Lady Maria Fitzwilliam was by no means living a quiet life. The mother of Albion's current Prime Minister, the grandmother of an exceptionally talented young magician and a highly sought after woman in regards to historical studies could not live without a challenge or two. She spend much of her time corresponding with her friends on the Continent, and organising old letters written by her father-in-law and husband to various other people of significance for use in biographies and historical research. However, when an occasion presented itself, Lady Maria enjoyed social outings like balls and political parties. On tonight's agenda was a dinner party hosted by her son's political party, the Progressives, in honour of the end of the war. Her grandson, Aubrey and his friends George and Caroline had been given leave from the Directorate especially for the occasion.
She had barely seen her grandson since he'd signed up for the Army all those months ago, and was delighted at having him home at Maidstone for a couple of nights. Despite her formal demeanour, she had a real affection for her only grandson.
After readying herself for the dinner party, Lady Maria started making her way to the downstairs waiting room. Before descending the stairs however she heard voices coming from the hallway. Peeking over the edge of the banister at the top of the stairs she saw her grandson standing in front of the hallway mirror, tie undone and his hair not brushed properly. She was about to call him out on his appearance but before she could open her mouth a hand reached out from behind Aubrey and gripped his shoulder, causing him to spin in alarm.
Caroline Hepworth stood in half shadow, half lit by the gas lamp beside the mirror. From where she stood, Lady Maria could not see Aubrey's face, but in the reflection of the mirror, she saw a look on Caroline's face, a look she had seen once or twice before. Lady Maria had seen that exact look in Rose's eyes when Darius first brought young Rose Hannaford home to Maidstone to meet her and her late husband.
The look was one of adoration, care and love. It was a look that spoke volumes without the necessity for words. Lady Maria had been expecting this eventuality, ever since Caroline Hepworth had introduced herself to Lady Rose and had come to Maidstone for dinner all that time ago.
Caroline proceeded to grip Aubrey more firmly by the shoulders and turn him around so he faced her. She released him and turned her attention to the ends of his tie. She folded them over and slipped end over end until she had it knotted securely. She shimmied the knot up until it was nestled at the base of his throat, releasing it and letting her hands rest on his chest.
If Lady Maria was astonished by this, then she kept her reaction well hidden, she made not a peep, and stayed where she was, silently waiting for whatever was to develop next. What Lady Maria hadn't expected was for Caroline to pull Aubrey down into a much closer embrace. Eyes wide, Lady Maria backed away from the stair banister, unable to believe her eyes. Although such a display of affection was not altogether uncommon, it was highly unusual to see her grandson engaged thus.
Engaged. There was only one conclusion that Lady Maria could reach- Aubrey and Caroline would end up together. Somehow, someday, but they would be together.
A door opened on the other end of the upstairs hallway, several metres away from where Lady Maria was standing. Rose stepped out, adorned in a beautiful green dress. A quizzical look at Maria as she walked closer gave Lady Maria the incentive to take one more peek over the railing, only to see that Caroline and Aubrey had released each other. His hair suspiciously having arranged itself whilst she wasn't looking.
Rose came alongside her mother-in-law and peered over the railing as well, announcing their presence to the couple below. They had, by then, managed to put several feet of space between them, with only Lady Maria's knowledge that they had ever embraced at all.
When everybody was ready, they took the Oakleigh Nash to the large hall where the dinner was being held. After Sir Darius helped Lady Rose and Lady Maria out of the car, Lady Maria turned and watched as Aubrey helped Caroline alight the vehicle. Knowing Caroline's stance on women's suffrage and being self-governed, Lady Maria was surprised to see Caroline accepting Aubrey's help in getting out of the car.
Over the course of the evening, it became clearer and clearer to Lady Maria that Aubrey and Caroline were rather comfortable with each other. Seated next to each other at dinner, they spent the evening agog with one another. Even Aubrey's life long friend, George spent the evening enraptured with his own lady friend, a young Gallian lady heavily involved with journalism and magic, a fine addition to the group of friends.
When the dinner concluded and the dancing began, Lady Maria found herself sitting by her peers, other women of the same generation, content to sit on the sidelines of the ballroom watching the couple twirl around. Lady Rose was being swept around the dance floor by Sir Darius, George was over in a corner with his friend Sophie Delroy, heads close together in apparent earnest discussion and Aubrey was standing close to Caroline, seeming to be engaged in non verbal communication with her.
The current song ended, and the band started a jazzier number, Lady Maria kept her gaze on Aubrey and Caroline, and allowed a small smirk to grace her features when Aubrey's hand went up, clearly asking her for a dance. Caroline had consented and the two joined the multitude of couples on the floor. They twirled and moved around the floor gracefully, putting other dancers to shame as they moved to the music.
It could have been several minutes, or several hours later, but when the evening ended it was organised that Caroline, George and Sophie would spend the evening at Maidstone as they would all be going from there to Belville in Gallia the following afternoon.
Early the next morning, before breakfast, Lady Maria beckoned Aubrey into her sitting room, the one that overlooked the vast lawn of Maidstone. She had spend much of the night mulling over various possibilities, and decided that the best course of action was one that was direct, and most likely to lead to a positive outcome. She had taken a small velvet box out of her personal safe and had it ready on her small table beside her chair.
Aubrey was looking decidedly baffled at his grandmother's actions, normally he was the one requesting an audience with her, usually seeking advice. She gestured for him to sit in the other seat and poured him a cup of tea. Lady Maria decided that she would not allow any awkwardness into the conversation and began brusquely by handing him the small box without a word. She waiting for him to open it before speaking.
Pulling out the dainty gold band, Aubrey held it up to the light, watching the sun glint off the ring. His mouth was open, unsure as the reason behind being given the ring. He turned to his grandmother in confusion.
'It's an engagement ring,' she said simply. 'And it's for Caroline.'
Aubrey's jaw dropped even further as her words sunk in.
'Now I don't know whether either of you are ready to make that commitment, but your time together with your missions has brought you both close together. You're much closer, more comfortable around each other, even dancing yesterday evening made it obvious. You two danced much the same as your parents do, close together and devoted to one another.'
Aubrey replaced the ring in the box, and placed it on the table between them.
'I haven't asked Mrs Hepworth's permission yet.' he spluttered.
'Well,' Lady Maria said slowly. 'You have until midday to do so before we leave for Gallia. I suggest that you hop to it.'
The two shared a grin and Aubrey stood, stooped to kiss his grandmother's cheek and give her a hug. She pushed the box into his hand and gave him a proud smile before pushing him towards the door.
Soon after breakfast Aubrey was on his way to the Hepworth's city flat where Ophelia Hepworth had been working non-stop for a few weeks on paintings for her next exhibition. Ophelia had welcomed Lady Rose's suggestion that Caroline spend the couple of days at Maidstone before heading to Gallia. Straightening his jacket before knocking, Aubrey cleared his throat nervously, still coming to terms with what he was about to do.
The magnificent Ophelia Hepworth opened the door and greeted him warmly, welcoming him in. she was wearing her painting dress, a dark blue one with countless splatters of paint adorning it. She sat him down in the parlour and poured him a cup of tea. Aubrey knew she was waiting for him to explain his reason for his visit, taking the initiative, he bit what ever bullet was heading his way
'Mrs Hepworth, ' he began shakily. 'I know my visit is unexpected, but I wanted to ask you something important, and I felt it would be best to do so before we all left for the signing of the Treaty in Belville.' He paused to swallow before continuing. 'I wanted to ask you for your permission and blessing to ask for Caroline's hand in marriage.'
It was as if every molecule of air had been sucked out of the room. The words had come out of Aubrey's mouth, and he could not ever get them back, not that he really wanted to. Mrs Hepworth's jaw had dropped, she carefully placed her cup back on the table and turned to Aubrey, until they met eye to eye. Closing her gaping mouth, she let the sides of her mouth turn into a smile that was much like Caroline's.
'I have two things to say about this. Firstly, I know that if Lionel were here, you would be forced to confront the both us, but as the world is the way it is, you were forced to ask only me, so as representative of the entire Hepworth family, I give you our permission and blessing to marry our daughter.' She paused and leant over the grip his hand her smile widening. 'And secondly, what have I said about calling me "Mrs. Hepworth"?'
Aubrey allowed himself to grin in return.
'Actually, since you're going to be by future son-in-law, you probably won't even call me Ophelia; "other-mother" may be an appropriate term.' Aubrey looked up in shock to see Ophelia doing her best not to laugh. He joined in and closed his eyes, grateful that he was still alive.
Aubrey's nervousness hadn't come from family stories about the horrors of future in-laws, it had come from a novel George had lent him. Along with Nurse Lily's Adventures, George had also leant him a book titled "Frankenstein Families" a book filled with seemingly normal families that turned deadly whenever potential suitors came along attempting to woo the daughters of the dysfunctional families. Tales of overly protective fathers with a multitude of magical spells to hideously disfigure the men, mothers who would stop at nothing to protect their daughters. They were the things of nightmares for a fifteen year old boy.
Ophelia stood and left the room for a moment, coming back with a small parcel. She handed it to him and asked him to deliver it to Caroline before they left for Gallia. He promised he would deliver it directly and turned to go. A hand on his arm made him pause.
'It may sound strange, but I knew from the moment I met you, that one day you and Caroline would be together. You two are so alike, yet so different. You're both incredibly stubborn, ambitious and intelligent and you're both good hearted. As a mother, I know you will take good care of my daughter, I know you will love her, cherish her and you will be her equal in all ways. So in all truthfulness and honesty, I give you all my blessings and luck.'
Aubrey nodded seriously and smiled at the woman who would hopefully one day be his mother-in-law.
Caroline didn't raise the issue as to why he had visited her mother, and accepted the small parcel without a word, opening it in front of him, George and Sophie. It was a small bracelet with the words "Forever my heart" engraved in small cursive letters next to the clasp. Aubrey helped he put it on, and as he did so, he did his best not to look at her fingers, instead focussing his entire attention to the job at hand- getting the tiny clasp around the even tinier end loop.
When he finally got the bracelet on her wrist properly he straightened and smiled at her, receiving one in return. George pulled Sophie up and announced that they were going to bring their baggage down early. They left the room, leaving Caroline and Aubrey alone.
The second the door closed Caroline attacked him.
It wasn't an altogether unpleasant experience, just unexpected.
A few minutes (or was it hours?) later, Aubrey found himself squashed into the backseat of the car, squished between Caroline and the side door. This too wasn't necessarily unpleasant, but it wasn't overly comfortable. Not that he'd ever complain of course.
It was organised that the Albion party would be taking an dirigible to Lutetia, and Aubrey, George, Caroline and Sophie would be there as official aids and representatives for the Security Intelligence Directorate, under the direction of Commanders Craddock and Tallis.
Aubrey looked over the Finley Moor Airfield as the new dirigible came into view. He had to suppress a grin, his last trip on a dirigible nearly culminated in an important discussion between him and Caroline, although it was interrupted by a bird feather.
He peeked a glance at the young woman next to him, his heart racing as their eyes meet. The velvet box was currently in his bag, but he knew that he would keep it on him during the actual treaty, just in case the right moment presented itself.
Her hand snuck into his and their fingers intertwined. She really did have beautiful hands. Caroline let her head droop onto his shoulder and wriggled closer to him.
As the Albion party boarded the dirigible, they were shown their bunk rooms and advised that it would be just under half and hour until everything would be ready for take off. Caroline and Sophie had excused themselves and went to set up their bunk room, and George had been invited to meet the chefs in the Galley, much to his excitement. Craddock and Tallis also excused themselves, they had last minute details to attend to before reaching Lutetia. This left Aubrey with his parents who were content with being currently unemployed. He asked if he could have speak with them in private in one of the smaller board rooms, and ensuring he had the boxed ring stowed in his pocket, he followed his father into the closest meeting room.
His parents too were delighted with the possibility of Aubrey proposing. His mother was a little concerned about them being too young, but understood the feeling that with the war over, life was there to live, and to make the most of. His father said little but the light in his eyes, and the upturned stance of his lips suggested he was pleased. A clasp of hands, a hug from his mother and a proud pat on the back, and Aubrey knew he had managed to get his parent's approval.
His parents left the room, and Aubrey let out a deep sigh of relief. He had been confronted by his grandmother, asked for Mrs Hepworth's (Ophelia!) permission and blessing to ask Caroline to marry him, and he had gotten the approval from his parents. It was too much for one day. There was no way he could gather up enough courage to ask her yet.
Aubrey walked back to his cabin. Thankfully he had informed George of his intentions after meeting his grandmother, and upon receiving a clap on the back and a loud whoop, Aubrey knew his friend approved.
He opened the door to his cabin and came face to face with Caroline. He took a step back and blinked twice.
'Did I go to the wrong room?' he asked.
'No.' was Caroline's simple answer. ' we finished unpacking so Sophie went and joined George in the galley and I couldn't be bothered hanging around doing nothing, so here I am.'
She took a few quick steps forward and attacked him again. This time, however he was expecting it, and retaliated effectively.