Two Years Later
Arabella couldn’t stop fluffing pillows, smoothing sheets, and looking for any specks of dust on the furniture. Her mother and father were arriving today, and Arabella needed everything to be perfect. Justin insisted it was broody behaviour since she was pregnant again, but she knew it was the worry of what her mother would think about her home. The princess was used to opulence in everything, be it clothing, furniture, linen, food, or house, but Arabella could never recreate the luxuries of the palace. All she could do was try her best and hope that her parents would love her home.
Trailing her hand along the back of a chaise longue, Arabella considered moving it into her parents’ room. It was one of the house’s most beautiful pieces of furniture and wasn’t used as much as the other chairs. Whenever she and Justin sat in the parlour, they tended to gravitate towards their favourite chairs and left the others largely untouched. Would Justin mind? Arabella didn’t think he would, but she decided it was better to ask him.
Waddling out of their private parlour, she called out to him, pausing when she heard a baby’s squeal of laughter. Arabella grinned, knowing precisely where her husband and son were. The drawing room had the biggest expanse of floor and was often used as a play area for Justin and their son whenever the weather proved testy. The two loved rolling around, racing each other on their knees since Alexander was not steady enough yet on his feet, and playing fetch with the dogs. Arabella hadn’t been too keen on the latter bit because she worried that the dogs might get too excited and hurt Alex, but the little boy adored them, and the pets appeared to adore him as well. They were much gentler when with him and often fell asleep with Alex on the floor.
Judging by the noise coming from the drawing room, all six of their dogs were inside. Why did Justin choose today of all days to have the dogs inside? They were probably wet from the rain and were making a mess inside. Planting her hands on her hips, Arabella marched to the door and pushed it open. Sure enough, everyone was enjoying themselves on her freshly washed floor. She didn’t make a sound as she stood by the door, but the dogs must have smelt her because they immediately paused what they were doing and sat on their bottoms, wagging their tails like good pets.
“Don’t think I do not know what you were doing,” she told them, wagging her finger.
“Mama!” came Alex’s voice before he started crawling towards her.
Arabella could not bend and grab anything off the floor anymore as her belly was too big, so Justin scooped up their son and brought him to her, gently depositing the excited boy into her waiting arms.
“Why are you still on your feet, my love?” said Justin before laying a soft kiss on her lips. “You were supposed to be in bed with your feet up.”
“I know, but I couldn’t help but make sure that everything is perfect for Maman and Baba’s arrival. Speaking of which, do you think we should move the deep purple chaise longue into their room? I thought Maman might appreciate it since we do not use it.”
“We are not moving another piece of furniture around, Arabella. We have done enough for your parents’ room and for the house itself. I’m sure she will love our home.”
Alex grabbed the necklace around her neck and tried to put it into his mouth, but Justin immediately held a toy in front of his son’s face to catch his attention. The little boy discarded Arabella’s necklace and focused on the toy instead, making little noises at the inanimate object.
“I hope so, Justin. You know that my mother has never known anything different from what the palace offers and might insist this house isn’t good enough for us. However, I love our home, and while it’s no palace, it’s certainly beautiful and grand by English measures.”
The Pembroke Estate was likely the jewel of the countryside. It boasted sprawling land of meadows, forest, and farms, had its own river teeming with fish that Justin often fished for their dinner, and right in the middle, stood Pembroke Hall in all its glory. The house had five floors, forty rooms, a grand banquet hall used for dinner parties, and a ballroom large enough to host a ball for five hundred guests. Three kitchens with six chefs, over fifty servants, and a beautiful garden to rival the one in India was just a few more features of the beautiful place Arabella was glad to call home. She had immediately fallen in love with it when Justin had brought her here for their honeymoon and declared it their home. Balfour Manor was still home in London, but Pembroke Hall was where Arabella felt like she belonged.
“She’ll love it, my love,” Justin assured. “Trust me. Are Cathy and Will still coming next week? I know that you were unsure if they could make it.”
The couple were travelling all over England after receiving a generous sum of money from her grandfather. The man had been horrified to find out what had happened to his granddaughter and had given the couple high praise for rescuing her and helping her in a foreign land. The stern man had wanted Arabella to come home, but she had sent a written letter explaining that she was home. Arabella had a feeling her mother would have a few things to tell her on behalf of the emperor, and most of it would probably be an appeal for her to return to India with her husband and child. The man was clearly missing her, although he might not admit it.
“I received a short letter this morning that they would love to come and spend a few weeks with us,” she replied. “They had thought to spend it in London but decided that the town would be too crowded with people either attending the London Season or Parliament. That works in our favour because they have promised to spend most of their spring and part of the summer with us.”
Justin looked relieved, his tension visibly easing. Had he been so worried that they wouldn’t come?
“Are you missing them?” she asked.
“Somewhat. Why don’t we see about having lunch? I don’t want my baby to starve.”
“I eat far too much to starve this baby or myself. Did you not see how much I ate at breakfast?”
Arabella had a weakness for puddings and cakes and had gorged herself silly on brioche slathered with butter and blackberry jam and plum pudding, all washed down with hot chocolate.
“You’re eating for two, and you could have stood to have one more slice of cake.”
“Not at all, my love. How is the next Balfour doing?”
Justin rubbed her belly, laughing when the baby decided to kick. He pulled his hand away, revealing a clear outline of a foot.
“Something tells me that we’re having a girl this time,” he commented. “Alex was never this active.”
“I think you’re right because this pregnancy certainly feels different. I’m glad Maman will be here for the birth of our second child.”
Her parents planned to stay for several months to a year, but Arabella hoped it would be longer than that, which was why it was imperative that her mother loved the house. Arabella knew that her father would because it was the quintessential English manor, but there was no telling what her mother would think.
“I can see you’re still fretting about your mother’s opinion,” said Justin. “What can I do to ease your mind?”
“Continue to be the loving husband and father you are,” she said without hesitation.
“That’s a given. Why don’t we have a picnic instead? Priti can speak with the chefs about putting a basket together, and I’ll ask Suleman to pick a good spot on the lawn. He is excellent at that sort of thing.”
“But it was raining outside moments ago, so everything will be wet.”
“You’re right, I forgot. Then we can have it inside in our parlour.”
“An indoor picnic?” she asked, thinking about it. “That sounds lovely. You speak to the servants while I take Alex to get clean. We can’t have him eating with dog slobber all over him.”
Justin claimed another kiss before they parted ways, coming back together once the picnic had been set up. They were no sooner starting when Arabella heard a carriage draw up to the front of the house. Her parents were finally here!
Justin was beginning to doubt that he could pull off his surprise. Arabella was more suspicious than usual, Cathy kept hinting at the ceremony, and the princess wanted to make everything more extravagant than it needed to be. The only two supportive people were the Baron and Will.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” Justin told the men as they sat in the drawing room. “I’m worried Arabella will find out about the ceremony before time.”
“It’s just one more day,” the Baron encouraged. “My wife is a tad meddlesome because she missed the first wedding and wants to be part of this one.”
“Cathy has difficulty keeping secrets,” Will said with a shrug. “She’s done pretty well so far.”
The men were simply telling Justin about his problems and not giving him solutions. He still hadn’t worked out how he would get Arabella to wear the outfit he had asked his mother-in-law to bring with her. Arabella never had the opportunity to wear any of her cultural wedding attire, so he had written to the princess months ago and asked her to bring the traditional outfits Arabella would have worn if they had married in India. When Arabella fell pregnant, Justin had known that the attire would not fit her, but it was already too late to do anything about it. However, to his amazement, his mother-in-law had thoughtfully brought outfits in assorted sizes as she was not certain how small or big her daughter might be. Justin would have never thought so far ahead, so he guessed it was a woman thing to be prepared.
“My parents should be arriving tomorrow as well, which is cutting it rather close considering that the ceremony will be held mid-morning.”
The Duke and Duchess had finally come around to accepting their mixed-race daughter-in-law, particularly when they came to meet their newborn grandson. Justin knew they had been afraid the child would come out with dark skin or non-European features, but Alexander looked a lot like him and had his mother’s eyes and long eyelashes. Of course, there was no telling how their next child would look, but Justin didn’t care if the child took after his side or Arabella’s Eastern side. He would love him or her regardless of appearance.
“I’m confident all will go well, Justin,” the Baron assured him. “You have planned this anniversary ceremony with precision and taken everything into consideration. No one could have planned it any better. I know my daughter will be delighted.”
That’s what Justin was counting on. “I’ll take your word for it.”
Justin hoped and prayed that all would go perfectly tomorrow. His wife deserved to have a beautiful day with everyone who loved her, and while it was his day as well since it was their second anniversary, his hope was all for her.
The next morning, Justin found that keeping Arabella away from the garden was proving problematic. His wife loved to take a morning walk and usually inspected the flowers for pests and disease before coming inside for her morning tea. This time, he had asked her mother to keep her inside while he helped the servants prepare the garden for the ceremony. There would be no vicar as it was merely a renewal of vows, but Justin still wanted the ceremony and celebratory meal to feel like a wedding.
He walked back into the house and nearly jumped out of his skin when Arabella appeared out of nowhere.
She jerked a little and quickly narrowed her eyes. “What is going on? Why are you so jumpy?”
“Jumpy? I do not know what you mean. Where is your mother?”
“I’m right here,” said his breathless mother-in-law. “You move quickly for a pregnant woman, azizam. I thought we were still discussing the plans you had for the nursery.”
When Arabella crossed her arms over her chest, Justin knew that his surprise was in danger of falling apart.
“Something doesn’t feel right,” his wife said, staring between him and her mother. “You’re hiding something from me, aren’t you? I can feel it in my very bones! What is it? Is something wrong? Did something happen?”
“Nothing like that, my love. Why are you so suspicious?”
“You’ve all been acting strangely for the past week,” Arabella declared. “Whenever I ask what is wrong, you all give me the same answer. I’m pregnant, not a fool.”
“No one said you were, azizam,” her mother soothed. “You’re a pregnant woman with heightened senses, you see. Everything might seem suspicious to you, but it’s nothing. I brought a few lovely clothes I would like you to try on, jewellery as well. Your grandfather would have sent a ship filled with gifts if I did not convince him to keep the rest for your eventual visit to India. Will you come with me? There are all sorts of things for you to try on–shalwars, dhiljas, garanas, churidars, lehengas… not to mention all the earrings, bangles, belts, anklets and nose jewellery just waiting for you.”
Arabella’s eyes lit up. “Will there be anything in my size?”
“Of course, azizam. I have come prepared. Come with me, and we can choose which ones look best. Perhaps you can wear one today.”
Justin’s mother-in-law led her daughter away, helping her up the stairs. He let go of a breath he hadn’t known he had been holding and went in search of Suleman. There was a problem with the area where he and Arabella would stand before the guests, and he needed it sorted before the ceremony, which was due to start in under two hours. Justin also had a traditional outfit to wear and wanted to soak in a tub of hot water to remove all the grime he had collected while running around and making sure everything was perfect. There was no use in having a beautiful ceremony when the groom was not looking his best.
After briefly speaking to Suleman, Justin arranged for a bath to be drawn and his traditional attire laid on the bed. That, too, had been a gift from the emperor, including the new turban. Justin couldn’t wait to stand beside his wife and pledge to love each other all over again.
Arabella was now confident that something was going on when her mother insisted that she be pampered before convincing her to wear an elaborate lehenga and plaiting flowers through her hair. This was something usually done at wedding ceremonies, not for a typical day like today. Not unless her mother was thinking about her anniversary. Arabella and Justin had been married for two blissful years and had agreed to do something small with their family during dinner.
“Isn’t this too much for a simple family dinner?” she asked her mother.
“It’s your anniversary, azizam. A woman needs to look her best, and because I am with you, you will dress in traditional attire. Your grandfather also sent something for Justin.”
Arabella’s eyes widened. “My husband will wear traditional attire? Goodness! I certainly want to see that.”
“And you will in due time. Now, let me finish your hair and makeup, and we can go down.”
Her mother said that as though there was something for them to go down to. Perhaps she meant going to the others who were usually in the drawing room around this time.
“Is Alex with Priti or Baba? I heard them arguing about who should carry him to his room for his morning nap.”
Priti was not one to argue with anyone, especially with a higher-class person, but she was jealous and protective over Alex. The little boy was like her own son.
“I think Priti won the argument,” Arabella’s mother said with a laugh. “Your father gave up after Priti grew angry about ‘interfering men’.”
Arabella chuckled, wishing she had seen the interaction.
She continued to speak to her mother about the plans she had for the new baby’s room until the older woman declared that she was done. Arabella looked at herself in the mirror, hardly recognising the woman looking back at her.
“I look beautiful, Maman. Thank you.”
A little stone hit the window, startling them. Arabella wanted to go and investigate what it was, but her mother stopped her.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, azizam. Come, it’s time to go downstairs.”
Her mother insisted that Arabella wear a veil as she left the room, puzzling her. When she saw Justin standing at the foot of the stairs, Arabella began to put two and two together.
Walking down the stairs carefully with her growing belly, Arabella approached her husband, admiring the way he looked.
“You are a true Mughal man,” she commented. “And you have been rather sneaky. You’ve planned something for our anniversary, haven’t you?”
Justin grinned, taking her hands in his. “A vow renewal, my love. I wanted you to have a little of what you would have experienced if you had been in India for our wedding. Everyone we know and love is waiting for us in the garden to share in our special moment.”
Was it any wonder why she loved this man? “You went to all this trouble for me?”
“How can it be trouble when I love you? Doing things for you brings me great joy. Perhaps not while doing it because I want it to be perfect for you, but it will all be worth it once I see your reaction. Are you ready to marry me again? I get to be your Mughal prince for a day.”
Arabella smoothed a hand over Justin’s robe, feeling the delicate gold embroidery. “You will always be my Mughal prince.”
“As long as I get to be your husband first.”
“Did I even have to say it?” she asked, lifting her face for a kiss.
Justin bent down, pressing his lips against hers for one sweet moment. “Just as you’ll never have to ask about my love for you. You’re part of my very heart.”
And that was where Arabella knew she would always be.