Sophia looked up from the lawn where she lay resting in the sunshine, seeing her two children playing on the grass.
“I can catch that thistledown!” Arabella shouted.
“Me too!” Emmeline called, not to be outdone. They ran together on the lawn, small feet pounding on the soft, fresh leaves. Sophia rolled over and sat up. Luke, who was lying beside her, wrapped his arms around her and pressed his lips to her cheek.
“They’re fine,” he said, his brown eyes looking the colour of coffee in the sunshine. The slight wrinkles at the corners deepened when he smiled.
“Thank you for checking,” Sophia said, brushing her hand across his dark hair, tousled a little by the wind. He turned her fingers towards him, kissing the fingertips.
“They just ran off that way, towards the trees. I can still see them from here.” He pointed in the direction behind her, “Look. There they are.”
“Yes,” Sophia agreed, turning to look over her shoulder. She could see the children on the lawn, just catching a glimpse of them between the wide trunks of the trees they had run between. Emmeline, slightly taller, was reaching up to something, while Arabella jumped about excitedly, little hands clapping with delight.
“Shall we check on them?” Sophia asked, shading her green eyes from the glare of the sun. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. At thirty-two, her hair was still dark brown, thick and lustrous. Luke grinned, shaking his head.
“No…we can call them. They didn’t go too far.”
Sophia leaned against his shoulder, enjoying the warmth of the sunshine. “Yes, let’s do that,” she agreed.
Luke cupped his hands and called them, his voice light with amusement. “Emmeline! Arabella! Can you come and play a bit closer?”
“Oh, Papa!” Emmeline called back, her voice high with protest. But Sophia smiled to herself as the two girls came out from between the trees and joined them on the lawn. Emmeline had been born the year after their wedding, and was now almost ten. Her little sister looked up at her, eyes round.
“What was that?” Emmeline asked as Arabella whispered something. “Oh! Yes! Let’s drink some,” she agreed, as they both sat down on the picnic-blanket beside their mother.
“Lemonade,” Arabella said, pointing at the bottle in the basket. “Please,” she added, a small smile at the edge of her lips.
“Good thinking,” Sophia agreed. “It’s very hot out here.” She reached for the lemonade, pouring them each a cup. She poured some for herself, too, and took a sip.
“Thank you,” Luke agreed, as he took a cup from her and drank some as well.
“Papa…” Emmeline said quietly. “When shall we go to London?”
“Um…I’m not sure now,” Luke said, frowning. “I think in a month, when the weather is more refreshing. What would you say?” He looked at all of them, but mainly Sophia. She frowned.
“Whatever you think, Luke,” she said after a moment. “I would be happy to remain here for a few weeks. Besides, Lettie will be coming to visit us soon, with Lord Culver. I am sure we will be staying a week with them at least.”
“Lettie!” Emmeline said enthusiastically. The children were very fond of Sophia’s friend, who visited them twice a year, often more if she could spend more time in the countryside.
“Well, we can easily spend a few more weeks here, my dearest,” Luke said softly. “If that is agreeable for all of us?”
“Yes,” Arabella said firmly. “I like it here. There isn’t mud to play in when we’re in town.”
Luke and Sophia exchanged tender glances. Sophia felt her heart fill with fondness. She would never have imagined a life where children could play in the mud, and grow up with only love and freedom. She was so glad that she had discovered that was not only possible, but natural and good.
“The park is nice, though,” Luke said thoughtfully. They liked to walk in the park – the small one not too far from the bookshop, and the many others in town as well. Arabella frowned.
“No, Papa, it isn’t.” She sniffed. “Nobody plays in mud in the park. But there’s lots of mud on the estate, and nobody minds if you have dirty feet here.”
“No,” Sophia agreed, smiling. “Nobody minds here.”
Luke chuckled. “Absolutely. Now…shall we go in? I reckon we should get cleaned up before dinner. And maybe we can play with that new boardgame Gilbert brought with him?”
“Hurray!” Emmeline shouted, standing instantly. She always enjoyed boardgames and card games and was fast becoming expert in them, though Arabella still seemed to have more fun. Sophia stood and dusted her skirt. Luke lifted the picnic-basket and shook the blanket, rolling it neatly.
“I’m so happy here,” Sophia said, threading her arm through his as they walked back to the house. Luke bent and kissed her; his lips warm on her cheek.
“I know. I, too,” he agreed. He squeezed her fingers fondly. His hand was warm, the other hand clasped around the handle of the picnic basket as they walked into the house together.
Sophia looked around the entrance fondly. It was small, but well-decorated and quite lovely – someone had put a great deal of effort into making it as beautiful as the main house, if on a smaller scale. She was pleased that, now that they were so prosperous, they could start adding little adornments.
“Those two are probably already unpacking the game,” Luke smiled as they went up the stairs. The butler took the hamper and blanket back to the kitchen for them, where Luke’s old cook and the new cook would unpack it and put things away. Sophia had laughed when Luke told her about his old cook’s reputation as being more deadly than the Napoleonic army, but since they had taken on a second cook to help him, they had no trouble.
“Yes, I’m sure they are,” Sophia agreed.
Luke and she paused in the hallway, listening to the sounds from the drawing-room as the children unpacked the game together.
“I want to be the red counter,” Emmeline said.
“I always get the white one,” Arabella insisted firmly. “Nobody else ever uses it.”
Sophia grinned to herself. She could see traits of Luke in both the children – Emmeline had his clear vision, as well as just a little of his firmness. Arabella had his adventurous spirit as well as his directness. She thought that she could see a lot of her father in both of them, too – and sometimes when Arabella looked at her with that hazel-eyed gaze, she almost thought it was him, watching her thoughtfully.
She looked up at Luke, her heart full of love. Her father was so right, she thought. Love was the most important thing.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she smiled up at Luke.
“Should we go in?” he asked. “I reckon they might start fighting over who gets to roll the dice first if we don’t go in there and do something.”
She chuckled, shaking her head. “Yes. Emmeline is quite firm. And Arabella certainly doesn’t give up.”
“I wonder where they get those characteristics?” Sophia teased him, as they rounded the last bend in the stairs. Luke chuckled.
“I think their mother has a good deal of firmness and determination.”
Sophia blushed. Luke bent down and kissed her lips.
“You are a very strong woman, Sophia, my dearest.”
“And you are a wonderful man.”
“You flatter me, my dearest. You’ll give me a big head.”
Sophia started laughing. “Oh, Luke. I don’t think that would ever happen. You have a lovely head.”
They were both still laughing as they went up to join the children in the drawing-room.
“Will Uncle Gilbert visit?” Emmeline asked, shaking the dice in a small shaker made for that use. Luke lifted a brow.
“Maybe…Uncle Gilbert does usually drop in at unusual times.”
“And he’ll bring Auntie Amelia!” Arabella agreed excitedly. “Hurray! Maybe she’ll show us that new piano piece.”
Sophia smiled fondly. Amelia and Gilbert – unconventional as ever – seemed to drift between Gilbert’s London residence and various estates in the country almost constantly. Gilbert was increasing in fame as a poet, and Luke and Sophia had hosted a very successful salon at their home where he was the attraction. Amelia remained devoted to music, and she had imparted a love of piano in Sophia’s youngest daughter, for which she was grateful.
“I’m sure she will, sweetness,” Sophia agreed. It was wonderful for her to see her daughter learning the skill because she enjoyed it, not merely because it would look good in society.
“Uncle Gilbert’s funny,” Emmeline observed, moving her counter and passing Sophia the dice, so she could join in their game. “He said last time that the only pathways we should walk are the ones under our own feet. Isn’t that odd?” she asked, frowning at her mother.
Sophia felt her heart fill with warmth. “No…that’s not so odd,” she said gently. “I think what Uncle Gilbert meant is that we should do things that feel right to us; the things that make us happy.”
Luke smiled at her, squeezing her hand. “Like, I love Mommy and Emmeline and Arabella, and I don’t want to spend a second away from them longer than I must, so I don’t,” he added, taking Emmeline’s hand in his own. Arabella snuggled closer to him where his arm wrapped her shoulder.
“Oh,” Emmeline nodded thoughtfully. “Well, no. That’s not funny. I like it.” She turned back to studying the board, trying to work out what to do next.
“Yes,” Sophia said softly. “It’s so right.”
She looked briefly across at the painting on the mantelpiece – it was one of her and Luke, on the estate under the tree. They had both said it reminded them of that day in the antique shop, when they had looked at each other and known what was most precious in the world. She was sure her father would have liked Gilbert’s poetry.
“Shall we dress for dinner?” Luke asked, after playing with the children for an hour. Emmeline had won a round, which delighted her. Luke had won once, and Arabella and Sophia were coming tied as Luke spoke.
“Dinner! Hurray!” Emmeline cheered. Sophia grinned as the two children jumped up instantly.
“I’ll race you!” Arabella was already off, running towards the steps as Emmeline, shrieking, took up the task and ran with her up the steps.
“Those two…” Luke grinned, running a hand through his hair.
“They’re wonderful,” Sophia smiled. “Jessie will get them dressed and ready.”
“Yes,” Luke nodded. “I’m glad we have Jessie with us. So good that she has settled down here.”
“Yes,” Sophia nodded. Jessie had wed one of the local men, and was very happy to have come here. Sophia and Luke had offered places to her daughters as soon as they were looking for employment, and Jessie was very happy to know they would not have to go far when looking for work.
Jane had stayed at Westford, where she and her large family – mostly grown up now – were working for the current earl, Sophia’s cousin. She had not had much to do with the household, though Lady Westford, the dowager countess, had visited them once or twice on the estate, and sometimes stayed in the small cottage on their estate. She said it brought her peace to be there.
Sophia was pleased that her children knew their grandmother, and she knew her mother was both fond and proud of them, but felt that she would not wish her children to suffer any of the restriction and restraint that she had done and so she was pleased they could not see her regularly.
“Gilbert will probably come up and visit us soon,” Luke commented, shrugging out of his coat as they shut the door of the bedroom quietly. “It is a pity that we are not more in London. Though I’m not sorry that I don’t need to spend much time away, as I said.”
“I know,” Sophia nodded. Luke and Epsom had invested well, and Luke had more and more time to spend at leisure, not having to spend every day in the bookshop anymore. He had put in a manager and the place was doing extremely well, though he still took care of every detail himself.
“I’m glad the girls like to spend their time here,” he added, untying his cravat and attempting to retie it himself, looking carefully in the mirror. Sophia was unbuttoning her gown. Luke would help her with the last part – Jessie was only needed for the skilled parts, like styling hair, nowadays.
“Me too,” Sophia agreed. “This is such a good place for children.” She looked out over the gardens, her heart full of joy.
“Mm,” Luke agreed. He helped her out of her dress and she, blushing softly, stepped into a blue evening gown. It was a softer blue than most married ladies would have favoured, but she was fond of it. She knew Luke liked the colour and she could see it brought out her eye-colour well.
“It’s so good that they can have adventures,” she agreed, as Luke frowned, fastening the buttons on the back of her gown. She reached back and did the last ones, then turned to look at herself in the looking glass, quickly tucking her hair behind one ear.
“Yes,” Luke said. “It’s so important.”
“People should follow their hearts,” Sophia agreed. She looked up at Luke, resting her hands on his shoulders. He nodded, and bent forward, pressing his lips to her cheek, making her heart thump hard.
“Yes,” he agreed. “Like us.”
“Yes,” she whispered, and kissed him back. “I love you.”
“I love you,” Luke said.
They kissed and wrapped their arms around each other and went downstairs. Sophia smiled to herself, and knew that she had truly learned that the path of love was the path of freedom, and that it was the one that was under your feet already, walked because it gave you joy.