought him, maybe a bit less muscular but certainly not fat or skinny.'

They had long since passed through Clifton and continued the main road away from Pemberley, which felt wrong but couldn't be helped if they wanted to make good time.

'I think I may have to reconsider the path through the Black Forest, Hugo,' Mr Darcy said.

'It never occurred to me that it was anyone else's business but mine in what state that path was, it suited me fine to have it difficult to navigate. But it may cost a little girl her life tonight, and that is just not acceptable. Imagine what those parents must be feeling, that farmer must have plodded through it tonight on his work horse, twice. I'm going to hire someone tomorrow to sort it out, it'll save Mrs Hugo a lot of time to be able to use it at all times and in all weather.'

Even after a few weeks it gave Hugo a thrill to hear someone refer to Caitlin by their shared name. And Mr Darcy was right, there was no reason for Caitlin not to take back her clients in Ripley, if Hugo couldn't be with her to protect her Rover would be and besides, she was married now. Hugo did wonder whether Mr Darcy planned to leave a description with his midnight visitor's son, of what would happen to someone who threatened the well-being of his most recent tenant, Mrs Jean Hugo, née Caitlin Brennan. Why else would he accompany them, in the middle of the night, to the house of a farmer who owed him no allegiance whatsoever?

Before they knew it, they entered Ripley via the bridge, and Caitlin gave directions towards the Bridgen farm. So that was their name. She did not seem apprehensive at all and why should she? Mr Bridgen posed no danger, and Hugo had beaten the stuffing out of his son before. Mr Darcy might be a gentleman, but Hugo suspected he could work up quite a bit of anger despite his calm attitude, and he certainly was tall and in excellent shape. But no farm boy would dare attack a man like Mr Darcy, the very idea was preposterous, it was the perfect way to end up as a private in the British army or as an exile in one of the overseas colonies. Hugo was no longer in the army, he really should see the world in a more peaceful light these days and stop expecting a conflict in every situation. Though the young farmer had started it that one time.

They came to a halt in a large yard next to a rather nice farmhouse built in a traditional local style. Mr Bridgen was not a self-made man, he had inherited his farm from his father, and it was likely the property had been in the family for generations. As Caitlin ran towards the house with her bag, and Hugo jumped out of the gig as well, Mr Darcy threw him one look to see who would follow on her heels.

'You go in with her, sir, I'll secure the horses.'

That was Hugo's usual task, after all, he could improvise quickly to make the horses more comfortable in case this took longer than half an hour. Caitlin was at work now, she wouldn't mind who was with her as long as she was protected. That didn't mean he wasted any time, he quickly took a lead rope from under the gig's seat with which he fastened Barley to a sturdy fence. Then he used Spot's long rein to fasten the carriage horse to the other end of the same fence. He contemplated releasing Spot from the gig but decided against taking the time, Caitlin might need his help fetching and carrying, the horse would be fine as it was.

The front door was still open, and the young farmer Hugo had given a right beating was waiting for him in the hall, a stricken expression on his face. Hugo didn't force him to speak but merely followed him into the main room of the house, where the heat was stifling. Closing the door behind him, Hugo sought out Caitlin and soon found her, bent over a much smaller shape than he'd expected. The child was drawing laboured breaths, which wasn't as it should be but at least she was alive. The mother was holding a second child, the twin sister, and the father was looking at the scene before him with Mr Darcy right beside him.

'I need a large bowl, boiling hot water and a cheese cloth or sheet,' Caitlin now said, as she got up with the baby draped over her arm in a rather comfortable looking grip.

She then talked soothingly to the baby, who seemed to calm down a little, and the mother was starting to hand the second child to its father, but Hugo thought she should stay with her baby.

'Do you know your way around the kitchen at all?' he asked the young man, who nodded, glad to be able to do something.

'We'll take care of the hot water, mother,' he said, 'if you tell father where to find the cloth.'

Hugo suspected Caitlin wanted to give the child a steam bath, and he had the lad pour enough water in the kettle to do just that.

'That is enough, it'll go faster if you boil less. You get the bowl, I'll poke up the fire.'

'They say you're married now, is that true?'

'Yes, we are. We're very happy.'

'Is that really Mr Darcy? He looks like a gentleman but why would he come with you? You're just the stable master. She's just a healer.'

'Gentlemen get sick, too, Mitchell, and their wives give birth to babies as well. They need healers as much as your mother and sisters needed Caitlin.'

'So it is Mr Darcy. But you don't have your own farm, no matter how much he pays you.'

'Caitlin doesn't need my income, her new patients pay her well. What she needed was a partner, an equal, someone to share her life, and her worries, and her joys with. Did you know she has a son?'

'I'd heard, yes.'

'How would you have liked to raise another man's son?'

'How do you like raising another man's son?'

'I love it, he's a delightful boy. I've always been good with boys, it comes with being around horses. They need lots of care and many hands to do the hard work.'

'So she's happy with you, then.'

'Yes, Mitchell. She's happy with an undersized old froggy who loves her boy as if he is his own son. This water is almost ready, do you have the bowl?'

'Is this one all right?'

Hugo took it from him and nodded towards the kettle, in which the water was singing.

'Perfect. Now pour the water in the bowl and take care you don't burn yourself, or me.'

Hugo didn't know whether Mitchell realised Hugo had put himself in this position on purpose to show he trusted the young man to accept the situation as it was, but for himself he did not even feel the slightest twinge of fear as the lad poured boiling hot water from the kettle into the bowl in Hugo's hands.

When it was half full he said, 'That is enough, let's take it in,' and he handed the thing to the lad, then preceded him into the living space. Mr Bridgen had a sheet ready, and Caitlin sat down on a dining chair with the child whilst Hugo moved another such chair really close to her.

'You can put the bowl on that chair, Mitchell,' he instructed, as Caitlin said, 'Please add the entire contents of the little green leather pouch to the water, Jean, before you cover us with the sheet. Quicky now, before the water cools.'

Hugo quickly retrieved the little green bag and emptied it in the bowl. A rich fragrance filled the room, and somehow the whole atmosphere changed from anxious to hopeful. Unfolding the sheet, he spread it over Caitlin, the baby and the bowl, and stood back to wait whether the steam would have the desired effect.

From under the sheet, Caitlin soon said, 'I think it's working, her breathing is getting less laboured. Remind me to check up on little Mary as well before I leave, Mrs Bridgen, I think this is the false croup and though it is less harmful, it can affect an entire family.'

Whilst the mother stayed close to Caitlin to hear how her little girl was doing, Mr Bridgen approached Hugo, nudging his head toward his son as if ordering him to join them as well.

'I'm Anton Bridgen, I'm very pleased to meet you. I know you met Mitchell before, you taught him a very valuable lesson, he has improved very much lately.'

As if beating a fellow up could ever have that effect. Hugo couldn't help but try to give the honest farmer some insight in boys, though he didn't have any of his own blood he'd raised plenty of them.

'Jean Hugo,' he introduced himself, apparently they already knew he was Mr Darcy's stable master and, by now, Caitlin's husband. 'I think Mitchell improved himself, sir, after Mrs Hugo helped him to think things over very carefully. I've learned breaking heads generally doesn't suffice, these youngsters need to learn to think for themselves before they can grow up. Some just need a little more time than others to discover that. I was slow myself and I had a lot of help.'

Tutors, a sensible father and respectable uncle, the stable master and sergeants and drill masters, and still Hugo had needed Caitlin to finally realise what life was about.

'I suppose you're right, you must have staff working for you. I only have myself to please and therefore to blame for my mistakes. I'm merely very glad you trusted your wife to come here and save our daughter, I was so afraid, I had to try the only thing I could think of. Will you please allow Mrs Hugo to take us back as her patients, if Mitchell here promises to let go of his childish resentment?'

He had a lot to learn about boys, and women as well, though Mrs Bridgen seemed happy enough now her baby was out of danger.

'I would not presume to tell Caitlin what to do, Mr Bridgen, it is her decision to take you back or not, to believe Mitchell's assurances or not. I know she has felt awful letting all of you do without care.'

And she would love to be able to visit her friend the widow again, who had meant a lot to her in a time that nobody wanted her.

Mr Darcy was following the men's conversation with interest, but without the inclination to get involved, he probably thought it better to let Hugo handle this, or more likely Caitlin herself. She had gained so much self-confidence, not just from getting married but also from their warm reception in Witham and at Pemberley. She needed no man to protect her, though she'd be glad to have Rover along.

When Caitlin emerged from under the sheet she had a red face and her hair was drenched, but the baby looked much happier. She handed the girl to Mr Darcy, who looked surprised but accepted with equanimity, imitating the way he'd seen Caitlin hold her. His beloved had such a natural instinct for these things, of course Mr Darcy would want to experience holding a child, he was going to have a child of his own in about six months. The baby seemed to weigh more than he expected, but he settled easily enough and the child didn't mind being held by a complete stranger.

Caitlin examined the other girl, and after a very short time offered to take the sick child back from the gentleman.

'It's not infectious for adults or I wouldn't have let you hold her, sir,' she said.

He handed the baby over with a smile, 'I trust you, Mrs Hugo, and I think you knew I needed this, I've been feeling some doubt over my ability to be a father and I cannot support Elizabeth if I'm not feeling all that confident myself.'

'I've delivered a lot of babies in a lot of different homes, and all parents feel insecure at first. If you share them with your lady you give her a chance to share her own doubts, she doesn't need you to be perfect, she is a strong woman, you can face everything together.'

'She was so afraid, I thought she'd want me to be strong.'

'We have talked about this, it's part of my job to guide women through every aspect of their pregnancy, and she has accepted the fact that your lives will change. I think if you share your feelings you will be pleasantly surprised. Spending time and talking with her sister has helped as well, of course. I'm certain you will be outstanding parents, just look at how well Jean is doing with Ben. Or look at Mitchell.'

Indeed, the young farmer had taken his sister from their mother, to allow the poor woman a chance to hold her other baby who'd given all of them such a fright.

'I think they will both be fine, Mrs Bridgen, but if either of them has trouble breathing again, just walk with them in the cold, moist air, or take a steam bath like this and send for me. I'll leave my home address with your husband.'

'But what about…,' she looked at her tall son, who kissed his little sister and voluntarily promised, 'I've accepted that Mrs Hugo is happily married, mother. You and the girls need her, we nearly lost little Anne because of me. I've heard the other young folks like to meet up with a group from other villages. I guess I'll ask to join them next Sunday after church. If I may, father?'

'How do you think I met your mother, my boy? Of course you should hang out with other youngsters, as long as you are careful: we'd like to meet any girl you like before her father forces you to marry her.'

Well well, who knew, Mr Bridgen had been a young man himself, once. Too bad Pauline had already returned to her father's house, or Hugo could have advised her to seek out this young crowd in Ripley. For a local girl, Mitchell Bridgen was indeed quite a catch, reasonably good looking, hard worker and heir to a very nice farm.

When they had taken their leave, instead of freeing Barley from the rail he was tied to, Mr Darcy asked, 'Did you discuss the trip north with Mrs Hugo, yet?'

Hugo affirmed, and added, 'She is looking forward to seeing as much of the country as she can, sir.'

'May I drive her as far as Pemberley then, to describe some of the coastal scenery and the attractions of Newcastle? If you think my driving skills suffice in the dark?'

'I always enjoy riding Barley, sir, and we're no longer in a real hurry, Spot will do well enough if he can set his own pace. Since I suspect Caitlin has no objections to you driving her instead of me.'

'She will have the rest of the night and every night after that to spend with you. You will love Whitley, the sea, the shore, the guest house.'

And so they changed places, Hugo untying Barley and stowing the rope where it belonged. Mr Darcy was making friends with Spot until Caitlin had entrusted Mr Bridgen, who was seeing them on their way, with their address, and had let him hand her into the modest gig. Then he released Spot's rein, still marvelling at the idea of driving a horse on nothing but a halter, and climbed in. Hugo now mounted Barley, the stirrups needed some adjusting since Mr Darcy had very long legs. And then they were on their way home, over the road, though the path through the Black Forest would soon be improved Hugo didn't think he'd like to use it all that often, it was still an eerie place to be at night. But Caitlin might not mind that much, she had lived with nature for years, a mere forest could probably not frighten her at all.

Barley was a joy to ride, even in the dark. Of course Hugo knew exactly how Sarah Norman had taught him, he'd often watched her work the horse before Mrs Darcy was even introduced to her new hunter, and he also liked to see Mrs Norman teach Mrs Darcy and the other genteel folk. Though her style was a little different from Hugo's own, it was as efficient, and Barley reacted perfectly to all the directions Hugo gave using Mrs Norman's aids.

Time passed quickly when pleasantly engaged, and before he had the time to wonder what Mr Darcy needed to tell Caitlin that he hadn't seen fit to tell him, they had reached the turnoff towards Pemberley. Hugo expected Mr Darcy to drive the gig to the Pemberley stables, then let his stable master unsaddle his horse since Hugo did know his way around in the dark, but instead the handy little conveyance came to a halt and Mr Darcy got out and came towards Hugo.

'I'll manage unsaddling Barley and releasing him in the right paddock, Hugo, you take your little lady home and care for your own horse. I excused myself to him before we left, I misjudged him and somehow I felt he should know I think he is a magnificent creature and a great help to all of you. I've never talked to a horse before, I suppose I should be in bed fast asleep instead of traipsing through the countryside in the dead of night. But Mrs Hugo said I've not lost my mind to start talking to a horse, she said you'd all felt his humanity and tried to spare his feelings, even in broad daylight.

Good night, and I will see you tomorrow!'

And he mounted Barley without even adjusting the stirrups, then rode off towards the great house with his long legs dangling. He really was an excellent horseman, maybe he'd like to learn those tricks Hugo had taught Liquor.

Caitlin wanted to drive the rest of the way, which was very sensible practice for future nightly excursions, and Hugo really wanted to ask her what Mr Darcy had talked about but didn't dare. There was no doubt it was private, and he didn't want to come across as nosy or worse, trying to control her in some way.

'Mr Darcy said we can stay with Colonel Drummond, but advised against it if we want to spend any time by ourselves. He expected Colonel Drummond to monopolize your attention if you were so close. Apparently, he and Mrs Darcy stayed at this little guest house in a small village on the coast, with a sandy beach right in front. I really want to see the sea again, Jean, and in a much happier state of mind.'

'Well, I certainly don't want to go on a trip together then spend my time feeling uncomfortable among some fancy folks. Of course I'll have to spend quite some time there anyway to inspect horses and boys, but I, too, last saw the sea in a sad and uncertain time of my life. I'm all for staying in a quiet little boarding house.'

'Oh, good. I'm glad this is over, my love. I mean meeting that family again. I've been so afraid and he had already adjusted. I'm still glad to have Rover, though. And you.'

And she kissed him with such love! Spot never even flicked an ear, as if he was used to such goings-on. And maybe he was.