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

Note: Thank you all for the positive and encouraging feedback regarding my previous chapter. I also appreciate those who have added this story to your favorites. As always, your compliments and enthusiasm have warmed my heart. I know some of you have been eagerly looking forward to reading an update from me, so I've worked extremely hard trying my best to churn out this chapter. Because of growing real-life responsibilities, I have much less spare time this month. Therefore, it's likely I've made some mistakes. Please kindly let me know if you spot any. Thank you!

-Ms Puddle

Chapter 45: Felicity

The ride back to Pony's Home was even faster this time, but unlike this morning, neither of them wanted to talk. All the way Candy rested her head on Albert's shoulder, reliving the precious moments of the day and dreaming of her future with the man right beside her. He placed his arm around her, peering out of the window most of the time. Once in a while, she stole glances at his side profile. He appeared very placid yet seemingly deep in thought.

When they arrived at their destination, the sun began its slow descent. The whole area was lit up in a warm late afternoon glare. Albert then said to his chauffeur, "Norris, take a rest, or do whatever you like. We'll head back to Chicago tonight."

Then Albert asked Candy if she could go straight up Pony's Hill with him. After they got off the car, sauntering towards the bottom of the hill hand in hand, she unexpectedly pulled him back. When he halted his steps and brought his focus to her, she appeared as if something was bothering her. Hence, with his brows creased with mild apprehension, he questioned, "Is something wrong?"

She hesitated a bit before she cleared her throat, looking into his striking blue eyes. "I know this is not very lady like, but I want to remove my high heels," she finished with a simper.

His apprehension was instantly replaced by amusement. Yet, he stifled a chortle, completely aware that this was another reason why he loved her so much. Compared to the people he often had to deal with, her forthright manner was adorably honest, if not refreshing. Hence, he remarked, "Go ahead, Candy! They are uncomfortable, aren't they?"

Nodding with a sheepish smile, she mumbled, "They are great shoes, but not when I need to walk on rural roads."

"I'm sorry, Candy. My oversight," he said ruefully. "In fact, I will do the same. I actually like walking on the grass with bare feet."

She couldn't believe her ears, but what he said made her feel at ease in no time. She was glad she could always be her true self in front of him; she had never feared that he would find her incorrigible or something. Thus, without any reluctance, she bent over to take off her shoes but left her stockings on. When she was done, he was already waiting for her, his left hand carrying his leather shoes with his socks stuffed inside. "Ready, milady?" he asked, reaching out to touch her hand.

To his surprise, instead of holding his hand, she lifted up a corner of her long dress and challenged him with a mischievous expression, "Let's see who will get to the top first!"

She made a dash up the hill without waiting for him, and she heard him holler behind her, "Candy, you cheated!"

He hadn't really tried running since his recovery, wanting to take things slow. Nevertheless, after giving it a thought, he took long, big strides to chase after her, which was easier than expected. Feeling more than encouraged and excited like a child all over again, he sped up even more. Although she had a head start, he was able to close their gap roughly ten minutes later, and he realized that they were getting near her favorite refuge by the trees. At this point, it got so hot that he had to remove his jacket and loosen his tie. Then he let go of his shoes and darted after her, pouncing on her from behind. Her shoes flew away from her hands, and she yelped with merriment as he snaked his arms around her trim waist. The two stumbled onto the grass together, rolling about. As the lovebirds kissed and snuggled each other afterwards, knowing that they were alone, echoes of their joyous laughter could be heard even from down the hill. Norris simply shook his head and continued napping in the car.

Not long after that, lying face up beneath the shaded tree, the couple admired the brilliant range of vibrant colors like orange, yellow, purple and crimson red in the sky. Obviously, the sun began to set, so Albert helped Candy get up. As they got back on their feet, after helping each other to brush away the leaves on their clothes, he found that her sophisticated bun had been ruined regrettably. With loose pieces sticking up here and there, it was amazing that the whole hairdo hadn't collapsed. Presently, she figured her hair must be a mess, and she attempted to fix it, but he said in a sorrowful tone, "Candy, it's my fault, but I actually prefer you let your hair down."

She regarded him with doubts in her eyes, and he asked, "May I help?"

She nodded with relief, and he gently released her long tresses from the braids that held them up. She peeked at him from under her long eyelashes, a charming smile growing from the corners of her rouge lips. The sight of her soft blond hair slowly cascading down on her shoulders and the way her turbulent curls reflected the colors of sunset enthralled him. Together with her rosy pink complexion that practically glowed from within, she looked bewitchingly beautiful to him.

"So?" Her voice soon roused him from his trance. "How do I look now? Ok?"

As their eyes met, he coughed to hide his embarrassment. He had nearly given in to his desire to pull her back into his arms, to feel her lips with his and to taste the sweetness of her mouth. After carefully putting all her hair accessories into his pocket, he stroked her face and said with fondness, "I think you look even better than before."

She doubted, "Honestly?"

"Absolutely!" he asserted while running his fingers up through his lustrous blond hair. Then he unexpectedly took a step back and invited with a gallant bow, "Shall we dance, milady?"

"Here? Are you serious?" she asked incredulously. "Is that why you wanted me to dress up?"

Without a word, he nodded, his eyes brimmed with adoration. Then she murmured, "In that case, let me find my shoes first."

But he kindly stopped her, "There's no need. The grass is slightly bumpy here, which means that you may twist your ankle."

A chuckle escaped her lips. "You're right," she replied, flashing a sweet smile at him. The last thing they wanted was the bride not being able to walk in her wedding. Aunt Elroy would be very cross.

As she placed her hand on his open palm, she let him escort her slightly away from the trees so that they could dance more freely. She had been taking formal lessons, and she couldn't wait to practice her techniques with him. Then she raised a valid question, "But there's no music. What kind of dance do you have in mind?"

He tenderly placed her left hand on his upper arm and suggested, "Perhaps something like a waltz?"

She agreed in delight, so he clasped her right hand with his left, lifting it up. Then he put his right hand on her upper back and began to lead her. Initially, they danced and rotated in a moderate tempo facing each other, their bodies about one foot apart. Before long, she demonstrated to him something new that she had learned lately, and he gave her suggestions for further improvements. Being a fast learner, she got better and better, and he was proud to be her dancing partner. With the long shadows of trees on the ground and the only music coming from the chirping birds, she twirled around like a nymph in the forest, her long locks flying about her dainty face and the chiffon ribbons of her gown swinging with her graceful movements. The next thing he knew he was enchanted, and he couldn't take his eyes off her at all. She must have cast her spells on him, but he was her willing victim. He knew he couldn't have loved another woman more.

As moments passed, their rhythm slowed down gradually. They merely swayed back and forth in circles, their arms pulling each other closer and closer until their toes touched. Some time later, she playfully placed the soles of her feet on top of his, and he liked that, his arms securing her petite body against his own. While he simply transferred his weight from one foot to another, she buried her cheek against his broad chest with her arms dangling on his shoulders, feeling the erratic beat of his heart. He then rested his chin on the crown of her head, his hands languidly rubbing up and down her back. From a distance, it looked like they were not moving at all, just cuddling each other.

Neither said a word until the sun went near the horizon at a rapid rate. Taking in the spectacular sunset, she broke their amiable silence, "I love you so much, my prince."

He was caught off guard, wondering if she had figured it out already, but after a flabbergasted moment, he gathered it was possibly her new way to express her admiration. Hence, to confirm his suspicion, he leaned down to gently raise her chin to look deep into her resplendent eyes. Only then he realized that she had been shedding silent tears. "What's the matter, my love?"

"I'm fine..." she replied in a dreamy tone, her eyes glistening with tears of happiness. "Do you know this is the first time we dance?"

He nodded with a knowing smile and lovingly wiped the wetness off her face with his thumbs. "That's exactly why I have attempted to make this special such that both of us will remember this when we get old and wrinkly one day."

She nodded in acknowledgment and expressed her gratitude, "Thank you for making my eighteenth birthday so unforgettable!"

He returned a smile, then he offered her his handkerchief to wipe her eyes. As she was doing that, she grumbled, "I know my tears must have smeared my makeup, but I can't help it. I tend to tear up whenever I get emotional."

He chuckled and responded in an affectionate tone, "It's alright. You look remarkable even without any makeup."

The corners of her mouth then curled up into a dazzling smile. His eyes met hers for a long moment and held her gaze; she anticipated another round of passionate kissing from him, but what he said next completely blew her away, "You're truly prettier when you smile than when you cry."

Hearing the familiar words repeated after all these years, she gasped and dropped his handkerchief. Her mouth fell open with bewilderment and disbelief, and her eyes conveyed nothing but utter astonishment. While she unconsciously took a couple of cautious steps backward, she continued staring at him, frantically searching her head to see if she had ever quoted this cherished phrase to Albert before. Prince on the Hill, her childhood fantasy, had left these words to her right before his disappearance, which had motivated her since. However, she believed she had only showed Albert the badge and talked briefly about her short encounter with the handsome boy.

As Albert had suspected, judging from her startled reaction, she hadn't really linked him to her prince. In other words, they were two different men to her. Thus, to let his revelation sink in, he remained standing at his spot, striving to hide his nervousness under a smiling demeanor. What if Candy can't accept that I was that boy whom she claimed to be handsome like a prince? She was a romantic at heart, so she might have idealized his image?

On the other hand, it was one of those rare moments when silence was more powerful than words. Candy's instinct was telling her that Albert had fully anticipated that she would be dumbfounded by his compliment, a remark that meant nothing much to others. Hence, the mere fact that he was patiently waiting for her to respond spoke volumes to her. For the time being, her brain worked very hard to process the new information, and within a short time she had recollected all the clues concerning her prince. As Anthony had explained before, only an Ardlay boy in the direct line could carry a badge of family insignia. Since Albert was the only legitimate heir, he must have owned one such badge.

In addition, Anthony's last words before his accident resurfaced in her mind. He had mentioned about a boy by his late mother's side. Anthony must be referring to his young uncle then, namely Albert.

At this very instant, her eyes were opened at long last, and she could see traits of her prince in Albert. His blond hair, his blue eyes, and the tender smile all matched her prince's, and she was suddenly aware with certainty and joy that her prince had been loving and supporting her all along. Albert himself is undoubtedly just as handsome... no, no... actually more than that.

Immediately, the image of his half nude body crept into her mind, and despite her best efforts, she couldn't dismiss that picture. In fact, the tantalizing moments in the swan boat this afternoon rushed back into her head. With her drenched form leaning against his topless body, she could see water dripping from his hair over his shoulders, either landing onto his muscular chest or vanishing somewhere near his taut abdomen. She must confess that her prince was no longer a boy. He was visibly more mature and masculine now.

"Albert," she finally spoke up in a halting manner. "You... you're my... oh God, oh my…!"

She had temporarily lost her ability to articulate her thoughts, but his heart surged with hope. Then he heard her mumble to herself, "How come it never crossed my mind? How could I be so blind?"

Now that she seemed to have grasped the hidden meaning of his words, relief washed over him, and his face brightened. Therefore, he opened his arms to her and invited her, an irresistible smile gracing his lips, "Come... come to me, my sweet crybaby."

Her eyes lit up instantly, and all her lingering doubts were put to rest. She practically lunged towards him and threw her arms around his neck. When he reacted by engulfing her in a hug, she exclaimed, gleefully rubbing her cheek against his, "Prince on the Hill! You're my Prince on the Hill!"

He kept reassuring her by murmuring, "Yes... yes..."

His voice choked with emotions just like hers. Overwhelmed with rapture, she could hardly contain her thrill at this totally unexpected discovery, but she managed to ask, "So you dropped your badge?"

He gave her an enthusiastic whoop, "I did!"

With that, he tightened his arms and swung her around jubilantly. She let out a joyous shout and kept calling him, "my prince". Some moments later, she begged him in between her giggling, "My dear prince, please stop... the little girl is getting dizzy."

He gladly obliged with her request, catching his breath too. After regaining his sense of balance, he gently leaned her against a sturdy tree and scrutinized her features, his hands cradling the back of her head. By then, the sun had set, and twilight was coming on. However, she had never looked more desirable to him than now, her cheeks flushed with warmth and her eyes sparkling with exhilaration and adoration, like she was seeing him from a new perspective. He was no longer just Albert to her; he was also the adult version of the boy she had imprinted on her memory when she had been a child.

At this point, she suddenly recalled, "Albert, did you ask me to dance because-?"

He nodded before she could finish her question. Then she prompted, apparently touched, "Because I have told you that I dreamed of dancing with my prince?"

He merely smiled at her. His silence confirmed her thinking, and with a look of pure bliss on her face, she murmured with appreciation in her eyes, "Albert…"

He stroked her hair and hushed her softly. As he lightly tucked her hair behind her ear, he whispered to her, "I just want you to be happy."

Then with one hand clasping hers and the other hand cupping her cheek, he kissed her forehead lingeringly. She shut her eyes momentarily, basking in the feeling of being pampered and loved. Yes, she had told Albert about the moment Eliza had flaunted her elegant gown, and Candy as Eliza's so-called playmate had wondered if she would dress up like a lady and dance with her prince one day. Albert had kept her words in mind and bought her a gown even more splendid than Eliza's.

When he drew back from her, his question brought her back to the present, "Candy, do you remember this was where you agreed to marry me last summer?"

Having seen her quick nod, he produced a velvety box from his breast pocket and flipped it open, showing a diamond ring with a heart shaped emerald gem. Even in the dim light, the two smaller diamonds adorning the gemstone were all glimmering. As her eyes settled on the ring, she was rendered speechless. Not that she wasn't happy with her original engagement ring, but she had been wondering about her diamond ring since Christmas. Albert had not mentioned a word about it after giving her the matching bracelet as his Christmas gift. Candy had learned from Aunt Elroy later that heart shaped emerald gems were not easy to find. Most were either rectangular or oval because cutting an expensive gemstone into fancy shapes resulted in additional loss of stone weight, so that explained why her diamond ring and bracelet with the emerald charm had to be pre-ordered.

"It's long overdue, my love," he began, breaking her thoughts. "But I want to return to this spot before our wedding and present this to you as your prince."

Then he gingerly removed her silk glove and replaced her original engagement ring with the new one, and she muttered, her lips quivering and her voice wobbled with emotion, "Oh, my prince… it's so beautiful…"

She willed herself not to cry again. Her bottom lip was tucked in between her teeth as she watched him storing her old tiny ring back in the velvety box and putting her glove back on. At this point, she uttered in a rushed tone, a couple of teardrops trickling down her cheeks, "Don't throw that away! It meant the world to me still."

He froze and gaped at her, immensely touched by her words. Noting his stunned expression, she reached out to fondly caress his jaw and looked at him through the tears welling in her eyes. Then she gathered all her strength to proclaim, "I've always loved you, my prince, when you were much younger, when you were sick and penniless, when you were paralyzed, and when you're now rich and healthy. I love you just the same. You're always Albert to me."

As tidal waves of emotions hit him mercilessly, he could only stare at her, nonplussed. He was shaken to the core to say the least. Humbled by her unflagging love for him, he searched her face as she gazed into his eyes with so much devotion. He then raised his hands to her head, taking her face between his palms ever so gently as if she was a fragile porcelain doll. While he tenderly brushed the wet hair strands out of her face, she muttered with a sigh, "I'm such a crybaby."

He shook his head right away, but she argued, "Didn't you say that I was prettier when I smile?"

With moist eyes and a hoarse voice, he stated, "You're also pretty when you're crying, my love. You're the most beautiful woman to me."

Needless to say, that incited more tears from her. As his tender fingertips wiped her face, she added in earnest, "I can't be more thankful that I have you, my prince. You have been by my side all these years and made me so happy-" Yet her voice was muffled by his mouth. He pressed his lips to hers, kissing her long and hard until dusk.

How many times do I have to tell you

Even when you're crying you're beautiful too

The world is beating you down, I'm around through every mood

You're my downfall, you're my muse

My worst distraction, my rhythm and blues

I can't stop singing, it's ringing in my head for you

...

[Chorus]

'Cause all of me

Loves all of you

Love your curves and all your edges

All your perfect imperfections

Give your all to me

I'll give my all to you

You're my end and my beginning

Even when I lose I'm winning

Cause I give you all of me

And you give me all of you, oh [1]

She returned his intense kisses with as much ardor as she could muster. She was flooded with euphoria; her heart swelled with felicity and love. Nonetheless, she still found it surreal that she was not only kissing her prince but also marrying him in less than a month. My prince, my Prince on the Hill, the gentle, handsome boy who consoled me when I was crying my eyes out… Oh… I should have known… Albert… in his protective arms I can find comfort, and he is always there for me when I need a shoulder to cry on… His presence alone gives me a marvelous sense of security…

The evening breeze rustled the trees, shaking the leaves and filling the air with freshness. The darkness had fallen, and the stars up in the sky were putting up an amazing display of sparkles. Albert decided to return to Pony's Home, so they tidied each other's hair and helped to brush dirt and grass off their clothes. Although Candy felt an extraordinary reluctance to leave her favorite spot, she allowed Albert to lead her away. After finding their shoes, he put his jacket back on and adjusted his tie before they made a descend down the hill. She kept looking back over her shoulder; Pony's Hill had always meant a great deal to her before, and it would mean even more to her from now on. It was where she had met her prince, who had returned and asked her to marry him.

When they got near enough, Archie and Stear swung open the front doors and welcomed both of them by blowing fanfare trumpets. Then Annie pushed Emily's wheelchair while Patty led the children out in a single file, the older ones carrying either cymbals or triangles. They formed a choir and sang the birthday song to Candy. The blond girl blinked back her tears and thanked every one of them. Later, she found out from her foster mothers that Albert had arranged his nephews to organize this surprise party for her. Miss Pony and Sister Lane had had no idea until the four of them had arrived in the late afternoon, catering a feast.

Just then, Mr. Cartwright came with Jimmy and Mina after work. Albert's chauffeur, Norris, also joined them. Everyone had a wonderful time, and soon Miss Pony and Sister Lane presented their birthday gift. It was a silver rose cross necklace. When helping the birthday girl to put it around her neck, Miss Pony said with motherly tone, "You're like a daughter to us, Candy, we will miss you and your smile, but remember that you're always welcome to visit us anytime, bringing your husband and children with you."

In the midst of the round of applause, Candy got so sentimental that she hugged both her mothers without a word for a long time. Then she composed herself and gratefully thanked them for their unconditional love. Albert also expressed his utmost appreciation to the kind ladies for raising Candy to such a special and fine girl. Then he turned to face his fiancée and praised her, his voice loud and clear, "You're everything that I could ever dream of, Candy. With such a loving temperament, you have all the qualities to make a man a good wife, and I'm a very lucky man to have you."

When the crowd cheered for Albert, the Cornwell brothers agreed with their uncle in their hearts. After all, they had both fallen for her few years back. Things had changed however, and the brothers had moved on with two outstanding ladies.

With tears shimmering in her eyes, Candy spoke up so that everyone could hear her, "I think I should also thank my parents for abandoning me at Pony's Home. Because of that, I could meet Albert."

Except the children who didn't quite perceive what she had meant, the grown-ups were undeniably taken by surprise, including Albert himself. Albert had detected that Candy had implicit meaning behind her words, and as their gaze met, they exchanged an understanding glance. He comprehended that she had alluded to their very first encounter on the hill. Within a minute, a huge commotion ensued.

After cleaning up, it was time for them to return to Chicago. It was a tearful farewell with the children. Then Albert thanked the old ladies again before taking Candy's hand. After they left with Norris, Stear and the rests trailed behind them. Candy knew that she would see her mothers and the kids again very soon, so she didn't feel too sad.

On the way back to the car, Archie noticed that Annie had teary eyes, and he took her aside and asked if she was alright. She considered a bit before giving her answer, "Unlike me, Candy went through some really tough times. Her days with the Leagans… were painful… I'm just ashamed of myself of denying her and my own past."

Archie then drew her in his arms, and she quietly leaned her head on his shoulder. Yet Archie had a hunch that she had been bothered by something else, and he tried to convince her to open up. At last she said, "I see true love in their eyes. They couldn't have looked more proud of each other. As Candy's friend, I haven't seen her more beautiful. She was like a glamorous princess tonight, so I was very happy for her, and I wish… I wish…"

All of a sudden, she withdrew herself from him and scurried back to the car to join Stear and Patty. Archie sensed the doubts that had been floundering in her mind. Was she telling me that I don't love her enough?

In the days that followed, Albert was so tied up with heavy workload that he couldn't find a chance to visit Candy in her apartment. He would take slightly more than three weeks off for honeymoon after the wedding, so he had to work extra hard these days. Likewise, Candy was in full throttle getting ready for the wedding. Aunt Elroy took care of wedding logistics and management while Candy went out with Annie and Patty almost every day to handle some last minute details.

Since these ladies would reside in Lakewood starting this weekend for the upcoming wedding, Albert wouldn't see Candy again until several days before the wedding. Hence, he came home around noon time today just to see if he could catch his beloved before she ran her errands. He went straight to his aunt's study, and Candy was about to go out with his aunt, Annie and Patty. Albert approached them and made his request known, "Aunt Elroy, may I have a couple of minutes with my fiancée please?"

When Candy returned, she said, "Aunt Elroy, I want to have lunch with Albert. I'll be back in an hour or so."

The yearning in her eyes was palpable, and the old lady knew the couple hadn't seen each other for days, so she answered with a sigh, "That's fine. See you here after lunch."

Albert then drove Candy back to her apartment, bringing some sandwiches with him. Nancy hastily excused herself and left the place. Apparently, the couple had pined for each other, and as soon as their hands were free, they immersed themselves in passion. They deliberately pushed everything to the back of their minds. For the time being, only the two of them existed in their world.

When they sat down to enjoy their sandwiches later, Candy suddenly remembered something, and she said, "Oh, I almost forgot! Please excuse me."

So she left the table and dashed into her room. When she came out again, she passed the Ardlay badge to Albert, saying, "Here, I'm giving this back to you, my prince. I've kept it long enough."

He got it from her and examined it in his hand, chuckling to himself. Then she asked, "So is it a right time to tell me your story?"

During the ride to Chicago from Pony's Home, Albert had chosen not to talk about why and how he had stumbled across Pony's Hill that fine spring day, wearing a kilt. He had rather delayed doing it when Candy was the only audience. In fact, Albert hadn't disclosed that particular experience to anyone because George and his aunt had never broached the subject.

When he met her eager gaze, he replied with a bemused smile on his face, "Yes... because nobody else is here. It's very personal after all."

"Excellent!" she remarked sincerely, pouring more coffee to their cups. "I'm all ears!"

Thus, he took one big bite from his sandwich, sat back and raised his hands to run his hair back in slow motion. With a preoccupied frown drawing his thick eyebrows together, he started by relating to her his frustrations since childhood. Most of that he had already talked about in his letters to her, but one thing she didn't know was that he had already mastered the bagpipe in his teens. "I was told that it wasn't a small accomplishment, so it was one thing I was proud of myself. As I have mentioned to you before, Candy, I was a very lonely boy. Every morning when I woke up, it was always a letdown, knowing that I would spend yet another long day with some tight-lipped servants and private tutors. I had no friends of my age, and I had no freedom to go out on my own. Therefore, I practiced my bagpipe a lot as a way to vent my feelings. Believe it or not, it was my only loyal companion. Since Rosemary had passed away, I had never spent a day not missing her. She had said to me more than once, 'If I could switch places with you, I'd have done it in a heartbeat, Little Bert.'"

"Little Bert?" echoed Candy, unable to believe what she had heard.

"Yes," he replied with a tender grin. "Rosemary didn't call me William like others, and later she even called me by that nickname, but only when we were alone."

Then he went on telling her about one family gathering in the Lakewood residence, "As usual, I was confined in my room because George couldn't take me out for some reason. When I overheard people laughing and children playing bagpipes, I curled up in a dark corner, my hands covering both my ears trying to blot out all thoughts."

Albert paused here. He grimaced and closed his eyes wearily, so Candy lovingly grasped his hand across the table. Then she suggested, her heart filled with empathy, "Perhaps we shouldn't be talking about this."

If she had known that he would be talking about something miserable, she wouldn't have brought it up today. It wasn't her intention to spoil their lunch date. However, he shook his head to disagree, "No, Candy. I really want you to know the rest."

As she quietly conceded, he cleared his throat and resumed, "I couldn't tolerate being treated like a prisoner anymore, so I put on my ethnic costume just like all the young people in the party. I'd be satisfied if I could just play my bagpipe in their midst. While I thought I would go unnoticed in the crowd, one senior member recognized me and brought me to my aunt."

Candy took a sharp intake of breath in response, and Albert exhaled a bitter chuckle followed by an exhausted sigh. After that, he carried on, "I think you can easily visualize how harshly my aunt reprimanded me for breaking her rules. I wasn't listening at all; my head was pulsing with the things that I had always wanted to do but prohibited by my own family, and I felt more exasperated than ever. In fury, my aunt sent me back to my room, but I hated returning to the cage with no way out. I reckoned that it was just a matter of time before I would go insane. Without much thought of consequences, I resolved to escape this suffocating, distorted life, so I stole a car key, driving and driving with no aim."

His voice broke, his eyes staring into something she couldn't see. She reached out to wipe the corners of his eyes. Then she brushed his hair on his forehead and gave him a tender kiss there. As he flashed a faint smile at her, she said, "Albert, I didn't know… actually I never thought that you had been pushed to your limit that day. You looked far from distressed when you approached me with a smiling face, and most of all you were very kind to me."

"Thank you, Candy," he replied appreciatively. He was pleased that he had told her all these things. Not only he found profound solace in unleashing his long-buried pain, but it was soothing to know that she loved him regardless. After taking a sip of his coffee, he went on, "I guess the main reason was that I had never felt so free although I didn't bring any money with me, and I knew people could easily spot me from afar, wearing such outfit and carrying a large musical instrument. Nevertheless, I continued driving until I came across Pony's Home. Except the orphanage, nothing in the landscape was artificial. The area was serene yet compelling, as if it was beckoning me to explore, so I alighted the car, hoping the tranquil surroundings would help alleviate the vexation I was experiencing or even help me deal with the prolonged bitterness that had festered deep inside me. As I wandered around, I inadvertently went up the hill, watching the clouds in the sky and mulling over my life and all the people who cared about me like George and my stern aunt. Before long, a little girl appeared out of nowhere."

Albert stopped short and intentionally clasped Candy's hand, grinning at her. She stuck her tongue out at him in a silly manner, and he laughed. She realized that most of the strain was eased from his face. It wasn't an easy task to reflect on one's own experience, especially an unpleasant one, and being able to describe this experience to another person must have lifted a burden from his mind.

Then she urged, "Aren't you going to recount your impression of that little girl?"

He nodded with a wink. "Of course."

Then he began reminiscing, "At first glimpse, I marveled at how her short legs could enable her to run fast like a bullet, but I observed that she had been suppressing her emotions. She pursed her lips, struggling not to cry until she was alone up on the hill, or so she thought. I felt drawn towards her for unknown reason. When the dam that had been holding back her tears collapsed, the way she wailed after that touched my heart. I had never seen anyone having an honest crying fit in my life, and I spoke to her before I knew it."

Then Albert stopped and glanced at the clock, and Candy pressed with real curiosity, "What's next?"

"Candy, we have to go now. Our time is up unfortunately," he remarked with a deep sigh. "But you know the rest, don't you?"

"Not the full picture," she answered, shaking her head. "Why did you vanish?"

So he continued his story while driving her back to the Ardlay's mansion, "Though I had no idea what made the little girl bawl so hard, I meant to play my bagpipe to cheer her up. Surprisingly, she was the one who made me laugh for the first time in years. You know I had been feeling down since Rosemary had left me."

He went on explaining to Candy that George had finally tracked him down, so he had to run. "The little girl was talking about something down the hill, so she must have thought that I had vanished. In short, George caught me, and when I noted he was weeping big tears, I felt sorry for him. He was my only friend, and he must have worried sick about me. I followed him home without any protest. Soon after that I realized I had absentmindedly dropped the badge inherited from my father."

Candy heaved a sigh. "Yes, to the little girl, that was the only evidence that her prince had been real, not merely a dream."

A sigh escaped his lips too. "Guess what? I expected some severe punishment from my aunt for running away, but she only told me to change and rest. About the badge, she was quite upset about it, but not a single penalty resulted. It seemed to me that she was more than relieved to see me back home. Anyway, I felt that something inside me had changed after that day. It was like I had found the way to live on that hill. Moreover, I have never forgotten that little girl myself."

By then, they had reached the principal residence, and Albert went around the car and opened the door for Candy. While heading towards the main entrance together, she questioned, "So did you recognize her when you saw her again?"

"Yes, I did," he said with a chuckle. "Back then, she hadn't changed very much actually."

"Albert!" she cried out, feigning her anger by squeezing his hand hard.

He burst out laughing. "Seriously, I saw the cross and my badge dangling around her neck after saving her from the waterfall, and I couldn't stop smiling. I could have asked her to return the badge, but I decided not to."

"Why?" she asked, noticeably intrigued.

He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, it seemed to me that she had treasured it, so I thought I might as well let her have it."

She just nodded in silence. At the same time, she wondered what would have happened if Albert had disclosed the truth to her back then. While ambling back to Aunt Elroy's study, Albert fumbled in his pocket for a moment and drew out his badge. Then he ceased walking, and when she held her steps back and looked up at him in confusion, he bowed slightly and presented his badge to her, "I'd like you to keep it, Candy."

For a second, a look of surprise crossed her face, and her brows were cocked quizzically, so he reasoned, "Because of you, my life means so much more. You give me the courage to face each day, and you make me smile more than anyone else ever can. Do you see how big an impact you have on me?"

She replied with stunned silence, and her eyes glinted with moisture. Then he appended, "The badge has been your amulet for years, and it's the clue for you to find me. It's like our lives were connected the moment you picked it up from the ground."

Having said that, he looked expectantly at her, his blue eyes boring deep into her emerald ones. She was moved beyond description. Finally, he concluded, "So Candy, please take it back and keep it for me until… God willing… until we can pass it on to our son."

She was at a loss of how to respond, the words "our son" bouncing back and forth in her head. He then took her right hand, which was slightly shaking. Next, he gently uncurled her fingers and placed his badge in her palm. As he wrapped her fingers around it, she locked him in her gaze and opened her mouth at last, her voice tremulous, "The son of my Prince on the Hill?"

He smiled and corrected her in a soft tone, "Our son, Candy, not my son."

Then he enclosed her in his arms and squeezed her tight, exhaling a very long sigh as if he had been holding his breath. She kept nodding her head, sniffing back a couple of tears. Emotions rose inside her with intensity, and yet she couldn't have felt more elated and blessed. She would soon marry her prince, and if possible, she would love to bear him children, not just one, but as many as she was capable.

When they released each other later, she heard him, "Before I go, Candy, could you please do me a favor?"

She raised her questioning eyes to his, and he pleaded, "Please stop calling me 'Prince on the Hill'."

He appeared somber enough, and there was a genuine confounded look on her face as she inquired, "Why not?"

He breathed out a sigh of resignation, looking uneasy. "Whenever I hear it... I feel crawly on my back."

She wanted to chortle out loud, but she restrained herself so as not to hurt his feelings. "Ok," she intoned instead, a gleam of mischief flashed into her eyes, which perplexed him. Yet, at this point, out of the corner of his eye, he saw his aunt coming. Thus he said, "Candy, I'll miss you much. See you in Lakewood after next week."

As he leaned forward and placed a peck on her forehead, she whispered to him, "I miss you already, Little Bert."

"What?" he reacted, stupefied. Then she tiptoed and kissed his cheek, saying, "No worries. Your secret is safe with me."

After that, she waved goodbye to him before making her way towards Aunt Elroy.

=o=o=o=

There had been a lot of hustle and bustle in the Lakewood villa these past two weeks. The flowers were in full bloom, in particular the roses in the rose garden. The entire household was getting ready for the grand reception later today, and since the weather was promising, the servants had set up a handful of pavilions for the outdoor cocktail party. Many guests from other cities or states had arrived and would reside in the villa until after the wedding.

Candy and Albert had selected Lakewood for at least two reasons. It was easier for them to arrange the kids from Pony's Home to attend their wedding and reception, and more importantly, this was the place where Candy had first met Albert near the waterfall. Back then, she had not known that he had been her prince.

The bride hadn't slept very well the night before. She had been so jittery that she had woken up three times, but luckily she could easily fall back to sleep. As a result, she overslept and didn't open her eyes till her bedroom was bathed in the morning sunlight. She leapt out of bed and scuttled towards the windows. She pushed the curtains aside, admiring the blue sky that was garnished with large voluminous white clouds. She instantaneously folded her hands and thanked God for the glorious day. Bouncy with high spirits, she hurried to her bathroom for a shower. It was going to be a long day for she was marrying her prince today.

Her prince was going to wear a brand new highland kilt for the wedding, so would Archie and Stear. Talking about the Cornwell brothers, Albert couldn't decide whom to pick as his best man, but Stear had recommended Archie given the following reason, "What if I drop or break my thick glasses that day? A blind best man is essentially useless."

Archie had willingly taken this prominent role because his girlfriend Annie would be the maid of honor. Patty and Anna were the bridesmaids while their boyfriends were the groomsmen. Yes, Lucas could make it because he had asked Susanna to substitute for him. Susanna had also sent her warmest regards to the blond couple. Although Lucas wasn't a Scottish, he didn't mind wearing a kilt for this special occasion.

Terry had finally decided not to attend. Instead, he had asked Lucas to bring his wedding gift for him plus two balcony tickets to the premiere of Hamlet near mid-June.

Candy and Albert had also invited the Jenkins family, and their adorable son and daughter, Peter and Judy, would be the ring bearer and the flower girl respectively. They had thought of asking a couple of kids from Pony's Home, but Candy had dropped this idea before long. No matter whom she would choose, the other kids might be disappointed or jealous. Therefore, the orphans had formed a children choir instead, and they would sing a hymn for them.

In a traditional wedding, the bride's father was the one who would walk down the aisle with her to give her hand to the groom. Having no father, Candy had considered a few choices in her head, and she had picked George. To her, he had been her acting guardian for years, and though he had declined her request more than once, both Albert and Candy had managed to talk George into taking this important role in their wedding.

Madam Elroy had invited Uncle Duncan, his granddaughter Beatrice and her husband Paul to come, and they had arrived from Scotland two days ago. When Beatrice had been introduced to meet William's sweetheart, she had commented, "You look even more beautiful than I have imagined, Miss Candice!"

"You're radiantly beautiful too, Miss Beatrice."

Candy hadn't exaggerated. Beatrice was expecting, and her baby was due in winter, but she looked gorgeous and elegant even though her body was round. Later, Beatrice had talked to Candy in private, and she had felt relieved because Candy had been clueless about what Beatrice had nearly done to William. He had kept his promise to her grandfather, and he hadn't told Candy either about her miscarriage during her stay in Frankfort.

Madam Elroy had invited the Leagans as well, but they had cordially turned her down. Neil had been showing progress but not well enough to travel. They had sent a big parcel as their gift nonetheless.

The wedding ceremony would start at four o'clock in a nearby chapel, which gave enough time for most guests to travel from Chicago or other places earlier that day. Mr. Cartwright and Jimmy would escort Miss Pony, Sister Lane, and all children from the orphanage as well. After the ceremony, the guests would return to the Lakewood residence for the wedding reception. Madam Elroy had expected the festivities to run into the night, and she had hired Herbert Walter and his colleague from Chicago Tribune as their official journalist and photographer for the big event. They had gladly accepted the honor.

After having a simple brunch, Candy and her bridesmaids gathered in her bedroom, where two maids had been waiting already. They were responsible to dress up the bride and made her look her best for the day. The other ladies retreated to their rooms to get dressed as well.

Walking back into the room, Anna saw that Candy had put on her wedding gown, sitting down in front of a dresser. One maid was working on her hair and the other defly putting makeup on her face. Even then, Candy looked captivating, and Anna promptly picked up her sketchbook and a drawing pencil. Her goal was to capture various moments of the day for her friend, especially the times when the groom wasn't around. This would be her wedding gift for the couple.

The ladies were all dressed in sky blue colored bridesmaid dresses. Annie's dress had special designs because she was the maid of honor. Candy had picked sky blue to match Albert's eyes.

When the maids had completed their tasks, the bride looked exceptionally graceful and stunning. Her effulgent blond hair was meticulously tied and pinned to perfection. While Annie and Patty were showering praises at their girlfriend, Anna whistled and exclaimed, "Candy, you're breathtaking to behold!"

Then she whispered to Candy's ear, "I bet Albert will be dying to get you out of this."

That made Candy blush violently, and deep inside, this was one of the reasons why she had been too flustered to sleep. After the reception, she and her prince would spend their first night together as husband and wife. On one hand, she was extremely looking forward to it, even fantasizing about it numerous times. On the other hand, she only knew the theory behind human reproduction from textbooks, so she couldn't help feeling a little timid. Being utterly inexperienced in the matter, she dreaded the wedding night, though not very much. She strongly believed Albert would be very gentle and patient with her. Nevertheless, she couldn't exclude the possibility that she would act clumsy, unappealing or even awkward, thus ruining the whole thing. To top it off, she hadn't the faintest idea where they would be going to stay for tonight or honeymoon. Albert had kept it a secret from her, but he had already informed his aunt that they would leave the reception earlier.

Anna's voice shook Candy out of her train of thoughts when the talented artist asked the bride to pose by the window to let her have a quick sketch. When Anna was nearly done, Madam Elroy entered the room and presented the jewelries to the bride. The exquisite matching pearl necklace, earrings and bracelet used to belong to Albert's late mother, and it had been her wish to pass some of her jewelries to her son's future wife. The old lady had talked to her nephew earlier about this, and he and Candy had selected this particular set for the wedding day.

Soon, it was about time to leave for the chapel, and the maid of honor brought the bride to the large mirror on the wall and fixed her veil. Then Annie remarked, "Candy, I hope Albert won't faint when he sees you!"

Gazing at her own reflection, the bride couldn't even recognize herself. The maids had done a marvelous job indeed. Anna added, "Annie's right! Many young men will throw envious glances at the groom today."

Even Patty chimed in, "Albert can't ask for a more beautiful bride!"

Aunt Elroy kept nodding in acknowledgement. The normally hard edges of her face had softened significantly today. She had been waiting for this day ever since her late brother had left young William to her care. Though she had always assumed Beatrice would be his bride, it had turned out that fate had brought an orphan girl to her nephew. Aunt Elroy had recently learned from him that Candice had been keeping the family badge with her all these years. It was a wonder that their paths had crossed again and again by chance. Their already strong bond had become invincible over the years, and their unfailing love for each other had melted the stone heart of the old lady. Aunt Elroy must admit that Candice was truly worthy to be the next matriarch of the clan in spite of her lowly origin. The blond girl was a woman of undeniable beauty, both inside and out. She had a knack to make people feel happier in her presence. The more time spent in her company, the more attractive she became. Whether it was the innocent sweetness in her eyes or the kindness in her actions, her beauty just grew on people. While Aunt Elroy used to show contempt on the poor orphan and frown upon her natural vivacity, Candice had fascinated the old matriarch with her perseverance and strength to overcome every obstacle in her way. A young lady who had lived in her ivory tower most of her life might not have resilience like Candice. Not to mention that the blond girl saw the good side of many things, even after William's horrible accident. Candice had manifested her devoted love for him, attending to his every need, and with her continuous support, he had survived the perils of his life. At any rate, Aunt Elroy remained grateful that Candice had played the vital part in her nephew's recovery, when he had been amnesiac and later paralyzed, so what more could the old lady ask for? William had found true love and his soul mate in his life. Therefore, Aunt Elroy had faith that her nephew, together with Candice, could sustain sufferings or tribulations in their future.

Just then, the butler knocked on the door and announced that their cars and chauffeurs were ready. Aunt Elroy then admonished mildly, "We should get going."

The road that led to the chapel was not long at all. Patty and Aunt Elroy were in the other car, but Annie and Anna were with the bride. Anna sat in the passenger seat, casting fleeting glances at the bride while her hand was moving her pencil across the sketchbook in an attempt to do justice to the bride's beauty.

Meanwhile, Candy missed her prince so badly, and she desperately wanted to know his first reaction to seeing her in a bridal gown. Due to some superstitions, they had been forbidden to see each other since yesterday. Annie sat beside her on the back seat and was quiet, looking out of the window. Candy guessed that Annie probably got butterflies in her stomach just like herself, and yet Candy trusted that everything would turn out fine today. As Albert had told her before, her greatest assets were her smile and optimism, which brought joy and encouragement to all people around her. Thus, she had determined not to shed any tear during the matrimony.

Prince on the Hill, I'm coming... the little girl is now grown up and can't wait to be your wife...

=o=o=o=

Author's note:

Thank you for reading! This chapter was mainly inspired by Candy Candy Final Story (CCFS) mixed with my imagination here and there. Those who aren't familiar with CCFS might not have known that Candy actually said this: "his (Albert's) presence gave me a marvelous feeling of security." I have a post about this topic on my blog.

Also, as I have argued in my post "Age difference between Candy and Albert", it's way more convincing that Albert was Anthony's age when he escaped from home. Hence, in my story, Albert was around fifteen when he appeared to little Candy.

For Albert's confession as Prince on the Hill, I used bits and pieces of the manga's ending because I prefer that to the one in CCFS. For your interest, please read my post "Emotional Wall" on my blog.

Hopefully I'll hear from you soon! Thank you!

Footnote:

[1] Lyrics extracted from "All Of Me" by John Legend. It may not be the perfect song for this scene, but I love the song and find it very romantic.

=o=o=o=

Revised: May 19, 2014