Vivien, Duchess of Heartwick, coaxed her white mare Rosemarie along the new road, which ran alongside the moors and connected the estate of Heartwick and the surrounding villages more efficiently than ever before. The crisp wind of Autumn ruffled her curls and swept over her riding habit, gently plucking at the fabric. Despite having been married to Gerard for two years and living on Heartwick for that long, Vivien never tired of the first, gentle hint of the colder seasons.
The clopping of hooves heralded Gerard’s arrival behind her. He brought his black stallion, a new addition to the Heartwick stables, alongside her. “We could wait here for Lady Isadora if you like,” Gerard said.
Vivien drew in a low breath, considering. She flashed him a quick smile. “No, I am quite certain Lady Isadora can find her own way to Heartwick, and besides, I’m about to lose your undivided attention for the next month.”
Vivien nodded and grinned. “So I want to cherish every moment of your time that I have until our guests arrive, if you’ll indulge me.”
He leaned across the space between them and planted a sweet, lingering kiss on Vivien’s lips. She inhaled the briskness of the autumnal moors and the spicy scent of him. A pleasant jolt of lightning raced and crackled along the curve of her spine, accompanied by a feeling of such bliss that she could still scarcely believe any Duchess could love her Duke so fiercely.
Gerard tipped his head back just a little, but he still remained quite close. Vivien felt her face warm. She never tired of the way Gerard looked at her and of the glowing feeling that spread through her and down to her very core when they gazed at one another. “I think I have more reason to complain about not having you all to myself than you do for not having me to yourself.”
Vivien let out a small laugh. “I will admit that my parents do tend to have a monopoly on my time. Can you blame them?”
“I don’t. Not at all,” Gerard replied. “On the contrary, I delight in the way they dote over you. Before you came into their life, I can scarcely recall them looking so happy. It is as if you’ve breathed new life into them.”
“And they’ve breathed new life into me,” Vivien replied, tracing a thumb over the etching on her pendant. “I never thought I’d find them, and although it’s been years now, it still feels like some wonderful dream. Sometimes, I fear that I’ll wake up and learn it was all just a fantasy.”
“That will never happen, Vivien,” Gerard said tenderly. “Your parents and I will be here for you. Forever.”
A rosy glow came to Vivien’s face. “I know,” she replied.
Gerard gave her a dashing smile and turned his horse towards the manor. Vivien followed his lead. Heartwick was presently brilliantly green, but in a few short weeks, Vivien knew the trees and gardens would be draped in the red, orange, and gold of autumn.
Vivien considered Gerard for a moment. “Gerard,” she said suddenly. “I wondered if…”
He raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”
Vivien drew in a steadying breath. “I think sometimes about the Dowager Duchess and Lord Samuel, and I wonder if it is difficult for you, knowing what you do. And if my parents’ presence at Heartwick…”
Gerard shook his head. “I don’t begrudge you for having parents who dote over you,” he replied warmly. “I am happy beyond words that you’ve found the Duke and Duchess of Brittlemore.”
“I know you’re happy, but that does not mean that your own heart does not ache for what you’ve lost.”
“I won’t deny it, but Samuel and I were never as close as brothers ought to be. And Her Grace did not have my trust after what she tried to arrange between Lady Isadora and me. It does hurt, but not nearly as badly as you may think. I’m happy that justice was served, and they’ve been imprisoned for their crimes.”
Vivien nodded and pursed her coral lips together. As they approached the stables, she straightened a little. The Duchess of Brittlemore, Vivien’s own mother, waited at the stables for them, as if Her Grace simply couldn’t bear to miss the instant her daughter returned to Heartwick.
“And besides,” Gerard continued. “I could forgive any slight directed towards myself. But never one levied towards you, my dearest.”
“You always put me before yourself,” Vivien noted.
“As I should,” Gerard replied.
They halted, and Vivien had barely dismounted before the Duchess of Brittlemore enveloped her into a tight embrace. Vivien sighed contentedly and tilted her head to place a light kiss on her mother’s cheek, a gesture which was quickly returned. “My dear girl,” the Duchess said. “It feels like I’ve not seen you in an eternity.”
It had only been a month before, but Vivien understood. After missing one another for so long, it still seemed as if they’d spent very little time with one another.
“You look well, Your Grace,” Vivien said, beaming at her mother.
And indeed, the Duchess did. The past two years had been kind to her. A rosy glow returned to her skin, the dark circles vanished from her eyes, and she exuded a newfound energy. The Duke exhibited a rather similar transformation. It was as if he and his wife had been reinvigorated through the power of hope alone.
The Duchesses walked arm and arm together towards the grand manor. Gerard followed at a distance, and Vivien knew that was his way of affording herself and her mother some privacy without awkwardly excusing himself. He was respectful in that way.
“So,” the Duchess said, “How are the horses? I know you’ve just recently purchased a couple of mares.”
“We have,” Vivien replied, lowering her voice conspiratorially. “My husband may yet grow weary of my love for them. I have made something of a habit of desiring horses which I find handsome or aesthetically pleasing, to the dismay of His Grace, who is concerned at all times with profitability.”
“I don’t imagine you vex him overly with the habit,” Her Grace replied, her eyes sparkling. “There are certainly worse ones which a Duchess might undertake.”
Carriage wheels and horse hooves clattered along the nearby wood, and Vivien grinned widely. It looked like Lady Isadora had arrived. Vivien’s heart leaped. By the time Vivien and her mother reached the front of the manor, Lady Isadora had already emerged from her carriage. She smiled brilliantly, as beautiful as ever. “Your Graces!”
Vivien hugged Lady Isadora and held her tightly. “It’s so wonderful to see you,” Vivien said, once they had parted.
“And you,” Lady Isadora replied. “Look at you! I’ve never seen a more charming Duchess in all my days, except—perhaps—for the Duchess of Brittlemore, of course.”
The Duchess chuckled, her lips twitching upwards in amusement.
“It’s a pleasure to see you, Your Grace,” Lady Isadora said to the Duchess of Brittlemore.
“Likewise,” the Duchess of Brittlemore replied.
“And Your Grace,” Lady Isadora said, turning her attention to Gerard as he joined them properly.
“Lady Isadora,” he replied, inclining his head.
“Well, it seems this is everyone,” Her Grace said. “Shall we find my husband now?”
The group turned towards the manor. Lady Isadora linked her arm through Vivien’s left arm, while the Duchess took her daughter’s right. Vivien gave Gerard a quick glance and was rewarded with a warm, fond smile.
“How is London?” Vivien asked.
Lady Isadora smiled. “Well, it’s London. It’s really quite strange when I think about it. The city seems always changing but also as though it’s frozen in time.”
“Maybe the city doesn’t change. Perhaps it is the people who do,” Vivien offered.
“Oh, I do miss how quick you are with replies,” Lady Isadora said. “What a thoughtful response and certainly true if we’re thinking of you.”
“And His Grace,” Vivien said.
“Me?” Gerard asked. “I don’t know that I’ve changed very much at all.”
Vivien glanced askance at him, watching him with her dark, bird-like eyes. “You have not changed enough to see it yourself, but I do. And I love you for who you are and who you will be.”
“How can you know you’ll like who I am to be, if I’m doomed to change?” Gerard asked.
“I’ve been right for this long,” Vivien replied. “I don’t see why I should be wrong now. And besides, we still admire weeping willows whether the tree is a mere sapling or fully grown.”
“Just so,” Gerard replied.
They entered the manor, and there was a flurry of activity as the staff hastened to help the ladies in removing their light wraps. Gerard led their way to the drawing room he most often reserved for guests and where the Duke of Brittlemore presently sat.
Seeing them, Vivien’s father rose, and she stepped forward. They embraced, and as Vivien relaxed into his arms, she wondered if she would ever tire of being embraced so often and so warmly. At the moment, it seemed impossible to think so.
“Hello, my dear daughter,” her father said, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “How have you been?”
“I’m well,” Vivien replied. “How are you?”
“Well, also. But I’m always brightened by your presence,” the Duke said.
Taking her hand, Vivien’s father led her to a loveseat, where she sat. The Duke and Duchess of Brittlemore seated themselves with her. Gerard and Lady Isadora both took empty chairs. Between them, a table already hosted a tea tray filled with tea and muffins.
“I didn’t ask for anyone to bring tea,” the Duke said. “The housemaid did it seemingly of her own accord.”
Gerard smiled. “I had assumed you’d be famished after the ride here, so I had my staff prepare a late tea for us.”
“I certainly will not complain,” Lady Isadora declared, taking the delicate saucer and cup of tea in hand.
“Nor will I,” the Duke said. “I find it admirable, on the contrary, how thoughtful and considerate Heartwick is to his wife’s parents.”
“I hope you’re not surprised by my behavior,” Gerard replied mischievously. “After all, I’ve been quite fond of you for many years, even before I met my lovely Duchess.”
“That is true,” the Duke of Brittlemore conceded.
“So it would be unreasonable for my views to change so suddenly now,” Gerard added. “Besides, I’ve gained enough wisdom to know that I ought to please my wife in all things, including in my treatment of her parents.”
“It is beneficial to please Vivien, especially in all things,” Lady Isadora said slyly. “You ought to always please those who are sharp with words.”
“You make me sound dreadful,” Vivien replied, although teasingly.
“I’m quoting an Italian poet of whom I’ve developed a recent fondness for,” Lady Isadora replied.
Emma, the maid, handed Vivien her tea. The scent of honey and mint lingered in the air. “I thought you preferred French novels,” Vivien said.
“Well, I did,” Lady Isadora replied.
“But…?” the Duchess of Brittlemore asked, arching an eyebrow.
“I might have developed an interest in a certain Earl’s son,” Lady Isadora said. “And he thought I might enjoy a taste of something different. He was right.”
“Congratulations,” the Duke of Brittlemore said. “Does he return your affections?”
“I think so,” Lady Isadora said, her eyes shining.
“So when will we learn this charming lord’s name?” Vivien asked.
Lady Isadora laughed. “During the Season, of course! Assuming you’ll be there?”
“We wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Gerard replied.
Vivien nodded and sipped her tea, fondness blossoming in her breast like a summer rose. She sat in a beautiful drawing room across from her compassionate, doting husband, beside her loving long-lost parents, and with Lady Isadora, the Lady whom Vivien still adored and respected above all others. And Vivien was a peer now, a member of the ton. She was one of them, their equal. Vivien had the love of her life and her family, and she’d never been happier.
One last thing before you go!
I am now on Bookbub so don't forget to follow me there, for new releases and updates! ♥