Three Years Later
Waving off her last student, Isabella sat on the nearest tree stump and leaned forward. Her back was beginning to give her problems now that she was halfway through her second pregnancy. Her mother-in-law was convinced she was carrying twins because she was much bigger than before, which made her nervous. Isabella couldn’t imagine what it would be like to take care of two babies and a daughter who was barely two. Of course, Emma would be two once her sibling arrived, but that didn’t ease Isabella’s worries. She wanted to be the best mother possible for her children, giving them all the love she never experienced from her own mother. At least they were on speaking terms now, but the tension between them was still present.
Isabella forgave her mother some time ago, and to prove this, she had invited her mother to meet her granddaughter after her birth. She hadn’t known if her mother would come, so it had been a surprise when she showed up and requested to see her granddaughter. Isabella’s mother seemed to form a bond with Emma almost immediately, which had made her a little envious. However, Isabella was still happy they had developed a relationship and wanted her daughter to know her grandmother’s love. Lady Canterbury was not to be outdone, though. She swore she was Emma’s favorite person, and no one could possibly have a bond like them. It was rather amusing whenever she came to the estate and tried to keep Emma to herself, annoying the nannies.
“It’s your back again, isn’t it?” said Edward, appearing out of nowhere.
Isabella jerked, hissing as it tugged on her lower back. “I didn’t hear you approach. Are you already back from the bank?”
They wanted to buy another estate so as to have a separate horse-riding school for girls and women. For now, they had a school on the property, but Edward insisted they needed a different location. It had to be close enough to travel to every day, but far enough away to keep the two worlds apart. Edward didn’t like her exerting herself too much, even though she thoroughly enjoyed teaching young girls and women how to ride a horse well.
Rubbing her lower back, Edward crouched before her, one hand on her leg for balance. “You promised you would have someone help you today. This pregnancy is taking a greater toll on you than the last one. I think my mother is right about you having twins. It runs in the family, although it skipped a generation.”
“I did have help, but I dismissed them early because I didn’t have many students today,” she pointed out. “Many of them have left London for their country estates.”
“Speaking of which, we should leave for our Bath estate soon after the party,” he said. “I know how much you miss your home.”
“This is my home, too,” Isabella reminded him. “I love this place just as much, but going home and seeing how the animals are faring will be good. My mother might want to spend a few days with us. Or rather, with Emma.”
Although Isabella had told her mother to remain at the estate, she moved into a townhouse closer to the shopping streets. Strangely, she seemed happier living in a smaller house and had a full social life.
“I do not mind,” said Edward. “She’ll also be here for a few days for the party. I have a feeling our mothers will fight over Emma again.”
Isabella grimaced. “They need to learn to share. Perhaps they’ll calm down when this little one comes,” she said, rubbing her belly.”
“Little ones,” Edward insisted, smiling. “I’m quite sure you’re carrying twins.”
“Three children for the price of two pregnancies—that is not a bad deal,” she jokingly said. “However, I do hope I can still walk around as I near the birthing date. I hate being bedridden.”
“But if it’s necessary,” said Edward, raising his eyebrows.
Isabella sighed. “Yes, yes, then I will do it. It’s easier for you to say it—you are not the one stuck in bed. It gets rather boring. There is only so much one can read, paint, draw, embroider, or write while in bed.”
“Then we’ll find a way for you to get outside without overexerting yourself,” he promised. “For now, we should get you into the house to put your legs up. Your feet look a tad swollen. You’ve been standing for too long.”
“Not too long,” she argued. “It’s just my body reacting to this pregnancy. I think I can stand up now.”
Edward helped her up, snaking his hand around her waist. “Lean on me as much as possible,” he said. “I would carry you if you were not so against it.”
“I am much heavier this time,” Isabella pointed out. “I will not have you break your back just to prove how strong you are. I already know you’re strong.”
Edward pursed his lips and helped her walk, holding her belly up slightly to give her added relief. He was as aware of her body as he was his own, and always anticipated what she needed. Sometimes, Isabella couldn’t believe how much he loved her. She loved him just as much, but he had such a special way of making her feel loved every day. It was amazing. Three years of marriage had done nothing but strengthen their relationship.
They entered the house, where Kelly began to fuss over her. “I’ll make a hot water compress for your back, my lady,” she said. “And two cold ones for your feet. I insist I massage them today. I bought an ointment from a Romani woman. She says it’s just the thing for a woman with child. She has used it with all ten of her children.”
“Ten!” Isabella cried. “Does she give birth like a rabbit?”
Kelly grinned. “We common folk are hardier people,” she said. “The Romani more so. If she says this ointment is helpful, I believe her.”
“I’m inclined to believe her as well,” Edward murmured. “Ten children? I think five might be our limit.”
“Five is a good number, although I might protest after this pregnancy,” said Isabella. “This one is rather tiring.”
“I’m equally happy with two or three,” he assured her, helping her to a chair.
Kelly brought a footstool before disappearing to get the compresses. Isabella often wondered if her lady’s maid wanted children of her own, but Kelly always changed the topic when it arose. She wanted Kelly to be just as happy, even if she might not serve her anymore.
“Julia and Percy should be arriving tomorrow with their little one,” said Edward. “They want to spend a day with us before the other guests arrive.”
Isabella nodded. “I’d like to see them again. They live so far away, but I suppose it’s necessary.”
Julia and Percy had been married for a little over two years and had welcomed their first child last year. They lived in northern England with his grandmother, who had begged them to stay with her because she felt alone.
“Before I forget, the Duke and Duchess of Surrey will not be able to attend our anniversary party,” Isabella informed her husband. “I didn’t think they would come, but I wanted to be polite.”
Lady Victoria was now the Duchess of Surrey, having married a man twenty years her senior. They had run into each other at a ball the year before, and in a way, put their differences aside. It was probably still too much to invite her to the anniversary, but it had been Isabella’s way of extending an olive branch.
“I didn’t expect them to come,” said Edward. “My parents will be arriving a day after Percy and Julia. When is your mother arriving?”
“She didn’t give a date but said she would attend the party.”
Isabella’s mother was always rather elusive when it came to giving an exact time or date. It had annoyed Isabella at first, but she had learned to let it be.
“Oh, you’ll never guess the news I heard the other day,” Edward said, piquing her interest.
“What is it? I’m terrible at guessing.”
He grinned. “I doubt you would have been able to guess this. I heard Mr. Benson has finally appeared in England with a woman by his side who looks, strikingly, a lot like you.”
Isabella widened her eyes. “Indeed? Perhaps he liked me more than I assumed.”
“Like had nothing to do with it,” Edward countered. “He was obsessed with you. I’m glad he has found someone else, or I would have been forced to remind him of our little incident three years ago.”
“He’s lucky that you let him go without punishment,” said Isabella. “I was so mad when I heard about what he did that I wanted to hunt him down and make him confess. Who knew he would disappear to Scotland?”
“He does have an estate there, so it made sense,” said Edward.
Kelly returned with the compresses but was dismissed by Edward, who insisted on applying them himself. Displeased and struggling to hide it, Kelly left the room.
“She’s devoted to you,” Edward remarked.
“I know,” Isabella replied. “I also want her to be happy, but she doesn’t want to entertain the thought of leaving me. I wonder if there is another way to get her to pursue her own happiness?”
“What if it really is just serving you?” Edward asked. “I’m happy just being around you—she might feel the same way. Not all women have the urge to get married and have children. Seeing you happy could be enough for her.”
Isabella hissed slightly as she sat forward, feeling the hot compress dissolve the knots in her lower back.
“That feels much better,” she said, sitting back.
“You just lie there, and I’ll massage your feet,” Edward insisted. “It is the least I can do after helping to put those babies in you.”
Isabella chuckled. “I do not think other husbands think as you do. I must be one of the lucky few.”
“I feel that I’m the lucky one,” Edward argued. “I have the perfect wife and a daughter who looks just like me.”
“I cannot argue that point,” she said. “Emma does look just like you, but her temperament is mine.”
“The perfect mixture, although I’d like to have a daughter who looks like you and a son who looks like me.”
“We’ll just have to see what happens with this pregnancy,” she said, rubbing her belly.
Edward leaned forward and kissed her belly. “I cannot wait.”
Isabella grinned, feeling sleepy as her husband massaged her feet. She was the happiest woman alive and would be willing to argue with any woman for that title.
Isabella led her mother into the parlor, no longer able to keep her thoughts and feelings to herself. The day of their anniversary had finally arrived, and everyone was happy, but her mother continued to act like an outsider. It was only around Emma that she seemed more comfortable. Isabella wasn’t willing to let another day pass with all the tension between them.
“Mother,” she began, shifting to the edge of her seat. “I cannot stand this tension between us any longer. The past is the past—we shouldn’t hold onto what happened before. I’ve tried everything possible to mend our relationship, but you seem to hate me too much to let the past go. What more can I do to make things right?”
Her mother didn’t reply right away. Instead, she looked to her side, seemingly staring at nothing in particular. Isabella sighed, feeling like she had already lost.
“I do not hate you, dear,” her mother finally said, turning back to her. She suddenly burst into tears, startling Isabella.
Not knowing what to do, Isabella stayed where she was and lowered her head, not wanting her mother to feel too embarrassed about crying in front of her.
“I’m sorry,” her mother wept. “I wasn’t supposed to cry. I just feel so guilty and terrible for everything I’ve done to you. Being stubborn is the only way I can cope with my guilt.”
Isabella widened her eyes. “You feel guilty?”
Her mother nodded her head, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. “I know I mistreated you,” she said. “But I couldn’t stop. I would always recall how my family ill-treated me, and then I would do the same to you. I thought it was all perfectly acceptable! I simply accepted that they treated me like a worthless person, so I suppose that was all I knew.”
Isabella’s heart went out to her mother. “But you’re not worthless, Mother.”
“But I am,” her mother argued. “I should have loved and treated you well because I knew how it felt to be unwanted. All I had wanted was people’s respect and admiration, but when I received it from you, I rejected you. I’ve realized I don’t deserve those things because I’m not a good person.”
“But you do have people’s respect and admiration, Mother,” Isabella claimed. “Your daughter married a viscount, you have a wonderful son-in-law, and you have a beautiful granddaughter and another grandchild on the way—what more can you ask for?”
Her mother looked at her for a moment before she hid her face behind her hands. “Oh, Isabella! What did I do to you? How did you become such a wonderful woman despite how I treated you? I am so, so sorry.”
Isabella had never seen her mother this emotional, even when her father died. Feeling overwhelmed, she left her seat and sat beside her mother, putting a hand on her leg.
“Please, do not cry, Mother,” she begged. “I’m not angry with you.”
“Please forgive me, Isabella,” her mother insisted. “Let me become the mother I should have been and a better grandmother to Emma. Let me start again, please. I do not wish to live without my girls anymore.”
Isabella’s eyes watered as she felt the walls between them come crashing down. This was all she had ever wanted—a loving mother.
“I forgave you a long time ago, Mama,” she said, sniffing. “I, too, want a better relationship with you. I also want you to be happy and put all the guilt behind you.”
Isabella’s mother lowered her hands, her face a mess, but she was smiling. “I want that too.”
Holding her arms out, Isabella let her mother make the choice of leaning into the embrace. It would be the first one of their lifetimes. Her mother only hesitated slightly, but she wasted no further time closing the distance between them. They sat like that for a long time, their relationship healing second by second. By the time they broke apart, Isabella felt like a new chapter had begun for her and her mother. Only one word summed up what she was thinking and feeling: finally.
Later that night, when everyone had retired to their rooms, Isabella was excited to tell her husband precisely what happened between her and her mother. The day had been too busy to say much before, but as they cuddled in bed, she felt her excitement spilling over, driving away her exhaustion.
“You will not believe what happened today,” she began.
“It is something to do with your mother,” said Edward.
Isabella moved away from his chest. “How did you know?”
He grinned. “Because you couldn’t stop smiling at each other or holding hands. I realized something must have happened between you.”
“It did,” she confirmed, shifting into a cross-legged position. “It was so wonderful to finally put the past behind us. We both hugged and cried until we just started laughing. That has never happened with my mother! I have never seen her so happy. She even revealed some painful information about her past, which makes me understand her better.”
“Although nothing could explain away what she did to you,” Edward argued. “That doesn’t absolve her of her actions.”
“I know, but I’ve forgiven her,” said Isabella. “I want to remember the past because it reminds me how much things have changed. However, I don’t want to experience it by overthinking about it. I just want all the bad feelings and memories to remain where they belong. I have new memories to make with my mother.”
“I’m truly happy for you, my love,” said Edward. “I know how this has bothered you. Now, this final piece of the puzzle is in place. You have everything you could ever hope for.”
Isabella nodded. “I count my blessings daily because I do not want to take anything for granted. The person at the center of my happiness is most assuredly you. As long as you are with me, I know everything else will be fine.”
She leaned forward to give him a light kiss on the lips, but he wasn’t satisfied with that. Edward pulled her against him, devastating her senses with one of his wonderful kisses. Isabella couldn’t move when he pulled away, but she was content to lie on his chest, making patterns on his exposed forearm with her finger. Her eyes drifted to the dressing table, where a familiar blue bottle sat between her perfumes and lotions. She had never opened it, but it served as a reminder of the Romani man’s words. The Romani fortune teller had been surprisingly accurate about her future, and the bottle of courage she had received from the Romani man had added to it. She had fought for her love and had needed courage, but she never opened the bottle. Instead, she had drawn on the courage of love.
Snuggling closer to Edward, Isabella closed her eyes and listened to his heartbeat. There wasn’t a greater sound in all the world. This alone was enough to assure her that all was well, and nothing could separate her from the most beautiful love she had ever experienced. It made her giddy just to think about what their future held. Whatever it was, one thing was certain. She would cherish it as the most precious gift of all.