by Noah Grant
I smile to myself as I press send on my final email of the workday and lean back in my office chair. With Jed’s latest works secured for Sheikh Abdullah El Hakami—the client who helped lead me back to the woman I love—I know he’ll be more than happy with my work.
It’s been over two years since I became the Sheikh’s art dealer and we’ve amassed an art collection I’m very proud of. He’s got big names as well as the smaller, up and coming ones, including Jed, of course, as well as a lesser-known artist by the name of Frisksits.
You might have heard of him.
I close my laptop over and look out at the back yard. It’s early evening on a late summer’s day, and the sun casts a warm glow across the brick patio, the lush green grass, and the majestic tree at the bottom of the garden.
My wife—I am still not tired of calling her that—is sitting in the fading sun on one of the new garden sofas we arranged on the moss-covered red brick patio only this morning. She’s got her nose buried in some paperwork, concentrating hard as she chews on the end of a pencil. In a pair of plain white sneakers with her feet propped up on a footstool, she’s wearing a pair of hot pink cropped pants and a loose-fitting plain white T. Her long, dark hair is piled up on the top of her head in what she calls her lazy bun, exposing the soft, milky skin of her neck.
She looks, in a word, breath-taking.
I let out a contented sigh. I love to watch Tabitha when she’s got no clue I’m doing so. Not in a stalkerish kind of way, you understand. Because that would be weird. Nope, in a totally admiring, loving, I-still-can’t-believe-she’s-mine kind of way.
Because really, I still can’t quite believe she’s mine, even now that she’s my wife.
From our fortuitous first meeting at my neighbour, Evelyn’s, wedding, to tracking her down at 496 to buy art from her for the Sheikh, I always wanted to make her mine once more.
Now and forever.
Did I know that Tabitha owned an art gallery, that she knew Kennedy and Charlie, the friendly couple I met at The Black Cat before I accepted Evelyn’s wedding invitation?
If I answer yes to those questions, will you judge me?
Because the thing is, even though it had been over a decade since we’d broken up, I never stopped loving Tabitha, from that very first day I saw her at the side of the road, her car out of gas, all those years ago.
The day I knew I was a goner for my Duchess.
All the time I was away from her, travelling, gaining my education, working in the art world, it was her I thought about. Her I dreamt about.
Sure, I dated other women. Twelve years is a long time. But not one of them came within even a ten-mile radius of the woman I loved. The woman who’s had my heart since before I even became a man.
And, as of eight months and a handful of days ago, I get to call her my wife.
As she was always meant to be.
Shame it took us so long to come back to one another.
I push myself up out of my seat, pad past the half-empty moving boxes, and make my way out to the back yard. We moved into our new house yesterday, but we both had too much work to get done today to completely unpack. And anyway, as Tabitha said to me when we woke up here this morning for the very first time, we’ve got the rest of our lives to make this place ours, unpacking all our stuff included.
I make my way through the back doorway which is low enough that I have to duck my head down to pass through. We both fell in love with this place, and given its proximity to the village and river, it’s the perfect country town home for our growing family.
And the fact it’s not on the Greene’s land is a bonus.
The cottage is old and quaint, with a thatched roof and white painted stucco walls. Our bedroom window upstairs is what Tabitha calls an eyebrow window, which basically means that it looks like the thick roof is raising an eyebrow at us. I told her I thought she was joking, but we Googled it, and I’m happy to report she’s right. So, our bedroom window has an eyebrow permanently raised at us, which I love.
Hey, we’re married. It’s expected.
Coming up behind my wife—yup, I got another one in there—I lean down and brush a soft kiss against her exposed neck.
She turns to look at me, her gorgeous face morphing from surprise into the smile I adore.
The smile that makes my heart squeeze.
The smile I missed for twelve long years.
“That tickles,” she protests, but I know she’s enjoying it.
I trail a line of kisses down her neck to the top of her shoulder. “Tell me to stop then,” I murmur.
She lets out a laugh that warms my belly. “Did you hear me say I wanted you to stop?”
“That would be a negative.” I tilt her face up to mine with my fingertip to her chin and claim her lips in a soft and tender kiss, resting my hand on her belly.
“She kicked before,” she tells me. “She’s been quite active this evening, which hasn’t exactly been helpful when I’m trying to work out the exhibition schedule for winter.”
“She’s a girl who likes to be noticed.”
“Like her dad.”
“Hey,” I protest. “I’m the wallflower of this marriage, you know.”
“Sure you are.” She rolls her eyes at me. “Oh, feel this.”
I rest both palms on her belly and Tabitha wraps her own hands around mine. We gaze at one another as we wait, her belly smooth and calm.
“She’s already being stubborn, and she’s not even born,” Tabitha says.
“Give her a chance.”
After a beat, there’s a distinct movement against one of my palms and my heart contracts.
“There you are, my little girl. You’ve come to say hey to your daddy.”
“She’s already such a daddy’s girl,” Tabitha coos with a shake of her head.
I lean down and plant a kiss on her bump. “Be good for your mommy, Aphrodite.”
Tabitha laughs, her belly shifting. “We are not calling our baby Aphrodite.”
I sink down into the neighbouring cushion, sling my arm protectively around her shoulders, and grin at her. “Artemis?” I ask, and she glares playfully at me. “No? What about Hestia? You’ve gotta like Hestia.”
“Hestia? I’m not even going to dignify that one with a response.”
“But she builds fires.”
“Good for Hestia. No child should have to suffer through being named after some random god or goddess. Just ask Fenella’s offspring.”
Ares, Hades, and Persephone. Those kids are cute, but they don’t exactly live up to their Greek god names.
“Did you know Echo is actually a Greek goddess?” I ask.
We both glance at our dog, who’s happily snoring in the shade of a tree after an active day investigating her new surrounds.
“Really? What are her superpowers exactly?”
“Making Jed a huge amount of money?” I offer and am rewarded with that smile again, the smile that makes everything we went through to find one another again totally worthwhile.
“Jed and the gallery,” she corrects.
“Jed and the gallery.”
Since that day Tabitha came to find me at the S.O.F.T. protest in Marlingworth, we’ve never been apart. Not even for one day. When I’ve been to Saudi Arabia to meet with the Sheikh, she’s come with me. And when she’s visited her family here in Marlingworth, I’ve been there too, putting up with her parents’ initial disapproval of me, right through to their grudging acceptance.
We lost twelve years, Tabitha and me. Looking back, I guess it’s a case of shoulda woulda coulda. But what matters is we’re together now, and nothing will ever come between us again, not circumstances or friends or family. Nothing.
I won’t let it.
I’m stubborn like that.
Much like my soon-to-be daughter.
“Lemonade?” Tabitha offers.
“I’ll get it. You relax and let Ambrosia entertain your tummy.”
“Ambrosia?” She arches a brow in my direction. “I can tell you right now, no child of mine is going to be named after a tin of rice pudding,” she replies, referring to the popular British dessert in a can.
“I dunno. She sure would be sweet.”
“Don’t be corny, husband.”
I love it when she calls me husband, too. Yup, I’ve become a total sap. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Give me a break. It’s my first ever dad joke.”
“You can make dad jokes when you’re an actual dad in about three months’ time.”
“Oh, I will for sure. You can count on it.” I pour myself a glass of homemade lemonade from the jug Maisie Mayhew dropped off to us as a welcome to Marlingworth gift yesterday, and top Tabitha’s half-filled glass up. We’ve got several gallons of the stuff in the refrigerator. “So where are these exhibitions? The Marlingworth gallery or London?”
Tabitha opened a gallery in Marlingworth about six months ago and it’s been going great guns for her. I’m so proud. She totally turned her life around, from party girl to mature woman, and now she’s running two galleries, has already paid her father back for the initial purchase, and makes a tidy profit.
Did I mention I love my wife?
“I’ve got Jed monopolizing 496 right now, of course, and then I’ve got this cool, anonymous artist who likes to call himself an anagram of FIRST KISS who has finally decided to reveal his identity to the world at the Marlingworth gallery in a couple of weeks.”
“That guy sounds amazing.”
“Oh, he is. In so many ways.” She places her hand on my chest and gives me a squeeze. It sends a current of electricity through me, making me want more from her. So much more. “He seems to be fixated on painting trees in our new garden, which means we’ve got a stack of boxes that still need to be unpacked.”
“I’ve been doing my day job too, you know.”
She kisses me. “Because you’re a total superstar.”
“I’ll take it.” I glance at my easel, the rough outline of a scene telling me I have a lot of work to do when I pick up my paint brushes tomorrow morning. Good thing I love to paint, and the fact that my artwork sells for a healthy profit still stuns me.
Tabitha collects her lemonade from the table and looks at me, a soft smile playing on her lips. “You need to be straight with me.”
“Did you want to buy this house purely for the tree?”
I flick my gaze to the oak tree at the bottom of the spacious garden. Although not exactly the impressive size of Barnabas Babbington’s famous old oak down by the river, with its thick trunk and lush, low hanging branches, it’s one beautiful tree. One beautiful paintable tree.
I shrug at my wife. “What can I say? I’ve got a thing for oak trees. And kissing pretty girls under them.”
“Only one girl, I hope.”
We share a smile.
“Well, as far as obsessions go, I suppose that’s pretty tame. I can live with you having a thing for painting oak trees.”
“That’s good because we’ve got a twenty-five-year mortgage on this place, as well as a flat in Notting Hill to pay off. Debt up to here.” I gesture at my eye level.
She rests her head against my shoulder. “Well, I suppose you’re going to have to sell a lot more paintings through the galleries then, Mr. Frisksits.”
I place a kiss on the top if her head. “I guess I am.”
She swivels around and pulls me into a kiss. Soft at first, heat begins to build between us until I know exactly where I want this to take us.
“Heeeelloooo?” a sing-song-y voice calls out.
“Seriously?” I question, as we pull away from one another. “Are we expecting anyone?”
“We’re in Marlingworth, babe. Haven’t you noticed people seem to turn up on the doorstep whenever the mood takes them?”
She’s right. Since we moved into our cottage yesterday, we’ve already had Basil and Maisie Mayhew come by with lemonade and enough of their famous pies to feed the entire village of Marlingworth; then it was Dot, Caro, Nigel, and the S.O.F.T. gang’s turn to drop by with baking and a basket of apples from Nigel’s garden; and we have Tabitha’s girlfriends, the London Babes as she likes to call them, all turning up here on Sunday to check the new place out.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re all great, and being back in Marlingworth with the love of my life is absolutely perfect. But can’t a man kiss his wife in his own back yard without being interrupted?
“There you are!” the voice continues, and I turn to see Tabitha’s sister, Fenella, grinning at us, her twin boys, Hades and Ares, clutching each of her hands. She’s flanked by Teddy, her husband, who’s holding their daughter, Persephone, in his arms, although by the look of her squirms to get put down on the ground, that won’t last.
Tabitha shoots me a quick smile before she rises to her feet and pulls her sister into a hug, declaring, “Fen! Teddy! It’s so lovely to see you. And hello, you little rascals.” She leans down and kisses both her nephews on their cheeks as Teddy sets Persephone down on the ground, and we all greet one another.
“I’ve got a train,” one of them—Ares, I think—says.
“I do, too,” the other twin adds.
It would really help if their parents put them in different outfits, but they’re always in identical clothes, looking, well identical. Mainly because they are.
“Wow, those trains are awesome,” I say.
“Mine is Thomas. He’s the best.” That’s definitely Ares. He’s the more confident of the two. “Hades’s is only Henry, and he’s not as good as Thomas, you know.”
“No, Henry’s the biggest and the fastest,” Hades exclaims.
“But Henry’s dumb.”
“No, he’s not. Thomas is dumb. Tell him, Mummy.”
“Boys,” Fenella warns. “Be nice to one another, please. We’re at Auntie Tabitha and Uncle Noah’s new house.”
“Watch out. The in-laws aren’t far behind us,” Teddy tells me.
“Gotcha,” I reply with a knowing smile.
Although I’m sure Francis and Rosamond Greene would have preferred their first-born daughter married pretty much any rich English toff, they’ve accepted me into the family. Kind of, anyway. I’ll never be invited for cigars and brandy at the country club, and I’m pretty okay with that. But I know they can see how happy I make their daughter, and although the Greenes are hardly contenders for Warm and Loving Family of the Year, they’ve shown that they’ve accepted me in their own stiff-upper-lip way.
Sure, Francis Greene ran me out of town when I was eighteen. He doesn’t win any star stickers from me for that. But I know he did it because he thought it was the best thing for his daughter. And that’s something we have in common: a tremendous amount of love for Tabitha.
I leave Tabitha with Fenella, Teddy, and the kids, and make my way through the house to the front door. My parents-in-law are making their way up the path, and I greet them both, with a handshake for Francis Greene, and a stiffly received kiss to the cheek for Rosamond. I figure just because she repels physical affection doesn’t mean I have to.
She thrusts a cellophane wrapped basket into my hands filled with what looks like very useful things like canned anchovies and glass jars of caviar. You know, the sort of things you put in a sandwich.
“Thank you for this, and welcome to our new home, Mr. and Mrs. Greene,” I say.
“It’s…lovely,” Mrs. Greene replies, with a look that says she thinks the exact opposite. “Although I still don’t understand why the two of you don’t come and live at the Big House,” she grumps.
When Tabitha and I told her parents that we planned to split our time between London and Marlingworth, they assumed we’d want to live with them. It took some delicate explaining that we need our own space—which was lightly veiled code for no way.
“You know why, Rosamond. Tabitha’s being independent,” Mr. Greene replies, putting particular emphasis on the word.
“Independence be hanged. She’s made her point with the whole gallery business. Enough is enough as far as I can see,” she replies.
I simply smile. There’s no point disagreeing with her.
“Come out to the back yard. We’ve got lemonade and enough pies to give us all coronary heart disease,” I say.
Mr. Greene produces a bottle. “I brought the single malt.”
They follow me to the back yard where they make the appropriate, but not exactly genuine, noises you expect from people when you move into a new house.
The doorbell chimes and I dart a look at Tabitha, who shrugs in response. Before either of us gets to the door, a group of familiar faces arrive in the yard.
“Surprise!” they say in unison.
Zara, Asher, Lottie, James, Kennedy, and Charlie.
“What are you doing here?” Tabitha asks as she pulls her friends into hugs.
“We couldn’t wait until Sunday,” Zara says.
“We miss you, babe,” Lottie exclaims.
“So, so much,” Kennedy adds.
“We’ve only been gone for two days,” my wife replies.
“And we’re back on Tuesday,” I add.
“We know you’re splitting your time between here and London, but it’s not the same,” Kennedy complains.
They’re going to have to get used to that.
As everyone mingles, Tabitha and I go to the kitchen and set about feeding our impromptu guests.
“The décor in here is going to give me a migraine,” Tabitha says, standing in our kitchen with its orange counter, poop-brown cupboards, and floor-to-ceiling orange and white floral tiles.
“It’ll grow on you.”
She shoots me a withering look. “No, it won’t.”
“It’s gonna have to. We can’t afford to renovate this place until Ambrosia is at least in high school.”
“Enough with the rice pudding,” she replies with a sly smile. She leans down and pulls one of the Mayhews’s pies from the oven. “Thank goodness for Baz and Maisie.”
“Hey, you stop that. Go, sit with your friends and family. I’ll be the house husband for the night.”
She beams at me. “Do you know how sexy it is to hear your husband say that?”
I take her in my arms, feeling her growing bump pressed up against me, and breathe in her floral scent. “I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out. You know, in the name of science.”
She lets out a laugh and it ends in a snort.
“Do you remember once you told me you don’t snort when you laugh?”
“I never said anything of the sort.”
“Oh, I think you did.”
Her eyes dance as she gazes up at me, and even though we’re meant to be serving an impromptu dinner to a large number of people amongst the unpacked moving boxes, I cannot resist claiming her mouth with mine in a kiss that leaves her in no doubt of how I feel about her, this beautiful woman who I can now call my wife.
“I love you, husband,” she purrs. “Did you know that?”
“I kinda got that impression when you walked down the aisle in the village church in that white dress a while back.”
“That was you at the end of the aisle? I thought it was Neo from The Matrix.”
I let out a contented laugh. “Hate to break it to you, but it was me.”
“I’m glad it was, because you are the man I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
“I love you, my beautiful wife, the woman of my dreams.” I place a kiss on her soft lips and say the name I gave her all those years ago, “My Duchess.”