Five Years Later
Mariah watched her friend flex her feet, complaining about how swollen they were.
“Do you soak them?” Mariah asked. “I soaked my feet every day when I was pregnant with Johnny and Alexander. Tessa would put a cup of Epsom salts and half a cup of dried lavender in hot water. Sometimes, I used coarse salts if needed.”
“Epsom salts, you say?” said Lucy. “Do you buy your supply straight from Epsom, or is there a supplier nearby? I might ask Hugh to get some.”
“You could ask that man to buy you the moon, and he would do it. He absolutely adores you.”
Lucy smiled affectionately. “He certainly does.”
They both looked to where their husbands stood, admiring their handsome forms. Mariah loved to look at her husband, marvelling that she was married to him. She never took their marriage for granted, knowing that if circumstances had been different, she wouldn’t be where she was now.
“You’ll be five years married next month,” Lucy commented. “Do you know what John will do this year?”
John treated their anniversary as though it was their wedding day all over again. He believed it was necessary to celebrate the day they became husband and wife because it stood for the day she could never be rid of him. John would always say the last part in jest, but there was an inkling of truth to it. If John had not arrived at the house in time all those years ago, Mariah would have been gone and possibly lost forever. There was no telling what the Baroness and Louisa had planned to do once Mariah reached London. It was later discovered that they didn’t have family in London, and the address they had given belonged to a woman’s workhouse. If not for Lucy and John, Mariah would not be where she was now.
“You know how John is,” said Mariah. “He never tells me a thing. The details of the day remain a secret until the very last minute.”
“I do not know of any other man in England who makes a fuss about their anniversary,” Lucy commented. “Mama used to tell me that a woman has one day to feel special, and thereafter ‘tis all about pleasing her husband and raising children. John has turned that on its head.”
“He appreciates life,” Mariah explained. “Hugh threw a lovely dinner party for your anniversary this year.”
Lucy and Hugh had been married for a year after four years of courtship. Poor Hugh had remained patient despite Lucy doing all she could to dissuade him from pursuing her. Mariah’s best friend had gotten it into her head that she would never marry because she refused to become any man’s little wife. John had been the exception, but since he was already taken by Mariah, Lucy had believed no other man would respect her as a woman with her own mind. Hugh, however, never gave up and did all he could to show Lucy that he loved her just as she was.
Lucy laughed. “He was so terribly nervous for a week. I couldn’t understand what he was up to until you and John arrived along with the other guests. Hugh took a page out of John’s book.”
“They are the best of friends, after all,” Mariah added.
Lucy suddenly winced, clutching her belly. “Goodness! This little one is far too active for one not out of the womb yet. Were your sons the same?”
“Alexander certainly was, but Johnny was a tad bit lazy. I would poke my belly to make sure all was well.”
Mariah’s first pregnancy had been a frightening experience as she had not known what to expect. Her mother-in-law had helped where she could, but Mariah would have felt more at ease had her own mother been with her. John had supported her despite being fearful himself, often singing to her to calm her. Mariah recalled how she would wake up in the middle of the night because she couldn’t feel the baby move or how distressed she would become when she could not stomach any food.
By her eighth month, Mariah had been less fearful and more impatient to see her baby. It had been an emotional day for all when John Blackmore II was born.
Alexander had been an easier but more active pregnancy, and now John was hinting at having another baby in the hopes of having a daughter this time.
“I hope I have a little girl,” said Lucy. “Then she could marry one of your sons, and we could become one big happy family.”
Mariah laughed. “Already arranging our children’s marriages, I see. That would be an ideal situation. But if you have a boy, then I will have to have a girl to fulfil our wish.”
Lucy’s eyes widened. “Are you pregnant again?”
“Heavens, no!” Mariah denied. “At least, not yet. Raising two little boys is more than enough for right now, although John does keep hinting.”
“He’ll be an overprotective father,” said Lucy with a chuckle. “I doubt he will allow her to marry, even if the man was my son!”
“I would have to agree with you. He rarely lets me out of his sight; I can only imagine how he would be with his daughter.”
“Speaking of rarely letting you out of his sight, here come our husbands,” said Lucy, gesturing with her head. “Perhaps they know we’re talking about them.”
“I wouldn’t put it past them. Our husbands know us far too well.”
The men drew up to them, each taking a seat on either side of Mariah and Lucy.
“Have you already become bored?” Lucy asked. “I thought you would be playing cards with the other men.”
“I do not know about John, but I cannot bear to be away from my wife for too long,” Hugh replied. “It took me a lot of work to have her agree to marry me.”
Lucy rolled her eyes with a sigh, but anyone could see that she was smitten with her husband.
“I can hardly run away, can I?” she said. “This belly has ensured that.”
Mariah watched Hugh tenderly touch Lucy’s belly before looking into his wife’s eyes with so much love that Mariah felt a little embarrassed for looking.
“How do you feel?” Hugh asked Lucy. “May I get you anything? Are your feet still swollen?”
“I wish you would stop asking me every five seconds,” Lucy scolded.
“Has it been five seconds already?” Hugh questioned. “I meant to do it every two seconds.”
Lucy pursed her lips, but Mariah could tell she was pleased and happy.
“Why don’t we leave them to their loving bickering?” John whispered in her ear. “I would like to have my wife to myself.”
Mariah smiled. “I’d love that.”
John cleared his throat, getting Lucy and Hugh’s attention. “Excuse me as I whisk my beautiful wife away to the dance floor. I’m finding it almost impossible to spend time with a wife who is too popular for my liking. I think we’ll refuse the next invitation to a ball.”
“I might just do that myself,” said Hugh. “Our wives need to spend more time with their husbands.”
Lucy arched her eyebrows, her head pulled slightly back. “I beg your pardon? Are you suggesting that we neglect you?”
“I wouldn’t be so starved for attention if that wasn’t so,” Hugh answered.
Mariah chuckled as John drew her away. Lucy loved to quarrel, and Hugh enjoyed baiting her, but they adored each other so much that no amount of quarrels could change that.
“We’re not like that, are we?” John asked.
“I’m not as headstrong as Lucy, and you have no reason to challenge me. Their relationship is certainly unique, but they love each other dearly. They just show it differently.”
“Each to their own, I suppose,” said John. “Did you miss me?”
“During the half-hour we were away from each other?”
“Half an hour? Are you certain? I thought it was more so two hours.”
Mariah chuckled, shaking her head. “I’m quite certain.”
John spun her around once as they reached the dance floor, making Mariah laugh with giddiness.
“You always do that when I least expect it,” she accused.
“I like to keep you on your toes, my lovely wife. It keeps our marriage interesting.”
Mariah stepped away as the dance dictated, exchanging places with the woman to her side before returning to John.
“Do you think our marriage so boring that we need to keep it interesting?” she teased. “Or perhaps ‘tis me that you find insipid and mundane.”
John let out a bark of laughter, startling the other guests. “You? Insipid and mundane? Were you not the woman I found attempting to climb a tree to help a kitten? Or the one who set fire to herself because you were trying to heat up the room for a bird who had fallen into the pond?”
Mariah averted her gaze, trying not to smile. “Did I do all that? You must be mistaken.”
“You most certainly did!” John insisted. “It took all that I had not to act like a madman and yell at everyone for not trying hard enough to deter you. You’ll be the death of me one day.”
“You’re overreacting, my lord. I was mere inches off the ground when I helped that kitten, and it was hardly my fault that a little spark caught onto my dress. It only singed a small hole.”
“Have you noticed that you always say ‘my lord’ when you’re angry or guilty?” John asked.
“I don’t know what you mean, John,” she countered.
Mariah watched her husband bite back a smile. “I am sorry for ever saying that we need to keep our marriage interesting. I was clearly out of my mind.”
John growled, causing a shiver down Mariah’s spine. “You drive me insane, wife, but fortunately, I enjoy the feeling. The last five years have been more entertaining and fulfilling than my entire life before meeting you. I must be the luckiest man alive.”
“I do not believe in luck,” Mariah objected. “Luck gives the notion that we are together by chance when it was your efforts that brought us together. Blessed is the word I would use.”
“I would do it all again if it meant that I could have another lifetime with you,” said John. “One simply isn’t enough.”
Mariah couldn’t agree more. Every day was an opportunity to live the life she had hoped for and now had. When the dance ended, John decided that he wanted more privacy and suggested a stroll in the garden. Mariah happily agreed, wanting time with her husband as well. Both their lives were so busy that they never spent as much time together as they wished, so any time alone together was cherished.
Arm in arm, they passed other couples who clearly had the same idea, but Mariah doubted any of them came close to having the love she shared with John.
“Lucy asked me what you planned to do for our anniversary this year,” Mariah said after a while. “Naturally, I told her that it was likely a surprise, or have you finally decided to include me in your planning?”
“You already know the answer to that,” John replied.
“But what if I should have ideas of my own? We could alternate where you have one year, and I have the other.”
John shook his head. “Anniversaries are mine, and birthdays are yours.”
“That is hardly fair,” Mariah protested.
“Not everything is fair in this world, dear wife,” he said, kissing her brow. “Let me appreciate you as I see fit.”
“Very well. I enjoy your surprises, although I think you will run out of ideas soon enough and will need my help.”
John smiled. “Do not hold your breath, my love. You are my muse, and I draw inspiration from you every day.”
“You always know precisely what to say to make me swoon,” Mariah complained. “How is a woman to remain annoyed with you?”
“Why would you want to be annoyed with such a perfect husband?” John asked. “Men like me are far and few between. We’re almost as rare as coloured diamonds.”
Mariah had often remarked on that herself, but she decided that teasing her husband might humble him a little.
“Hugh will soon surpass you,” she commented. “You may need to hang up your hat for the perfect husband and settle for second best.”
John snorted. “Impossible. I wrote the book on being the perfect husband. Hugh can only learn from me, but he will not surpass the master.”
“Master? I had no idea I was married to an educator. I’m strangely reminded of the male tutor who taught me arithmetic and calculus. He also thought he was perfect until I showed him a flaw in his calculations.”
John appeared amazed. “We have been married five years, and yet I never knew that you studied such subjects. It’s uncommon for women.”
“Papa believed it was necessary. He believed that everything in life was a maths problem that needed to be calculated. I must admit that it has been useful knowledge.”
John shook his head. “It seems I do not know everything about my wife. I shall have to change my title of ‘Perfect Husband’ to ‘Good Husband’.”
“Oh, don’t do that!” Mariah protested with a laugh. “I secretly like that my husband is perfect.”
John stared at her for a heartbeat or two and then continued their stroll without further word.
“Why are you so quiet?” she asked when her curiosity became too much.
“Being the perfect husband. I can’t help but feel that I failed you when I lost track of the Baroness and Louisa. I wanted to know where they were at all times to ensure that they could never come back and try to harm you out of revenge.”
Oh. That was bothering him. John had hired a private investigator to watch the movements of the Baroness and Louisa and alert him if they engaged in any behaviour that would jeopardise her. Somehow, the women managed to discover the investigator and escaped him.
“I have always felt safe with you, John,” Mariah insisted. “Not once have I felt the fear of seeing them again. They lost the ability to frighten me the day you exposed them and revealed their evil ways.”
“I know that, but I just don’t trust them.” He went quiet for a moment before revealing surprising information. “They were briefly spotted in London some weeks ago.”
John shook his head. “Not anymore. They departed to Bath after a week or so in London. I didn’t know it was them at first, but when I heard of a baroness and her daughter behaving desperately and resorting to tricks to get their way, I did a little investigation of my own. I found their residence and had it watched. At first, I didn’t recognise them because the Baroness is thinner and grey, and Louisa has changed her dark hair to yellow, but closer observation left me with no doubt that it was them.”
Mariah didn’t know how she felt about knowing the women had been in London. She wasn’t afraid in the slightest, but Mariah didn’t want the Baroness or Louisa to come near her children.
“Do you think they know that we live here as well?” she asked.
“I have no doubt about that because they managed to avoid us. London is big enough for anyone to go undetected if not drawing attention to oneself, but if you’re intent on entering high society…”
“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” Mariah admitted. “The Baroness has always wanted to be someone. I feel sorry for Louisa because she has known no better. It must be challenging having a mother who only believes your worth comes from who you know.”
“Louisa made her own choices,” John argued.
“But what choice did she have? The Baroness is her mother.”
“The choice of a person with a conscience and free will. You’ll be glad to know that the Baroness no longer refers to herself as Lady Tottenham but as Lady Avendale. At first, I thought she might have remarried, but that’s not so. ‘Tis merely a fake identity to avoid scandal following her.”
Mariah wondered where they had hidden for the last five years. There were many places to hide in England if one wanted to remain unknown, but the Baroness’ love for attention would have eventually drawn her out. Of course, wherever the Baroness went, so did Louisa. Mariah had hoped that Louisa would finally see the error of her ways and change and perhaps settle down and get married, but that didn’t seem to be what the young woman wanted.
She is still holding onto her aspiration to become a countess or duchess. If only the Baroness hadn’t told her that was the only way to be happy.
“Are they still in Bath?”
“Up until a few days ago. Apparently, they made such a disgrace of themselves that Bath’s high society rejected them. I do not yet have all the details about the scandal they caused, but I have a feeling it had to do with securing a marriage for Louisa.”
Mariah sighed, shaking her head. “I know that they treated me terribly, but I cannot imagine how distressing it must be to never be able to settle anywhere without scandal following you. I truly feel sorry for them.”
“They have brought it upon themselves, my love,” said John. “Do not feel sorry for them.”
“I cannot help it, John. I truly hope one day they will learn that kindness is important and change their ways.”
“You would wish them well despite everything they did to you?”
Mariah took her husband’s hands and kissed them, startling him. “You are still angry with them on my account, but ‘tis no longer necessary. They cannot hurt me. I have my happily ever after, and all they have is stress and scandal. I won, my love.”
“Well, when you put it that way,” John begrudgingly agreed.
“You know that I’m right. I have the most wonderful husband and two beautiful sons. What more can I ask for?”
“A daughter?” said John hopefully.
Mariah rolled her eyes, laughing. She indeed had the perfect life, or as perfect as anyone’s life could be. There was no reason to be bitter when Mariah had everything she had ever hoped for and dreamed about. Happily Ever After was not just for faerie tales.