Grosvenor Street, London
10 January 1826
Yes, yes, I know I am late in replying, but I am sure that what I am on the verge of telling you will excuse my tardiness. Maddy is once again with child. We have suspected this for quite some time now, but it was not until late last week that the doctor was able to confirm our hopes. As can be expected, these past few days have been both joyful and hectic. I do not exaggerate when I say that, in my thirty years on this planet, I have never encountered a task more difficult than enlightening a four-year-old on the origins of babies. I can almost see the alarm stealing across your face as you read this, so, please, before you begin decrying me an unfit parent, allow me the chance to assuage your fears. I did not tell Mathieu the entire truth, of course, but convincing him that storks have no involvement in the child-birthing process whatsoever was quite taxing. I hope your little Cate will be less curious than my son when next you and your wife are expecting.
On a lighter note, London is glorious this time of the year, but I think my fondness for the city must render my opinions biased. I hope you have found Manchester pleasant as well. I long to return to it, but as you must have already heard, I have been elected to Parliament. My career, therefore, roots me here. However, my wife and I have no intentions of postponing the trip we have scheduled for the springtime. We shall see you and Mrs. Weatherly come Easter, as planned. I have a mind to visit the school once we arrive, but I am certain that I shall hear nothing save praise from the faculty and students of their attentive and benevolent headmaster. You have done a fine job in keeping my dream afloat, Weatherly; and to think, you had only expected to be a schoolmaster. However, please forgive my teasing, for I am in an unconquerably joyous mood.
Since my last letter to you, I have had the unexpected pleasure of meeting with your cousin and Audrey in Grosvenor Street. I found them both in excellent health, as well as in spirits, and I cannot help but think that Adam's reconciliation with his father last June has done much in the way of easing his mind. He is much more amiable than I have ever seen him, and after six years, I daresay he is still as devoted as ever to my cousin and their children. I have it on your wife's good authority that you are to be credited with not only Adam's changed ways, but also his reconciliation with your uncle. However, I cannot say that I am surprised, for you have always been quite the peacemaker.
Well, now I must beg your forgiveness for the length of this letter. I did not intend it to be so long, but you know how I am, Weatherly. When I am happy, I am loquacious and the whole world must share in my joy. Please give my regards to Mrs. Weatherly, your daughter, my aunt and uncle, and my in-laws the next time you are in Winsford. Until we meet again, I remain your devoted friend,
Setting his friend's letter aside, Caleb retrieved from the pile atop his desk a fresh sheet of paper. A finger alighted on his temple as he leaned forward in his chair, brow creased in thought, quill in hand. He did not pause in contemplation too long, however, before putting pen to paper and bestowing upon his friend, in an elegant hand greatly contrasting with the latter's nearly illegible scrawling, his earnest congratulations. But as he neared the crux of his missive, he was suddenly interrupted by a flurry of black tresses and wrinkled muslin rushing into the room. Barreling behind his desk, the little girl peered up at him pleadingly, her dark eyes wide and gleaming mischievously, chocolate streaking her face and hands.
"Cate!" Isabella's desperate cry followed, quickly drawing Caleb's curious gaze from his daughter to the exasperated woman standing in his doorway. "Where is she?" Isabella continued breathlessly, one hand on her hip, the other gripping onto the doorframe for dear life.
Casting his wife a conspiratorial glance, Caleb pushed his chair back and stood up, inconspicuously jerking his chin in the direction of the side of his desk not in Isabella's line of vision. As the latter crept toward him, a smile appeared across her lips, banishing the vexed creases in her brow. "Bath," she mouthed upon meeting his inquisitive eyes.
He nodded understandingly and then put up a hand, stopping his wife in her steps. "I've a better idea," he whispered, hoping that the little girl now nestled in the open space of his desk that was normally inhabited by his feet had not heard.
Isabella raised an eyebrow, but the expression on her face was complying as she glanced about herself for a chair to sit down on. From the beads of perspiration matting loose strands of her hair to her forehead and the slight heaving of her chest, Caleb concluded that she must have been chasing their sprightly daughter throughout the entire house. He flashed her a compassionate smile before sinking to his knees and facing the coltish little girl. "It's all right, love," he whispered, extending a hand toward her. "Mama has promised me that she is not going to force you into taking a bath."
Cate stared at him in disbelief before determining from the genuine warmth in his tone that the dark-haired man was not merely seeking to coax her from her hiding place. Cautiously, she crawled out from under the desk and leapt into his arms. Caleb emitted a low chuckle as he settled her against his side. "Do you see, my dear?" he continued genially. "Mama's not chasing after you any more. She is sitting down now."
The little girl glanced at her mother suspiciously, but upon spotting the woman's resigned smile, allowed one of relief to curl from her own lips. She returned her attention to her father and rested her head against his shoulder. Caleb grinned at her and opened his mouth as though to speak, but instead of offering his daughter another reassuring word, he wrinkled his nose and turned his head in Isabella's direction. "Goodness, Mrs. Weatherly, do you smell that?"
Isabella's brow momentarily furrowed, but a quick, furtive look from her husband revealed to her his plan. "Oh," she replied eagerly, nodding her head, "I do. What an odious…odor!"
Cate's eyes darted questioningly between the two of them.
"Where on earth could it be coming from?" Caleb continued, sounding more rehearsed than he'd anticipated. But the three-year-old failed to notice the exaggeration in both his tone and expression.
Isabella rose to her feet and leaned forward, pretending to sniff the air. "Why, husband, I think it's coming from…you!"
"Me?" Caleb cried. He brought the sleeve of his jacket to his nose and inhaled. "No, I believe you're mistaken, Isabella. It's not me. It's…" He turned toward Cate and lowered his face to her hair. "Why, Cate, it's you!"
The dark-haired girl's eyes stared alarmingly up at him. "No, it's not!" she protested, though the flush of her cheeks suggested that even she did not believe her own words.
Isabella came around the desk to stand beside her husband and child. "Yes, I believe it is you, darling!"
Cate's cherubic features twisted in horror, but before any tears sprung from her eyes, Caleb quickly continued, "Oh, but do not worry, my dear. Your mama and I do not care how you smell. We still love you very much."
Isabella nodded in agreement. But upon hearing Cate's deep sigh, she immediately knit her brow. "Yes, but what will other people think? What will your cousins say?" she cried, a hand flying to her mouth.
"Oh, how silly of me! I'd almost forgotten; Alexander and Anne are arriving on the morrow, aren't they?" Caleb said.
"Yes, and you always love being around them, don't you, Cate?" The little girl nodded somberly. "But will they still want to play with you if you smell?"
Her lips quivering, Cate glanced nervously at her father. "Oh, dear, what if they will not?" the dark-haired man pondered aloud.
"Well, I certainly do not want them to ignore you, Catherine. Whatever shall we do?"
Caleb shrugged, turning questioning eyes on his daughter. "Have you any idea, my love?"
Cate lowered her head thoughtfully before sheepishly meeting her parents' gazes. "I can take a bath?"
"Oh, I don't know," Isabella said. "Your papa and I would not want you to do anything you don't like."
"No," the little girl quickly replied, "I want to."
Biting his lip in indecision, Caleb stared earnestly at his daughter. "All right, I suppose if you really want to, we can permit you to take a bath."
A heavy sigh escaped Cate's lips. Wriggling out of her father's arms as he lowered her to the ground, she raced toward her mother and impatiently tugged on the hem of her dress. A warm smile on her face, Isabella leaned forward and pushed a curl out of the impish girl's eyes. "Why don't you run along to your governess, Cate? She's waiting in the washroom for you. I'll be right there, I promise."
Eagerly nodding her head, Cate turned and bounded from the room.
As soon as she and her husband were alone, Isabella threw her arms about Caleb's neck, burying her head in his shoulder. "I am forever indebted to you," she murmured against his lapel.
Laughing softly, he passed a hand over her hair and slipped an arm around her waist. "At least we didn't have to invent any stories concerning the origins of babies."
Her eyes immediately alighted on his face. "What on earth are you talking about?"
A grin on his lips, he reached behind her for Desmond's letter. "You'll see," he replied, handing her the missive.
She quickly scanned the contents of the correspondence before lifting her head to meet her husband's gaze. Her expression secretive, she said, "At least not yet."
[A/N: I hope this epilogue was to your liking. Thank you so much to everyone for reading. You guys (or girls, I should say) kick major butt! I'm not completely ruling out the possibility of a sequel yet, but I can tell you that one will not appear for a very long time. There're a few story ideas that I want to try out first.]