Hildred looked up from where she sat in the drawing room. She was tired, but the sound of footsteps in the hallway instantly lifted her spirits. She jumped up as Stephen came into the room.
“Hildred. My dearest.” He smiled, lifting her in his arms as she squealed happily.
“Stephen. Sweetheart. Put me down,” Hildred giggled. “You seem in fine humor,” she added, smiling up at him as he set her down on her toes.
“I certainly am,” Stephen said, grinning. “I was just talking with Radford. He says that our ship is ready to set sail.”
“Our ship?” Hildred frowned. Then she remembered—Stephen and Radford had invested in a ship for the importing of spice. It had been named The Adventure. She smiled to herself. “I know someone who’ll be delighted.”
“Yes.” Stephen chuckled. “Me, too.”
He looked up as they both heard feet running towards the room. Hildred smiled as her daughter ran in—she was just who they had thought of. She was tall, with long brown hair and hazel eyes, and her mouth and solemn face was just like Stephen’s. She ran to her father, her usually serious expression lit up.
“Papa. I just talked to Uncle Radford,” she looked up at him, a question in her eyes.
“Yes. The Adventure is soon off on its first trip,” Stephen said. He bent down as Emily gave a shout of excitement. She squealed as he held her off her feet, kicking and laughing.
“Papa. That’s wonderful. Can we go to the docks to see the ship set off?” Emily asked. He set her down on her slipper-soled feet. She frowned up at her father. Hildred looked at Stephen, who was frowning.
“Hildred, dearest?” he asked her. “Would you like to go and watch?”
Hildred tilted her head to one side. She felt nervousness flood her at the thought of going to London. She had been back there once since that terrible incident eight years ago, when she had been kidnapped and almost shot. It was a distant memory now, but the idea of going back to London didn’t appeal.
She looked at Emily, who was looking at her, wide-eyed.
“Please, Mama?” Emily asked. “I just want to go and see the ship. And maybe Papa can take us on it, just once, before it sails? Please?”
Hildred looked at Stephen, who held her gaze. She could feel all his care in that look, and all the strength that she knew would keep her safe. She let out a long breath.
“Yes,” she said. “Of course we’re going.”
“Hurray,” her daughter cheered, lifting one small fist in the air, a triumphant gesture. “Can I go outside and play now?”
“Of course, dearest,” Hildred said. She went to take her from Stephen, who had her lifted in his arms, and she set her gently on the floor after a big kiss on her fragrant hair.
She heard her daughter give a triumphant yell in the hallway, rushing off outside. She smiled and went to the window with Stephen. They looked out over the garden.
“That was brave, dearest,” Stephen said.
Hildred shrugged. “Emily wants it so much.”
Stephen grinned and took her hand. “You are so loving, my sweet one.” He squeezed her fingers in his hand gently and she squeezed back, taking comfort from touching him.
They stood together silently, listening to the whoops of joy from outside.
She could see the big lawn in the front of the house, where she and Stephen sometimes had picnics with the children. It was a warm day. Radford was out there, walking along with his wife, who had a bonnet tied over her fine auburn hair. Hildred watched them for a bit, then looked up at Stephen, heart full of warmth.
“Shall we go down to join them?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” Stephen agreed, taking her hand in his. They walked down the stairs and out towards the garden. Eldridge House was even more beautiful in the summer than in any other season, Hildred thought, looking at the sunshine-soaked lawns. She could hear children whooping with joy and she looked up as Emily sped down the garden, chased by Amelia.
“Don’t run too fast.” she cautioned, but the cousins were speeding along, and she grinned as they slowed, almost running into the bed of roses.
“Hurray. That was fast.”
“I got you. It’s your turn,” Emily giggled, holding onto her cousin’s arm. She looked up at her cousin, who, even though she was younger by a year was already taller than Emily. Amelia had the fine green eyes of her mother, Ettie, the lady whom Radford had met shortly after she met with Stephen again, and her father’s soft face. She thought both children were beautiful, but of course she favored her own sweet Emily, who was looking up at her fondly with big hazel eyes full of anticipation.
“Mama? Can we play with Alexander, too?”
“He’s sleeping,” Stephen said gently, referring to their little son. He was too small to go toddling about in the grass with his sister—Hildred worried about the sunshine—but as soon as he woke, she was sure she could bring him down for a walk out of doors. “You can play with him later.”
“When he wakes up,” Hildred said, turning to Emily. “But not too long—we don’t want the sunshine to hurt his skin.”
“Of course, Mama,” Emily agreed instantly. She grabbed Amelia’s arm and they ran off towards the flowerbeds, laughing and already off playing together again.
Hildred and Stephen sat on a bench for a while, listening as Emily and Amelia raced around the garden, their long gowns—white and peach-colored—streamed out behind them. Hildred took delight in seeing how fearless Emily was—she herself had been so scared when she was younger, that she delighted in how free her daughter was as she laughed and played about the lawns.
“She has grown so fast,” Stephen said, watching the two children run. Emily would not be tall, like herself, Hildred thought, but she had the smaller, delicate build of her own mother, and the sweetness of Stephen.
“Yes,” she agreed. “They are both growing up so quickly.” She watched as Radford’s son, Lucas, ran to join them from behind the hedge. He was five years old, now, and cheerful and playful, as dimpled and charming as his Papa, and almost as spoiled, Hildred thought fondly. She loved Radford dearly and she was so pleased he could come and visit.
“We have put aside enough for Emily’s future already,” Stephen mused. He and Hildred had both insisted that a part of their wealth be set aside for Emily, so that she needn’t marry if she didn’t wish to. They wanted their daughter—and their son—to have the freedom of choice they had been denied.
“Yes,” Hildred agreed. Of course, Alexander, when he grew up, would take over Stephen’s estate and the accounts and wealth, also. At the moment, she thought with a grin, it was hard to imagine. He was a plump, happy toddler with a sunny smile and his father’s appeal. She loved him dearly.
“Papa, Papa,” Emily called, running over to them. “Come and see. Amelia found a special flower, growing in the garden.”
Hildred and Stephen shared a smile, as Stephen was hauled to his feet, and the two little girls dragged him off to go and look at the flowers. Hildred crossed the lawn, lifting her skirt where it trailed on the damp grass—her daughter’s muslin frock was filthy at the hems already, but she didn’t mind—it was, to her way of thinking, more important that the girls played and spent time out of doors.
She watched Stephen bending to look at something in the bed of flowers, and walked over, delighting at how the girls loved to spend time with him. Emily was holding his hand, while Amelia jumped excitedly, pointing at what they had found.
“It’s a lily,” Hildred said, frowning. She could see the reason for the girls’ surprise—the flower was growing in a bed of fragrant herbs, all by itself, the yellow blooms fair against the backdrop of the dark leaves. She wondered at its being there, and then she felt a twist of recognition, aching in her heart.
It was her mother’s favorite flower.
“Mama?” Emily said, squinting at her. “Are you well?”
“Yes, sweetness,” Hildred said, pressing a hand to her chest. “I’m just… it’s hot out here, isn’t it?” She wiped her forehead with her handkerchief. “Shall we go in and rest for a while?”
“Yes, Mama. Maybe the cook can make us some of her fine lemonade,” Amelia declared.
“Hurray,” Emily said, and the two of them ran off, racing each other to the front stairway. Hildred walked behind, and looked up to see Stephen watching her with a frown.
“I’m fine, dearest,” Hildred said. She couldn’t shake the image of the beautiful lily, growing in the middle of the wrong flowerbed, almost as if someone had planted it there purposely. It was a sign—a message from her mother, to let her know that, even here, she watched over her and cared for her. She was sure of it.
“Was it something about the flower?” he guessed.
“It was… it’s my mother’s favorite flower,” she murmured. “I feel that she must have wanted me to see it.”
“Yes,” Stephen said instantly. “I am sure you are right. She must be up there somewhere, loving her beautiful grandchildren.”
Hildred felt her throat tighten with tears. “I’m sure she is.” She looked up at Stephen, finding comfort in his beautiful green eyes looking down at her. He was wearing a cravat, a jacket, and waistcoat, and she realized that he must be feeling overheated.
“Let’s go and get that fine lemonade.”
They both laughed and Hildred took his arm as they walked across the lawns and into the house. It was much cooler inside, and Hildred gratefully handed her outdoor hat to be hung up, listening to the laughter and giggles coming down from the upstairs hallway.
“I think the children must have already settled down,” Stephen said. She followed Stephen up the stone stairs towards the drawing room. Inside, she could hear the girls, laughing.
“Mama. There you are. Come and sit with us,” Emily said, taking her hand and drawing her down to the chair beside her. They already had a pitcher of lemonade, and a plate with little slices of jam tart. Stephen came and sat down with them. Hildred felt her heart fill with love as he wrapped his arms around Emily.
“Did you play the piano today?” he asked her, and she nodded happily.
“Me and Amelia played all morning.” She looked to Amelia, who was combing a hand through her thick glossy hair absentmindedly. She looked up at her uncle thoughtfully.
“We did. And we sang, too. I want a piano at the London house, but Papa said we’ll have to wait.” She looked up as Radford came in, his arm around his wife, Ettie.
“Brother. I trust you had a fine walk?” Hildred asked, shifting on the chair as Radford sat down beside her. He nodded.
“Grand,” he said. He glanced at his daughter, who was involved in carving a slice of pie for herself. He chuckled and held out his hand for the knife. She shook her head.
“I’m trying to do it all in one go, like Lucas did. Where is Lucas?” she added, frowning.
“Here,” Lucas shouted from behind the chaise lounge. “I was hiding, Papa,” He added, running to his father and flopping into the seat beside him. He held out his arms to his mother, who embraced him fondly.
“Why were you hiding?”
“Because,” he told his mother with an air of mystery. “Are we having pie?”
“Yes,” Hildred said with a grin. She looked across at Stephen, who was watching them all with an amused smile on his face.
They ate and drank and then the children went off to play a game together while the adults stayed at the table to talk. Hildred sipped cool cordial, relieved to be indoors after the intense heat. She listened to Radford and his wife, who were talking of their recent stay in London.
“And Papa is doing so well,” Radford said. “He should be coming to stay with you, soon?” he asked Hildred.
“Yes. We are expecting him this week,” she said. She glanced at Stephen. Her father was coming up from London to stay with them, as he did every few months. He spent some of the year with Radford, at the townhouse, some time at the coast, and the rest of the year with them, starting now. “Which means we cannot be there for the ship?”
“The ship sails in two weeks,” Stephen said quickly. “We were thinking of coming to London to be there when it sets out,” he added, glancing at Radford, who nodded.
“Of course. The children would love that. Amelia is even more excited than Lucas, which is hard to imagine,” he added with a grin. “They have both been talking of little else for a week. Except, of course, of coming here to see you. They love their holidays up here.”
“I am pleased to hear it,” Hildred agreed. She glanced across at the three children, who were seated by the hearth. Little Lucas was watching intently as Amelia moved a counter on a board. Emily had a cushion from one of the chairs under her head and was lying on her tummy on the rug, while Amelia knelt over the game, involved in whatever they played.
“Your father truly is looking well,” Radford’s wife added, giving Hildred a fond smile. “He walked for a full hour the other day, and he looked cheerful when he came back to the house.”
“I’m so glad,” Hildred agreed warmly. Her father had been recovering more each year, and his health—after several summers in Brighton—seemed to be fully restored.
“I think the fellow’s younger than me sometimes,” Stephen chuckled.
Hildred looked fondly up at him. His hair had gray threaded through it, but she thought it looked more handsome. His brow was slightly more furrowed but that, too, gave him an air of contemplative thoughtfulness. He had always been thoughtful and contemplative, she thought, it just brought it out even more now.
“And Mama is due for her visit soon,” Stephen reminded Hildred. “She will be so pleased to see Emily and Alexander—she dotes on them.”
“I know,” Hildred smiled. Stephen’s mother had thrown herself wholesale into becoming the adoring grandmother. As much as she loved the city and society, she had taken to spending the warm months in the countryside, so that she could see as much of them as possible.
“My Lady?” a woman said from the doorway. “Alexander has woken up. Shall I bring him down?”
“Please do,” Hildred said, giving a smile to the maidservant. She was a little younger than Hildred, and related to Maddie, who had been Hildred’s maid.
“There’s my nephew,” Radford exclaimed. He grinned as Hildred held him. He was fast asleep, his little eyes shut. A small hand curled around her hair where a stray lock fell against her shoulder. She felt her heart melt at the beauty of him.
“Can I hold him?” Radford’s wife asked.
“Of course,” Hildred said, gently passing him across.
“Look who’s here,” came a voice from the hallway. Hildred looked up, feeling flustered. The butler was standing back, confounded, and the Dowager Duchess of Eldridge, Stephen’s mama, was in the doorway. She was wearing a beautiful blue gown, her white hair swept into a lovely style.
“Grandmama, Grandmama,” Emily yelled.
“Auntie,” Amelia said. She had taken the Duchess on as a sort of aunt, even though technically they were unrelated.
“My, you have grown. Granddaughter, look at you. You’re such a lovely young lady. And you, Amelia. You’re going to be as tall as your Mama soon.”
Alexander was awake, and looking excitedly at the figure in the doorway, who was being embraced by Amelia and Emily. Stephen’s mama smiled and crossed over to hold him.
“He’s so beautiful,” she said, staring down at him. “Stephen… he’s so lovely.” She looked at her son and then at Hildred, and Hildred could see the wonderment in her face. If she had ever harbored anger towards Stephen’s mother for the difficulties she put in their way, she didn’t now.
“Presents?” Emily asked.
The Duchess laughed. “Oh, yes. I did remember, so there are presents.” She grinned at Lucas, who had run over to join them. She stood up from where she crouched beside Hildred’s chair. “I’ll just go and get them. Hildred, my dear, they are such beautiful children. Your mother would be proud.”
Hildred felt tears in her eyes. “I know.”
She had often wondered what her mother would have said, and hearing those words from her meant the world to Hildred. She watched the children, her heart filled with love and joy.
She was pleased when Radford and his wife had gone downstairs, watching the children as they unwrapped their presents. She sat with the little sleepy baby in her arms, with Stephen beside her on the chaise lounge. He put his arm around her shoulder.
“I am so glad your mother is visiting,” Hildred said fondly. She knew the Dowager Duchess would turn up whenever the fancy took her, but she liked that. “The children love to see her.”
“I know,” Stephen said, grinning as they heard a whoop of joy. Lucas was somewhere nearby, clearly.
“Maddie is on the way to London,” Hildred said, thinking. “We could stop off there on the way to break the journey. She loves to see the children.”
“Yes,” Stephen said with a chuckle. “And her three will be delighted to play with Emily and Alexander.”
Hildred let herself think fondly of the last time Emily had played with Maddie’s three children. Maddie now had two daughters and one son, and the group of them were a force to be reckoned with as they ran about the fields.
“I am so happy, dearest Hildred,” Stephen murmured, drawing her close against him. “We have such a beautiful family. And Radford, too—it’s splendid that Amelia and Lucas are so close and can visit here.”
“Yes,” Hildred agreed. “I am so happy, too,” she said. “I love just hearing them play, and seeing you thus with little Alexander.” She watched as her son crawled sleepily onto his lap.
“Me, too,” he said. He looked into her eyes, love bright in the depths of them. She felt her heart melt as he took her hand. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said.
He wrapped his arm around her and they leaned back on the chaise lounge. It was a warm afternoon, and Hildred felt her eyelids droop, her last thought as she fell off to sleep that life worked in the most miraculous of ways, and that love was the greatest gift of all, and there for all who welcomed it into their heart.
Ah, before you go...
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