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June 1823

Ozersk Country Seat, Russia

“How do I look, Mother?” Louisa asked, staring at her reflection in the mirror.

“How else could you look other than beautiful? Utterly stunning.”

Louisa felt her cheeks warm. One would think that, at almost thirty, she wouldn’t be so taken in by flattery. Alas, it was indeed, the case.

She blamed her delicate state, of course. That was what the midwife called it.

Of course, as this was her fourth child, she hadn’t thought she would be as affected. Then again, that was the thing, wasn’t it? When it came to siring life, she’d finally made her peace with the fact that it was never the same twice.

Each pregnancy came with its own peculiarities.

With her first child and first son, Dmitri Oliver Karpov, she’d felt as healthy as a fiddle. Her complexion had been aglow, her hair had shone, and her appetite had been ravenous all round.

Even his birth had come just as easily. With only an hour in labor and one push, he’d joined the world. A beautiful, bouncy baby boy who was his father’s spitting image.

Even now, at nine years old, he still looked like Alexei’s double.

Considering how pleasantly her first carry had been, Louisa had foolishly believed it would be so for all the other children, and they had been eager for quite the brood.

So as soon as Dmitri had begun to waddle on his feet, they’d decided to try again. The universe had wasted no time in blessing them with Gisela Elizabeth Karpov. She had been and still was just as clever and mischievous as the favorite cousin she’d been named after.

Right from the start, she’d plagued Louisa with morning illnesses. Fatigue, fever, chills, nausea, name it! At some point, Louisa, as well as everyone who cared about her, had truly feared for her life.

Her mother, who’d only returned to England a few months before, after helping her nurse Dmitri, had had to get on a ship back to Russia.

Louisa’s nose and feet had grown three times in size, and her skin had shown several patches of discoloration every other day.

And Gisela had taken her sweet timeall of eighteen hours and more pushes than Louisa could countto come into the world. And when she’d finally been born, her first sound had been a chuckle. As though she’d been aware of just what she’d been doing, and she was happy to have accomplished it.

A strange child indeed. Thankfully, she had chosen to take after her mother in looks, only keeping her father’s light blue eyes.

She was seven now, and utterly precocious. Compared to her calm older brother Dmitri, she was always up to something.

Louisa had to admit that the birth of Ruby had calmed her first daughter a bit. Having a younger sister to care for and dote upon seemed to have been exactly what Gisela had needed, and she was proving to be an excellent elder sister.

Ruby Eloise Karpov was now all of four years old. She was dainty, graceful, and always looked like she knew more than she should. She was wise beyond her age, and everyone said she was her grandfather incarnate.

Of course, it didn’t help that the child looked a little too much like the late countnot that Louisa minded at all. In fact, she was quite happy that her children took after the people whom she held most dear to her heart. It was why she’d been so clever with their names, wasn’t it?

How had carrying Ruby been? Ah . . . certainly easier than Gisela, but not as calm as Dmitri.

There’d been a few hiccups here and there, kicking and dizzy spells, but she’d made it through.

And now, she was pregnant with the fourth, whom she was almost positive would be a boy. He reminded her of Dmitri. He was such an easy child. Fussed very little and did nothing to affect her well-being.

It was only that she found herself being easily given to many ridiculous emotions. She cried at the slightest thing and fished for compliments wherever she could get them. She awoke the entire household in the middle of the night with the most unusual cravings, and she was only halfway gone.

The Lord only knew how the remaining months would go.

Yet, even now, as she stood in her lovely peach-colored dress, belly properly rounded, she knew she wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.

As they were both sole heirs, she and Alexei had decided to bear as many children as they could. They wanted a house filled with laughter, warmth, and love. And as long as the heavens continued to bless them, they would continue to bask in the blessings.

“Are you ready?” her mother asked.

Louisa nodded, holding on to the flowers her lady’s maid had just handed to her. She was as ready as she’d ever be.

It was the tenth anniversary of her marriage to Alexei and they’d reckoned it would be wonderful to renew the vows that they’d taken in presence of the archbishop all those years ago.

This time, in a different country she’d come to call home, in the presence of a different priest, but still surrounded by all the people who meant the most in the world to them.

And, of course, they were choosing to do it in the estate fields, surrounded by flowers grown in her thriving greenhouse and under the warmth of the golden sun.

It’d been a cold winter, and rain-filled spring. They were glad for some hints of warmth at the onset of summer. They hoped it would remain that way.

“I can’t believe I’m having to do this a second time,” her father muttered as he came to stand beside her once she stepped into the atrium.

He might sound as though he was complaining, but the twinkle in his eyes told Louisa he was enjoying himself.

Her father, her dearest father, who’d wept bitterly that day at the port when she’d bade London and all of England goodbye.

He’d believed he wouldn’t be able to survive being so far away from his daughter, but here they were, a decade later. Somehow, they’d managed to make it work.

He visited as often as he could, about twice a year. Since Louisa was almost always between nursing or carrying, she couldn’t make the trip as often. But they managed quite well.

The duke had been there for the birth of all his grandchildren. And now, he was here to give her away again.

And then, there was her mother. Her sweet mother, who had been such a rock, had taught her the ways of motherhood when she’d been clueless at the start, alongside her mother-in-law, of course.

Now she was a parent herself, Louisa could not deny that the experience had fostered her relationship with her parents, making them grow closer.

More than before, she now understood some of the decisions they’d had to make in her regard. It was simply the parental cross to bear.

To be a parent was to never stop worrying or wanting the best for your children. It was protecting them from all harm at the expense of oneself.

It was a life filled with sacrifices and a love so profound, words could never describe it. She was glad she’d been able to do it with such amazing people by her side.

“There’s the bride!” the dowager countess chimed as she joined them.

“Mother,” Louisa called in response, her smile never leaving her face.

“You’re radiant!” the dowager declared.

“As are you, Mother, thank you.”

“I can’t believe it’s been ten years already. You have brought so much joy and peace into our lives, Louisa. We can never thank you enough.”

“I have done quite a bit of taking too,” Louisa happily admitted. “I have been blessed with so much love and warmth, and I have accepted it all, so, thank you.”

“As you should,” the dowager cackled. “As you should.”

She seemed to have completely healed from the agony of her loss, after all these years. However, now that Louisa had experienced love for so long, she knew that its loss was not something anyone could ever truly recover from.

Nonetheless, she was thankful the dowager had enough reasons for gladness in her heart. And she lived her days filled with the love of both her children and all her grandchildren, as well as all the children she’d adopted from the orphanage and now raised as her own.

“Come now, we must tarry no longer. The guests are seated, the priest is waiting, and I’m quite familiar with a particular gentleman who must already be running out of patience.”

That was her father, and they all agreed. All together, they completed the rest of the journey to the fields, where their small party had gathered.

The mothers went to take their seats then. And on cue, their children began to walk down the aisle, throwing flowers.

Louisa couldn’t stop smiling as she watched them, their growing feet now firmly on the ground. Once they’d all made it safely across, she finally looked up to the man who owned her heart, who always would.

Ten years, she thought, as her father began to walk her down the aisle. Ten years married to this man.

A whole decade.

How was it possible that she loved him more now than all those years before?

Then again, she supposed the true question was, how could it be possible that she wouldn’t? Alexei was everything she could have ever asked for, and more.

A present, doting father. He was so good with the children. A seeing as he’d had sch a great example to learn from, they adored him. He was their hero, their knight in shining armor, and she loved the fact that he was just as smitten with each and every one of them, including the one growing in her belly.

He never missed the chance to rub and kiss her belly, and whisper sweet nothings to the babe, just as he’d done with all the others. Little wonder they came out instantly knowing his voice, being comforted by it.

And as a husband? Why, he was simply the best.

An attentive listener, an affectionate friend, a generous lover, and a protective provider. He met all of her needs and more, he was, in every sense of the word, the head of her home, of their home.

He still made her laugh, and she now knew for certain that even when they were old and gray, they would still sit on the balcony and tease each other mercilessly, bickering endlessly, while the great-grandchildren played in the field.

That was the way it was with them, it was what added all the more flavor to the love and unending camaraderie they shared.

And when she had concerns about anything, he treated them with the utmost care, just as he regarded her with the utmost respect. He provided counsel whenever she was in need, and if the tables ever turned, he never felt too proud, too high and mighty to heed her advice.

Somehow, even though he had become such an amazing man, somewhere deep inside was the boy she’d met all those years ago at the buffet table, over the fruit punch.

And as she walked down to aisle to him, ready to avow her whole life to him yet again, she knew he would always be that boy to her. Just as she would always be that girl to him.

“I love you,” he whispered as she reached his side, taking her hand and kissing it.

“And I love you,” she replied.

It was all the promise they’d ever need.

The End

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