"The music room is through here," Blair said to the taller woman. She quickened her pace. The quicker she spoke to Marcus, the sooner she would return to her husband and her son. Halfway down the hall, she faltered in her step.
"What is it?" Serena asked in concern.
Blair turned around and looked up at the young woman whom she had been told was her friend. She could not remember the day they met, or the days they spent together. But the look that Serena gave her was recognizable. And so she admitted, "I am reluctant to go and end it with Lord Marcus."
Serena maintained her neutral expression. "Do you have to end it?"
"Chuck cannot want his wife to be so involved with another man."
"Would you ever want the earl over my brother?" Serena said softly.
Blair glared at Serena as if the blonde had gone daft. "That is preposterous!"
"You did say Lord Pembroke was a wonderful man," Serena reminded her.
"Who would choose Marcus Beaton when she has Chuck Bass?" Blair replied, matter-of-factly. Serena grinned. Blair sighed. "I would not be here if it were not for Marcus Beaton," she managed. "And Lady Emma—she is absolutely delightful. I have fallen in love with her."
"You do not have to cut them out of your life to be with Chuck," Serena advised.
Blair worried her lower lip. And then she took a deep breath, then decided, "I'm sorry. I thought I wanted someone else in the room," she began.
"Of course," Serena interjected. "Speak to them alone."
Blair started to turn, but Serena caught her hand. "Blair," Serena told her, "thank you for coming home." Blair found herself wrapped in Serena's arms. Serena placed a kiss on each of her cheeks.
And so it was that Serena stayed outside the music room while her friend entered. "Good luck, B."
Blair stopped before closing the door behind her, then gave Serena a smile. "B? I like that." And then she closed the door.
She turned around to see Emma sitting in front of the piano, with Lord Marcus standing by the window, looking out as sunlight streamed in, leaving him as a silhouette to her eyes. If it were another life, and she was not Blair who had after one kiss been forever entwined with her husband, she would think this the perfect portrait of a family that she would love to have. Emma ran her fingers over the keys, then pressed one, two, then several in a high note that held. Blair had taught her once that one did not hold a note so long unless there would be lyrics afterwards. Music told a story, and the words merely served to impart a narrative.
The sound that came next was sad, haunting as it floated towards Blair. Upon hearing his niece play, Marcus turned around. When he did, he spotted her, and his lips parted.
Emma noticed the change, and she looked up. At once, she cried, "Beatrice!" Emma pushed out her stool and ran towards Blair, then wrapped her arms tightly around her beloved teacher.
"Emma," Blair greeted, and gave the girl as fierce an embrace that she received. "I'm so happy to see you."
"We were so worried!" the girl exclaimed. Emma's gaze fell on Blair's only slightly rounded belly. "What happened to your baby?" Emma gasped.
"You gave birth," Marcus stated. Blair glanced up, and knew, from the way he looked at her, that he had found out. "Here in Hartington."
"I did," she said with a smile. She had not expected the earl to look so sad, and so she turned her attention to the beaming girl in front of her. "You would like him, Emma."
"Oh I would love him!" Emma vowed.
"I named him Charlie," Blair said softly, and she noticed Marcus look away.
"Like Lord Charles?" the girl inquired. Blair nodded. "Because he helped you? Tell me he did. I wish I were here with you." And Blair remembered the times when Emma stopped playing their lesson and leaned over to whisper to her child.
"I know, darling." Blair pushed the girl's hair away from her face, and tucked a lock behind her ear. "But you can meet him now."
"Will you come home with us now, Beatrice?"
"Emma," Marcus called, his voice firm, "she cannot come with us."
Blair took the girl's hand, then shook her head at Marcus. Whatever had displeased him, it should not affect a child—never. "Emma, I will be staying here with Lord Hartington," she told the girl gently. "But I will visit you when I can. And you are free to visit with me as well."
"I thought you would be going home to France," Emma uttered. "Why can you not come with us if you are staying here anyway?"
Blair gave Emma a smile, and said, "Because my lord has found me."
Emma's eyes widened. "He did?"
"My name is Blair," she shared, "and Lord Charles is Charlie's father, my husband."
Emma's eyes narrowed. "I knew there was something odd about the marquis, the way he looked at you. I was very suspicious." She turned to look at her uncle. "You brought him home."
Blair walked over to Marcus and extended a hand. "I wish to thank you, my lord. Were it not for you, I would have died. If not for you, my husband would still be mourning me."
He placed a kiss on the proffered hand, then squeezed it in his hands. "And now you're happy?" Marcus inquired.
She beamed. "I am in heaven."
"Good," Marcus capitulated, his voice gruff. "That is all I could ever wish for you, Beat—Blair."
Outside the music room, Serena started at the noise coming from down the hallway, from the door. She rose, and remembered those last three times that such ruckus happened. First, it had been Vanessa, the waitress from the pub that Nathaniel had married. Second, it was Daniel arriving with news of Chuck's great escape with Nathaniel's intended. And last, and most horrid of all, was when Daniel arrived bleeding and near dead from a gunshot wound, on the night they all believed Blair to have perished.
She lifted her shirts and run towards the doorway.
And there he was, standing outside, on his crutches. A slight drizzle had started, and she saw his coat darkening with moisture.
"Serena!" he cried.
"You are going to catch a cold," she exclaimed, despite her new commitment to think not of Daniel foremost. And then Serena launched herself out into the light rain and then helped him inside the house. "What are you doing? How did you even get here?"
"I hired a hackney," he gasped. The man had charged him more than a month's worth of his salary with the duke. Given that he was now out of work, it was fortune. But he hoped to heaven it would be worth it. "I needed to be here."
And then she pulled away, her hair moist and lightly matted to her head. Serena looked down at lover as he collapsed into a chair. "Why?" she challenged.
Daniel leaned his crutches against the wall. He took a deep breath. "You wanted me to take a chance."
Her heart melted, because he looked so exhausted. All she wanted now was to take him in her arms. She wanted to take care of him. Instead, she said, "And are you ready to do it?"
Daniel set his jaw, then stood up. He did not reach for his crutches. Serena almost jumped towards him, but he waved her away. He limped towards the parlor, showing her how oddly he moved, how awkward he walked now. He glanced at her, and seemed to assess her reaction. He saw nothing but concern. He opened the door, and Serena followed close behind.
For the first time in his life, he sounded firm when he addressed his former employer. "Your grace, I would formally ask for Serena's hand in marriage."
Bartholomew, holding his grandson in his arms, growled at the interruption. He had only just been marveling at the small toes that were so soft against his nose. He recognized the man who had burst into the room. "Daniel Humphrey?"
Daniel almost buckled. "Yes, your grace."
"How do you propose to support her? She's an heiress, and you are unemployed."
"Your grace," Serena blurted.
Lilly held up her hand for silence. Serena turned angry eyes at her mother, but noticed the slight smile on her lips. Serena walked over to the duchess and waited.
Chuck walked over to his father so that he could take his son. Daniel noticed the child that the marquis now held, and appeared confused. But he focused on the duke instead.
"All you do now, if I hear correctly from your contemporaries in my house, is brood and drink in the pub."
"I was distraught, your grace. But I will work. I will take as many hours as I can. I will find work and work for days on end to support Serena." He took a deep breath. "And I know I cannot give her any of the luxuries that the gentlemen of the ton can give her." Serena's heart went out to him. "My body is broken and I have no fortune. But they cannot afford what I can give her—a love as great as what is here." He turned to Serena, who now stood beside Lilly, clutching the duchess' hand. "I know I have been unforgivable. But I am asking you for a miracle, Serena."
The duke turned to his stepdaughter. "Serena?"
Serena nodded, and tears fell from her eyes. "It's about time," she choked. And then she flew to the secretary's arms. "I hope this would be worth the wait."
Daniel wrapped his arms tightly around Serena.
At that moment, the door opened and Blair walked in with Emma in hand, and Marcus following closely behind.
Daniel released his new fiancé and stared at the ghost. "My lady?" he choked. The last time he had seen her he had been bleeding at the side of the road while she was dragged away against her will. And everyone had just known she was dead. He had carried the burden of having been unable to save her, all this time, as he battled with his own injury.
She turned around, and saw the man standing close to her friend. When Blair cocked her head in a sign that she did not know him, Serena added, "Blair, my fiancé Daniel. He was your escort that night."
"Oh." Her eyes flickered to his leg. "Chuck told me about your leg. I'm sorry."
Daniel shook his head. "It matters not. You are alive, my lady."
Blair stepped close, and placed a kiss on his cheek. "I know you tried." And then she turned in search of Charlie. At the sight of her husband holding her son, Blair broke into a smile. "Come along, Emma," Blair invited. "Lord Marcus."
Chuck walked towards them, and gave his wife a kiss. "Lady Emma," he greeted, "this is Charlie."
Emma grinned and greeted. "Allo, Lord Charlie. I'm your auntie Emma." She turned to smile up at his uncle. "And that frowning gentleman is Lord Marcus Beaton. If your father didn't come, he would have been your daddy."
Marcus coughed. Chuck handed the baby to Blair, then turned to Marcus. "Come, my lord. I have a snifter of fine brandy that we can share." He looked over at his secretary, who was still wrapped up in his stepsister. "Humphrey, join us. Let us toast your engagement."
Daniel shook his head. "I am endeavoring to stop drinking, my lord. I am to be married, and will need to be sober looking for a job."
"Drink some," the duke advised. "You did not think I would not give my son-in-law a proper, promising career?"
The hour men left the parlor to retreat to the Chuck's study, leaving the women with Charlie. Blair settled onto the settee with her son as the ladies moved to different seats in the room. The door opened and in walked Chuck. "What is it, my love?" asked Blair.
Chuck smirked. "The ladies in the parlor. The men in the study," he informed her, then bent to take Charlie from her. "No smoking. I promise."
Blair returned with a smile, "I like the sound of the word."
He dropped a kiss on her lips. "Promise?"
"Grand-mère," she called softly to the older woman sitting in the center of the small garden.
It had been a promise that Chuck had committed to when she first woke up with the memory of her Parisian home. Blair had risen one day and taken her son in her arms, smelled his skin, buried her nose in his hair. He sat up in bed and found his wife holding on to their son with tear-filled eyes.
"Maman," she had told him sadly. "I do not know how she is."
"Blair," he said carefully, uncertain now of how much she remembered, what was part of her dream. Part of him then had not wanted to remind her, but when she returned to him he had promised himself he would never hide any of their past—be it a good memory or not. He had learned it the harshest way possible. The past can threaten forever. "You bear ill feelings towards her."
She blinked up at him through a liquid sheen. "I will die if I ever woke and had no knowledge of Charlie." Blair closed her eyes and breathed in her baby's scent. "She had only ever wanted to be rid of me," she recalled. "But do you think there could be any other reason, for a mother to commit her daughter to a stranger so quickly?"
"I will not presume to understand what goes on in Eleanor Rose's head," he informed Blair. And then, because she needed it, he asked, "Do you wish to go?"
She had nodded. If it were true, that it was nothing but whimsy on the part of Eleanor that wished her only daughter married and away, then Blair at least wanted to move forward with her life knowing that she had reached out to her mother. And so they waited until Charlie was a full year old to take him across the Channel. It was the first long trip that her son would do, and Blair could think of no better purpose than to show her mother what she had become since the day that Eleanor Rose decided to give her hand to a stranger.
"Grand-mère," she repeated into the garden air.
Eleanor Rose slowly turned around, displeased at the disturbance. At the sight that greeted her, she stood abruptly and crossed herself. "Mon Dieu!" she gasped.
Chuck stepped forward and laid a hand on Blair's shoulder as a silent sign of his support. It was more for his wife than for the old woman, because Blair needed his presence there. "Lady Rose." He noted the black gown. When he had asked about Eleanor Rose the day before, when they touched land, he had received the image of a woman in mourning for nigh on a year. He wondered now if it were for news of Blair, or if it were for the bastard Aaron Rose. With a voice neutral, he said, "We have come to visit you with our son."
Eleanor's gaze flitted to Chuck, then back at the young woman who stood with him. She noted the young boy they brought with them. Eleanor shook her head. "My daughter," she breathed. "They told me you were dead. More than a year ago, they told me you had died. My heart was so broken."
"And then Lord Charles sent word that he had found you. But I knew you would never forgive me."
And it was with an unadulterated joy that his heart rose. At the very least, Eleanor Rose should grieve for a daughter who had always felt her mother push her away.
"I'm here, maman," Blair returned, her tears rising at the utter grief in her mother's voice. Never in her life had she imagined that her mother would mourn her like this, for this long. Then again, if anything happened to her son, Blair feared she would go mad. "I've come to show you my son. He's a beautiful strong boy."
Eleanor stumbled towards the small family. She stopped in front of her daughter, and drew Blair into her embrace. "My daughter. My lovely daughter." She covered her mouth with her hand. "I'm so sorry!"
Blair shook her head. "It is all well, maman. If not for you, I would have never married my lord. And I am happiest with him than I have ever been."
Eleanor turned to Chuck, then pulled the marquis into her arms as well. "Thank you, my lord, for bringing my daughter to me."
"It was Blair who wanted to see you, madame," Chuck replied. "And I would do anything that she wished." His voice brooked no doubts. His family was in France of his wife's choosing, not from some misplaced loyalty of sympathy for Lady Rose.
The old woman then turned and then hesitantly reached for Charlie. "Comment s'appelle-t-il?"
"Il s'apelle Charlie, maman. Il est mon fils," Blair said, the pride in her voice apparent.
Chuck restrained himself from taking the boy away, because Eleanor appeared to find such pleasure in his heir. "He is the image of your husband," Eleanor noted. "Not one drop of Waldorf in this one."
"Maman—" Blair started. She had lived her life under veiled criticism, and her son would never suffer through it.
Eleanor smiled. "He is beautiful." She placed a kiss on the child's forehead.
"Ganma," Charlie cooed, then reached for Eleanor's earring.
"What did he say?"
Chuck laughed. "He calls the duchess grandma."
"Oh!" Eleanor chortled in delight. "Oui, bébé. Je suis grand-mère. Et je t'aime plus que tout!" Blair's mother carried the baby into the house, leaving the couple in the garden. Blair watched as her mother lifted her son high up in the air, sending Charlie squealing in the air.
"Maman, non," Blair gasped.
"Oh but my grandson is a big brave boy, is he not?" Eleanor said in a fascinated manner.
Blair gave Chuck a smirk. "Did I not just win our little bet? My mother would ignore me after a good twenty minutes."
"You were at an unfair disadvantage, up against Charlie. Even my father cannot deny him. I wonder if Charlie would have the duke still wrapped around his little finger when the little Humphrey is born." And then he shook his head, an arrogant smirk on his lips. "No. Charlie would still have his grace under his tiny thumb."
She grinned playfully at her husband. "Yet there are moments when I win favor over Charlie," she teased.
"Only with me," he said, his voice dropping. "But you did win this bet, my love." Chuck pressed his body against hers.
"What did I win?" she said into his ear.
"I hope your old room is still free," he whispered. "Perhaps grand- mere will take Charlie for the night, and I can show you a proper Parisian night."
Blair's lips curved. "I can arrange that."
"It will be even better than our Tuscan nights," he said, his lips moving against the shell of her ear.
She shivered, because the memories of Tuscany had slowly returned to her over the months, and she had told him about a particularly delicious dream on the rooftop of the villa, overlooking Florence, with the stars emblazoned above them. "Do you promise?" she gasped, her body reacting to his voice.
"Always have, Blair." he told her. "I always will."
Thank you, once again. It has been a lovely experience.