Note: Thank you very much for following this story. I truly appreciate your continued support and positive feedback. This chapter is slightly longer than the ones before, and I hope you will enjoy reading it. 🙂
“… Therefore, you be my witnesses, that I, Sarah Leagan, make this solemn declaration tonight, conscientiously denying all sorts of rumors concerning Miss Candice White Ardlay being light fingered or prone to stealing. On the contrary, as a young servant girl in my house, she was honest, modest, hard-working, obedient…”
While Mrs. Leagan began talking about Candy in a matter-of-fact tone, Candy was shocked, and so was Eliza, whose face was flushed with anger to say the least. Candy hadn’t seen it coming because this was after all the grand opening party of their new hotel, and she didn’t mean to steal the spotlight from anyone. However, now that Mrs. Leagan was speaking to a large audience, Candy unquestionably became the center of attention.
Yet, before long, tidal waves of emotions hit Candy hard. On one hand, she felt indescribably free and relieved that her name was finally cleared after all these years, by none other than the lady who had accused Candy of thieving and thus punished her mercilessly, exiling her to a distant land, Mexico. Since Candy hadn’t committed a single crime while living under their roof, she could never forget the insult she had to endure after she had been falsely incriminated by Eliza and Neil. Being so defenseless against their evidence, if not for Granduncle William’s rescue, Candy couldn’t have escaped her fate of being a child labor somewhere so far away from home.
On the other hand, tears burned the back of her eyes as Anthony’s death once again gripped her heart like a vice. His accident had been like a shadow looming over Candy, haunting her dreams from time to time even now. If the adoption had never taken place, there wouldn’t have been a fox hunting event to introduce her to the relatives, so Anthony would have been alive still.
“… That’s all. Thank you for your attention. Please enjoy the rest of your evening,” Mrs. Leagan finished her speech.
Candy hadn’t listened to all her words, and she was uncertain if Mrs. Leagan had apologized or not. In any case, she would definitely thank Mrs. Leagan, but not this moment when she was highly emotional. For the time being, she felt like leaving the ballroom as soon as possible, not because she cared about what others thought about her, now knowing her poor background, but because she was in no mood to socialize with anyone, including Albert. She didn’t want him to see her teary eyes.
Hence, she exited through a random glass door that led her out to the courtyard, where she spotted a gazebo in a far corner, standing in the middle of something like a tropical garden. After dancing with at least a dozen young men, her high heels were killing her feet, and she was desperately in need of resting her legs. However, while heading towards the gazebo, she passed by the neat wishing fountain. The sound of flowing water had some calming effect, which reminded her of the waterfall in Lakewood.
So she removed her high heels right here by the fountain while reliving her first encounter with Albert after being rescued from near-drowning. Back then, he had looked like a pirate to her. Yet, his tender eyes and his kindness had soon won her over, and since then, not only he had gained her trust, but she could also speak to him a lot without feeling awkward as though they had been friends for a long time. I always felt so comfortable telling him whatever came to my mind… Everything about myself, Anthony, Terry, and even Susanna… But now… Things have changed… How I wish he was just a lone traveler… as I’d assumed before… The days in the House of Magnolia were my happiest ones yet…
With a heavy heart, she raised her eyes to the star-studded sky and happened to see a shooting star. She swiftly closed her eyes to make a sincere wish, help me to say goodbye to Albert tonight… he will be Sir William A. Ardlay to me from now on… let me repeat, his name is William A. Ardlay. He’s Granduncle William, not Albert.
She was glad she had turned him down tonight, not standing beside him for the picture. As Miss Pony had said, the more Candy attended various social gatherings with Granduncle William, the more she would feel torn between two entirely different worlds, one characterized by its extravagance and affluence, and the other by its simplicity and community. He was the only heir to one of the most prestigious families in the country, and she was but an orphan with unknown origin. Not to mention he was still her legal father despite being a young bachelor. Oh Lord, please give me the strength. I know my place, and I won’t complain. I’m actually happy with my life, and I should ask no more.
Nonetheless, at the thought of leaving Albert for good, a pair of lucent blue eyes flashed across her mind, and hot tears spilled from her thick lashes down her cheeks at long last. She knew very well she wasn’t crying about Anthony at this moment. She was shedding tears of unrequited love, tears of longing, and tears of confusion. How cruel is fate? That I have to forget the man who means so much to me…
Though her throat thickened and her stomach churned, she fought hard not to lose her ground. She blinked back the tears and determined to keep her promise, both to herself and to Miss Pony and Sister Lane.
A man’s voice broke into her train of thoughts, startling her a little. The nurse stopped her hands and spun her head towards the source of that voice. “Yes, Dr. Martin?”
He shook his head after a long sigh. “Candy, something’s wrong with you today. Look at what you have done to this boy.”
The doctor looked far from angry, and his tone was neutral; the nurse swiftly snapped herself back to her present. “Oh dear! I’m sorry, Peter!”
Happy Martin Clinic was quieter than normal this afternoon, but their only patient, Peter from a nearby village, had fallen from a tree yesterday and suffered an elbow injury. The bone was not broken but there was a great deal of pain. In order to keep the elbow from getting further injury, the nurse was supposed to strap his elbow by holding it in place. However, neither the father nor the boy himself had expected to see this much bandage was required.
When the absent-minded nurse was about to start all over, the doctor kindly stopped her. “Candy, let me do it. I’d suggest you go home or get some fresh air.”
She liked the idea but hesitated nonetheless. When the doctor gave her a reassuring pat on her delicate shoulder, she agreed appreciatively, “Thank you, Dr. Martin.”
As she pulled herself up from the chair, the doctor remarked, taking the bandages from her hand, “No problem. I suppose you can’t get a certain man out of your mind.”
Instantaneously, her jaw fell open, and it was only when the doctor threw his head back and guffawed that she composed herself and closed her mouth. Feeling color and heat coming to her cheeks, she uttered, “See you tomorrow, Dr. Martin.”
She literally dashed towards the clinic entrance afterwards. Even when she closed the door behind her, she could still hear his guffaw, but she was used to it by now. It wasn’t the first time the doctor teased her about missing Albert, especially after her recent trip to Lakewood, attending the engagement party of Archie to Annie.
Dr. Martin shook his head, chuckling. He vividly remembered his last conversation with Albert before leaving Chicago. The young man had brought him a bottle of fine whiskey, and after reminiscing together, Albert had to leave. While giving the doctor a bear hug, he had said, “Thank you for accepting my humble gift. I hope you will like your new clinic, Dr. Martin.”
“I certainly will. Anything is better than this one,” the doctor had jeered at himself. Before his departure, the doctor had added, “I will watch over Candy for you, Albert. No worries.”
Albert had smiled, seemingly touched by his words. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”
The doctor had long known about the young man’s recovery. In spite of not knowing Albert’s identity, the doctor could sense that the young man had been having inner struggles since. For sure he had been reluctant to leave his lovely roommate. They had lived together for more than two years that he couldn’t possibly imagine his life without her anymore. “No matter how tired I feel after a long day, her smile brings sunshine and warmth to my heart,” Albert had said, burying his face in his hands.
Yet, one day, Candy had come to his clinic and cried her eyes out after Albert had vanished without telling her why except that he had caused her troubles. Since then, Candy had frantically searched for Albert even though she had been clueless where he could be, so much so that she had attempted to draw a picture of him. She had insisted, “Albert isn’t recovered yet, and he wasn’t in perfect physical condition either.”
Later, the doctor had been aware that his nurse hadn’t been sleeping well for many nights, so he had tried to talk some sense into her, “Candy, think again. Albert is a grown up, and he can take care of himself perfectly. Who knows? Perhaps he’s recovered by now? Why are you so anxious about him?”
Nevertheless, Candy had bent on looking for Albert, wondering how or where he had been over these few months. Because her drawing had been of poor quality, the doctor had drawn a portrait of Albert for her, which she had brought to a remote place called Rockstown. “Albert sent me a parcel from Rockstown, Dr. Martin, and I think it was a hint from him. Because he might still be there, I just have to go or else I won’t be able to sleep again.”
The doctor could barely believe his ears. “I haven’t even heard of this place, Candy. Do you want me to go with you?” To which she had rejected politely, “The clinic needs you, Dr. Martin.”
After the trip, the young nurse had been more crestfallen than before. Believing something must have happened, the doctor had been concerned, but she had only said, “No, Albert wasn’t there. I checked with almost everyone in the village but don’t know why nobody could recognize him.”
“Candy, what do you want exactly even if you do find him one day? Don’t you know he’s under no obligation to come back to you? What if he’d rather be alone? That he is independent and no longer needs to be taken care of?”
Speechless, she could only stare at the doctor, nonplussed. However, his suspicions had been confirmed. The nurse had developed special feelings for her so-called brother. She might be unaware of the depth of her feelings yet, but she had been yearning to see him again, no doubt.
When Candy plodded her way home, a bird flitted across her field of vision as though it was luring the nurse to follow her out to the huge elm tree in the clinic’s vicinity. “Not today, little bird,” she said cheerily. “I’m heading towards Pony’s Hill instead.”
Albert had picked this location for the clinic because of this particular elm tree. He had said to Candy, “So you can enjoy its shade during your breaks.”
As always, Albert had been on the lookout for Candy, despite living far apart from her now. In fact, ever since she had moved back to Pony’s Home, every now and then, he had appeared out of the blue, sometimes clad in his business attire and sometimes dressed casually.
For example, not long after she had left Chicago, she had been invited to attend the memorial service for Stear held in Lakewood. Later, in early December, Albert had related to Candy his wish to build a new clinic for Dr. Martin, but the doctor had cordially declined. However, because of Candy’s convincing letter, Dr. Martin had accepted the generous offer but chosen to relocate to somewhere near Pony’s Home. Needless to say, both Albert and Candy had been touched to hear that, and Albert had later written to Candy, asking her to give him some suggestions of suitable locations to build a new clinic. Then she had brought this up to her foster mothers, who in turn had consulted their friends in the neighborhood.
Then one fine spring day, Albert had appeared at Pony’s Home and asked Candy to show him around. After driving from one place to another, they had finalized their decision.
Needless to say, the orphans at Pony’s Home could recognize the male visitor with at least two different names. They had to pay him respect and addressed him as Sir William Ardlay or Sir William even though Candy called him Albert in private.
Presently, Candy had reached her favorite spot, the peak of Pony’s Hill. She flung herself down on the grass, and the tiny bell of the badge around her neck clang. Hearing that, her face broke into a sweet smile, and she wrapped her hand around the badge and heaved a sigh, looking at the sky through the branches and leaves. It was another nice day in the early fall. The sun was shining, and the breeze felt soothing, so she took a nap.
She dreamt about glimpses of the engagement party she had attended in Lakewood this past summer. Everyone looked very charming, and Annie looked absolutely gorgeous like a princess. Candy had a wonderful time, and she even had her first dance with Albert. After that, they sneaked out to the forest, climbing a tree together. Up high on a tree, Candy told Albert about her life at Pony’s Home and Happy Martin Clinic, and Albert also talked about his hectic life as a businessman and recent business travels. But as usual, he couldn’t stay long with her. Without him in the party, Candy couldn’t have felt lonelier. Yet, deep down, she knew it was wrong to continue to harbor feelings for her guardian, but she couldn’t help it.
Candy shot her eyes open. She yawned, rubbing her eyes sluggishly. Dr. Martin was right… I probably should stop thinking about him… Or I can’t focus on my daily tasks anymore.
She slowly turned herself around, plopping herself with her stomach down. As the bell of the badge clang, a smile materialized on her face. This was where she had met her Prince on the Hill when she had been merely six years old, and now she was already twenty. Talking about that, it was strange that her prince had never appeared since then.
Then she unclasped her necklace and examined the badge under the afternoon sun. She had shown Albert her treasured badge many times back in the House of Magnolia, and every time she had mentioned her brief encounter with Prince on the Hill, Albert had always smiled and listened to her in silence.
Before long, her mind wandered back to her dream. Ever since she had discovered Albert’s true identity, she had gradually become aware something had changed between them. During his absence, she had inexplicably pined for him. Later, knowing that he was actually her guardian, she had refused to live a lavish lifestyle in Chicago. She’d rather lead a rural life back at Pony’s Home.
Although her foster mothers had many questions on their mind, they welcomed her to stay as long as she liked without asking her. Though they were getting old and prone to sickness, they followed their calling and insisted taking care of the orphans themselves. Therefore, Candy had reasoned, “I want to come back to help you, Miss Pony and Sister Lane. I don’t think I’ll ever leave again.”
Both her foster mothers had hidden their worries. In the past, Candy had come back after Anthony’s accident and after Terry’s abrupt departure. Yet, what had happened this time?
Unbeknownst to them, Candy had been immensely perplexed and flustered, and she had wanted to sort out her feelings for Albert, which had been irrefutably strong. By returning to the orphanage, she would live far enough from Chicago. Also, she had thought keeping her hands and mind busy with tasks and errands would help her guard her heart, but to no avail. Despite the distance, he had remained a part of her life, and having difficulties believing Albert and Granduncle William were the same person, she couldn’t quite readjust her thoughts about Albert. Even while writing a letter to Terry, a letter that she had had no intention to send, she had inadvertently talked about Albert.
Then, nearly two years had elapsed since moving back to Pony’s Home. Together with Miss Pony, Candy had attended the engagement party in Lakewood. Miss Pony had evidently seen through Candy like a window. Although Candy had tried her best to deny her feelings, she couldn’t convince Miss Pony at all. In fact, just last night, Miss Pony had said to her, “Sister Lane and I are seriously worried about you, Candy. Perhaps you want to consider working in Mary Jane nursing school again or another hospital?”
They had implied more than once that Candy should leave the small town to meet other young men in a nearby city. That was why Candy couldn’t concentrate at work earlier, especially it had been quiet at the clinic today.
All of a sudden, a man’s voice that she had always adored jerked her back to her surroundings, “Miss Pony, as you can see clearly from up here, that will be the ideal location for the new building because-”
Then came Miss Pony’s voice, interrupting him with politeness, “Sir William, please understand that we do not wish to take any more advantage of your generosity.”
Candy thought she must be dreaming. She roughly rubbed her face, wondering, is Albert here?
As though he heard her, he implored, “Please listen to me, Miss Pony-”
Before he could finish his statement, he heard, “Albert? What brought you here today!?”
As she happily sprinted towards him, he gave a hearty laugh and opened his arms to receive her. After a brief hug, he uttered in an extremely excited voice, “Candy, believe it or not, Mr. Cartwright has agreed to sell the land at a favorable price!”
“What? What land?” she wasn’t sure she heard it right.
Sister Lane then appeared. With tears brimming her eyes, she said to Candy, “Sir William’s lawyer will finalize the purchase of the land with Mr. Cartwright.”
Albert spent the rest of that afternoon convincing the two old ladies. He had offered to build a brand new orphanage for them before, but Miss Pony had firmly declined up on Pony’s Hill just now. After some negotiation back and forth, the old ladies concurred with the reconstruction proposal. Sister Lane said, “We can never pay back your kindness, Sir William. I’ve already found it hard to believe that we can raise the kids at ease without worrying about the rent ever again.”
The generous man also left them a considerable amount of cash in case they had to get hold of him for immediate attention. “Don’t hesitate to send telegrams directly to George,” he said seriously.
In addition, a seasoned engineer with construction experience had already been hired to take charge of the project, and the engineer would send regular updates to George. The engineer and his team would do some planning and design first, and the real construction would likely commence in March next year.
“Last but not the least, the land is currently under my name,” Albert wrapped up. “But when Candy turns twenty-one in May, I will transfer the ownership to her name.”
Having heard that, Candy’s eyes doubled in size, gaping at him incredulously. Yet, no matter what she said afterwards, he refused to change his mind. After everything had been settled, Sister Lane said, wiping her tears of gratitude with her handkerchief, “May God bless you for your generosity!”
Likewise, Miss Pony said after putting her tear-smeared glasses back on, “Yes, Sir William, may God grant you all your heart desires!”
After giving them his wholehearted appreciation, Albert asked for permission, “May I have some time alone with Candy before I head back to Chicago?”
Up on Pony’s Hill, they watched the glorious sunset together. As Candy repeatedly thanked Albert on behalf of the orphans in respectful terms, he put on a troubled expression and gently said, “Candy, please stop treating me like an old man. Can’t you see I’m doing all this… to repay your kindness to me?”
That caught her off guard, and he smiled, gazing at her tenderly. “So consider that my early Christmas present to you, Candy.”
But Christmas was three months away, and this would be her second Christmas at Pony’s Home since she had returned. Yet, with tears blurring her vision, she collected herself and murmured, “You know you don’t have to… Albert.”
Without a word, he regarded her affectionately for a moment, and then he gave her a goodbye kiss on the forehead. “I have to go, Candy.”
She missed him already, but she quietly accompanied him all the way to his car. That was when he popped the question, “Candy, could you please do me a favor?”
“What is it?”
“Will you be my partner for an upcoming party in January?”
“Partner?” she echoed with doubts.
He nodded, a genuine smile gracing his lips. As she pondered over the meaning behind his request, he pleaded, “Please?”
Noting the earnest plea in his striking blue eyes, she softened right away and couldn’t resist him even though she didn’t know what the party was about. She heard herself say “yes” to him, and her positive response delighted him.
“Wonderful!” he uttered aloud, grinning ear to ear, before opening the door to the driver’s side of the car.
Only when someone from Chicago came to take her measurements so as to custom design an evening gown for her did she realize it was the grand opening party of a hotel in Miami, Florida. It was the most luxurious resort owned by the Leagans.
George would send a chaperone to accompany Candy all the way to Miami, and there she would meet with Albert. He and George would attend some business functions in New York around that time, and they would directly go to Miami a couple of days before the party.
However, Miss Pony and Sister Lane had a heartfelt discussion with Candy prior to the long trip. They acknowledged from the bottom of their hearts that Sir William was a fine young man. It was obvious to everyone that he cared a lot about Candy and her well-being, always ready to go the extra mile for her, but he would eventually marry someone from the same class or with similar background.
“Besides,” added Sister Lane. “Although Sir William seems preoccupied with work, do you know much about his daily life in Chicago, Candy? What if he is seeing someone right now?”
They also pointed out that when Albert had been at his rock bottom, Candy and Dr. Martin had helped him tremendously. Therefore, just as he had built a new clinic for Dr. Martin, he had also paid for the land and reconstruction of Pony’s Home for Candy’s sake. The amount of money he had spent on them was plausibly a drop in his bucket.
“Candy, don’t play with fire… you’re bound to get hurt,” said Miss Pony with a pensive frown behind her spectacles.
They wistfully told Candy they wanted the best for their beloved child; their hearts ached knowing that she had to go through many hardships and disappointments in life, but the fact that Candy had been suffering from unrequited love for roughly two years had made them realize that simply keeping a distance from Sir William was not enough. Candy had to get as far away from his influence as possible.
Meanwhile, Candy could only nod her head in agreement. She couldn’t possibly pinpoint the exact moment when her heart had been irrevocably captured by Albert, and she thought with surprise, is it more than two years since I made a decision to leave Chicago?
“It’s about time to move on, my dear,” Miss Pony concluded, heaving a sigh of resignation afterwards. On one hand, Miss Pony truly respected Sir William as a person, and she doubted any other man would care about Candy as much as he did, but on the other hand, Candy had to face the reality.
The young lady hesitated for a brief moment before she mustered her courage and admitted how utterly foolish she was to allow herself to fall in love with her adoptive father. Their significant social gap was one thing, but their legal relationship had remained the predicament between them. Therefore, she promised her foster mothers that this would be the last time she would ever appear as Miss Ardlay, and after that, she would give up the name “Ardlay”. She was old enough, and she no longer needed a guardian.
Yet, when Albert personally picked up Candy at the train station in Miami, her resolve began to waver.