Carlisle House, Yorkshire
Reverend MacKenzie, I would like to ask you for your daughter Natalie’s hand in marriage.”
Lord Stuart Devereux anxiously watched his prospective father-in-law for his reaction to this proposal. The two men sat in the sumptuous library of Carlisle House, home of Stuart’s sister, Lady Clementine Fitzwilliam. The French doors of the library were flung open to the gentle summer breeze and the distant chuckles of the fountains playing in the gardens beyond the terrace. Stuart had seized this moment of after-dinner privacy—while the rest of the MacKenzie family settled in their guest rooms throughout the manor house—to initiate the request that had been burning in his heart for months.
In celebration of the Reverend Eric MacKenzie’s fiftieth birthday, he and his wife Annie, their seven children, daughter-in-law, and new grandson were taking a holiday trip to Scotland. Stuart’s sister had graciously offered her hospitality to the MacKenzie clan as they made their journey north from Oxford, and Stuart had conceived a plan to propose to Natalie MacKenzie on the spectacular grounds of the Yorkshire estate.
But first he needed her father’s approval.
Stuart finally blurted out, “I know I’m not worthy of her—no one could hope to be—but I do love Natalie so very deeply. I am a different man than when you first met me—by the grace of God, that is—and I’ve been sober now for a year and a half. If you consent, I promise I will take excellent care of her. I have a sizable income from my mother’s estate and, of course, when my father passes on I will inherit Clifton Manor and my father’s title. Natalie would become a countess—the Lady Devereux—well, she’d be a viscountess anyway until then, not that titles matter at all to you—”
“Stuart,” Eric interrupted gently, “I’m not unmindful of the great honor you are bestowing on our family by your request.”
“My point wasn’t to make a fuss about the title. I only mention that to assure you that I can provide well for her.”
“Well then, sir, can you see your way to giving us your blessing?” Stuart asked eagerly.
“Have you spoken to Natalie?”
“I haven’t popped the question, if that’s what you mean. I wanted to have your approval first.”
“I appreciate that, Stuart.” Eric smiled. “Most considerate of you, especially in this modern era. But I wondered if you know Natalie’s mind and heart on the matter.”
“We’ve talked about the possibility of marriage in a general way. I believe she loves me, but to be honest, I don’t know whether or not she will agree to marry me…at least not yet.”
“Then why not wait until you are certain?”
“I am certain about this, sir, but I’m afraid she is not. In any case, I wanted to know what you thought about it before I pursued it further.”
“Well, since Natalie just took her degree from Oxford and is looking for employment, you know she’s contemplating going to London or going back to Paris to work at the British embassy. I’ve been out of Oxford for over a year now and working hard to make Clifton Manor financially solvent. I’ve made great progress by opening it to public tours in the summer months, and I hope to turn a profit this year. In any case, I’ve been pursuing Natalie by this long-distance courtship, and I would much prefer to be married or at least live closer to her. If she follows a job to Paris, it would make the separation even more unbearable for me.”
“I see.” Eric set his pipe in an ashtray. “Have you spoken to your father?”
“No. I thought it appropriate to speak to you first.”
Stuart sighed. “I saw long ago what my father’s marrying for money did to my mother. I’m independently wealthy now and don’t need to marry for money. He knows that when my mother died, I resolved to marry for love. I don’t believe he would stand in my way.”
“But he could make things difficult for you and Natalie.”
“He could,” Stuart acknowledged, “but I don’t think he would.”
“Let’s just say for the sake of argument that your father decides to disinherit you if you don’t marry someone of his choosing—what then? If it came to that, could you lay down your title out of love for Natalie?”
Stuart regarded Eric steadily. “I could. I believe I could lay down anything for her, even my life. Certainly my old life. I’ve done that already. I hope, by God’s grace, I could even lay down my desire to marry her if that would be best for her and would most please God. But I do desire most earnestly to marry her and have prayed and prayed for God’s will to be done.”
Eric nodded. “I have prayed that too and have asked Him to show you both clearly what His will is. I know you won’t be happy unless you walk in His ways. Nevertheless, although times are changing, I know from sad experience that it can be difficult—for both of you—to marry across class lines.”
Stuart looked at him with puzzlement. “Your own sad experience, sir?”
“Aye. When I was a lad in Scotland, I had the misfortune—or perhaps it would be more apt to say, the bitter joy—of loving a laird’s daughter. That, of course, was before the war and before I met Annie.”
“Would you tell me about it, sir?”
“I beg your pardon if I was presumptuous or asked amiss.”
“No, no—” A knock at the door interrupted Eric’s reply.
“Enter,” Stuart called out.
David MacKenzie, Eric’s eldest son and Stuart’s friend and mentor, opened the door. He held a chubby infant with black curls and bright blue eyes, very much like his father’s and grandfather’s. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” David said as he handed the baby to Eric, “but this little lad would like a goodnight kiss from his granddad before going to bed.”
David’s wife, Kate, along with his little sister Hannah, followed closely behind. The men rose in greeting. Six-year-old Hannah skipped up to Stuart and dropped down in a neat curtsey. “Good evening, Lord Devereux.”
“Good evening, my lady,” Stuart bowed slightly, enjoying their oft-played game of chivalrous courtesy. “Hello, Kate,” he said, turning to her and noticing once again how much she resembled Natalie with her petite figure and dark beauty. Since the birth of her son five months earlier, Kate had also acquired a healthy maternal glow which only enhanced her natural loveliness. “Has Clemmie made sure you’re sufficiently settled?” Stuart asked. “Is everything to your satisfaction?”
“Everything is wonderful, thank you, and your sister has been most welcoming.” Kate smiled warmly. She took her baby, Jeffrey, from Eric’s arms, and while he resumed his seat she sat on a nearby sofa. “We feel like quite the privileged guests here,” she said. “This house is amazing! I can’t wait to explore it and the grounds tomorrow.”
Stuart laughed softly. “You always have appreciated the beauty and history of these old houses. Perhaps I should hire you for the summer as a docent at Clifton Manor and let David spend the days reading in our library.”
“Sounds like a good plan to me, old boy,” David said, grinning. “A summer of studying on a country estate near Cambridge has a definite appeal. We just might take you up on it, but first we have to see my dad up to Scotland for his birthday.”
Hannah, Eric’s youngest daughter, stood at his knee for her goodnight kiss. Slipping her arms around her father’s neck, she laid her head on his shoulder. Hannah had grown taller and slimmer since Stuart and Kate had first met her, but her blond ringlets, large blue eyes, and charming manners still exuded an angelic aura. “Goodnight, Daddy,” she whispered, kissing him softly on the cheek.
“Goodnight, my darling,” Eric rejoined. “Butterfly?” he asked, and then he brushed her cheek with his eyelashes.
Hannah giggled. “Nose-à-nose?” She rubbed the tip of his nose with her own.
Eric smiled. “You, my sweet girl, keep me young.” He hugged her tightly. “I love you so much! Now may the Lord bless you and keep you and angels watch over you. See you in the morning!”
“Okeydokey!” Hannah sang happily and proceeded to grace each of them, including Lord Stuart Devereux, with a kiss and hug.
“Ah, here you all are!” said Natalie as she and her mother, Annie, joined the company in the library. “We’ve been looking for Hannah, but I can see she’s being a good girl and giving everyone their goodnight kisses. Don’t forget me, Hannah. Let me have a nose-à-nose.”
“Now off to bed with you,” Natalie said, kissing her little sister again for good measure and then nestling next to Stuart on a divan. She looked up at him and smiled when he placed his hand over hers, squeezing it gently.
“Come on, Hannah,” Annie urged her youngest child. “It’s time for bed, pumpkin. I’ll take you up. This is a big house and we don’t want you getting lost.”
“Okay, Mummy. Goodnight, everyone!”
“Goodnight, Hannah!” the group chorused.
“Since we’re all cozily gathered in here,” Stuart interjected, “I’ll ring for some coffee and biscuits. Mrs. MacKenzie, please join us when you come back down. Reverend MacKenzie, would you be willing to share that story? I’d like to hear it. Unless, of course, you’d rather not. Or we can postpone to another time if your family has heard it before.”
“I always love a good story,” David said as he lowered himself onto the sofa where Kate sat cuddling Jeffrey. “Which story is it?”
“Before you all came in,” Eric explained, “Stuart and I were talking about relationships. I mentioned to him a little about my past before I met your mother, and he was interested in hearing more. I’ve shared bits and pieces with you all but never the whole saga.”
Annie regarded her husband carefully. After their long years of marriage, she could read in his face and words much that was unspoken. “Perhaps this would be a good time to tell the children some of your experiences, honey. If you’d like to, that is. I’ll put the baby down so Kate and David can stay to listen.”
The serious tone of their parents’ exchange did not go unnoticed by the family. They recognized that their father would not merely be recounting a frivolous tale of his youth, but something much more profound. When coffee had been served and Hannah and Baby Jeffrey had been put to bed, the rest of the MacKenzies and Stuart Devereux gathered in the library to hear what Eric had to share.
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