Four Years Later
The sound of laughter delighted Cleopatra as she glanced up from her book to find Hugh racing around the fountain in the garden with his little sister Ingrid. Hugh held Ingrid’s doll high above his head as he teased the poor girl, but Ingrid didn’t seem to see it as teasing. She was giggling and laughing as she tried to keep up with her older brother.
“Hugh,” Cleo said in a stern voice. “Give your sister back her doll.”
“But she’s flyin’, maither,” Ingrid said. “Look, Hugh has her flyin’.”
“I see that,” Cleo said as she shook her head and pulled in a deep breath as she watched her children play. “As long as he is not irritating you.”
“Let them be.”
Cleo whipped her head around to find Jude walking down the long path with a tray of food in his hands. Her eyes widened the moment she saw him. Ingrid stopped and rushed to Jude’s side. Curling her little arms around Jude’s leg, she clung to him.
“Faither!” Ingrid squealed with delight refusing to let her father go.
“Ye act as if I’ve been gone for months,” Jude said laughing as he picked his leg up high with Ingrid on it. The child giggled and threw her head back as she rode Jude.
“Faither,” Hugh gasped as he rushed to collect the tray of food from his hands before Jude spilled it over Ingrid. “Here, allow me.”
“Thank ye,” Jude said handing the tray to Hugh. “And how’s me family?”
Cleo kept her eyes locked on Jude as he made his way over to her and sat down. Ingrid’s lip pouted as she realized the ride was over.
“More, faither, more,” she said tugging on his leg.
“In a wee bit,” Jude said. “Go off and play a bit.”
“Can we practice again, faither?” Hugh asked. “I’ve improved since the last time.”
“Aye but give me a moment with yer maither,” Jude said as he turned his attention to Cleo.
She noticed there was something in his eyes that frightened her. A darkness seemed to shadow the light that she had grown used to seeing deep within his gaze.
“What is wrong?” Cleo asked as Jude leaned to her and pressed his lips to her cheek. His hand rubbed her belly and he dropped his ear to her stomach.
“Nae a thing,” he said straining to listen to the child move within her.
“You are lying,” Cleo said. “I can always tell when you are trying to keep something from me. Now out with it or I’ll have Hugh use the broadsword for practice today and not the sticks.”
Jude chuckled as he lifted his head up and cupped her face. “Ye wouldnae dare.”
“Try me. Hugh has gotten rather good with the blade thanks to Ronan training him. You’ll be surprised at how much he has improved.”
“About Hugh,” Jude said pressing his lips into a tight line and glancing across the way to find Hugh swinging Ingrid around in his arms.
“Ye have done such a wonderful job raisin’ him and educatin’ him,” Jude said as he stumbled over his words. “But with another child comin’, daenae ye think we should send him to school soon?”
“You want to ship him off to a boarding school?” Cleo gasped as she shook her head. “No. That is not an option.”
“But ye already have so much to do. Ingrid will be turnin’ four soon and the healer says yer due any day.”
“I will not have my family split apart,” Cleo sternly said as she pulled back from him. “Why would you suggest such a thing?”
“Because the boy could be grand,” Jude said. “I want more for him than what me faither gave to me.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Cleo said as her eyes narrowed. “You would never say such things. Nothing would ever make you want to send Hugh away.”
“There was a time when I thought so too,” Jude said, “but plans change as do lands and titles.”
“Jude,” Cleo shifted her weight carefully and glared at him. Her heart raced as she stared at him. Concern filled her as she glanced to Hugh playing with Ingrid. “You can’t be serious.”
“Cleo,” Jude’s voice dropped. “Ye ken I love ye and the children.”
“I know this very well,” she said.
“And ye trust me, daenae ye?”
“Of course, but I don’t see how sending Hugh to school will help any of us. You and I both know we will miss him terribly.”
Jude shook his head. “That is true. But I want ye to come with me. There is someone who wants to talk with ye about all this.”
Cleo’s chest tightened as Jude stood and extended his hands to her. Carefully, she rose to her feet. Her belly seemed as if it had its own gravity and pulled everyone and everything to her. Waddling alongside Jude, she felt her heart ache.
“Hugh, watch yer sister,” Jude called over his shoulder. “We’ll be back in a moment or two.”
“I don’t like the secrecy,” Cleo said.
“All will be revealed in time,” Jude said as they moved through the large open doors and into the sitting room.
Cleo’s eyes shifted off Jude’s face to the man with gray hair standing by the fireplace. There was something oddly familiar about the way the man stood so straight that sent chills racing through Cleo. Slowly the man turned and his eyes widened.
“What are you doing here?” Cleo gasped as she stumbled back. Jude’s hands were on her holding her up right.
“Good day, my Cleopatra,” the Earl said as his eyes softened.
“What is this?” Cleo asked, turning her attention to Jude.
“Ye said ye trust me. So, hear him out,” Jude said as he helped Cleo to the settee. She lowered herself down and tried to sit as straight as she could.
“Very well,” Cleo hissed as she pursed her lips into a tight line and glared at her Father.
“It seems marriage suits you, my dear,” the Earl said. “If I would have known that was all it took to tame your wild ways, I would have done it sooner.”
“Why are you here?” Cleo asked trying not to curse at the man who gave her up.
The Earl pulled in a deep breath and moved closer to her as Jude took the empty seat beside Cleo and held her hand.
“There is no gentleness to the news I bring,” the Earl said. “I am dying.”
There was a part of Cleo that went out to the old man. Although she held resentment in her heart for the way he treated her as a young girl, she realized she couldn’t hold onto that anger now.
“That is sad news,” she said shifting her eyes to Jude.
“As you are well aware,” the Earl said clearing his throat, “I have no heirs but you. Yet you do.”
Cleo’s heart sank to her stomach and she couldn’t tell if it was the babe inside her that turned or her nerves.
“What does this have to do with Hugh and Ingrid?” Cleo asked, shifting from Jude to her father for an answer.
“And the unborn you still carry,” the Earl said. “I know that I was not a father to you and that was entirely my fault. All I could see was your mother’s face looking back at me and it drove me to the brink of madness. So, I pushed you away. But I was a fool and I am deeply sorry.”
“So, you’ve come for forgiveness?” Cleo asked arching an eyebrow as she stared at him.
“Yes, and to offer your children my lands,” the Earl said. “I’d like to bequeath my property and title to your children. As you know I have money and lands. Without anyone to hand them down to what is the point of me working so hard in my life?”
“So that is why you want Hugh to go off to school?” Cleo said as her shoulders dropped.
“Or Ingrid,” Jude chimed in. “When the time is right of course.”
“Cleopatra,” the Earl stepped closer and dropped to his knees. He placed his hands on Cleo’s knees and stared at her. For the first time ever, she realized her father was actually looking at her and not through her. “I would like to make amends for the wrongs I’ve done. I don’t have much time left here and I’d like to see your mother again.”
“Through repentance,” Cleo said pulling in a deep breath.
“I know that I cannot reclaim the time I’ve lost with you or your children, but perhaps I can help give them a better future and childhood than the one I gave you.” The Earl dropped his head and began coughing uncontrollably.
“Paige,” Cleo cried out as she leaned down to aide her father, “fetch some water. Quickly, please.”
The servant scrambled to the table near the door and brought over a cup of water for Cleo. Carefully, Cleo helped her father sip the liquid until the coughing subsided.
“You really are dying, aren’t you?” she asked, finding herself almost numb to the idea. She had always seen her father as indestructible, yet here he was on his knees, frail as a babe.
“I am,” the Earl said drawing his eyes back to her.
Cleo glanced over her shoulder to Jude who looked as if he wanted to cry. Cleo knew that Jude’s childhood was completely different to the one she had. He had grown up in a family who loved him and cared for him, and the pain in Jude’s face came from a loving place.
“Allow me a moment with my husband,” Cleo said as the Earl rose. “Jude.”
Jude was on his feet and quickly helped Cleo off the settee. They moved to the hallway and out of the Earl’s view.
“What are ye thinkin’?” Jude asked brushing the back of his hand over her cheeks.
“This was unexpected,” she answered as she felt her heart shatter. Never had she expected her father to change course, yet here he was offering her everything.
“Indeed,” Jude said.
“What do you think about all this?” she asked, fighting the unexpected tears.
“I think yer faither is doin’ what he can to make amends,” he said.
“And should I give him the resolution he is looking for?” Cleo asked as the tears began to spill down her cheeks. Jude tilted his head and brushed his thumb over her face to wipe away each tear she dropped.
“That is up to ye,” he said. “But I ken ye. Ye’re kind and gracious. Ye’ll do what is best for yer children and are a far better parent than that man will ever be.”
Cleo smiled as she leaned her head into Jude’s hand. Pulling in a deep breath she closed her eyes and let all the pain that she had locked up over the years go.
“For our children,” Cleo said. Clearing her throat, she stood straight and grabbed Jude’s hand. Planting a kiss in his palm she smiled at him.
Jude’s face seemed to light up a bit, but it couldn’t mask the pain he felt for her. “Then we will tell him together.”
Jude dropped his hand as he still held onto Cleo’s and walked back into the room. The Earl was sitting on the settee with his head in his hand and his eyes closed.
“Father,” Cleo said, causing the Earl’s eyes to flutter open.
“It has been a long time since you said that to me,” the Earl said with a sleepy smile.
“We are honored by your proposal,” Cleo said. “But we will choose how to divide your estate. I’m not ready to send Hugh away and the boy is Jude’s eldest which means he will be responsible for the Clan when Jude is gone.”
“I understand,” the old man said rising to his feet. Cleo watched as her father spread open his arms and stepped to her. She exhaled as her father curled his arms around her and pulled her into a hug. “Thank you.”
Cleo stepped back and nodded as she noticed a huge smile playing at the corner of Jude’s lips.
“There is one more thing,” the Earl said as he moved to the fireplace and pulled a small box off the mantel. “This was your mother’s. She always wanted you to have it, but I was too stubborn to let it go to you.”
Extending the small box to Cleo, she looked at the golden trim ribbon that circled the box. “Consider it a belated wedding gift.”
Slowly, Cleo opened the box and gasped. She ran her fingers over the ruby necklace as her heart flipped in her chest.
“I remember this,” Cleo said in such a low voice she wasn’t certain she said anything at all.
“Your mother wore it every day,” the Earl said.
“The painting in your study,” Cleo said looking to the Earl. “Of mother. She was wearing this.”
“She always had it on. She named it ‘the Flames of Love.’” The Earl smiled as Cleo lifted the necklace from the box and watched the light catch the red gem in the center. “I hope that one day you will pass it on to your daughter.”
“Of course,” Cleo said as she handed the necklace to Jude and pulled her hair to the side. Jude walked around her to fasten the necklace. Cleo’s fingers traced the ruby as she looked at her father.
“You have no idea how much you remind me of her,” the Earl said as tears filled his eyes. “I have been such a fool.”
Cleo exhaled as her heart filled with love. “Would you like to try and make up for lost time?”
“Are you sure?” the Earl asked as his eyes widened. Cleo glanced to Jude who nodded and squeezed her shoulders.
“They are outside playing,” Cleo said as she extended her hand to the doors. The Earl pulled in a long deep breath. It seemed as if time slipped off her father and he looked ten years younger.
“Go on, I’ll be right there. It takes a while for me to get around these days,” Cleo said as her father chuckled.
Jude stayed beside Cleo as they watched the Earl step out into the sun.
“Ye’re amazin’, ye ken that?” Jude whispered as he pressed his lips to hers. “I ken ye’d do the right thing by him.”
“It’s strange, I spent so much time wanting to get free of him and now, all I want is more time.”
“That is how life is,” Jude said. “But all we can do is cherish the time we have while we have it.”
“Where did you hear that?” Cleo asked as she smiled at him.
“Oh, a young lass told me that once upon a time and it sort of stayed with me,” Jude said as he pressed his lips to Cleo’s.
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