Five Years Later….
Bellinda sat in the pew beside Octavius and they watched as the vicar finished the ceremony that would declare Octavius’ sister a married woman at last. More than seven years had passed since Sophie had come back into Bellinda’s life and she’d gotten to know her as a young lady instead of a small child. And what a journey it had been to get to know her.
She smiled as she remembered the way they’d sparred across the dinner table, both before and after her marriage to Octavius. Although after the ordeal they had all suffered through, their sparring had gone from mean-spirited to good-natured, which is how it remained to this day. Once they had set their animosity aside, they’d become rather close. Never as close as Bellinda was to Sophie’s older sister, Annamarie, but they’d become companions and cared for one another.
“She is a vision,” she whispered to Octavius who grinned at her.
“I thought this day would never come. His Grace’s appearance in our lives has been a blessing, indeed.”
Bellinda nodded in agreement. The young Duke had come upon their family quite by accident. The previous year, during an unexpected thunderstorm, the young Duke found himself lost and stumbled upon their property seeking shelter. It was that very night which set Sophie on the path she was now on. The very moment they laid eyes upon each other it had been love. A blessing, indeed.
Sophie, just like Bellinda, had never lost that tendency toward sarcasm. She had a quick reply for anything and everything. And just like Bellinda, that had not served her well when it came to finding a husband. Octavius had struggled to find his sister a match, as no man could measure up to Sophie’s standards or could contend with her feisty nature. Until the Duke of Marxham appeared on their doorstep.
How much like me she is. It is no wonder we bumped heads together so much when we first met.
The young couple turned and Sophie beamed at Bellinda, a wife at last. Bellinda smiled back at her sister-in-law and her dashing husband. A Duke, no less.
“She outranks you now,” Octavius whispered into her ear. His voice still made her shiver with pleasure even after all these years. She turned to him, a smile on her lips.
“It has not escaped me. And I am sure I will hear of it until the end of my days. You know your sister never misses an opportunity to bring it up.”
It didn’t bother her, however. She was content in her life. Married to the man she loved now as much as on the day he’d freed her from the grasp of Lord Wolvesley, she no longer cared about status or society. These days when she traveled to London for the Season, she much preferred to spend her time with Sarah than at balls or the opera. Indeed, she relished the time she had with her friend, especially now that they each had three children to entertain. The two would spend the Season taking their children to the Royal Menagerie, the parks, and to the country while their husbands attended Parliament. Then, in the evenings, they would sit together in their drawing rooms, indulging in sweetmeats and Port and conversing about the future—and sometimes the past.
I have a good life. I have a family, a husband who adores me, loyal friends and healthy children. Yes. I am blessed, I declare.
Their third child, Lucinda, named after Bellinda’s late mother, had been born the previous year, joining her brothers, James and David, named after Octavius’ late father and brother.
She watched as her sister-in-law strut down the aisle of the little church on the arm of the only man who had not only been able to accept her strong mind and witty character, but who loved her for it. Seeing Sophie so happy made Bellinda smile. She caught the eye of her mother-in-law, who was in the pew ahead of them. The Dowager Marchioness beamed, her face aged, yet beautiful. Lady Hartlon still lived with them at Hartlon Manor and relished her role as grandmother.
The party rose and followed the young couple down the aisle and into the waiting carriages which would take them back to the Manor where luncheon would be served.
“Here, allow me.”
Octavius extended his arm to her and together, they walked down the aisle after the rest of the party. He folded his hand over hers as she rested it on his elbow. It was these little things, the small gestures and hidden affections that they showed one another even while in public, that solidified their union day after day. His devotion to her, even in the face of controversy, had made her convinced early on that he was the one for her. He’d stood by her through the loss of her mother, through the trial, and through the eventual death of her father, the late Earl of Windshire. Octavius was her rock and she knew he would always be.
That afternoon, the party was gathered in the gardens of Hartlon Manor and Bellinda walked among the guests, smiling at the many familiar faces.
“My Lady,” a voice called behind her. She turned and looked into the bright eyes of her lady’s maid, Mary. “You wanted to be told when Lord Mortimer awakens.”
Bellinda smiled. It still struck her as odd that her son was referred to by his courtesy title, although it was rightfully proper.
“Thank you, Mary. Have Miss Lester bring him out when he is ready, please. How are you getting on?” She glanced down at the maid’s bulging stomach.
“Very well, although I will be glad when the child is born, it is ever so taxing.”
Bellinda smiled. “I know it, I do. But when you hold your child in your arms it will all be worth it, trust me.”
Mary curtsied then and departed. Bellinda turned and caught sight of Linus on the lawn conversing with one of Lord Wexworth’s daughters. Bellinda could hardly believe how much he’d grown. He’d returned from Eton for the wedding and she would have sworn upon her life that he was at least a head taller. He inherited their father’s height just as she had.
“He will be a handsome lad, sure to break hearts in a few years,” her mother-in-law said beside her. “Has he any idea what he wants to do in life? I’ve asked him but he’s good at giving answers that provide no answers at all.”
Bellinda sighed. “I am not quite sure. He spoke of wanting to go into the military like Clifford, although his brother seems displeased with his experience thus far. Perhaps the clergy would be better for him.”
“He is a gabster,” Lady Hartlon agreed, as they watched the boy. “I had hoped Alpheus, I mean Lord Windshire, would join us but I suppose he is busy in London.”
“He is. It is his first year in the House of Lords and taking my father’s place among the peers has been vexing for him. I’ve had a letter, however, and it seems he has employed a matchmaker to help him find a wife.”
Lady Hartlon clapped her hands together in delight. “That is wonderful news. Any young lady would be lucky to have him.”
Bellinda agreed. Her brother had grown up to be honorable and pure of character, despite the poor example set by her father. She glanced at Octavius who was conversing with his new brother-in-law.
It is down to his good influence my brothers have all become such good young men.
“I wish Annamarie could be here,” Lady Hartlon said with sadness in her voice.
Bellinda patted her mother-in-law’s arm then. “She will be here later, I am sure. Once the guests have left. She would not miss her sister’s special day.”
Lady Hartlon gave her a nod, although the sadness had not left her eyes. She departed into the house, leaving Bellinda alone on the lawn. She sat on the steps leading to the house to survey the guests who lingered happily before her. She was alone but for a moment, as Octavius soon joined her, a quizzical expression on his handsome face.
“Why suddenly so Friday-faced on this glorious day? Is it getting to you, that she outranks you, after all? Shall I apply at Court for a Dukedom of my own?”
“And be under more scrutiny then we already are? I think not,” Bellinda made a face and shuddered at the mere thought. Octavius winked at her and she smiled, patting the space beside her. He sat close enough to her to where their bodies seemed connected. She enjoyed the closeness between them. It always gave her comfort.
“Your mother just lamented Annamarie’s absence.”
At once his visage darkened. “Yes, it is such a shame. I would have loved for them to be here.” He leaned over and dropped his voice. “I have arranged for them to come this evening, for supper. I’ve saved some Port for the occasion.”
“Does Sophie know?”
He nodded. “I told her. She and His Grace will have departed on their honeymoon by then, of course, but she saw Annamarie yesterday.”
Bellinda sighed. “I wish this could all have been resolved before the wedding.”
“I know, my love. With time it will be. Lady Wexworth has not been buried more than two months. Once the mourning period is over, Annamarie and Wexworth can wed and they can rebuild their reputations. It will just take time. But we have a Duke in the family now, one sympathetic to their plight. That can only help.”
Bellinda grunted. “I suppose. It just seems so unfair.” She had always feared that Annamarie and Lord Wexworth’s illicit relationship would be discovered, and at last it had. The previous summer the two were caught out by Lady Wexworth’s father while meeting at the stables at Pelham House. They could not explain away the circumstances and scandal soon followed.
The majority of the blame had fallen on poor Annamarie, with none of the public blame falling on Wexworth. To his credit, he stood by her and proclaimed her his true love to anyone who cared to listen. This, of course, only made things worse. A divorce was put in motion only to have to be set aside when Lady Wexworth found herself pregnant with their seventh child.
“If only Lady Wexworth had not fallen pregnant again. They could have gotten a divorce.”
Bellinda shook her head. “That might have ended Wexworth’s marriage, but he would not have been able to marry Annamarie. At least this way, they can. Still, it is such a tragedy for all involved. Especially the children.”
Lady Wexworth, who left the marital home upon the discovery of the affair, had returned to her parents’ home only to tragically pass away while giving birth to her stillborn son, their first. The boy, had he lived, would have been the heir Wexworth had so longed for, but it was not to be.
“At least now they have a chance to marry and perhaps he will have an heir yet.”
“Perhaps.” Bellinda shook her head. “One thing must be said. Despite it all, they have stood by one another. They are truly dedicated to each other.”
Octavius nodded and reached for her hand. “They are. Theirs is a union like ours, based on love and respect for one another. I see them happy together, once this scandal has passed.”
Suddenly, a thought came to Bellinda and she turned to her husband, clasping his hands.
“Promise me that when Lucinda grows up, we will let her choose her own mate. I do not care if she chooses a fisherman, I just want her to be happy.”
Octavius raised an eyebrow. “I had not considered being father-in-law to a fisherman, but very well. I suppose I’d get my cod for cheap.” He grew serious again. “I promise, she will have her own choice in a mate. It seems, so far all the ladies in the family have done well in choosing for themselves. My own wife included.”
Bellinda grinned from ear to ear. “Indeed, I have. To think I might be married to another is just unfathomable for me. All the brutes and rakes and dandies in London I could have ended up with…” She shook her head. “I was blessed to come here and find you.” She cupped his cheek with her gloved hand. “My one true love.”
“Mine,” he replied and leaned forward until his forehead was against hers. They sat that way for a moment until behind them a rush of footsteps announced the arrival of their children. Bellinda turned and waved as Lucinda, carrying her younger brother David, appeared on the steps, followed by James.
The three children were by their sides and in their arms within a moment.
“Mama, are there peppermint sticks?” She’d inherited a love of peppermint sticks from her grandmother.
“There are. But don’t have too many, you’ll upset your stomach,” Bellinda replied. Her daughter nodded and then rushed off, followed by James. David, only two years old, remained with them, laughing as he was being bounced on his father’s lap. As they watched their children, Bellinda rested her head on his shoulder.
“This is it, the purpose of my life,” he kissed her forehead gently. “You and my children, that is all I need to be happy.”
“And you will have us. Nothing and no one will ever part us. We are together, forever.”
With that, they sealed their happiness with a kiss before joining their friends and family on the lawn of their home, knowing that this, indeed, would be their lives—now and always.
Ah, before you go...
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