Seven Years Later
Selina sat at the vanity in her bedchamber in Langley Hall while Anna inserted the last few pins in her hair. Despite the early hour, a warm breeze blew through the window and promised another sweltering day.
“Has my husband returned from his ride?” she asked, as she stood and stretched.
“No, my Lady,” Anna said.
“That means they have been lured into the stream again,” Selina said. “I am not sure which one of them is the corrupting influence.”
“No, my Lady, I imagine not,” Anna smiled. “Will there be anything else?”
“No, Anna, thank you.”
She stood at the window for a moment and looked to the trail through the woods. She could just see a horse and pony emerging from the trees, and she hurried downstairs.
Langley Hall was a hive of activity as Williams directed servants with flower arraignments, extra chairs, and fresh linens, to various spots in the house. Not wanting to be pulled into the fray, Selina waited until Williams had his back to her before hurrying down the stair and out the side door.
She breathed in the fragrance of the garden as she made her way toward the stables, where she found her husband and their son, both showing signs of a dip in the stream.
“David?” Selina said, her hands on her hips and a stern expression on her face. “Did you let your father wade in the stream again?”
“Well, Mother,” he said, trying to sound adult. “We had to stop because my pony was getting too warm. Then somehow, I found myself in the water.” He raised his hands in the air to signify his confusion.
“It really is a mystery,” Elias said as he followed his young son toward the garden. “Are you terribly upset, My Lady?”
Selina laughed. “I am just happy you have found a suitable playfellow, my dear,” she said. “I do hope you dry before our guests arrive.”
David reached out his hand to his mother. “Is the ball today?” he asked.
“No, it is tomorrow, but some of our guests are coming today so they will be ready for the party.”
He nodded his approval. “Are Grandmamma and Grandpapa coming?” he asked.
Selina waited for Elias to answer. “Not this time,” he answered.
It had been seven years since Elias’ parents had left Langley Hall in favor of the Norwich estate. The Duchess had explained to various members of Berkshire society that, with Elias marriage, it was time to allow the younger generation to take over. They retained their titles, and they visited occasionally, but Langley Hall was no longer their home.
In truth, Langley Hall had come to represent everything that had gone wrong, and the Duke and Duchess wanted a chance to make things right. While those outside the family only knew that Lord Lonsdale had gone mad and threatened the safety of those in his care, the motives for his behavior had been kept private.
The Duke had been shocked to learn of his wife’s indiscretion, but he did not lay the blame entirely at her feet. He took responsibility for her loneliness. In a way, he had betrayed their marriage. His mistress had been the estates and the constant demand they could place on his time if he so desired. Moving to Norwich offered them a chance to begin again.
At least once a year, the Duke and Duchess returned to Langley Hall to visit, but the Summer Solstice Ball could not tempt them. While that had been the beginning for Selina and Elias, it had been the end of so many things for the Duke and Duchess. Anything that had involved Lord Lonsdale was something they avoided.
Elias took Selina’s hand as they followed their son, who ran in zigzags before them.
“My heart longs to enjoy the sunshine with you, but my head reminds me of the pile of work awaiting me.” He stopped and kissed her palm. “Would you forgive me if I answered a bit of correspondence this morning so I can enjoy the rest of the day with you?”
She folded her arms over her chest and pressed her lips together. “Are you asking me if I want to entertain our entire family alone this afternoon or entertain one demanding little gentleman alone now?”
David ran circles around them. “Am I the little gentleman?” he asked.
“It would seem that you are,” Elias said, kneeling before his son. “Can you look after your mother for me, keep her out of trouble?”
The little boy looked at his mother. “I do not know if I can,” he answered, “but I can try.”
“That is all I can do, as well,” Elias said, tapping his son on the nose.
He wrapped his arms around his wife, who was trying desperately to avoid laughing. “Do you mind, my love?”
“No. If I must spare you today, I would prefer to do so now,” she said, raising her chin to accept his kiss. “Besides, David owes me a game of hide and seek, so we have plenty to occupy our time.”
She counted aloud in the garden while her son climbed under the hydrangea bush behind her bench. Her mother disapproved of her role as playfellow for David. Lady Downe insisted on a governess, which was only right for a boy of David’s station, but Selina only delegated the tutoring to her. The rest of the time, her son could be found with her or with his father. Her mother insisted that she was spoiling the child, but her father secretly encouraged Selina when Lady Downe was not around.
After tea, David rested his head in his mother’s lap as she worked on her embroidery and Elias read a book, but he awoke abruptly when Williams announced the first of their guests.
“Lord and Lady Nidderdale,” Williams said, before stepping aside to allow Harry and Rebecca to enter. Their courtship had surprised everyone but Selina. Elias paid no attention to other people’s affairs of the heart, but Selina had taken great enjoyment in watching their feelings bloom. Harry was a good man, and Rebecca was exceedingly happy.
David clapped his hands as he ran to them. They visited often, and they were, by far, the boy’s favorite visitors. “Aunty Becca, Uncle Harry,” he bellowed, “what did you bring me?”
“David,” Selina said, “that is not proper.”
His lower lip quivered at her reprimand.
Harry knelt down to face him. “Your mother is right, but we did bring you something.”
“You spoil him, Cousin,” Elias said.
“Yes, is it not wonderful?” Harry said, laughing. He reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a wooden cylinder.
David’s little forehead wrinkled. “You brought me a big stick?”
“No,” Rebecca laughed. She took the toy from her husband and led David to the window. “Point this end toward the light and look through here.”
The boy did as he was told and gasped in astonishment. “Is it magic?” he asked without removing his gaze.
“No, it is science,” Harry told him. “It is a kaleidoscope. Marvelous, is it not?”
“Marvelous,” David repeated.
By that evening, the drawing room was full. Constance played the pianoforte while her husband James, the Earl of Euston, played whist with Rebecca, Marianne, and Richard.
David entertained his growing circle of cousins in the nursery under the watchful eye of Miss Grundy, his governess.
“Oh dear,” Rebecca laughed, “have you ever played whist before, Richard? I rather feel like we are taking advantage of you.”
“I have, but we do not play cards that often when we are in Florence. There are too many museums and theaters.”
“That is the life of a diplomat for you,” Harry teased. “You lose your knack for the finer skills in life.”
“Save my husband’s reputation,” Marianne teased, “and my chance at this game, Harry, by taking his place at the table.”
Richard quickly stood up from the table, “I would consider it a personal favor.”
“Then how can I refuse?” Harry bowed before sitting across from Marianne.
Selina stepped to the open doors that led to the garden, and she drifted among the flowers. She looked up into the speckled night sky and to the bright, round moon. She breathed in the fragrance of the honeysuckle as she listened to the happy murmur of the family inside.
“Is everything all right, my dear wife?” Elias asked, as he wrapped his arms around her waist.
She leaned into him and tried to hold on to the feeling of perfect bliss that pulsed through her.
“Everything is perfect,” she said.
Elias kissed her cheek before taking her hand and strolling through the moonlit garden.
The next evening, as Elias and Selina greeted their guests, David and the other children giggled at the top of the stairs as they watched the whole of Berkshire society file into the ballroom. Harry served as master of ceremonies, and moved easily throughout the room, making introductions between the young people in attendance.
As the last of their guests arrived, Selina could feel the nervous energy radiating from Elias.
“Calm down,” she whispered between greeting guests. She took his hand and squeezed it gently. “You have done this each year for the past nine years.”
“All the more reason to give someone else a chance,” he said, kissing the back of her hand. “It is selfish to seek the attention year in and year out.”
“Always so considerate, darling,” Selina laughed before turning her attention to the next guests, but as they entered the ballroom, she returned to their conversation. “Honestly, my dear, there is no one else to deliver the welcoming speech in your home.”
He put his hand on the small of her back and whispered, “It is your home, as well.”
She adjusted his lapel as she said, “Yes, it is…”
He kissed her temple. “I think it would a good tradition if you delivered the speech. The entire event only comes together thanks to your hard work.”
They continued to debate as they entered the ballroom. The large displays of flowers that outlined the room left no doubt as to the arrival of summer. Just as it had been under the careful eye of Her Grace, the Duchess of Langley, the Summer Solstice ball was the event of the Berkshire social season.
“What would people think if I spoke instead of you?” Selina whispered. “It has always been the role of the gentleman to greet his guests.”
Elias raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. “I just greeted all my guests at the door, my dear, you may remember that since you were there. I see no reason to do it again.”
“As you mentioned, I was there with you, so your argument is faulty,” she pointed out.
Selina loved the easy way she and Elias matched wits, but she knew this was not simply a game for him. Despite his poise and polish, he could be so shy with those outside the family. In direct conversations or small groups, Elias was at ease, but standing in the middle of the ballroom surround by their guests, he was terrified.
“What harm could it do to change this one tradition?”
She squeezed his arm. “The problem is that once you do this, it would have to continue. It would establish a new trend that our small society may not be ready for. What would they all think?”
Elias moved his lips to her ear, sending a shiver down her spine. “Since when have you been worried about the opinions of society, my lady?”
He made her sound far more scandalous than she was. She allowed herself to be governed by her own sense of morality, and she permitted the rest of society to make up their own minds without it bothering her for one moment. Still, it surprised her to hear Elias speak of it so openly.
She laughed out loud. “My Lord,” she gasped in mock offense. “I am a respectable woman, and I do not know what you are implying.”
Elias dropped the teasing tone and he spoke with sincerity. “Please, my love.”
She raised her eyes to his, and her defenses weakened. She squeezed his hand before making her way to the center of the dance floor.
The room grew silent in waves until everyone’s eyes were on Selina. “My husband, the Marquis of Northfolk, and I, would like to welcome you all to Langley Hall. As summer begins, and the meadows and fields of Berkshire burst into bloom, let us celebrate everything that binds us together as neighbors, friends, and family. We hope you all enjoy yourselves and thank you for being here.”
Applause rippled through the room, and the orchestra began to play as Elias made his way toward Selina.
“May I have your first dance, Lady Northfolk?” Elias asked, as her husband wrote his name across her dance card, filling each one for himself.
Selina curtsied. “You may have all the dances you wish, Lord Northfolk,” Selina said. “As the adults here, we make the rules!”
Ah, before you go...
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