“Come on! We’ll be late.”
Clara, standing beside Charles, looked up to where she hurried down the steps and grinned.
“We won’t be late,” she insisted. “We still have fifteen minutes.”
“Even so,” the dowager countess said, and looked to Charles. “Tell her, Charles. I always prefer to arrive on time.”
“I know, Mother,” Charles said with a grin, “but we really aren’t going to be late. Clara? Is Emmeline here?”
“Yes, Jessie is holding her,” Clara said, gesturing at the back of the row, where they all walked down the path towards the gate. She felt her heart fill with love as she saw the tiny form of her daughter, resting in Jessie’s arms.
“Grand,” Charles nodded, taking her arm. “And Albert?”
“He’s with Larkin. He was asleep, but I am sure he’s woken now. He has such strength! I believe he never sleeps.”
Charles chuckled. “He is a fine lad.”
Clara nodded. She loved her newborn son with absolute intensity. He looked like her father, she thought – or like Charles, she couldn’t tell. She didn’t know where his strong lungs had come from…he certainly was impossible to mishear, especially if he needed aught.
She looked across at Lady Dunham, who was hurrying along. “Albert?” she called. She reached the tree, where Baron Ralford was waiting. He bowed low.
“There you are. Shall we go?” he asked Lady Dunham. She nodded.
“Yes. We are just on time. I think we shan’t be late.”
Clara’s father smiled at her fondly. “No, we shan’t be late.”
Clara and Charles looked at each other as her father helped his mother into the coach. Since meeting, the two of them had formed a deep bond and Charles’ mother was now living at his estate, following a marriage. Clara was happy.
“So,” Charles said, reaching their own coach. “Up we get. Jessie? Can you pass me Emmeline?”
“Of course,” Jessie said, and Clara felt her heart melt as, carefully, Charles took the tiny baby from her arms and settled on the coach seat. Emmeline was two years old now, but still small and delicate. Clara smiled at her and she beamed back.
“Mama,” she said.
Clara’s heart melted. She reached for her and Charles passed her over, then took Albert from his nurse. He was tiny and delicate too, his head still needing support.
Clara looked at him lovingly. She leaned back on the upholstery, feeling weary. She tired quickly now, and she was sure it wouldn’t take her too long to recover. Charles had promised her that they would go on a trip into the countryside – just themselves, maybe with Larkin and Jessie and the children – for a little holiday, to recover.
“We won’t stay long,” Charles said, looking down at the child where she rested in his arms.
“No,” Clara agreed. “Not long.”
They hurried on.
They reached Claywell’s manor by lunchtime, which was when they had intended to arrive there. It was his birthday, and he was celebrating it in style, because it also happened to be a special day for both him and Amelia, who now was Lady Claywell.
“Congratulations,” Charles greeted him, passing Albert carefully to the coachman before jumping down. He reached up to take Emmeline from Clara, who helped herself down leaning on his shoulder. They stood side by side.
“Thank you, Charles,” Claywell greeted. “I’m so glad you could all be here.”
“It’s so good to see you,” Clara greeted Lady Amelia, who smiled.
“And you. Do come in. And I’ll help you settle the children upstairs. It’s grand to see them! I am sure Emmeline has grown.”
Clara smiled. “I think so,” she said. It was difficult to see, since she saw her every day. Her hair was soft and downy, and it was the same color as Clara’s, though her eyes were a dusky blue that they thought must come from Charles’ side somewhere. Albert had his father’s dark hair, and his eyes were a soft grey that could turn brown, as well, or stay grey too.
Clara went upstairs with Amelia, and soon the babies were both resting happily. Amelia’s nursery was presided over by a kindly older woman called Barra, and she had already hired Henrietta.
“The children will be needing good skills.”
Clara felt her heart ache. Since she’d left the village, Henrietta had flourished. She had met a scholar at the manor, and the two of them were the most sought-after for teaching young children. Clara wouldn’t hear of her working at their house – she was her friend, and she wouldn’t dream of employing her. However, she had helped her to settle in a fine cottage, and they saw each other almost every day.
Charles and Clara sat down at the dining-room table.
“Well,” Claywell greeted all of them. “I am pleased to be able to welcome you all to my birthday party! Capital, indeed, to see so many of you here.”
Charles chuckled. “A toast!” he shouted.
“To Claywell,” everyone echoed, and Clara was delighted to see his friend go red blushing.
The party was a dinner, but there was to be dancing afterwards. Clara felt a tingle of excitement. She had come to really enjoy dancing! She looked across at Charles, who smiled.
“You look so beautiful,” he whispered to her.
“Thank you. You look wonderful, too,” she said. She was wearing a peach-colored dress, the color soft against the pale tone of her hair. She had her hair arranged in a beautiful style, with soft curls framing her face. Charles had insisted on Bonnie staying on to be her maid, and Clara had found that she didn’t disagree. The friendship between them made the relationship much easier, she thought, than it would have been with a stranger. She liked it.
Charles grinned, reaching for a glass of cordial, which he lifted to his lips. Clara felt her hand tighten on his and he patted hers fondly.
“Well! There is certainly a lot to eat here,” Charles’ mother said. Clara chuckled.
“I think it’s all rather lovely,” she said, biting into a mouthful of delicious gravy with vegetables.
“Maybe,” Lady Dunham sniffed. “I am not sure it’s up to a certain standard, but, then, I don’t think many are.”
Clara smiled at her fondly. She was amazed by how the animosity between her and the dowager countess had disappeared. She was quite fond of her now, and they had settled their differences in a good way together.
“Now,” the countess continued. “I am sure we will be staying in the country for a long while. I do worry about you here, though…are you not too cold?” she asked Clara. Clara smiled.
“Not at all,” she said. “Truly, the fires at Dunham are so warm, I don’t think I would manage to get cold.”
Charles grinned, “That’s good.”
They all settled down to dinner together. Charles’ mother was very talkative, discussing how it would be fine to travel North for the last of the winter, and how it would be lovely to take a trip to Town as long as the weather was warm.
When they went into the ballroom to dance, Charles frowned at Clara. “You know, I have a mind to travel.”
Clara frowned. “Where would you like to travel?” she asked, taking his hand in hers. The music was starting, and she checked the meter in her head. Yes, it was a polka. She knew how to do that. She looked up at Charles, her fingers laced through his.
“I don’t know,” Charles said, stepping forward and then back, beginning the steps of the dance. Clara followed him, feeling at ease. The music was easy to dance to, and she knew the steps so that she didn’t need to concentrate on them. “London, of course. Would you like it?”
“I don’t know,” Clara said, frowning as she stepped back. They floated past another couple, dancing lightly on the tiled ballroom, and she tried to think of London. It was a place she couldn’t imagine.
“It’s a nice place,” Charles said, stepping sideways to neatly steer past a couple. “It’s big, and crowded, and there are lots of things to do. Actually, that doesn’t sound so appealing, does it?” he grinned.
“It depends,” Clara said, as they stepped neatly around another pair, feeling the stone through the soft soled shoes. “What else is there?”
Charles chuckled. “Well, there are tea-houses, and shops, and parks. You would love the parks, I think…big gardens of green you could get lost in, with benches and ponds under the trees. And I know you would love the flowers! The sort of flowers you couldn’t even imagine.”
Clara grinned, “Charles, you make it sound wonderful. I will certainly consider it.”
“Good,” he said, grinning back.
They were dancing around the hall now, the music nearing the end of the steps. Clara could feel the change, and she was impressed with herself – she believed the dance-instructor, who had said that she had learned quickly.
When the dance was over, they went to sit down. Clara still tired easily, and was pleased to sink into a chair by the wall, with Charles standing beside her. He rested a hand on her arm then sat down in the vacant chair, looking into her eyes.
“You wouldn’t mind a longer trip someday?” he asked, returning to the topic of journeys. “I mean…Claywell has a friend in the navy, and we could go to Austria, maybe? Or Italy?”
“Oh!” Clara stared. She had no idea, but it sounded wonderful. She hadn’t considered anything like it! Her whole world was here, in the village! She’d never imagined even going to another town, much less somewhere overseas!
Charles grinned. “We would wait for a year, of course…we can’t go and take little Albert with us, when he’s so young. But in a year, they will both be ready for traveling. And of course, we’d need to bring help with us, but I am sure we could take their favorite nannies?”
Clara giggled. She hadn’t thought of that! Jessie, accompanying them? It would be wonderful! She could hardly wait to tell them! But for now, she leaned back, letting the wonderful thought sink into her.
“I think,” she said with a grin, “that it sounds like a grand idea.”
Charles smiled. “I think so, too. But maybe for a practice, we could go to London first. How about that?”
Clara nodded. “That sounds wonderful.”
She sat and watched the people dancing, barely able to believe the thought that, soon, they might be dancing in London. The hall was so beautiful, with marble floors and chandeliers, and she held Charles’ hand and looked around, delighted.
London must be like that, she thought, only perhaps even more sparkly and exciting.
“Charles,” she said as they stood in the ballroom door. “Are you sure we’re not too late?”
Charles grinned. They were in London, at a ball hosted by the Duchess of Amerhurst, a friend, distantly, of Amelia’s. Clara looked up at him and he squeezed her hand.
“I promise you, we’re not too late. The doors are open. And look, there’s the footman to take our cloaks.”
Clara swallowed hard. She felt a flutter of excitement as she passed the footman her cloak. It was thick and soft, and one of the new things Charles had bought when they arrived.
“Thank you,” she said to the footman, who took the cloak and smiled, as if no-one had ever thanked him for his work before. Clara smiled back.
“Here we are,” Charles said, helping her down the stairs.
Clara gasped and looked around. Chandeliers, their bases bright with crystal, lit the ballroom, and the bright light showed gowns of all colors on the ladies – white, red, blue and all sorts of lovely shades, pale and dark – and dark suits on the men. She looked up at Charles, who was wearing dark velvet, a silk cravat round his neck. He smiled.
“Shall we dance?” he asked.
Clara grinned. She had been practicing almost every day, and she was now more than used to dancing. She heard the introduction and recognised a waltz as he led her onto the floor.
“This is capital!” the duke greeted Charles later, as they stood on the edge of the floor together. “I never heard of Ralford, but there’s a lot to be said for it, plainly.” He grinned at Clara, who blushed.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Charles said politely. Clara squeezed his hand and he did his best to make polite conversation, clearly knowing that she felt uncomfortable.
They went over to the chairs soon afterwards, to sit down. Clara found herself talking to a young woman who was discussing her trip to Austria.
“Oh, Lady Dunham!” the younger woman exclaimed. “It’s so beautiful! Truly! And if you love coffee and music, of course Austria is the place to go. I know you would love it already.”
Clara smiled. “Thank you, Lady Cummings.”
Charles came to join them, carrying a plate of little tarts to eat. He sat down beside them, grinning at Clara.
“May I ask what you two are talking of?” he asked.
“Austria,” Clara said. She looked across at the young lady, who nodded effusively.
“Oh! Yes!” she said. “You must go! It is so fine! The coffee…the music…” she made a gesture. Clara smiled.
She and Charles listened to the tales of the lady’s travels, while in the background soft music drifted past, and the scent of perfume and spices caught Clara’s nose. She could smell the ingredients of the little pies, and she was trying to guess what was in them, so that she could ask Ettie to recreate them when they were home. There was ginger, she thought, and mint…
“Clara,” Charles said, when they were alone again, the lady having returned to the floor for a dance. “You have such a way with people. Exceptional!”
Clara blushed. “I don’t do anything, really,” she said. “Just talk to them.”
Charles chuckled. “I can tell you, very few people do that.”
They talked a little together, and they decided that, seeing as the young lady recommended it so highly, they would definitely be paying Austria a visit on their first excursion.
“And that won’t be too long,” Charles said with a smile. “It’s not so very far away, so we could go for only a month. I am sure that would suit us very well.”
“I am sure it would too,” Clara said. “Though even a month sounds like a very long adventure indeed! I can barely believe it…but then, I actually can, as with you all sorts of things seem to happen.”
They shared a smile. Clara was feeling sleepy, and they retired early, glad to be back in their coach and on the way home. The road was dark, but it was lit with the lanterns on the sides of the coach, which blinked and winked as they went over a bump. Clara watched them sleepily, feeling content and rested as she held Charles’ hand, sitting beside her.
“Clara!” Jessie greeted when they got home. The house in London was beautifully appointed, with enough room for the children too, and plenty of room for staff, so Jessie and Larkin had both come with them. “The little ones are fast asleep. I’m glad you’re back. I knew you’d want word as soon as you came in.”
“You shouldn’t have,” Clara said, gesturing to her and Larkin, who had stayed awake waiting for them, though it must be late by now.
“Of course, we did,” Larkin grinned. “Oh, but you look fine, Clara.”
“Thank you,” Clara said fondly. She glanced at the butler, who ignored them, though his eyes were wide. He was clearly scandalised by the way Clara’s staff used her name, but then he was from the London house, and he wouldn’t know about why they did, or the special bond between the three of them.
“We went to the park,” Jessie confided, as she went up the stairs with them. “It was so fine!”
“Yes!” Larkin grinned. “We saw some fine fellows,” she blushed.
“Larkin,” Jessie reprimanded. “We were very careful and proper, I promise,” she said to her, and Clara smiled.
“I am sure you were, Jessie,” she assured. “But you are also allowed to have fun.”
Jessie grinned and looked away shyly. “Thank you, Clara.”
Clara and Charles went upstairs.
It was late but Clara, though weary, didn’t want to sleep yet. Charles called for tea and they sat in the drawing-room together. The children were asleep in the nursery, and Clara leaned back on the padded chair, shutting her eyes. It was a delightful sort of weariness, and she lay back happily against the chair.
“Oh, Charles,” she murmured, “this is so wonderful.”
Charles grinned. His hand tightened on hers. “It is so wonderful for me to do this. London has never been so wonderful.”
Clara smiled sleepily. “Oh, Charles,” she repeated gently. “You say such sweet things.”
“It’s all true,” he said. “I cannot tell you what it is like to share this place with you. To share every day with you. It is…I have no words. I never imagined life could be like this and I am happy every day.”
Clara felt her heart squeeze with feelings. She sat up and put her hands on his shoulders, looking into his eyes. “Charles, I feel the same,” she said. “I never knew that life could be an adventure, that there was always something wonderful around the corner. But I know that as long as I am with you I will always look forward to the next challenge, no matter what it is. It will always be wonderful, because I share it with you.”
She was surprised to see Charles blink back tears.
“Oh, Clara,” he said. He took her hand and lifted it to his lips. “That is such a beautiful thing to say. And I know you mean it, because I feel the same way. I love you, Clara.”
“I love you, too.”