Five Years Later...
Ruth sat outside of Goldclaw Manor with a letter in her hand when another carriage arrived. Most of the guests were already in the ballroom, dancing the minuet, the first dance of the night.
Soon, she too would rejoin the festivities. She was meant to play for their guests on the new pianoforte Kenneth had surprised her with for her birthday. She would gladly do so, just as soon as her heart stopped beating out of her chest.
She looked out over the beautiful grounds of the manor that was now her home and had been for five years. The ground was covered with thick, fresh snow. The scent of pine wavered through the air and soon, Kenneth, Jack, and their fathers would bring home the Christmas tree for the children to decorate. She loved this time of year. And yet, the melancholy in Ruth’s heart would not allow her to feel as easy as she normally would.
She unfolded the letter the messenger brought earlier that day again, canvassing the words before she set it down beside her. Perhaps a breeze would carry it away, and thus she’d never have to think of it again.
A shiver rushed through her body and she pulled her burgundy-colored redingote closer against her body. Her scar itched as it so often did in cold weather. She used her gloved hand to gently pat it when behind her someone cleared their throat.
“No scratching, lest I have to tie your hands together like I did when we were little.”
A smile appeared on her face as she dropped her hand.
“Sophia, I did not hear you at all. Come, sit by me.”
Sophia made her way around Ruth and sat with a thud, her stomach hovering before her like a fluffy pillow.
“Faith, let me tell you, this is the last time I am attending a ball this heavy with child. I ought to be in confinement already.”
Ruth grinned. Her sister was with her second child, due shortly after twelfth night.
“I am surprised Lady Caster did not lock you in the confinement chamber already,” she laughed and earned herself a roll of the eyes by her sister.
“The confinement chamber is not even ready yet. After Henry was born, Lord Caster turned it into a room for his indoor games. There is a chess table, a backgammon table, and several card tables. Yesterday, he hosted half the parish; they spent all night in there, gambling away their livelihoods.”
“I see. Is that where my husband was? I woke in the night and he was gone. I assumed he fell asleep tending to the children. He has a habit of taking Hector into the library to read to him before they inevitably all fall asleep in the armchair.”
Sophia let out a low groan, to which Ruth jumped up. “What is the matter? Shall I fetch Jack?”
Sophia waved her hand. “No, it is quite all right. The same happened when I was near the time with Henry. I cannot have Jack get as upset as he did then. As you recall, the physician had to leave my side to tend to Jack.”
Ruth chuckled at the memory. It was true. When Henry was born three years prior, Jack did not handle it well at all. According to Kenneth, he’d paced outside the confinement chamber and fretted until he passed out.
“I am only glad Kenneth handles childbirth so much better.”
“With three children, he ought to by now.”
Ruth grinned and leaned in closer. “Four, come summer.”
Sophia’s eyes grew wide. “You are with child again? Ruthie! What a delight.” She wrapped her arms around her sister, her stomach keeping them from hugging too closely. “Does Kenneth know?”
She shook her head. “Only you, and Lady Caster. Although I did not tell her. She guessed it.”
“She has a nose for it, I tell you.”
They smiled at one another. “Oh, Ruthie,” Sophia said as she rested her head on Ruth’s shoulder. “We are blessed.”
Ruth leaned her head against her sister. “I suppose.” She could not keep the melancholy out of her voice.
At once, Sophia sat up, her eyes wide with alarm. “What is the matter? Something is amiss.”
She swallowed, not sure if she ought to open old wounds.
These past few years she and Sophia had developed a habit they swore to never break: Tell each other the truth, even if it hurt. The agreement thus far served them well and helped heal what was broken between them.
Of course, Sophia falling in love and marrying Kenneth’s best friend only helped in their way back toward sisterly closeness.
Still, they had gone through dark times, and reconciliation was something they fought for long and hard. Now it was firmly established she didn’t want to risk damaging it. Alas, Sophia was relentless.
“Ruthie? What is it? You’re scaring me.”
“I received a letter. From Kenneth’s mother.”
Her sister’s mouth dropped open.
“Really? I cannot believe it.”
Ruth produced the missive and waved it in the air.
“What does it say?”
Ruth shrugged. “I shall tell you.” She unfolded the page and canvassed it. “She talks about Scotland and how much she misses England, how boring it is, and how much she despises her sister. Then she spends some time dealing in Spanish coins. Listen to what she wrote here. ‘I could not help but take note of the smashing success you have been in London and how popular you seem to be despite your shortcoming. Who would have thought? Had I only known; I would have done many a thing differently. The truth is, I am dreadfully lonely and miss my family. Although I know you may still hold a grudge over my actions so very long ago, I am in hopes you will speak to my son and convince him to allow me a return to Goldclaw Manor. Little Arthur, Lorelai, and Hector surely are in want of a grandmother. Whatever you decide, please do not tell my son I have written, for I fear he will be terribly cross with me'.”
Sophia sat there; her mouth agape. “The unmitigated gall to write such a letter. What will you do? You know as well as I that Kenneth does not wish to even hear her name spoken again.”
It was true, whenever the matter of his mother came up, Kenneth would turn red-faced and refuse to discuss her. She had, of course, sent him letters over the years as well, begging for his forgiveness. He had discarded them, just as he’d discarded the letters from his cousin. The chapter of his life involving his mother and Lord Cragshade - who now resided in Devon where he was on the hunt for a suitable, well-positioned wife - was closed. For good. The same was true for her father-in-law. The Duke, never happy in his marriage, was a different man now. All of his best qualities were magnified, and he was an attentive, loving grandfather to their three children. Having not just one but two grandsons greatly relieved his worry over the fate of the estate and seeing his only son happy allowed the Duke contentment he had never experienced before.
“Trust your instincts. They will not lead you astray,” Sophia advised.
A hint of melancholy washed over her sister's rounded face and Ruth clasped her hand.
“Should I not have shown it to you?”
“Of course, you should have. I want you to confide in me. I worked so hard to regain your trust. It is just that hearing from her reminds me of the mistakes I made. Those terrible mistakes.”
“It is long in the past now. All involved have paid their dues, the Duchess still does and always will. You have more than redeemed yourself, your charity work alone has proven so.”
“What of your good deed? Charlotte told me you and Kenneth are paying to send Molly Cavanaugh's son Cedric to the Royal Veterinary College?”
Ruth nodded. “Yes, ever since his mother was arrested and sentenced to her prison term, the boy has been working at the home of Kenneth’s sister. He is old enough now to make his own living and he requested assistance. It is not his fault his mother fell victim to the poison spread by the Duchess, and by society.”
They fell silent. Despite the Duchess’ words, her flattery was not entirely true. While Ruth found more acceptance in the high society than expected, the stares never stopped, neither did the whispers. Not a Season went by when she was not at least once called Lady of the Flames or an unkind comment was made either behind her back or even to her face.
And yet, she managed them well. Kenneth and his never-ending affection and support made sure she had the confidence needed to withstand these verbal assaults. And having her children further strengthened her confidence. The children didn't see her scar, they only saw their mother, the woman who loved them and kept them safe.
“... and if I eat another piece of minced pie, I shall simply burst. I will be bigger than my wife soon!” Jack’s voice came out of the hall behind them and a moment later, the man presented himself, accompanied by Kenneth.
They both looked exceedingly handsome this night, each dressed in a pair of buckskin trousers, brand new waistcoats, and tailcoats, along with cravats and top hats.
“I heard that,” Sophia said, pouting as if offended, although the sparkle in her eyes gave her away.
“Ah, did you now? I had best remain here for the rest of the evening, lest I am made to sleep in the drawing-room,” he chuckled.
“If you so much as attempt it, you know your mother will come and get you.”
Jack grimaced. “It is true. My mother has developed a fear of my missing this child’s birth accidentally again because she knows I am eager not to repeat past events.” He rushed around and placed an arm around Sophia. “Fear not, I shall be present - and conscious - throughout this time.”
“It is only luck that we are not allowed in the chamber while the child is born, otherwise I am sure I too would have fainted,” Kenneth said earnestly.
“Indeed. Now, what are the two of you doing out here for such a long time? You have missed all the excitement.”
Sophia and Ruth glanced at one another, each with a frown. Kenneth chuckled and shook his head.
“Your father has drawn attention to himself by dancing two dances in a row with Lady Loradale, the Dowager Countess of Wexworth.”
“Two dances?” Sophia exclaimed. “Papa hardly ever dances even one, and then it is only with a lady he knows well.”
“He is still dancing with her now if you’d like to see for yourself.” Jack motioned for the ballroom and Sophia rose with some difficulty.
“I shall! Ruthie, come, we must see this with our own eyes.”
Ruth hesitated for a moment, reaching for Kenneth’s hand. “I will join you in a moment, I would rather take the air for a little longer.”
Sophia smiled a knowing smile at her and set out for the stairs, huffing as she went. Jack, usually a jester, walked beside her, the love and tenderness for her sister evident in the way he watched Sophia’s every step with concern.
When the two were inside, Kenneth turned to her.
“Are you unwell, my love? I thought the sight of your father dancing would entertain you.”
“I am sure it will. Somehow, however, it also makes me feel a little sad. I wish my mother were here to dance with him. It seems odd to imagine him dancing with someone else.”
Kenneth took her arm.
“Walk with me a while.”
He indicated with his chin toward the lake and they went down the path together.
“You know, he is not all that old a fellow, your father. And he is quite handsome still, and entertaining.”
“That is quite the ringing commendation,” she said in reply, knowing what he was attempting to say.
“It would not be a terrible thing if he found love again, would it?”
She shrugged. “I suppose not. Although I always thought if anyone found love, it might be your father.”
“He might yet, although I venture to say he enjoys his freedom too much, and anyhow, my mother is alive. He will never see her again, and neither will I, but she is alive, thus preventing him ever truly moving on. Now, if I were to place a wager, I’d say it is the Duke of Twilightfare who might find himself with a companion once more. And why not? Your mother will always be his true love.”
“I suppose one never knows when one might find love again,” she said and looked out at the lake where two swans swam in a circle. The lonesome male swan had been alone for two years after the events of that fateful summer, the cygnets grew up and flew south, and then one day, out of the blue, another female swan appeared and had been there ever since. Yes, love it seemed could find you when you least expected it.
She glanced up at the man who’d taught her that lesson beautifully.
“Kenneth… There is something I must tell you. I’ve had a letter. From…”
“My mother. I know.”
She frowned. “But how?”
He sighed. “She sent a letter to me, as well. In it, she said she was writing to you too.”
Ruth’s nostrils flared. “In her letter to me, she asked me not to tell you that she was writing to me. It was a test, was it not? To see if I would tell you about it.”
He nodded. “She has not changed. Even after all of these years, she is trying to prove her point. It does not matter. We will burn her letters tonight before I put out the fire in our chamber. She will not ruin our happiness.”
He turned to her and took her hands. “Nothing and nobody will ruin our happiness. Least of all, her. I promise you that.”
“I know, nothing ever will come between us. We will not allow it. Kenneth, I want you to know that you've made me the happiest woman in all of Portsmouth; in all of England. I will cherish and love you for all of my days.”
He ran the back of his finger over her scar and leaned forward to kiss her forehead.
“I love you, Ruthie. You and our children are all I need to be happy.”
She broke into a wide grin then and looked up and him.
“Well, in that case, there is something else I need to tell you about.” She took his hand and as she placed it on her as yet flat stomach, she watched as understanding filled his beautiful eyes and within a moment, he lifted her off the ground and spun her through the air.
When he sat her down, she wrapped her arms around him, and they stood together as the music drifted from the manor. Ruth closed her eyes then and smiled knowing that this was truly her perfectly imperfect life. She’d found her happiness at his side, and nobody would ever take it away again.
Ah, before you go...
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