Five Years Later
Laboriously, she climbed the hill, her breaths escaping in short, tense gasps. Each step was painful, each inhale sharp to her lungs.
“Are you well, darling?” Nicholas called out from beyond the treeline, watching her with concern as she made her way. Rose raised a hand to wave a heavily gloved hand from the top of the hill, her heart pounding. The snow falling over her face was a welcome reprieve from the intense heat she felt beneath her cloak.
I should not have come today, Rose thought to herself, but she shoved the thought aside, knowing that remaining home was not an option. A tradition was tradition and she would not put a damper on things, especially when she heard Harry squealing as if he was a boy of four.
“Wee!” he screeched, the toboggan flying down the hill, landing the teen into an unceremonious pile at the bottom. He barely had time to move when his sister toppled beside him, giggling ridiculously.
They rose to brush the snow from their clothes and Rose was struck by how wonderfully they had matured. She would not have known them as the same children who had once followed at her skirt hem through the walls of Rosecliff, deigning for her attention and pleading for her hike up to the dales and over the bluffs.
They are truly Lord and Lady Arlington now, she realized, emotion swelling in her windpipe. How could they have grown so quickly?
“Why do you seem so forlorn?” Nicholas asked, appearing at her side and she whirled about in panic.
“Where is – ”
“He is with his cousins,” the duke replied softly, smiling at her worried face. “You needn’t worry about Charles.”
She nodded slowly, her eyes resting on the toddling boy, half consumed by the fresh snow as he jostled toward the Arlingtons. She watched as Betsey extended a hand toward him and Rose’s young son grasped it eagerly, turning his wide green eyes to stare at her admiringly.
“He reminds me so much of your father,” Rose heard herself murmur.
“Does he? Why is it that I think of you when he refuses to eat his greens?”
Rose laughed, her open mouth catching a snowflake and she peered up at the darkening sky.
“More snow,” she murmured. “It has been a winter like…”
She wished she had not started to say what she was thinking but Nicholas only smiled kindly at her.
“It is all the better for sledding,” he reminded her, clasping her hand. “Come, my sweet wife, I believe you have had your fill of the cold.”
“I only just arrived!” Rose protested but was secretly pleased with the suggestion. It was not that she was cold but uncomfortable.
Does this winter remind me of that one? She wondered.
“Come along,” he insisted, tugging on her arm. “Harry, Betsey, mind Charles while I return Rose to the estate.”
He did not need a response, knowing that his cousins would happily die for his son.
“That boy has them as trained as a show pony,” Nicholas chuckled.
“Perhaps I was incorrect,” Rose said as they slowly made their way back to the manor house, her steps small and measured.
“Perhaps it is not your father who Charles reminds me. Perhaps he takes more after you.”
Nicholas howled with the jest, guiding Rose back toward Rosecliff, his strong arm firmly on her back.
“Are you feeling unwell?” he asked quietly and she shook her head although it was not the truth.
“I am well,” she insisted, hearing the concern in his voice. It had not been an easy few months but she knew in her heart that all would fare as it was meant to be.
“Have you the strength to endure a small surprise?” he asked and she paused, her muton boots sinking into the snow.
“I am not certain,” she replied truthfully. “What have you in mind?”
There was a glint in Nicholas’ eye which told her she would, indeed, enjoy the surprise.
“You shall see.”
She allowed him to lead her toward the galley entrance but as she neared, she noticed a goat she did not immediately recognize lingering near the chickens.
“What is that beast doing?” she asked, a memory flashing through her mind quickly before it was gone. The grey nanny bleated mercilessly at the petrified fowl.
“Getting adjusted?” Nicholas suggested innocently and she eyed him as they approached.
“Dora!” she cried, suddenly realizing she knew the animal. The goat’s head rose and she glared balefully at the sound of her name. To Rose’s amazement, the animal instantly lost its nasty gaze as she identified her long-lost mistress.
She bound toward the couple in short, graceless bounds, her snorts growing excited. When she butted her head to Nicholas’ hip, the duke shooed her aside.
“I know you are beside yourself, goat,” Rose’s husband chuckled. “But you must be careful.”
Dora sneered hatefully at him and nuzzled Rose’s hand.
“Why is she here?” Rose asked, her eyes wide with amazement but fear replaced her awe in seconds. “What has happened to the Boyles?”
“We are here, child,” Bridget called, stepping from the back door to offer Rose a tender smile. Rose gaped at her.
Is this a dream? I have had such vivid, terrifying dreams as of late…
“You are here?” she whispered. “Truly?”
“It is truly us,” John confirmed, stepping out from behind his wife. Rose could not contain herself, thrusting her body into the outstretched arms of her friends, tears choking her beyond words.
“There, there,” Bridget cooed, embracing her tightly. “You must not cry.”
Yet Rose could not stop herself from sobbing as she permitted the warmth of Bridget’s body to envelope her. It had been five years since she had seen the Boyles, not since their visit at Christmas that terrible winter. They had been unable to attend hers and Nicholas’ wedding and before Rose could allot for a trip to Dartford, she had been with Charles.
When he was old enough to travel, Rose intended to take her son and meet the Boyles since they were unable to make the trip but life had issued her more news, making the journey impossible once more.
But now they are here. How? Why?
Terrible thoughts filled Rose’s mind as she considered why they might have relented and come after years of her pleadings.
“Are you unwell?” she gasped, pulling back to wipe the tears from her cheeks where they were freezing as they fell. “What has happened that you brought Dora here?”
The Boyles exchanged a look and Rose felt fear grip her heart.
Oh Lord, she prayed silently. We have been dealt enough darkness. Please do not take anyone else away from our family.
“Please!” Rose begged, looking at Nicholas who did not meet her eyes. “Do tell me what has happened. I cannot bear – “
“Rose, darling,” Nicholas told her softly. “You must not be so fatalistic all the time. Life is not always terrible.”
“He is right, child,” John agreed, chuckling. “Let us go inside and we will tell you how we have come to be here.”
“Please,” Rose whispered again, her eyes glistening with a set of fresh tears. “What has happened?”
“Nothing, child!” Bridget cried, exasperated. “Your Grace, she was never so…”
The older woman searched for the word which Nicholas happily supplied.
“I am not being dramatic!” Rose insisted, sniffling but she realized as they bantered about her, there was likely nothing worth worry.
“Come inside,” Nicholas urged and they followed him through, including Dora.
“Not you, small wench. Off with you now,” Nicholas chortled. Dora spat at him and Rose laughed through her tears. She had not been aware how much she had missed the surly creature.
They gathered in the galley, Rose perching on the edge of her seat with great distress.
“We shan’t keep you long,” Bridget told her, eyeing her with compassion. “You are peaked, you poor soul.”
“I am very well,” Rose protested. “And I will remain all night if only to catch up with you these past years.”
“Letters are not quite the same as seeing the face of someone you care for, are they?” John agreed and Rose nodded in agreement.
“We are inside and seated,” Rose insisted. “What has brought you to Buford if not illness?”
“I have invited the Boyles to come live with us,” Nicholas announced and Rose’s head snapped so quickly to the side, she nearly injured herself.
“You what?” she gasped. “For how long?”
“For as long as they wish to stay. There is a cottage off the barn which was once used to house the coachman, but they have since moved inside the estate. It will be fitting once it has been finished being repaired.”
Rose blinked, uncomprehendingly.
“Why?” she asked slowly. “What came of the farm?”
Smiles faded around the table and Rose realized that the Boyles must have been vacated from their land. She felt sick and furious.
“It was time to find someone else to tend the property,” Bridget offered smoothly. “Our old hands can only do so much.”
Rose stared at her husband, unsure of how he had come to know about the Boyle’s situation.
Has he been writing them too?
The realization that her husband had been corresponding with the Boyles without her knowledge only filled her heart with more gratitude and love for Nicholas.
There was not a day which went by that the man did not surprise her, not a moment when she forgot that he was everything she had ever wanted in her life.
Rose looked at her husband and he nodded slightly as if he understood her joy.
“Rose, you seem off-put by the news,” John commented. “We need not stay – “
“Nonsense!” she cried, leaping from the table. “I could not be happier that you have come here and with what timing!”
The Boyles beamed as their eyes travelled to her swollen belly, poorly masked beneath the black cloth of her cloak. Instinctively, Rose touched the bump, a knowing smile on her face.
It had been a trying pregnancy, one filled with uncertainty but they were at the end now. Rose was certain this would be a girl, a sister for Charles to protect and teach.
The Boyles will be the grandparents I never had. My family is complete now, Rose thought, her heart welling with love.
“We wished to be here for the birth of your second child,” Bridget agreed. “I am glad we were not too late.”
A strange look crossed over Rose’s face and she reached out to grab for the chair to steady herself.
“Rose?” Bridget called. “Are you all right?”
She looked up, meeting Nicholas’ eyes and a grin swept across his dapper face.
“You were not too late,” the duke cried. “But only by a moment! Call for the midwife. Our baby is coming.”
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