Five Years Later
Ellen made her way down the stairs of Sotheby Place, exhaling a sigh of contentment at how the decorations were coming along. It was Christmas Eve, and they had returned from gathering greenery an hour or so before. She had gone up to change into something more comfortable before they continued to hang the winter foliage and spend the evening together as a family.
She paused when she came to the drawing-room door, taking in the lovely scene before her. Her parents were both there, along with her older sister and her husband. Their three children played on the rug near their grandparents’ feet, their laughter ringing out across the room. She sighed, watching her two younger sisters and their husbands chat in a group. Her sister Beatrice had become Lady Carlisle three years previous, and they were expecting their second child. Her youngest sister, Agatha, had also found love with the younger brother of the viscount that lived down the road from her parents’ home.
She moved her gaze to her husband, now Lord Grant. A moment of sadness passed over her as she remembered her father-in-law with no little amount of admiration. He had been very kind to her, and she would never forget his warm, loving voice or easy manner. It had been a little over a year since he had passed away, and Simon had taken on the title. She wondered if the pain would ever truly heal.
Thankfully, her mother-in-law was still with them and, after much convincing, had agreed to stay at the big house instead of going to the draughty dower house. They were a close-knit family, and it would have been a terrible thing, indeed, if she had insisted on leaving them.
Ellen smiled as her children ran up to their granny and kissed her on both cheeks. She laughed and entered the room to join in the festivities.
“Ahh, there you are, my love. We need your advice,” Simon greeted as she joined him at the hearth. “Shall we leave the hearth as it is with only the pine boughs, or shall we intersperse the holly berries?”
“Oh, add the holly berries, to be sure,” she said. She stood up on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek.
Just then, their children joined them in front of the blazing fire. “Papa, is it time for you to tell us one of your Christmas stories?” Noelle, their four-year daughter, asked. Ellen leaned down and picked up their three-year-old son, Jacob and planted a kiss on his chubby little cheeks.
“Yes, Papa! Story!” Jacob exclaimed. Ellen cuddled him even closer, balancing him on her hip.
“Oh, you are getting too old for Christmas stories, are you not?” Simon teased, winking at her. “Yes, much too old for such nonsense.”
Noelle and Jacob began to pout and plead with their father to follow the tradition. It was something that Ellen, and she surmised the rest of her family, had grown fond of over the last few years. He let them beg for a moment longer as he finished his task of weaving the holly berries in the greenery above the mantel. When he was finished, he turned around with a mockingly severe look on his face.
“Very well. You have worn me down,” he said with a sigh. “Sit down and let the maids give you all a cup of chocolate, and then I shall begin.”
The maids dispersed the cups of hot chocolate, and the children sat down on the rug around Simon while the adults took up the seats around the perimeter of the sitting area. Simon eyed each of the five children, raising a brow as they quieted.
“Alright, are you all ready? What kind of tale would you like to hear this Christmas?” he asked.
“Tell the one about you and Mama,” Noelle suggested. It was one of her favourite stories.
“I do believe I told that one last year,” Simon argued.
Beatrice leaned forward. “No, do tell it again. It is so riveting the way you tell it,” she said. Ellen exchanged a smile with her sister, and Simon started in on the vastly exaggerated story, in which were added fairies or all sorts and magical twists and turns to keep the attention of the younger children.
“Very well, if you insist. Now, are you ready? There once was a girl named Ellen who lived in an enchanted kingdom. She was the most beautiful girl in all the land, but not only that, her fingers were possessed of a magical power that allowed her to play the pianoforte like an angel.”
Simon looked up at her, and she rolled her eyes teasingly.
“Now, in a neighbouring kingdom, a boy had been in love with Lady Ellen for as long as he could remember.” Simon spread his hands out before him, seeming to cast a spell on his young listeners. Jacob squirmed next to his sister, and she patted his hand to try to get him to sit still. “One day, the kings in charge of these nations told the girl and boy that they were to be married. Well, the girl was vastly unhappy with the plan, and she started to cry,” Simon said, puckering up his face and pretending to cry.
This drew a bout of laughter from the children. He went on, growing more excited and vibrant as the story continued.
“Well, the couple were married, but their troubles were not over yet. You see, not all stories end like the fairy tales. They had many trials to overcome—”
“Tell about the girl making the boy sleep in the dungeons,” Noelle encouraged.
Ellen shot him a warning look, but he went on with a chuckle. “Well, Lady Ellen was not accustomed to sharing her bedroom, so she kicked the good fellow out of the warm part of the house and made him sleep in the dungeon! And not only that, but the dungeon was also not wide enough for him to stretch out his poor legs!” he said. Ellen shook her head, remembering how Simon had spent their wedding night on the cramped settee.
“But eventually, the girl and boy started to like each other. And then they started to love each other,” Simon went on. The children quieted, settling down once more. Simon’s mood turned serious, and he told the rest of the story with his eyes fixed on hers. “Eventually, they started to understand each other and see each other as the incredible gifts they were.”
Noelle leaned up and touched her father’s knee. “And what about the children?” she whispered.
Simon took Noelle up on his lap and wrapped his arms around her. “I almost forgot. Thank you for reminding me, my sweet. Well,” he said, finishing the story. “Someone tried to separate the girl and boy on the day before Christmas. The boy rode his horse all through the night and day, searching for his love. When morning came, he found her at the spot where they had vowed their undying love to each other. He took her in his arms, kissed her, and they rode away on his white horse. The end,” he said, squeezing Noelle.
“You forgot again, Papa,” Noelle whispered with a giggle.
Simon straightened, slapping his knee for effect. “Oh, you are right! Lady Ellen gave Sir Simon the greatest gifts of all—a girl named Noelle and a boy named Jacob.”
Golda and Thomas’s eldest piped up then. “What about the girl named Angelica?” she asked, referring to herself in the third person.
Simon flashed Ellen a nervous look. “Well, Lady Golda gave Sir Thomas those children.”
Seven-year-old Angelica pouted. “But we want to be in the Christmas story, too. Why can’t auntie Ellen give us to you, as well?”
“Yes, we want to be gifts, too!” Angelica’s younger brothers chimed in.
Simon stood then, placing Noelle on her feet. “Everyone is a gift, all right? Now, I think we are getting into some dangerous waters, so—” he halted, looking to Ellen for help.
Ellen stood and clapped her hands for the children’s attention. “Uncle Simon is right. It is high time we sang some Christmas hymns,” she said. Everyone followed her over to the pianoforte. It was a new instrument Simon had purchased for her on her twenty-third birthday. Now, she had one piano in the parlour and one in the drawing room. He always teased her that if he ever wondered where she was, he had only to check one of those two rooms, and he was bound to find her.
She sat down at the beautiful instrument and began to play. The children soon joined in with carols, and the adults followed. They sang together until the children lost interest and went back to playing with their toys. By the time the clock struck eleven, the grandparents had gone off to bed, and the younger adults had finished the decorating. The children were all fast asleep near the tree.
Ellen was still sitting at the piano, and she waved Simon over. He strolled over, beaming at her. “Another successful Christmas Eve, I would say.” He sat down next to her on the piano bench, and she leaned a little closer.
“Your Christmas tale grows more vivid and fantastical every year,” she said with a laugh.
“What? You did not like the dungeon?”
She rolled her eyes. “You are never going to let me forget that I made you spend our wedding night on the settee, are you?”
“No. But thankfully, I did not have to occupy the settee for very long,” he said. He wrapped an around her waist, and she smiled up at him.
“Well, no matter. I did not call you over here to argue about the settee. I have a present for you,” she said. Without another word of explanation, she turned to the piano and began to play. She had been working on the song as a surprise for him for weeks, waiting for snatches of time when he was not in the house so she could practise. Simon listened intently and eventually closed his eyes, and she played.
His eyes opened wide, however, when she began to sing the poem she had written to go along with the tune.
How softly comes a love so sweet
My heart, it yearned to bloom and grow
In stillness and in loneliness,
I waited for one I did not know.
But when the time for love awakened
I scarce could recognise
My heart had yearned for you so long
And caught me by surprise.
How softly comes a love so sweet
As a steady, changing current.
You are the one who stole my heart
And set it free concurrent.
When she finished, she saw that unshed tears shone in his eyes. She looked around the room and saw that the rest of the family had gathered the children and taken them to the nursery. She was glad that they were alone.
“What do you think?” she asked.
Simon gathered her closer and kissed the tip of her nose. “I hope you have no plans to share that in your next songbook. It is probably the most brilliant of all your pieces, but I must keep that for myself, I think.”
Ellen laughed. “I would never dream of publishing that one. It is for you alone, my love,” she whispered. She touched his cheek tenderly, looking up into his gorgeous green eyes. “How did I get so lucky as to have you?” she asked.
“I do not know. But I ask myself the same question when it comes to you every day. You are a brilliant composer and lyricist, it would seem. Tell me, how long have you been working on that piece?”
“I started composing the melody a few months ago. But the words did not come to me until a few days ago. Truly, Simon. Your love has captured me and set me free all at the same time. I am so blessed to have a man who believes in my dreams. And not only that, you actively work to see that they come true. I can never say how grateful I am for that.”
“It is what any man would do, Ellen.”
“Not true. There are very few men who would smile at having a wife that is a composer for the London Opera,” she giggled.
“I happen to be very ahead of the times,” he replied. “Besides, you are a brilliant composer. I have always known that.”
“I thank you, gallant sir knight,” she said playfully. She gave a contented sigh, and he leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
“Well, it is past midnight. Shall we to bed?” he asked.
Ellen knew he had worked hard that day to gather all the greenery for the massive house. But she was not ready to go upstairs yet. “There is one more thing before we do,” she replied. Her heart danced with joyful butterflies.
“What is it?” he asked, eyeing her suspiciously. “Nothing you can surprise me with would outdo the song you just sang for me.”
Ellen laughed. “I am not so sure,” she argued. “Simon, you are going to be a father again.”
She laughed as he gathered her close and kissed all over her face and finally found her lips. “I am? How wonderful! Me thinks you like to surprise me with this news on Christmas. Tell me, are we to have a Christmas baby every year?” he teased.
“I did not tell you about Jacob on Christmas, nor Noelle.”
“Twelfth Night is close enough,” he argued.
“Well, Noelle was then. But I did not know about Jacob until the summer.” Ellen pouted, but he placed a finger under her chin and lifted her face gently.
“I am pleased beyond measure, Ellen. Thank you,” he said.
She cocked her head to the side in confusion. “For what?” she asked.
“For making me a father. For being the best wife a man could ask for. I could think of not greeted pleasure than to build a family with you—to grow old with you.”
Ellen laughed as he waxed sentimental. “We are not exactly ancient, Simon.”
He gave her a wary glance. “Well, I am not, but you—” he teased. She slapped his arm playfully.
“Come along. You are growing more rambunctious the later it gets,” she said. He stood up from the piano bench and offered her his arm. She took it, and they walked through the quiet house at a leisurely gate. The place looked beautiful with its wintery decorations. The house smelled of pine, oranges, and spices. She could not wait for the morrow.
The children would wake up early to find an orange and a penny beside the beds. Then they would come downstairs and find a small gift waiting for them under the tree. Then they would spend the time playing games and performing little skits for each other, a tradition that Beatrice had perpetuated. Ellen looked forward to it every year, now that the children were old enough to start participating. She covered her abdomen with her hand, spreading her fingers over the place that would soon grow round with child.
“How far along are you, do you think?” Simon asked as they walked up the grand staircase to their room.
“I think the baby will be here in August sometime,” she surmised.
“Well, it is never too early to start thinking of names. I know that you had suggested the name Caroline when we were expecting Jacob, but that did not work out for obvious reasons.” Simon looked up at the ornate ceiling as they headed toward the bedroom. “Or was it Genevieve?”
Ellen’s face immediately fell. “I will thank you not to ruin a perfectly good Christmas by bringing up that woman’s name,” she said in mock annoyance.
“Forgive me. I suppose the name is fresh in my mind from the news I heard of her a few days ago.”
Ellen raised a brow. “Oh?” They had barely spoken of her since Lord Carlisle had sent her back to her parents in London on Christmas Day all those years ago. “What news is this?”
“Lord Carlisle went to visit his aunt and uncle in London and discovered that Lady Genevieve has finally settled down. And you will never guess with whom,” Simon said, deliberately making her wait to increase her suspense.
She slapped his arm playfully and giggled. “Well, come now! Do not keep me waiting all night!” she said.
He paused for only a second longer, and then he smiled. “She has married an old friend of yours—Viscount Tilbury.”
Ellen’s face fell. “Not our Viscount?”
“Yes!” Simon said. “Thankfully, he has moved his permanent residence to London, and we shall not have to see either of them very often, if at all. But yes, I thought you should know.”
“How very interesting.”
“Yes, I agree. Especially since he was so taken with you after we were married.”
Ellen frowned at him. “He was not taken with me,” she argued.
“He was. But I won out in the end, so it does not matter.”
Ellen shook her head. Simon opened their bedroom door for her, and they walked in together. “Well, anyway, back to the discussion of names. I had a different idea,” she said. She walked over to the full-length mirror and studied her reflection momentarily. Simon appeared behind her, wrapping his arms around her middle and resting his chin on her shoulder.
“Very well, what is your idea then?” he asked.
She bit her lower lip, feeling a little tug of sadness. However, she knew Simon would be pleased with her suggestion. “I want the name Charles, if it is a boy and Charlotte if it is a girl—in honour of your father,” she said softly.
Simon blinked, straightening in the mirror. Without a word, he turned her around by the shoulders and held her close. “I would like that. Thank you, Ellen. I know Papa would be pleased if he were here.”
Ellen smiled up into her husband’s handsome face. “He is pleased. And I am sure he is looking down right now, so proud of the man and father you have become.”
With that, Simon kissed her slowly and tenderly. For Ellen, she fell in love with him all over again, thanking God for bringing them together on their first Christmas. And everyone afterwards, til death, did they part.