JessicaThe Viscount's Wallflower
Templeton House, Eight Years Later
“Mama, tell him! I had it first!” Caroline insisted.
Jessica put aside her book with a sigh and turned to her oldest child. Caroline was just short of eight years old and had grown up more or less exactly how she and Jack had predicted. Caroline’s hair, wispy and orange when she was first born, had darkened to a glossy shade of auburn. It was apparent that the nursemaid had tried to neaten Caroline’s hair into two smooth plaits. Jessica noticed with resignation that after Caroline’s wild play in the garden, there was more hair outside the plaits than inside them. Her hair curled wildly, like her father’s, and refused to be tamed into any sensible hairstyle for long.
Behind Caroline stood her two brothers, Edward and Robert. Ted and Robbie were six years old and looked like miniatures of their father. They had curly dark hair and would grow into features very similar to Jack’s. However, it was Jessica’s sharp green eyes that looked out of her sons’ faces.
Right now, their expressions were mulish and stubborn.
“Had what first, Caroline?” Jessica said, attempting to be a peacemaker.
“The kitten, Mama.” Caroline pointed to a small, silky bundle of black-and-white fur cuddled in Ted’s arms. “It’s my turn to play with her.”
Jessica hummed to herself. “Well, why don’t we put the kitten down . . .”
“Susie,” Caroline corrected.
“Why don’t we put Susie down and see who she would like to play with? It’s not right to fight over a living creature, children.”
The children muttered agreement, and Ted reluctantly set down his little bundle. The kitten blinked around her with large blue eyes, inspecting each of them in turn. Then she turned and leapt right back into Ted’s arms, much to Caroline’s annoyance.
“Susie feels more comfortable with Ted, Caroline,” Jessica chastised gently. “You must try and coax her to you instead. Be kind with her and don’t grab at her. Why don’t the three of you go and play with her together?”
Caroline wavered for a moment. She had no natural inclination to share, and her parents had a hard time teaching her of the importance and fairness of sharing.
Still, they must have had some success.
“All right, Mama,” Caroline said. The three of them turned tail and went racing out of the room, Ted still clutching the beloved kitten to his chest.
Jessica sighed in relief and opened her book again. She loved her children, but they were very tiring. Between herself, the nursemaid, and the governess, the children were growing into well-dressed, well-behaved youngsters, but there was still a long way to go.
Maria was now married to a lovely young man, and Jon was at university. Jon visited them occasionally during his holidays, but Maria was still enraptured with the London Season, the sparkle and pomp.
“What was all that about?”
Jack appeared in the doorway, his broad shoulders filling the frame. As always, Jessica’s heart quickened at the sight of him. Eight years later, and he could still make her heart skip a beat.
Jack smiled down at her, coming over to take her hand. He raised the back of her hand to his lips, and Jessica noticed the lines around his eyes becoming more prominent. They were ageing together, and she couldn’t be happier.
“It’s a pity Francis and Cecilia couldn’t come today,” Jack observed, settling himself onto the sofa beside his wife. “Ted and Robbie were very disappointed not to have their favourite uncle and aunt at their birthday party.”
“No, but I can understand why they didn’t come. Cecilia will still be tired after the birth, and Francis won’t stir from her side.”
“As it should be,” Jack acknowledged. “I don’t believe I let you move a step unattended for months after our children were born. Especially the twins.”
“Yes, I recall. It was nice at first, but it quickly lost its novelty, dear,” Jessica joked, eyes flashing. Jack smiled at her.
“I imagine Francis is a thousand times worse than me. They waited so long for that child.”
“What have they named him? Alfred, isn’t it?”
“Yes, after an uncle, I believe. You and I took Edward if you recall.”
Jessica chuckled at that.
Their little group of firm friends had gradually begun to split apart. It was nobody’s fault and made for a rather bittersweet realisation.
Helena and Jacob had been the first to go. A year after the birth of their second child, they removed up to an estate in Scotland. There were tearful goodbyes and promises to write and visit.
Helena and Jessica wrote reasonably frequently, and occasionally, Jacob and Jack exchanged notes. But the fact was, both couples were busy with their own children and their own families. The letters gradually petered out. Occasionally, Helena would send a letter so long it was almost a small novel, and Jessica would eagerly write back a letter of similar length. Each woman would detail the health and achievements of her children and various occurrences in their lives.
But these letters were few and far between now.
Francis and Cecilia’s marriage had taken place a year after Jessica and Jack’s, a greatly celebrated and happy event. However, years passed, and the couple produced no children. There were some couples perfectly happy without children, but Francis and Cecilia were not one of them. Cecilia longed for a baby, and so did Francis. As the years passed, they became more and more desperate and miserable, and it hurt Jack and Jessica’s hearts to see it.
Without Helena and Jacob in London, and with Francis and Cecilia so absorbed in their own struggles, Jack and Jessica gradually began to realise that there was nothing for them in London. What was the point of attending an expensive London Season, with a brood of children and no interest in the marriage mart?
So, they started staying at Templeton all year round. Lady Edith was delighted—she’d given up on the Season immediately after Jessica’s marriage. That meant Jessica and Jack were cut off from the rest of their friends.
Jessica supposed it was called growing up.
“We should invite Francis and Cecilia here,” Jessica observed idly. The sun was going down, and the flickering firelight was the only thing lighting up the room. She couldn’t summon up the energy to ask a servant to light some candles. “When the baby is a little older. Helena and Jacob, too. They can bring the children. Our house is big enough to put them all up for a few weeks, maybe even longer.”
“That would be nice,” Jack said with a smile, squeezing her hand. “I’ll write some invitations. We all have a lot to catch up on, I think.”
“Mm, so do I.”
Their sweet, peaceful moment was ruined by the door slamming open and three small demons rushing inside, towing their long-suffering grandfather, like boys pulling a bear.
“Steady on, steady on!” Sir Robert laughed. “Robbie! Mind the table!”
“Goodness, it’s dark in here,” Sir Robert said, moving over to ring the bell. “Let’s have a little light.”
“Call Miss Taylor while you’re at it, Father,” Jessica said, narrowing her eyes at her children, now huddled together on a sofa and giggling. “It’s the children’s bedtime.”
As expected, the children set up a great hue and cry, protesting that they were not tired, they were never tired, and could go on for hours and hours yet. Jessica stayed firm, despite Caroline’s valiant attempts to make herself cry.
“How about this,” Sir Robert intervened. “One bedtime story, and then bedtime?”
They considered this, the two younger boys looking to their sister for a decision.
“All right,” Caroline said graciously.
“Excellent.” Sir Robert settled himself on the sofa between the children. “What story would you like?”
“Oh, oh, tell us about the typhoon that nearly drowned you!”
“No, I want the story about the pirates!”
Caroline’s piped up. “I want the story about the shipwrecked boy! Please,” she added lamely.
Sir Robert smiled, wrapping his arms around the three children. “You are in luck, Caroline. The shipwrecked boy is my favourite.”
Jessica and Jack settled down to listen. As Sir Robert began, a maid slipped in and started lighting candles. It allowed a little extra light, but not much. In fact, the candles created a sleepier ambience, and already the children’s eyelids were beginning to droop.
“Once upon a time,” Sir Robert began, in his smooth, deep, storytelling voice, “there was a young man who sailed the seas. He was torn, because he loved the sea, but he also loved his family. He had a wife and a young daughter. One day, the young man was sailing his ship when a terrible storm hit . . .”
Jessica twisted in her seat to smile up at Jack. They knew this story well.
“. . . the young man thought he was going to drown. He was sure of it, in fact. He gave up, letting himself sink into the dark, cold depths, and the sea took him.”
The children were agog. They’d heard the story so many times that they could probably have recited it themselves, but that didn’t matter. They loved to hear their grandpapa tell it.
“But, he didn’t die,” Ted said, in a hushed voice.
“No, Ted. He didn’t die. He was saved by fishermen in their boats, small, agile boats that could manoeuvre the sharp shores and treacherous rocks of those islands. They pulled him aboard their ship and bore him to shore. They saved him. But all was not well with the young man. He was relieved to be saved and endlessly grateful to those kind fishermen, but what of his family?”
“Because he couldn’t get home,” Caroline whispered.
This time, Sir Robert’s smile had more than a hint of sadness. “No, Caroline. He couldn’t get home. The fisherfolk offered him their boats, but they were too small and would never bear him home. So, he stayed there with them.”
“Tell us about the fisherfolk and their island!”
“With pleasure, Robbie. They were intelligent and cunning people, able to survive on those islands unlike nobody else. They taught, the boy that is, all sorts of skills. For example . . .”
Jessica began to shift in her seat. She liked hearing this story, but only up to a certain point.
Sir Robert would talk about how miserable and melancholy the young man became, desperately missing his family. He even talked about how a young fisherwoman had asked him to marry her, but he’d refused. How could he marry, he’d said, when he had a wife and daughter at home? The fisherwoman was disappointed, but she understood.
The knowledge of the father she might have had, the family she might have known, still taunted Jessica.
But then Jon and Maria would not have existed.
Jack slipped his arm around her shoulders and squeezed a little. “Shall we go outside?” he murmured. “We can take a walk on the terrace.”
Jessica smiled gratefully up at him. “I’d like that, thank you.”
Whispering to Sir Robert to take the children to bed when he was finished, Jessica and Jack opened up the glass French doors and stepped out onto the balcony.
There were stone steps leading down from the balcony onto the terrace. From there, one could walk into the garden and follow the meandering paths that Jessica had painstaking mapped out. The garden had taken even more reviving than the house. It had been a tangled, overgrown wilderness when they first moved into Templeton House, all weeds and rubbish.
But together, Jack and Jessica had formed it into something beautiful. They’d kept the wildflowers and meadow grass, waving in a sort of little wilderness that constantly threatened to claim the rest of the garden.
It was a cool night but still tinged with summer warmth. Jessica paused at the balcony, breathing in the sweet scent of flowers and fresh grass.
“Are you happy here, Jessica?” Jack murmured. He came up behind her, winding his arms around her waist and propping his chin on her shoulder. “Are you happy to have Templeton House back again?”
Jessica chuckled. “What sort of question is that? I’m delighted, Jack. I never dreamt I’d be so happy.”
“Neither did I. I imagined I’d marry Helena and be forever tortured with guilt over not being happy with even a perfect woman like her.”
“Yes, you and Helena would not have made a good match of it.” Jessica slipped her hands down to Jack’s, and hesitated. “I have something to tell you, Jack. I’ve been meaning to tell you for a while, but I thought I’d wait until I was quite sure. Then there was Father’s visit and the party, so you and I have barely had a chance to exchange a word.”
Jack moved back a little, tilting his head, and Jessica turned to face him.
“What is it?” he asked, a hint of a frown between his brows. “Is everything all right?”
“Oh, yes. It’s good news. I think, at least. I’m not entirely sure what the children will think.”
Jack raised his eyebrows. “I’m frankly dying of suspense here, my love.”
Jessica dropped her hands to rest on her belly. Was it her imagination, or could she already feel a slight curve there?
“I’m expecting another child.”
Emotions chased over Jack’s face. Delight, fear, excitement, anticipation. “Really?”
Jessica nodded. “Really. I think I’m almost three months along. Perhaps four. I really ought to have been keeping better track.”
Jack caught her up in his arms, pressing kisses to her forehead, cheeks, nose, and finally, her lips.
“Are you glad?” Jessica asked, laughing.
“Glad? I’m delighted. You are right about the children, though. I think Caroline already feels herself hard done by with two brothers.” Jack wrapped his arms around Jessica, and she nestled close to him, resting her head on his chest.
“Do you think it’ll be a girl or a boy? What would you prefer?” Jessica asked.
“I think I’d like a girl. We already have two boys, after all. Perhaps Caroline would like a little sister. Or perhaps we’ll have twins again.”
Jessica groaned. “Oh, don’t. I do not want more twins.”
“Yes, perhaps that would be for the best. To be frank, my dear, I don’t care, so long as you and the baby are healthy.” He pressed a kiss to the top of Jessica’s head. “Now. Shall we dance?”
“Yes, dance,” Jack said laughingly. “You and I haven’t danced for an age, have we?”
He stepped back, keeping Jessica’s hand in his, striking a pose as if they were about to begin a set.
“There is no music!”
“I’m sure we can imagine some music. I’ll tell you what music I’m imagining, and you can play it in your head at the same time. It’ll be fun.”
Jessica giggled. “You are a madman.”
“Yes, I am. Now, will you dance with me or not?”
Jessica swept out her skirts in a dramatic, deep, curtsey. “Of course, my lord. Always.”
They twirled around the narrow balcony together, laughing as toes were crushed and hems trodden on. Jack lifted his arm, encouraging Jessica to whirl underneath it. She spun faster and faster, laughing at how dizzy she felt. She caught glimpses of the warm, idyllic scene inside the French doors, where her father and her three beloved children huddled together, telling a story. She briefly saw the dark expanses of her own beautiful garden reflected in the glass doors. Then the spinning stopped, and Jessica was facing her husband, with Jack’s handsome face smiling down at her.
“I love you,” Jessica said impulsively.
Jack’s smile widened. “I love you too, darling.”
I hope you enjoyed “Jessica, The Viscount’s Wallflower”. I would love to know your opinion!