First day home, December 1851,
Her breath caught in her throat and Aniela’s eyes grew wide as the house on the hillside came into view. Even with the midnight sky blanketing the vast estate, her memories reigned in sharp and crisp. A silent sob escaped her chapped coarse lips, and she sought to suppress it with the back of her hand.
In all it’s glory, her home was all precisely as she remembered it.
The elderly driver hauled back on the reins, and the carriage jerked to an abrupt halt. He shifted and glanced at her from beneath his tattered rimmed hat, but chose to not say a word. She nodded her gratitude for the ride to the gruff, burly old man. She didn’t know his name or really care who he was.
When he discovered her begging for a ride to Cheshire, he readily approached her and proposed to take her. The offer was strictly out of pity. She recognized that. She wasn’t blind to her disheveled and unkempt appearance.
Initially, she rejected his offer. But then she regarded the elderly man as he walked away hunched over and employing a cane for stability. She noted that he drove an open carriage and perceived she would most likely be riding in the back. She would be permitted the freedom to escape at any time if required. So she called out to him, resolving that she had a change of heart.
He queried why she wished to travel to Cheshire on a cold and potentially snowy night. A spontaneous lie easily flowed from her lips. It wasn’t hard to elaborate a false story informing him Sir William Matthews had employed her to serve in the kitchen and she needed to be there by morning. The man shrugged his stooped shoulders and then readily accepted her reasoning with no further questions asked.
The two of them pulled away from West Derby when the sun low in the sky. Gray ominous clouds were striving to quash the sun’s golden rays across the horizon. After they had traveled less than an hour, a sudden crisp northern wind kicked up, and subtle flecks of snow started peppering the skyline. The carriage driver had twisted and glanced at her scarcity of warm clothing. She guessed it was his compassion that prompted him to stop the carriage to rummage behind his decrepit old seat to find a discarded shawl and tossed it back to her.
After another hour had passed snow pelted her face and she had never been happier to have the thin shawl draped over her head. Without it, the heavy accumulating snow would have soaked her to the bone as it also blanketed their path.
She had traveled these roads more than a hundred times as a child and she didn’t recall the ride to Cheshire being so lengthy or bumpy. As the carriage bounced and jerked, it stimulated her to clutch hold of her left arm struggling to stabilize it and stop the pain from radiating up to her bruised shoulder. She was exhausted and it maintained all her strength to keep the arm tight to her body. But nevertheless, the pain at times was blinding and sharp, provoking waves of nausea to take hold of her abdomen threatening to spew forth its minor contents. Clamping her eyes shut, she drew in deep breaths seeking to mollify her looming anxiety. After a few minutes, the pain would begin to subside. That was until the next bump or lurch the carriage made, delivering her into another round of suffering.
Arriving at her destination, she jumped from the carriage and grimaced as the impact jarred her arm once again. Leaning over, she saw tiny flecks of light appearing to float before her eyes and nausea gripped her belly.
I’m going to pass out.
She clamped her eyes shut again mumbling a prayer to remain upright. The prayers released her from the blackness before, and she anticipated it would again. Taking deep breathes she wiped the beads of sweat forming on her forehead and waited for the dizziness to subsided.
Laboring to stand up straight, she turned just as the driver pulled away. The only evidence of him being there, was the deep wheel marks in the snow imprinting his departure.
Gripping the shawl tighter beneath her chin, she turned and stared up the long cobblestone driveway leading to her family home. The sight of the grand house induced a sob to spill from her lips and she suddenly collapsed her gaze to the ground. They say time heals what reason can not. She wasn’t so sure.
Two years was a long time to be away without word or any kind of communication with her father. She speculated about his reaction when he saw her. A vision of him drifted across her mind, and she toiled to manage the emotions wanting to surge forth. It was these memories that drove her forward and provoked her heart to pound wildly in her breast. Pure panic was commencing to take hold knowing she was within minutes of seeing him again and hearing his deep voice.
She wanted to feel his arms fold around her so she can feel safe again.
Stepping up onto the front veranda, she paused at the front double doors tentative on what to do next. In the past, she would have opened the doors without care and let herself in without a second thought. She reached for the door handle and held it in her hand. But she couldn’t compel herself to turn the knob and promptly released it; stepping away.
Her chest felt tight and she drew a labored breath, it caused her to turn around and allow her eyes to scan the landscape of her family estate. The moon was full, and the ground was blanketed in a vast snowy whiteness. The tree’s lining the driveway sagged with the burden of the snow pulling on their branches. She couldn’t recall a time when it looked more beautiful. Only her tracks up the driveway marred its splendor, causing her a slight regret for scaring its beauty.
Turning back towards the door she struggled with her tepid thoughts and a lone tear drifted down her cheek. So this is it? Is this how she was really going to do it? She planned to walk right in the front door like nothing had happened and she hadn’t been gone for two years. She took a few steps back and looked towards the side of the house. A swift remembrance of a side door she used as a child came flooding to mind. If the door was unlocked, she could enter through the kitchen without immediately being seen.
She looked down at her ragged old boots, and her feet felt numb from the frigid temperature and snow. The worn boots weren’t meant for this kind of weather, and she recognized from experience, it would be a long hike around the massive house.
But she didn’t care.
She crept around the corner and paused to peer into several windows she passed. It was late evening, and most of the lamps had been previously extinguished for the night. If Nettie’s routine had not altered any over the years, she would be still up and be preparing the next day’s meals.
Finally making it to the side door, she turned the knob and murmured a hushed prayer it would be unlocked. When she heard it click, she released a joyous sob and hesitantly pushed the door open.
The dark corridors only light came in the form of a subdued glow coming from the kitchen. She tiptoed inside and pressed her back tightly against the wall. Her eyes darted back and forth up the hallway as she struggled to settle her anxious breathing. An apprehensive sob sprung from her lips as the sudden undeniable smell of her childhood home wafted into her brain. The pleasant aroma led her to almost break down in hysterical weeping. Taking deep breaths, she shook her head frantically sniffing and wiping at her tears. Then suddenly a wave of unhinged laughter began to roll across her over-stressed body. She recognized her feverish state of mind, and she worked to contain her overwhelming emotions as they worked to bubble to the surface.
“Edgar is that you?”
Aniela’s eyes bulged and her hand shot to her mouth stifling a gasp when she heard Nettie’s voice calling from the kitchen.
“Edgar,” Nettie repeated in a louder tone. “Is that you? Come in here I need you to help me lift this pan from the oven.”
Aniela remained fixed to the wall battling to calm her thumping heart, then she willed her wobbly legs to step in the direction of Nettie’s voice. At the swinging doors, she paused when she heard the gentle chorus of Nettie’s humming and a tentative smile curled her lips reliving the song from long ago. Silently she began resiting the words to the tune in her mind. Lifting her hand, she reached for the swinging door and pushed it open. Then stopped at the threshold, fear kept her frozen unable to move.
Nettie heard the doors creak open, but didn’t turn around. “Get over her Edgar, when I open the oven door, you lift the pan out, and I will add these two pans,” she declared, working at her task.
Her eyes traveled up Nettie’s big body taking in everything about her. She wasn’t surprised to see how she displayed the same light blue cotton uniform and her hairstyle was pulled into a bun pinned securely to her head just like she remembered.
Aniela smiled hearing Nettie bark orders at what she thought was Edgar. It seemed Nettie hadn’t changed at all over the years and she wouldn’t covet it to be any other way. “Nettie,” Aniela finally spoke, her voice scarcely a throaty whisper.
Nettie stopped what she was doing when she recognized it wasn’t Edgar and glanced over her shoulder. She set the iron pan down and turned her body to oppose the intruder standing in her kitchen. “Girl, how did you get in here?” She barked waving her hands in the air. “Get on now. I’s know it’s cold out, but you can bed down in the barn. There’s plenty of animals out there to keep you warm. Go on, git.”
Aniela’s face collapsed, she couldn’t believe Nettie hadn’t recognized her. “Nettie it...it’s me,” she sputtered, then let the shawl slip from her head, and she took a hesitant step forward.
Nettie eyed her for a minute, her mind unable to comprehend who she was seeing. Her head cocked to the side. “Are you sick, girl?” she asked with narrowed eyes as she took a few steps backward. “Because you look like you is. I can’t have you being in this house and turning the baby or miss Jessie sick. You need to leave!”
Aniela self-consciously gripped the neckline of her tattered shirt. “Nettie,” she repeated with trembling lips. “Nettie, it’s me...”
Wiping her hands on the front of her apron, Nettie’s head cocked to the side and her eyes drew into slits. But then Nettie’s face abruptly collapsed with a flash of recognition. “A-Aniela?” she murmured in startled disbelief.
Nodding her head, words wouldn’t come as Aniela wiped a lone tear sliding down her cheek.
“Holy mother of Jesus,” Nettie wailed rushing towards her. “You have finally come home. Praise our Lord and Savior; you are finally home.” Then she pulled her into her arms sobbing tears of joy.
Wincing, Aniela closed her eyes as Nettie wrapped her arms around her and they held each other with desperation and fear of letting go.
“Where have you been, Miss Aniela? Everyone had looked for you for so long. We all gave up hope of you being alive,” Nettie sobbed. She pulled away to look at her, then wiped her eyes with her apron. “Your father never gave up though, not until...” Nettie stopped, her voice broke keeping her from expressing more. Then the kitchen doors swung open and in dashed a ball of energy in the form of a young toddler.
“Nettee, Nettee, Nettee Nettee,” squealed the lad, running past Aniela to stand before Nettie with his miniature hands held high in the air, bouncing up and down wanting her to pick him up. “Cookee! Cookee!”
Sniffing and wiping her tears, Aniela watched Nettie bend down picking up the small boy, while her eyes traveled over his cherub face and brilliant blue eyes. He looked to be around two, with dark curls framing his innocent face. She recognized that his nightclothes was made of delicate cloth, so he was clearly not one of the chambermaid’s children.
Nettie wiped her face with the back of her hand, seeking to obscure her distressed condition from the child.
The boy giggled and squirmed in her arms, then clutched her cheeks with his small chubby hands. “Nettee,” he giggled. Then turned and looked at Aniela. “Mum,” he blurted, then reached his hands out for her to take him.
Shocked by the boys’ actions, Aniela took a few steps back and as she moved the kitchen door suddenly swung open at the same time.
“There you are,” Lucian gushed with a smile, reaching for his son. “Sorry Nettie, he got away from me. My little man demanded a cookie.”
Nettie’s bulging eyes looked at him, then to Aniela.
Lucian didn’t immediately catch her distraught appearance. “I was attempting to read him a bedtime story, but he determined a snack was better to his liking and he doesn’t welcome being told no particularly well yet. Jessie and I will have to work on that I suppose.” He moved to take Brydon from her arms, but suddenly noticed she had been crying. “Nettie what’s wrong?”
“Lucian?” Came Aniela’s weak whisper from behind him.
Almost concealed by the swinging door, he didn’t notice her when he entered the kitchen, so he twisted at the sound of her voice before he lifted Brydon into his arms.
When she saw his face, a wave of dizziness took hold of her mind. Aniela placed her palm on the wall for support; she was confident she was going to blackout. “L-Lucian,” she stammered. “W-What are you doing here?”
Lucian lifted a brow of confusion, then shifted a questioning glance back at Nettie.
Alarmed, Nettie took a stride towards him. “Lucian, it’s Miss Aniela,” Nettie cried.
His face collapsed, and his eyes grew wide as the confusion disappeared. “What?” He dashed to Aniela’s side just as she was teetering down to the floor and he lifted her up into his arms.
It wasn’t long before the blackness took complete hold of her.
Assured Aniela was resting quietly. Lucian stepped from the chamber to find Nettie pacing in the hallway.
“Where is Brydon?” he whispered, gripping her arm to draw her away from the door.
“I gave him his cookie,” Nettie whispered, her voice threaded with anguish. “Then, I sent Mary to rock him to sleep and put him to bed.”
" Did you make certain she knew not to wake Jessie?” he urged, picking up his hands to rub his forehead.
“Yes, Mary knows,” she responded, bowing her head. Nettie took his hand and squeezed it with reassurance. “Everything is going to be okay, Lucian.”
He shook his head, not certain if he agreed with her. “How did she get here Nettie? I mean, where did she come from?”
“I don’t know,” she sniffed, toiling to hold back tears. “I-I was preparing tomorrow’s meal when I heard the side door open. I-I thought it was Edgar.” She paused shaking her head peering down at her feet. “She doesn’t even look like the delicate Aniela I remember, Lucian. Where has she been?”
“I don’t know,” he returned, caressing his chin. “We made every attempt to find her. I would hope that when she is ready she will disclose everything to us.” He peered straight ahead in thought. “Right now I need to wake up Jessie. She needs to know-”
“Don’t wake her Lucian,” Nettie interjected, patting his arm. “She needs her rest being so heavy with child. Let her sleep and you can inform her in the morning.”
“No,” he disagreed, unsettled. “I can’t do that to her.”
The uncertainty the two of them felt was unmistakable, and Nettie wrung her hands in front of her. “When Aniela finds out about William... she looked so frail and sick. I pray she can handle the news.”
Lucian couldn’t even think that far in advance right now. He stepped away from Nettie towards his chamber door. Stopping, he turned and crossed his arms over his chest. “Let’s handle one matter at a time,” he whispered to her. “I am going to wake Jessie now.” He hesitated, rubbing his chin. “Aniela is her sister, and she should have a say on what course we take next.”
Nettie nodded. “Should I go sit with Aniela?” Nettie asked, her voice fraught with anguish. “In case she wakes up.”
“Yes,” he agreed, nodding his head. “That is a good idea.”
He turned and settled his hand on his bed-chamber doorknob; then faltered. They gave each one last glance before they separated. It was evident to both; it was going to be a very long night.
Lucian entered the bed chamber and released a long drawn out sigh as thoughts crowded his mind. He leaned on the door, allowing his eyes to adapt to the darkness. Jessie’s calm breathing echoed like a gentle whisper in his ears. He strode across the room and settled beside the bed staring at her.
It was a magnificent wonder to him, on how just the sound of her gentle breathing filled his heart with longing and contentment. He leaned on the bed and sat down slowly beside her. His eyes wandered over her body drawing in every arch and contour. She laid on her side, with her head cradled in one hand, while the other rested on her large belly. Bending down, he placed a feathery kiss where his unborn child rested. When she didn’t rouse, he sat up and let his hand drift up to her exposed arm until it rested on her cheek. “Jessie,” he whispered, trying to wake her. She smiled in her sleep, prompting him to bow down and settle his lips on hers. “Jessie,” he whispered again. “Jessie, I need you to wake up.”
She sighed and opened her mouth for him. “Lucian,” she whispered against his lips.
He loved the taste of her and her sleepy response to him. But he had to suspend his yearning before her lips sent this in a direction he didn’t have time for. “Jessie, open your eyes,” he said more firmly. He pushed up from the bed to light a small lamp.
Jessie stretched her tired limbs, blinking back sleep. She watched Lucian walk back to the bed, she raised herself to rest on one elbow and rubbed her sleepy eyes. “Lucian, what’s wrong?”
He moved back to the bed and sat back down next to her. His hand rose and caressed her face.
Her eyes sprang suddenly to life. “Is something wrong with Brydon,” she asked, attempting to rise.
He interrupted her movements holding her in place. “It’s not Brydon,” he said, setting his hand on hers. “I promise, after he ate a cookie, Brydon is asleep and safe in his room.”
Jessie searched his face. “Then what’s wrong? Is it Nettie?”
He raised her hand to his lips and kissed each knuckle as he grappled to tell her. He wavered. “Aniela is here.”
She sat up with a start, and her eyes grew wide. “W-What?”
“I heard you, Lucian,” she gasped, cutting him off. “How...when?” She sought to rise again, but Lucian held her in place. “Lucian,” she cried, her voice breaking with emotion. “Let me rise; I need to go to her. What are you doing?”
He put his hands on her shoulders. “Jessie, she doesn’t know yet. She has no idea about you or your father.” He hesitated, letting his statement sink in. “Remember, you have known about her existence for years. She as yet has no idea about you.”
Incredulous, she gawked at him as tears commenced to build behind her eyes. Then she reached for him, and he dragged her into his arms.
He caressed her back until she settled down and her breathing soothed to normal.
“Did she mention where she has been?” she whispered against his chest.
“But she knew who she was...Jaylon said she had no memory of him or herself after the accident. So that’s good, yes? She knew to come home?” She asked, battling to maintain a calmness.
Lucian sighed, stroking the inside of her palm. “Yes, she knew to come home.”
She picked up on his cautious manner. “What aren’t you telling me? Is there something else?”
Shaking his head, he picked up his hand to settle on her chin, forcing her to look at him. “Jessie, she said my name, and I had no idea who she was. Even when Nettie said it was Aniela, I stared at her incapable to comprehend what she was telling me.”
“But why?” she asked confused.
“Because,” he halted, trying to find the proper words to explain. “Because she looks different.”
“Looks different?” she reiterated with narrowed brows and drew away from him. “What do you mean?”
His hands massaged her arms trying to comfort her. “She is exceedingly thin and her clothes...they appear to be men’s clothes.”
She scanned his face confused by his words. “I used to wear men’s clothes.”
He shook his head. “But you were raised that way,” he explained, cautiously. “The Aniela I remember would never have put on a pair of britches.”
“That doesn’t mean anything Lucian,” she asserted, not comprehending his meaning.
Lucian placed both his hands on her face. “Listen to me Jessie,” he stressed. “She is not the same Aniela I remember. She looks like she has been through hell and back. I am just trying to caution you.” He released his hold on her and helped her lay down. Then he laid down behind her and gathered her into his arms.
Jessie stroked his arm and threaded her fingers with his, guiding his hand to her lips. “There is so much she needs to know Lucian.”
He pressed his lips to her hair. “I know,” he whispered sadly. “Where do we start? With the announcement, she has a twin sister that she didn’t know existed? Or that William passed away a year ago?”
Jessie turned in his arms to face him. “She is strong Lucian; I know she is; I can feel it.”
He leaned down and pressed his lips to hers. “If she is anything like you, I know she is too.”
She laid her head on his chest, and he stroked her back until they both fell into a dreamless sleep.