Lord Percy Banks gazed out of the window, at the immaculate green lawn, spreading as far as the eye could see. In the distance was a row of pine trees, carefully planted to maintain a windbreak around the grand property. It was autumn, but the pines were still in full leaf, evergreens that never shed their leaves.
His eyes flickered left and right, taking in the large water feature in the centre of the lawn, and the stone paths that crisscrossed through it. It was all beautifully maintained, of course; his brother, Sebastian, the Marquess of Wharton, would have it no other way. This was his beloved first home with his wife, Charlotte, after all. Sebastian had bought the property in Devonshire – his wife’s home county – as a token of love to her. They had lived here for a year now, in an almost blissful bubble, rarely leaving it to go to London or anywhere, really.
His heart tightened. His brother and his wife were deeply in love; so in love, and so deliriously happy with each other. He had only been here once, before, and had found it painful watching them together. He told himself it wasn’t because he begrudged them their happiness. It was just seeing them together always reminded him of her.
His heart tightened further. Alicia. Miss Drake, the golden haired beauty who had captured his heart from the moment that he had first laid eyes on her.
The door to the drawing room opened, and Sebastian walked in, followed by Charlotte. They were both smiling in welcome. Percy took a deep breath, trying to shake off his despondency.
His eyes travelled over the pair. Sebastian was dressed in his riding clothes, and Charlotte was blooming. She placed a hand on her gently swelling stomach, carefully disguised under a voluminous gown. Percy grinned. She was with child, their first, and the pregnancy seemed to suit her.
“Percy!” Sebastian enveloped him in a bear hug. “This is unexpected, but very welcome.” He stepped back, gazing at his brother. “What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
Percy’s grin widened. “Can’t a fellow just want to catch up with his brother and sister in law?” He turned to Charlotte, walking over and kissing her gently on the cheek. “You look radiant. I take it everything is going well?”
Charlotte smiled, but he could see her dark eyes blink anxiously. “So far it is, Percy.” She stopped, biting her lip. “But it is early days, and I worry that I might relapse, and it will somehow harm the babe…”
Sebastian gazed at her. “We have talked about this often, my love. You are in good health and have been since our marriage.” His eyes softened tenderly. “Dr. Jackson has been a regular visitor, and he has devised a good plan to manage the malady. All will be well, I promise you.”
Charlotte nodded, but Percy could see she was not convinced. She turned her head away, briefly, and when she turned back he could see tears swimming in her eyes. “It is not just the months of carrying the child.” She hesitated. “It is the confinement. How will I cope with it? Will I relapse during it?”
Sebastian walked over, taking her hand, and kissing it gently. “You will be fine, my love. You will deliver a bouncing, healthy babe, and you will recover from it.”
Charlotte smiled. “Of course.” She turned to Percy. “I am sorry, besieging you with my worries! It is most rude. How are things in London, Percy?”
He forced a smile onto his face. “Oh, you know. The usual crowd.” He hesitated. “I thought I should tell you both in person. I am finally courting Miss Drake.”
Charlotte gasped. “Oh, Percy! That is felicitous news, indeed!” Her dark eyes were warm. “We both know how much you have longed for it…”
He frowned slightly. “I wasn’t sure, if you would both approve.” He hesitated. “Considering the history between you all.”
“I am happy for you, Percy,” said Charlotte slowly. “We have forgiven Miss Drake, as you know. It is all in the past now.”
Percy glanced at his brother. Sebastian had said nothing, and his hands had tightened on the back of a chair at the mention of Miss Drake. Percy knew the signs. His brother was angry. He did not approve of him courting Alicia, even if Charlotte said they had forgiven her.
He sighed. It had taken a long time to persuade Alicia to finally court him, because of what had happened between them all. She had declared that she would never be accepted by the Marquess and his new wife. Her guilt over what she had done to Charlotte, at her mother’s urging, was still powerful.
He sighed again. Yes, she was courting him, but she was still distant. As if she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, get close to him. The guilt was strong, of course, but it wasn’t just that. Her mother disapproved, declaring that her daughter should not have anything to do with the sons of the Duke of Richmond. He knew it was only wounded pride, and humiliation, on Lady Hasting’s part. She had been caught out in her scheming to snare the Marquess, and she was affronted.
Alicia was torn, as always. They had been secretly courting for over a month now, behind her mother’s back. He should be over the moon, but he wasn’t. It was as if he was physically close to her, but emotionally miles away. His face tightened, just thinking about it. He loved her so much. He had waited so patiently for her. When would she finally see that they were made for each other? Or was his love destined to fade away, before it had even had a chance to really begin?
Five months later
Alicia swallowed nervously as she walked the garden path, gazing up at the stately home. The home of the Marquess of Wharton, and his wife, the new Lady Wharton. She still couldn’t believe that she was here; that Percy had persuaded her to travel to Devonshire, to visit his brother and sister in law, in their new home.
At first, she had flat out refused, but he had been persistent, telling her that they had truly forgiven her. That she would be welcome here. But when they had arrived, they had found that Charlotte was absent – she had retired to her chambers for her confinement, no less – and the Marquess had been cold and distant towards her.
She sighed heavily. It had been so tense and awkward in the drawing room that she had excused herself, saying that she needed some air after the journey. She shouldn’t have come here, she thought fiercely. She should have known. They might say to Percy that all was forgiven, but it never would be. What she had done to them, at her mother’s urging, would always be hovering between them all, like a dark fog on a grey day.
She stared at the house sadly. She should have never let Percy persuade her to court him. Apart from the now obvious disapproval of his brother, her own mother was sour about it. At the start, she had courted him secretly, but now it was out in the open, and it had not gotten any better. Her mother was still smarting over the fact that her grand schemes to make her a duchess had backfired so spectacularly. Even though she no longer sought her mother’s approval, and was finally free of her constant manipulation, still it weighed heavily upon her.
Her eyes filled with tears. It wasn’t possible, this connection between Lord Banks and herself. Percy was adamant, fiercely pushing for it, but there was just too much bad history between them all. How on earth could she ever hope to change it?
A single tear slid down her cheek. No, she should never have come here. Everything was against them, as if fate itself had decreed it. Who was she to fly in the face of what life was so blatantly telling her?
She saw a figure in the distance, striding towards her from the house. Her heart sank a little. It was Percy. She should tell him, now, that there was no chance of anything more between them, and that they should let each other go.
Another tear slid down her cheek. She didn’t want to do it. She could admit that these past months with him had been the happiest of her life, although she knew he wanted more from her, and was disappointed she was keeping him at an emotional distance. It would be hard. So hard.
He was upon her, now. “There you are,” he said slowly, his eyes trailing over her face tenderly. “I found you.”
“You found me,” she said, slowly, her heart beating faster.
He gazed at her. “Don’t take any notice of Sebastian,” he said. “He is trying to hide it, but he’s desperately worried about Charlotte.” He paused. “She’s been in confinement for over a day now, and there is still no sign of the babe.”
Alicia smiled slightly. “Childbirth is a hard business, so I have been told.” She paused. “Her mother and sister are with her?”
Percy nodded. “They are. Apparently, they arrived over a week ago, knowing that her time was near. That is something, at least, that the women who love her most are by her side during her ordeal.” He grinned. “Her maid Dulcie is there as well, acting like a mother hen, spitting chips at anyone who crosses through the door.”
Alicia sighed. “We shouldn’t have come, Percy. You did not tell me she was so close to her time.”
Percy looked a little shamefaced. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t realise. I am rather ignorant about the gestation time of women.” He paused. “If Charlotte were a horse, or a dog, I would have had a better idea.”
Alicia burst out laughing. “Let us hope that she does not deliver a foal or a pup!” She gazed at him tenderly. “You are so funny, Percy. So full of quirks…” Her voice trailed away, and with it the laughter. She stared off into the distance.
He stepped towards her, frowning. “Alicia. What’s wrong?”
She sighed heavily. “It was wrong to come here,” she said slowly. “You may say that the Marquess and the Marchioness have forgiven me, but Lord Wharton’s behaviour towards me says otherwise.” She bit her lip. “Percy, I think we must finally admit that there can be nothing more between us. Nothing permanent, or lasting, at least.”
He paled. “Alicia, you are wrong,” he said fiercely. “I have spoken to them both. Charlotte is fine about it.” He hesitated. “Sebastian still clings to some of the old resentment against you, but he will come around…”
Her eyes filled with tears. “No, Percy! He will never forgive me.” Her voice caught a little. “And my mother does not approve, either. I do not care about her good opinion anymore, but why can’t you see that everything is against us?”
His face tightened. “So, you are willing to just give up on us then?” His voice was scornful. “Where is the woman that I know, and love? The one that stood up to her mother, and sought forgiveness from my brother and sister in law? The brave, strong woman who was willing to fight for what she truly believed in?”
Alicia sobbed. “It was only you, that gave me that courage…”
He stepped closer, his eyes fierce. “No, Alicia. It was not just me.” He paused. “You always had it in you. Always. Will that woman just walk away, now, even if things are not easy?”
She turned away, a little shamefaced.
He reached out, taking her hand. “Alicia, look at me.” His voice was steady. “I have loved you so long, and so well. I will always love you. My heart was yours, from the moment that I gazed at you. That love is worth fighting for. When will you finally see that you love me too, and that we are meant to be together?”
She gazed up at him. At his face, his eyes so tender as they gazed on her. Percy, she thought slowly, her eyes travelling over him. He had fought for her, and stayed by her side, through thick and thin. Through everyone’s disapproval. He had never strayed, and always insisted that she was a good person, deep down inside.
He saw her, for who she truly was. He had always seen her. If he could stand up in the face of his brother’s disapproval now, and her mother’s, why couldn’t she?
He sank slowly to his knees in front of her, still holding her hand. She gasped, staring down at him, as if in a dream.
“Marry me,” he said, urgently, his eyes fierce. “Please…marry me. I cannot live without you, Alicia. I do not care if my brother disowns me, and your mother disowns you. I do not care a fig for any of it. All I want is you by my side…forever.”
He fumbled in his pocket, taking something out, that glittered in the soft autumn sun. He held it up. She gasped. It was the necklace, that he had secretly given her, so long ago. The necklace that she had thrown at his feet, in disgust. The necklace that he had kept, telling her that it was hers, that it would always be hers.
“I know that I said you needed to claim it,” he said slowly. “That you should come to me, when you are ready.” He took a deep breath. “But I offer it to you now, once again, to show you how much I love you, and how that love will never change. Will you take it, at long last, Alicia?”
She stared at the necklace, sparkling in the sunlight. She bit her lip, hesitating. The disapproval of them all hovered between them for a moment.
But then, she reached down, and took it out of his hand, her eyes wet with tears.
“I will,” she said slowly, her voice tremulous. “I will take it, Percy.” The tears were sliding down her face now. “I love you. I have always loved you. It was just all so hard…”
“I know, my love,” he said fiercely, standing up, and embracing her. His voice was muffled in her hair. “I know how hard it has been for you. But it is all over now, Alicia.”
She sobbed, in his arms. But now she knew that they weren’t tears of sorrow any longer. They were tears of relief, and joy. That she had finally admitted to herself how much she loved him, and that she couldn’t live without him either. She could stand in the face of disapproval, with a firm eye, because he would be by her side. Forever.
He stepped back, clasping her hands, gazing in her face. Then gently, slowly, he took the necklace from her.
“Turn around,” he said softly.
She did as he asked. Slowly, he placed it around her neck, securing it. It seemed to hum against her skin. A token of his love, and hers. An undying promise.
“There,” he said softly, one hand resting gently on her neck. His touch seemed to burn her skin slightly, and she shivered, turning around, so that they were standing face to face once more.
He smiled, his eyes full of joy. “You have made me the happiest man alive, Alicia.” He paused. “I want to shout it from the rooftops!”
She laughed softly. “And you have made me the happiest woman alive, Percy.” She swallowed a sudden lump in her throat. “It will be the happiest day of my life, when I become your wife.”
Suddenly, they heard shouting in the distance. They turned as one, staring at the figure running towards them across the lawn. It was Sebastian. They stared at him, then turned to one another questioningly. What was going on?
He was in front of them, panting furiously. But he was smiling through it. Beaming. “She is safely delivered,” he gasped. “Charlotte has delivered the babe.” He paused, gazing at them triumphantly. “A son! Mother and child are both well.”
Alicia gasped, and Percy stepped forward, embracing his brother, his eyes full of tears. Then he stepped back. “Well done, old boy! A son! My first nephew!”
Sebastian nodded, his eyes sparkling. “His name is Henry,” he said, slowly.
“Little Henry, hey?” said Percy, his voice full of joy. “The heir! Father will be pleased.”
Sebastian laughed. Then he stopped, suddenly, gazing from one to the other. His eyes rested on Alicia contemplatively.
“Miss Drake,” he said slowly. “It would be my pleasure if you would join us, in seeing the babe.”
Alicia gasped again, her eyes filling with tears. She glanced at Percy, who looked ecstatic. He reached out and took her hand, caressing her palm gently with his thumb.
“It would be an honour to greet little Henry,” she said slowly, blinking back the tears. “My congratulations to you and the Marchioness, my lord.”
Sebastian nodded. Then he started walking back to the house. Alicia and Percy trailed him slightly, hand in hand. Suddenly, they laughed as the Marquess jumped in the air, expertly clicking his heels together, before landing back on the ground.
Percy stared down at her, his hand tightening in hers. “I told you it would be alright,” he said slowly. “We can conquer anything, if we are together.”
Alicia nodded, leaning into him. She would never forget this day. The day that a child had come howling into the world. The day that she had finally realised how much she loved Percy and had agreed to be his wife. The day that she finally owned her courage, and her past, proudly.
The autumn sun shone down on them, and the wind gently caressed her face. His hand in hers was warm and soft and spoke of the promise of things to come. The necklace lay against her skin, his claim on her, that would never be broken.
Yes, she would never forget this day, as long as she lived.