Six years later …
Duncan closed the ledger with a thud, taking a deep breath. He rubbed the back of his neck, grateful that work was done for the day. His wife had planned a picnic by the lake in celebration of the first blossoms coming onto the trees. He smiled as he stood up from his desk and headed out of the study.
Isobel certainly had a way about her. She had taught him to enjoy the small moments in life. So many people took their time on Earth for granted. However, Isobel lived each moment with a passion and thirst for life that Duncan had lacked before meeting her. He would be forever grateful that Fate had brought them together.
Not only for the enrichment she had brought to his personal life, but for the restoration her fortune had been able to complete around the estate. It was a wonder what a difference six years could make. He entered the hall and was greeted by his father and mother-in-law.
“Hello, son. Still working on a day like this?” his father-in-law asked. They shook hands.
“I know. I know,” Duncan said with a laugh. “I am sure I will get an earful when Isobel comes down. No one dares work on the day of the Blossom Picnic.”
Isobel had lovingly dubbed the annual picnic they took down to the lake the Blossom Picnic. With all the flowering trees lining the lake shore, it was the perfect place to take an afternoon of leisure and celebration out of their busy lives. As Duke and Duchess of Burshire, their lives were certainly filled with all sorts of duties around the village and in London. With his father-in-law’s help, they were able to restore Burshire Court and the tenant farms. Now, the town and farms were thriving with happy tenants, and the estate was more than able to pay for itself without dipping into Isobel’s vast fortune.
The front door opened to reveal James, his faithful steward. Duncan went to greet him and clapped him on the back with a good-natured slap. “Hello, friend. I am so glad you and Elizabeth were able to make it.”
James waved him off. “We would not miss the Blossom Picnic. You should know that very well.”
Duncan did not know what he would have done without James and his father-in-law during those first few years while restorations had been prolific. Indeed, James was more like a brother now than a steward, even though he still fulfilled his duties with a wisdom and strength that was rarely seen anymore.
“Are we ready?” Isobel called from the top of the grand staircase. Duncan turned to see his beautiful wife walking down the stairs, holding his five-year-old son, Harry’s, hand. Even now, six years later, she still took his breath away.
“I should see what is keeping Elizabeth,” James whispered. “She was fixing one of the ribbons in Mary’s hair.”
Duncan nodded, and James headed back out to the front of the house. Duncan walked over to Isobel and kissed her on the cheek. “We are nearly ready, my dear. We are waiting on Mama, Elizabeth, and Mary. They should be with us presently.”
“Very good. I checked with Cook a few moments ago, and all is ready down at the lake,” Isobel said, beaming up at him.
Soon his mother, Elizabeth, James, and their three-year-old daughter, Mary, had joined them. Mary was a sweet girl, a little shy, but otherwise happy. She knew no fear when it came to Harry, however. She skipped right over to him as they headed out the back and onto the patio, taking his hand so they could walk together down to the lake. Elizabeth and James fell into stride with Duncan and Isobel, each couple holding hands as they walked behind the older folk.
“I heard some very interesting news while I was in London,” James announced as they walked. He had gone to London to see some business for the estate and had arrived home only a few days before.
Duncan frowned slightly. “Now, James, you know the rule: no business on Blossom Picnic Day.”
James laughed, shaking his head. “This is not business related. It is quite scandalous, actually.”
James now had the ladies’ attention, who begged him to go on.
“Well, I heard that the former Lady Colenwood has married again. And she has settled for another older man, thinking he was possessed of a large fortune. Come to find out, he is quite saddled with debts, and senile to boot. They are bound for America, where he hopes to invest his new wife’s fortune in some sort of trade. As you might imagine, his wife is quite up in arms about the arrangement.”
Duncan shook his head. He had barely thought of Lydia since they had parted ways six years before. Of course, she had tried to spread rumours about him to discredit him, but her lies had fallen on deaf ears. Her true colours had been revealed at the house party on that last fateful evening, and news of her scheming had quickly travelled through London when the guests returned to their respective homes.
“Well, I cannot say I am sorry for her. I do not bear her any ill-will, however. I hope she may finally find some peace in her new life,” Duncan said.
“One can only hope,” Isobel said. “Now, let us talk of more happy things. Like, you, Elizabeth,” she said, changing the subject. “How are you feeling?”
Elizabeth placed a hand on her abdomen, where the slightest bump was starting to show. She and James had told them a few weeks prior that they were expecting their second child. Duncan gave Isobel a worried glance. Ever since Harry had turned a year old, they had been trying to have another baby, but they had never been able to conceive again. He wondered if Harry’s birth had been so traumatic that it had blocked any further hope of another child.
He reached over, took her hand, and felt that she was trembling. Elizabeth stepped up beside her, linking her arm through hers and taking her off to the side. Duncan let her go, knowing the ladies had much to discuss when it came to the new baby. They headed towards the children, who were doing their best to climb an apple tree.
James sighed. “Is she alright?”
Duncan shrugged. “I hope so. It has been four years, James. I know she tries to put on a brave front, but she is disappointed that there will not be more children.”
“You cannot know that for sure,” James said, watching the ladies as they coaxed the children away from the tree. Soon they were at the lake shore where a luscious picnic was laid out. The footmen had spread out blankets a way from the shore and a small table laden with food under one of the blossoming trees.
“I have accepted it. Am happy that we at least have Harry. He will inherit the title and the estate. However, I fear Isobel has not accepted it.” He watched her walking with Harry’s little hand tucked into hers. Elizabeth had picked up Mary, having convinced the children to leave the apple tree alone.
The ladies soon joined them, and they all sat down near the water, munching on fruits and tea sandwiches. The children kept the conversation lively, especially with Harry’s lively chatter.
“Papa, will you take me out on the lake?” he pleaded. “I want to catch a fish.”
Duncan glanced over at his son, and then at Isobel. “What do you say, my dear? Shall we go for a row across the lake?”
Isobel raised her hand to shield the sun from her eyes. “I would rather enjoy that. Yes, let us go across before the pall mall game is set up.” He helped her stand, and they walked down to one of the boats, Henry skipping towards the water unafraid. Isobel let go of his hand, hurrying after Harry.
“Be careful near the water, son!” She clutched his arm, motioning for him to catch up with their son. “He will drown himself,” she said, fear in her voice.
“I am right here, dearest. I will not let him drown, I promise,” Duncan said. He gave his wife a worried look. “Are you well, Isobel? You seem to be a little on edge of late. Is there something troubling you?”
Her mouth went into a thin line. He wondered if he had done something to upset her, but she was unwilling to say. “I am perfectly well, Duncan. Do not worry,” she said, pasting a smile on her face. He took her hand again, laughing as Harry tried to climb into the boat by himself. He nearly tipped the vessel.
“Mind your mother, Harry. It will not do to sink the boat before we’ve even had a chance to take it across the lake,” Duncan called. He turned his attention back to Isobel. “I do worry about you, my love. I saw the way you looked at Elizabeth while we were walking down to the lake. You wish for another child,” he said.
Her breath caught, and he thought for a moment that she was going to cry. However, she quickly masked any sorrowful emotions when Harry ran up to them and pulled them towards the shore. “Hurry, Mama!”
Harry took Duncan’s hand as well and pulled them both towards the boat. Duncan laughed at his childish exuberance.
“We are coming, my boy,” Duncan said. They were soon all settled in the boat, and it was up to Duncan to row. Of course, Harry tried to help, but he could barely lift the oar but a few inches. Duncan had him sit in front of him and take the end of his oars so he could feel like he was being useful.
Duncan watched his wife, looking out over the water. “You look as beautiful as the day we first did this.”
She waved him off. “I am several pounds heavier than I was then. And much older.”
“Do not say much older. Twenty-six is hardly ancient,” he said with a laugh.
“True. Compared to thirty-five, I am positively a spring chicken,” she teased. He dipped his fingers into the water and flicked it at her. She squealed, and a water fight soon ensued. Harry splashed them both with gusto, not even knowing what he was doing. Duncan had to hold onto the back of his trousers so he would not fall out of the boat.
When they were thoroughly soaked, he finally called a truce. “Well, I would say that we have scared off all the fish, son. Shall we head back to the shore for our game?”
“Oh, yes!” Harry exclaimed. He settled in front of Duncan and again tried to help man the oars. Isobel tried to straighten her damp curls, but soon gave up. She shrugged, giving a short laugh.
“Well, I must be a sight,” she said in a lamented tone. He gave her an appreciative smile.
“You certainly are.”
The rest of the golden afternoon passed with much laughter as they watched the children play a game of pall mall. Of course, James had to help little Mary with the child-sized mallet, but Harry was a seasoned player and made them proud by hitting the ball on his own most of the time.
“I began falling in love with you during our game of pall mall all those years ago,” Duncan said, holding Isobel close to his chest as they watched their son. “You were so beautiful, even though you were annoyed at me.”
“I do not recall being annoyed at you,” Isobel argued.
“Oh, you were indeed. I won, do you not remember?” Duncan teased her, and she sat up, looking back over her shoulder and glaring at him.
“I was not annoyed. I know how to lose gracefully. Besides, I had already won our chess game. I did not want to embarrass you completely in front of your friends.”
Duncan chuckled, raising a brow. “Are you saying that you let me win?”
A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, and he leaned in to kiss her on the spot. He wrapped his hands around her waist and began to tickle her. She squealed, pushing him away. “Very well, I confess, I was trying my very best to beat you,” she conceded.
She turned back around, settled up against his chest, and he sighed contentedly. “I do love the Blossom Picnic. Promise me we will always keep it, no matter what happens?” she asked.
He kissed her hair and rested his cheek against hers. “I promise.”
Duncan glanced up at his son, a frown creasing his brow. It was surprising for a boy his age to have such concentration, but he supposed he had acquired his passion for chess from his mother and grandfather.
“It is your turn, Harry,” Duncan reminded gently. His son looked at him for a split second and then back at the board.
“I am thinking, Papa,” he said. Duncan smiled at the way he said it. He was a precocious little boy, and Duncan loved to see what he might say or do next. He was learning so much each day, and Duncan never wanted to take these precious moments for granted.
Harry made his move, a satisfied smile crossing his lips. “Ha. Your queen is in danger,” he announced.
Duncan looked down at the board and saw that he was indeed in trouble. “Hmmm, now let me see–”
“What are you boys doing in here? It is very late, Harry,” Isobel said as she entered the room. She smiled, however, and placed her hands on Harry’s shoulders, planting a kiss on his mop of blond curls. “It is time you prepared for your dinner, young man.”
“Just a few more minutes, Mama. I have almost won!” Harry said, craning his neck to look up into his mother’s face.
She smiled, shaking her head. “Very well. But do put your father out of his misery quickly,” she said with a teasing wink. Duncan shot her a mockingly severe glance.
“I see how it is. My own family is against me,” he replied dryly.
Isobel leaned down and whispered in Harry’s ear, and Duncan made his next move. He knew very well that he had left his king open for assault.
Harry’s eyes lit up immediately. He took his queen and smacked it on the board before Duncan’s king. “Checkmate!” he yelled enthusiastically and looked up at his mother for approval. She patted him on the back.
“Well done, Harry,” she said. “You improve every day.”
He stood, hugging her around her legs. “I’ll go and get ready for dinner now, Mama.”
“Good lad,” Isobel said, sending him off with a pat on the back. She came over to Duncan, pinning him with a knowing stare. “You let him win, did you not?”
Duncan shrugged, taking her hand as she came near. “I wanted to give him a little confidence boost.”
“You know that he will learn nothing if you let him win every time,” Isobel complained, giving an exasperated sigh.
He chuckled and pulled her into his lap. She pretended to be annoyed but soon settled into his arms, giving him a long-suffering smile. “He is only five, Isobel. He has a lifetime to learn chess strategy. Indeed, there are times he takes me quite by surprise and wins when I was not even trying to allow it.”
“Well, that is good to hear,” she said. “How would you like to challenge the master to a game?” She danced her eyebrows, smiling mischievously.
“Oh, and you are the master, are you?” He leaned in close to her ear, whispering in a way he knew turned her to putty in his hands. “You know I let you win every time, don’t you?”
She swatted his arm playfully, moving away from his chest. “You do not! I win fair and square of my own merit,” she argued. However, he did not let her get far. He captured her, pulling her close again.
“Yes, dear,” he said, and she swatted him again. She wrapped an arm around his neck, pursing her lips.
“Well, no matter. I have a surprise for you,” she said, her eyes shining with mischief. He raised his brows, wondering what she could have to surprise him with.
“A new play, perhaps? Please tell me that you are not enlisting the help again to put it on in the drawing room?” Duncan ducked as she swatted him for the third time. Laughing, he held onto her wrists and then planted a kiss on each palm. “I only meant that your plays deserve professional actors, my dear.”
She laughed, shaking her head. “Very clever. But no, it is not a new play. No, I am afraid my writing will have to wait for a while. I shall be very busy in another area of our life.”
“Oh? Have you finally taken up embroidery after all these years?” Duncan asked, trying to look innocent. She laughed again.
“No, of course not. No, this task will take about nine months to complete,” she whispered. She rested her hand on her abdomen, her eyes filling with tears of joy. Duncan froze, and his hand automatically went to cover her hand.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
She nodded, tears spilling down her cheeks. He wiped them away, feeling his chest would burst with happiness. “Yes, Duncan. You are going to be a father again.”
He gathered her close, kissing her long and passionately. When they parted, he rested his forehead against hers. “Oh, Isobel. Thank you. Thank you for agreeing to be my wife. It would have been so dark and lonely without you.”
“You are most welcome,” she said, gently pushing herself away from him. She ran her fingers down his cheek tenderly. “I love you, Duncan.”
He leaned up and kissed the tip of her nose. “I love you more.”