Walter planted young Charlotte upon his shoulders as the toddler cried out with glee. She giggled just the way her mother had as a babe, and he knew that his granddaughter would grow up in exactly her mother’s likeness and. by proxy, in the likeness of her namesake. The two-year-old squealed in delight from her new height, threading her tiny fingers into her grandfather’s greying locks.
The sight filled Daphne with equal parts the joy of a daughter and the nerves of a mother.
“Please, be careful father!” she called across the garden, where he was weaving in and out of the rose bushes. She would now have to tidy her father’s hair before the ceremony, for which they were going to be late to if they did not hurry along.
Behind her, Benedict trailed along with Arthur, who had not yet mastered the art of walking, and especially not walking on the gravel pathways of Hedingham’s gardens. His father kept the boy’s tiny hand in his as he allowed his son to stop and pick at the bushes at his own leisure. Flustered, Daphne urged her brigade to pick up the pace.
“For heaven’s sake, father,” she sighed. “You’re going to be late to your own wedding.”
Benedict scooped up the baby and strode to made Daphne’s pace. “Knowing her, Grace has likely walked the aisle and said her vows to an empty space already.”
Daphne laughed. He was right, though she sincerely hoped that today was the one day that Grace Cobb decided to take her time. Her father and his housekeeper’s relationship had not come as a surprise to any of them, and it was a welcome dynamic within the family. Grace was even-tempered, warm and patient. She laughed easily and listened to as many jokes as her father would tell in a single sitting. In the end, it was actually her idea that the two get married, which, naturally, was the most flattered Mr. Blanton had ever been. Daphne was beyond happy for them; with their union today, her family would finally be complete.
Hedingham’s chapel came into view at last, and the sight of it reminded Daphne so much of her own wedding day. Her father and Grace’s ceremony would be nothing like the affair that she and Benedict had hosted; it would be much more private and modest. Grace had insisted on a simple ceremony with little fanfare.
“All that is important to me,” she had told them, “is that the people who matter bear witness. Anything beyond that is just decorum.”
“And I am not one for decorum,” Mr. Blanton had proclaimed. They had laughed, though Daphne had heartily agreed. She was so glad that her father had finally had his deepest wish granted. He was tended to not only with a fantastic housekeeper, but a wonderful wife as well. She knew that he would be happy for the rest of his days, and that filled her heart with ease.
Reaching the doors, Walter lifted Charlotte from his shoulders and passed her to his daughter. In one another’s arms, Daphne and the girl were mirror images of each other. A hand to his heart, Daphne thought for a moment that her father would burst into tears. She took a step forward and pulled his handkerchief from his breast pocket. Dabbing at his eyes, she soothed him as little Charlotte put her palm to her grandfather’s cheek.
“No cry, Grandy,” she said sweetly.
Walter swiped at his face and chuckled. “Right you are, Lottie. Grandy is sorry. I promise no more tears, but you cannot cry either, okay?”
She nodded, her dark, wispy brow furrowed seriously. “Lottie no cry.”
Once Walter was composed, the family entered the chapel. The sexton and the priest were already present, but nobody dared ask them how long they had been waiting. Benedict and Daphne, children in tow, took their witness seats in the first pew. Daphne watched as her father fidgeted in his place on the altar. When he caught her eye, she mimed wiping his brow. He fumbled with his handkerchief and did so with a nervous smile.
Benedict leaned across and whispered in his wife’s ear. “Do you think he is having second thoughts?”
Daphne giggled, causing Charlotte to copy her. “I think he is just in disbelief that this day has finally arrived.”
Just then, they heard footsteps behind them. Grace had arrived and was adorned in a simple, cream gown with a lace veil. Gretel and Prudence followed her down the aisle, beaming with importance as they scooted into the first pew on the opposite side of the family as they reached the altar. Baby Arthur let out an excited squeal as he caught sight of the bride, reaching up his tiny hands and grabbing at the air. Benedict had to stifle his laughter as the boy fussed on his lap. The children were almost more excited than the couple appeared to be.
The ceremony itself was brief, with a sweet exchange of vows before at last, a proclamation that these two souls were man and wife. Benedict stood and cheered, raising the baby into the air with another delighted squeal. Charlotte clapped haphazardly, entirely clueless as to what was going on but somehow comprehending that this was a very, very good thing. Walter embraced his new wife and the two descended the steps as Mr. and Mrs. Blanton.
“Another step-mother,” Benedict whispered in Daphne’s ear as they followed them back down the aisle and into the sunlight. “How does that make you feel, my darling?”
She took in the sight of her father, positively beaming alongside his lovely new wife. With a smile and a wink, she whispered back, “Hopeful.”
* * *
Walter kept a gentle grip on his daughter’s arm as he walked her round her old garden out the back of the merchant house. Inside, Gretel had a great dinner bubbling away on the stove to celebrate Lady Daphne’s visit. It had been some time since she had come down to visit her family’s old home; even though it was just down the road from Hedingham Manor, she had been so preoccupied with the children and civic life that she had often found herself exhausted by the day’s end. In the midst of raising two children herself, she had a new appreciation for parenthood.
“I will not even understand how you and mother managed to rear two boys at once,” Daphne said now to her father.
He chuckled. “The fact that you were older and were able to help out was certainly a blessing. But gosh, they were such troublesome things. You know Jasper has always had a mind for mischief, and loyal Lionel has always followed where his bolder brother leads.”
“How are they enjoying their time in Liverpool? You told me you were expecting word from them shortly.”
“I did,” Mr. Blanton replied. “As a matter of fact, Lionel’s update arrived this morning. It looks as though they are both quite taken with their new lifestyle.”
Daphne examined her father’s expression. “You sound as if you find that surprising?”
“In a sense, but it is sort of funny in a way, too. I suppose all my years of storytelling paid off.”
“Are you glad they have chosen the merchant life?”
He chuckled. “I certainly think they are more suited to it than I was. Especially Jasper: he was always the adventurous sort. He got that from his mother. Lionel is a follower, like me, and he’ll be content so long as his brother is by his side. I am proud of them.”
Daphne smiled and agreed. After another round about the rose bushes, she paused by the shade of an overhanging bough.
“I have been a little selfish, father.”
He frowned at her. “Whatever do you mean?”
She tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear, shielding her eyes from the sun as she looked up in contemplation. “The reason for my visit is to ask something of you.”
“And what would that be, Daffodil?”
“I have been thinking, since the boys are now abroad with the East India Trading Company, and you are technically without a housekeeper now that Grace has been promoted from that to wife, that you might consider a change in your living situation?”
Walter took a seat on the bench, towing Daphne down with him. He kept her hand in his and prompted her to clarify.
She sighed. “I want you to move into the Manor.”
“You do?” her father exclaimed with a start.
“Yes,” she replied. “I miss you, and I know my visits have grown so rare. Bringing the children down from the house can be a fuss, yet they ask to see you and Grace constantly. There are so many great comforts in Hedingham that would be of benefit to both of you. And of course, if Gretel and Prudence wanted to join the Manor staff, they would certainly be welcomed.”
Remarkably, her father chuckled. “Well, this is certainly a surprise. Who would have thought that after all the worry and concern that I had brought her over the years, my daughter would be rid of me only to invite me back into her home?”
She swatted his shoulder. “No, you silly man, you have it backwards! Bringing you back into my home means I am better able to keep an eye on you.”
“Between me and the children, you’ll certainly have a lot of responsibilities to maintain,” he laughed.
Though she was not serious about her reasoning, her request that her father and Grace move into the Manor house was sincere. It would save them the costs associated with keeping their own home and allow them to sell the merchant house. Though they were hardly strapped for funds, it would ease Daphne’s mind to give them the added security. Besides, she truly did miss her father. In her rare moments of quiet, she often took the time to reflect on how much her life had changed.
“Sometimes, even with Benedict and the children to keep me company, I get a little homesick,” she admitted, her voice growing soft as the twilight that was beginning to set in.
Mr. Blanton put his arm around his daughter. “Oh, Daffodil. I am sorry to hear that.”
“I am not unhappy,” she quickly clarified. “I could never be unhappy, for I am so blessed with my wonderful husband and beautiful children.” She shrugged. “But my life is so different now. I have new worries to contend with. Sometimes I just need my father there, to support me.”
He smiled at her. “If you want Grace and I to move into the Manor house, we will gladly do so. I think I have long outgrown this house anyway, and it will certainly be a welcome upgrade. As long as you are sure you can handle my craziness?” He winked at her.
She rolled her eyes, but smiled nonetheless. “Your craziness is what I love about you. It’s what we all love about you, father. But I must disclaim: please, you must behave yourself. Hedingham Manor is a place of propriety, even if we are just country folk at heart. It is a different world in those walls. You must be ready to take that on as a new adventure.”
Just then, Grace called to them through the open window. “Lady Daphne, my daring Walter! Dinner is almost ready.”
The pair waved their acknowledgement and stood. Mr. Blanton took his daughter’s arm once more. “Do not fret, Daffodil. So long as my Grace is by my side, I will be on my best behaviour.”
“I mean it, father. I will not invite trouble into my home, even if it does bring me some comfort.”
“You have done so much for me over the years, Daffodil. You have been responsible for bringing such joy and stability in my life. You and Benedict brought Grace to me, and for that, I am indebted. With her love and steadiness, I will not relapse. I have no wish to return to the person I used to be. I only wish to look upwards, and forward.”
She pressed a kiss to her father’s cheek. “If that is your word, then I suppose we had best tell your steadfast wife that she is going to have to start packing.” With that, the two disappeared into the house, ready to announce the start of yet another new beginning.
* * *
They have taken a new trail today – one that brings back a lot of old memories for both of them. All those years ago, Daphne had fallen from her horse when that great and elusive stag had permitted them a rare audience. So many years had passed since then. Both of them sat astride their current mounts: Benedict on his black stallion, and Daphne on her golden mare. It was Lady’s first ride since she had given birth to her foal almost three months ago, a beautiful, silvery-black colt that Charlotte had taken it upon herself to christen Storm. She was already eager to follow along on her parent’s frequent trail rides on the new horse, which almost brought Benedict to his knees with joy.
They rode steadily up the embankment and into the glade at the hill’s crest. From their great vantage point, they could see the rooftop of Hedingham Manor behind them and the great, gaping countryside in front of them. Dismounting together, they let the horses graze atop the grassy hill and made their way a little further down the ridge. Daphne spread their picnic blanket out on the flattest part of the ground whilst Benedict unhitched their basket from Alexander’s saddle. A few moments later, they settled in to enjoy the perfect romantic set up in time for the sun to begin steadily sinking over Essex.
Benedict took a seat and immediately opened his arms to her. On cue, she crawled into his waiting embrace and leaned back into his chest. They sat in silence for a while, too content enjoying the view and the freedom and the quiet (Mr. and Mrs. Blanton had taken charge of the children for the time being) to interrupt the ambience with words. After Benedict dangled a strawberry just out of Daphne’s reach, she leant forward to snatch it up in her teeth, giggling.
He sighed into her hair and pressed a gentle kiss to the crown of her head.
Daphne closed her eyes. “Benedict?”
“When did you realise you loved me?” She felt him shift underneath her. Wanting to see his face, she moved to sit beside him. She took in the handsome planes of his cheeks, the angle of his jaw, his dark eyes, his lovely hair, which blew softly in the wind.
“To be honest, I am not entirely sure,” he replied after a moment, stroking her cheek. “It wasn’t a sudden realisation; I did not just wake up one day to be struck by that bolt of clarity. It was gradual.”
She nodded. “I think I understand.”
“When I read your letter,” he went on, “I think that was when I accepted, or rather understood, that the attachment I had toward you, the affections I possessed, were rooted in a deep love for you. I was suspicious but unsure of my own feelings right up until that moment. Your letter was a confirmation for me.”
Daphne thought back to her writing that letter. She was so oblivious to his feelings; she entirely believed that he had turned to Lady Parker, who was now Lady Fairbank. At this point, she could laugh at her foolishness, but what she had felt at that time was as far from laughter as she had ever been.
Benedict ran his hand down her arm. “And what of you, my love? When was your grand realisation?”
“Oh, I have always known that I was in love with you.”
He looped an arm around her back and pulled her against him. “Did you really?”
“I did. Even in adolescence, I knew that what I was beginning to feel toward you was something other than just friendly appreciation.”
“What a wonder!” Benedict said, awed. “How frustrating I must have seemed to you.”
She laughed despite herself. “I think I was in denial for a long time. After all, you were the great Lord of Hedingham, and I was but a mere country girl.”
“You were never a mere anything, my darling.”
She smiled as she put her head against his shoulder. “Every time I told you that I was thankful, or grateful, or appreciative, that was really me telling you that I love you.”
“Ah, and you said it so often to,” Benedict murmured. “You must have told me you loved me a dozen times in a day. If only I had a clue.”
“If only,” she intoned wistfully. “But then, we would not have established what we have now.”
“Everything truly does happen for a reason, does it not?”
She nodded. “I certainly believe so. I have to, for life has brought me so much. I have you, my incredible husband and father to our two perfect children. I have my brothers, who are off creating successes abroad. My father and Grace now live with us and are always available to lend a helping hand. And on top of it all, we live in the most beautiful place in the world.”
“And own it,” he added with a smirk. “The Lady to my Lord.”
“Each and every day that I wake with you by my side, I am happy. I know now that no matter what comes our way, no matter what calamities life may have in store for us, we will be able to come out the other side of it better, and stronger.”
Benedict brushed her dark hair behind her ear, gazing into her impossibly green eyes. “Your optimism is inspiring.”
“It is the truth,” she insisted. “You make me feel invincible.”
“Together, we are invincible.”
As the sun set over the sweeping country, the two shared a kiss. It was a lingering kiss, the culmination of all the years it had taken them to reach this point. Through every trial and tribulation, they found themselves back in one another’s arms. Whether it was destiny, or a product of their own creation, it did not matter. All that was truly important was they here now, in this moment, ready to enjoy a lifetime by each other’s sides.