On a windswept October day, Bella and I stood at the Falmouth pier to bid our goodbyes to Rosalie and Emmett.
“We can send on anything you need, Rosalie. Please don’t hesitate to ask,” Bella entreated to an excited Rosalie, who was on the verge of tears at the same time.
Rosalie nodded and embraced Bella in return. “Who knows when we’ll see you next! Will you please look in on my parents, visit them? I’m so worried about them.”
I had half a mind to point out that my wife could probably name ten other chores she’d take up more willingly, walking on hot coals being one of them, but decided silence would be a better policy. Bella did indeed promise to visit the Hales from time to time so they wouldn’t feel too lonely at Treverva Lodge.
“Rosie, your parents will probably be either in London or travelling all the time. Please don’t force other obligations on Bella.”
“It’s no obligation, Emmett. If they’re in London, I’ll just dispatch Aunt Millie to see them.”
Rosalie failed to notice Emmett’s amused smile to Bella’s proposition. She was too shaken up by their impending departure now, just as one of the crewmates bellowed out that all passengers were wanted on board.
I shook my brother’s hand again, and he surprised me by pulling me in for an embrace. Now that we’d mended all our fences, Emmett had become more demonstrative of late.
“Thank you, Edward. You don’t know what this means to me, that you’d give me this opportunity. I’ll do you proud. I won’t disappoint you.”
“Just go out there and live the best life you can for yourself and your wife. Augustus will help you around the house and plantation with anything you need. He knows them like the palm of his hand. Trust him.”
He nodded and moved on to give a parting embrace to Bella, which left Rosalie standing in front of me with a watery smile.
“I want to thank you, too, Edward. Emmett’s been a new man since the two of you reconciled.”
I took her hands in mine. “I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself knowing I’d done nothing to extend an olive branch. Not after I knew what my father had forced him to do. And I owe you an apology, too. I didn’t treat you fairly or respectfully when we first met.”
She shook her head. “It’s all in the past now. Our future—Emmett’s and mine—is on that ship and on the other side of the ocean. And it’s all thanks to you and Bella.”
“It’s time to go, Rosie. Or the ship might sail without us,” said Emmett, who’d now relinquished Bella.
“This isn’t an adieu. I know we’ll see you both again,” Rosalie said haltingly as she and Emmett walked up the plank of the Ajax, the vessel that would transport them to Lisbon first, and then all the way to Kingston in about thirty days.
Bella and I stood on the pier for a while longer, watching their figures grow smaller and hazier in the distance while a bitter, cold wind howled around us and threw salty, white sprays on our faces.
We walked back to our carriage in silence, as if neither of us had words for our present feelings. Or maybe our hearts were just too full. At length, my determination to always reassure Bella in any situation won over my reluctance to voice my thoughts.
“They will be safe. This journey will soon be over, and they’ll settle in at the lodge. They’ll build a good life for themselves.”
Bella squeezed my hand, threading her gloved fingers through mine. “I have faith that they will. It’s just … there’s been so much change around us, Edward.”
Although it seemed to be too much of a profound conversation for a busy street, her consideration deserved a well-thought-out response, which prompted me to stop our progress and turn to face her. “Change isn’t always bad, per se, my love.”
She rewarded me with the hint of a smile, and at that moment, I knew she wasn’t in a sombre mood. “You’re right. It just takes some getting used to, ‘tis all. I feel as if I’ve been spinning like a top this entire year, and this whirling and whirring is just now stopping.”
She had every right to feel overwhelmed. Our lives had both been upended—in good and bad ways—in the last seven months or so, and things were only beginning to settle into a steadier, calmer rhythm. Without another thought, I lowered my lips to hers but restrained myself from taking things any further, mindful of our surroundings.
“I might mark the day on the calendar. You actually said I’m right about something.”
She tittered for an instant, all traces of unease now erased from her countenance. “Credit where it’s due, Mr Cullen. Thank you, beloved.”
I rubbed my hand along her forearm and pressed my lips to her forehead. “Anytime. Anything for you, my darling. Shall we?”
She nodded, and we resumed our walk towards the carriage. We spent the short ride to Cullen Manor discussing the goings-on at home and our upcoming social engagements. After Alice’s wedding, we’d been invited by every other prominent family in the area and had been having dinner away from the manor quite often. Sir Leonard and Sir Devin were still angling for me to take up the magistrate chair, and after consulting with my Bella, I decided I’d accept it. Her argument had been unassailable. “You don’t want a less than honourable man in that position, Edward. You’d be an honourable and fair judge. You’d do a lot of good for the people of these parts.”
Upon our arrival, Jenks welcomed us with the post tray before disappearing again within his domain—the kitchens.
I divested my coat and helped Bella out of hers as she perused the mail.
“Anything of importance in there?”
She shook a missive in my direction as an infectious smile bloomed on her lips. “From Paris!”
We sat down in the library where she started reading her letter while I got saddled with more reports from the steward at Cygnus Court. Although it was Bella’s property, she’d entrusted me with managing it, stating that she would confine herself to managing the household but the price of grain, farming, and leaseholds were not her province.
Fully engrossed with her letter, she didn’t dignify me with one glance for a good ten minutes before she erupted in a giggle.
“What are Lord and Lady Whitlock up to now?” I asked.
My sister had been writing to Bella almost every week. My teasing comment had been that Jasper wasn’t doing a good job with his husbandly duties if she had so much free time. Bella’s answer to my quip had been an elbow to my side, accompanied by a, “Scandalous, Mr Cullen. Positively scandalous.”
“They’re still in Paris but have been on a short trip to Normandy. They will be extending their journey to the French Riviera in a few days. They might already be in Nice by now, I reckon.”
“They’ve been gone for a month already! Are they planning on returning to Somerset by Christmas, at least?”
Bella shrugged, folding the letter back and lifting it in my direction. “Read for yourself. Jasper enclosed a couple paragraphs in it for you.”
I perused the missive quickly, reading out loud to Bella Jasper’s portion. “Sends their regards for Rosalie and Emmett. Says Lady Holcombe might ask to come spend time with us because she’s bored in London. Lady Whitlock had a nasty bout of pneumonia, on the mend now but much subdued. Will be back for Christmas. Inviting us to spend it at the hall.”
“Efficient summary, Mr Cullen,” she said at length in a small voice.
“What’s wrong, my love?”
She sighed before answering with a shake of her head. “Just thinking of my aunt. Sometimes I wonder …”
I motioned for her to continue. I had my own theories about Lady Whitlock’s ailment, but they weren’t entirely charitable.
“I just wonder … whether Jasper and I have dealt with this all wrong from the start, you know? Maybe a gentler hand …”
I left my perch at my father’s old desk to sit on the armrest of Bella’s armchair and wound my arm around her shoulders. “You and Jasper did all you could. Don’t shoulder the blame for someone else’s choices, love.”
“But she’s my aunt … And she’s alone in that secluded house …”
She’d struggled with Lady Whitlock’s situation since her birthday. For all that she’d been firm in the face of her aunt’s nasty remarks that day, Jasper’s removal of his mother from her cottage near the hall to a more sheltered abode farther north in the moors of Yorkshire had left Bella feeling conflicted. She still believed her aunt exploited her illness to justify her horrid temper and behaviour, but rued the fact that Jasper had been forced into such a choice, and sometimes tortured herself with this dilemma, thinking there had to be something else they could have done with her, something else they could have tried instead.
“She would have been alone at the cottage anyway. Her doctors always forbade any visitors except Jasper, remember?”
“I know, I know. In my head, I recognise this is the way things have to be. My heart feels heavy for Jasper, though. He’s had to come to terms with the harsh reality that the sweet mother he knew as a child is gone forevermore.”
A pained grimace marred her features, and a lone tear lined her cheek. “But I’m being ungrateful. Esme’s been cold in the ground these past seven months, and here I am being overly compassionate about a woman who’s expended her best efforts in being evil incarnate to your sister. Can you forgive me, Edward?”
“There’s nothing to forgive, my love. Your compassionate heart is one of the things that made me fall hopelessly in love with you. I wouldn’t have you any other way. If anything, it does you credit that you can still look upon your aunt with that level of solicitude. Jasper has accepted the situation, and so should you. She’s chosen to behave abominably to you time and time again. You heard the alienist. She’s coherent and logical in her responses, but her thirst for vengeance against your mother and the perceived wrongs she suffered at her hand—wholly unjustified assessment, those wrongs are all in her head—motivates her outbursts. I don’t want you torturing yourself like this. You have no fault in this matter, my darling one.”
My voice had grown firmer and steadier the further I spoke. I was afraid my tirade would irritate Bella as her mood seemed to inexplicably shift every now and then. I’d explained it away on account of her conflicted feelings regarding Lady Whitlock’s situation so far. I cradled her face in my hands and wiped her tears away with my fingers. “Don’t cry, my love. It pains me to see you suffer so.”
She nodded, sitting up straighter in her armchair. She straightened the front of her gown and patted my hands affectionately. “Thank you, beloved. You always manage to reassure me. I love you, Edward.”
I kissed her temple. “As I love you, Mrs Cullen.”
She stood and walked to the door, turning to me with a smile. “Back at my chores now. Sir Devin and Lady Trevelyan will be over for supper. I need to check on Jenks and see what’s cooking.”
*** *** ***
A month later, on a rather gloomy November day, we finally received word that Jasper and Alice were travelling back from France.
Lady Holcombe, who’d left London to prepare the household ahead of their arrival, would welcome them back at Whitlock Hall and stay with them for a few weeks. She’d declared that the season in London this year was an utter bore, and she’d rather spend it in the country with her newest niece than in town surrounded by Lady Blackwood and her daughters, whose pickings in the marriage mart were still non-existent, whereas their brother, per Lady Holcombe’s account, had finally finagled a bride from his unwitting northern relations. Needless to say, Aunt Millie was unimpressed with the newest Lady Blackwood.
As I finished reading Jasper’s missive with a chuckle, I looked out the library window just in time to catch a glimpse of Bella’s carriage driving up to the front door. She’d been out visiting Sir Leonard, who’d been laid up in bed with a bad cold.
Bella had tried to protest when I’d had my mother’s carriage reupholstered for her to use. I countered her objections saying that if she wasn’t going to use it, the carriage would be left in the carriage house to rot, and I couldn’t very well have my darling wife traipse about the Cornish countryside on foot or horseback in the inclement winter weather. That caused her to pause, relent, and apologise for being ungrateful and stubborn. I’d silenced her with a kiss, telling her it was my job to spoil her now, and she’d best get used to it.
I stepped out into the hall to welcome her just as she came through the door, her complexion ruddy with exertion and, no doubt, the bitter bite of the November wind. She flew into my arms with one of her radiant smiles.
“Welcome home, my love. I’ve missed you today.”
She laughed in between the kisses I rained on her gelid face. “It’s good to be home. Sir Leonard sends his regards.”
“How’s the old curmudgeon?” I’d grown quite fond of the elderly gentleman in the last few months. He was, in fact, a perfectly amiable chap, but his sometimes abrasive manner had become a sort of private joke of ours.
“Mildly curmudgeonly, so on the mend, all in all.”
I followed her into the kitchens, where she started checking on the various pots the cook and Jenks had on the stove. Then, after lifting the lid on one of them, she dropped it back onto the pot unceremoniously, bringing a hand to her mouth and running straight to the bucket of slops Jenks kept out of the way in a corner of the scullery.
Taken aback by her sudden reaction, I ran after her and heard the distinct sound of retching.
“Bella, love? What happened? Are you unwell?” I asked, anxious.
“Something in the stew doesn’t smell quite right,” she answered. “I’ll speak to Jenks about it,” she added in a rush and disappeared from the kitchen before I could enquire further.
The next morning I went down to the kitchen early for a spot of breakfast and ran into the man himself.
“What did you put into that godforsaken stew yesterday, old man?”
Jenks’ only reply amounted to a disgruntled, guttural noise at first. “Nothing I haven’t put in my stew these past fifty years, you insolent young man! What about it?”
“Bella came into the kitchen yesterday, took a whiff of it from the boiling pot, and then retched right into the slop bucket. Are you trying to poison my wife?”
He set down the basket of onions he’d been hauling in from the root cellar and took a seat at the table. “Took a whiff of stew and chucked up her luncheon, ye say?”
“Yes. Careful with those onions. If they’re rancid, they’ll set her off again.”
He nodded repeatedly but offered no other explanation. After I’d stood and walked away from the table, he retorted to my retreating back. “The onions are fine. The missus isna retching because of rancid food, lad. For all that ye’re a smart man, ye havena figured this one oot yet.”
I wrote Jenks’ comment off as his usual form of ribbing at my expense but did note from that moment on that Bella started avoiding certain foods. I vowed I’d persuade her to see the Newton boy—despite my keen dislike of the chap and his keen preference for making eyes at my wife, he was still the town doctor—if she showed any further alarming symptoms.
*** *** ***
November fog dissolved into December snow, and Christmas came upon us almost by surprise. Bella and I had settled into a busy routine and a highly satisfactory married life.
She ran the household, visited the ladies of the town, and saw that our tenants and farmers’ families were well taken care of, even going so far as encouraging Dr Newton to see to their winter ailments at our expense and raising money for a small school for the village children, which she’d entrusted to the local pastor.
For my part, I managed the estate, prepared to receive my chair as a magistrate at the first quarter sessions of the new year, and waited every two weeks for dispatches from Jamaica.
We’d had reports from Emmett and Rosalie regularly throughout their journey. The first letter had come from Lisbon a week after their departure. Then every so often, we’d get a hasty missive whenever their packet crossed with another ship bound for England.
Then, in mid-December, we finally received a longer letter dated from the plantation. They’d settled in at the lodge, gotten the lay of the land, and made friends with a few local families, thanks to the good offices of my local lawyer and a few neighbouring landowners. Augustus was thoroughly enjoying the presence of a new mistress in the house, and Rosalie seemed to love the house and the weather so far.
Jasper and Alice had come to the manor for a short visit around that time, and we’d shared with them the good news from the West Indies. Bella and I were happy to reunite with our family, and Lord and Lady Whitlock looked very much like the perfect couple, perfectly in love. After some talk and deliberation, we’d decided we’d spend our first Christmas as married couples in our own homes and would reconvene at Whitlock Hall for New Year’s Eve. The weather so far had been cold but fairly cooperative, with no heavy snowfalls, which obliterated any safety concerns we’d have in travelling to Somerset.
A crisp but sunny Christmas Eve dawned on us as we lay in bed with no plans to relinquish our warm cocoon under the covers any time soon. A roaring fire warmed our bedchamber, and a tray of hot breakfast sat as ready refreshments for us, along with a bundle of mail. I’d instructed Jenks not to disturb us this morning, and I had no plans of engaging in any productive endeavours whatsoever.
“Did Jenks go apoplectic when you told him off earlier?” asked Bella, who’d laid her head on my chest and currently played with my wandering fingers as she spoke.
I scoffed in good humour. “The old man is as unflappable as ever. He erupted in one of his unintelligible noises and grunted out something to the effect that it was high time the two of us took it easy.”
“Good old Jenks.”
“He cares about us. About you, in fact. He told me in no uncertain terms to take better care of the missus.”
“I don’t know what he’s prattling on about,” Bella retorted with a laugh. However, her words sounded evasive for some reason.
I extended a hand towards my bedside table where Jenks had set the mail a while ago and started leafing through it, handing Bella the messages addressed to her.
“Lady Holcombe, for you. Briggs in London, for me. Jasper, for me. Alice, for you. Lady Trevelyan, for you. Rosalie, for you. Emmett, for me. Lord Falmouth, for me.”
“That’s quite the pile we’ve got there. Let’s see what Rose has to say,” she said, plucking from my hand the sheaf of letters I’d been separating.
I was also anxious to hear from my brother and broke the seal off his missive after dumping the rest of my post on top of the covers.
The plantation was doing well, he was getting along fine with the workers, Augustus was a godsend, and the local merchants had welcomed the new gentleman from England like the second coming of Christ. That was all good news, but I’d hoped for something a tad more personal.
Ah, there it was. At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Or that my brother would use such saucy language in a letter. I had to squint and read his scrawled words again. But that wasn’t the entire story. Then Bella gasped, seized my arm with her right hand, and shook me until I looked at her. A surprised smile graced her face, and her eyes, though wide as saucers, shimmered with an expression halfway between awe and joy.
“Rosalie is expecting!”
I squinted again. Did I just hear her correctly?
“Yes, my love. You heard me. The doctor in Kingston confirmed it. Augustus has taken it upon himself to ease her burden, and she’s henceforth banned from any and all household work. Did Emmett say anything to you?”
I shook my head in happy disbelief, and then read Emmett’s account again. “Yes, he did. He’s ecstatic. He hopes for a boy—of course, he would.”
“That is such marvellous news. Rosalie says she’s due around mid-summer.”
“So does Emmett. They could have saved on postage—they’re sounding like there’s an echo in here. I’m happy for them. I truly am. Emmett is asking if we’d consider travelling there next summer to meet our new niece or nephew.”
Bella lowered her gaze. “That is a grand idea, but …”
“I’ll keep you safe during the ocean crossing, my love. You needn’t be afraid.”
She looked up at me with an unreadable expression in her eyes—nervous, mayhap? I couldn’t tell. “I have no doubt you would, beloved. It’s just that …” She paused again, which sent me into a tailspin of my own nervous concerns.
“You’re starting to worry me, love.”
She heaved a deep, drawn-out sigh and sat up straighter in bed. She clasped my hand in hers and twined her fingers through mine. “I’d planned to tell you tomorrow, as a Christmas present, but … It won’t be safe for me to travel next summer.”
Quite perplexed, I regarded her with a puzzled expression and, no doubt, mouth agape like a fish. “Not safe? How? Why?”
“Because … Well, Edward, I expect to be confined next summer, beloved.”
Of their own accord, my hands came to rest on her stomach, and I caressed her reverently where our unborn child rested. Words of love and gratitude wilted in my throat, overcome with joy as I was. At long last, I found my voice.
“Is it true? You’re with child, my love? Are you well?”
She erupted in a crystalline, carefree laugh. “Yes, Edward. I’m healthy as a horse. Or so says the midwife. And Dr Newton.”
I folded her in my arms and kissed her deeply. She melted in my arms, responding in kind. Then I remembered her delicate condition and held my horses.
“When?” I murmured, bestowing a whisper of a kiss to the alabaster column of her neck.
“Early summer. Midwife thinks mid-June. You might get a son or daughter for your birthday,” she answered, running her hands through my hair.
“A child. Our child. Oh, love …”
All of a sudden, I didn’t care one whit for New Year’s Eve celebrations, or the plantation, or the estate, or Rosalie and Emmett’s news. I was lost in the utter, complete, and all-encompassing joy that our love had created a life, and God willing, we’d welcome a child into the world come next summer.
Our world was a blank canvass, ebullient with a kaleidoscope of coruscating, hopeful possibilities.
*** Finis ***