Ten years later…
Dinner needed to be perfect. It had been a while since the whole family had gotten together, and Mercy wanted everything to go splendidly. She sped around the table, going in circles, making sure that all the plates, silverware, and cups were in the right place. The maids placed down trays of food—mountains of boiled vegetables, mashed potatoes, and a perfectly roasted ham; Mercy specifically ordered for there to be bountiful amounts of food so that the dinner would last for a long time. She remembered the wedding dinner and wanted to recreate a semblance of how it felt; if she could describe that night, she would say that it was an eternity.
Tonight was a special occasion as well.
It was her and Caleb’s tenth wedding anniversary.
For their past anniversaries, Mercy had spent the day with her husband alone, oftentimes traveling to other countries or simply going on a horse ride together. And every time, she fell more and more in love with him—if that was even possible. For their tenth anniversary, she wanted the day to be extra special.
The only conclusion she had come up with was to spend it with her sisters.
So here she was, in Norfolk Manor setting up the dining table for her entire family. There was a sort of déjà vu that came with it all. The familiar feeling of waiting for her sisters to come down to eat dinner settled a warm feeling in her chest, and she felt like she was home.
When Mercy finished setting the table, she stood at the end of it, observing everything and checking that it was all in perfect order.
Then, before she could move away, a pair of arms circled around her waist. A warm presence engulfed her from behind, and her immediate reaction was to settle back and nestle into the warmness.
“What are you doing?” She laughed and turned around in his arms so that they were face-to-face.
Caleb smiled down at her, his eyes soft, and tucked her hair behind her ear. This was the face that Mercy was gifted with seeing every day. She would never tire of it.
“I love you,” he said, and it felt like the first time.
A huge smile split across Mercy’s face—her reaction every time he said those three words—and placed her palm against his cheek; he leaned into her touch. She rarely said those words back, but Caleb never seemed to mind. She showed her love in other ways, sometimes quiet and subtle. He had told her one night when they were about to fall asleep, that he didn’t mind her not saying the words aloud. He whispered into the darkness that he would always pay attention to her and see the little things, the minute actions that professed her love for him. The small daffodil that she placed by his pillow. The furtive glances that she sent him whenever they went out to an event. Her fingers wrapped tightly around his arm, squeezing every few minutes whenever he was nervous.
He had told her all of this, and Mercy scolded him for even saying anything because—how was she supposed to fall asleep after hearing that?
Regardless, from thenceforth, she made sure her actions were loud and clear. And now, as she stood in the dining room, in his arms, she caressed his cheek, looking at him as if he was meant only for her.
She leaned in to kiss in, but then stopped abruptly. She placed his hand on his chest and pushed him gently away. “Where is Stephanie?”
Caleb chuckled softly. “Don’t worry, she’s taking a nap upstairs.”
Mercy sighed, and Caleb leaned in once more. But before they could kiss, a loud cough forced the two to separate.
Standing by the door were Alice and Lord Curzon, the latter holding a fist against his mouth. He had obviously been the one to clear his throat. Alice wore a bright smile, and there was a hint of amusement in her eyes as she regarded Mercy and Caleb.
“Sorry, did we disrupt something?” She asked, trying not to laugh.
Mercy rolled her eyes. “Hush now,” she said, before enveloping her sister in a tight hug. Caleb walked forward to greet Lord Curzon, and when Mercy pulled away from the embrace, he greeted Alice, too. Mercy curtsied to Lord Curzon before craning her neck to locate their little rascal.
Just then, a little boy revealed himself from behind Lord Curzon’s legs. He stuck out his tongue at Mercy before quickly hiding again.
“Hey!” Mercy called before chasing Kevin around.
When she finally caught him, he squealed and laughed as she ruffled his hair. Although Kevin was a ruthless little monster at times, Mercy loved him with everything she had. Ever since he had turned three years old, he had become a troublemaker, through and through, and Mercy had lost count of how many times Alice apologized for Kevin’s behavior.
“I’m sorry,” Alice said, then turned to speak to Kevin. “What did I say about sticking
your tongue out at people? It’s rude!”
Mercy smiled, amused. She was excited to see what kind of man he would grow into.
Afterward, Olive and Lord Morris arrived, along with their three children: Theo, Hugh, and Florence. The two older brothers were growing taller by the day, and they stood poised as if they were already fine gentlemen. They bowed and greeted Mercy and Caleb with an air of formality. Caleb bowed exaggeratedly in response, to which Lord Morris puffed out a laugh that nobody missed.
Florence, Ben, and Olive’s daughter, was identical to Olive. Whenever Mercy looked at her, she saw her little baby sister again, and for that, she had formed a strong sense of protectiveness over her niece. She would destroy anyone who dared hurt Florence. Different from her brothers, Florence was shy, burrowing her face in Olive’s shoulder. Mercy always found her endearing.
As everyone joined together and moved into the drawing room, Mercy heard a pair of small feet scurrying down the stairs; it was a sound that she would never get tired of hearing.
A second later, a little girl came barreling through the doors. There was an energized buzz to her as if she hadn’t even slept a wink. She scanned the room before seeing Caleb, and then she ran to him, jumping up and clinging to his shoulders.
Mercy smiled at the sight.
Stephanie was the light of her life, the dearest thing to Mercy, along with Caleb, in the world. They had given birth to her seven years ago, which seemed like a long time, but the last ten years had passed quickly. It seemed like only yesterday that Stephanie had been crawling and crying over every little thing.
Before the birth, Mercy had been terrified out of her mind. She didn’t know if she would be the best mother, and every night, she tore her hair out wondering if she could ever protect her baby. It got to the point where Olive and Alice had to put an end to it, telling Mercy that she would be the most caring mother of them all—because she was the one who had taken their own mother’s place all those years ago. If anyone could protect someone, it would be her.
And when Stephanie came into the world, Mercy knew that she would burn the world down if it meant saving her.
After Stephanie made her grand entrance, all the kids ran out into the garden, frolicking around with a burst of childish excitement that Mercy missed having herself. Theo and Hugh were walking around the pathways, their hands clasped behind their backs; Kevin sped through everything, crumbling a few blossoming flowers under his careless feet in the process, to which Lord Curzon had to reprimand him a dozen times; Florence clung to Stephanie for dear life with an apprehensive look on her face. Stephanie walked around with a puffed chest, chin raised high in the sky, ready to shield and defend Florence with everything she had.
Mercy could see a hunter in Stephanie.
When it was time for dinner, the kids ran back inside, their bellies rumbling for something to eat. Everyone seated themselves around the table, and just like Mercy had wanted, the room was filled with loud conversation and laughter.
Before they could begin eating, however, Mercy rose from her chair and clinked her glass with a fork, bringing everyone to attention. The room fell into a hushed silence. Mercy cleared her throat. “I would like to give a toast to everyone here, my beloved and forever family. And to the person who cannot be here today—to Father, who loved and supported every one of us with his kindness and strength. Even though he passed away two years prior, it still feels like he is here with us today. I know he and Mother are looking down at us, so proud of how far we have come. I remember the look on his face during the wedding…he never looked so happy.”
“He was the most enthusiastic dancer on the dance floor,” Olive commented.
“Definitely,” Mercy agreed, a fond look settling over her face.
Then, Caleb rose and lifted his glass in the air. “Though I may be a duke myself, I am not lying when I say that he was the best Duke in the ton. May we all live happily as him and dance until our feet hurt!”
As the room filled with cheers, Mercy looked fondly at Caleb, remembering the day her father had given Caleb his blessings to take his dukedom. Although her father was sick in bed, he had used enough energy to grasp Caleb’s hand and to say that he trusted Caleb’s love for Mercy enough to pass his title down. Caleb was very thankful; afterward, though, when he and Mercy were alone together, Caleb promised that he would always love and prioritize her, regardless of his title.
That moment was a dear memory of Mercy’s.
She was soon pulled out of that thought as the feast began.
With so many people around the table, it was bound to be a little chaotic—and so it was. Alice and Lord Curzon were fussing over Kevin, reminding him of the proper manners at the dinner table, though Kevin was adamant about not eating his peas. After some scolding, Theo cleared his throat loudly and offered to eat Kevin’s peas for him; Hugh, always following his brother, gave the same offer. Olive shook her head in amusement but didn’t stop them. The bowl of mashed potatoes was passed around the table, and Stephanie was adamant about serving a plate of it to everyone herself, claiming that it would be faster. Her loud voice rose above everyone else’s. The only quiet one was Florence, who sat looking down at her plate; therefore, it was imperative for Stephanie to bring all the food to her first, making sure that Florence was given a chance to sample everything.
On and on, the night continued. Although it was a tad bit tumultuous and loud, Mercy couldn’t have desired anything better. As she looked around the table, a feeling of gratitude overwhelmed her because this was her family—teeming with joy and laughter.
It would be like this forever and that was just because she had given Caleb a chance.
As everyone talked and fussed around the table, Mercy looked at Caleb, their eyes meeting, and the moment was too perfect: the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk Manor enveloped in the warmth of their family. And she showed her love for him and her entire family in a way that no words could ever truly describe.