Four Years Later…
Ballyroyal flourished, without violence or upsetting the Irish pride. The political climate had eased, and the workers at Ballyroyal and Ballycrainn, the village beyond, had come to love and admire the new Duke and Duchess. Alicia was one of them, and though they did not know it, Jacob was more like them than they realized. It set a precedent, that the English and the Irish could be united. If Alicia could wed Jacob, and adore him, then their part of the world, at least, saw no reason not to follow suit.
Alicia waited at the window of the manor library, where she could more easily see the path leading up to the house. Jacob had been away for three weeks, and she missed him dearly. He had gone to London, to visit with friends from the Navy, and had taken his mother with him. The house had seemed woefully empty without him, though her father had made easy work of running Ballyroyal in his absence.
“I found this one running around in the stables, causing mayhem.” As if summoned, her father entered the library, clutching Alicia’s daughter in his arms. Sweet, perfect Claire had been born a year after their wedding and had brought untold joy into their lives.
“Grandpa!” The little girl giggled, making her fiery red ringlets bounce. She looked so very like Alicia, that she may have been a double of her mother.
Alicia shifted in the window nook, putting a hand to her swollen belly. “Come to me, little bird.” She held out her arms as her father let Claire loose, the tiny girl rushing straight into her mother’s embrace.
“How do you fare today?” her father asked, with a caring smile. He had softened a great deal since Claire had come into this world, finding a gentle quality in being a grandfather that Alicia had never known existed.
“I am awful tired. I think this one is going to be a pugilist, for certain.” She rubbed her stomach, smiling as the baby kicked against her hand.
“It’ll be a boy, you mark my words,” her father said.
“I do not mind what the child may be.” She smiled back at him.
Her father sighed, his expression saddening. “I only wish Adam were here to see his niece and whatever might be kicking at your stomach.”
“So do I.” After becoming a mother, she had found herself thinking of Adam more often. He would have made a wonderful uncle. If she closed her eyes, she could sometimes picture him running through the fields with Claire, making her laugh at the top of her lungs. There was nothing on God’s green Earth quite like Claire’s laugh. It could turn even the sourest of individuals into a grinning idiot, in no more than a minute.
“I went to speak to your ma today.” Her father crossed the room and sat on the spare seat of the window nook.
“I thought I saw you at the chapel,” Alicia replied. She had forced herself to take a walk that morning, fearing she was becoming more and more like a fattened heifer. She had spotted him in the small churchyard of the chapel, though she had not wanted to disturb him. It cheered her, somewhat, to know that her mother and father had been reunited in a small way. There were no more restrictions on her father visiting the mausoleum, and he went there most days.
“I think she’d be smiling right now, if she were here.” He smiled; his gaze faraway.
“I think Claire has her smile.” Alicia ruffled the hair of her beloved daughter, making the child squeal with glee.
Her father nodded. “Aye, she does that.”
Just then, she heard the sound of hooves approaching the house. Her head whipped around in time to see Jacob arriving on the back of his horse, with Tom astride a gelding beside him, and a carriage following behind.
“Come on, then. I expect you’ll be smothering that wretch in your kisses, eh?” Her father laughed and helped Alicia to her feet, keeping hold of her arm until they had exited the house. He liked to tease Jacob, and Alicia did not mind it. They might have healed the rift between their families, but that did not mean there could not be some humor at the expense of the Woodworth dynasty.
The moment Jacob clapped eyes on Alicia, he jumped down from his saddle and raced toward her. A second later, he scooped her up in his arms and swung her around as best he could, given her condition.
Setting her back down, he nuzzled into her neck and placed tender kisses there. She clung onto him, inhaling the scent of his travels to find the unique perfume beneath, that smelled only of him.
He pulled away and looked down at her, smiling from ear to ear. She met his gaze and grinned with every shred of happiness she possessed. She had missed him so very much, but she had not realized how intensely she had missed him until that moment, when she had him back in her embrace again.
“I love you.” He dipped his head and kissed her, as though they had been parted for a year, instead of three weeks.
“Not nearly as much as I love you,” she replied, between eager pecks.
He sank to his knees and pressed his ear to her pregnant stomach, his eyes turned up toward her. “And how is the little one?”
“Punching me in the gut, as you might expect.” She laughed and smoothed her hands through his hair.
“Now, you should not do that to your Mama.” Jacob turned and pressed his lips to her belly, making her laugh all the more at his soft scolding.
“Papa!” Claire careened out of the house and flung her arms around her father. He pulled the little girl into his chest and fell back onto the gravel, pretending as though she had knocked him down with her exuberance.
Alicia watched her dear husband kiss their daughter all over her cheeks and could not wipe the satisfied smirk from her face. Some mothers might have felt envious of having to share their husbands’ affection with their children, but Alicia was not one of those. It delighted her every time, to see the way Claire’s eyes shone at the mere sight of her father. Indeed, she knew her eyes shone similarly, whenever they looked upon Jacob.
“I knocked him down, Mama. Did you see?” Claire doubled over in hysterics, her laughter rippling through the air and making the manor appear to gleam in the most remarkable fashion.
“I did!” Alicia cried. “What a brute you are.” She gathered her daughter up and hugged her close, drinking in the sweet, soapy scent of her.
“Are you going away again?” Claire glanced at her father in sudden fear.
Jacob shook his head. “Oh no, my darlings. I will not be going away for a long time.”
“I am glad to hear it.” Alicia kissed him deeply, to the mortification of their daughter, who turned her nose up as though she had scented something foul.
“That’s improper!” Claire exclaimed, using a word she had clearly learned from the staff.
“Is it improper to kiss my dearest love?” Jacob kissed Alicia again, until Claire pushed their faces apart.
Alicia and Jacob beamed at each other.
“Why don’t you run inside and have the cook prepare some tea for us?” Alicia set Claire down.
Claire nodded eagerly. “Oh, yes. I will. I will ask for cake.”
“You do that, my sweet,” Alicia encouraged, as her daughter hurried back into the house, leaving Alicia and Jacob to have a moment for themselves.
“How are you, my love?” Jacob asked, interlacing his fingers with hers.
Alicia groaned. “Weary and fat.”
“Nonsense. You are not fat. You are radiant.”
“Pfft, you have to say that,” she remarked.
“No, I would never say anything I did not mean.”
“Anyway, how was London?” Alicia led him toward the house, while Tom took the horses away to be stabled. Jacob’s mother had yet to emerge, but she would do so in her own time. She was likely sleeping, after such a long journey.
Jacob rolled his eyes. “Full of noise and social occasions I did not care for.”
“Careful, my love, you are starting to sound like one of us,” Alicia teased.
“You ought not let my mother hear you say that, or she may have me shipped back there until I am fully re-educated.” Jacob nudged her gently in the arm.
“I missed you,” she said, lifting his hand to kiss it.
“Not nearly as much as I missed you,” he replied.
She arched an eyebrow at him. “Are you stealing my words now?”
“What can I say—I like them, and you, so much that I am starting to emulate you.”
As they entered the house, in pursuit of their daughter and the prospect of tea and cake, Alicia felt so completely happy that she thought she might burst. It had been a lengthy few weeks without Jacob, but now he was back, and their lives could return to blissful normality.
Four or so years ago, she would not have thought this could have been possible. All that had lain before her was misery and strife, with no hope of a way out. She had lost much, and she would never forget that, but being in this house, with Jacob, had gone a long way toward repairing all the scars that she had borne for most of her life.
Providence had smiled on her. She had always known that her dreams of something more—a life more worthy—had to mean something. And those dreams had transformed into reality, right in front of her eyes. She no longer had to worry or fret or wonder where the next meal might be coming from. In turn, she had made sure that no one in the village ever had cause to struggle. If they needed feeding, she fed them. If they needed debts paying, she paid them. If they needed a physician, she offered any payment required.
Some folks might have taken advantage, but no one took advantage of Alicia’s generosity. She had been part of them for so long, that even if they had wanted to take advantage, they would not have been able to pull the wool over her eyes.
To her mind, the only use in wealth was to share it. And she and Jacob had done so, to make reparations for all the suffering that had gone before. They were just and fair, and Ballyroyal had become, once again, the finest house in Northern Ireland. Not only because of its grandeur, but because of the honest hearts that beat within.
As long as Irish blood ran in the veins of this place, fortune and contentment would always make it gleam brighter than the rest.
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