Alice handed their sleepy child to her husband and climbed out of the carriage. Her heart was still in her mouth despite arriving in England several days ago. They had stayed at several inns and family homes along the way and had finally arrived at the Ravenhill estate today.
“Are you still worried about what others may say?” Henry asked as he helped her down.
“What makes you say that?”
“Your face says it all. You seem frightened.”
Alice waved her hand dismissively. “I’m just tired. It was a long journey, and I need some rest.”
“Very well, if that is how you feel,” Henry acquiesced. “You can have a little nap before dinner. I’m sure Mother has planned something special.”
“Do you think she would mind if I skipped dinner?” Alice asked. “I’m not hungry and would rather sleep than eat.”
Henry’s eyes grew wide. “Do you mean to skip a meal when you’re with child?”
“Then a little broth will do, but I do not think I can handle being around too many people and food. Please, Henry,” she pleaded. “I know this seems terrible when we’ve only just arrived, but I don’t feel well.”
Worry clouded his grey eyes. “What’s wrong? Why didn’t you say anything sooner? Let’s go inside so you can lie down.”
Alice nodded. “Thank you.”
Overthinking and stressing about her stay in London had caused this illness. It wasn’t good for her or the baby, but Alice couldn’t help feeling sick at the thought of being around everyone who had mocked her two years ago. It was a debilitating fear that had wound its way into every area of her life, and now she felt like a powerless woman and a bad mother and wife. She was only here for Henry’s sake because he missed his family and home, but Alice would have refused if she didn’t love him as madly as she did. It had been easy being the Countess of Coventry in Scotland, but England was another matter. People might not accept her, and she could face rejection all over again because of her past. A commoner as a countess was unheard of, but she wished people would understand that the title had nothing to do with her love for Henry. He could be a penniless man, and she would still love him as much as she did.
What if I embarrass Henry and our son? What if I ruin our family name? My son deserves to have a mother worthy of him, and Henry should have married a woman everyone could look up to. No one looks up to a commoner.
“Alice! Henry!” the duchess cried, running out of the house.
Her behaviour was less dignified than usual, but Alice didn’t care. She was obviously glad to see them and wasn’t afraid to show it. If only she could be as free with her emotions in the presence of others. Alice always felt she had to behave a certain way when visitors called or whenever they were invited to events. It was only at home that she felt the most comfortable and could be herself.
The duchess took her grandchild first and smothered his face with kisses. “How are you, my darling child?” she asked. “How I’ve missed you. It feels like an age since I saw you.”
“You were with us three months ago, Mother,” Henry reminded her.
“Precisely,” the woman insisted. “That is too long to be without my first grandchild.” She turned to Alice and smiled. “How is my favourite daughter-in-law?”
“Your only daughter-in-law,” said Alice, briefly pressing her cheek against hers.
“Yes, that may be correct, but I’m confident you would still be my favourite.”
Alice would like to believe that, but she knew the duchess would have preferred an upper-class woman to marry her son. She had only agreed to the marriage because she thought she would have lost her son. Alice was still grateful to the duke and duchess and treated them affectionately, but she wasn’t good enough for their family.
“Walter and Daniel are here with their wives,” the duchess informed them. “So are Charlotte and her husband, so I suppose we could call this evening a dinner party.”
“Mother, about that,” Henry began.
“That sounds wonderful,” Alice interrupted, giving her husband a look.
The duchess was far too excited about the dinner to disappoint her by not attending. Alice could stay for an hour or so and make an excuse to leave. She probably wouldn’t be missed. Henry frowned at her, but Alice shook her head at him. This wasn’t the time to argue about what she had said.
“Well, come inside and greet everyone,” the duchess said, taking Alice’s hand as she adjusted her grandson in her other arm. “We’ve missed you so much.”
“Do you have an extra hand for me?” Henry playfully whined. “It seems I’ve been forgotten.”
“You cannot be jealous about your own wife and son, dear,” his mother scolded him. “It’s only right that I love them and treat them well.”
“Yes, yes, but I doubt you’ll love them as much as I do,” Henry claimed. “Shall we go inside?”
They entered the house and moved to the drawing room, where everyone was gathered. Alice was reunited with her best friend, Jane, who had moved to England after marrying Walter.
“Where is your daughter?” Alice asked. “She must have turned a year, now.”
“I had the nanny take her to the nursery for a nap, but she’ll be awake soon. Ophelia doesn’t sleep for more than an hour at a time during the day. Henry Junior looks more like his father every day. He even lost the red tinge on the tips of his hair.”
Everyone had assumed Alice’s baby would have red hair, but it darkened within three months. Harry, whom they affectionately called him instead of Henry, looked like his father except for his green eyes.
“I’m curious to see who Ophelia most resembles,” said Alice. “I couldn’t tell when she was just a few months old.”
“She looks like her father,” said Jane with a sigh. “I spent nine months with child only to birth a tiny replica of my Walter. It isn’t fair. I hope my next child looks more like me.”
Alice widened her eyes. “Are you with child?”
She hadn’t revealed her second pregnancy to anyone yet as they were waiting for the three-month mark before making the happy announcement.
“Not yet, but hopefully soon. I don’t want too far a gap between Ophelia and her sibling. What do you think of Daniel’s wife?”
Alice chuckled. “What a silly question. She’s my sisters-in-law, so I wholeheartedly approve.”
No one had expected Daniel to fall in love with Juliet, especially when they had known each other for so many years. The newly married couple had never hinted at being remotely interested in each other, but all that had changed a few months ago.
“I know that,” said Jane with a laugh. “But do you think they complement each other well? They seem so different.”
“They give each other what the other is missing,” said Alice. “Look at how he gazes at her so lovingly. He keeps turning away from the men to stare at her.”
They watched the man tilt his head and smile at his wife before turning back to his friends and father-in-law.
“Newlyweds tend to do that, but that will all stop once a year has passed,” Jane told her.
“Henry still smiles at me like that,” said Alice. “He’ll probably look my way in a moment.”
As if he had heard her, Henry turned to her, smiled, and gave her a wink before continuing with his conversation.
“Do you see?” she asked her friend.
“You have a romantic husband,” said Jane with a little yearning in her voice. “Walter loves me but finds it hard to show it in little ways. He prefers grand gestures like buying a new house or importing Persian carpets. The little things also matter.”
Alice shook her head. “I never thought I’d hear a wife complain about beautiful gifts from her husband. I think you’re expecting too much. Walter loves you, so let him show it to you in his way. Besides, this is only your second year of marriage. Give him more time to get to know you better.”
Jane sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Should we join the other women?” she asked, gesturing at Alice’s sister-in-laws and mother-in-law.
“I think so, or they might think we don’t want their company.”
Alice still wanted to go to bed and lie down, but she also wanted to stay for the sake of her family. They all seemed so happy conversing with each other and catching up on their lives, and Alice didn’t want to put a damper on that by going to bed. Alice and Jane blended easily into the other women’s conversation, and soon they were talking about the upcoming ball. A painful knot twisted in her belly and chest, making her feel sore and out of breath. Alice was most afraid of going to the ball, but she didn’t let it show. All she could think of was flashes of memory from the night Fiona attacked her and brought shame on Alice’s head. It had been difficult to deal with then and would be challenging to handle now.
“Do you have a suitable dress, Alice?” Charlotte asked.
“I brought several new gowns with me, so I’m confident one of them will be perfect for the ball. I assume you’ve had gowns made as well?” Alice asked the rest.
“Of course, Anne replied. “We should all get ready in the same house. This one is big enough for us all. What do you say, ladies?”
“I think that’s a splendid idea, Anne,” said Juliet. “It should be fun!”
“We should let the men know in advance so they cannot tell us that we told them too late or didn’t bother telling them at all,” the duchess suggested. “I know my husband will say something to that effect.”
“But you do not have to worry, Mother,” said Alice. “You’re already in the agreed-upon venue, although I suppose he might be surprised if everyone suddenly arrives and he has six women all trying to get ready in time for the ball.”
It could become quite chaotic and hellish for the men involved. All the women giggled at the thought of grumbling husbands, making the men look at them suspiciously.
“What are you all up to?” the duke asked. “Should we be afraid?”
“Of course not, my life,” the duchess replied. “This is just women’s chatter.”
The duke and the other men didn’t look convinced, but they let it go and returned to their conversation about horses. Alice’s heart still felt heavy about attending the ball despite the laughter and light conversation. Two years had passed, but she doubted anyone had forgotten about the woman who had pretended to be someone she wasn’t.
Lord, please help me say and do the right things. Let me not embarrass my husband and in-laws.
Alice couldn’t stop shaking. She clasped her hands behind her back to hide the trembling, but Henry’s eyes were too sharp to miss her condition. He took her hands and kissed their palms, his warm lips piercing through her gloves’ material.
“I’m right here, my love,” he assured her. “I promised you I would always be by your side to protect you. If I happen to be elsewhere, just call for me, and I’ll come running.”
Alice nodded as she stared up at the building before her. She needed to climb the steps and enter the house, but her feet wouldn’t budge.
“Would you like me to carry you?” Henry asked.
“You can’t do that,” said Alice. “Give me a moment, and I’ll be fine. I need to face my fears someday.”
“Let’s face them together,” Henry insisted, linking their fingers together. “We became one the moment you decided to become my wife, so you cannot do anything by yourself.”
“That’s a little extreme, I think,” she said, managing a chuckle. “We can do some things alone.”
“Fine, but very few,” Henry insisted and looked around the outer courtyard. “Lord and Lady Davenport have made some changes to their property. I like it, but I think our home is still better.”
“Comparing homes again, are we?” she asked. “You’ve become quite the expert after helping several neighbours with their home renovations.”
“I’m not an expert yet, but I will be. Shall we go?” he said, gesturing at the steps.
Alice took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes,” she said, speaking the word as she let her breath out. “I can do this.”
“Of course, you can. You’re Alice Ravenhill, the bravest woman I know and my beloved wife. There is no one more perfect than you in my heart.”
Alice squeezed her husband’s hand and placed her foot on the first step. She could do this.
Alice let go of her husband’s hand when her friend and sister-in-law drew her into her group. She was reluctant to leave him, but they couldn’t remain stuck like glue throughout the evening. It was customary for men and women to separate and mingle for a time before meeting again.
“I am a little jealous that you have Mrs Finch design most of your dresses,” said Juliet. “She seems to know you so well and chooses the perfect colours, styles, and materials to complement your beauty.”
Alice wore a simple white gown with ivory embroidery along the bodice and emerald stones embedded in gold around her neck. The effect was striking, especially with the gold fronds they had weaved into her hair. It made her glimmer under candlelight, giving her an unearthly glow about her head.
“You all look stunning this evening,” she told them. “Why focus on my dress alone? I love that cheerful yellow on you, Jane, and that pale blue gives you a wonderfully soft appearance, Charlotte.”
“What about Anne and me?” Juliet asked. “We feel rather put out.”
“I was just about to get to you. Pink has always been your colour, Anne, and I have never seen anyone but you pull off this orange, Juliet. I would look horrendous in this colour.”
Juliet touched her dark hair. “Well, not everyone is blessed with my complexion. Daniel never lets a day pass without paying me a compliment about my beauty.”
The woman’s sisters groaned and rolled their eyes. “It seems Daniel has inflated your head to humongous proportions,” Charlotte drawled.
“Oh, no, no,” Juliet protested. “He married me this way. There is no such thing as too much confidence.”
Everyone shook their heads and laughed, their mirth dying away when Fiona appeared and all but pushed her way into the group.
“How lovely everyone looks!” she said and looked straight at Alice. “It seems being countess has treated you well, Miss Baker. Oh!” she cried, putting a hand over her mouth. “I meant Lady Coventry. How silly of me.”
No one said a word but stared at the woman with hostile expressions, so Alice took it upon herself to greet the woman.
“How are you, Miss Jones?”
“Miss Jones?” the woman repeated. “Oh, no, no, no. It’s Lady Crawford now. I married the Viscount of Crawford last year. Did no one tell you?”
Everyone was careful never to mention Fiona in her presence; thus, Alice knew nothing about her life.
“My apologies,” said Alice. “It slipped my mind.”
“Indeed?” the woman asked. “You should remember such details if you hope to become a good countess. You were not born into the life, so you might need some guidance. I would be happy to help you. After all, I nearly became the Countess of Coventry. You could even say I was born to fulfil that role, but things get in your way and force you to recalibrate your life. Do you not just hate it when such things happen, Lady Coventry?”
Fiona had approached them with the objective of humiliating Alice all over again— that much was obvious. The other women looked ready to attack Fiona, but Alice didn’t want to start a scene, so she made an excuse to leave, but a hand grabbed hers and held her in place. Startled, Alice looked into a pair of eyes she had not seen since she left England.
“Your Grace,” she cried, curtseying.
The Dowager Duchess of Ainsley patted her cheek affectionately. “How are you, my dear? It is wonderful to see you again. You look well.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” said Alice. “You do not appear to have aged. What is your secret?”
Alice winced at her over cheerful voice, but she needed to hide her distress from everyone. She didn’t want her family to know how much Fiona’s words affected her or how low her self-esteem was regarding being a countess.
“My secret?” the duchess replied. “Well, I suppose I’ve learnt not to concern myself with the opinions of others, especially bitter women who do not know when they have lost.” She said these words while looking at Fiona. “A person must learn how to lose well and learn from their failures instead of pointing the fingers at others and trying to make people miserable. Is that not right, Lady Crawford?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” said Fiona, giving the woman a fake smile.
“Good, I’m glad we think alike,” the dowager duchess said. “You wouldn’t want everyone to think that you’re a jealous and scorned woman simply because Lord Coventry fell in love with a beautiful woman like Lady Coventry? I think it’s obvious that they are truly in love. Are you not happy in your own marriage?”
“Your Grace!” Fiona spluttered.
“Know your limits, Lady Crawford,” the dowager duchess warned and walked off after giving Alice another pat on the cheek.
Alice looked around her and was surprised to see how many people had stopped what they were doing to watch the drama unfolding. Before she knew it, people were approaching her as though they were great friends and inviting her to their events. Taken aback, Alice just agreed to everything because she didn’t know how else to react. It seemed the dowager duchess’ actions had set the tone for everyone, and Alice was once again part of society. It was like the incident two years ago had never happened!
“My love,” said Henry, appearing by her side. “I think you need some fresh air. You seem overwhelmed.”
Alice agreed and excused herself, holding onto her husband’s hand as they weaved their way through the crowd of guests. They left the room and entered the garden, breathing in the fresh air of the outdoors.
“Goodness!” Alice exclaimed.
“You could say that again,” Henry agreed. “I watched what happened. That dowager duchess is quite fierce, isn’t she? She has everyone kissing your feet.”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say kissing my feet, but they have accepted me once again. Humans are fickle beings.”
“Which is why you shouldn’t care about their opinions,” said Henry. “They were ready to throw you to the wolves once, but now you’re loved once again. What if you do something that makes them reject you? Will you allow their words to affect how you see yourself?”
Her husband had a point. Caring about the opinions of others, especially those who were not her loved ones, seemed foolish.
“I’ve been rather silly, haven’t I?” she said.
“You can be honest,” she told him. “I’ve let my fear get the best of me, but you’ve been so patient with me. What did I do to deserve such a wonderful man?”
“I feel I must have done something right to have someone like you in my life,” Henry countered, bringing her hands to his chest. “But I think I deserve a kiss for all the trouble you’ve put me through. It has been stressful watching you worry about what others think of you.”
Alice smiled. “Just one kiss?”
“A good one.”
Alice pulled him into the shadows and kissed him with all the love she felt for him. When they finally pulled apart, they looked at each other and laughed from the joy welling up within them. Alice could always tell what her husband felt, and he always knew what she felt because their hearts were attuned to each other. Perhaps there was indeed truth to a man and woman leaving their parents and becoming one.