As winter settled across the Rowfex Estate, the first flurries of snow lending their icy kisses to the long-withered flowers and the sprawling grounds, Teresa and Luke walked through the cold together, their hands intertwined. When summer arrived again, they would have been married for two years, though it had passed by in the blink of an eye. Despite their turbulent beginnings, they had found true happiness in one another, living in a more peaceful world than before.
And that happiness would soon be increased by the addition of new life, growing in the swollen rise of Teresa’s abdomen. They had hoped for a child ever since they had first lain together, but only now had God seen fit to grace them with such a gift. Teresa felt nervous excitement gather within her, with every extension of her belly. She had never expected to find a gentleman who would love her, and wed her, and so she had never anticipated the joy of being a mother.
Now that the prospect was barely a couple of months away, a flicker of fear had infiltrated her contentment. What if she did not prove to be skilled at the task? What if there was something the matter with the child? Although her life had become something wonderful, she was still somewhat haunted by the ghosts of her past. And she would never be quite convinced that she deserved the life that she had found.
“Is something troubling you, my love?” Luke asked, as they paused to sit on a nearby bench.
She smiled nervously. “I am worried about the child, that is all.”
“What worries you?” He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it softly.
“I do not know, entirely. I suppose every soon-to-be mother worries.”
He nodded. “And every soon-to-be father.”
“You feel concerned?”
“I fear I may not be the father I hope to be,” he replied. “I confess, I always thought my father to be an excellent example of what it meant to be paternal. But Edmund would not have agreed. I never noticed the preferential behavior that my father offered me, and I worry that I will not understand the concerns of my own child, when they arrive.”
“They will be loved beyond measure,” Teresa said, knowing it from the bottom of her heart.
“Father loved Edmund, but that did not change matters.”
Teresa sighed. “No… but that is as much your brother’s fault as it is your father’s failings.” She paused. “Have you heard any word from him recently?”
Luke nodded. “He has asked that I visit with him. Apparently, he wishes to make amends, though I do not know if he can be trusted. He did such terrible things, Teresa. Terrible things that, even now, I cannot fully comprehend.”
“He was wounded. Wounded men do terrible things.”
“You have said that before.” Luke gave a small smile. “I wish I could have met your father—it sounds as though he would have given me wise counsel, as he gave you. I am bitterly sorry that I will never have the pleasure.”
Teresa dipped her chin to her chest. “As am I.” It was one of her deepest regrets, that she would never be able to introduce her unborn child to her mother and father. They were gone from this world, though she liked to think they were watching her from the heavens and were proud of her in some small way.
“I did not mean to upset you.” Luke lifted her chin and leaned in, kissing her on the lips. She allowed her fears and regrets to drift away as she kissed him back. His embrace was her perpetual tonic, always able to remedy whatever hurt she felt.
“You should go to visit with him,” Teresa urged. “You are brothers still, despite what has happened between us all. You will regret it if you do not, and I should hate for you to hold any remorse in your heart if you have the opportunity to rid yourself of it.”
Luke blinked slowly. “You truly believe I should visit with him?”
“I do, my darling. I know you want to. I can see it in your eyes.”
He smiled. “Where did you come from, my dearest love? To have such benevolence in your heart, after all he made you endure. You are truly remarkable.”
“Love invites forgiveness,” she replied. “And forgiveness is what makes us better than animals. It has been two years, my love. Perhaps he truly means what he says—that he wishes to make amends. After all, what other purpose would he have for seeing you? He is believed to be dead in England, and he has nothing left to fight against. He has a peaceful, easy life now, at great cost to yourself and your father. Make peace, darling, whilst he is still upon this earth to do so.”
If she could have had one more moment with her mother and father, she would have crossed the earth to seize the chance. Indeed, her mother and father had never behaved awfully, or done anything to harm her, but the impetus was the same. It was about not leaving this life with any festering, unresolved lamentations.
She did not know if it was the changing of the season, with winter being a time for family, or if it was the new life growing inside her, but it had made her more inclined to offer repentance where it was needed. The former Lord Harpington had truly behaved despicably, but surely everyone was entitled to a second chance? And if she could forgive and forget, then perhaps it was time that Luke did, too.
“Then… I will go to him,” Luke said.
Teresa smiled. “You will?”
“After the child is born, I will go to Spain to meet with my brother. You are right, my love, it is high time I saw him again. There is much that still needs to be said, and I must make peace with him now that I am to be a father. I must set an example, and hope that may make me a better man.”
She leaned into him, as the snow drifted down. “I love you, Luke. I love you more than I ever thought it possible to love another person. And you are already the finest, kindest, sweetest gentleman I have ever known.”
“I am only those things because you have made me so,” he replied. “Your love is the most precious thing in this world to me. I love you, body and soul, and the only thing that will bring me further happiness is to see our child in your arms, safe and well.”
As they sat together in the chilly, late afternoon, the sky turned sepia as the snow continued to fall around them. Teresa felt warmed by Luke’s presence at her side. With him there, there was nothing they could not endure. They had already proven so, and she knew they would continue to prove it so as their years together went on, in blissful contentment.
Luke paced the landing outside Teresa’s bedchamber, listening to the agonizing cries that drifted outwards. His heart clenched in his chest, as he tried to calm his fractious nerves. The pains had started several hours ago, and the midwives had been summoned shortly afterwards. Outside the windows, that revealed the rolling landscape of the Rowfex Estate, he saw dawn beginning to rise.
“It will not be long now, my boy,” the Duke said. The Duchess was within the bedchamber with Teresa, leaving the gentlemen to wait in anxious anticipation for the moment that Luke’s life would change forever.
“Were you as I am, when Edmund was born?” Luke cast his father a curious look. “I know the circumstances were somewhat different, but since my wife became with-child, I have often wondered how you felt.”
The Duke smiled sadly. “It was the happiest day of my life. The moment I held Edmund in my arms, I knew he was my son, even if we were not bound by blood. I allowed those other thoughts regarding his heritage to alter my perspective in the years that followed, but when I set eyes on him for that very first time, there were none of those doubts and worries. Just love. Pure, unadulterated love.”
“Do you wish he were still here?”
The Duke frowned in thought. “Sometimes. I do feel his absence keenly from time to time, though I imagine that is to be expected.” He paused. “It has faded with time, but there are still… moments, in which I wish things were different.”
“And he is settled in Spain?”
“He seems to be. From what he has told me, he is very content. Whether or not that is the truth, I cannot tell, but I must be satisfied with what he tells me.”
Just then, the door opened, and the Duchess stood on the threshold. She was beaming from ear to ear. “My dear boy, would you like to meet your charming little daughter?”
“A girl?” Luke gasped. “I have a daughter?”
“You do, and she is entirely perfect.” The Duchess smiled.
Excitement took over, as Luke burst into the room and headed for his wife’s bedside. Her cheeks were flushed with exertion, a sheen of perspiration glistening upon her brow. He barely saw any of that as he leaned in and kissed her eagerly on the lips, though her returned kiss was somewhat weary. It was then that he noticed, for the first time, the tiny bundle in her arms.
“We have a daughter,” Teresa murmured, smiling despite her exhaustion.
“May I?” Luke reached out to take the perfect little girl from Teresa’s arms. As he held his daughter close to his chest, complete joy struck him in his chest, making his heart swell to bursting. “What shall her name be, my love?”
Teresa stroked the little girl’s head. “I thought Evangeline might be pleasant. That was my mother’s name.”
“Evangeline?” He glanced down at the child and knew that it was entirely fitting. “I like Evangeline very much. Do you like that, Evangeline?”
The child yawned and wriggled in her swaddling cloth.
“I think she approves.” Teresa chuckled.
“I love you,” he replied earnestly. “I love you both, with all my heart. You have made me the happiest gentleman in Christendom, my darling.”
“And we love you.” Teresa smiled.
And yet, Luke could not deny that a gnawing darkness lingered in the back of his mind, threatening to ruin this perfect moment. There was only one thing that could have remedied it, making him truly the happiest fellow in Christendom. But he knew he would not be able to resolve that until he set sail for Spain—an action that would take him away from this idyllic world, so he might face his demons directly.
I will do so, Evangeline… I will do so, so that I may be the best father to you, with no regrets malingering over our life here.
Luke rode away from the port town of Cádiz on horseback, letting the tepid sunlight bathe his weary face as the bustling harbor gave way to open countryside. He followed the map that his father had given him, until he came to a halt outside a small stone cottage by the roadside. It was quaint, with a garden of wildflowers that had escaped the bitterness of the bygone winter.
Dismounting, he tied the horse to the white, wooden fence and pushed through the gate. Heading up the garden path, his heart began to race. It had been two years since he had last looked upon his brother, and though he had readied himself for this encounter, he still felt as though he ought to run in the opposite direction.
After all, everything he adored was back in England, awaiting his swift return. His beloved wife and his sweet daughter—everything he had ever wanted. But I made a promise, and I must see it through.
Taking a deep breath, he knocked on the door. A few moments later, a figure appeared in the doorway. At first, Luke thought he had knocked upon the wrong house, for the person who looked back at him may as well have been a stranger. Pale and drawn, his cheeks sunken, with dark hollows beneath his eyes, Edmund was a shadow of the gentleman he had once been.
“Edmund?” Luke could not hide the note of concern in his voice.
“Brother… you came,” Edmund wheezed. “I hoped you would.”
“Is something the matter? You look very ill indeed.”
Edmund smiled sadly. “Come inside and I shall explain all to you.”
Obeying, he stepped into the cool shade of the house, and was led through to a small sitting room where a fire roared in the grate. He took a seat in one of the comfortable, albeit worn, armchairs, whilst Edmund took the chair opposite.
“Might I fetch you some tea?” Edmund asked.
Luke shook his head. “No, thank you.”
An awkward silence stretched between them, as they quietly assessed one another. In this light, the condition of Edmund was even more concerning than it had been in the doorway. Here, Luke could see the frailty of him, beneath the loose fabric of his shirt. His collarbones protruded most abruptly, with the thin indents of his ribs visible beneath his half-open shirt.
“Are you unwell, Brother?” Luke broke the silence, unable to bear it a moment longer.
He gave a wry chuckle. “I am, I am afraid. It is the Consumption. It struck me during the winter and cannot be relieved, though I have sought the aid of the region’s finest physicians. There is nothing more they can do for me.”
“Edmund…” Luke did not know what else to say.
“I suppose it is as much as I deserve,” he replied. “But tell me of happier tidings. How are matters at Rowfex? Father is rather vague in his correspondence, though I can tell he is trying to be more affable towards me. He does not know of my condition, and I would like to keep it so. I do not wish to punish him any more than I already have. He will undoubtedly blame himself, and I should like to keep him from that hardship.”
Luke swallowed the lump in his throat. “All is well, Brother. I am a father to a beautiful little girl by the name of Evangeline, and there is much happiness within the household.” He paused. “Although, you are missed. You will likely think I am trying to humor you, but I truly mean it.”
“It is better this way,” he replied. “Being faced with one’s mortality has an indomitable way of changing one’s perspective on matters. I understand, now, that I behaved abhorrently. Not only towards you, but towards Lady Harpington, and towards Mother and Father. I only hope that the Lord will forgive me, when my days are done.”
“I am sorry for this,” Luke said. “I am sorry that this has befallen you.”
“You should not be. As I have said, it is likely no more than I deserve, for the terrible things that I have done.”
“Do not speak of that now, Edmund. My wife has forgiven you, and I know that I must follow her example.” He smiled. “I believe she is a better person than all of us combined.”
“She is a unique lady, that much is certain.” Edmund lowered his gaze. “It makes me all the sorrier for the harm and torment that I caused her. The only thing I have, to explain my behavior, is the pain I suffered throughout my life. When I discovered my true identity, it hurt all the more, for I knew I would always be an outcast. I should have realized that, with you also knowing the truth and keeping your silence as you did, you posed no threat to me. But I was rash, and I was foolish, and I cannot remedy that now.”
Luke nodded slowly. “What if I were to forgive you, as my wife has done?”
“It would still not allow me to forgive myself.” Tears glittered in Edmund’s eyes as he stared towards the flickering flames of the fire. “I can never forgive myself, and that is the honest truth. Although, I am pleased that Rowfex has recovered in my absence, and I am beyond pleased to hear that you have a daughter. Evangeline is an exceptionally charming name, and I have no doubt that she will prove to be as charming as her name.”
“It was Teresa’s mother’s name.”
“Then it is all the more beautiful,” Edmund replied, a tear trickling down his cheek. “I wish I could see her, and the house, and Mother and Father, just once more before I pass from this life. It will not be long, or so the physicians say, but I know I will never earn that right. I forewent those simple pleasures when I did what I did.”
Luke frowned, trying to imagine what Teresa would do in his position. A sudden notion struck him. “Then you must return with me.”
Edmund’s eyes widened. “Pardon?”
“You must return with me, as soon as we are able.”
Edmund shook his head. “No… I could not. I will not cast my shadow upon your happiness.”
“Brother, you must,” Luke urged. “It is what my wife would do, and so I must do the same. If you are not long for this world, then you must rest in the place where you were given life.”
It made perfect sense to him, in that moment. There had been a great deal of love lost between himself and his brother, but he would not allow Edmund to die, alone and suffering, in this place, so far from home. No, if he was to prove that he was a worthy gentleman, with a heart as good and pure as his wife’s, then he had to do this. He would not accept a refusal.
And so it was that Edmund found himself at the Rowfex Estate once more, surrounded by his family in his final hours upon this earth. Even Teresa was there, sitting at his bedside with Evangeline in her arms. Edmund had held the tiny girl, feeling the strength in her small hands as they had gripped his index finger. And in those innocent eyes, he had come to terms with all the mistakes he had made, that he no longer had the time to remedy.
“I am sorry,” he wheezed, as a cough wracked his chest violently. Blood splattered into a handkerchief, and he felt the weight of his illness upon his lungs, the darkness creeping in. It will not be long now… “I am sorry for all the pain I have caused. If I could make amends, please know that I would.”
“It was as much my fault as yours,” the Duke replied. “I should have cared for you without prejudice. I should have been kinder. Indeed… it is I who wish I could make amends.”
Edmund shook his head. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“Oh, Edmund.” The Duchess sobbed uncontrollably into her handkerchief, making Edmund’s heart all the heavier. His mother had always loved him with all she had to give, and he had squandered that affection on bitterness, revenge, and acrimony.
“I love you all, despite what I have done,” Edmund said. “And I pray that God has mercy on my soul.”
“I am sure that He will,” Teresa replied.
Edmund glanced at her. “How can you be so compassionate, after every torment I made you endure?”
“I was taught, long ago, not to let vengeful thoughts corrupt my mind,” she said simply. “Love cannot grow in a garden that is filled with hate. Forgiveness is the sunlight that allows the flowers to bloom. I have my happiness. What reason should I have to punish you further?”
“Our family is fortunate to have met you.” Edmund smiled. “And I pray that you and Evangeline may bring happiness to this house again, once I have gone.”
Teresa dipped her head in a bow. “You will be remembered.”
“Do not tell Evangeline of the evil that corrupted me. Be kind in your remembrances, even if I do not deserve it. I do not wish for Evangeline to know that her uncle was a monster.” Edmund battled with tears as a sneaking cold edged through his veins.
“You are not a monster,” Teresa replied. “You were in pain. And I hope that you will be at peace, able to rest at last.”
Edmund smiled weakly. “As do I, Lady Harpington. I am so very tired… tired of fighting with my demons, and tired of living.” He wiped his tears away. “I am glad that I do not have to be alone. And that is thanks to you, and your charming influence. We are all better because of you.”
“I do not know if that is true, but I thank you for your kind words. Sleep now and be at peace. You must be so very weary.” Teresa held Evangeline closer, as Edmund started to feel numb.
“I am… so very weary.” He tried to wiggle his toes, but everything had become so very hazy. Weary beyond belief, he closed his eyes and settled back into the pillows, comforted by the soft furnishings and the presence of his once-beloved family. Now, beloved again.
Bring them the peace and contentment they deserve, he prayed. Bring them a world of joy, unmarred by my presence within it. Let their tears be brief, and their happiness enduring. Let their lives be long.
And, with that, he was gone, taking all of the darkness with him, so that they might live without fear or pain. And so that they might love and be loved, in a world free of anguish. All his life, he had felt as though he had never quite belonged. But here, in death, at long last, he was surrounded by those who had always loved him, and who could forgive him in these last moments.
Finally, he and all those who had been hurt by him could be at peace.
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