Two Years Later…
Ophelia studied the chessboard carefully, then moved her rook.
“You’ve gotten much better at this,” Marcus observed. She had already captured several of his pieces, including his queen. Beating Ophelia at chess had once been fairly easy, but now she was certainly a match for him.
“Maybe you’re just losing your skills,” she teased him.
He smiled. He always enjoyed her banter. “Check,” he said, moving a bishop.
She grinned and used her knight to capture the bishop. “You weren’t watching the whole board, were you?”
It was the very first thing he had ever taught her about chess, and it made him laugh to hear her parrot the lesson back to him like this. “You’re right,” he said. “Maybe I am losing my skills. I suppose we’ll have to play more often.”
“If we can find the time!” she said. “I never imagined the life of a noble lady would be so busy. I thought I was marrying into leisure when I married you.”
“Do you regret it?” he asked, winking at her.
“Oh, yes,” she said, mock-seriously. “All the time. Every day. If I could only be hard at work in the kitchen right now!”
She was teasing, but at the same time, Marcus knew there was a part of her that meant some of what she said. He knew that she didn’t regret their marriage, of course, but she did miss her time in the kitchen.
In the early days of their marriage, she had spent a lot of time there, visiting with the cook. To everyone’s surprise, it seemed, Vera and Ophelia had become close friends. Vera had known Ophelia’s mother, and Ophelia liked to hear stories of her mother’s youth.
Marcus was glad his new wife had had Vera to spend time with, because that had given him more time to visit the stables and get to know Nicholas better. It had been awkward between them at first, but they had eventually gotten comfortable with one another. Now the two of them were very close, and Marcus could honestly say that Nicholas felt like family to him.
“Checkmate,” Ophelia said, interrupting his thoughts.
He stared down at the chessboard. “I should have been paying attention,” he said, feeling foolish.
“Yes, you should,” she said. “You always get lost in thought and allow me to get the better of you.”
“I don’t always do that,” he protested. “I bested you yesterday!”
She smiled. “I’m going to check on Emma,” she said. “Would you like to come along?”
“Yes.” He got to his feet. Although their daughter had a nurse to tend to her needs, both Ophelia and Marcus were constantly stopping by the nursery to spend time with her.
Emma is the best thing in my life, he thought as they made their way down the hall. Along with her mother, that is.
She sat upright on a blanket in the middle of the nursery floor, a skill she had recently mastered. She held a rattle in one hand, but at the sight of her parents, she shook it vigorously before casting it to the floor and holding her arms up to Ophelia with a cry of delight.
Ophelia stooped down and lifted her up. “Good morning, love,” she cooed, kissing Emma’s cheek. “How are you today?”
“She’s doing very well,” the nurse spoke up from the corner where she sat knitting a blanket. “She eats well. You can see how much she’s grown already. A very healthy and happy baby.”
Ophelia sat down on the floor, bringing Emma with her. “I’m going to stay and play with her for a while,” she said.
Marcus smiled. “This is why you’re so busy, you know,” he said. “You’re busy doing things you love.”
Ophelia nodded, smiling. “It’s the best kind of busy to be,” she agreed. “Would you like to stay with us?”
“I’ll come back soon,” Marcus said. “You two enjoy yourselves.”
“We will.” Ophelia held up Emma’s hand and made her wave farewell.
Marcus felt Ophelia’s pain. He would have liked to sit on the floor with his daughter and play with her all day long, but there were too many other people he wanted to spend time with, and too many other things he needed to do.
But I will return to her, he thought. I will end my day in the place that brings me more happiness than any other. It was a vow he made every day, and one he was careful to keep. It was very important to him that his daughter would have a good relationship with her father.
He went down the stairs and out onto the Manor grounds. Off to his left, he spotted a picnic taking place. Squinting to see who was there, he recognized James Haskett with Ophelia’s lady’s maid, Caroline.
He smiled at the sight. The anger and jealousy he had once felt at the sight of James Haskett had disappeared completely the night he had learned the truth about Nicholas. If Haskett had not been willing to speak up, to say that there was no romance between him and Ophelia, Marcus thought his marriage might never have come to pass. He owed the young footman a great deal.
He knew that Ophelia had worried for her friend’s happiness. Now, it seemed, he had found something with Caroline. Marcus wished thee two of them well. Perhaps theirs would be the next marriage within Westdale Manor.
He continued across the grounds to the stable. He did his best to visit Nicholas once a day. Sometimes his obligations kept him away, but more often than not he was able to make the time to be here. The Duke no longer complained about Marcus’s visits to the stable. He had been surprisingly understanding about Marcus’s need to know his father.
Nicholas looked up as Marcus entered. He was grooming one of the horses, but he set his brush down and stepped out of the stall. “Good morning,” he said with a smile.
“You don’t need to stop on my account,” Marcus said. “Can I help?”
Nicholas sized him up. “You’re not really dressed for the task of grooming a horse,” he observed. “But if you would like to feed him some oats while I work, that would be helpful.”
Marcus nodded. He went to the feed bag, scooped up a handful of oats, and offered it to the horse, who began to eat out of his hand.
“How have you been?” he asked.
“Oh, well enough,” Nicholas said. “Hard work keeps me young.”
Marcus nodded. “I imagine that’s so.”
“How about you?” Nicholas asked. “How are you enjoying fatherhood?”
Marcus was amazed that Nicholas was able to ask that question without a trace of bitterness in his voice. He truly had let go of his anger about the life that had been stolen from him. He was just happy to be here now.
“It’s going very well,” Marcus said. “In fact, I thought that tomorrow I would bring Emma down to meet you.”
“To meet me?” Nicholas looked puzzled.
“Of course,” Marcus said. “You’re her grandfather, after all.”
Nicholas’s jaw dropped.
For a moment, he seemed unable to find words. When he finally spoke, his voice was husky with emotion. “I never dreamed you would tell her that.”
“She has a right to know,” Marcus said. “Just as I had a right to know.”
“But the Duke and Duchess—they insisted that it be kept a secret.”
“And I’ll respect that,” Marcus said. “I’ll never tell anyone outside the family. It’s none of their business anyway. But my daughter, and any other children I may have, deserve to know who they are and where they come from. I want Emma to know you.”
Nicholas disappeared behind the horse’s flank and was silent for several moments. Marcus suspected he was trying to gain control of his emotions.
“Will your wife agree to that?” he asked at last.
“Of course,” Marcus said. “Ophelia understands better than anyone that you can’t shut somebody out because of their station in life. In fact, I shudder to think what she might say to me if I tried to keep you and Emma apart!”
“You married a good woman,” Nicholas said.
Marcus nodded. “I certainly did.”
He spent the next hour in the stable with Nicholas, discussing their plans for the following day with Emma. Then Marcus returned to the Manor, where he knew his wife and daughter would be waiting for him.
He was unsurprised to find that Ophelia was still in the nursery with Emma. He took a seat on the floor beside the two of them and related to Ophelia the conversation he had had with Nicholas.
She nodded. “I think that’s a wonderful idea,” she said. “Will it be safe for her to be around the horses?”
“Oh, yes,” Marcus said. “As long as we don’t bring her too close, there will be no danger at all. And Nicholas would certainly never allow any harm to come to her.”
“Isn’t that exciting, Emma?” Ophelia asked. “You’re going to meet your grandfather tomorrow!”
Emma laughed joyously.
Marcus picked her up and wrapped her in a hug.
He and Ophelia were able to spend the rest of the day with their daughter, with no obligations until supper time. It was rare that they had nothing at all to divert them, but when it did happen, they took full advantage of it.
They ate their supper with the Duke and Duchess. Marcus was pleased to see that the discomfort Ophelia had once exhibited at dining with his parents was beginning to fade. Perhaps she was ready to see the truth—that they had accepted her, despite their initial struggles to do so.
He knew that it was Emma who had made the difference. They adored her. She was their grandchild as well, and they embraced her fully as such. Doing so meant embracing Ophelia as well, accepting her as their daughter. Marcus could see that his parents were growing to truly care for Ophelia, to consider her one of their own.
When supper was over, they went upstairs together. Ophelia sat at the vanity table that the Duchess had purchased for her as a wedding gift, letting her hair down and brushing it thoughtfully.
Marcus gazed out the window. “There’s a full moon tonight,” he observed.
“Just as there was on the night you asked me to be your wife,” Ophelia recalled.
He smiled at her. “I wondered if you would remember that.”
“I remember every detail of that night,” Ophelia said. “How could I forget?”
“I don’t think I ever will,” Marcus agreed. “That night changed my entire life.”
“For the better, I hope?”
“Of course.” He turned away from the window and came to her side. Holding out a hand, he bowed to her.
She chuckled. “What are you doing, Marcus?”
“May I have this dance?”
Shoulders shaking with mirth, she accepted his hand and allowed him to pull her to her feet. “You really want to dance with me here and now?”
“I always want to dance with you,” he said, falling into a rhythm. “Every moment of every day.”
Her laughter subsided. She gazed up at him.
“I always want you in my arms,” he said. “I always want to be close to you, to hold you. I want to dance with you. I’d be happy never to stop.”
She closed her eyes and rested her head on his chest. “I love you,” she said softly.
He kissed the crown of her head, rotating slowly so that they would both be able to look out the window and see the moonlight shining in.
“I love you too, Ophelia Travers,” he said. “I always have, and I know now that I always will.”
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