Disclaimer: Candy Candy and all characters belong to Kyoko Mizuki, images to Yumiko Igarashi and anime to Toei Animation.

Note: I've finally caught up to publish this chapter around the right time! Yeah! As you can tell from the title, it's about Candy's 18th birthday on May 7, 1916, which was supposed to be a Sunday. To give you an idea, Easter Monday that year was April 24. As a result, I've skipped a few months by doing this, so expect several flashbacks in this lengthy chapter. I hope I haven't missed anything important or made any obvious mistake, but if you think I have, please kindly let me know. Ok? Thank you. Please enjoy.

-Ms Puddle

Chapter 44: Birthday

"... Cinderella's stepmother would not let her try the slipper on, but the prince saw her and said, 'Let her also try on the slipper!' The slipper fit her perfectly. The prince suddenly recognized her from the ball. He decided to marry Cinderella and together they lived happily ever after," Candy paused here and glanced at the young girl beside her. Then with a soft sigh, Candy intoned, "The end."

The girl, called Emily, was merely four years old, but she had been born crippled. According to Miss Pony, Emily's parents had left a note with the sleeping girl in a cart one month before Christmas, saying that they could no longer afford to raise a child with disabilities. That was why Candy hadn't met Emily last summer, and because Emily couldn't run around like the other children, Candy was particularly fond of this little girl and felt like giving her more attention.

Today, Emily had been bed-resting for she wasn't feeling well. Candy had just given the young girl the last dose of medicine for the day, and Candy was hoping Emily could fall asleep so that Candy could help her foster mothers clean up. Besides, her mind was miles away now, daydreaming about what was going to happen tomorrow.

"Candy, can you read one more story please?" begged Emily, her brown eyes regarding Candy's longingly.

But Candy shook her head in a disapproving manner. "I've read three stories already, honey, and that's enough for tonight. Look, you can barely keep your eyes open."

"But you're leaving tomorrow..." her voice trailed off sadly.

Candy nodded slowly, then replied, striving her best not to sound too happy, "Yes, my fiancé will come in the morning to pick me up, and I will return to Chicago with him later."

At the thought of seeing Albert again very soon, Candy's heart pounded with excitement. It had been her secret wish that he could spend some time with her on her birthday, and her dream had come true. As a matter of fact, in early April, Albert and George had decided to embark on a business venture. Not only they would attend a very important business conference in New York city around Easter, but they would also meet with various existing and potential partners in Boston and New York. Albert had estimated the whole trip would span a month or even longer, which meant that he probably wouldn't be able to come back for Candy's birthday. Hence, he had invited her to go with him, but she had cordially declined. First, as Aunt Elroy had pointed out, Candy should stay in town and get ready for the upcoming wedding. Moreover, Candy had wanted to take this chance to keep her foster mothers company for a short period of time before she got married. Hence, as soon as Candy had finished whatever Aunt Elroy had assigned, Jack Frost had driven Candy all the way to Pony's Home because Aunt Elroy had refused to let Candy take the train herself. However, the day after Candy had arrived safely, she had sent her bodyguard back, saying, "Jack Frost, if Madam Elroy asks you why, just tell her that it's my order."

Two weeks had gone by so quickly, and Candy had received a letter from Albert few days ago that he could return to Chicago earlier than planned, so he would personally come to take her back home. They would stop by Lakewood first to meet with Anthony's father there, whom Albert had run into during his trip to New York. Candy was looking forward to meeting Mr. Vincent Brown in person because Albert had told her a lot about the love story between Mr. Brown and Rosemary.

"I remember him," said Emily a moment later, sounding a little less upset. Her young voice shook Candy out of her train of thoughts, so Candy brought her focus back to the small, pale face. As Candy smiled, Emily added, "Mr. Ardlay uses a wheelchair just like me."

Candy didn't correct Emily. Albert had been like that last time they had visited Pony's Home together on Christmas day, and knowing that Emily couldn't move around due to lack of money to buy a wheelchair, he had purchased one for her afterwards.

In short, under the care of the renowned doctors, Albert's conditions had improved so much since then. That explained why he could travel with George. He had even planned to meet with Lucas and Anna, who had been very concerned and written to Albert regularly during the past six months. If possible, Albert would like to get together with Terry too although Terry hadn't replied to his letter. At this point, someone unexpectedly tapped on Candy's shoulder, which made her jump. She spun around and saw Sister Lane smiling at them both, saying, "Candy, Miss Pony is still reading to the kids, but she reckons it's time for you to pack your belongings, so let me take care of Emily."

Emily grumbled a bit but her face broke into a smile after Candy gave her a goodnight kiss. As Candy pulled herself up to her full height, she hugged Sister Lane as well, "Good night to you too."

"Candy, wait," uttered Sister Lane, putting a hand on the blond girl's shoulder. "Miss Pony told me that you would not attend the Sunday Mass with us tomorrow, right?"

The blond girl nodded apologetically, and almost right away Sister Lane said with an understanding smile, "We know your schedule is packed tomorrow, so in case we will miss Mr. Ardlay-"

Upon hearing that, Candy's brows swiftly furrowed, and she said, "Please, Sister Lane, you know Albert doesn't want you to address him so formally."

The nun's countenance contorted into one filled with humble appreciation. She explained, "You know, Candy, I just can't help it, and neither can Miss Pony. We feel indebted to him forever because we can never repay his kindness and generosity to us and the orphanage."

Candy sighed in resignation. She remembered their stunned and tearful reaction on Christmas Day when Mr. Cartwright had announced that the land had been sold to Sir William Ardlay, and the new owner had already hired people to renovate and extend the orphanage starting in January. In fact, Candy herself had been greatly astonished, and she had to question Albert in private afterwards why he had kept that from her. He had dodged her question by a straightforward answer, "Candy, I care about what you care about, and I'll do anything to make you happy. You know that, don't you?"

Of course Candy had swallowed the other question in her mind, but you said you were planning to break up with me... Instead, she had thrown her arms around him, burrowing her face in his chest and declaring, "Albert, you're the best thing that ever happened to me! We owe you a debt of gratitude for all you have done for the orphanage."

Presently, Candy implored nonetheless, "But please, Sister Lane, just call him Albert or else he'll be upset."

When Sister Lane nodded with reluctance, lowering herself down on the chair, Candy flashed her a smile and went back to her bedroom, which used to be the office. After the renovation, the old office had been transformed into a bedroom for visitors, and the new office was now more spacious with wide windows that allowed more sunlight to filter into the room.

Oblivious to her foster mothers, Candy had already packed most of her stuff, but Candy wanted to have some quiet time to herself, possibly jotting down her thoughts. Writing always helped her sort out her thoughts, and currently she had plenty to sort out. The pressure of wedding planning was really starting to take its toll on her, including getting the bridal gown and accessories ready, attending the formal training by Aunt Elroy, working on the guest lists, etc. Though Aunt Elroy, Annie and Patty would handle the rest such as decorating the wedding venue and organizing the dance reception at the Lakewood Villa, Candy still felt stressful. Two weeks of escape to Pony's Home had helped ease her tension, but not as much as she had hoped. In fact, the thought of just eloping with Albert had crossed her mind more than once.

She breathed out a deep sigh, sat down by the desk, opened her journal and got a pen ready. However, rather than organizing her thoughts, she flipped through the pages and suddenly felt like skimming through what she had written lately:

...

It was the first appointment after Christmas, and the doctors were highly pleased at Albert's progress. They encouraged him to focus on re-learning how to use his legs. Other than adhering to the daily exercise regimen to strengthen his muscles, Albert should also trust that he would be able to walk one day.

...

His hard work finally paid off. Tonight, after dinner, Albert demonstrated to his aunt and nephews how he could hoist himself up from his chair and stand for as long as his tottering legs would support him before he had to hold onto something to stabilize himself. Aunt Elroy burst into tears, and when her nephew sat back down, with shaky hands she held his and asked him whether she was dreaming. As he affirmed he was recovering, both Archie and Stear went to hug their uncle and expressed their most sincere congratulations with moist eyes. Aunt Elroy then announced that she would pick a day to celebrate in a cozy setting; she considered this achievement a major breakthrough in her nephew's recuperation.

Stear approached me later and whispered with excitement, "I knew this day would come! I have invented something just for Albert!" Stear had to lower his voice lest Aunt Elroy heard him. After all, he was supposed to call him Uncle William, not Albert. To this day, Stear still found it unfathomable that Albert had actually been the powerful family head in disguise. Stear had told us months ago how he had suspected Albert's true identity before by linking him with Anthony.

So I asked Stear with a curious smile, "What is it?" The smart inventor just grinned, winking too. "You'll know soon."

That reminds me, Albert was to present a gift to me from his aunt during the celebration. I wonder, what does Aunt Elroy have for me? Why had she given it to Albert and asked him to pass it to me?

Talking about her, I must say that my relationship with her has improved dramatically ever since her heart attack incident in the hospital, her wake-up call as she has called it. Initially, it was awkward for both of us, and yet, we shared a common goal - to support her nephew in every way we could. Hence, to give him one fewer thing to worry about, we have learned to get along. By now, I am no longer nervous around her even though she is still somber and stern most of the times when it comes to proprieties and rules in the house.

Aunt Elroy wanted to buy Albert an antique cane from the Victorian Era, and she asked me to select one from the antique store she frequented. I then learned that walking sticks of this era had been used as a measure of social status, wealth, and power. Therefore, they were decorated with meticulous designs, jewels, gold, silver, porcelain, glass, and other precious materials. Aunt Elroy also told me that one of their ancestors had used a cane made entirely of ivory with a solid gold handle. The cane was now stored in their villa in Scotland.

After browsing the selection, I decided not to pick the fancy ones, especially those with jewels. It wasn't Albert's taste, so I found a modest looking cane with a silver-plated Eagle handle. The cane itself was made with stylish black hardwood.

With watery eyes, Albert received presents from us during the celebration. After thanking his aunt, he turned to me and said that he liked my choice. Then I showed him my gifts. I bought a men's swimsuit with a tank top and a women's bathing suit with matching design. Then I said, "I'm so looking forward to swimming in the lake with you." Everyone broke out in laughter and applause. They all knew that he used to be a capable swimmer.

Next, it was Stear's turn to present his invention. It was a walker made of lightweight metal, which could later be taken apart to transform into a pair of sturdy crutches. Archie, Annie and Patty gave Albert a brand new horse riding suit, hat, and long boots. "This is the latest style," said Archie with pride. "One day we will all go horse riding!"

I felt a thud in my gut. Anthony's accident flashed across my mind, and right at that instant someone clasped my hand in his. I knew who he was. Who else could read me like a book? I looked up and gazed into his blue eyes with appreciation. Then Albert returned a tender smile and squeezed my hand. As I nodded, he openly expressed his deepest gratitude to me. Tears flooded my eyes within seconds, and I promptly spoke up, "They are tears of joy!"

He rounded his arm around my shoulder, pulled me closer to him and continued his speech to voice his appreciation to the rest of us. I didn't quite remember his exact wordings, but what he said touched each one of us, including Aunt Elroy. She could no longer keep her stoic expression. Tears streamed freely down her wrinkled cheeks though she tried to cover them with her handkerchief.

After all these, Albert handed a damascened jewelry box to me, and I couldn't believe my eyes. It was a large box well decorated with plenty of jewels and mother of pearls. According to Aunt Elroy, Albert's mother was the previous owner, and it had been passed down in their family for generations. I blurted out the first thought that came to me, "I'm not the right person to own such a beautiful and valuable jewelry box!"

As Albert laughed in response, his aunt pointed out, sounding more assertive, "Candice, don't you understand it's a cherished family heirloom for the rightful matriarch?"

At that, Archie and Stear whistled, but it took me a moment before I could register what she alluded to. It was the first time she mentioned that grand word to me, and she further explained the significance of my future role in the clan. While Aunt Elroy was talking, anxiety bubbled up inside me, and the images of how she was going to educate and prepare me to be the next family matriarch appeared in my head.

Now that I think about it again, it's way more than just being Albert's wife! Oh God… this is scary! I feel so inadequate… Am I really qualified? Can I live up to her expectations?

Aunt Elroy received a lengthy letter from Raymond Leagan, and she let me read it. It revealed to us that Neil was suffering from drug addiction. They were currently seeking help from the health professionals in Miami, and Neil himself had disclosed that though he had not been caught for his wrongdoings, his guilty conscience had been haunting him since, resulting in insomnia. He had been constantly on edge, scared of every strange noise around him, even imagining being arrested or severely tortured in jail. Then one day, he had resorted to trying marijuana, to experience what some of his friends back in Chicago had been bragging about. Soon he had started abusing alcohol and drugs, and finally cocaine. His parents hadn't had the faintest idea until just recently when they had confronted Neil for lavishly spending money and even selling their properties. At the end of the letter, they also confessed that Eliza and Neil had framed me as a thief in their house years ago, and they said they had been wrong to mistreat me. 'No expense is too great when my son's health is at stake... when he is well enough to travel, we will return to Chicago to apologize. Please, Madam Elroy, we beg you on our knees to supplicate Sir Ardlay and Miss White for their forgiveness…'

I felt very disturbed after reading this letter, and I've been praying about it. I know Albert has specifically ordered to terminate their relationship with the Ardlays, but as much as I dislike the Leagans, I figure they don't deserve such hardships because of me or Albert. Besides, I think Neil has got his punishment already.

I've read from textbooks that cocaine affects the body negatively in many ways. People who use cocaine can sometimes suffer heart attacks or strokes, which may cause sudden death.

I asked Albert today when was the last time I climbed into his bed due to night terrors. He then told me that I hadn't done so since Christmas. A month had flown by, so I believed I was ready to move out. Then I showed him the letter from the Leagans and shared my perspectives with him. He was very shocked, just like me. He said he needed time to ponder upon what to do next.

Then I informed him my decision of moving back to the House of Magnolia. He wasn't surprised, but after some hesitance he said he wouldn't be able to walk up the stairs to visit me yet. Then I revealed my plan to work with Dr. Martin to eventually open a sober house for the alcoholics and possibly the drug addicts, inspired by Dr. Frank Campbell back in Mary Jane Nursing School. Albert listened quietly, and after I was done talking, he held me tight in his arms and said, "I'm proud of you, Candy, and I'll definitely support you in your new endeavor. But I'll miss you terribly as I don't think I'll be able to visit you as frequently as I want."

I nodded in understanding, He was very occupied by his work, so I suggested Albert propose to Dr. Martin again about building a new clinic for him, and Albert could either come to Happy Clinic or the new clinic to visit me anytime he liked.

He murmured with a strained smile, "You know it's not the same, Candy."

Then I remarked, "Don't worry. I'll see you every other day because I'm taking formal lessons from your aunt." I said this to comfort myself too, but without another word he held me even tighter in his arms.

...

As expected, Aunt Elroy strongly opposed to my moving back to that apartment building, but I justified, "This is the only place I'd like to reside temporarily before our wedding. The days when your nephew and I lived together, pretending to be brother and sister, were filled with laughter and happiness. There was never a harsh word between us, and our tenderness came so naturally. Unknowingly, our love for each other grew and blossomed with each passing day, so please let me stay there for the next few months."

After some more persuasion, Aunt Elroy acquiesced, but she didn't really want me to work as a nurse, even for several months. Albert beseeched on my behalf, and we all came to the conclusion that my role was to get this project started. Aunt Elroy would hire at least two nurses to help me, and I had to quit working before Easter to get ready for the wedding. In the meantime, I would continue to learn from Aunt Elroy to be a real lady at least three times a week. After Albert and I exchanged a stealthy glance, I accepted her conditions. Aunt Elroy then assigned the young maid Nancy to move in with me, and Jack Frost would continue to be my bodyguard.

...

Nancy had difficulty with my requests. She was reluctant to call me Candy or to let me help with household chores. I finally relayed to her today that I wanted to cook something special and delicious for Albert on his birthday in June. Nancy was touched, so she allowed me to help in the kitchen so that I could learn from her. Besides, Annie and Patty had bought me a thick recipe book for beginners, and Nancy agreed to explore different dishes with me so that I could improve my cooking skills.

Annie and Patty had kept their promise and come every other week to join us for dinners. They were preparing to apply University of Chicago like Archie and Stear. Tonight, Annie related to us that she wasn't very keen to study actually, but she was happy to do that with Archie. Otherwise, her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Brighton, would want her to come home to Lakewood. They thought she had stayed in Chicago long enough.

This evening, Albert came to Happy Clinic to visit me after work. Happy Clinic has been upgraded and extended. Dr. Martin now resides upstairs, and we work downstairs with two other nurses. We have a handful of patients as of today, three alcoholics and two drug addicts. Dr. Martin is looking for a partner as he still wants to take care of the poor families in this neighborhood.

The weather was warmer now; the grass was green and flowers were out in full bloom. "Spring is here, Albert!" I said with glee. "About two more months to wait!"

He nodded emphatically, working hard using his crutches to get into the car with me. I must say he had got better and stronger each day. While dining at Parkview Restaurant as usual to visit his old friends like Daniel, Albert updated me of their situations with the Leagans. His aunt had written a short letter, and Albert had signed at the bottom. He then produced it from his pocket and told me where I could sign my name, but only if I wanted to. The letter explained that the Ardlays and the Leagans would remain two separate entities, interactions were limited as before, but pardon was given. Thus, I signed the letter, and right that instant, I felt a load lifted off my heart.

When leaving the restaurant, Albert said he would want to walk home with me. "It isn't that far, so let me try, Candy."

His chauffeur would wait for his master at the House of Magnolia. An air of nostalgia swept past us as we strolled the streets at our own pace. When we reached the building entrance, Albert was sweating already, but his eyes gleamed with triumph. "Next time, I will clamber up the stairs to visit you, my love," he said with a heaving chest, wiping the happy tears on my face. It was a significant milestone for him. Our landlady had actually seen us at a distance, and she came out to congratulate us too.

Except for Annie, Patty, Stear and Archie were all accepted by the university. Annie was a little upset, but she had expected this result. She promised her parents that she would go home on a regular basis, but she would stay in Chicago to help me get ready for the wedding. What an excuse! Archie crimsoned the second he realized that we were teasing them. At any rate, all of us girls joined effort to cook for the men we loved, and we held a feast at my apartment. Albert had been able to visit me a few times by now, and we couldn't believe last time we had eaten together at the same place had been the night before I had left for New York. All of a sudden, there was only dead silence. A moment later, Annie asked, "Candy, do you still keep in touch with Terry?"

As I shook my head, Albert brought up his plan to go to New York for the long business trip. "If Terry isn't too busy, I will see if I can have dinner or lunch with him."

We read from the tabloids that Terry would play Hamlet, a major Shakespeare play by Stratford Theatre scheduled for June. They had hired a new artist to play the coveted role, Ophelia, as well. According to the magazines, she was not only very talented, but also young and dainty, just like Susanna, except that she was a brunette with green eyes. So far, for various reasons, Director Hathaway determined to keep her a mystery until the premiere, which sparked up even more speculation and anticipation.

While reading, Candy drifted off to sleep. She had had a long day helping out at the orphanage after all. The next day dawned bright, but she woke up with a sneeze. It was unusually chilly in spring. She sniffed and rubbed her nose, yawning and stretching her arms high above her head. When she finally opened her bleary eyes, she suddenly remembered it was her birthday. She checked her reflection on the mirror and found that her hair was messy, and she got creases on her face. She definitely needed a warm shower to freshen up, so she rushed to gather her clothes and dashed into the bathroom out in the hallway. Albert might be arriving any moment after breakfast because he would take her to Lakewood first.

By the time she was combing her wet curls, she heard a knock on the front door. It's too early for Albert… isn't it?

With doubts, she dressed hurriedly and went to answer the door, and there he was, standing upright with his shoulders straight and proud. He looked extraordinarily handsome today, his blue eyes shining with a luster she had never seen before. Most of all, where were his crutches or the cane, the gift from his aunt?

He could hardly blame her for looking incredulous. He had brought the cane and crutches with him for the business trip. While she was still dazed, he took a big step toward her and drew her into his arms. Needless to say, her body instantly melted in surrender as she felt his lips capture hers and his fingers entwining in her damp locks. Judging from the way their mouths crushed against the other, they had missed each other tremendously, so much so that they didn't realize that another person was nearby. The person had to cough twice to announce her presence. Instantaneously, Candy withdrew herself from Albert. This was her first time being caught by her mother. "Good morning, Miss Pony!" she uttered in embarrassment, barely catching her breath.

So did Albert. After greeting Miss Pony, he leaned down again and kissed Candy's forehead, saying to her, "Happy birthday to you, my love!"

He then explained he had arrived at Lakewood the night before. His body clock was still one hour ahead, and he couldn't wait to see Candy, so he set off way before dawn to come to Pony's Home. When Miss Pony asked him to come in for breakfast, he gratefully accepted even though he had already eaten, knowing that Candy needed something to fill her stomach. "Why do you think so, Albert?" asked Candy, slightly taken aback.

With a knowing smile, he answered, "Because you just had your shower, right?"

She stuck her tongue out at him after that, vexed to find herself blushing profusely. It only proved that he knew her habits very well. Miss Pony sighed happily and went into the kitchen to help Sister Lane.

After breakfast, when they were about to leave, Sister Lane said, "Wait, Candy! Miss Pony and I have a present for you."

Albert then responded to Candy's foster mothers, "I'm planning to bring her back here before we return to Chicago so that she can bid the children farewell."

The old ladies nodded their heads and thanked Albert for his thoughtfulness. He was always considerate. The kids were currently in bed, and it was too early to wake them up. Hence, Miss Pony said to Candy, "In this case, we will give it to you later today."

On their way out, Candy realized that Albert could walk with more ease. Although he still trudged a bit, she didn't see any pain lines creasing his face like he used to. He soon caught her anxious glances and smiled at her. "I'm fine, sweetheart. You don't need to worry about me so much anymore."

Unexpectedly, she tiptoed to kiss him on the cheek and rejoiced, "I can't be more thankful to God, Albert! I'm so happy for you!"

Before she knew it, he closed his arms around her and lifted her off the ground with a jubilant shout. She squealed in delight. That was another pleasant surprise to her. He was indeed getting back to normal.

While squeezing her tight, he whispered to her, "I was dying to see you, kiss you, and hug you!"

"I miss you too!"

Right after that, he lowered her down, leaned forward and brushed his lips against hers. Then he added, "Tell you what, I dreamt of you almost every night in the past month!"

"Same here!" she proclaimed, nodding her head up and down such that her shiny locks waved in ebbs and flows.

So he cupped her face, kissing her ardently. Just as hungry for him as he was for her, she poured all her love into her kisses, folding her arms around his neck and tangling her fingers through his blond wavy hair. However, in the heat of the passion, he broke off way too soon. Then he asked breathlessly, "How about we go up Pony's Hill now?"

"Now?" she echoed, looking utterly bewildered. "Why?"

She then recalled that he had said to her in a wistful tone on Christmas Day, "Candy, I hope one day I'll be able to go to your favorite refuge with you." Back then, Pony's Hill had been covered with thick snow, so even she hadn't gone up there.

Before she could respond, he suddenly changed his mind, "I think we'd better go up there later this afternoon. Vincent's waiting for us."

Albert's chauffeur was taking a nap in the car, and Albert woke him up. Then Albert reasoned after opening the door for Candy, "Dr. Morrison advised me not to drive long distance yet. It might strain my back and legs unnecessarily. Plus, I was tossing and turning all night, thinking of someone."

As she slid in the car, she feigned her innocence, "Poor Albert! But whom did you think of?"

He lowered his head to get inside the car to sit next to her, and he answered her question in a level tone like he was talking about someone she didn't know, "Her name is Candy."

Then he sighed and shrugged his shoulders in resignation; she threw back her head and chortled. When the chauffeur started the engine, she snuggled up to him, teasing herself, "I dozed off while reading my journal and slept by the desk all night long, and guess what? I woke up with a stiff neck!"

"Did you really?" he asked with a chuckle as he placed his arm around her, pulling her body closer to his.

She simpered, "But I felt a lot better after the shower, and of course the arrival of someone made me forget my troubles."

He grinned at her and pressed his lips to hers shortly before he uttered, "Glad to be of help."

"I want more," she mouthed her request after that, her fingers stroking his lips and her eyes boring into his longingly.

He stifled his laugh, reached out and stroked her hair and face, so she closed her eyes invitingly. She then felt his warm breath fanning her mouth for several seconds, but he moved away. When she stared at him with puzzlement later, he raised his chin to point at the driver in front of them, whispering, "Not here. Be a good girl, Candy."

She playfully thumped his chest in protest. He took her hand and raised it to his lips to kiss her knuckles one by one, and she collapsed into a fit of giggles. Then he began describing to her how he had gradually weaned himself off crutches during his business trip. Initially, he had used the cane just in case. "But after a while I discovered that I was no longer dependent on it."

They talked and talked, making up for the lost time and catching up with each other what had been happening while they had been apart. Happy time past by very fast, so when the chauffeur announced that they had arrived, they both peered out of the window with doubts.

"Come with me, Candy. I know where Vincent is going to meet us," said Albert when the chauffeur opened the door for them.

As they were sauntering towards the rose garden, holding hands together, Albert said, "Lucas and Anna said hello to you. I've invited them both to our wedding. Anna will try to make it, but Lucas isn't sure. Hamlet is coming up you know."

Candy merely nodded without saying anything. Some moments of silence later, Albert stroked her chin and questioned tenderly, "Why didn't you ask about Terry?"

She smiled and looked into his eyes. "I think if you want to tell me, you will."

A chuckle escaped his lips. "You're right."

Then he stared into a distance, trying to gather his thoughts. Yes, he had dined with Terry, who had been noticeably more mature than last time they had met. After succeeding in getting rid of his bad habits, Terry had looked stronger and much less pallid. He had even invited Albert over to his place after the dinner, recounting what had taken place in his life since Christmas. Unbeknownst to Albert, Terry had glossed over details of his intricate feelings, but here was the full version.

=o=o=o=

One cold day near the end of January, while Director Hathaway was visiting the staff in the backstage during a rehearsal, he spoke to Terry by pulling him aside, "Drop by my office tomorrow morning, Terrence. I've got a new project for you."

Hence, the next day, about five seconds after Terry had knocked on the door to the director's office, it was swung open. Director Hathaway appeared on the other side and said with obvious gladness, "Terrence, you couldn't have come at a better time! I'd like you to meet two talented people! They will be joining Stratford starting in February."

Two young attractive people, a man and a woman, then stood up from their chairs across the room. Terry believed he had met this man before. He used to work for another famous theatre in Broadway, and Terry was right. In his early twenties, Arthur had been an actor for years. Instead of renewing his contract, he had decided to switch to Stratford for a change.

After introducing Arthur, the director turned to the only lady in the office, whom Terry had never met. For unknown reason, her porcelain doll face, framed by waves of dark brown hair that passed her shoulder blades, reminded Terry of someone he had tried to forget. Her green shining eyes were just as captivating, and yet her confident gaze revealed an innocence. Terry gathered she was new to Broadway.

While shaking hands with her, Director Hathaway introduced, "Terrence, during the audition process earlier this month, all candidates brought unique perspectives and talents, but Vera was absolutely outstanding. I knew right then that I'd finally found my Ophelia."

Ophelia? Hamlet's secret love? thought Terry.

She responded by saying, a radiant smile adorning her lips, "My honor indeed, Director Hathaway."

Terry recognized her voice at once. With his eyes widened, he gaped at her for a couple of seconds before he pasted a polite smile on his face and shook hands with her. She had been the one rehearsing with him on the balcony until he had collapsed. He had found out from his mother later that the servants had been informed, and Terry had been carried into one of the kids' bedroom to rest. However, nobody could find the lady guest afterwards. She must have left the party early. Terry had surmised that she had not wanted to face the drunken old man again.

So Terry opened his mouth at last, "Welcome to Stratford, Miss Vera."

Her round eyes instantly doubled in size and her jaw dropped slightly, but she quickly regained her composure. She then said something that neither the director nor Arthur understood, "If I had known that night, I would have asked Terrence Graham for an autograph."

He chortled. She remembered his voice too. Then Director Hathaway beckoned them all to sit down. He then explained "Hamlet" was his favorite Shakespeare play other than "Romeo and Juliet", and he said, "I've been waiting for the right people for the main characters. As I said, Vera will be Ophelia. Terrence, you will be Hamlet, and Arthur will play Ophelia's brother, Laertes. I myself will play the villain, Claudius."

The director continued to talk animatedly about his grand ideas for the play. Queen Gertrude and other important characters would be finalized soon, and the director encouraged them to start memorizing their lines as soon as the scripts were ready. "Lucas is polishing them now. Also, since Vera is new, I want you both to guide her into the complex world of her character," the director said to the experienced male actors.

Unlike Terry, who could never seem to be able to mingle with others, Vera and Arthur soon gained popularity among the fellow staff members. Even Terry found himself attracted to Vera as well, not just her appearance but also her vibrant personality and endless talents. In a sense, that was an encouraging sign, which indicated that Terry's heart was healing, but at the same time he had been deliberately avoiding her outside of work, not that he had been close to her anyway. It turned out that she was his cousin's cousin, but they had never held any conversation past 'how are you' and 'fine, thank you', and neither had brought up that balcony incident again.

By the time the practice began in late March, there were rumors in the office about Arthur trying to woo Vera because he had frequently taken her home after work. Terry wasn't surprised. They looked like a couple already, and even Terry acknowledged that Arthur was a gifted actor. He made a great Laertes and brought a lot of depth to the character, which challenged Terry to put in more effort in preparation so as not to be outshone by his partner in many scenes.

One day, while Terry and Arthur were practicing the fencing match scene, Arthur accidentally wounded Terry by his sword. The blade was blunt, but its tip was still sharp. It slashed through his sleeve and scratched his forearm, and as blood was oozing from the cut, Vera dashed to Terry's side and urged, "Come, Terrence. Let me help you."

Terry was enchanted right there. There were something about her which mesmerized him at this moment. The combination of her pale skin and dark hair really brought out her exquisite features, and her sparkling eyes once again reminded Terry of Candy. Nonetheless, he quietly followed her to the first-aid corner where she could bandage him. Arthur then approached them and said in a sorrowful tone, "I should have been more careful."

But Terry shook his head in response and uttered, "It was an accident. No worries."

Later that evening, when Terry decided to go to the main studio to practice his part, he noted that he wasn't alone. He eavesdropped a conversation at the back of the stage.

"Let me go."

"You know I can't."

"But I don't love you."

After that, Terry heard nothing except some sharp intake of breath and some muffled moans. Before he knew it, his legs had taken him to the source of the noises. There they were, Vera being locked in Arthur's arms; she was desperately evading his questing mouth on hers but to no avail. Seething with rage, Terry intervened and took hold of Arthur's arm, wrenching it back forcefully. As he cried out in pain, Terry growled, "You should know better not to force a woman!"

Having said that, Terry abruptly loosened his grip, wondering, was I like that too? That I forced a kiss on Candy as well?

Arthur looked tortured and lost, like he couldn't help it. Vera diverted her eyes to the floor for a moment before she ran away and cried. Terry could only close his eyes, questioning himself why he had been so mad just now. Was he jealous or what?

A few days later, Arthur resigned from Stratford, and Director Hathaway was profoundly disappointed. He even entreated Terry to dissuade Arthur from quitting. Terry shared the same sentiments with the director. No one else in Stratford could play the supporting character as convincingly as Arthur, and with a mediocre Laertes, the play would unlikely be successful. Since Terry believed he knew Arthur's concealed reason, he invited Arthur to his place for an honest man-to-man talk. Arthur was taken aback but accepted. While drinking beers, it took Terry considerable time to articulate his arguments, but as Arthur praised him for his over-the-top performance as Hamlet, Terry could express his admiration at last, telling Arthur that his role in Hamlet was just as significant. Without him, the whole play would have lost its charm. They then went on and on chatting about their passion of acting. About an hour or so later, Arthur revealed, "I love my role too. It's the best one I've ever got assigned, but I quit because I can't face her again. How can I continue to act as her loving brother?"

"You should apologize."

"I did, but still..."

Arthur exhaled a long breath and leaned back in his seat, looking defeated. Terry continued to talk him out of his rash decision. In the end, Arthur conceded that it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. By the time he left his place, Arthur dropped a bombshell, "I sense that Vera has feelings for you, Terry. The day she bandaged your arm I realized she had never looked at me the same way she looked at you, but when I questioned her later that night, she said she wasn't sure how she felt about you. That was when I lost my cool..."

His voice faded into a rueful sigh. Without waiting for Terry to respond, Arthur spun around, opened the door and walked out. Since then, these two had become close friends, and they stimulated each other on stage. They often stayed behind, pondering how else they could enhance their scenes. Arthur's enthusiasm was contagious, and Terry had been positively enlightened. Playing a mad character also helped Terry freely portray his feelings on the stage, and his devotion to acting had been thrived. As time passed, Terry began to open up, telling Arthur about a certain nurse, whom he had met back in London but had to give up because of Susanna's injury. Arthur deeply sympathized with Terry, and one late evening Arthur inquired, "Terry, is Candy the only reason why you refrain yourself from opening your heart to another woman?"

Terry denied, frowning seriously, "What makes you think I refrain myself?"

Arthur gave it a thought before he answered, "You don't want to move on because somewhere at the back of your head you grasp onto the twinge of hope that she will come back to you one day?"

Terry shrugged. "No, she won't. She's in love with my friend and marrying him soon."

Having said that, even Terry himself found it unbelievable why he seemed to be at ease saying that. Was it a sign that he was finally over her?

"Don't tell me you're trying to stick to the ideal or prove something to yourself."

"What?"

Arthur smiled. "Here's my advice: don't let the pains from your past dictate your present."

=o=o=o=

"That's it?" asked Candy, her brows knitting together. Disappointment was evident in her voice.

"Yes, my dear," replied Albert in a bantering tone. "Terry stopped right there and spoke nothing more. Of course, he congratulated me on my recovery and told me to pass his warmest regards to you. Before I left, he asked what kind of wedding present we wanted from him."

"So is he coming?"

"I did invite him too, but he didn't give me a definite answer."

Candy looked away, lost in her contemplation. Moments later, she brought her focus back to Albert and held his gaze, saying, "I just want him to be happy."

"Me too," Albert acknowledged, nodding thoughtfully.

Neither said a word for a while until Candy dispersed the silence, "So have you met her, Albert?"

"Who?" He appeared genuinely clueless.

"What's her name? Vera?"

"I see!" he answered, his face breaking into a near wry smile. "Yes, I have met both Arthur and Vera. Lucas gave me a special pass that allowed me to see them practice on stage. Then he introduced them to me before I had dinner with Terry."

"Is she beautiful?"

To her chagrin, he burst out laughing, and she grumbled, pouting, "What's so funny?"

He sniggered about half a minute later, "Why didn't you ask about her acting?"

His question rendered her speechless, and she felt her face warmed as she blushed. Then he answered his own question, "Her attention to detail was impressive, and I must say that she truly brought her character to life, portraying how she suffered from unrequited love, betrayal, and all that. So did Terry and Arthur. They could really capture the audience. I'm sure the play is going to be a huge success."

Then he paused here and cast a fleeting glance at her before he flashed her an amorous smile, saying, "Now, to address your original question: Vera has a doll face, but a bit pale to my liking."

She was very pretty all right, but she could use some exposure to the sun, thought Albert, remembering Terry's description. Unlike Terry, Albert hadn't seen much resemblance between this actress and Candy except her round radiant eyes.

Candy arched a skeptical eyebrow at him, a dry smile playing over her pink lips, so Albert halted his steps and pulled her in to him, giving her a peck on her forehead. "To me, you're the best in the world, Miss Candice White."

Her face brightened, and she stood on her toes and placed a soft, delicate kiss against his lips. After that, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Vincent from afar, who stood in the middle of the rose garden, seemingly lost in reminiscing. The sight of him so forlorn pierced them both, and almost instantly, their happy mood depleted. When they thought they should leave him alone, Vincent noted their arrival and invited them over. Albert took Candy's hand and advanced toward him.

Vincent had not met Candy before, and after shaking hands with her, he remarked, "I'm so pleased to have finally met you, Candy. I was told that you looked like Rosemary, and I do see some of her traits on you, especially your hair."

"It can't be," countered Candy with a shy smile. "I've looked at her portraits. She was such a beauty."

Vincent lowered his gaze and muttered, "She was. I still remember the electrifying moment when I first laid my eyes on her."

Then Albert led them all to the garden table where they could sit down. A maid soon appeared, carrying a tray of hearty snacks plus a pot of tea. While enjoying their morning tea, Vincent commented, "Happy birthday, Candy. I have to leave around noon, so this is the only time we can meet."

Candy then said she had always wanted to meet him, and inevitably they mentioned his son, Anthony, and out of the blue, Candy raised a question, "Shall we visit their graves?"

Both Albert and Vincent were flabbergasted, but Vincent managed to respond, "I don't want to spoil your birthday, and I just came back from there actually."

All these years she hadn't had the courage to go there herself, so she insisted, and they respected her wish and went there with her. She collected a bunch of flowers in a large basket along the way, and within a short time she weaved a flower crown for Rosemary and a bouquet for Anthony. All the while she had said nothing, and Albert had a feeling that she was wrestling with her emotions.

After she had placed them on the graves, she said to Albert with a glint of moisture in her eyes, "I want to give Mr. Vincent my ruby pendant too if you don't mind."

Candy had learned from Aunt Elroy lately that this pendant had meant to be the prize for the winner at her debut, and she had decided not to wear it anymore. Instead, she had placed it back to its nice fitting jewelry box, and she had brought it with her today for Anthony's father.

Albert regarded her, surprise on his face, and she bit her bottom lip to hold back the tears that threatened to fall down her cheeks any second. "I remember Anthony's last words. He was going to get this pendant… as a reward from Uncle William… for me."

Totally unaware of his nephew's last words, Albert was at a loss of what to say. He could only stare at the pleading in her face. After a moment of awkward silence, Vincent said with a good-natured sigh, "You know you don't have to, Candy."

She shook her head, and a tear trickled down her cheek as she continued struggling to contain the turbulent emotions invoked at the memory of that tragic accident. "I was there… the only witness… to see how Anthony fell off… his-"

She faltered, her lips quivering, and the dam holding back her feelings broke loose at last. Albert immediately folded his strong arms around her trembling form. Between her sobs, she murmured something like, "It was frightening… all because of me… he was only fifteen…"

Her shoulders were quaking, and she said in a shuddering breath, "He could have lived longer…"

Albert held her even tighter and sighed into her hair. Then he swallowed the lump in his throat and said aloud so that Vincent could hear him too, "I was to blame, Candy."

He paused slightly to muster his courage. "I've never been able to forgive myself... not even now."

As she froze at his words, he appended in a pensive tone, "The fox hunting was my idea."

His voice was low and anguished. Upon hearing his account, she buried her face in his chest, attempting to subdue her raucous sobbing. His tears dropped mercilessly down his cheeks as well. They held each other so tightly as if that could make the shared agony of being responsible for a loved one's death go away.

After what felt like hours, they became aware that Vincent had left. Oblivious to them, Vincent preferred to mourn in private. The sight of them both blaming themselves for the horse accident had been too much to look at. Vincent wouldn't blame either of them, and it seemed that he was destined to lose everyone in his family. Both his beloved wife and son had died too young. He regretted his decision of leaving Anthony to the care of his great aunt. He should have raised his son on his own. Candy's recollection was slightly comforting however. At least Anthony had been happy with the girl he had adored just before his accident.

Meanwhile, Albert breathed to her ear, "Candy, I'm so sorry… your birthday is ruined."

The sorrow in his voice was unmistakable, and she violently shook her head and exclaimed, "No, not really! On the contrary, I feel… I feel…"

Her voice trailed off. Momentarily nonplussed, she couldn't find the right word to describe her feelings. Then Albert prompted a while later, "Relieved?"

She affirmed by nodding. Then she took a step backward and stared at the name of Anthony, mumbling, "Somewhat."

He nodded faintly; after telling her, he felt a ton of bricks lifted off his chest too. When she turned around and wiped the wetness off his face with her fingers, he remarked, "I like your idea. Let's head back and pass the pendant to Vincent."

On their way back, in a broken voice, he described to her those days after he had learned of his nephew's accident, "When I saw Anthony's lifeless form lying on the grass, my tears had been out of control. He was the only son of my late sister. I was in denial then… how could he have died so young… in remorse, I shut myself out from everyone until after his funeral… I lost count of how many times I wanted to hit my fists against a wall... I'd been worrying about you too... I knew how much... you loved him then."

There was only silence between them. Some moments later, he disclosed, "When I saw you crying so hard for Anthony by the rose gate, though I had somehow consoled you after that, for a moment I wished I had taken his place such that he could still be alive-"

"No!" Candy cried out to cut him off, feeling aghast. "Please don't say that, Albert. You're scaring me!"

Just then, they saw Vincent ambling over to them, carrying a small present in his hands. "Albert and Candy, I think it's about time for me to go, so this is my wedding gift for you both."

When Albert was younger, besides Rosemary, Vincent was the only one in the family who called him Albert instead of William. Then Candy rummaged through her purse and found the jewelry box. "Mr. Vincent, please accept this and keep it for Anthony's sake."

With a grimaced expression, he took it and read the words on the box, "A flower falls to bloom more beautifully. Likewise, a person dies to be revived in our hearts even more beautifully." [1]

When he finished reading, she explained, sadness at the edges of her voice, "These were Rosemary's words. Anthony told me so."

Albert then murmured, "True… memories are flowers that live in the gardens of our hearts." [2]

Then Vincent said to them both, "Promise me not to accuse yourselves anymore. Anthony is now happy with his mother."

Then he gave Candy a fatherly hug, and she said, "Godspeed, Mr. Vincent."

Before he picked up his suitcase, he hugged Albert too and said, "Take good care of yourself, Albert. Rosemary was always proud of you, and so do I."

"You take care too, Vincent," replied Albert.

They then walked him out, watching him get on the carriage. When the carriage gradually faded away into a distance, Albert and Candy returned to the villa and prepared a picnic lunch near the lake. After the scrumptious lunch, he guided her to the dock and showed her the swan boat. She gasped in surprise, "Has Stear fixed it?"

His mouth tilted into a smirk. "I have, but Stear also double-checked it for me."

It was getting warm, so he removed his jacket and hung it on top of a pole on the dock. Then they got into the boat and set out on the lake, which was mostly calm on a sunny day like this. He laid his back against the swan neck and pulled her back against his chest, his arm circling around her trim waist protectively. Although his shirt was still wet from her tears, she nestled into him nonetheless and rested her nape on his shoulder. They let the boat go adrift, and they admired the view and relished the comfortable silence between them.

Now that Candy realized Albert had also blamed himself all these years, she remembered the evening when his memories had returned to him in his sleep. He had dreamed of Rosemary and Anthony then. It had all made sense to her now, and she broached the subject to him. He nodded and related to her more about his dreams, including the one about Rosemary and his parents while he had been in the hospital, just before he had come to.

Candy straightened up and turned to face him. With a quizzical frown she queried, "Your parents? You met your mother?"

The tips of his mouth curved up into a wistful smile as he nodded. "She seemed as young as Rosemary, and when they hugged me, they were tangible beings, not illusions."

He then carried on talking about how his late father's words had encouraged him ever since then. He had admonished his son not to lose heart, and though Albert had felt low-spirited at times during his prolonged recovery, his kind voice had often rung in his ears.

As she nestled back into him, listening to him talk, he wrapped his arm around her again. Feeling the soft breeze grazing her cheeks and hair, she closed her eyes in contentment. She purred, "I can't be happier today, Albert."

He chuckled, his fingers tracing her chin in circular motion. Within minutes, he heard her breathe in and out rhythmically and felt her body relaxed. She was likely sleeping, and he dared not to move an inch lest he disturbed her slumber. Yet he knew there were no place he'd rather be. In fact, he could hardly wait to start his life with her.

She awoke later to find that they had both fallen asleep on the boat. Not only that, the boat had drifted ashore to a remote part of the lake, where the lushy green trees stood on the verge of a lovely meadow. If they didn't have to return to Pony's Home, she wished she could explore this peaceful area with Albert now. It was such a glorious spring day. A few birds were chirping above their heads, the sky was as blue as his eyes, the heat of the sun was enveloping them, and the clouds were scarce.

She gingerly pulled herself up and scrutinized his sleeping countenance. He looked childish and endearing in his slumber. She marveled at how chiseled his facial features were. His complexion was touched with a healthy pink, and his wavy blond hair trimmed in bangs across his forehead. She couldn't help stroking his firm jaw in a loving manner. Needless to say, he was roused from his nap within seconds, and a pair of bright emerald eyes greeted him with admiration. With the corners of his mouth curled up into a sensual grin, he locked eyes with her and reached up to caress her face. "Have I told you that you look fabulous today, Candy?" he commented, his eyes overflowing with fondness. "I'm trying to picture what you look like in a bridal gown."

When a chaste smile filled her entire face after that, he was dumbstruck. She looked dazzling in the sunlight, and he felt as though he could get lost in her green pools of light, noting the love he had for her reflected in them. At the same time, her emerald eyes looked glazed with anticipation, and her fingers moved from his jaw to his forehead, brushing his fringe off his forehead before leaning forward and kissing him right there. Next, she softly brushed her lips on his. It was so light he almost thought he had imagined it, but her feminine gestures, so enticingly inviting, had sent warm tingles up his spine. The next thing he knew he was kissing her senseless while murmuring endearments to her. As his mouth moved possessively over hers, she let herself be swept away, like she was completely helpless and vulnerable, but soon he urged huskily, "Kiss me back."

So she returned his kisses, all so willingly, while her fingers explored his hair, his nape, his shoulders and his back, sending spikes of pleasure through his entire body. Presently, their passion for each other intensified each passing moment, and they lost themselves in their long, drawn out kisses. He lay her down next and shifted his weight to his arms. Hovering over her, he began kissing her cheek, her chin and down her neck to the hollow of her throat. She moaned at the sensations coursing through her body, and he could feel her tense up and her pulse skyrocket under his lips. As if this was not enough for him, he trailed feather kisses along her collarbone to her shoulders and down the inside of her arms, snuffling her sweet scent all the way. It looked like they would cross the line any second, but even on his knees, the boat was really too small for his towering form, and the swan boat started swaying and rocking. Before long, they inadvertently overturned the boat, hurling them into the shallow water. As a result, they were both soaking wet.

Albert scrambled to his feet and pulled Candy up from the water. He found that her light blue dress was stained with mud, and it was so wet and heavy that it stuck to her skin like tape, highlighting her feminine shape. Although he hastily glanced away, he still caught a glimpse of her white underwear. Nonetheless, he managed to find his tongue, "I'm sorry, Candy. I should have known. Are you alright?"

"I'm OK, and are you hurt?"

Her concerning tone made him feel worse, and he avoided her eyes and shook his head, his hair dripping wet, matted to his forehead. She was a disheveled mess just like him, but she suddenly laughed. He could scarcely believe his ears, and when he whipped around to look at her in confusion, she snickered, "Albert, you're not the only one at fault, but right now you look like a wet puppy being scolded for messing up the house."

For a moment, he could only blink at her, but then he burst into a guffaw of laughter after that. "Oh my, this is the best joke I've heard in months!"

So they flipped over the boat and climbed back onto it, and only then she realized that his drenched shirt clung to his broad chest and tapered waist like second skin, and his soaked pants molded over his firm bottom and his strong thighs. As they sat down, facing each other this time, he took off his shirt and wrung the water out of it. Then he tossed it over the swan head to let it dry before picking up the oars. "Let's get back to the villa now. I've got presents for you, dear."

That piqued her interest, but despite herself, her eyes kept coming back to his taut body, which was muscular in all the right places. She must admit that he had a well-proportioned body, and she couldn't be more glad that he had fully recovered. It would have been a pity otherwise.

Her surreptitious glances didn't escape his eyes, and he found it quite flattering. A complacent smile painted on his face next, but it was when he noted that she was shivering in the wind. Hence, his voice broke into her reverie, "Candy, are you cold?"

She folded her arms around herself and peered up at him with a sheepish smile. "Yes… a little. How about you?"

He examined himself; his upper body was practically dry under the sun, so he replied matter-of-factly, "I'm fine. Just hope that we won't get soaked again next year."

For a second she thought he was being serious, but then he winked at her, and she laughed so hard that she almost couldn't catch her breath. Last year it had rained and they had got very wet too although it had been an unforgettable experience to her. Yet, what he said next made her blush, "Want me to hold you to keep you warm?"

That was irresistible, but the lady side of her said no, so she frantically waved her hands in the air and shook her head, saying, "We're almost there, aren't we?"

He scanned the surrounding areas and slowly nodded. "About half way now."

Then a strong gust of wind blew by, and she sneezed and sneezed, rubbing her own arms in between. Thus, in a patient tone, he attempted to convince her, "Come on, Candy, don't be shy. I'm your fiancé."

He was right, and she didn't want to get sick, so she relented. He put the oars aside and helped her move around. Yet her dress got caught by the spout in the middle, and she lost her balance and ended up falling right in the cradle of his arms. When her hands landed on his sinewy chest, she gasped and recoiled as though she just got burned, but he snaked his arms around her waist, pulling her close to him and gently putting her hands back on his chest. Then, gazing into her stunned, resplendent orbs, he said tenderly as though she needed this reminder, "Don't forget that we're getting married in three weeks."

Swallowing hard, she bashfully nodded her head, her cheeks red like a ripe tomato now. Due to her sense of propriety, she didn't feel right to be this intimate with him yet. Besides, she must confess they had gone a bit too far just now by the uninhabited shore. Nonetheless, as he resumed rowing the boat, she curled up into him and rested her cheek on his shoulder, splaying her fingers over the scars on his bare chest. Due to the heat radiated from his half-nude body, she soon felt extremely warm, her heart thumping like crazy and her blood boiling, but that wasn't the only reason. She could feel his heart pounding beneath her palms, and she had to resist the temptation to roam the rest of his toned torso, feeling his smooth skin under her fingertips. Even then, with mixed feelings, she secretly wanted the moment to last.

Meanwhile, little did she know that his body was going up in flames, and his breathing going harsher and heavier not only because of his current effort of getting the boat back to the shore but also because the only barrier between their skins was her drenched dress. He could feel her curves against his body, and with her damp locks tickling him, he really had to exert all his willpower to drag his mind away from her.

His arms were very strong after months of using crutches to walk, so it didn't take him long to row the boat all the way back. As soon as he found his jacket on the dock, he draped it around her shoulders. She uttered with amazement, "Wow, it's so warm!"

"Of course," he replied with a knowing smile, putting his nearly dry shirt back on. "It's absorbed the sunshine for more than an hour after all."

Once they stepped inside the house, they went separate paths to clean up. A maid followed Candy to her bedroom and showed her the birthday present on the bed. "Miss Candice, Master William informed me this morning that he wanted you to change into this. Let me draw you a bath, and I'll be back to assist you."

When Candy was done, she put on her spare underwear available in this bedroom and unwrapped the present. Albert had given her a graceful, sleeveless bodice chiffon evening gown in champagne color with a wide opening neckline, plus a pair of matching high heel shoes. The skirt part was of long flowing design with vertical pleats and a front vent. She wondered if Albert was going to take her out for dinner, but weren't they going back to the orphanage? Just then, someone knocked on her door, and the maid's voice came, "Miss Candice, may I come in to help you get dressed?"

The maid's hands could do magic, and she braided her curly hair up into a stylish bun. When Candy was ready, the maid took her to meet Master William in the dining room, where they found him looking at some family portraits on the wall. The maid then excused herself, leaving them alone in the dining room. As he whirled around, dressed in his tailored dark suit with dark tie and a crisp white shirt, he appeared suave, gallant and noble just like any prince in a fairy tale. His face was clean and shaven, his hair neatly combed.

The moment his eyes alighted on the blond lady, he appeared awestruck, his face illuminated. He simply couldn't take his eyes off her after that. He was fully aware that he was very lucky to have her, but right now, he must acknowledge that the woman whom he loved with all his heart looked indescribably alluring. The well-fitted gown not only accentuated her voluptuous curves, but also made her look taller and remarkably beautiful, like a goddess from the myths. Hence, when the lady approached him, he walked toward her, his mouth curving up into a smile of admiration that spread all the way to his gorgeous blue eyes. By the time she got near, he lovingly put his arm around her slender form and grasped her hand. Then he kissed her cheek and praised, his eyes still lingering on her refined features, "Stunning... you look incredibly stunning, Candy."

With a chaste smile she raised her eyes to his and squeezed his hand. "You look impeccably handsome yourself, Albert."

Then he led her to the dining table, in the center of which was a vase of a dozen of Sweet Candy roses from the rose garden. On the left, there were a wine bottle with two glasses, a dish with a lid covering it, and some plates with cutlery. He proceeded to lift up the cover, and a small birthday cake was shown, which looked familiar. On the cake she spotted the words "To Sweet Candy", which were surrounded by several tiny white roses. She remembered that he had baked a birthday cake with a similar design last year, and he had promised to make her another one again for her next birthday. Feeling immensely touched, tears shimmered in her eyes, and her cheeks were flushed. She then flung herself towards him, embracing him tightly, and exclaimed with euphoria, "You kept your promise! I love it!"

When he returned her embrace, she tilted her head and met his gaze expectantly, her longing for him written across her face. He took the hint, and his soft lips found hers. With her new shoes, she didn't need to stand on her toes anymore to kiss him, but to her disappointment, his kiss was light and quick as if he didn't want to ruin her makeup or hairdo. Instead, he sniffed her and muttered against the sensitive skin of her svelte neck, "You smell like flowers."

"That tickles!" she complained with a soft chuckle and leaned into him. As they cuddled together, she inhaled deeply, breathing in the fragrance of his male cologne. She was content to remain in his arms like this, and he felt the same, but the time was pressing. He thought, who could have imagined that I would cross paths with that little crybaby on the hill again, now grown up to be such a delectable woman, and I'm actually marrying her... I'll do my best to make her the happiest woman.

Hence, he gently loosened her grip and asked in a softened tone, "Want to blow the candle now?"

Although she'd rather stay in his arms, she nodded and gave him a charming smile, so he poured the dessert wine into two glasses and placed a candle on the cake. He lighted it, and she made a silent wish and blew it out. Then he raised the wine glasses to her, and she took one. Before their glasses clinked together, he said, "Happy birthday once again, Candy."

"Thank you, Albert!" she expressed her appreciation. "It's the best birthday ever, because you're a part of it."

"My pleasure, always!" came his delightful response.

Just like last year, she cut the cake in halves and passed a portion to him. When she was done eating, she commented, "It's delicious! When did you make it?"

"Yesterday evening, milady," he replied, a small smile gracing his lips. Then he promised, "From now on, as long as I am capable, I'll make you a birthday cake every year."

She couldn't have felt more blessed, and she gave him an eager snog on his mouth as her reply. They could taste the sweetness on each other's lips, and they laughed and wiped their mouths with napkins afterwards. Then he suggested, "Shall we go back to Pony's Home now?"

"Now?" Candy echoed dubiously. "Dressed like this? Both of us?"

"Yes, and I'd like to walk up Pony's Hill with you too."

"Are you sure?" she hesitated, wondering if she could walk on the thick grass wearing the high heels.

Candy, I've put it off for too long, and I think I'm ready... at long last. Thus, he nodded in acknowledgment. She couldn't help questioning, her eyes searching his worriedly, "Do you have something on your mind? You look so serious all of a sudden."

"I want to go up there before the sunset," he answered in a yearning tone, his eyes unwavering. "Please?" he implored in earnest.

She considered it for a few more seconds and then determined to take the 'challenge'. Besides, she wanted her mothers to see her in this dress too. Therefore, she decided, "Alright!"

=o=o=o=

Author's note:

Thank you so much for reading! The ride on the swan boat plus getting wet afterwards was inspired by the end of the manga, and some parts of this chapter was inspired by Candy Candy Final Story (CCFS), especially the scene in which Candy and Albert shared the same anguish of indirectly causing Anthony's death. For a more faithful and detailed story based on Candy's letter to Albert in CCFS, please read my short story "The Diary".

This is a very long chapter. I hope you like it. Please let me know if you do. Thanks in advance!

Footnote:

[1] This is from the spoilers of Candy Candy Final Story, but I have rephrased it a little bit.

[2] The source is unknown, but I have read it on a sympathy card somewhere before.