Marlena looked at the field. She felt oddly peaceful, though she had considered she would be nervous. She looked over to Ryan, where he walked very slowly, her little son James Alexander held in his arms.
She walked over to him as he approached, and kissed the little boy, who was half asleep. He was just nine months old and starting to say his first words, his eyes still the uncertain grey of early childhood. Marlena was sure they would be blue, like hers and her father, though Ryan still good-naturedly argued that they could be brown.
They walked across the field towards the small hillock. It was late afternoon, and the sunshine was already stretching the shadows to evening. It was cool outside, and Marlena had her bonnet on, little Alexander wrapped firmly in shawls to keep him warm. She leaned on Ryan as, together, they walked up the hill towards their goal.
They stopped in front of a clean-cut stone.
“James,” Marlena said. She addressed the stone, which marked the spot where he was laid to rest. He had not wanted to be in the village, in the churchyard with the other Ashover family. He had asked to be here, in the field, under the open sky. The family had agreed. Marlena looked down at the stone, her heart twisting. She felt as though, in this place, she could connect to James, could speak to him and know that, somewhere up there in the blue where the stars were, he could hear her.
“We wanted to introduce someone,” Ryan said. He spoke, too, as if he knew James, and that didn’t feel wrong to Marlena – after all, they had spent months together reading his letters and the diary, and it felt as though Ryan knew him.
She took a breath. “This is James Alexander,” she said to James. She looked down at the little baby who Ryan held and smiled as he opened his eyes.
She looked up and saw a swallow swoop low out of the heavens – the swallows had almost all migrated by now, she thought. Here was just one. It swooped like a leaf of autumn, low out of the sky, and then disappeared against the dark background of the clouds.
“I know that you would love your nephew, James,” she said. “And I think that he would have got along well with you. He is already too curious for anyone else.” She laughed, sniffing as tears soaked her cheeks. It felt right, introducing James to his uncle. She would want that, somehow, he was a part of his nephew’s life – and she felt as though he would be, as though, in the veil beyond time, he saw him and was curious.
“We’ll be taking him out into the countryside a lot,” Ryan added. “Mainly because he’s much too curious to let him be in the house for long.” He chuckled. Marlena could see that he was crying too, gentle tears falling down his cheeks.
She looked up at Ryan. “Shall we go back?” she asked. James, her baby, was sleeping, and Ryan nodded.
“Yes, let’s go back,” he said. “It’s cold outside.”
Marlena nodded, and they walked back down the hill towards where the path led back to the estate.
She was relieved when they reached the house. Her fingers were freezing, and James was waking up, making small fretting sounds she was sure meant he was too cold. The moment they got indoors, her mother swooped down on James, taking him in her arms and walking to the stairs.
“I’ll take the little chap upstairs,” she said, kissing his forehead. “He’ll freeze out there.”
“Thank you,” Marlena said. She took off her cloak and handed it to Ryan, who hung it with his coat next to the door. They went through into the dining room, where the butler was busy making a fire.
“My Lady,” he said, looking up as they came in. “I was asked to report to you that you have a visitor.”
“I do?” Marlena asked. She glanced at Ryan. She was staying here at Newborough for just a few days before she and Ryan went down to London. They had decided to come here, both to spend time with her family and to give James Alexander a chance to recover on the journey. Who might have known they would be here?
Ryan shrugged. “I can go and see who it is if you like,” he said.
“I’ll come too,” Marlena said. She felt glad that James was safe with his grandmother for the moment. She stood and followed Ryan into the hallway.
She stared. In the hallway was a tall young woman, elegant and dressed in a pale-coloured cloak and yellow gown. She had her thick black hair pulled back in a bun, and beside her stood a pale-haired man. She saw Marlena and smiled.
“Marlena!” she said. “I am so pleased to see you.”
“Emma!” Marlena said. It was Miss Westfield! She would not have expected to see her! How had she known how to find her? And who was the man who stood by her side? He looked shyly at them.
“Your Grace,” he said, bowing to Ryan. “I had heard you would be visiting here. We could not help coming to visit you.”
“Lucas Fisher!” Ryan exclaimed. He recognised the man. This was the best friend of James, and he blushed as the fellow repeated his request.
“Baron Lineham, if you don’t mind.”
“Agreed,” Ryan said.
Everybody laughed. Marlena felt her heart fill with light. She was so pleased to see these two here – it was almost as though they too held a piece of James and that in his own way, he was still bringing light to their world.
“Will you stay and take refreshments upstairs, Emma?” she asked. She gestured to the hallway. Emma lifted a brow as she looked at Lucas.
“Would you like to stay for tea?” she asked him.
They all chuckled again, and Marlena walked with them up the stairs, feeling her heart thump. She had mentioned Emma to her father, but she wasn’t sure how her family would feel as she didn’t want to remind them of the sadness they all felt, discovering her.
As it happened, they all received her extremely well. The drawing room was full: Charles was there with Gertrude, and Lord and Lady Newborough were there, along with the Cranefords and a few neighbours. Marlena walked towards the fireplace, wanting to get warm, and Charles joined her.
“I say,” he said. “It’s cold out.”
She nodded. “It absolutely is.” She curtseyed and smiled at Gertrude, dressed in a greenish-coloured dress, her big dark eyes sparkling warmly as she looked up at Marlena.
“It’s going to be a cold winter?”
“I believe so,” Marlena agreed. She already liked Gertrude, who Charles had met through a colleague of his from the East India Company. She was small and dark-haired and had an exotic air, and her playful, soft nature made her a welcome inclusion in any family gathering. She and Charles were almost always abroad. When he was at home, he was in London, using the townhouse. Marlena was pleased her own parents spent more and more time at Newborough – the country air was so much healthier for them.
She went with Ryan to the corner, glad to be out of the group by the table. She had become so used to the countryside and their manor, which was so quiet and where few people visited, that large groups bothered her nowadays.
She squeezed Ryan’s hand, and they stood together by the fireplace, both enjoying the shared silence.
After a long moment, Ryan put an arm around her shoulders. “Shall we go somewhere quiet?” he asked.
Marlena nodded. She dearly enjoyed time with her family, but the crowd and the sound of voices were becoming rather exhausting. She was glad when Ryan excused them and led her to the door. She followed him across the hallway to an empty room, glad of the relatively cool, quiet space.
“I am not used to crowds,” Ryan confessed.
“Me neither,” Marlena admitted. “It’s so quiet at our home.”
Ryan chuckled. “Yes. I suppose I ought to get better at inviting guests. We do spend our time in some isolation, you know.”
Marlena nodded. “I suppose we should. I am sure we could entertain more than we do, though I must add that I enjoy the time with you.”
They both smiled. Marlena felt her heart race as he took her hands in his, looking down into her eyes. They had been married for over a year, but she still felt the same racing excitement whenever she looked at him.
“I understand Gerard left the country,” Ryan said as he went to sit down by the window. Marlena joined him, surprised to hear the news.
“He did?” she asked.
“Yes. I believe being accused of murder – even when there was no evidence – brought him to himself. He fled for Scotland, I believe.”
“I see,” Marlena said. She was pleased to hear part of the account of how Emma had been saved from her predicament – she felt guilty that she had not done more, but indirectly they clearly had helped her, and she looked very happy today.
“Yes. James’ friends were true to their word, too, and took turns keeping an eye on her. Lucas was always particularly devoted. It does me good to see them today like this.”
“Yes,” Marlena agreed. She had learned a little of James’ friends from Ryan. She understood they all had some troubles of their own, and she was pleased to see Lucas so happy.
“I think they were all a bit lost after James. I think finding out about what happened helped them all to be more settled.”
“I hope so,” Marlena agreed. She shut her eyes a moment, thinking about how James had touched so many lives.
“I love you, dearest,” Ryan said, wrapping his arms around her and kissing her hair. “Have I upset you?”
“No,” Marlena murmured. “I was just thinking about how one life can touch so many. How our lives might have touched the lives of others, too – maybe we don’t even know how much.”
Ryan chuckled. “I can see how your life has touched many others,” he said gently.
Marlena leaned back in his arms, looking up as she thought about it. She couldn’t really think of many lives her own had touched, but she believed Ryan when he looked into her eyes, his own dark ones so full of gentle care as they looked into hers.
She looked up as Charles came in. Gertrude was holding his arm, and they both smiled at Marlena.
“Might we go upstairs to visit little James?” Charles asked.
Marlena nodded. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll come with you. I want to check on him, too.”
“Of course,” Charles said and stood back for her to go out ahead of them. Ryan followed her. She could hear Charles and Gertrude talking excitedly as they followed her upstairs.
“Of course, he might be a bit little for his gift,” Charles said. “But then, you never know. I mean, when I was three, I had such fun with the little rocking horse my own uncle bought me.”
“He will certainly enjoy it when he’s older,” a female voice reminded Charles gently.
Marlena smiled to herself. It was so nice to see Charles so fulfilled. She thought that Gertrude’s playful, light personality was just right for him – he could be a little serious sometimes, and Gertrude could lift his spirits. She led them up to the small room beside her own, where James was tucked into a cot. Henriette was there to attend to him.
“Your Grace!” Henriette greeted her, smiling. Marlena blushed. She would never get used to that, especially if Henriette mentioned it. She would always think of herself as simply Marlena.
“What is it? Is he sleeping?”
“Soundly,” Henriette said fondly. “I declare! He grows bigger by the moment.” She was talking softly, and Marlena adjusted her own pitch as she went to stand by the cot. She looked down to where her little son slept, his eyes shut, rosebud mouth part-open with his soft in-breaths.
“He’s so sweet,” Gertrude whispered.
Marlena nodded. “He is,” she agreed.
They both chuckled softly. Marlena was sure all parents thought their children beautiful, but she had to agree that there really was something beautiful about James – everybody who saw him commented on it.
“He’s so peaceful,” Charles said.
Marlena chuckled. “He might be now – you’ll want to come in here when he’s hungry,” Ryan said.
They all laughed, and Marlena pressed her hand to her lips, not wanting to wake the little boy. He stirred, but after a second or two, during which he blinked his eyes sleepily, he fell asleep again.
“We should let him sleep,” Charles said softly. “We wanted to give him this,” he said, passing Marlena a small gold medallion on a chain.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, squinting at it. It was about the size of her fingernail but intricately worked with a pattern that she looked at in the light of the fire.
“It’s a little sunshine,” she said. She could see a stylised design of a solar disk on the front, surrounded by rays. Charles nodded.
“That’s right,” he said. “We thought it was appropriate. He is a little sunshine, too.”
Marlena smiled. “Yes, he is.”
“Thank you,” Ryan said politely. He came and stood beside Marlena, wrapping his arms around her.
She nodded. “Yes, thank you. We’ll keep it for him for when he’s a little bigger. I think right now he might try to eat it.”
Charles chuckled. “He seems a very sensible sort of fellow. Food is certainly more precious than gold.”
They had stepped out into the hallway, and Marlena laughed, not too worried about waking the little child, who slept safe by the fire with Henriette to keep guard over him.
Charles and Gertrude spoke with them for a while – discussing the weather, the trip, and what it was going to be like travelling back to London when they went down for when Charles had to attend a meeting. Then Charles and Gertrude went back to the drawing-room, and Marlena and Ryan went downstairs.
“It’s so good to be here,” Marlena said as she went into a small room where a fire burned bright. There were a few chairs, including one long one before the fire. She sat down, and Ryan came to sit beside her, wrapping his arms around her and kissing her hair fondly.
“It is indeed,” he said. “I do like making visits, but I am pleased to have time on my own with you.”
Marlena looked into his eyes and smiled warmly. “I agree entirely.”
They both chuckled. Marlena blushed with the warmth that ran through her body as he looked into her eyes. She couldn’t help the fact that he set her alight with longing every time she saw him. She sat beside him, and the world narrowed down to the firelight, the warmth, and his eyes.
As they sat there, they heard footsteps in the hallway, and Marlena turned around, looking up at Henriette as she came in, the baby looking about with sleepy interest from where she held him in her arms.
“My Lady, he woke, and he was fretting, so I thought I would bring him downstairs. I hope it’s not a bad time to bring him to you?”
“Certainly not,” Marlena said with a smile. “I’ll sit with him until he sleeps.”
“Thank you, My Lady,” Henriette said and rested the alert bundle in her arms. James looked up at her and made a small noise. She bent to kiss his soft, downy hair. He was dark-haired, and she thought that his eyes were grey-blue, though Ryan still good-naturedly thought them hazel and not yet changed from their uncertain greyness of newborns.
“Shh, dearest,” Marlena comforted him as he repeated the small noise. He settled, though he still looked up at them cautiously. Marlena rocked him gently in her arms, and he started to close his eyes.
“He’s almost asleep,” Ryan commented. Marlena nodded, smiling down at him where he lay, his eyes drooping shut, his little mouth moving as he settled to sleep.
“He is,” she commented. She rocked him gently, and he shut his eyes. She sat holding him, her heart full as Ryan put an arm about her shoulders. They sat together silently, and Marlena had never imagined the sense of inner warmth that she felt at that moment with Ryan’s arms around her and the baby looking up at them both.
She smiled up at Ryan, and he smiled back, and she rested her head on his shoulder for a moment, feeling a sense of utter contentment. She felt James Alexander stir against her and gently laid him on the chair beside her, his little sleeping head cradled on a soft cushion.
“I am so pleased we brought him here,” Marlena said softly.
“Me, too,” Ryan agreed.
Marlena rested her head on Ryan’s shoulder again and shut her eyes, feeling sleepy after the day’s excitement. It had been a full day of visits, talk, and meeting people, and she felt oddly tired out by it all. She had become used to being at Claypool Manor, which was more isolated and where she was mostly with Ryan and her child – besides the staff, of course. She stifled a yawn.
“Are you sleepy too?” Ryan murmured into her ear softly.
“I am,” she agreed. She smiled up at him, and he smiled back, bending to kiss her cheek gently.
He rested a hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes, and she looked into his, a shared glance that was warm and affectionate.
“I love you, dearest,” he murmured softly, and she rested a hand on his shoulder.
“I love you, too,” she said.
He put his arm around her and kissed her, and the three of them sat silently together, the warmth of love filling her heart. She kissed him gently on the cheek and thought about the fact that time might shape our lives, but so does love – and only one of them is eternal.