“It’s too early,” Francesco was saying over and over again. “There was supposed to be another month—”
“Yes, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening,” said Novella, who was somehow calmer than him. She smiled at him and touched his cheek. “Everything will be fine, Francesco, I promise you.”
But then a spasm of pain crossed her face as another contraction hit, and Francesco anxiously took her hand. “I should be reassuring you,” he said once she’d caught her breath, which earned him a weak little laugh.
He helped her into bed as several servants started preparing the room for the birth. Francesco looked around, biting his lip. He would not be allowed to stay in the room much longer, but Novella ought to have someone with her besides the servants. But her family was all back in Venice, and Francesco had no female relatives.
“Is there anyone I should send for?” he asked, feeling helpless.
To his surprise, Novella nodded. “Bianca and Clarice, and Madonna Lucrezia too,” she said. “They all offered to assist with the birth when the time came.”
“Of course they did. They’re our family.”
Even now, when Guglielmo and Bianca had been married two years and Francesco was the godfather of Lorenzo’s son, he was still not quite used to the idea that he was a part of the Medici family. “All right,” he said. “I’ll send for them.”
Novella squeezed his hand, a gesture of affection which quickly turned into a death grip at the next contraction. Francesco felt like she was about to break his fingers and he did his best to hide a wince, knowing that whatever pain he felt was utterly insignificant compared to what his wife was experiencing.
“Now, please,” Novella said, panting for breath. “I need them here.”
Francesco nodded and leaned in to kiss her temple, letting his lips linger for a long moment. “I will be right outside if you need me,” he said, giving her a smile that he hoped was encouraging rather than terrified. “I know you can do this, Novella.”
She smiled back faintly, and it was with the utmost reluctance that Francesco stood to go. He hesitated in the doorway, turning back to look at Novella again. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “Go on.”
Francesco gave her one last smile and forced himself to leave the room, his stomach knotted with anxiety.
He sent a servant to the Medici home to deliver the news, and he was surprised both by how quickly they arrived and by how many of them were there: Bianca, Clarice, and Lucrezia, as Novella had requested, but Guglielmo and Lorenzo had come too.
“How is she?” Clarice asked.
“Well enough so far, I think.” Francesco bit his lip, then added, “But I thought she wasn’t due to give birth for another month. I’m…worried.”
Expressing feelings, especially to the Medici, was a new thing for him, and for a wild moment he thought they would laugh at him for overreacting. But Lucrezia kindly patted him on the shoulder. “I’m sure there’s no cause for alarm,” she soothed him. “Giuliano was born early too, and he turned out just fine.”
It was only with extreme effort that Francesco managed not to say, Debatable.
He escorted the women to Novella’s bedroom and looked over their shoulders as they entered. Novella looked no better or worse than when he’d left her, but a relieved expression crossed her face when she saw them. Lucrezia strode inside and immediately took charge of the situation, directing the servants here and there, while Clarice hurried to Novella’s side to ask how she was feeling.
Bianca paused in the doorway with Francesco. “We have everything under control,” she said when she saw his anxious expression.
“I know,” Francesco said. “But I wish I could stay with her.”
“Guglielmo felt the same way, but I told him I didn’t want him to see me like that,” Bianca said with a chuckle. “He never would have looked at me the same way again.”
“I doubt that’s true,” Francesco said. For his part, he knew there was nothing that could ever make him look at Novella differently, nothing that could ever make him love her any less.
“I’ll come and get you as soon as there’s news, I promise,” Bianca said. “Guglielmo and Lorenzo will keep you busy until then, and Novella is in good hands with us.”
“All right,” Francesco conceded. “Thank you.”
Bianca kissed him on the cheek and then shut the door in his face, so he wandered back out towards where Lorenzo and Guglielmo were already sitting and chatting. They broke off and looked up when Francesco entered. “How am I supposed to just sit here and wait?” he said, almost to himself, as he flopped down into a chair next to his brother.
Lorenzo picked up the bottle of wine sitting on the table beside him and poured a third glass. “With this,” he said, passing it to Francesco, who took it from him with a huff of laughter.
“Why are you two here anyway?” he said. “Surely you’re not going to spend the rest of your day waiting here with me.”
“Of course we are,” Guglielmo said.
Lorenzo nodded in agreement. “That’s what brothers do.”
Francesco decided that the tears which sprang to his eyes at the words were only because of his already-heightened emotional state.
Hours passed. Lorenzo and Guglielmo reminisced about the births of their own children for a little while, but after that the three of them fell into a companionable silence. Francesco knew it would take many hours, of course, and yet the more time passed, the more worried he grew and the darker his thoughts became. What if something was wrong? What if the baby didn’t survive?
What if Novella didn’t survive?
He felt a hand on his shoulder and glanced up to see Guglielmo looking at him. Francesco realized he was frowning and clutching his glass very tightly, and he tried to relax his expression and his grip. “Everything’s going to be all right,” Guglielmo said.
“It’s too soon,” Francesco whispered. “The baby will be too weak.”
“If he’s even half as stubborn as his parents, he’ll be just fine,” Guglielmo said with a grin, and Francesco couldn’t help but smile a little too.
Evening fell, and then night. Francesco offered to take Guglielmo and Lorenzo to some guest bedrooms, but they said they would rather wait up with him. They ended up dozing off in their chairs within another few hours, but Francesco didn’t think he could sleep a wink even if he tried.
Guglielmo and Lorenzo were woken a little after dawn by Giuliano’s arrival. “Where have you been?” Lorenzo asked, yawning. “I haven’t seen you since…yesterday morning.”
“Out,” Giuliano said evasively. “But when I got home the house was deserted, and the servants told me you were all here.” He took a seat opposite from Francesco and observed him. “You look like hell.”
“Thank you,” Francesco said.
“Leave if you’re not going to be helpful,” Lorenzo scolded.
“Because you’re being very helpful, sitting here and doing nothing.”
Lorenzo opened his mouth to retort, but then they heard footsteps approaching and Bianca entered the room, looking tired but smiling broadly.
Francesco jumped to his feet and hurried over to her. “Bianca, what—the baby—Novella—?” he stammered, unable to form a coherent sentence.
“Novella is healthy and doing well,” Bianca assured him. “And so are the children.”
Francesco exhaled in relief, but a second later Bianca’s words caught up to him. “Children?”
“Yes.” Her eyes were sparkling with mischief. “All three of them.”
Francesco’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“You have a son and two daughters,” Bianca said, barely suppressing laughter. “Congratulations!”
It was, quite frankly, a miracle that Francesco didn’t pass out on the spot. Lorenzo, Guglielmo, and Giuliano all burst out laughing. “Well done, Francesco,” Giuliano snickered as Guglielmo clapped him on the shoulder.
“But—how—?” Francesco spluttered. “Three?”
“Come see for yourself,” Bianca said.
He nearly tripped over his feet in his haste to follow her. He was fairly certain he was hallucinating or Bianca was messing with him, but when he walked into the room, sure enough, Clarice and Lucrezia were each holding one baby and there was a third in Novella’s arms.
Francesco leaned against the doorframe for support, suddenly feeling dizzy. But Bianca took his hand and tugged him further into the room, and in a daze he stumbled over to the bed and sat down beside Novella.
She was clearly exhausted, but she started to laugh when she saw the look on his face. “Novella,” Francesco said weakly. “I…am I dreaming?”
“Imagine how I felt when they kept telling me there was still another baby I had to push out,” she said, and Francesco joined in her laughter, astonished and confused and so, so happy.
He was utterly overwhelmed and didn’t know which of his children to look at first, but Clarice made the decision for him by coming over and passing him the baby she was holding. “Meet your daughter,” she said, smiling.
Francesco reached out with shaking hands to take her, scared he would somehow break her. He gazed down at her in awe, and she blinked up at him. A broad smile broke out across his face as he saw miniature versions of his own brown eyes staring at him. “She has my eyes, Novella, look,” he said proudly.
“He does too,” Novella said, kissing the baby in her own arms.
“This one has her mother’s eyes,” Lucrezia said, approaching with the third baby. Novella shifted their son into one arm so that Lucrezia could settle their daughter in the other, and Francesco moved closer to get a better look at his other two children.
The boy was sleeping, but the girl was awake; she did indeed have Novella’s beautiful blue eyes. Francesco looked between the three of them for a long time, drinking in every detail, making mental notes of which features they had in common with each other and with their parents and which features were different.
The room’s other occupants gradually dispersed to give the new parents a moment alone, but Francesco was so absorbed with his children that he hardly even noticed. He and Novella shuffled the babies around a few times until he’d had a chance to hold each of them, his heart swelling with so much love he thought it might burst.
“I can still hardly believe this is real,” he said softly. He was holding their son now, and he bent down to kiss his forehead, smiling when his tiny hand flailed around and tried to grab at his face.
“Nor can I,” Novella said. “They’re perfect, aren’t they?”
“Completely,” Francesco agreed. “I…I didn’t know it was possible to feel this much happiness all at once.”
Novella rested her head on his shoulder, smiling. “Well, you’ll have to get used to it. This is only the beginning of a lifetime of happiness.”