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The air was so still in the brilliant summer sun that you could hear the birds, and every sound for miles, as Sarah sat peacefully looking out her window. The grounds were brilliantly designed, perfectly manicured, the gardens laid out by Le NÙtre, as Versailles' had been, the trees towering canopies of green framing the park of the Ch,teau de la Meuze. The ch,teau itself was four hundred years old, and Sarah, Duchess of Whitfield, had lived here for fifty-two years now. She had come here with William, when she was barely more than a girl, and she smiled at the memory as she watched the caretaker's two dogs chase each other into the distance. Her smile grew as she thought of how much Max was going to enjoy the two young sheepdogs.
It always gave her a feeling of peace, sitting here, looking out at the grounds they had worked so hard on. It was easy to recall the desperation of the war, the endless hunger, the fields stripped of everything they might have had to give them. It had all been so difficult then. . . so different. . . and it was odd, it never seemed so long ago. . . fifty years. . . half a century. She looked down at her hands, at the two enormous, perfectly square emerald rings she almost always wore, and it still startled her to see the hands of an old woman. They were still beautiful hands, graceful hands, useful hands, thank God, but they were the hands of a seventy-five-year-old woman. She had lived well, and long; too long, she thought sometimes. . . too long without William. . . and yet there was always more, more to see, to do, to think about, and plan, more to oversee with their children. She was grateful for the years she had had, and even now, she didn't have the sense that anything was over, or complete yet. There was always some unexpected turn in the road, some event that couldn't have been foreseen, and somehow needed her attention. It was odd to think that they still needed her, they needed her less than they knew, and yet they still turned to her often enough to make her feel important to them, and still somehow useful. And there were their children too. She smiled as she thought of them, and stood, still looking for them out the window. She could see them as they arrived, from here. . . see their faces as they smiled, or laughed, or looked annoyed as they stepped from their cars, and looked expectantly up at her windows. It was almost as if they always knew she would be there, watching for them. No matter what else she had to do, on the afternoon they were to arrive, she always found something to do in her elegant little upstairs sitting room, as she waited. And even after all these years, with all of them grown, there was always a little thrill of excitement, to see their faces, hear their tales, listen to their problems. She worried about them, and loved them, just as she always had, and in a way, each one of them was a tiny piece of the enormous love she had shared with William. What a remarkable man he had been, larger than any fantasy, than any dream. Even after the war, he was a force to be reckoned with, a man that everyone who knew him would always remember.
Sarah walked slowly away from the window, past the white-marble fireplace, where she often sat on cold winter afternoons, thinking, writing notes, or even writing a letter to one of her children. She spoke to them frequently on the telephone, in Paris, London, Rome, Munich, Madrid, and yet she had an enormous fondness for writing.
She stood looking down at a table draped in an ancient, faded brocade, a beautiful piece of antique workmanship that she had found years ago, in Venice, and she gently touched the framed photographs there, picking them up at random to see them better, and as she looked at them, it was suddenly so easy to remember the exact moment. . . their wedding day, William laughing at something someone had said, as she looked up at him, smiling shyly. There was so much happiness evident there, so much joy that she had almost thought her heart would break with it the day of her wedding. She wore a beige lace-and-satin dress, with a very stylish beige lace hat with a small veil, and she had carried an armload of small, tea-colored orchids. They had been married at her parents' home, at a small ceremony, with her parents' favorite friends beside them. Almost a hundred friends had come to join them for a quiet, but very elegant, reception. There had been no bridesmaids this time, no ushers, no enormous wedding party, no youthful excess, only her sister to attend her, in a beautifully draped blue-satin dress with a stunning hat that had been made for her by Lily DachÈ. Their mother had worn a short dress in emerald-green. Sarah smiled at the memory. . . her mother's dress had been almost exactly the color of her own two extraordinary emeralds. How pleased with her life her mother would have been, if only she had lived to see it.
There were other photographs there as well, of the children when they were small. . . a wonderful one of Julian with his first dog. . . and Phillip, looking terribly grown-up, though he was only eight or nine, when he was first at Eton. And Isabelle somewhere in the South of France in her teens. . . and each of them in Sarah's arms when they were first born. William had always taken those photographs himself, trying to pretend not to have tears in his eyes, as he looked at Sarah with each new, tiny baby. And Elizabeth. . . looking so small. . . standing beside Phillip in a photograph that was so yellow, one could hardly see now. But as always, tears filled Sarah's eyes as she looked at it and remembered. Her life had been good and full so far, but it hadn't always been easy.
She stood looking at the photographs for a long time, touching the moments, thinking of each of them, gently brushing up against the memories, while trying not to bump into those that were too painful. She sighed as she walked away again, and went back to stand at the long French windows.
She was graceful, and tall, her back very straight, her head held with the pride and elegance of a dancer. Her hair was snowy-white, though it had once shone like ebony; her huge, green eyes were the same deep, dark color as her emeralds. Of her children, only Isabelle had those eyes, and even hers weren't as dark as Sarah's. But none of them had her strength and style, none of them had the fortitude she had had, the determination, the sheer power to survive all that life had dealt her. Their lives had been easier than hers had been, and for that, in some ways, she was very grateful. In other ways, she wondered if her constant attention to them had softened them, if she had indulged them too much, and as a result had made them weaker. Not that anyone would call Phillip weak. . . or Julian. . . or Xavier. . . or even Isabelle. . . still, Sarah had something that none of them had, a sheer strength of soul that seemed to emanate from her as one watched her. It was a kind of power one sensed about her as she walked into a room, and like her or not, one couldn't help but respect her. William had been like that, too, although more effusive, more obvious in his amusement about life, and his good nature. Sarah had always been quieter, except when she was with William. He brought out the best in her. He had given her everything, she frequently said, everything she had ever cared about, or loved, or truly needed. She smiled as she looked out over the green lawns, remembering how it had all begun. It seemed like only hours ago. . . days since it had all started. It was impossible to believe that tomorrow was going to be her seventy-fifth birthday. Her children and her grandchildren were coming to celebrate it with her, and the day after that, hundreds of illustrious and important people. The party still seemed foolish to her, but the children had absolutely insisted. Julian had organized everything, and even Phillip had called her from London half a dozen times to make sure that everything was going smoothly. And Xavier had sworn that, no matter where he was, Botswana or Brazil, or God only knew where else, he would fly in to be there. Now she waited for them, standing at the window, almost breathlessly, feeling a little flutter of excitement. She was wearing an old, but beautifully cut, simple black Chanel dress with the enormous, perfectly matched pearls that she almost always wore, which caused people who knew to catch their breath the first time they saw them. They had been hers since the war, and had they sold in today's world, they would have surely brought well over two million dollars. But Sarah never thought of that; she simply wore them because she loved them, because they were hers, and because William had insisted that she keep them. "The Duchess of Whitfield should have pearls like that, my love." He had teased her when she first tried them on, over an old sweater of his she had borrowed to work in the lower garden. "Damn shame my mother's were so insignificant compared to these," he had commented, and she'd laughed, and he had held her close to him as he kissed her. Sarah Whitfield had beautiful things, she had had a wonderful life. And she was a truly extraordinary person.
And as she began to turn away from the window at last, impatient for them to come, she heard the first car coming around the last turn in the driveway. It was an endless black Rolls-Royce limousine, with windows so dark, she wouldn't have been able to see who was in it. Except that she knew, she knew each of them to perfection. She stood smiling as she watched them. The car stopped directly in front of the main entrance to the ch,teau, almost exactly below her window, and as the driver stepped out and hurried to open the door for him, she shook her head with amusement. Her eldest son was looking extremely distinguished, as always, and very, very British, while trying not to appear harassed by the woman who stepped out of the car just behind him. She wore a white silk dress and Chanel shoes, her hair cut short, very stylishly, with diamonds glittering in the summer sun absolutely everywhere she could find to put them. She smiled to herself again as she turned away from the scene at the window. This was only the beginning. . . of a mad, interesting few days. . . . Hard to believe. . . she couldn't help but wonder what William would have thought of all of it. . . all this fuss over her seventy-fifth birthday. . . seventy-five years. . . so much too soon. . . . It seemed only moments since the beginning. . . .