Five Years Later
Lilith could feel eyes looking at her, but she didn’t want to get out from under the covers just yet.
“Dear,” she whispered, her voice still groggy with sleep.
“I think your children have snuck out of the nursery and into our bed again. They’re being rather quiet today, so I can only imagine what they’re doing.”
“I suppose you want me to take a look?” he asked.
“Would you? The bed is too warm to leave. I am also pregnant and in need of as much rest as I can get.”
“Yes, yes,” Alexander said with a sigh. “My queen’s wish is my command.”
Lilith felt her husband shift into a sitting position and was thankful he didn’t disturb the bedding. Her latest pregnancy had been odder than the other two. For one, she was always cold, yet she loved to eat anything cold. She cried more readily, needed to be cuddled by her husband at the oddest moments, and could not stop rearranging things in the house. Lilith seldom walked past an object without looking for the best position to display it, which only annoyed her more. She hoped her behaviour did not have anything to do with the kind of person her unborn child would become.
“Rosalind, Alex,” said Alexander. “How did you get onto the bed?”
“We used the stool, Papa,” Rosalind explained. “Alex is too small, so I pushed him on the bed.”
“And why are you on the bed?” he asked. “Where is Mrs Wilson?”
“We wanted to play, but you and Mama were still sleeping,” the four-year-old explained. “I told Alex to be very quiet.”
She put her hand over her mouth to indicate how she had told her two-year-old brother to be quiet.
“Where is Mrs Wilson?” Alexander asked again.
“Sleeping, Papa,” Alex answered.
Lilith was surprised the woman was sound asleep and had not heard the children leave the nursery. Mrs Wilson was the children’s nanny, but Lilith had a feeling the woman might leave them soon. Rosalind and Alex were active children who seldom stayed still for long. Mrs Wilson could not keep up with them and required the help of the younger maids to run after the children. Moulin often helped, but she had her own life to live, which was precisely what Lilith had wanted. The Frenchwoman had made friends with women who also enjoyed embroidery and often went to see them. It was a whole new life for Moulin, one that the woman deserved.
Knowing her children would not rest until their parents had played with them, Lilith pushed the covers away and sat up.
“Good morning, my angels,” she said, opening her arms to them. “Why are you awake so early? Did you truly wish to play at this time?”
Both children nodded as Alex crawled into her lap while Rosalind snuggled between her and Alexander. Lilith dropped kisses on their heads and patted their cheeks, loving the silky soft feeling of their skin. Alexander adjusted himself against the headboard before lifting his daughter onto his lap, so she didn’t feel left out.
“What game shall we play?” he asked.
“Alex and I can hide, and you can come and look for us,” Rosalind suggested.
“That is too much work for this time of the morning,” Alexander told her. “The sun has barely risen above the horizon.”
“What is horizon, Papa?” Rosalind asked.
“The line in the far distance that seems to separate the ground from the sky,” Alexander explained to his daughter.
“Oh,” their daughter said with a serious little frown. “If the sun comes up, can we play the game?”
“Yes, we can, but how about we lie down for a little while?” Alex asked hopefully. “The first person to close their eyes and sleep is the winner.”
He obviously wanted a little more sleep before they had to leave their warm bed and start their big day. The children shut their eyes and scrunched their faces in concentration.
“That was a clever thing to do,” Lilith mouthed at her husband.
Alexander grinned at her. “I have my moments, like marrying you all over again today.”
Rosalind’s eyes popped open at the word ‘marry.’ “Will I wear a pretty dress like Mama today?” she asked.
“Of course,” Lilith assured her. “It looks just like Mama’s, but smaller.”
Her daughter’s face lit up. “Will I also marry Papa?”
Lilith and Alexander chuckled. “No, Mama will marry Papa,” Lilith explained. “You and Alex will stand with us.”
Lilith could recall their conversation five years ago about starting such a tradition. She had never expected Alexander to insist they do it, but he had reminded her several months ago that they had a wedding to plan to celebrate their fifth anniversary. The big day had finally come, but fortunately, they would not hold it in the morning. Lilith didn’t think she would have managed to wake up early and prepare for a wedding when she had come to dislike mornings. She blamed her third pregnancy because she used to love getting up early and watching the sunrise. Now, she could not be bothered and usually slept until Alexander came to call her for breakfast. Lilith once slept so long that she only woke up in the afternoon and worried everyone. They had assumed she was ill, but she had assured them that she was just fine. Her unborn baby evidently liked sleeping and could drain her body of any strength at the most annoying moments.
“Do you think your father will come?” Alexander asked.
“I hope so. I want him to walk me down the aisle again. I am surprised he hasn’t sent a letter yet telling us what he has decided. Perhaps he plans to surprise us and come after all.”
Lady Russell would probably not join him as she still harboured some resentment against her, but Lilith had learned to deal with it. Elizabeth had already given her word that she would come with her husband and children and would arrive around midday. The woman had mended her ways soon after marrying a viscount in Kent and apologised to Lilith for her past behaviour. Now, they saw each other regularly and treated each other as sisters should.
“I am excited to see your sisters and their spouses today,” said Lilith, moving the focus away from her broken family.
“Yes,” Alexander agreed. “We have not seen them in months. Cecil and Ewan should also be arriving with their families later this morning.”
“It will be wonderful to have everyone together again,” said Lilith. “We’re so scattered across the country that it’s difficult to gather everyone at the same time. I am thankful your mother agreed to come earlier to help with the arrangements.”
“I do notknow who is more excited about today: my mother or us,” said Alexander with a chuckle.
The Dowager Duchess was probably still asleep and would only leave her room once breakfast was announced. The children usually joined her for a cup of hot chocolate in her room and listened to one of her stories from her childhood before going down to breakfast with her. It was a routine the three of them had recently started, but Lilith worried about how the children would feel once their grandmother returned home. She had moved to one of their other properties in Chilham to give them some space to grow, although Lilith had told her it was unnecessary. Fortunately, the woman was not too far away and could visit her grandchildren as often as she wanted.
“I think our children are asleep,” Lilith said, hearing their soft snores.
Alex had been the first to fall asleep, but Rosalind soon followed after being reassured that she would be part of the wedding.
“I will put them between us so we can get a few more winks,” said Alexander. “You must be tired today. I heard you tossing and turning throughout the night.”
Lilith pointed at her growing belly. “Blame your baby. I could not find a comfortable position until I was too exhausted to care. Was I this big at five months when I was pregnant with Rosalind and Alex?”
“No. Could you be carrying twins? I vaguely recall how big my mother was when pregnant with the twins. I think you have roughly the same size belly as she did, but we will have to ask her.”
Lilith touched her hand to her brow at the mention of twins. “Why did I not think of that? Sometimes I wondered if our baby is having a little party in my womb, but it could be twins fighting. I do not know how I feel about that. We already have two children, and both are under five.”
“We will handle it,” Alexander assured. “We can hire more help if we need it. Do not fret so much, my love. I am right here beside you. Did I not promise to take care of you?” “Which you have done,” she confirmed. “I just find the thought of carrying twins rather daunting. That means it is double everything. Alex is only two years old! How could I—”
Alexander put a finger against her lips. “Calm down, my love. Nothing good can come of overthinking the situation. Why do notwe sleep instead? We will need all the strength we can get for this evening when we renew our vows. We will also spend time with our loved ones coming from far just to be with us.”
“Sleep does sound wonderful,” Lilith agreed, yawning. “Would you take Alex and place him next to his sister? He is a little too heavy for me to manoeuvre.”
Alexander stretched over their daughter for the sleeping boy and placed him beside her. “Now, sleep,” he commanded.
“Yes, sir,” said Lilith, smiling and getting back under the covers.
She also covered her children and hoped one of them would not have a little wet accident while asleep. It was a bit of a job having the servants strip off all the bedding and clean the mattress before airing it out. It was colder now, so it wouldn’t dry in a hurry. However, it was worth it for these sweet moments shared with her children and husband. Lilith still could not believe how much her life had changed in five years. It made up for the rejection and ill-treatment she had suffered at the hands of others to the point that she no longer thought much about her previous life. Lilith didn’t bother thinking about her past besides the few good memories she had stored away before meeting the duke. It simply was not worth it.
I have everything I need right here.
Lilith didn’t think it was normal to be nervous about renewing her vows, but she could not stop the fluttering of butterflies in her belly.
“Are you ready, mon chaton?” Moulin asked, poking her head around the door.
“I think so, but I do not know if I am ready to go down just yet. I need a little more time.”
“But everyone is waiting for you,” Moulin pointed out. “Your father is at the foot of the stairs ready to escort you to the Duke.”
The Earl had surprised her by coming after all, but Lady Russell’s appearance had truly astonished Lilith. She had never expected to see the woman, but she was glad they could exchange niceties without the usual animosity radiating from her. The Countess had appeared almost friendly, although their conversation had been stilted. Perhaps the Earl scolded her and insisted that she be here because she had missed all the other family gatherings.
“I need just a little moment to myself, Moulin,” Lilith insisted. “I think I am overwhelmed by my good fortune.”
Moulin chuckled. “Very well, but do not take too long. The children’s bedtime is approaching. They will not be happy if they miss the ceremony.”
“Ten minutes is more than enough,” said Lilith. “Tell everyone that I will be down in ten minutes.”
Moulin nodded. “I will see you soon, mon chaton.”
Lilith lay down on her bed as soon as the Frenchwoman left. She was careful not to cause any creases in her silk dress, or Moulin would indeed have something to say. A knock at the door drew her attention, and she wondered if the Frenchwoman had perhaps forgotten to say something.
However, instead of the Moulin, it was Lady Russell. Lilith immediately sat up and smoother the dress over her belly.
“Lady Russell!” she exclaimed. “Thank you again for taking the time to come here today. I appreciate it.”
To her astonishment, the Countess smiled. “I think it’s about time, do you not? I do not know how you put up with my behaviour for so many years, but I wish to say that I am sorry for all the pain and sorrow I have caused you.”
This was the last thing Lillith had expected to hear. “It is all in the past, my lady.”
“That may be, but even things in the past leave scars,” the older woman argued. “I have acted in ways that should never be seen in a mother and wife. You were just a young girl when you came to England. I will never forget the look of fear on your face when your father brought you home, but instead of comforting you, I tormented you. You were the product of a love affair, and I hated you for it. I now realise that I was wrong and seek your forgiveness.”
Lilith didn’t hesitate in going to the woman and embracing her. Lady Russell was startled at first, but she returned the hug.
“I forgive you,” Lilith told her, pulling away. “I want you to know that I hold no grudges against you. I am just happy that we can finally lay this part of our lives to rest. Let today be a start to a better relationship.”
“I would like that,” the countess. “I think I have taken up enough of your time.”
“Not at all,” Lilith assured her. “In fact, I am ready to go down and see my family.”
They walked out of the room together, startling the earl who looked between them. Lilith gave him a reassuring smile as she took his arm.
“All is well, Papa,” she said. “Let’s go to my husband. He must be waiting for me.”
Lilith gasped when she saw all the lanterns lighting her way to where Alexander stood with their children. Their family sat on either side of the lanterns, surrounded by the flowers she had helped plant last spring. Alexander’s idea was to have their ceremony in the garden, but Lilith had argued that it might not work for the early evening. A day ceremony in the garden made perfect sense, but they had wanted it during the late afternoon. However, Alexander had asked her to trust him, so Lilith had put the ceremony in his hands. It was still light enough that the lanterns were not needed just yet, but they cast a lovely glow around their guests and made the garden look like something out of a faerie tale. Lilith hadn’t been aware that they owned so many lanterns and realised Alexander must have been hiding them for the sake of the surprise. Her eyes grew misty with tears as she thought about how wonderful her husband was and how happy she was that she had allowed herself a second chance all those years ago.
“Thank you, Papa,” she said, turning to her father.
“For what, dear?” he asked.
“Thank you for bringing me to Kent and forcing me to meet with Alexander. If not for you, I wouldn’t be where I am now. You’re welcome to be as nosey as you wish in my life.”
The Earl chuckled. “I see. You are talking about the time I tricked you into thinking you were accompanying me on a business trip. I knew how much you were silently hurting, Lily. I could not just sit by and do nothing. I am glad I took the plunge and organised the fateful meeting between you. You have blossomed in the last five years, and I could not ask for anything more than your happiness.”
“We are finally one happy family,” she said, briefly leaning her head against his shoulder.
She had a flashback of doing the same thing five years ago when her father had walked her down the aisle on her wedding day.
“I take it that you and your stepmother have made amends?” the Earl asked.
“Yes. She apologised and asked for forgiveness. Did you insist she speak to me?”
Her father shook his head. “No, but I noticed something was bothering her for some time. I didn’t know it involved you. I am glad she finally grew a conscience and has set aside her anger. The best gift for any father is to see his family living in harmony with each other. Perhaps you all can come to Nottinghamshire for my birthday.”
“That would be a wonderful idea, Papa. I have not been there in many years, and the children have been asking about visiting their grandfather. I will make arrangements closer to your birthday.”
“I look forward to it,” the Earl said and stopped in front of Alexander. “It’s time I took a step back,” he said, putting her hand in Alexander’s. “It was a pleasure walking you down the aisle again, Lily.”
“Thank you, Papa,” she said, kissing his cheek.
The Earl nodded his head and moved away to take his seat, taking out a handkerchief to dry his eyes.
“Why is this moment as emotional as five years ago?” her husband asked.
“Because our love has grown,” Lilith told him.
Alexander smiled, his eyes creasing at the corners. There were more wrinkles than before, but they only made him look more handsome.
“Ah, that must be it,” he said. “You look beautiful, my love.”
“Yes, Mama looks very pretty,” Rosalind piped in, tugging on her gown. “Did you see me, Mama? Grandmama helped me dress.”
Lilith looked down at her children, lowering her body until she could kiss their brows. “You both look lovely. I almost did not recognise you!”
Rosalind grinned and took her brother’s hand. “We promised Grandmama to be very quiet when the reverend speaks.”
“Why, thank you, my angels,” Lilith replied. “Papa and I are proud and happy to have you standing with us on such an important day.”
“I did not think about our children when we first discussed this idea five years ago,” said Alexander. “But I must admit that having them makes this day more perfect. I am ready to say ‘I do’ all over again today.”
Lilith’s heart could have burst with joy at that moment. She looked around at her guests, seeing the affection of every person staring back at her. Finally, she turned back to her husband and children and saw her whole world looking at her with so much love that she could not resist a tear trickling down her cheek.
Alexander wiped it away and brought it to his lips. “Even your tears are precious to me,” he told her. “Let us begin, shall we?”
Nothing could be more perfect than this moment, but Lilith had a feeling she would think the same thing five years from now.