Three Years Later
Eleanor stretched, rolling over onto her back to snuggle closer to her husband. Sunlight poured through their bedroom windows, a soft summer breeze billowing the curtains. She sighed contentedly, placing a protective hand on her burgeoning belly. Joshua stirred, turning over to face her. He ran his arm under her pillow, and she laid back down on his arm. “Good morning, beautiful,” he said with a sleepy tinge to his voice.
“Good morning,” she whispered, studying his face. She leaned in and gave him a quick peck on the lips. “Time to wake up.”
He groaned, refusing to open his eyes. “No. Just a few more minutes.” He held her fast, rendering her immobile in his embrace. Giggling, she tried to shimmy out of his grasp, but he held fast.
“Come on. Little Joshua will be awake by now. I think I hear him in his crib.” Eleanor pushed gently against his chest, and he finally let her get up. She rolled back over onto her back and pushed herself up. It was challenging to manoeuvre now that she was so close to delivering their second child. But she did not complain.
She went over to the curtains and parted them. Joshua groaned once more. When she turned around, he was watching her with open appreciation. Smiling, she gave a soft laugh and padded over to his side of the bed. “What are you smiling about?”
“Nothing. I just have the most beautiful wife in the whole world,” he said, grasping her hand. He pulled her down gently to the edge of the bed, and she leaned in for another kiss. When he tried to get her to lay down once more, she pushed away and stood up, side-stepping out of his grasp.
“Do we have to get up?” he asked. “Sarah will take care of Josh.”
Eleanor shook her head. “That may be, but then who would get breakfast on?”
Their cook, Sarah, also doubled as a nurse for their one-year-old son. And Eleanor was glad of any help she could get. The young woman was a treasure, having raised her three younger brothers all by herself until they were old enough to care for themselves. She was terrific with children, and an excellent cook, as well.
Of course, her life was simpler now that she was the wife of a merchant. They certainly did not live in the lavish conditions she had grown up in as a banker’s daughter, but their cottage was filled with love and laughter. And that made her rich beyond measure.
“I will be down in a moment,” Joshua promised, and Eleanor did not argue. He had been working long hours as of late, trying to acquire three more vessels to add to their shipping empire. Already, they had seven ships that travelled all over the globe, bringing exotic products to the English market. Eleanor could not be more proud of her hard-working husband.
Eleanor went to the next room and was greeted by her son, cooing happily in his crib. She bent down and picked him up, holding him over her head for a moment. “Good morning, my little ray of sunshine. How are you today?”
Josh began talking in gibberish, and she held him close. He pulled at the auburn locks that had strayed from her nightcap, and she gently pried his fingers away. “Come now, that hurts, little man.” She laughed, placing him on her hip as she walked back to her room. She deposited Little Joshua on the bed, allowing him to wake up his father while she put a dressing gown on. Joshua sat up groggily and began playing with his son. He shot her a mischievous smile.
“That is not fair.”
Eleanor laughed. “It seemed the only way I could get you up.” She took Josh up in her arms and exited the room. They went downstairs, and she set Josh down on the floor to play with his wooden toys. Sarah was already at work in the kitchen, finishing up breakfast preparations.
“How are things coming, Sarah? We need to be at the manor by ten this morning for my sister’s visit.”
“Everything is ready, ma’am. I’ll bring it out now.”
“Thank you.” Eleanor turned. “Will you look after Josh while I get dressed? We won’t be a minute.”
“Of course, ma’am.” Sarah took up two bowls and started out the kitchen door to place them on the dining room table. Eleanor then went back upstairs to change.
They ate breakfast quickly, and by half-past nine, they were on the road heading toward her parents’ estate. It was only a few minutes’ drive since they lived only a half-mile down the road. Eleanor drank in the sunshine, trying to take in these little moments of freedom before the baby came. She would be trapped indoors for at least a few weeks as they settled into the newborn routines again.
“I had a letter from Frederick yesterday,” Joshua said as they bumped down the road.
“Oh? And what news does he have for us?”
“He and Diana and James will be in England this winter to give me a report on how the business is going and to meet with new retailers.” Joshua smiled. “It will be good to see them after such a long absence.”
“I agree,” Eleanor said. She and Joshua had returned to England just in time to welcome baby Joshua into the world. She had loved sailing, but she was glad that she had not been forced to give birth in one of the tiny cabins of one of their merchant ships. “And how are Gemma and Sarah Grace?”
“Frederick says that Sarah Grace and her husband are doing well. And he is enjoying being a grandfather.”
Eleanor nodded happily. Sarah Grace had become a good friend during their stay in India. She had married shortly after they departed for England. They had welcomed a baby girl earlier that spring. “Well, I am glad to hear it. Frederick must be bursting with pride.”
“He is, indeed.” Joshua resituated their son on his knee. Even though the carriage was bouncing slightly as it ran over potholes in the road, he bounced him even more on his knee, singing to him.
Eleanor looked out the window just as they were passing the church. A wave of sadness overcame her, the grey tombstones standing up helter-skelter off to the left of the old church. Her father-in-law had passed away nearly a year ago, and his monument was one of those standing in the churchyard. Despite their hopes, his heart had finally given out on him, and he passed peacefully in his sleep. She was thankful that he and Joshua had been reunited before his passing and that they had had a few years together as a family.
Eleanor looked over at her husband, his sadness blanketing his eyes.
“He would have been very proud of you, you know,” Eleanor said softly. He met her gaze, giving a weak smile.
“Thank you. I only wish he could have been here to see Josh grow up. And to meet this new little one.” Joshua looked away, trying not to cry. However, she knew him well enough by now to see that he still missed his father very much.
“It is okay to miss him. He was a very important person in your life, and it is only normal for you to grieve.” Eleanor shifted to the side and reached out her hand to him from across the way. He took it, and she gave it a light squeeze. He smiled at her and let go of her hand.
“Thank you. I thought it would get easier with time, but I did not know I would still miss him so much after almost a year.”
“We will always miss him. But the pain will lessen.” Eleanor could speak from experience. She had thought she would never come out of the black grief she had experienced when she had been told that Joshua was dead. But slowly, life had returned. And even though there was no hope of being reunited with Joshua’s father on this earth, as she had been with Joshua, they knew that they would see him again in heaven someday.
They arrived at the gates of her parent’s manor. Her excitement grew when she saw Harriet climbing down from her husband’s carriage. She scooted closer to the window and stuck her hand out to wave. “Yoo-hoo!” she called, and Harriet turned around. Her sister waved, leaving her husband on the top step to come back down and meet them.
As soon as Eleanor had placed her feet on the ground, Harriet was there hugging her. Harriet put her away from her and looked down at her growing belly. “How much longer do we have to wait? I do not think I can stand it much longer.”
“Any day now.” Eleanor laughed and linked arms with her sister. They climbed the steps and went into the foyer, where her mother and father were waiting.
“Well, I do hope she decides to come while Richard and I are visiting. I would not want to miss her birth like I did Josh’s.” Harriet glanced over her shoulder and went to take the squirming toddler from Joshua. Little Josh went into her arms eagerly and immediately started pulling at the flowers on her hat. She giggled, and Eleanor helped her get his fingers untangled from the faux blossoms before they were utterly destroyed.
Eleanor laughed. “How do you know it will be a girl?”
Harriet took off her hat and handed it to the butler. She flashed Eleanor a knowing grin. “I am her aunt. I have a feeling about these things.”
Eleanor nodded wryly. “Oh, is that so? Well, I will not argue with you. I would be overjoyed to have a little girl.” She screwed up her nose. “You could not help that you missed Josh’s birth, you know. You were on your wedding trip, for goodness’ sake.” Eleanor turned away to greet her mother. She leaned in and kissed their matriarch on the cheek.
“How are you, my dear? You look tired,” her mother commented. She motioned for them to head into the drawing room and then directed them out to the patio where a lavish tea was laid. “I hope you are hungry. I had Cook prepare double.”
“Mother, I do not need to eat that much,” Eleanor laughed, looking at the array of sweets and pastries.
“Well, you never know,” her mother hardly heard her.
Harriet leaned in close and lowered her voice. “It is a good thing she does not know yet that we are expecting.”
Eleanor had to cover her mouth to conceal the gasp of surprise and joy. “How far along are you?” she whispered, her heart leaping with excitement.
“Only a few months, I would say. I think I am due in November—” Harriet whispered but was interrupted by her mother.
“What are you two whispering about?” She gave them each a suspicious glance, raising her brows at them. “It is not polite to keep secrets, you know.”
“We know, Mama,” Harriet said, heading to a chair. She sat down, and Eleanor sat next to her. “We were just saying how lovely this table looks.”
Her mother did not seem to believe them, so Eleanor tried to change the subject. “How is business, Richard?” Her brother-in-law was also in banking, so he and their father had a lot in common.
Soon the men were deep in conversation about business and politics, clustered at the end of the table. Eleanor sat between Harriet and their mother, bouncing Josh on her knee. Her mother was enthralled with her grandson, playing with him and watching him grow.
Suddenly Harriet turned to her and gave a little yelp. Eleanor jumped, covering her heart with her free hand. “What in the world is the matter, Harriet? You frightened me out of my wits!”
“I apologise. I almost forgot to tell you. We ran into Lord Bristow the other day,” Harriet explained. The gentlemen quieted at their end of the table.
Joshua frowned. “I thought he was in debtor’s prison?”
“Apparently, he has paid his debts, and he has wrangled some unsuspecting woman into marrying him. And you will never guess who it is.” Harriet paused. She was having a splendid time keeping them guessing. Eleanor handed Josh over to her mother’s waiting arms and then turned back to Harriet.
“Well, do not keep us in suspense. Who is he to wed? And what woman in their right mind would have Lord Bristow after everything that has come out about him?” Eleanor exchanged glances with her husband, but he remained silent. Harriet looked around the table to ensure that everyone’s eyes were on her.
She bit her lower lip, smiling with a conspiratorial air. “Lady Winters.”
The news hit like a ton of bricks. And then, one by one, they all began to laugh. “Lady Sophia Winters? The Dowager Countess of Gresham?” Joshua asked, disbelief clouding his features.
Eleanor could not hold her laughter in either. The thought of Lord Bristow marrying a woman in her fifties, and one that was known for her biting tongue and gossip, was almost too perfect.
“Well, she will certainly be retribution for all the pain he has caused others in his lifetime.”
“Yes, but he will have money at his disposal again,” Joshua argued. “I am not so sure this is a laughing matter.”
Eleanor cocked her head to the side, still laughing. “It seems a just reward for the blackguard. Nothing can be more unsavoury for a man such as Lord Bristow than a nagging, silly wife.”
Joshua leaned back in his chair, a smile tugging at his mouth. Richard slapped him good-naturedly on the back. “Do not tell me that you feel bad for the man. From what you and Eleanor have told us, he deserves everything he got. And it seems that Thalia is at it once again.”
Eleanor could not but agree. It would seem that the goddess of comedy was wreaking havoc in Lord Bristow’s life once more, and justifiably so. However, she could see that the conversation was making Joshua uncomfortable, so she changed the subject. “I think you have news of far more importance to share with us, do you not, Harriet?”
Harriet blushed profusely and exchanged a smile with her husband. Their father leaned forward, raising a brow. “What is this then, Harriet? Have you something to tell us?”
Harriet laughed, shrugging. “Well, you will all know soon enough. Mama, Papa, I hope you are ready to be grandparents again,” she announced. Their mother let out a squeal of delight and began congratulating them. Their father offered his hearty congratulations as well.
“What do you think of that, Josh? You are going to have a cousin soon!” Eleanor’s father said.
Josh simply gnawed on the corner of a napkin and babbled to himself.
When tea was over, Eleanor asked Joshua to take a walk with her. Little Josh was fast asleep in his grandmother’s arms, so they took advantage of a few moments alone. They strolled lazily through the garden, and Eleanor could sense that her husband was in a pensive mood. “Did Harriet’s news about Lord Bristow upset you? I am sorry if it did. Sometimes she can be a little tactless.”
Joshua halted at the edge of the garden, and they sat down on their favourite bench to look out over the green. “No, not exactly. I suppose I feel a bit guilty sometimes. My life has turned out so good, with so many blessings.” He sighed heavily, raking a hand through his hair.
“You should not feel guilty. Did you forget what he almost got away with?”
“No. However, he did save my life when the ship went down. I think sometimes I feel responsible to repay that debt. At least, I do not think it right to revel in someone else’s suffering—even if it is Roland Harrow’s suffering.”
Eleanor nodded, feeling a prick of conscience. “You are a much better person than I could ever dream of being. He nearly did kill you by leaving you in India all alone. And yet, you have the decency to forgive him.”
Joshua shrugged. “I would not say I am any better than anyone else. I struggled for a long time with hard feelings against him. But I do not want to live the rest of my life with bitterness in my heart. Besides, all is well that ends well. We are together, and that is what really matters to me.” He reached over and grabbed her hand, its warmth encasing her hand like a protective cocoon. She leaned her head against his shoulder, breathing deeply. He smelled of the sea and sunshine. She did not think she would ever get tired of the scent.
“You are right, Joshua. I need to let go of my bitterness toward him. I do not want his name or even the thought of what he did to shadow my life.” Eleanor took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Roland Harrow—I forgive you,” she whispered.
Joshua chuckled softly. “Now, doesn’t that feel better?”
Eleanor sat up, nodding with a smile. “Yes. Yes, it does.”
She settled her head back down on his shoulder and let the companionable silence pass between them. Birds sang in the treetops, and the breeze carried pink and white cherry blossoms down from the branches. The air was filled with the sweet scent of sun-baked earth and fresh green grass. She took another deep breath and let it out slowly.
“It is funny to think that our adventure started right here, on this bench. Did you ever think we would get back here and be so happy as we are now?” Eleanor asked, feeling the nostalgia of the moment.
“To be honest, I did not think it possible to be so happy. You have made me the luckiest man in the world, Eleanor.” He turned slightly and planted a kiss on her forehead. She straightened and leaned in for a real kiss.
“It is I who am the lucky one.” And with that, he kissed her on the lips, both of them savouring the love and life they had built together and all the hope for the future.