Five Years Later…
Susana rushed around the hallways of Silkstone Manor, making sure everything was prepared for the evening’s Summer Ball. Guests would be arriving shortly, and she was at her wit’s end. This would be her first time hosting such a grand spectacle, and she did not want the ton to be disappointed by her offering. She had not forgotten the mess she had made at her coming-out party, and the recollection only served to intensify her anxiety.
“Mama?” A small voice called out as she passed by the dining room. Puzzled, she peered into the room, to find her two daughters sitting in the corner. Annabelle was almost four, and her little sister, Jemima, had recently turned two.
Susana’s hand flew to her face as she witnessed her darling cherubs, their faces and dresses smothered in red juice, with two cups of cherry ice dripping onto the floor.
“Where did you get those?” Susana gasped.
“Uncle Henry and Uncle Lionel gave them to us,” Annabelle replied. “I tried to keep Mima clean, but she’s very messy.”
Why am I not surprised? Even though they were young men now, and ought to have known better, Henry and Lionel were always up to some trick or another. They were fond of their nieces though, always spoiling them and playing games with them, and their affection was just about the only thing that was preventing Susana from going to them that moment and boxing their ears.
“Come on, darlings. Let us see if your grandmother can do something about this.” Susana picked up the cherry ices and set them on the sideboard for the staff to clear away. She had chosen them for the evening’s revels as a means of making new memories—better ones—but staring at that livid red syrup made her feel as if she were a slip of a girl again, entering society for the first time.
Annabelle took Jemima’s hand, and Susana took Annabelle’s, the three of them trailing back through the house like a line of ducks.
Susana found her mother in the ballroom, helping with the final arrangements. The older lady turned and almost dropped the candlestick in her hand, as she witnessed the wayward demeanor of her granddaughters. Their pretty, matching blue dresses were ruined, their faces smeared in sticky syrup, their mouths looking like they’d devoured a basket of blackberries.
“Oh dear.” Susana’s mother gave a soft chuckle and put a sympathetic hand on her daughter’s shoulder as they neared.
“Oh dear, indeed, Mother.” Susana sighed. “I have so much still to do. Might you find something else for them to wear, and make sure they stay clean until this evening?”
“We are sorry, Mama. We did not mean to get all dirty.” Annabelle shuffled awkwardly and looked as if she might cry.
Susana sank down to the level of her daughters and smiled. “It is nothing that cannot be remedied, my sweets. I was once the same, spilling cherry ice all over the place, and I was still doing it long after I should have grown out of it. There is nothing to be sorry for. If I am to blame anyone, it will be your pesky uncles.” She gave a playful growl that made the two little girls laugh. Susana loved that sound more than anything.
“Henry and Lionel were responsible for this?” Her mother tutted. “I told them to take a very lengthy walk, so they would not be under our feet.”
Susana nodded. “And I imagine they have gone on said walk, to avoid my wrath after discovering their little scheme.”
“Well, I will see to it that they look as pristine and rosy-cheeked as they did this morning,” her mother assured. “Though, you should not worry too much about this evening. The house looks beautiful, you look beautiful, the orchestra are the finest in Yorkshire and have been practicing all afternoon, and all of the food and beverages are prepared. That is all any guest cares for, I promise you. As long as they are drinking, dancing, and dining, you will be celebrated for your hospitality.”
“What would I do without you, Mother?” Susana sighed, and leaned in to kiss her mother’s cheek.
“You never have to find out again, my sweet girl. Never.” Her mother lowered her voice. “Has there been any word from William? He ought to have returned by now.”
Susana’s shoulders sagged, for she had been trying not to think about it for days now. William was due back on extended shore leave, having been away for six months, but he had sent a rider from London to say that he had been delayed by the Naval Office and did not know when he would be able to travel north. Susana had been unable to rearrange the ball, but she knew there would be gossip if William was not present. Not that she cared for gossip. All she wanted was her husband at home, so she could wrap her arms around him and kiss him until he could not breathe.
“We must hope he makes it in time,” she replied. “But at least we know he is safely back in England. That is all I care about. I have missed him so much.”
Her mother smiled. “We all have, dear one.”
“You will not go straight back to London once he returns, though, will you?” The Alvin family had been keeping her company in William’s absence, and they had become quite the focus of Yorkshire society, particularly her handsome brothers. Michael, her eldest brother, had even caught the eye of a local Earl’s daughter, and the two had been permitted to start a courtship.
“Your father has grown fond of this part of the world, as you well know. He is always talking of how much more efficient it is, to have his ships come into Kingston Upon Hull to the East, and Liverpool to the West, with the final third coming into London. Delivery to the northern mills and factories is much swifter, by all accounts, and he is enjoying himself immensely. We all are. So, if you will have us, will we continue on here until you have grown tired of us.”
Susana chuckled. “Then you shall be here forever.”
“I would not mind that, and nor would your siblings. They are enjoying themselves here more than your father!”
“Especially Michael.” Susana gave her mother a knowing nudge.
“I always knew he was a handsome fellow, but how he has managed to attract the affections of an angel like Lady Kate, I do not know. She may be the most beautiful woman I have ever beheld, my own daughters and granddaughters being the only exceptions.”
Susana nodded. “And they are so deeply in love. I hope it will not be long before there can be a wedding.”
“As do I, Susie.” Her mother clapped her hands. “Now, let us get you two messy creatures upstairs, so that we can make you look angelic, too.”
“Thank you, Mother,” said Susana.
“It will always be my pleasure,” she replied, before taking the children off upstairs to change into fresh dresses.
Standing in the ballroom as the staff darted hither and thither around her, Susana folded her arms across her chest and stared at the room, knowing that it would be packed to the rafters by the time evening came. But there was only one person she wanted to see.
This was not the first time that William had gone back to his duties at sea, but it had been the longest separation they had endured. Every morning, she awoke, expecting to find him beside her. It was a constant disappointment when she found his side of the bed empty. After five years of marriage, their love had never faltered. Their children had only brought them more joy, filling Silkstone Manor with laughter and delight.
She had everything she could have dreamed of—her real family, her daughters, and a love that defied all obstacles—but it only made sense when William was here to share it with her. Without him, she felt like part of her was missing. Half of her whole.
Come back soon, my love. Come back to me.
Susana stood at the edge of the ballroom, watching the dancers as they whirled about the floor, moving expertly in time to the orchestra that played tirelessly. Her ball was a success. Everyone was having a marvelous time, and she had lost count of the people who had told her how wonderful the evening was.
But I cannot enjoy it… not without you, William. There had been no further word from him, regarding his whereabouts. It was getting very late in the evening, and she had all but given up hope that he would arrive before the revels were over. Their daughters had already taken to their beds, weary from the interest of society, though they had whispered of their Papa as they had fallen asleep. They were as eager to see him again as Susana.
Suddenly, the ballroom crowd started to shift and disperse, drawing aside as if they were letting someone through. She could not see who until the nearest revelers parted. Her heart leapt, tears springing instantly to her eyes. Dressed smartly and smiling at her as if she were the light in his life—the beacon that had brought him back—William stood before her.
She rushed toward him, stopping short as she realized he was leaning on a cane. Puzzled, she met his gaze, a cry escaping her throat as she realized the low light had been playing a cruel game with her. It had concealed the truth of his condition. A ragged scar ran from the top of William’s forehead, down over his right eye, and ceasing just above his lip. Bruises bloomed across his cheek and his left eye, and a smaller scar sliced down from his lower lip to his chin.
“Be gentle with me,” he said.
“What happened to you?” She closed the gap between them, reaching up to hold his injured face in her hands. “Oh, William… what happened?” Not caring about the intent eyes that watched her from all angles, she kissed his bruises, and the scars that had not been there when he had departed.
“That is not important, my love. All that matters is that I am home, with you.” His smile widened as he toyed with a stray strand of her hair. “It is as if time has reversed, and I am back in London, coming to find you at your coming-out party after I had been away.”
She shook her head, stifling a sob. “You were not hurt then.”
“I am not hurt now,” he replied. “How could I feel pain, seeing you? You are my remedy, my love. You are my purpose, and my heart, and my soul. You are the guiding light, bringing me back, when I did not know if I could survive.”
“Survive what?” She kissed his bruises and scars, wishing she could take them away, as tears ran down her cheeks.
“Our ship was struck and started to sink. I thought it would drag me down with it, but then I thought of you, and knew I had to live. I had to survive, for you and our sweet girls.” His breath hitched. “I swam with everything I had, and I made it out, where another ship plucked me out of the water. I ended up with a few scrapes, perhaps, but I made it back to you.”
“Is that why you were delayed?” Susana’s heart broke to think of what he had endured.
He nodded. “I was in the hospital for a few days, but I have been told that my leg will heal, in time, though it will never quite be the same.” He cupped her face in his hand. “And that means I will no longer be apart from you. I have been given an honorable discharge.”
“But at such a price…”
“We can overcome anything, you and I.” He tilted her chin up. “We have made it through the worst storms imaginable, and now we may have our peace. I am willing to pay any price for that.”
“You are home,” breathed she.
“I am home.” He leaned in and kissed her on the lips, eliciting a gasp from the gathered crowd. Susana did not notice, for, in her mind, they no longer existed. She clung onto him, though she was careful not to hold him so tight that she might knock him off-balance.
“I love you, William. You have been missed, so very much.” She broke away and gazed deep into his eyes.
“I love you, Susie. I have missed you, and our children, and this house, more than you could possibly know.”
“And you will never have to leave again?”
He shook his head. “Never.”
She did not favor the manner in which these events had come to pass, but she could not deny it thrilled her to know that they would never have to say goodbye again. It wounded her each time she stood on the steps of this house and waved him off, not knowing if she would hold him again.
So many things had tried to separate them, and none had succeeded. Their love was nothing short of extraordinary. Even when their marriage had been announced, society had not frowned on it for too long. Even they knew when they were witnessing true love. The only person missing, who might have completed their contentment, was Richard. But Susana knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was watching over them.
Did you bring him back to me, Richard? A gust of wind drifted through from the gardens, bringing in the scent of the summer blossoms, the cooling tendrils brushing against her shoulders. And she knew he was here, sharing in their reunion.
“Might I have this dance, my chickadee?” William kissed her again. “I am not so spry as I once was, but if you lead, I am sure I will be well.”
She smiled. “I thought you would never ask.”
As they took to the floor, no one else dared tread upon it. Instead, they gathered to watch the couple, whose overflowing love inspired romance in everyone who witnessed them. The orchestra began to play a soft, slow tune, as William twirled her and danced beside her, and when it was done, a roar of applause erupted from the onlookers.
From a frosted road, and a world that she had never quite belonged to, to a love that had seemed impossible, they had defied the odds to achieve the pinnacle of happiness. Nothing, and no one, could ever part them again. And, this time, it was the truth.
Ah, before you go...
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