Fatherhood is wonderful. Every man should become a father at some point in his life.

-From the personal journal of Jack Wolfe, interim Duke of Methysia

Chapter Twenty-Five

"The King was not pleased," Trixie Wolfe said delightedly as she bounced her cherub-cheeked baby boy on one knee. She was sitting in an elegant, metal-wrought chair around a table of light refreshments outside of the Duke of Laporia's manor. Meg sat across from her, surrounded by Wolfe women, and marveled at how swiftly she had been accepted by Jack's friends and family. Months ago, these women would have seemed so far out of her reach, as Everett had been very careful to keep her away from other members of the upper classes. Only Brynna had ever managed to bypass that decree, and only because she was the Princess and Everett could hardly argue with her decision to befriend his wife.

Now she had Trixie Wolfe proclaiming that anyone who spoke a word against the Duchess of Methysia would personally be cut from the Duke of Raldem's guest lists. The Duke, her brother, was a very popular man. People had stopped talking about Meg behind her back weeks ago.

Aylinn Wolfe, a very quiet and serene woman, had admitted that she greatly admired Meg's artwork, as it was now public knowledge that the artist M.M. was none other than the Duchess of Methysia. She had been solely responsible for requesting that the King grant Meg the title of Artisan, thus adding to her respectability.

Lina had gone out of her way to befriend Meg from the very beginning, determined that the two of them should be like sisters, as their husbands were not only brothers, but best of friends. Meg absolutely adored the Duchess of Bryune.

Although she had only just met her a few days ago, when they all gathered at the Duke of Laporia's manor for what was essentially a family reunion, Meg had also discovered that she rather liked Raya Wolfe. The young woman was outspoken and frank, and though she smoked like a chimney—a nasty habit picked up from her cousin Douglass—she was certainly an entertaining companion. Meg had seen little of her since their arrival, however, as the young woman spent most of her time with her newest friend and cousin, Princess Brynna.

"My father is rarely pleased about anything anymore," Brynna said sourly in response to Trixie's comment, "especially not letting me come all the way out here to visit after running away like I did."

"I think the fact that you threatened to keep running away until he agreed to let you come did the trick," Raya reminded her. Although she hadn't been at the Glass Palace on the day Jack Wolfe petitioned King Harolde for the right to wed Duchess Meg Moore—who refused to be called Coralie ever again—Raya had heard all about it from her loquacious cousin on the day she'd arrived with her full royal escort.

Even now, Meg recalled how wonderful that day had been. How Jack's brothers and uncle, even the Duke of Laporia, had all stood behind him. The Duke of Raldem, Trixie's brother, had sent his regrets, citing the fact that he and the King weren't exactly on the best of terms. Apparently, his presence would likely have been a detriment to Jack. But with such forces behind him, showing a unified front in their desire to see Jack instated as temporary Duke of Methysia, even the King had bowed down to fate and blessed the union.

A union witnessed by Jack's own mother, who seemed to absolutely adore her new daughter-in-law. At Jack's request, Brendan had hired a new housekeeper so that Mrs. Barkett could move in with her son. Once they finished their new home in northern Methysia, they would certainly have a full house.

All of Jack's crew had unanimously decided to abandon The Strutting Moll upon discovering that their captain was to become an interim Duke. Her husband had tried, without success, to convince them that they needn't give up their lives as seamen for him, but the men had grown attached to the idea of living in a big fancy house and enjoying the fruits of their connection to the interim Duke of Methysia. So now they had Davie for a butler, his boisterous wife for a cook, and some very foul-mouthed footmen, all residing in the former Duke's home while construction was under way on their new mansion. In addition to Jack's crew, a good portion of Meg's family would be living with them, as well. Jack had insisted. The rest would come to visit often, as their new home would be no more than a day's ride from Myrn.

"He was afraid that allowing a Duchess to marry an unclaimed bastard son of a Duke raised as a servant might cause rebellion amongst his upper classes," Meg reminded them. "Considering how heated the rebellion's been getting in Noxyn now that we've closed Methysia's borders to that region, I can hardly blame him. Of course, when he learned that said Duchess was the daughter of a fisherman and had lived the first three years of her life without shoes, he was quick to change his mind." She grinned beatifically. "He said Jack might actually be a good influence on me."

"He is," Brynna agreed.

"And vice versa," Aylinn Wolfe added, one hand resting atop her swollen belly, her face set permanently in an expression of smugness at the knowledge of her upcoming child.

"I've never seen him like this before," Lina agreed, looking exceedingly pleased by the change in her husband's half-brother. "I mean, I didn't really know him that long before he left, but we were close. Back then he was always so guarded. Now…"

Her words were interrupted by a loud bark of laughter from the field of grass a short ways away where all of the men were playing a game of Capture the Rebel. Because he liked to be contrary, Foxyn Wolfe had elected to play the part of the rebel and was currently being chased across the lawn by all four of the Wolfe brothers, his father, Alex, and his stubborn mother, who had refused to be left out of the fun just because of her gender. Ryaden Davenson stood on the sidelines and observed like a stone statue, Foxyn's two rambunctious little children rolling around in the grass beside him.

Jack was the one who had burst into laughter when Alex slipped on a bit of slick grass and went tumbling to the ground. When he ran to help the boy up, he'd slipped and fell right on his arse, causing both of them to laugh uproariously. The sight of the two of them, hunched over with their arms thrown across the other's shoulder, brought tears to her eyes.

"I need to tell him…" she murmured, not quite finishing her sentence as she leapt to her feet and rushed off towards her husband and son.

"What do you suppose that was all about?" Raya wondered aloud.

Lina, sharing a conspiratorial smile with Aylinn, said quietly, "I think I know," even as she placed a hand over her own belly. They watched as Meg leaned towards Alex and whispered something into his ear, allowing her son to spill the news when he whooped and shouted, "I'm going to have a baby brother or sister!" Which caused Jack to start whooping and twirling his wife…before belatedly realizing that might not be such a good plan with a pregnant woman, after which he set her back on her feet and made a big show of looking worried about her.

With his usual pomp, Ryaden walked over to congratulate the couple, and Raya sighed gustily as she watched.

"Someone simply must do something about that man," she said.

"I don't like the sound of that." Trixie had narrowed her eyes on the young Wolfe girl, having known Raya her entire life, and thus knowing that anything the girl planned would likely have dire consequences.

"Look at him, Trixie! The Duke must have had a wooden rod surgically implanted into his…"


"I was going to say back!" she cried, and then added at everyone's disbelieving stares, "I swear! I would never curse around the baby." She glanced guiltily at the cheroot in her hand and held it a little further away from Trixie and Aylinn, belatedly realizing that her movement only brought it closer to Lina, who seemed to be turning an odd shade of green at the smell. With a disgusted sigh, Raya stamped the cheroot beneath one foot before continuing. "Anyway, he isn't getting any younger, and at this point the Dukedom is going to pass to his distant cousin Henry, who pronounces his name 'Ahn-ri' and perpetually looks like someone just fa—passed gas. He's never going to find someone desperate enough to marry him if he doesn't lighten up."

"Why don't you just marry him, Raya?" Aylinn suggested complacently, causing everyone else at their small bistro table set outside Ryaden's white stone manor to burst into laughter. "Well it seemed like a logical solution. She doesn't want to see him unwed, so she obviously cares about him. He's certainly handsome enough, and I doubt your parents would object since they seem to care for him a great deal."

"First of all, Ryaden Davenson is old enough to be my father," Raya pointed out, to which everyone but Aylinn nodded sagely. "Second, the man has the personality of a stick. Can you imagine what the sex would be like?" She shuddered, ignoring the fact that she'd just caused all of her companions to start choking on their tea. "No, thank you. I want someone passionate and daring, someone who will sweep me off of my feet and make love to me by candlelight with flowers everywhere…" She stopped to sigh dreamily at the picture she'd painted, but then her expression turned sour as she added, "Duke, the self-righteous prig, would never be so romantic. Trust me, if there is anyone I can guarantee you that I will never, ever marry, it is the Duke of Laporia."

"Do you suppose there was something wrong with the tea?" Meg asked Ryaden worriedly as they watched every female but Raya at the bistro table start choking uncontrollably.

The Duke of Laporia's mouth was set into a thin line that showed off the faint signs of age at the corners of his mouth—frown lines, not smile lines—and Meg noticed that he had a disturbing habit of twisting the gold ring on his middle finger around and around when he was standing still. Other than that bit of movement, he might as well have been a sculpture.

"I am certain it is just Raya saying something outlandish," he clipped, seeming not quite so cordial as he'd been only moments ago when he'd offered them his congratulations on the new addition to their family. "She does so rather often."

"So I have noticed," Meg agreed.

Ryaden, who had been watching the laughing ladies at the table rather intently, returned his attention to Meg and Jack and Alex long enough to say, "Excuse me, there is something I must take care of," before striding unhurriedly towards his home.

"I believe something important may have just happened," Jack noted thoughtfully as he watched Ryaden walk away. Even Meg had noticed these past few days that the Duke not only had a habit of twisting that gold and opal ring around his finger, but he also did quite a bit of watching Raya when he thought no one was looking. It was fairly obvious that the poor man was in love with his head breeder's daughter.

The affection, sadly, was entirely one-sided.

"Something important did just happen," Meg reminded her husband, drawing his attention from the receding figure of the Duke of Laporia and back to her.

"Gross, are you guys going to kiss again?" Alex asked, his voice filled with disgust even as his eyes twinkled with secret glee over the obvious affection between his parents.

"Best close your eyes, son," Jack warned.

Alex watched with one eye open as his parents embraced, lifting a silent prayer of thanks to the stars that he finally had a real family.

Author's Note: Okay, so there was Book 4. As I'm sure you've guessed, Book 5 is going to be about Laporia. I finished writing that one, but I only finished it a few weeks ago, which means I haven't had the time to thoroughly edit it yet. So...I'm probably going to start posting it in the next day or so, but be forewarned that it might be a little more rough than these other ones. I am furiously trying to finish Book 6 before this semester gets too far underway (and before I start my new job). So there might not be a break in posting...we'll see. Anyway, as always, thanks for reading and reviewing!