Seventeen Years Later
Isabella stumbled slightly as she walked down the wooded path and Emmanuel’s hand shot out to steady her. She was beginning to think that suggesting a romantic stroll rather than a carriage ride was a supremely bad idea; even though she had an ulterior motive.
“Careful, my dear.”
Isabella shot him a rueful smile. “It’s almost as if I’m the one who’s one-legged.”
“Or else those heels you’re wearing are not very practical for walking in the woods.”
“Oh, hush up. Sarah said they’re all the crack.”
Emmanuel shook his head, tightening his hold on her hand. “When will you stop letting your sister lead you astray?”
She took the opening she’d been waiting for at once. “When you finally find time to get your Anglesey Leg upgraded.”
Emmanuel sighed deeply, manfully refraining from rolling his eyes. “How many times will we have his discussion? The one I have works very well.”
Isabella simply favored him with wide pleading eyes, occasionally batting her eyelashes at him. “Stop that. I mean it,” Emmanuel pleaded.
Isabella turned to face him, impeding their forward progress. She leaned close so that her breath fanned his neck. “Or what?” she whispered.
Emmanuel’s breath hitched and he looked around the deserted wood. They were supposed to be making their way over to the Peregrines, who were holding a birthday celebration for their first-born son, Declan. It was a special day for them all as the Peregrines had suffered three miscarriages before Lady Peregrine carried Declan to term. It had not been an easy birth and for a while there, they had not been sure that he would survive his infancy. Having him reach double-digits was therefore a feat to be celebrated.
Sarah’s misfortunes had brought her and Isabella even closer. This despite her sister having to watch as Isabella gave birth to three healthy children; twin girls and a boy, named Gemma, Gwendoline and Haydn respectively.
Said children had gone on ahead to help their young cousin prepare to celebrate. Even at fifteen, Gemma and Gwendoline still loved to frolic and laugh with their younger brother and cousin, although they were becoming more self-conscious about doing so as time went on. Isabella felt the weight of their melancholy as if it were her own. She well remembered her own time as a teen when time had moved too fast for her liking. She thanked God every day that her parents had been understanding, and vowed to be herself.
Isabella wished there was something she could do to stop time, so they could be children as long as they pleased. At twelve years old, Haydn gave no thought to anything except how much he could get away with. Isabella imagined there wasn’t a tree in their garden he hadn’t tried to climb, no fish in the lake he hadn’t tried to catch, he chafed at the bit to be allowed to hunt…
“He reminds me a lot of myself at that age.” Emmanuel was wont to say nostalgically every time Haydn went off to sulk because once again, he had been forbidden from an activity that was likely to see his neck broken. He didn’t sulk for too long, however, either because his sisters would jolly him out of it or he would think of something else to do instead—usually twice as dangerous as the first thing.
A scene had played itself over and over:
“It’s like trying to coral geese,” Isabella sighed as she slumped down in their sitting room at the end of a long day with their children. “Why did we think it was a good idea to have children?”
“Why did we think we could do without a nanny?” Emmanuel countered.
Isabella breathed tiredly. “The folly of youth, I suppose.”
“Yes…I will concede that we were a little too optimistic.”
They looked at each other and laughed.
The party was in full swing when they arrived, having taken the back path between their home and the Peregrine’s. Over the last seventeen years, since Isabella’s fateful abduction, this path had seen a lot of traffic—none of it as tragic or terrifying as that night. Colin and Diana Addison had decided to move into the dower house, where Isabella had once been imprisoned, in order to be close to two of their children, as well as their grandchildren. Over the years, it had served as the venue for many family functions.
“Helmsfield! There you are,” her father called with a pleased smile on his face as soon as he caught sight of them, “We need you to settle this argument between Peregrine and I. Which is better? The Piano Concerto or the Revolutionary Étude?”
Emmanuel headed toward them, his slight limp barely noticeable except to Isabella, a huge smile on his face. “Oh, you will not make me choose between Frédéric Chopin’s compositions. I am in awe of them all. Anyone who can create such sounds from banging upon a pianoforte deserves all the respect we can give him and none of the nit-picking.”
Peregrine reached out and patted him on the back with a grin. “A man after my own heart.”
Her father pouted at his two sons-in-law. “Alas, I have no discerning relatives in your generation. I shall go now and influence my grandchildren before you’ve had a chance to despoil them, too.” With that he marched off towards the tented area, under which the children were indulged in a game of blind man’s bluff.
Peregrine turned to Emmanuel with a wider grin. “Well played, sir.”
Emmanuel bowed elegantly, “Why, thank you, sir.”
Isabella came up to them shaking her head. “You are both awful human beings,” she declared.
Emmanuel pretended to clutch at pearls. “Well, I never!” he mock declared, “I am the epitome of grace and goodness.”
Isabella merely snorted derisively at him.
“Papa!” Haydn threw himself at Emmanuel, without any regard for his balance. Luckily, the Duke had braced for impact and managed to keep his balance although he could see how Isabella tensed. She worried about the amount of strain his prosthetic was under, and was continually entreating him to upgrade it. But it had taken him long enough to break in this leg, he did not want to go through all that again with a new one.
Haydn was murmuring excitedly about a carriage ride and Emmanuel tried to pay attention.
“Wait, you want to what?”
“Papa, are you not listening to me? I said that the coachman has offered to show me how to drive the horses!”
Emmanuel was already shaking his head before his son finished the sentence. “No, Haydn. You are too young for that.”
Haydn immediately opened his mouth to protest. Emmanuel shook his head sharply. “No, Haydn. I said no.”
Haydn well knew that tone. Emmanuel only brought it out when he would brook no opposition. The very thought of his son on a road, driving a carriage, was enough to have the Duke breaking out in a cold sweat. As a magistrate, he had been particularly tough on highwaymen in the hope that they would migrate out of his district. His stomach still filled with hot, burning acid at the thought of one of his children or his wife on the road, unescorted. His family was always well guarded but he could well imagine Haydn trying to take off by himself if he knew how to drive a team of horses.
It was his worst nightmare incarnate.
His son shrugged, looking a little down in the mouth. “Yes, Father.”
Emmanuel sighed inwardly. Haydn only called him Father when he was supremely disappointed in his decisions—regardless of whether or not they were meant to safeguard Haydn’s wellbeing. His eyes sought Isabella out. She would be able better explain it all to their son.
Their eyes met, and she took a sip of her wine as her eyes raked his features. He could see her take in the tension in his stance, his pleading eyes, and she put her glass down at once and came towards them.
“Haydn? Papa? Why are you all here by yourselves?” she asked as she swayed closer.
“Father won’t let me learn how to drive a carriage, Mama!” Haydn was close to tears, which was unusual for him. He was wont to sulk once in a while, but he had left tears behind him a long time ago. Emmanuel frowned with concern.
Isabella looked down at Haydn and then up at Emmanuel, taking in the situation at a glance.
“Well, Haydn, have you thought that your legs are not long enough yet for you to have the reach to steer a team of horses? Have you thought that maybe, your father is trying to save your life?”
Haydn frowned at this; clearly it had not occurred to him before. “But…Mr. O’Malley is not that much taller than me!”
It was true that Haydn was quite tall for his age. Emmanuel looked to Isabella to see how she would handle this new wrinkle.
“Perhaps he isn’t that much taller, but he has had almost two and a half decades of experience. Whereas you are a green boy, with barely the strength to hold one horse steady, let alone a team.”
Haydn looked down doubtfully at his own hand as if gauging its strength.
“You have a few more years of tree climbing and swimming across the lake before your arms are strong enough, young man. Now go and play with your cousin.”
“Okay,” Haydn said slowly before running off, his ire already forgotten.
“Phew. That was close,” Emmanuel said with a smile.
Isabella stepped closer so she was standing flush against him. “And it will get closer with every month at the rate he’s growing. You must begin to reconcile yourself to that. One day, he will not be stopped.”
Emmanuel took a deep breath, looking down into her eyes. “I will seek to delay it as long as possible.”
Isabella shook her head. “Time to stop avoiding, my love. You should teach him yourself. Teach him to drive and to shoot and to be the man you wish him to be. And to set a good example, you should get a new leg!”
Emmanuel laughed and then sighed. “Okay, my love. You win. I shall get on it first thing.”
Isabella leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on his lips. “That’s all I ask.”
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