Four Years Later
Barbara stood at the edge of the sea, the briny air rushing through her hair as she gazed out at the horizon. Her first child, a tawny haired boy by the name of Charles, was crouched down on his haunches poking at a starfish that was clinging to a rock.
It was almost four years since she and Jeffrey had gotten married. The scars on her hands had faded to patches of shiny white skin across her palms. Jeffrey’s commissions were as long and arduous as ever, but this time when he returned, he would receive a wonderful surprise.
“There he is!” Barbara exclaimed, pointing at a dark shape on the horizon. Charles bolted upright and squinted in the direction that she pointed.
“Papa!” Charles cried, leaping up and running circles around his mother’s legs. Barbara laughed, clutching the bundle she carried against her chest protectively.
“Hush, Charles. You’ll wake your sister,” Barbara warned.
“Better that she’s awake to meet Father, don’t you think?” he asked.
“Perhaps, but he’s still far away. It’ll be a while still until he docks, and then he has to help with the offloading and doing all his Captain-y business, you know.”
“Ahh…” Charles nodded sagely. He was wearing a miniature facsimile of his father’s captain’s hat. Pretending to be a captain was his favorite past time, and it was he who had taken to insisting upon meeting his father as his ship came in to watch the proceedings, rather than waiting at home and greeting him there.
Still, Barbara couldn’t complain. The thrill of excitement upon seeing the ship appear on the horizon almost made up for the months of waiting.
The last time he had left, Barbara had been heavy with their second child. It had been the hardest separation thus far, as she knew that she would face her delivery without him. She hid her fears from him as he left, but her final weeks of pregnancy had been fraught with awful terrors and nightmares that she would perish in childbirth and never see him again.
Happily, the babe had been born without incident, and was now healthy and plump as a partridge at two and a half months old. Barbara was an involved mother, often eschewing the nurse for days at a time as she kept her babies clutched close to her in the early days. They were her greatest comfort when her husband was away.
Well, them and the orphanage. A new wing had been built on to the church, and now the facility had a reputation for being the kindest and most well-appointed orphanage in the county. As excited as she knew Jeffrey would be to meet his newborn daughter, she knew that he would also be bursting at the seams to visit the orphanage as well.
As the ship grew larger, drawing nearer to the land by the moment, the little family waited with bated breath. As soon as figures could be made out on the bow of the ship, Charles began to wave madly, calling out to his father though they couldn’t yet tell which figure belonged to him.
When one of the men waved back, Charles hooted, making Barbara laugh and the babe in her arms squirmed, extending one pudgy pink arm out of the bundle of blankets. Barbara pushed the blankets away from the baby’s face to find her wide-eyed, staring up at her. Barbara kissed the baby’s forehead.
“Father’s home,” she whispered.
Each time Jeffrey returned from the sea, he seemed to gain an extra line around his eyes. He was as tan as a farmer when he strode down the ramp toward them, his light brown hair tinted a warm gold by the sun.
“There’s my boy!” he cried as Charles ran up to him. Jeffrey picked him up and swung him around. “I almost don’t recognize you, Charlie! How you’ve grown.”
“I’m big enough to come with you next time!” Charles asserted confidently.
Jeffrey laughed. “Then who will take care of your mother, huh?”
“I quite think I can handle myself,” Barbara said.
Jeffrey’s warm eyes locked with hers for a moment and she was nearly knocked off balance by the intense heat and adoration in them. His return from sea often signaled an intense first week together again, having pent up all of his sexual needs for months at sea. A shiver ran over her at what she knew would happen later that night.
After just a split second, however, his eyes darted down to the bundle in her arms. His face grew reverent as he put Charles down and walked over to her.
“A girl,” Barbara answered his unspoken question as he approached. She pulled down the corner of the blanket to show. “Emma.”
“Emma,” he breathed, a mixture of terror and awe in his eyes as the babe was placed into his arms for the first time. “She’s beautiful, like her mother…” he said.
He peeled the blankets off of her, his eyes scanning the baby. “All her fingers and toes?”
“All twenty,” Barbara laughed.
He bent his head to kiss Emma, wrapping her snugly back up against the cool sea air, then he beamed at Barbara. “Well done, darling.”
Barbara laughed again. “You had some hand in it too, remember?”
He scoffed. “My contribution is trivial at best. You did all the work.” His face turned serious again. “How was it?”
Barbara chewed her lip. “It was terrifying. You mustn’t be gone for the next one.”
“All right, darling. I promise,” he whispered, brushing a kiss against her temple.
Young Freddy, who was no longer a leggy, skinny boy but a man with the presence of a sailor, strode down the ramp and greeted Barbara as well.
On the carriage ride home, Jeffrey held Emma on his lap, gazing down at her as Charles talked incessantly about all that he had missed. Barbara was almost jealous of his attention. She recalled his return from his first voyage after their marriage. She had still been pregnant with Charles then, and she had her husband all to herself for those precious few weeks. It had been an idyllic time.
As the family walked into their home, Jeffrey still carrying Emma, Barbara could see that he was exhausted. He was trying to hide it, smiling at Charles’s antics and cooing over Emma, but there was no use in trying to hide the weariness around his eyes from his wife.
“Come upstairs,” she whispered in his ear.
Jeffrey’s eyes shot to her and he grinned, then handed the baby off to the nurse. He followed Barbara up to their room.
“Oh, how I’ve missed this bed,” he said, flopping comically onto it and sending blankets into disarray around him.
Barbara chuckled, kneeling down to remove his boots then crawling on top of him to wriggle him out if his waistcoat. His smile turned lustful as he put his hands on her, pulling her up onto the pillow beside him, but as they lay in each other’s arms, his exhaustion took over. He drifted off to sleep as Barbara stroked his tanned cheek. He smelled of seawater and grime. She knew that he would soak in a scalding tub soon and emerge smelling of soap, but there was something oddly exciting about his ravaged state right then. He had clearly scraped a dull razor over his chin that morning in an attempt to make himself presentable, but stubble still roughened his chin. His hair had grown out several inches and fell haphazardly around his eyes. There was something thrillingly uncivilized about him.
Barbara scooted closer to him and, even in his sleep, he tightened his arms around her.
People had warned her that the life of a sailor’s wife was one of loneliness and depression. They couldn’t be more wrong. Every time he returned from the sea, it was as if they were meeting again for the first time. In her estimation, she was privileged to be given the opportunity to fall in love with him time and time again.
She let him sleep for an hour or so, listening to the steady rise and fall of his breathing and drifting in and out of sleep herself. It felt almost unreal to have him there again. She never quite realized how deeply she missed him until he was home again and it felt like the sun rising after a long night.
She kissed between his eyebrows.
“I’d love to let you sleep, darling, but your mother and my father are coming for dinner.”
He mumbled something.
“I happen to enjoy this wild man appearance, but unfortunately, I’m sure the Dowager Countess expects you soapy and clean shaven. I’ll trim your hair, too.”
He mumbled again, grasping her about the waist and suddenly tossing her onto her back. He pressed his body against hers, forcing her knees apart and burying his face in her neck. A tremor went through her.
“Later, Jeffrey. Later,” she assured him, wriggling out from underneath him and ringing the bell for the servants to begin heating water for his bath.
She trimmed his hair with her embroidery scissors, chuckling all the while as he cracked jokes about greeting his mother with a wildly uneven haircut.
“Well, if you don’t quit moving, that’s exactly what will happen!” she protested. He held onto her hips as she stood before him, studying her handiwork.
“Your valet will clean it up another time, but this will do for now,” she pronounced.
“What, you’re done? I thought you were going to shave me too,” he said, rubbing his chin.
“Oh no, I leave that to the expert.” She placed the straight razor in his hands. She watched, rapt, as he did the job. In no time at all, all traces of his voyage had been sloughed away, revealing the Earl in all his elegant glory.
“I’d rather spend my first day home visiting the orphans,” he said offhand as she tied his cravat for him.
“I know, and I love you for it. But mothers do have certain rights.”
Things between the Dowager Countess and Barbara were still not quite comfortable. She had kept away from them after their wedding, not reappearing until the birth of Charles, when she visited to meet her grandson and to offer advice for Barbara. As much as Barbara still distrusted the lady, it had been comforting in a way.
She doubted whether she and her mother-in-law would ever be close. At least now she no longer attempted to meddle in their lives, and she was respectful when she did visit. She loved her grandchildren and spoiled them at every chance.
When Barbara and Jeffrey descended the stairs to greet the Dowager Countess, the meeting was peaceful, at least. Barbara’s father, who was often at the house spending time with his grandchildren, greeted his son-in-law warmly. At the dinner, Jeffrey began to recount his time at sea at the behest of his son. It would take weeks for the entire story to be told, but he made a good start that evening over beef stew and hearty vegetables. After dinner, Barbara would begin to fill him in on everything he had missed. All the milestones that orphans had, broken bones, adoptions, graduations, and the likes.
For now, she was content to sit in the warm glow of a crackling fire and watch her handsome husband smile as he recounted harrowing storms to the utter delight of their son. She could never have guessed that her life would have led her here, to this moment. She had everything she had ever wished for, freedom, love, family. The nightmares that had haunted her childhood had transformed into a wonderful life that she never could have dreamed of.
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