The light filtered through the trees and danced over Helena’s face as she watched her baby girl sleep. Esther and Jasper had come for a picnic, enjoying every second they could get with their niece.
Caressing the small, sleeping bundle in her arms, Helena thought back on the wonderful year she and Henry had been married. Henry’s father had improved for a while, but after a long battle with weakened lungs, he and her mother-in-law had been forced to leave England for warmer climates. Thankfully, the warmer climate was good for Lord Beckham, and he was doing much better.
Henry had taken on full responsibility for the estate, adopting his father’s seat in the House of Lords. Helena was so proud of her husband, for he was a man of utmost honesty and impeccable character. He caught her looking at him, and flashed a smile in her direction. She lifted one hand to wave at him. He and Jasper were playing a rousing game of cricket, along with a few of their other friends from the vicinity.
Helena was glad that they spent most of their time at the country estate, instead of in Bath. Country life suited her, more than she could have imagined before. Her parents often came to see them and their adorable granddaughter. Helena and Henry had named her Gemma, for she was a genuine treasure. She was the spitting image of her father, with raven black hair and blue eyes. Helena did not mind that she did not take after her in her features. She hoped that all their children would at least share their love for reading.
Esther came to her side, sitting after a short stroll around the garden. Anna had come to visit as well, her four children in tow. The eldest of her boys tried his best to join in with the cricket match, his little legs working hard to try and keep up with his father. Anna laughed at his antics, the newest addition to their family on her hip. “Be careful, John!” she called and sat down next to Helena.
“How is Miss Gemma doing? Sleeping her life away, I suppose?”
“Yes, she’s just fallen asleep again. She’s had lots of excitement with you and the children here to visit. Not that I’m complaining.”
“It has been lovely to be out here in the country. Henry has made quite a few improvements to the grounds, I understand?”
“Yes, my father-in-law let the grounds fall into somewhat of a disarray. I’m happy with the improvements we’ve made so far.” Helena stood and handed Gemma to Esther, who had been eyeing her for several minutes.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Esther replied.
Helena giggled. “I am more than happy to share for a little while.” She went back to sit next to Anna. “Has the morning sickness passed, Esther?”
Esther looked up. “Not completely, but it’s starting to fade I think. Hopefully it will be gone within the next couple of weeks.”
“Yes, those first few months were intolerable when I was expecting John,” Anna chimed in. “It does get easier with each pregnancy, in my opinion. By the time you have your seventh, you will hardly notice.”
Esther let out a short laugh. “Seven?! My goodness, I don’t know if I would go that far.”
“I overheard Jasper telling Henry that he plans to have four sons and three daughters by the time all is said and done.”
Helena looked away for a moment. She longed to have another baby, a boy next time, hopefully. Her labour with Gemma had been difficult, but it was true what they said. All the pain was forgotten when she had seen Gemma’s face and held her in her arms. She was a true blessing that she thanked God for every day.
“Shall we play a game of cards, ladies? I don’t see why the boys should have all the fun,” Helena suggested.
“That’s a wonderful idea. Do you think you can tear yourself away from the babies for a while, Esther?” Anna teased. Esther rolled her eyes and handed Gemma to the nurse.
“I have to get in as much practice as possible,” Esther said, trying to defend herself. Helena loved how much she cared for Gemma.
“Nothing prepares you for being a mother, no matter how you try,” Anna said. “Don’t worry. You’re going to be a wonderful mother, Esther.”
Esther coloured. “I hope so.” Helena dealt the cards, and the ladies were quiet for a moment as they organized their hands. “Oh, have you heard the latest from town?”
“No, I haven’t. What tidbit do you have for us?” Helena asked. Esther and Jasper had just come back from a short trip to London and had been full of news.
“Lady Genevieve was married last week, to a Lord Havensby.”
Helena raised an eyebrow at this news. “The same Lady Genevieve that was after Henry?”
“The very same,” Esther replied with a smirk. “She seems happy and in love, even though her husband is a good fifteen years older than her. Perhaps he will be able to rein in her temper.”
Helena laughed. “I think that is the most scathing thing I’ve ever heard you say about a person.” Esther was not one to talk ill of anyone. She was happy for Genevieve, but more glad that she was married to Henry instead of her.
“She treated you ill, and I do not like her attitude. One can only hope she will grow in maturity through married life.” Esther placed a card in the discard pile with a flourish.
“Marriage tends to do that for most people if they are willing to learn. It is like a reflective pool that shows us all our hidden vices…” Helena began.
Anna rolled her eyes and laughed. “Don’t wax all poetic on us now, Helena.”
“Very well. I was only going to say that being married has helped me get rid of some of those vices. Or at least, smooth out some of the rough edges.”
“Very true,” Henry said as the men joined the table.
“Who won?” Helena asked, looking up into her husband’s handsome face.
“We did, of course,” Jasper chimed in and kissed his wife soundly on the mouth. Esther immediately coloured but grinned nonetheless.
Henry sneered playfully at his brother. “It was a very close match.”
“Whatever you say, Jasper teased. “We had thought to go on a turn about the grounds before dinner, ladies. Would you like to join us?”
Helena stretched her back. “That sounds lovely.” Sitting for so long in the warm sunshine was making her sleepy.
The three ladies walked in silence for a moment, until Esther chimed in with another interesting tidbit of gossip.
“I have heard some scathing reports on our Lord Ransom,” Esther began.
“He is not our Lord Ransom. Indeed, why anyone should want to spend any amount of time with him is beyond me.” Anna plucked a flower as they walked, determined to not give Lord Ransom a second thought. He had used Helena, keeping her frightened for decades.
“That’s just it. His wife seemed to think so as well. Apparently he was found to be unfaithful to her. She has taken the children and gone to stay with her parents.” Esther smiled as if this was good news. But Helena’s heart went out to his wife. Once upon a time, they had been friends.
“Poor woman. I should have warned her as to his true character. She did not deserve all the years of heartache and pain he undoubtedly wrought on her,” Helena said. “Now she’ll be left with nothing, reliant on her parents for everything.”
“That is the beauty of what I am telling you. Lady Ransom was the one who brought the fortune to the marriage. And her father set up the dowry so that if he was found to be unfaithful, she would keep her dowry. Now Lord Ransom is practically destitute.”
Helena knew it was wrong to celebrate in the misfortunes of others. Still, she allowed herself a private exultation at this news. She sincerely hoped that he would not be able to hurt any more unsuspecting, innocent young women again.
“Don’t look so gloomy, Helena. Lord Ransom has received his just deserts.”
“Who has dessert?” Jasper asked, waiting for the ladies to catch up with him. Henry halted as well, and the ladies paired off with their husbands.
“I hope that didn’t upset you, Helena. I know that he holds no power over you anymore. However, I understand if it is still a difficult subject,” Henry whispered. They allowed the others to move on ahead, taking the time to stroll down the path alone.
“You’re right that he has no power over me. When I was young, I saw him as a force in my life that I could never escape from. But now, I see him for what he truly is: a selfish, insecure little man who takes pleasure in using others.” Helena shook her head. “No, I feel sorry for him sometimes. What experiences from his life turned him into that, to think it was alright to treat others so callously?”
“I don’t know. But I am proud of you for not letting him take away your freedom anymore.”
Helena nodded, smiling. “It’s funny how I thought that marriage would take away my freedom, when I’d be forever contained in a cage. I never realized that I was in a prison cell of my own making all along. It took you to help me see that I could fly away any time I wanted.”
He took her hand, and tucked it into the crook of his arm. A year of marriage had been enough to show her that she had gained so much more than she ever thought possible. Far from being domineering, Henry encouraged her in her aspirations. Instead of facing the world on her own, she had someone always by her side to help her and support her.
“I received a letter from Mother this morning,” Henry said, rolling his eyes. “She asks when we are planning to come to Italy. They are both anxious to see Gemma again.”
“I have been wondering when you were going to start planning that trip. Why shouldn’t we go? I’m sure you miss your parents.”
Henry nodded. “I do. But I was wondering if we might invite Jasper and Esther, make a family trip of it?”
Helena lit up at that idea. “I think that is brilliant, Henry. Esther might have a bit of trouble on the journey over, but we can take our time once we get to the Continent, can’t we?” She grew excited, ideas dancing through her mind.
They caught up with Jasper and Esther, presenting the idea Henry had formulated. Of course, they loved the plan, the four of them deciding that they would go down to Italy at the beginning of May.
“We’ll be able to visit for a month and still be back in plenty of time before the birth,” Esther beamed. It didn’t hurt that the trip would afford her ample time to spend with her favourite niece, Gemma.
Helena watched her family excitedly planning for the trip to Italy, quietly listening. She was glad now that her parents had insisted on her marrying. Her life was so full of little blessings and joys — things she had taken for granted before. This was another moment when she wished that all could remain as it was.
“Are you happy?” Henry asked, joining her under the shade of an aspen tree.
She smiled up at him. “Incandescently happy.”
“Henry? Is everything ready? Our guests will be arriving any moment!” Helena took one last look around the drawing room to be sure she had not missed anything.
“Everything is perfect, my love. Please, try to relax and enjoy yourself this evening,” Henry said as the first of their guests were arriving. They went to the front door of their country estate to welcome their guests as they came in.
The book club meetings had changed over the years, especially after Gemma had been born. Every few months, the couple held a lavish weekend party, themed after the book they had read over the previous months. These dinner parties were much like the costume gala Henry had planned during Michaelmas when he and Helena were courting. It was a celebration of fine literature and a chance to get together with their closest friends.
Anna and her husband came in and greeted them. Then Esther and Jasper arrived and went about helping in any way they could. The house was soon alive with music and dancing—all the couples dressed as one character or another.
Helena watched as Henry took charge of the evening, much to her satisfaction. Over the years, he had been able to improve in his reading, even though he still struggled with his mysterious malady. He and Helena often read books together, she reading aloud, while he followed along in his own copy. Helena wished to instil the same love for reading in their children.
When it came time for the discussion, they retired to the drawing room and sat around the hearth, just as had been the custom in Bath.
“As you all know, we will be discussing a book that has quickly become one of my favourites, my wife’s own work of fiction, Softly, Love Comes Calling.”
“I do believe this work is based off of your own life, is it not, Helena?” Jasper chimed in.
“Parts of it are inspired by my life, yes. But this is a work of fiction that I have been working on for a long time. It was Henry who gave me the courage to finish it and see it through to publishing.” Helena beamed at the praise her novel had received, if only in the female community.
Henry led the discussion, as Helena wanted to hear what people thought of her book.
“I think that the main character, Sophia, spent too much time alone. It made for a troublesome start to her courtship with the Duke.” Anna began.
“I thought it was interesting that His Grace was willing to stay true to her, even after being scorned several times. That part seemed unlikely to me,” Lady Wentworth replied.
“Helena?” Henry said, glancing at her to see if she had anything to say in defence of her prose.
She stood, clasping her hands in front of her. “I know that that kind of love seems far-fetched.” She gave Henry a knowing look. “But I have experienced a love such as that. In many ways, Sophia is me. At the beginning of the book, I agree that Sophia was too introverted. I did that on purpose to show that she was too concerned with her own selfish matters that she failed to recognize the love of her life when he finally did step into her life.”
“Wouldn’t that mean she doesn’t deserve him then? If she was too dense to realize that love was standing right in front of her, I don’t think she should have won his heart in the end.”
Helena smiled, keeping her gaze locked with Henry’s. Some people just did not understand what it was to love unconditionally. The way that Henry loved her. “Sophia needed the Duke’s love to help her break free of her inhibitions. His love broke her free of her prisons and allowed her to experience the life she had always dreamed of but would never have been able to achieve on her own.”
Henry stood then. “In regards to your argument about her not deserving the Duke, Lady Wentworth, I would ask this simple question. Does anyone deserve to be loved? No. That is what makes it so beautiful. No one deserves to be loved, and yet when it is given unconditionally, it makes us strive to be better. A love like that can change a person. A love like that can change the world.”
Helena could spot nods of agreement throughout the room. Henry did an excellent job leading out the rest of the discussion. She was glad she got to sit back and listen, proud of how he had come into his own, not just in the book club but also in life.
He glanced her way, and she smiled at the way her heart still skipped a beat every time he looked at her. A love like that was worth fighting for. She was so glad that Henry had not given up on her. He had fought for her and they had both won in return. Life was not always easy, but she was truly blessed.