The Rosebury carriage turned into the drive of the Elwood mansion just before midday, rolling up under the canopy of summer trees and stopping just shy of the marble staircase out front. Anthony climbed out, shielding his eyes from the sun, and then reached back into the darkened interior and helped his three-year-old son out onto the paving stones.
“Wait for your mother, George,” he said, smiling as the little boy stared back at him with impish green eyes. That one brown spot always melted his heart, just as it did when he saw the same mark in Lydia’s eyes.
He turned back to the carriage and pulled the baby, a little girl almost to her first birthday, from Lydia’s arms. He held the child in one arm and reached another to help his wife from the carriage. She floated down as gracefully as a leaf on the wind, more beautiful to Anthony now than she’d ever been. She was wearing a green dress, cut for travelling and designed—as all their clothes were now—by herself. Her brown hair was up in a simple fashion, but he hadn’t missed the daisies she’d slipped under the braid before the journey. Only Lydia would think to woo her husband on an hour-long carriage ride.
He pulled her close. “You smell good. It must be the daisies.”
“I wondered if you’d noticed,” she answered.
Five years, and he still wasn’t used to the way she pressed into him instead of pulling away. Belonging to Lydia was the sweetest privilege he had ever known.
“I couldn’t help but notice.” He handed his daughter over with a gentle squeeze. “And I saw you put some in Lily’s hair as well.”
“Wildflowers,” she answered simply. “I’ve always had a soft spot for them.”
Anthony led the way up to the great doors of the mansion, and when they were admitted they were set upon almost at once by Marilyn and her own two children, two boys who were engaged almost at once in a friendly wrestling match with George.
“You made it, and early, too!” Marilyn clasped Lydia close, and Anthony watched with quiet joy as his wife was once again reunited with her childhood friend. It felt like old times, seeing them link their arms and lean girlishly against one another. They didn’t get to see the Elwoods as much as Lydia would have liked, but two evenings from now was their five-year anniversary ball, a grand gala set a few months early to catch the last dregs of the London season.
“I hoped I could steal you away from last-minute preparations to learn all the latest gossip,” Lydia admitted. “I know you had Will and Veronica out earlier, and there is rumored to be another Elwood on the way.”
Marilyn looked down at her softly-swelling belly with a wry smile. “If it’s only rumors than you should read my letters more carefully. I’m hoping it’s a girl.”
“Girls are so much easier than boys,” Lydia said, gathering her own little Lily closer into a mothering embrace. “Not so much rambling about and getting covered in mud.”
“I take offense!” Anthony interjected with a grin. “Remember, Lydia, that you are among childhood friends. We all remember exactly how much rambling you did as a little girl and,” he added with a conspiratorial wink at his daughter, “I will expect nothing less from our little Lily.”
“What are your plans for the ball?” Lydia changed the subject with a friendly nudge in Anthony’s side. “Is there anything we can do to help?”
“Just get settled in your rooms. I’ll have the footmen load up your things. We want you as long as you can stay.”
“Not over a week, alas,” Lydia confessed with a shrug. “Anthony is getting a new tenement farmer and wants to be there to settle him in personally.”
“Really?” Marilyn raised her brows. “I don’t know of many landlords that would do as much.”
“That’s Anthony for you,” Lydia followed her friend upstairs with Anthony and the children in tow, surveying the fine adjoining rooms she and the children had been given with happy eyes. “Marilyn, you really do keep a lovely house.”
George tugged at her skirts. “Mama? Ousside?”
Lydia looked down with a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “You must ask Mrs. Elwood. It is her ‘ousside’ after all.”
“Mrs. Ewoo,” he said, turning his charming little gaze in her direction. “Ousside?”
“How could I say no to that?” Marilyn asked.
“Very easily, I must say.” Lydia rolled her eyes in Anthony’s direction. He loved the way she cared for his children. “Motherhood has given me a stern manner I didn’t know I possessed. But if you’re okay…?”
“Of course I am,” Marilyn answered. Kneeling down so she was on the same level with George and her two sons, she said firmly, “you may go, but stay away from the dockside. Papa is going to take us all boating later and it isn’t safe for you to go there now.”
“Yes mama,” the boys chorused, George joining in with one last endearing “Mrs. Ewoo.”
They tumbled off down the stairs and outside, a picture of all the vigor and childish zeal that had once brought Marilyn and Lydia together in the gardens behind Parkfield.
The day of the ball dawned beautiful, unseasonably warm with a no promise of rain to dampen either the outdoor or indoor activities. Lydia spent the day with the children, although she had a strange misgiving about Anthony. There was something he was hiding from her, and that so rarely happened that it made Lydia uncomfortable.
“Where are you going?” she asked at midday when he tried to slip away from tea during the children’s naps.
“I have a letter to post,” he said with an odd smile.
“You ask a lot of questions, little sparrow,” he answered back. “You know what Augustine says, ‘hell was fashioned for the inquisitive.’”
“Shocking of you to quote Augustine to me,” Lydia shot back in good humor, “when you could well have quoted Byron at a safer distance.”
“Ah, but in this singular case Byron was inferior to Augustine.”
“In this case only?” Lydia held up her mouth to be kissed and then watched her husband leave the room with a confused smile on her face. Only when he was gone did she cast a look at Marilyn, who was sewing in the corner. Her friend had a wrinkle of confusion between her eyes, and when Lydia looked her way she broke into perplexed laughter.
“You really are a different woman now that you’ve married Anthony,” she said. “Arguing about philosophy and poets in everyday conversation? It would shock your mama.”
“Oh, trust me. It does. You should see her when she visits Rosebury. She’s always trying desperately to pretend I haven’t left her oversight—trying to remind me to behave properly and to not sully the Gibbs name. Anthony tells her that she is a Foyle now, and must shock people accordingly, but it does no good. I think we would not get quite so much push back if Anthony were not training George to speak his mind. Last week she asked him how his studies were progressing, and he said ‘letters are nuffin to air and land.’ We’ll make a naturalist of him yet.”
“He’s a good boy,” Marilyn agreed with a nod. “He’s obedient but bright as well. So often you see firm rules taking the imagination out of a child.”
“I don’t think so,” Lydia responded. “Firm boundaries allow a child safety, it’s just that you have to choose the right boundaries. For instance, getting dirty in the garden is not an offense, while slapping little Lily is.”
“I wish I could live quite so free,” Marilyn admitted, “but I’m dreadfully afraid that someone will stop by and my boys will come jogging forward with their hands and feet and coats all a mess. You have been lucky to avoid such an embarrassment with George.”
“On the contrary, I’m afraid George lives most of his life in a state of disarray,” Lydia responded. “I’ve stopped battling for missing buttons and muddy shoes. It’s not a fight worth having.”
Later that afternoon the couples went out on a boating ride with the children in tow. George and the boys spent most of the time with their legs trailing in the lake water, while little Lily was content to play with her mama’s hair and then promptly fall asleep when the sun was drifting lower in the sky. Lydia loved the feel of the weight of a child heavy on her. It was one of the surprising gifts of motherhood she had not expected.
“Did you get your letter posted in time?” she asked Anthony.
“I did,” he responded, then, seeing the intensity of her gaze, he followed it with a teasing wink, “don’t try to pry it out of me, little sparrow. You aren’t as clever as that.”
“You have something up your sleeve,” she answered back. “And I will know what it is.”
“You will,” he responded. “Tonight. And you’d best be patient, for I have held this secret under my cap for nearly a year without betraying it. You can wait a few more hours.”
Mystified, Lydia dropped the topic, her mind whirling. Anthony was acting like he did before he surprised her with a gift, but she honestly couldn’t think about anything she was missing in her life. She truly believed she’d received more than the weight of happiness due to a person.
Evening came, and the children went to bed with many sighs and wonderment about the great ball they would be missing.
“One day,” Lydia answered George’s entreaties. “When you are much bigger. For now, you must be content to dance with your mama.”
They tripped about the room in a sloppy attempt at the minute and then she picked him up, kissed him on the head, and tucked him neatly into bed. She sang him to sleep with the familiar tune they’d been singing since he was born: “Once again, but how changed since my wanderings began, I have heard the deep voice of the Lagan and Bann…”
When she finished, her eldest little angel was fast asleep, one sticky fist still clutching her finger. She loosened his grip as best she could and turned, her heart starting when she saw Anthony leaning against the door.
“How long have you been there?” she asked.
“Not long enough,” he said softly. “Are you ready to go down?”
She looked down at her plain day dress and her loose hair. “What do you think?”
“Well, get ready quickly. I’ll be waiting in the ballroom for my own love; and I claim the first dance.”
“You could have them all if society would allow it,” she said.
“I will make up for all I miss after the ball,” he said, drawing her close and kissing her softly.
Lydia fairly skipped to her room, still feeling girlish even after all these years of marriage. She dressed quickly in a simple satin gown she’d designed years ago and did her hair with an almost girlish simplicity to match. She tucked a cornflower in her hair and put a pair of pearls in her ears. Just as she was about to go, Marilyn’s maid knocked on her door.
“A letter, miss. It’s urgent.”
She took it with surprise, her heart relaxing at once when she saw the familiar seal. Anthony had never forgotten his wedding-day promise to always woo her, and she had seen that seal many times before during their married life. She broke it, gently, and read the contents.
“Little Sparrow,” it began. “I am sure that I just came from seeing you, though I posted this earlier today. You were likely putting our children to bed, or speaking tenderly to your friend, or fixing some mishap with the maid. You are always bringing beauty and healing wherever you go—it is one of the things I most love about you. But sit, for a moment. Breathe. Think only of yourself, and failing that, think only of me. For one moment, you are just my little sparrow—you owe no one anything, and all that matters is that I am waiting downstairs for you. I have a surprise, I have already hinted at it no doubt, and before you see it I wanted to tell you why: because I believe in you, because you are gifted, and because your gifts should touch the world and not just me. Yours, The Kingfisher.”
She set aside the letter, mystified. It had cleared nothing up, although it had done a marvelous job of bringing bright tears into her eyes. She dabbed them away, composed herself, and made her way downstairs to greet the guests. The first person she saw was not, in fact, Anthony. It was Veronica, leaning languidly against her husband Will. She was arrayed in cream satin that would have shamed the queen herself, her elegant white neck rising like a swan from the broadband of the design.
Lydia blinked, uncertain and yet more sure than she’d ever been of anything. She peered more closely at the dress. Yes, there was the lace edging along the hem; the pearl drops from the edge of the capped sleeves. It was more beautiful than it had been even on her little scrap of watercolor paper, but it was undeniably her design.
“Lydia!” Veronica ran up the last few steps to meet her halfway on the staircase. “It’s so good to see you, dear.”
Lydia opened her mouth to respond, but just as she was about to she saw another woman, rather plump and completely unfamiliar to her, sail by in dark green satin edged with pale embroidery. It was hers as well, one of the early works to be sure, but she would have recognized it from her portfolio any day. She put out a hand to steady herself on Veronica’s arm. “It’s good to see you too,” she heard herself say as though from very far away. “It’s been so long.”
She followed Veronica down the stairs and into the ballroom where another shock awaited her. The crimson gown, there in the corner and trimmed in gold as she’d imagined it all those years ago, was adorning some gorgeous beauty from bath who Veronica was saying had arrived with her and Will.
For one strange moment, Lydia wondered if she was in a dream. Then, she realized that not all the dresses were her design, just enough of them. She turned to Veronica, at last finding her voice amid the confusion.
“Veronica, can I ask you a strange question?”
Veronica looked back at her with a little smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “Of course you can, Lydia. Anything.”
“Tell me, who designed your dress?”
“The same person who designed yours,” Veronica answered back with a slightly more indulgent smile. “I recognize that pattern from the portfolio I chose from.” She leaned closer. “You haven’t heard? There’s a new designer on the scene, and tailors all over England are clamoring to show her portfolio to their clients. You may have heard of her—”
“Yes,” Veronica turned over the hem of her sleeve and showed a tiny brown sparrow embroidered on the inside. “Sparrow designs, by Mrs. Lydia Foyle.”
Lydia took a step away in astonishment and delight. “How…” but she answered her own question, catching Anthony’s gaze across the ballroom.
“Yes, it was him,” Veronica admitted with a smile. “His only request upon releasing the designs was that everyone who chose such a design in the county should wait until this particular event to wear the dress. I think he wanted it to be some sort of grand gesture.” She raised her shoulders in a shrug. “Men.”
“It is a grand gesture. Very grand.” Lydia could not put words to the wonder she felt looking around the room and seeing at last her dreams sailing around her in reality.
“You know, it wasn’t just Anthony’s pride, Lydia,” Veronica went on. “They really are good designs. None of it would have worked if they weren’t, but I saw them without even knowing you were behind them at first and I fell in love. You have a gift.”
Lydia had to make a conscious effort to avoid tearing up. She laid a hand on Veronica’s arm. “You are kind, friend. Now you must excuse me.”
She curtsied to Veronica and then hurried around the edge of the dance floor to where Anthony was lounging against a column.
“It’s wonderful,” was all she could say before clasping his hands in her own.
“I hoped you would like it,” he answered back. “I hoped it wouldn’t scare you. But Lydia, I knew they would love them, and they do. You have full proof now that your talents are worthy of the world’s congratulations.”
“You were all the proof I needed,” she answered back with a smile. “But you have outdone yourself with this kindness.” She caught sight of Marilyn spinning across the dance floor in a rose-hued ball gown she’d designed only a few months ago. “Sparrow Designs, very clever.”
“And when we are home we can speak about a business model. You are the face of this, and I am your lackey.” Anthony bowed with a flourish.
“Shocking, allowing your wife to discuss business with you,” she answered back, straightening when she heard the first strains of a familiar violin tune. “But business can wait. If you are willing, Anthony Foyle, I would like to take a turn around the dance floor with you.”
“I am more than willing, my lady,” he said, bowing over her hand and then taking her into his arms. “After all, the waltz was always our best dance.”