Natasha s Diary
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200 pages
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Description

Keeghan’s subconscious has played tricks on her in the past, but she’s normally able to control the outcome of her dreams. No such luck with this story. The mystery magnifies when her husband William discovers something else by the eroding sea wall. Something that piques their curiosity even further. Coincidence?

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Publié par
Date de parution 29 octobre 2015
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9781771457958
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

Natasha’sDiary
The Natasha Saga,Book 2
By HeatherGreenis
 
Digital ISBNs:
EPUB 9781771457958
Kindle978-1-77299-563-3
WEB PDF9781771457972
Amazon Print ISBN9781771457989
 
 

 
Copyright 2015 byHeather Greenis
 
Cover art by MichelleLee
 
All rightsreserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reservedabove, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in orintroduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, orby any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, orotherwise) without the prior written permission of both thecopyright owner and the publisher of this book
 
Dedication
 
To my husband. A man Irespect.
 
Chapter One
 
 
Present Day
“Keegh? Keegh?Keeghan?”
Her eyessnapped open. A shadow loomed over her. From the corner of her eye,something red flashed. Numbers came into focus. Four. Five. Two. Where am I? She looked back to theshadow. Who are you?
Keeghanstruggled to concentrate and pull her mind from the dream that justended so terribly. Am I still dreaming? I can’ttell. Is this another dream? Shit. Where am I? Think, think, think.Just a second. I know that voice. It’s not calm and reassuring, butthat’s Will’s voice. You silly ass. Glancing to the left ofthe shadow, trees and a moon lit sky filled her vision. That’s out our bedroom window. If I reach down,I’ll feel the edge of Constable’s bed. I’m in bed in our room. Iwas probably talking in my sleep and woke Will.
“You weredreaming, love.”
Uh, it was anotherdream . Bringing asubconscious back to reality is the worst. The red flash is theclock radio.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” she whispered, hervoice cracking.
“You weremumbling, and obviously upset. Please tell me it was a differentdream.”
She shook herhead, retracing the events of the dream in her mind. Stewart andNatasha, the young princess and her non-prince charming. If only hehad royal blood they could have married and lived happily everafter with her family’s blessing. Instead, they had been forcedinto a secret relationship. A local orphanage was Natasha’s daytimerefuge while Stewart attended his first year at university. Thenshe joined him at the school. They were inseparable. The onlyproblem—he had no idea she was a princess.
“If youremember from my last dream, Natasha’s world was turned upside downwhen Stewart proposed. What should have been the happiest day ofher life, turned out to be the worst. Natasha had no option but totell Stewart the truth. Poor guy. He was devastated. His familywould be devastated. What you don’t know is what happened in thesecond part of my dream. Natasha went to Stewart’s room to talk.She was desperate for a way to be together, so she turned to heronly friend, the woman that was her childhood nanny.”
“Seriously? Anemployee of her parents.”
“Yeah. That’swhat Stewart thought, but it was a good move. Nanny becomes aconfidant and liaison with her older twin brothers. Aftergraduation, they went into hiding, and then discovered Natasha waspregnant.”
“Uh oh. Shittytiming.”
“Yes and no. Hestood by his woman and they became parents to a little girl. Hope.Fitting name, don’t you think?”
Will smiled.“Keep going. What else happened?”
“They had threegood years with two close encounters—”
“Not of thethird kind, but of the king’s kind.”
“You fool.” Shechuckled. “But, yes. Her father was determined to bring hisdaughter home. He’s a nasty bugger. Scary, knowing the power hisposition gives him. Anyway, knowing Stewart would be put to deathand his entire family could also be in danger was more than Natashacould handle. Think of the ramifications, Will. Their daughterwould lose the only family she knew. A family that loved her. Atthe end of the dream, Stewart walked into their apartment and foundNatasha’s dead body.”
“No,” hegroaned.
“Stewartcarried Natasha out of the building, and into the mortician’scovered wagon. He rode off with them.”
“And then cameback?”
“Nope.”
“Shit.”
“Yup. I’m notpositive, but I think the princess committed suicide.” Rubbing thesleep from her eyes, Keeghan thought about the story—the ending.“Either that, or she faked her own death. I’m not sure.”
“Oh, love. Theyare supposed to live happily ever after. Did you forget thatpart?”
Alwayssensitive and supportive, he kissed her forehead.
“You have tolet this go and move on. You are supposed to have dreams with happyendings that make you laugh. Sweet dreams.”
Keeping hereyes open, Keeghan stared at the ceiling. With the sun yet to rise,it was still fairly dark in their room, casting shadows.
“It is sostrange. I’ve never had a dream pick up where it left off before. Adream I can’t control. Alexander was waiting for me.”
“I’m going toget jealous of this guy if he keeps invading your dreams,” heteased.
She didn’trespond.
“You’ve hadstrange dreams before,” he admitted, his tone serious. “But I’venever seen one affect you this way. What’s so different about thisdream?”
Keeghan rolledonto her side and looked at William. His head was resting on hispillow. The full moon illuminated the room just enough, she wasable to see his face and the compassion in his expression.
“The detail isamazing. I’m watching and listening as a story unfolds, and I’mfeeling their emotions.”
“You’renormally able to change the outcome of the dream if you don’t likethe direction it’s taking. Why didn’t you change this one?”
“I wish Icould. For some reason, I can’t take control. It’s so weird. Oh, bythe way, you were with me this time. Date night at a drive-in. You,me, Constable, and this Alexander guy.”
“At leastyou’re thinking about me.”
Keeghanfinished the story, and William rolled onto his back and stared atthe ceiling. She could tell he was thinking. After her first dream,Will was convinced it was her imagination. Keeghan couldn’t arguethe fact that in her dreams she could twist and turn events of theday, shows she had watched, something she had read, but for somereason, this seemed different.
“I know you’refinding this a little creepy, but I still say it’s yourimagination,” he informed her, turning his head toward her. “Yoursubconscious is playing tricks on you. I wish I knew what show ormagazine you got this from. You’ve missed an important detail tohelp you give it an ending. To give you closure. Somehow, we haveto get your mind onto a different topic. Hmm,” he mumbled,pondering. “I have an idea.” He flipped onto his side, resting hiselbow on the mattress, and supported his head with his hand. “We’llboth play hooky. Pack a picnic lunch, and go for a bike ride, along ride with Constable. I won’t even complain if you sing. We’llsee if we can clear your head and change the topic so you can get adecent sleep tomorrow night.”
Keeghanappreciated William trying to help, but her mind was workingovertime. The dream had captured her curiosity. She wanted thedream to continue. Needed it to continue.
Oh, I’m so curious. It’s possibleNatasha drugged herself using something to temporarily slow downher heart. Natasha woke, and she and Stewart talked. Morticianswere sworn to secrecy. If that happened — please let thathappen — they willreturn for Hope, and continue hiding. But what if Natasha is dead?Will Stewart return if she is dead, or will he commit suicide tospend eternity with his wife, the love of his life? Leave hisparents to raise their daughter? If he returns, what will happen tohim and the baby? A widower in his early twenties. He’s stillyoung. Will he allow Anna to see her grandchild? Does he have achoice? Will Natasha’s parents demand custody of little Hope? Waytoo many unanswered questions.
“Keegh,” hegroaned.
“Could you walkaway from a good book without knowing the ending?” she questioned,knowing Will’s quest for solving problems. “My dream is like abook. I’ve hit the dénouement, but there are still unansweredquestions that need to be resolved.”
“I’ll make upan ending for you during our day out. I have a good imaginationtoo, you know.”
Keeghansnickered, putting her hands over her eyes. “This should beinteresting. Promise me your story will last more than two minutes.It deserves a proper ending.”
“Let me sleepon this. I’ll put some thought into it,” he promised.
She couldn’thelp but chuckle. “Thanks for making me laugh. I love you,Will.”
After a bigyawn, Keeghan rolled over, snuggled into his arms. She thoughtabout their life together and smiled. They’d met in high school,but lost touch, only reconnecting once they were both working. Shethought of the night Will embarrassed her, proposing at therestaurant. She recalled their wedding. Sherry was hermaid-of-honour, and James the best man, of course. The memory wasvivid in her mind. She was so nervous during the ceremony it wasactually a blur, but not the honeymoon. She remembered it verywell. Relaxing. Romantic. Amazing.
“I can tellfrom your breathing you’re not sleeping. What are you thinkingabout?” Will asked.
“Us.”
“Ah, pleasantthoughts. Glad to hear it. What in particular?”
“The day yourgrandfather gave me the money to buy my business.”
“That made forsome busy weekends, didn’t it? Renovating the store—I get tiredjust thinking about that.”
“You werefantastic. You never uttered a world of complaint about the timerequired to renovate the boutique or about being tired after a badweek at the bank. I know you would have preferred to spend yourweekends doing more enjoyable things.”
“I was taughtpatience. For a guy that likes to procrastinate a little, that cameback and bit me in the ass. I had to put off something Iwanted.”
“And then yourgrandpa came through again. Money for your business. It was a realpiss off that my dad wouldn’t help us.”
“He didn’t likeme. I wasn’t good enough for his princess.”
“My silly,silly poppa. Anyway, you were so happy the day you signed the leaseand gave your notice at the bank.”
“My manager wasshocked. If they had known what I was doing, I would have beenshown to the door. The business grew so fast, I asked Jim to joinme, and then, at long last that amazing dinner with your family. Atop-ten day in my book. I was about to get a big client and yourdad accepted me into the family.”
“Finally. Ittook him long enough.”
“Familyget-togethers have seen a huge improvement since that day. Iactually look forward to visiting and chatting with your dad. Mybucket list was almost complete at that point.”
“And then,Constable came along. We welcomed a critter into our home, into ourhearts. Then the big surprise. There was nothing wrong with ourhouse, but it wasn’t this place.”
“Nope. Itwasn’t Keeghan’s dream home. I remember thinking ‘Something in thecountry. Keegh loves the ocean so waterfront would be perfect.’ Iaim to please, love. I’m glad you were having a slow day andplaying on the net. I still remember that e-mail. One look at thepictures and virtual tour and I knew we’d be putting an offerin.”
“Life is good.”She yawned and closed her eyes. She was smiling as she drifted offto sleep.
 
Keeghan’sDream
Enteringdreamland, Alexander appeared out of a pearly mist.
Keeghan heldWill’s hand as they ran toward the tree where Alexander waited. Shesat beside her storyteller, and Will settled beside her. Constablesniffed Alexander and sat between her masters.
“What aterrible way to end the story. Please tell me Natasha faked hersuicide. That she found happiness with Stewart. I liked her. ”
“We shallcontinue,” Alexander promised.
 
 
Chapter Two
 
 
Willard wokeearly and dressed in silence. The long night was over, but the dayloomed ahead. Hope cried most of the night. He had heard both hiswife and daughter attempt to console her. Everyone needed moresleep. He opened the door to Vicki’s room. Relieved she was stillsleeping, he closed the door and moved further down the hall. Elizawas sleeping on her side with Hope tucked into a small ball at thefoot of the bed. He covered Hope with the blanket and closed thedoor, leaving the room.
Once on themain level, he crouched down to greet Goldie, and then opened thedoor to let her out.
Within thehour, Hope’s voice came from the upper level. Then the threefemales in his life descended the steps. Vicki took Hope into thekitchen.
“Stewart didnot return home?” Eliza’s discouragement showed in her tone.
“Nay.” Heplaced his mug of coffee on the dining room table. “I hoped hewould arrive through the night.”
“As did I.” Sheyawned, covering her mouth.
“It would bewise for you to rest when Hope is down for her nap.”
“Indeed, Ishall. I sleep with you by my side. Not with a child.”
Willardfollowed Eliza into the kitchen for breakfast.
 
* * *
 
Willard wasbusy chopping wood when Eliza came out and walked toward him. Herested the head of the axe on the stump.
“It worries mewe have not heard from Stewart. Would we be informed if he hasended his life?”
He set the axeon the ground and embraced his wife.
“I doubt he’sleft Natasha’s body. Assuming our son is still alive, themorticians must wait. If he ended his life, Nanny would have beennotified.” Pulling back, he looked into her eyes. “Common sensetells me our son is grieving, but will return to his family—to hisdaughter. We must have faith.”
“I pray you’reright. I love Hope, but fear I lack the energy to be a momma to athree-year-old child. I cherished the years I raised our children,but appreciate some solitude now that Vicki is grown.”
“Go to ourbedroom and rest, my darling.” He gave her a gentle caress with hislips. “Vicki and I will tend to Hope when she wakes.”
A few hourslater, Vicki and Eliza prepared supper, and then Vicki read Hope abedtime story. Sensing something was wrong, Goldie stayed on themain floor for a second night.
 
* * *
 
Stewart shookhands with the driver of the buggy.
Woof.
Goldie. Give me a minute, girl. Stewart turned.Narrowing his eyes against the early morning sun, he glanced towardhis parents’ house. Poppa appeared at the parlour window. As heshuffled his way toward the entrance, the door flew open. Poppa hada firm grip on Goldie’s collar, holding the excited dog back as hertail wagged enthusiastically. Struggling to keep his heavy eyesopen, Stewart stumbled up the front steps. He bent to greet thedog, rubbing her head. He surrendered to the warmth of Poppa’sembrace and entered the house. The aroma of coffee registered inhis mind. Normally he inhaled that with delight, but that was notthe case this time. The very thought of breakfast, frying eggs andbacon, turned his virtually empty stomach. Stewart needed sleep,but was that possible? Hope would expect to spend time with him,and he missed her. Goldie sat by his feet. The house was silentexcept for the beat of Goldie’s tail on the floor. There was nosign of life when he looked up the staircase.
“Where’s Hope?Like Natasha, she rises with the dawn. Where is Momma?”
“They aresleeping. The hour was late when Hope finally settled. We have hadtwo restless nights.”
Guilt-ridden,his heart sank. Stewart dropped his gaze to the ground. “I owe you,Momma, and Vicki, an apology. Hope is my daughter. Myresponsibility.”
“There is noneed. We are simply thankful for your return.”
“I requiredtime to come to terms with everything,” Stewart informed Poppa ashe leaned against the wall in the hall. “I am angry, and hurt, andshocked. I don’t possess the proper words to express my emotions.I’m unable to comprehend how Natasha could take her life and leaveour daughter. Leave me.”
“We werefrightened you might consider …,” he paused.
“To be frank, Idid consider taking my own life,” Stewart admitted, not allowinghis father to finish his sentence. “But our daughter deserves herpoppa. Hope didn’t ask to enter this world. I never consideredleaving Natasha’s side when I discovered she was with child. Ichose to remain with Natasha, marry her and raise the baby wecreated. I will never regret that decision. My daughter is blood ofmy blood, bone of my bone. She will know me. I pray she willforgive me for deserting her as she grieved for her momma.” He tooka deep breath, struggling with his emotions. His eyelids fought toclose, but he owed Poppa an explanation, and he needed to share hisplans for the future. “It’s my plan to return to school to completemy masters, but I’ll require assistance with Hope.”
Poppa’s lipscurled into a smile.
“You’ll haveour support, Stewart. It’s pleasing to hear you plan to finish youreducation. Your dream has always been to become an architect andengineer. I would suggest you join me in the parlour to continuethis conversation, but you look dreadful. Have you slept?”
“Nay. I satwith Natasha’s head upon my lap. I talked to her, and I wept. Foodwas brought to me, but I lacked any appetite.”
“You’reexhausted. You need to rest, and eat. I will ask Eliza to prepare atray to be left in your room. I don’t expect to see you until ourevening meal. We will care for Hope until you rise.”
Stewart pushedhimself away from the wall. He reached for the banister and pulledhimself up the stairs, struggling to raise each heavy, rubbery leg.He opened the door to Hope’s room. His mother was sleeping on herside in the small bed. Hope was holding her teddy bear, her backsnuggled into her Nana’s chest. Afraid he would wake his daughter,and desperate for rest, Stewart closed the door. He entered hisbedroom and closed the door. The bedspread and sheet had beenpulled down in welcome. There was something on his pillow. Anenvelope with the words written in bold letters in Natasha’s handwriting.
‘My Darling Husband ’
Overwhelmed, hetook a deep breath, attempting to get oxygen into his lungs. Heexhaled slowly, sat on the bed, picked up the envelope, and brokethe wax seal. He didn’t know what he was expecting to see—to find.Her will had not entered his mind. After holding her body in hisarms for the last two days Stewart had been certain he could notshed another tear. He assumed he’d accepted her death, but thismade it so final. Official. The sight of the legal document broughttears to his eyes. I can’t concentrate. This hasto wait. God has placed weights on my eyelids. I can’t read thisuntil I sleep. He placed the will on the nightstand. Temptedto rest his head on his pillow, he knew he wouldn’t sleep well inhis clothing. Struggling for the strength, he stood and removed hisclothing and flopped onto the bed. Extending his arm, he pulled thesheet and bedspread over himself. Within minutes of closing hiseyes, he was oblivious to the world.
 
* * *
 
A knock on thedoor dragged Stewart from his sleep. Groggy, he wished for theability to sleep around the clock, but that was impossible. He hadresponsibilities. Hope needed him. He would sit by her side as sheate her meal and then put her to bed for the evening.
“Yes?” Hegroaned, struggling to open his eyes.
“Stewart.” Itwas his mother. “Nanny and Natasha’s brothers have arrived tovisit. It pains me to say this, but arrangements for Natasha’sfuneral must be made in haste.”
Nanny. She was the last person he wished to see.
“I require amoment.”
He pushedhimself out of bed. Noticing the food on the tray on his dresser,he nibbled as he dressed. With the last bite in his mouth, heopened the door.
“It’s pleasingto see your face, although you do not appear rested.” Eliza kissedhis cheek.
“I’ll retirefor the evening once Hope is sleeping.”
He followed hismother down the stairs and into the parlour. Nanny, Marcus, andJoshua were on the sofa, their backs to the windows. Across fromthem, his father sat with Hope on his lap. He didn’t see hissister.
“Poppa,” Hopesquealed in delight the moment she noticed him. “Papa. Down,” shebegged.
Stewartextended his arms, and Hope ran to him. He scooped her up in hisembrace and buried his nose in her hair. Fresh grief swept overhim.
“I missed you.”He kissed her forehead, and then the tip of her nose, making hergiggle. Carrying her to the chair, he sat with his daughter on hisknee. Stewart listened as Marcus spoke of their final conversationwith their sister.
It wasdifficult to hear Natasha’s brothers admit their prior knowledge ofher plan. His first impulse was deny them all rights to see hisdaughter. From the corner of his eye, he could see Willard gauginghis reaction, as was Eliza. As tempting as it was, Stewart couldn’tdeny his wife’s siblings and friend the opportunity to know hisdaughter. During his final hours with Natasha’s body, he had timeto think. It was Natasha’s wish to take her own life. She was anintelligent woman pushed to the brink by desperation. In her panicshe could see no other solution than to end her life to free himand their daughter. It was the only way she knew to end theseclusion. Now, he must move on without his wife by his side.
Through hisrelationship with Natasha he had bonded with her brothers andNanny. When asked, they had assisted him and Natasha. Because oftheir help, he and Hope had three glorious years with Natasha.Other than the two dreadful nights escaping their homes, he hadwonderful memories of his wife with their little girl. Nothingwould erase those memories. It would be painful, but he must forcehimself to accept their explanation and apology. Hope deserved theprivilege of knowing her uncles and her mother’s closest friend.Still, allowing visitation with Anna presented a concern forStewart. The king could have his sons or former employee followed.He didn’t want Natasha’s parents anywhere near Hope, especiallywhen they were living at such close proximity to the castle. Themen could walk to his parents’ home, as Natasha had in thepast.
“I’m concernedyour father or mother will—”
“Follow us?”Marcus questioned. “It’s a valid concern, but unwarranted. Theyhave been warned about the consequences. Allow us to assure you,they will not risk it. Mother never stood up to Father whileNatasha was alive, but she does now. You must trust us.”
Lacking anoption, Stewart faked his best smile. Joshua, Marcus, and Nannyleft with an open invitation to visit the Donovan home and hisdaughter.
 
ChapterThree
 
 
Natasha’sfuneral took place in the small church where she and Stewart weremarried. Stewart stepped down from the buggy, adjusted the jacketof his black suit, took Hope into his arms, and straightened theplain navy dress Eliza had sewn for the occasion. Ensuring hissister had the roses for the casket, they followed his parents andsister into the church. Surveying the congregation, he was relievedto see the pews were filled with family and friends. Stewartlowered Hope to the floor and gripped her hand.
“You mustremain close to Poppa , ” he instructed.
His parentsstopped to speak with acquaintances, but fearing he would breakdown, Stewart avoided eye contact. He stared at the floor andguided his daughter to the front of the church. It would be a long,difficult day. An emotional day, but his last opportunity to seehis wife. He took his seat, placed Hope on his knee, and looked tothe other side of the aisle. With a slight nod, he acknowledgedMarcus, Joshua, and Nanny. His parents and sister joined him on thepew. The priest stood at the pulpit and began speaking. Both Marcusand Joshua gave eulogies that touched on the good times they’dshared with Natasha, and her love for her husband and child.Stewart’s father spoke on behalf of the Donovan family. Then, oneby one, family and friends approached the casket. He forced himselfto make eye contact, but never uttered a word, only giving a slightnod. He appreciated the support, but he had no words he could bringhimself to share. Sympathies and condolences, regardless of thesincerity, wouldn’t bring his wife back. His father returned fromNatasha’s coffin, squatted, and whispered to his younggranddaughter, before taking his seat beside his wife.
“Come withPoppa,” Stewart whispered.
Hand in hand,father and daughter approached the wooden box that held Natasha’sbody. He removed a piece of paper from his pocket and looked at theimprint of Hope’s hands and feet. Eliza and Vicki had coloured thesoles of Hope’s feet and her palms and fingers. Under the hand andfootprints they wrote. ‘ I love you, Momma. ’He placed the paper on Natasha’s stomach, and then lifted hisdaughter to see. “Momma will appreciate this in heaven. She willalways love you, sweetheart.”
He had spokento his parents about this moment and whether to encourage Hope tokiss Natasha. Momma feared possible nightmares. Not wishing totraumatize his daughter, he decided against it. Stewart kissedHope’s forehead and lowered his daughter to the floor beforeglancing toward the pews. His father stood, took a long-stemmed redrose from Vicki, and joined him at the casket. Stewart took theflower and watched his father guide Hope back to the pews.
With his littlegirl settled, Stewart turned his attention to Natasha’s still body.Lifting her hand, he gave her fingers a tender kiss. How am I to say goodbye? I miss you,horribly. My heart has never experienced such pain. I wish to kissyou. To take you in my arms and never release you. Thegrief, a physical pain, twisted his gut. He placed the rose on herchest and rested her hand over the stem. The room was so quiet youcould hear a pin drop. The silence added to his misery. He hatedthat everyone in the room was listening for his words. His mindwent blank. He removed a second piece of paper from his pocket andplaced it under her rose. He whispered so quietly, he barely heardhis own voice, but Natasha could hear him. He could feel herpresence at the casket. A tear fell on the paper.
“I love you,Natasha. I’ll love you for all eternity.”
He kissed herlips for the last time, and then looked at her beautiful face. Witha heavy heart, he closed the lid on the oak casket. He would neversee his wife again. He couldn’t force himself to move, but staredat the box that held his love. A full minute passed in the silentroom before he turned to face the congregation. The tears streamedunchecked down his cheeks.
“Poppa?” Hope’svoice echoed through the silent building. His little girl squirmedfrom her grandfather’s lap and ran to him.
“I love you,Hope,” he whispered. He lifted her into his arms and carried herback to the pew.
There were alot of whispers and even more sniffles and sobs. Allow me to get through this day.
Standing by theopen grave, tears clouded his vision. It was difficult to see thebox containing Natasha being lowered into the ground. He tossed hislast rose onto the casket, turned and walked away with histhree-year-old daughter in his arms.
 
* * *
 
The following afternoon, t aking advantage of Hope’snap time, Stewart headed for the storage room. The boxes ofpersonal items from the apartment he’d shared with Natasha had beenplaced there. He descended the stairs and entered the room. Henoticed a crate with the number ‘1’ printed boldly on the side. Itwas heavy, but he carried it up the stairs to his bedroom. He setthe crate on the floor and knelt to look inside. Movement in thehallway followed by a soft tap on his open door distracted him.
“Do you wishcompany?” Momma asked.
“Nay. You havewitnessed enough tears. I cannot disguise my distress, but I needto be close to her.”
“Of course,Stewart. I will respect your need for privacy. Do not feel the needto rush. I shall listen for Hope to awaken.”
She closed thedoor. Stewart turned his attention to the crate and opened it. Onthe top was the family photograph Natasha had kept by her side ofthe bed. The picture had been taken at Hope’s first birthday,before she became covered in cake. Natasha was glowing as she heldtheir daughter on her knee. Stewart was sitting on the sofa by herside, one arm around his wife and the other holding Hope’s smallhand. He smiled, recalling the day vividly. He placed the pictureon the nightstand. The next item was a slightly worn writing book.Curious, he opened it and recognized his wife’s penmanship. “Adiary? You kept a diary?” With the book in hand, he sat on the edgeof the bed and read the first paragraph. He pushed himself furtheronto the bed, rested his head and back on the pillow, andcontinued. He smiled when he finished the first entry. “This istruly a diary. This is your life, Natasha.” Curious, he beganflipping pages, scanning the entries. When he turned the fifthpage, a folded piece of paper floated onto the bed. Stewart placedthe diary on his lap, picked up the paper, and unfolded it. Thefirst line took his breath away.
‘My DearestStewart
Please, I begof you, find it in your heart to forgive me.
The search hasended. I pray you are able to live a wonderful life in freedom. Ihave spoken these words on many occasions, but I pray you neverquestion my love for you. Apologize to your parents and sister. Iwill no longer be the cause of pain and grief again. I never meantto hurt them. I loved them as my own, and cherished each momentwith them.
It would beimpossible to love you or our daughter better. The evening weescaped the cottage was the worst of my life, fearing for the livesof you and your family. I would rather die a thousand deaths thanhave our daughter raised by the man who refers to himself as myfather.
I have searchedmy mind and my soul for another option, but after speaking with mybrothers, my fears were confirmed. The search would continue.Together, we believe in our hearts it is unlikely he will stop.Father is a stubborn, vain man, and I have embarrassed him. Icontemplated returning to the castle, but knew you would attempt torescue me, losing your life in the process. I have chosen to end mylife before allowing our daughter to be raised without her poppa.Hope is a precious little angel and truly a gift from God.
I beg you,Stewart, please forgive Nanny and my brothers for assisting me.Hope deserves the opportunity to know Nanny and my brothers as wellas her poppa, your parents, and your sister.
Although physically I am no longer in your life, I will remainby your side in spirit, encouraging you and guiding you as youraise our daughter. Close your eyes and you shall feel my presence.I will encourage you to show pride when she is good and hold youback when she is naughty. I will witness her first day of school,become acquainted with her suitors as she is courted, and I amcertain I shall blush when she receives her first kiss. I shallstand proudly by your side as you escort her down the aisle towardthe man that touches her heart. ’
Stewart pulleda hanky from his pocket, wiped his eyes, and blew his nose.Thirsty, he took a sip of water from the glass on the nightstand.Attempting to settle his emotions, he looked out the window. It wasa beautiful sunny day. If it were possible, Natasha would befussing in a flower garden up in heaven. Unable to stop himself,his attention shifted back to the letter. He continued to read:
The best yearsof my life were spent by your side. I was blessed to have your loveand feel the passion as we lay together. I beg of you, open yourheart and allow another woman to enter. Remarry and give Hope thefamily we both desired. You have so much love and passion to give,I beg of you, share it with someone special. I pray to God you areable to forgive me for what I have done. I love you with my entirebeing, and I will for all eternity.
Forever in myheart,
Natasha ’
Streams of tears fell from his cheeks. He placed thepaper inside the back cover of the diary and set the book in hisnightstand drawer. He reached for the family portrait and lookedinto his wife’s beautiful, sparkling brown eyes.
“If only I’dbeen more perceptive. Perhaps if I had understood the depth of yourdepression, we could have talked more. I could have convinced youwe’d win this battle against your father.” A vision enteredStewart’s head. Natasha sobbing on their bed after a telephoneconversation with her father. Wishing he would rot. “It’s over. Ican’t change the past. I accept this and forgive you, but I’mgrieving. I wasn’t prepared to concede our battle with yourparents. I wake every morning praying you are lying by myside.”
Thankful forhis privacy, he allowed his upper body to fall sideways onto thebed. In the fetal position, he pulled the picture toward his chestand cried like a broken-hearted child. Finally, his griefexhausted, he drifted off to sleep.
The sound of abarking dog woke Stewart from his dream. He splashed water on hisface and wandered down the hall in search of his daughter. Seeingthat her room was empty, he shuffled his way down the hallway anddescended the stairs. Hope was sitting on the sofa, content on hismother’s lap, still dozy from her nap. Seeing him, she squirmedfree and ran to him. Stewart scooped her into his arms, sat on thechair and held Hope’s head against his chest.
“Natasha kept adiary. I found it under a family photograph.”
Momma smiled,reached for his hand and squeezed it.
That night,Stewart left Hope sleeping in her room, entered his own bedroom,and got ready for the night. He removed the diary from thenightstand drawer and settled into a chair. The door openedslightly. Momma peeked inside.
“Hope issleeping?”
“Indeed. Shewas sleeping before I finished the story. It is pleasing I’m notwitnessing as many tears or pleas for Natasha.”
“Willard and Iwere conversing while you settled Hope. Your daughter will haveinquiries as she ages.” She rested one hand on the doorframe andthe other on the door. “You may wish to keep a journal, assumingyou would allow Hope the opportunity to read the diary. Being acompassionate little girl, she will appreciate your effort.”
Stewartscowled, surprised by the comment. Although he had only read thefirst few entries, he did not expect his daughter to have aninterest in the book. He couldn’t imagine putting his own thoughtsdown on paper.
“Nonsense.”
“Do you plan todestroy Natasha’s diary once you have finished reading it?”
Instinctively,he held the book against his chest. His wife had poured her heartinto the writing. It would remain in his possession forever.“Never. I will cherish this for all eternity.”
“Very wellthen.”
The doorclosed. With the diary held against his chest, her words repeatedover and over in his mind. Losing her momma at such a young age,Hope would not retain vivid memories. His own memories of hisgrandparents were faint, and both he and Vicki were attendingschool when they passed. “Your nana is an intelligent woman, Hope.”He pulled the diary tighter against his chest. “I shall attempt towrite for you.” He turned his attention to the ceiling, hoping forguidance and assistance. Natasha. You havepromised to support me. I beg of you, I do not possess your innerstrength. Assist me with the words to write — his thoughts were interrupted by another tap on thedoor.
“You mayenter.”
The door slowlyopened and his father appeared.
“Stewart, myapologies for interrupting, but I feel I must make aconfession.”
“Aconfession?”
“Indeed. Irecalled seeing a book in Natasha’s possession the evening we leftthe cottage. I assumed she had tucked her bible under her sweater.I am unable to put my remorse, my fury ,into words. If I had spoken of my findings and you had read herentries, it’s possible Natasha would be alive today. My humbleapologies, son.”
AlthoughStewart appreciated the comment, he would have respected his wife’sprivacy. He wouldn’t have read her private thoughts without herpermission, and knew his father would also respect thatprivacy.
“Poppa, don’tblame yourself. Natasha was determined to end her life, believingin her heart it was the right decision. Her only option. She didn’tdiscuss it with me, but I’m forced to accept it. I’m thankful forthis book. It’s allowing me the opportunity to know her heart andher mind. My humble apologies, but I regret to state, I cannotallow you, momma, or Vicki to read it.”
“This familywill respect your decisions in matters concerning your wife anddaughter.”
“Perhaps intime I will reconsider this decision.”
After hisfather closed the bedroom door, Stewart sat for the longest timedeep in thought. The memories were vivid in his mind. As if he hadkissed Natasha and walked out of the apartment only momentsearlier. He pushed himself off his chair, found a new notebook,opened it to the first page, and began with his discovery ofNatasha’s body. It was painful writing, but the release of thetormented thoughts brought a measure of peace. He had spoken to hisparents many times since Natasha’s death, but never in such depth.His writing lacked Natasha’s passion, but then, he wasn’t anEnglish major. Instead, he was a detail-oriented architect andengineer. He amazed himself recalling in detail conversations withhis parents, Nanny, and Natasha’s brothers, but he couldn’t bringhimself to write details of his last hours with Natasha’s body.That was too painful. He finished writing and set the book aside.Sitting in silence at his desk, he decided to write some personalcomments in the diary, but that would wait for another day.
 
* * *
 
Having read thewill, Stewart was well aware of the stipulation regarding Natasha’sparents. It was impossible to forget Natasha’s family and thatbloody search that forced her to commit suicide. Now he wasexpected to put his trust in the woman, allow an employee ofNatasha’s parents to take Hope from his home. To allow Natasha’smother the right to see his daughter. He forced the decision fromhis mind. It was too soon for anyone to expect him to deal with it.Perhaps if he ignored it long enough the whole situation would justdisappear. If only life could be so easy.
 
* * *
 
Confident shewouldn’t be followed, Nanny visited the Donovan home daily. Elizainformed her Hope cried herself to sleep many evenings. The poorchild wanted her momma.
A few daysafter the funeral, Nanny responded to a telegram she had receivedfrom the queen. Her presence was requested for tea. Anna was eagerfor arrangements to meet her only grandchild, the child conceivedthrough Stewart’s love for Natasha. As a condition of the will,Anna was to pay Stewart for the privilege of supervised visitationwith Hope. Nanny accepted the cheque from Anna and assured thequeen she would speak with Natasha’s husband within a couple ofweeks. Two accounts were opened at the bank before Nanny returnedhome.
 
* * *
 
The Donovanswere in the parlour, talking.
Woof.
The dog leapedtoward the door. Stewart shifted his body toward the window and sawNanny’s horse and buggy advancing toward the house. Leaving Hope toplay on the blanket, he stood and followed Willard to the door.After greeting the dog, Nanny adjusted her dark skirt and whiteblouse and entered the parlour. Eliza appeared from the kitchen,greeted Nanny, and sat on the sofa beside her husband, keeping awatchful eye on her granddaughter and dog. After friendly chitchat, Nanny turned her to attention to Stewart.
“I’m assumingyou have read Natasha’s entire will?”
Eliza rose andwalked into the kitchen. Stewart looked at his father and motionedfor him to remain in the room.
“Indeed,”Stewart responded.
Nanny reachedinto her handbag and retrieved an envelope. He was able to see hisname and the bank emblem. Natasha’s will stipulated that he was toreceive a lump sum of money upon her death. Living with hisparents, the funds would be appreciated until he was able toestablish himself. He would give his parents monies to cover theexpense of having him and Hope in the house. It would assist forthe two years while he completed his education. They would live ona tight budget until he was able to find employment and provide forthem. Breaking the seal, he removed the paper. His breath escapedin a rush as he saw the amount. “My word. Hope will be taken careof. I shall establish a trust fund for her immediately with a largeportion of the funds.”
Nanny didn’trespond, but reached into the bag and pulled out a second envelope.‘Trust Fund’ was written in large bold letters.
“That’s notnecessary,” she informed him. “This should be more than sufficientfor Hope’s future.”
This first amount is for my personal use? This isastronomical. Stewart didn’t respond. He couldn’t. Stewarthanded the envelope addressed to him to his father.
“I don’t meanto offend Natasha’s memory, nor to insult her, but I must questionsuch foolishness to believe that I require,” he stopped, wishing tochange the word to include his daughter, “that we require such wealth.”
“Natasha wasnot a fool in the matters of finance,” Nanny interjected. Herattention shifted between Stewart and his father. “Through articlesin the newspaper, she became aware of many facets of her family. Itupset her to know your family and others in the area pay taxeswithout seeing benefit. I informed Natasha the amount she demandedwas substantial when we discussed the provisions for the will. Shewas adamant, determined to assist you and your family, and unsureof your requirements.”
An awkwardpause followed. Nanny appeared a bit distressed, fidgeting with herfingers.
“As you recallfrom reading the will, the funds ensure Anna’s rights forvisitation with her grandchild.”
Stewart loweredhis head and covered his eyes with his hands. He sighed, removedhis hands, and looked toward his daughter. She was happily playingwith the dog.
“Marcus broughta letter to our home yesterday. King Harold wishes to havepermanent custody of Hope and has offered payment for theprivilege. Our child, my child is not forsale . She is a Donovan and will be raised a Donovan. I willfight with my last breath before allowing her to be raised by thefamily that hurt her momma. I wish with my entire being to refuseto allow Natasha’s parents, her mother , any contact .”
“You are notexpected to make an acquaintance with Natasha’s parents, but Hopeshall know Anna,” Nanny reaffirmed, sympathetically. “Stewart, youmust take the envelope with Hope’s trust fund.”
“I will not,”he stated firmly.
“You arecapable of administering those funds until Hope is informed of itsexistence,” his father whispered to Nanny. “Given her age, thatwill not happen for some time.”
The envelopewas replaced in the bag, and Nanny put her hands on her lap.“Stewart. Anna is requesting time with her granddaughter.”
Those dreadedwords. He didn’t trust her parents. Although it was requested,numerous times, Anna never offered support in Natasha’s plea forfreedom. Quite the opposite. She encouraged Natasha to return home.Now he was expected to allow his daughter to bond with thewoman?
“I informedAnna you required time after Natasha’s death,” Nanny continued.“She has displayed patience, but—”
“I won’t allowthe visitation,” he interrupted with a harsh tone. “I don’t trustthem. Her mother or her father.”
“I sympathizewith your dilemma, but Anna has met the demands of will,” Nannyreminded him, squeezing her palms together.
“I refuse toaccept the money.”
“That is not ofconsequence. A cheque has been issued. I have spoken with a lawyer.In the eyes of the law, Anna has met the conditions set forth inthe will. Payment grants her visitation rights with hergranddaughter. You cannot keep the childfrom her.”
Dreaded words.‘ Not of consequence .’ He had no choice.Stewart stared at the floor.
“You must trustme, Stewart,” she begged.
The room wentquiet. His father rose and walked out of the room. Stewart neverspoke. Staring at the floor, he avoided eye contact with Nanny.There wasn’t a sound until his parents returned a few minutes laterwith the silver tea pot, cups, saucers and sweets. They set them onthe table between the sofas.
“What if I losecustody?” Stewart asked, his voice barely a whisper.
“I pray thatwon’t happen, and hope the judge will look kindly on the fact youare allowing visitation to the child’s grandmother,” Nannyresponded confidently.
She acceptedher cup of tea from Eliza.
Stewart’s minddrifted back to Natasha’s death. He regretted leaving Hope with hisparents and Nanny when he rode off with Natasha’s body. He shouldhave vanished with his daughter. Run from Natasha’s parents. A lifein seclusion. But that was the reason Natasha committed suicide. Togive him and Hope a better life. Damn . Withall his heart he wished for the ability to destroy the will. Hedidn’t need or want their money. Hope was a content child knowinghis parents and sister, Nanny, Joshua, and Marcus.
“Do you wish tojoin Hope and me? Anna would cherish the opportunity to meetyou.”
Stewart closedhis eyes, lowering his head, unable to face the family who hurtNatasha so deeply. “I cannot,” he whispered. “I begged Natasha forthe opportunity to become acquainted with her family, but now, Ihave no desire to meet them. I will blame her parents for theremainder of my life.”
“Stewart.You’ll never be forced to make an acquaintance with Anna, but it’smy responsibility to ensure Anna sees her granddaughter.”
Stewartcouldn’t imagine standing before that couple and bowing as if hewere proud and privileged to make their acquaintance. He had nodesire to see them or speak with them. He took a sip of hot liquidand inhaled deeply. It was Natasha’s wish. He couldn’t live withhimself if Natasha was unable to rest in peace. You trusted Nanny, Natasha. Don’t make me regret thisdecision. He looked at Nanny.
“I trust you.”He placed his hand over his pounding heart. “Make the arrangements.I will allow you to accompany Hope for these visits,” he informedher, begrudgingly.
When Nannystood to leave, Stewart picked up his daughter, straightened hercasual play dress, and walked to the door. They waved goodbye asshe led the horses away. He placed Hope on the ground and watchedas she ran to his momma. Stewart looked into the sky.
“What possessedyou to put that stipulation in your will, Natasha? I am terrified Iwill watch our child ride off and never see her beautiful faceagain. We didn’t dispute often, but I would have stood my groundand argued this point. I’m not desperate for financial assistance,Natasha. Our child would have been cared for and loved.”
With Hope downfor the evening, Stewart entered the parlour, and handed his fatherNatasha’s will. He joined him on the sofa. Stewart knew nothing ofthe legal system, but couldn’t bear the thought of losing hisprecious Hope.
“I requireadvice,” he informed his father.
An hour later,after a great deal of discussion, they decided to contact thelawyer who prepared Natasha’s will for a professional opinion. Theywould not lose Hope without a fight.
 
* * *
 
A week later,Stewart climbed onto the buggy and took the seat beside his father.Looking back, his mother stood at the open door with Hope in herarms. He waved as they rode off.
The buggyarrived at Nanny’s home. So nervous, Stewart forgot to assist theirfriend to her seat. Poppa extended his hand, waited until she wasseated, and then set off for the city.
Nanny led theminto the stone building and up the steps to the lawyer’s office.They were greeted by a gentleman in his early fifties with greyhair and spectacles. Stewart took his seat at the large mahoganydesk between his father and Nanny. Unable to relax, he fidgetedwith his suspenders and jacket, listening as the gentlemanexpressed his condolences.
“I went togreat lengths when preparing this document,” the lawyer informedthem. “I conferred with colleagues in the surrounding area. Thiswill cannot be contested unless it is proven you and your familyare unable to provide for the child.”
“Financially,I’m able to support my son and his daughter,” his father proclaimedconfidently. “My home provides a more than adequate roof over theirheads.”
“I will fightwith my last breath to keep my daughter,” Stewart added. “I willencourage a relationship with Natasha’s brothers, but I will notallow my daughter near that castle. As you must recall, it was mydeceased wife’s wish that Hope remain with me and my family.”
“The willstates the queen is to be given visitation rights,” the lawyerreminded him.
The room wentquiet. Stewart’s heart pounded like hands on a drum. I don’t need reminded. “I’m aware of that fact,”Stewart finally muttered, “but not the king.”
Chapter Four
 
 
Terrified hewould never see Hope again, Stewart dreaded the thought of sendinghis daughter to meet Anna. His life wasn’t worth living without thechild he shared with Natasha.
On the eveningbefore the first visit with Anna he read Hope a bedtime story,kissed her goodnight, and retired to his room. He wrote a longentry in his journal, finding solace as he put the emotions in hisheart and mind into words. After reading a few entries of thediary, he put the books away and crawled under the covers. It wasimpossible to relax.
Frustrated, hecrawled out of his bed and wandered into his daughter’s room. Ableto hear her breathing, he sat on the edge of the bed in the darkroom. It was a long night. Shortly before dawn, with his headresting on her mattress, he finally drifted off to sleep.
“Poppa.”
It can’t be morning. I need sleep. His head felt twiceits actual weight, his eyelids glued together by the sleepers.Unable to move, he struggled to open his eyes. Both his neck andback ached from resting in the awkward position.
“Good morning,Hope,” he responded, his voice as cheerful as he could manage. Hopeyawned and then began chatting. What I’d give foran ounce of your energy. The carefree existence of a three yearold.
The dooropened. His mother looked in, still in her dressing gown. Her longgray streaked blonde hair hanging over her shoulders.
“In less thantwelve hours, Hope shall be back in this home, speaking of hervisit,” she reminded him.
Lacking theability to lift his head from the bedspread, he glanced up.
“It shall be along day, Momma,” he groaned.
He pushed hisupper body off the bed and wiped the sleepers from his eyes.Looking out the window, the sun was shining in the cloudless sky. To the world it ’s abeautiful weekend. Personally, I would prefer it to be Monday. Iwould prefer to go to work or school, leaving Hope withMomma.
Shortly afterthey finished their midday meal, Stewart carried Hope up the steps.After washing her hands and face, he removed a new yellow dressfrom the wardrobe. He spoke of her impending day as she wasdressed. The child was excited to learn she would meet a friend ofNanny’s, but became apprehensive when informed her poppa would notbe joining them. His normally excited, spunky daughter was suddenlyas shy and reserved as her momma. The flood of tears broke hisheart. Stewart attempted to convince his young daughter she wouldenjoy her day with Auntie Anna and Nanny.
Unsuccessful,there were still tears when her nana entered the room. After anembrace, Eliza reassured her granddaughter as she pulled her softblonde curls back and tied her hair with ribbons.
Once his motherwas done, Stewart reached down and gripped his daughter’s smallhand. When Hope looked up at him, his focus went to their joinedhands. His felt wet and clammy against her small warm one. Hepulled his hand back. “My apologies, Hope. I didn’t realize myhands were so clammy.” He wiped both palms on his trousers, andgripped her hand again.
He lookedtoward his momma. “This is dreadful. The last time I experiencedsuch nerves, I feared losing Natasha and Hope to her father.”
“Your poppa andI will be grateful when Hope is back in our home as well.”
Arrrr. Woof.Woof.
Agh, the dreaded arrival. With Hope on his lap, heshifted his body to look out the window. Nanny’s horses weretrotting up their tree-lined driveway. Carrying Hope, he followedhis family to the door and outside to the carriage.
“Mind yourmanners,” he reminded his little girl. “I love you, Hope. Nana,Papa, and Aunt Vicki love you.”
“Poppa. Come,”she begged with teary eyes.
Torn, Stewartwished with his entire being to remain with Hope. Ideally, he wouldnever allow Natasha’s daughter out of his sight, but he couldn’tbring himself to meet Anna. He would move heaven and earth forHope, but he couldn’t join her on this venture. Not even as hestood and watched the tears pour from his child’s eyes. His heartpounded, suffocating him as he considered it. Struggling tobreathe, he stubbornly decided he would remain behind.
“I cannot,Hope. I will be here when you return.” Stewart kissed her foreheadand embraced her. “I love you, sweetheart. You must listen toNanny.”
With one footon the carriage for balance, he placed Hope beside Nanny andstepped down. Eliza and Vicki had joined him. They waved as thebuggy carried Hope away.
“Bring myprecious little angel back to me.”
Exhausted fromhis restless night, Stewart went to his room and settled on hisbed.
He heard Vickileave to visit a friend.
Unable torelax, he wandered down the stairs and into the parlour. With thenewspaper in his hand, he sat on the sofa. He read the sameparagraph five times before throwing the paper down. “Damn it. Ishould have gone with her. I can’t. I will not sit and be pleasantto Natasha’s mother.” Discouraged, he worked his way back to thesecond floor and retrieved a novel from his nightstand. Aftershuffling back to the sofa, he sat with the book unopened, staringat the cover. Certain over an hour had passed, he removed his watchfrom his pocket. It had only been forty-five minutes since Hopeleft with Nanny. “That’s impossible,” he groaned. “This watch mustbe broken.”
“Stewart, yourequire sleep,” Momma reminded him, sympathetically.
Eliza retrieveda blanket from the chest in the corner of the room, placed it byhis legs, and sat on her favourite chair. She picked up herneedlework.
Stewart spentthe next hour horizontal. Impatient, he removed his watch regularlyand grumbled at the time.
The sun haddisappeared, replaced by an overcast sky. Even Mother Nature wassaddened it seemed.
By fouro’clock, he was standing by the window, anxious for his daughter toreturn. “They should have arrived early. Before the expectedtime.”
Minutes creptby like hours. “They are late, fifteen minutes late.” Besidehimself, Stewart’s heart pounded. His stomach twisted in knots offear. He stood by the open window attempting to breathe. More thanconcerned, he began pacing.
“Calm yourself,Stewart,” Willard pleaded. “There are a number of acceptablereasons to cause tardiness.”
“I don’t likeit. I don’t trust Natasha’s parents. I canpicture the scenario in my mind. Moments after Nanny arrived withHope, they were overtaken by guards. Overpowered. Nanny and Hopewere separated. My daughter is terrified and confused, sitting inthe company of strangers who call themselves her grandparents.”Turning his body, he stared out the window. “Why did I allow this?I should have swallowed my pride and accompanied Nanny and mydaughter. With my last breath, my last ounce of strength, Iwould’ve fought for her. I cannot live without my preciousHope.”
His father’shands gripped his shoulders. “Although it is difficult, we mustremain positive,” he reassured him.
The sound of ahorse and buggy made him spin toward the window, his hand againsthis chest to settle his pounding heart. “Nanny has brought Hopehome . ” His heart sank. It wasn’t Nanny’shorse or carriage. Instead, he saw his sister step out of thebuggy. Hopeful, Stewart ran outside to speak with her friend’sfather. All hope was shattered when informed they hadn’t seenanother horse or carriage on their journey. He was convincedsomething was terribly wrong. Hope was with Natasha’s parents,never to be seen again.
“Why did Iallow this? What was I thinking? I cannot stay in this housewithout knowing the whereabouts of my daughter. I won’t lose Hopewithout a fight. If I’m unable to locate Hope at the park, I shallsearch the castle for her.”
“Stewart,”Eliza pleaded.
“Eliza, Stewarthas cause for concern.” Willard walked toward his wife anddaughter. “A half hour late is not acceptable on a first visit. Ialso fear for Hope’s safety and well-being. Together, we shalllocate that child and ensure her safe return.”
They dashed outof the house. The men jumped onto the horses without bothering tosaddle them and galloped off, leaving his mother and Vicki in thedoorway.
 
* * *
 
Keeghansqueezed Will’s hand. “How much authority would a king have? Can heactually kidnap a child and get away with it? Poor littleHope.”
Alexanderturned their attention back to the screen.
 
 
 
Chapter Five
 
 
Keeping a firmgrip on the reins, Stewart’s eyes were focused on the road ahead.The horse charged toward the park. In his mind, he couldn’t fathomanything positive that would cause Nanny to be tardy in her return.She was a punctual woman. Nauseous, he felt bile rise in his chest.Leaning closer to the horse, he turned his head slightly, expectingthe noon meal to escape the confines of his body. Dry heaveswracked him, but nothing came out. Panic sent waves of heat washingover his body, and the world tilted crazily for a moment. “I’mgoing to pass out. No, I can’t. Focus. I must find her. I must seethat beautiful little face again, the image of her momma. Lifeisn’t worth living without Hope. Enough, I need positivethoughts!”
“Stewart,” hisfather called angrily. “Be kind to the animal. Don’t force her torun beyond her ability. If the mare stumbles, you will surely fallto your death. I do not wish to inform Hope that her poppa hasjoined her momma in heaven.”
Guilt-ridden,Stewart rubbed the side of the animal’s neck.
“If Hope andNanny are not at the park, we shall take a moment to thinkclearly,” his father continued, speaking the voice of reason. “Itis not wise to invade the castle. Trespassing is illegal,regardless the reason.”
“Kidnapping isalso illegal.” Stewart scowled, justifying his actions andmood.
“Indeed it is,yet barging into the castle will not be tolerated. If needed, ourlawyer will approach the judge and demand Hope’s return. Take noteto the right. There is a carriage overturned. Don’t frighten thathorse.”
Ahead on thedirt road, a covered carriage lay tilted on its side. So concernedwith Hope, he hadn’t noticed. “Whoa,” he commanded. His mareobligingly slowed.
Upon closerexamination, the wheel was almost completely detached from theaxle. The horse was still harnessed to it. A spooked horse couldrear or bolt, jolting the carriage even further. The passengerscould be harmed, if they weren’t already.
“Whoa,” hecommanded, slowing his horse even more. The silhouette of a bonnetshowed in the window of the carriage. The dark brown horse turnedtoward them, showing the long white patch under her neck. An ounceof hope shot through Stewart. Nanny’s horse had a similar patch ofwhite.
“Do you seethose markings?” his father inquired.
“Yes. Verysimilar to Nanny’s mare.” Stewart slowed the horse to a stop andjumped down. “Nanny. Hope?” Stewart called, his voice tight withanxiety.
Hope’s smallhead appeared beside the bonneted woman. “Poppa,” she squealed.
“Hope.” Nanny’svoice came from the tilted vehicle. “You must stop squirming andwait for your poppa to assist you.”
Both menapproached slowly to avoid startling the horses. With the carriageleaning to the side, Stewart stood by the door. His father stoodbetween the horses and held their bridles. With the mares secured,Stewart pulled the door open, put his back against the frame, andreached for his daughter. Once Hope was safely on the ground,Stewart extended his hand to Nanny and assisted her out aswell.
“Do not allowthat door to slam, Stewart. I don’t want these animals furtherstartled.”
Stewart easedthe carriage door closed and then turned and took Hope into hisarms. Stewart kissed Hope’s cheek, forehead, and the end of hernose, causing Hope to giggle. “I missed you, sweetheart. May Poppahave a kiss?”
“Where is yourdriver? Why did he leave you?” Willard asked.
“He was hurt. Agentleman stopped to offer assistance. The driver was unconsciousand bleeding from a head wound, so I insisted the good samaritantake the driver for immediate medical assistance.”
“Whathappened?”
“The problemoccurred shortly after we departed from the park,” Nanny informedthem. “I became concerned as the carriage began to list badly afterwe hit a hard bump. There must have been debris or such on theroad. Hope is too young for the long walk back, and at any rate Icould not get both of us out of the carriage by myself. The goodsamaritan assured me he would send help my way.”
“Thank Godneither of you were harmed.” Stewart signed with relief. “We canonly hope the driver is well.”
“Indeed,” hisfather added and then leaned toward Hope and kissed the back of herhead. “Once we are settled in my home, I’ll speak with a neighbourfriend and his sons and together we will return with tools andsupplies and bring the carriage back. It will need some repairs,I’m afraid. After sharing our evening meal, I shall escort you homeand ensure you arrive safely.”
The horse wasunhitched from the carriage.
“Are youcomfortable riding bareback?” Willard asked Nanny. “It is a longwalk back to the house.”
“It has been along time, and it’s not as dignified as I prefer, but I believe I’mcapable.”
“You will ridemy horse. She is a gentle creature. Stewart will lead with Hope,and I will follow behind you on your horse.”
With Hope infront of Stewart on the horse, the group made their way back to thehouse. Eliza greeted them and carried Hope inside.
“It wasdifficult watching Hope leave with tears in her eyes,” Stewartconfessed to Nanny once the child was out of sight.
“Indeed, thepoor thing was nervous, but the tears disappeared and her face litwith a smile the moment she saw her uncles.”
“Marcus andJoshua? They were with Anna?” Stewart asked, surprised but pleasedby the revelation.
“They were withtheir mother when we arrived. Marcus approached and held Hope inhis arms when Anna introduced herself. I believe Anna was enviousof the rapport they share. Anna lacks any level of comfort when itcomes to dealing with young children. She remained close to hersons while in Hope’s company. She was astounded by Hope’sresemblance to Natasha.”
“By the reportit seems Hope had a rewarding time.”
“Joshua andAnna stood by the side while Marcus joined Hope in the sandbox andthen pushed her on the swing. The child enjoyed the day.” Nannypaused, and then continued, “Anna is hopeful Hope will beraised—”
Before theywed, he and Natasha discussed the rearing of children. They hadagreed to raise their family in the same manner as his upbringing.His parents would support him. It was imperative Nanny realizethis. What Anna or the king wanted was of no interest to him. Notinterested in either Anna or Nanny’s opinion, he cut in,interrupting Nanny. “My daughter is a Donovan. She’ll be encouragedto show her emotions when she feels it appropriate to do so. I willalso encourage independence, for her to voice her opinion when itis backed by knowledge.”
“That will bedifficult for Anna—”
“Her views onthe topic don’t concern me. Speak with Anna regarding a monthlyschedule for her visit.” Stewart did not wish to discuss this anyfurther. “Have you heard from the lawyer regarding the King’schallenge for Hope’s custody?” he asked.
“They will besitting with the judge this week.”
“I wish tospend time with Hope before we dine.”
 
* * *
 
Still seated atthe table, Hope was playing with the food on her plate as theadults finished their wine. Exhausted from his lack of sleep, thelong journey home, and the anxiety of the day, Stewart lackedpatience. She needed to eat and mind her manners, not play at mealtime. He placed his wine glass beside his dirty plate and glared ather.
“Hope, you mustfinish your meal,” he scolded. “Nana prepared it especially foryou.”
Hope gripped ahandful of food and threw it on the floor between them. Shescreamed at him in defiance and babbled childishly.
“Hope,” hescolded in a louder voice. “Nanny, Momma, my humble apologies. I’mnot accustomed to Hope misbehaving in such a fashion.”
After a secondscream, Hope threw a handful of food across the table. The mashedpotatoes splattered, narrowly missing Vicki and Nanny. Infuriated,Stewart pushed himself from the table and reached for his daughter,picking her up. She kicked and screamed. Eliza pushed her chairback and stood.
“Eliza, takeyour seat,” Willard ordered.
“I shall—”
“You shallremain seated and allow your son to deal with his daughter.”
“The child isovertired. She missed her usual afternoon nap.”
“Stewart isaware of that.”
“This behaviour will not be tolerated,” Stewart respondedangrily. With Hope wailing in protest, Stewart carried her out ofthe room and up the staircase.
“Momma,” Hopebellowed. “Want Momma.”
Fighting torestrain his tears, he carried his daughter down the hallway andinto her bedroom.
“Momma has goneto heaven, sweetheart.” Holding Hope’s body against his own withone hand, he crawled onto her bed. He wrapped his arms and legsaround her body as she continued to fight him. Tears streamed downhis cheeks and soaked the blanket. Hope continued to cry. Closinghis eyes, he could only pray it would get easier. Natasha. Where are you? You promised to remain by my side. Ineed your help. Hope wants her momma.
Exhausted fromthe events of the day and unable to budge from his grip, Hopestopped fighting, let out a sigh, and fell asleep on his chest.Relieved and equally exhausted, Stewart closed his eyes. Heintended to rise once was Hope was in a deep sleep, but driftedoff.
Feeling thewarmth of a body next to his, Stewart took a deep breath, thankfulNatasha’s death was nothing but a terrible nightmare. She was lyingnext to him as he slept. He smiled. “I love you.”
Opening hiseyes, his heart broke. It wasn’t Natasha, but Hope snuggled besidehim, fast asleep with her head resting against his side. With theevening’s events fresh in his mind, disappointment consumed him. Itwas not a dream. Natasha was gone. A single tear ran down his cheekand onto the pillow. Hoping he had only been sleeping a fewminutes, he kissed the side of Hope’s head, slid his body fromhers, and crawled off the bed. “I love you, Hope.”
He left theroom and walked down the hallway. Vicki’s door was closed for theevening, but there were voices from the main level—his parents.Their conversation stopped when he came into their view.
“I mustapologize to Nanny. It was my intent to return once Hope settled,”he admitted. Stewart sat on the sofa, across from his parents.
“Is Hopesleeping?” his father asked.
“Indeed. Weboth slept,” he mumbled. He placed his hand over his mouth,fighting a yawn. “I pray her behaviour does not become routineafter visiting Anna.”
“Do not fret,”Eliza reassured. “After the excitement of the day, she requiredsome quiet time. Next month, she will be kept occupied after hervisit with quiet activities. I will plan an earlier meal. We willhave her settled in bed before she becomes overtired andcranky.”
Hearingmovement on the staircase, Stewart turned. Hope wandered into theroom, rubbing her eyes.
“She’s still inher dress,” Momma groaned.
“Sweetheart,you’re supposed to be sleeping,” Stewart whispered, extending hisarms. He lifted her onto his knee. Hope instinctively put her headagainst his chest and closed her tired eyes. “You owe an apology,”he informed her. “You ruined dinner with a guest present.”
Hope opened hereyes, squirmed off his lap, and shuffled to her nana. She wasgiving a big hug when her stomach rumbled.
“Come to thekitchen with Nana. You can’t sleep with a gurgling tummy.”
Stewart and hisfather were left in the parlour to talk.
A short timelater, Hope and Eliza returned. His mother took the child upstairsto get ready for bed. She brought the weary toddler back down tothe parlour to say her good-nights. Hope climbed onto Stewart’s lapand was sleeping within minutes. After saying goodnight, Stewartcarried Hope to her bed, tucked her in, and wandered into his ownbedroom. He was drifting off to sleep when he heard movementoutside his door. Exhausted, unable to lift his head off hispillow, he struggled to open his eyes.
“Poppa? I wantMomma,” she whimpered.
“As do I,sweetheart. God has special plans for Momma in heaven.”
Hope should sleep in her own room. Ican’t get out of bed. I lack both the energy and theinclination. He lifted the sheets, inviting her to join him.Sniffling softly, Hope snuggled her back tight against hischest.
“Sweet dreams,sweetheart.”
 
* * *
 
A week later,Stewart was outside playing with Hope and Goldie when a horse andrider came up the driveway. The messenger handed him a telegram.Seeing the envelope with the court emblem, he thanked the rider.Gripping Hope’s hand, he walked to the back of the house. Momma wasremoving the washing from the line and folding the clothing. Hewished his father was home from work. This would either be a greatmoment, or the one of the worst of his life, second only todiscovering Natasha took her life.
“Momma,” hecalled. “I believe this contains the court’s ruling regarding thecustody hearing.”
“Please havemercy,” she implored the heavens. “Please, God, do not let themcause my family more grief.” She wiped her hands on her apron andextended her arms for Hope. She kissed her little cheek and gaveher a snuggle. “Stewart, I beg of you. Open it. I do not possessyour patience.”
Stewart brokethe seal, unfolded the paper, and read through the formalitiesbefore reaching the verdict.
“Your eyes aresparkling. It must be good news.”
Stewart lookedat his momma, took Hope into his arms and handed Momma the legalletter. “You shall remain with Poppa and Aunt Vicki, Nana andPapa,” he boasted ecstatically. He kissed Hope’s forehead.
“This ispleasing news indeed,” she admitted. “Willard will be equallythrilled. The judge is an intelligent man. He cannot justifyremoving the child from her birth father knowing it was themother’s wish. We must thank the lawyer.”
“I shall smileas I write the cheque. I do not harbour regret knowing Natasha’sfamily is paying for his superior work.” Stewart took a deep breathand exhaled slowly. “I can attempt to move on with my life now thatI know Hope will remain with me.”
 
* * *
 
Two weekslater, Hope was chattering to Stewart, Eliza, and Vicki as theywalked down the steps and into the kitchen. Willard was sitting atthe table, reading the newspaper. Stewart released Hope’s hand,ruffled her already messy hair, and watched her rush to herpapa.
“You appearready for a nap,” Willard teased, extending his arms to her. “Yousleep in that attire.”
She giggled.“No nap, Papa. Hungy. Bekfes.”
“Silly Papa,”Eliza responded, entering the room behind them. “We are all stillin our night attire.”
Eliza gaveWillard a quick kiss on the cheek and followed Vicki to thecounter. Hope was placed on the chair between the two men. Hisfather handed Stewart the newspaper. The headline read: King Harold Strathroy ill. Prince Joshua to assumeofficial duties. Stewart’s eyes bulged. His attentionshifted back to his father.
“NeitherJoshua, Marcus, or Nanny, have mentioned this. Natasha spoke withher father weeks before her death.”
“The article isnot very informative,” his father remarked. “I’m certain you shallreceive more detail from Nanny or Marcus.”
That afternoon,Nanny visited and joined Stewart and his father in the parlour.After pleasantries, Stewart enquired about the article.
“Marcus andJoshua have spoken lately of the fact their father is becoming weakand frail. Harold was once able to command respect, but has sincelost his vitality. Natasha’s death and the inability to see hisgranddaughter have been difficult for him. I believe somethinghappened the day he was informed of his daughter’s death. Haroldwas distraught at the news and begged to see Natasha’s body tomourn the loss. The last time he spoke to her daughter, he raisedhis voice in anger. I was present and heard the conversation. Now,his heart is filled with regret and grief. He is a strong,domineering man, and he is unable to deal with the consequences ofhis own actions or events he had no control over. Although Natashawould question this, Harold loved her and wanted what was best forher. Losing the legal battle to have Hope raised in his homedevastated him. It broke him.”
“Natashabelieved in her heart her father never wished a daughter, havingexpected another son. I would have expected a battle for agrandson, but a granddaughter?”
“Harold islosing control. He attempted to bring Natasha under his command andfailed. He fought for custody of Hope, and the court found the willsound. I’m convinced Natasha knew the inability to control hisgrandchild would kill him.”
Stewart neverwished to see people suffer, but his wife had ended her lifebecause of this man. Hope would grow without her momma. It wasimpossible to feel remorse.
“My heartgrieves for Marcus and Joshua. It will be difficult watching theirfather,” he admitted to Nanny. He looked up at the ceiling with aweak smile. “You have received your last wish, my love. Youractions have affected your father deeply.” With a deep breath, hegave thanks his own parents were healthy.
Over the nextfew weeks, Stewart had a few discussions with Joshua, Marcus andNanny over the wording of Natasha’s grave marker. All in agreement,the believed Natasha would be pleased. Once Stewart was notified itwas in place, he began taking Hope to the cemetery to see Natasha’splot.
 
Natasha
Cherished wifeof Stewart
Momma ofHope
Freedom at last —see you in Heaven, mylove
 
 
 
Chapter Six
 
 
Vicki receivedher acceptance letter from Picton late that summer. She would beginher first year, pursuing a business degree. Determined to graduatewith his master’s degree, Stewart sent a telegram to the dean ofPicton University, explaining his situation. After meeting with thedean, he was granted permission to finish his masters when schoolresumed in the autumn. He informed his parents of the news as theyate their evening meal.
“Your mommawill care for Hope while you are at school, but we would appreciateyou returning on weekends.”
“I’ve giventhis serious thought, Poppa. I will not be living in residencewhile pursuing my degree. I will take the train daily to and fromthe university.”
“Stewart, thedistance—”
“Yes,” heinterrupted. “I will take advantage of the travel time and work onmy studies. That will give me more time to spend with Hope. Iappreciate Momma caring for her during the school day, but I willbe home for dinner and to put her to bed every evening.”
“You insistedthe distance was too great when you attended a few years ago.”
“Yes,” Stewartmoaned. “Obviously I had more than my studies in mind whendiscussing my living arrangements. With Natasha hoping to attendPicton the following year, I took a chance and argued my case.”
“Rathereffectively. Perhaps you should have studied law, son.”
Stewart smiledand nodded. “If Vicki wishes to commute, I’ll be happy to pay forher daily ticket.”
Having amouthful of food, Vicki smiled and nodded.
On their firstday of classes, Stewart left Hope in Momma’s care, eager to hearevery detail of their day when he returned.
 
 
* * *
 
 
During dinnerone evening, Momma conveyed a comical story to the family. Elizahad been hanging the laundry, keeping a watchful eye on Hope andthe dog. She noticed Goldie holding a stick in her mouth, with theother end pointed toward Hope.
“Hope. Goldiewishes to play. Grab the stick and give it a tug.”
Hope reachedfor the stick and pulled. The dog growled. She released the woodand fell back onto her bottom. The skirt of her casual beige dressslipped above her knees. With tears racing down her cheeks, thechild crawled as fast as she could, crying for her nana.
Eliza droppedthe clothes in her hand, bent down, and picked up her whimpering,terrified granddaughter. The ageing dog crouched down with her headon her paws, watching her little friend.
“Do not fret.Goldie won’t hurt you. That was a playful growl. She has alwaysplayed tug with Papa, your poppa, and Aunt Vicki. She wishes toplay with you.”
Hope squirmedto get down. She rubbed Goldie’s back, picked up the stick, andheld it out. Goldie slowly crept toward her playmate, clenched thestick in her mouth, and gave a gentle pull. She growled. Hopelooked into the dog’s eyes and growled back. Then she giggled.Confident things were back on an even keel, Eliza reached for apair of trousers and folded them.
 
 
* * *
 
 
Stewart tookthe first train home, leaving Vicki to speak with new friends.Walking toward the house, he saw Hope tugging on a stick withGoldie gripping the other end in her teeth.
“Poppa, help,”Hope called.
He set hisbooks on the ground and walked toward them. “Goldie will growl atme.”
“Listen,Poppa.” Hope turned her attention back to the dog. Her nosescrunched, a “ Grrr ” sound rolled out of her mouth. Goldie growled and pulled on thestick. Hope growled again before giggling. Stewart burst intolaughter. Unable to fathom what Natasha’s reaction might have been,he rolled his eyes, tilted his head and looked into the sky. “Myhumble apologies, Natasha. Our daughter believes herself to bedog.”
He loweredhimself to his knees and extended his arms. Hope let go of thestick and ran to him for a big hug, leaving Goldie to drop thestick. Stewart took Hope’s hand and led her toward the house wherehis mother had milk and cookies waiting.
“You mustinform me if Hope becomes a burden,” he requested as Hope workedher way through the plate of cookies.
“Although Iappreciate the end of the day when you and Vicki return fromschool, I would have managed if you and your sister lived inresidence through the week. I admit I’m grateful you both chose toremain living at home. Goldie lacks the energy she once had, butshe is a dedicated friend to that child. I cherish my quality timewith Hope. Goldie and I both look forward to Hope’s nap though.Once she is down, the dog sleeps and I complete chores that aredifficult in the company of a young child.”
 
 
* * *
 
 
As expected, aconstant stream of young men knocked at their door with the intentof courting Vicki. She had a busy social calendar. Stewart’s socialcalendar was non-existent. Lacking the time and inclination, hefound being a full-time student and father exhausting, andstruggled to complete his assignments.
With Hopesettled and sleeping for the night, Stewart went to his room andopened his text book.
He heard aknock on the door.
“Come in.”
Momma openedthe door. “I am concerned for your health, Stewart. You requiremore sleep. I appreciate your dedication to your studies while Hopeis sleeping. Your poppa and I want you to slow your schedule. Takean additional year to complete your degree.”
He shook hishead. “No. I will finish within two years, become employed, andsupport myself and my daughter.”
 
 
* * *
 
 
Prepared forhis second class of the day, Stewart was sitting at the back of thelecture hall reviewing his notes when an attractive, blonde,hazel-eyed student approached. She sat beside him and introducedherself. Still in mourning for Natasha, he had no desire to begincourting again. Between his daughter and his studies, he neverseemed to get enough sleep. He smiled politely and returned thecourtesy before turning his attention back to his notes. The womancontinued chatting. Not wishing to appear rude, he glanced her wayperiodically. Unfortunately, it seemed to give her the impressionhe was shy instead of not interested.
After decliningan offer to join her for a drink at the end of the day the womancontinued to chat. Determined to discourage her, he reached intohis satchel and retrieved a portrait of Hope.
“What abeautiful child.”
“Indeed she is.My daughter bears a strong resemblance to her momma.”
The smiledisappeared from the woman’s face. She excused herself and walkedoff. Later that day, he overheard the rumour that he was married.Content he accomplished his goal, he prepared to depart forhome.

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