Caroline Bingley sat alone in her chambers. Any moment now, her maid would appear to help her dress for dinner. For the time being, however, Caroline reveled in a rare moment of solitude. Three days ago, she had left London and followed her brother to Hertfordshire. Again. He seemed more determined than before, and Mr. Darcy seemed eager to return as well. Although Caroline had suspected for weeks now that he harbored a tendre for Miss Elizabeth Bennet of a neighboring estate, she continued to hold out hope.
Mr. Darcy was just the sort of man she had envisioned marrying ever since her aborted elopement ten years prior. Of course, if he ever knew she had planned an elopement at sixteen, he would certainly never find her respectable. Let alone if he had known it was to a shop keeper’s son. A coloured shopkeeper’s son. Not that he had even planned on taking over the shop. He had designs to enter the army when she had met him. Last Caroline heard he had done so well as to distinguish himself in battle.
When she was very honest with herself, which was as infrequent as possible, she admitted that she favoured Mr. Darcy because for the last four years his cousin served in the same regiment as her long ago lover. The name Jacob Truman never passed between them, and if he was mentioned in letters, Caroline was not privy to them, but it was enough to know that if Colonel Fitzwilliam was well, Jacob might also be.
Perhaps, that is why Lord Arlington, despite his participation in the set down just given her by Mr. Darcy and her brother, appealed to her on some level. Logically, she ought to try and ensnare the viscount. Eliza Bennet hated her. If Mr. Darcy succumbed to his infatuation and married Eliza, Caroline’s invitations to Pemberley would become far less frequent. Additionally, Arlington was of an age to wed and his father entering his dotage. Whomever he married would become Countess before too long. His reputation supported he did not care for the ton’s leading ladies. While Caroline prided herself on being accomplished and cosmopolitan, she knew the truth. It would take many more generations before trade was washed out of the memory of the name Bingley. Nor was she an ignorant, insipid miss. She had lost her naiveté when she had to face the truth that love could not conquer everything. She was not as young as the debutantes or even Miss Eliza, but she was still handsome and wealthy. To a renegade earl’s son, that must account for something.
Additionally, there would be no hope for the rake to reform. He would carry on with his liaisons, and she would be free to keep her heart to herself. He would never expect love or real intimacy from her. Once, she had believed the same about Mr. Darcy but, at last, his cold heart seemed to thaw. He all but declared himself in love with Elizabeth Bennet and intent upon marrying her.
Well, she would not cry over the loss. Indeed, she was utterly exhausted from the chase. Her heart had never been in it, and she did not know if she had enough energy to pursue another young man. Lord Arlington was convenient but likely immune to her charms. Just the same, she believed she owed it to her family to test the waters. Marrying a viscount would do wonders for their standing. If she did not marry well, then not only would she have failed the dying wish of her mother but she would have given up the love of her life for no reason. She must make the last ten years of pain mean something.
Determined, she looked in the mirror and nodded. She had no hope of success, but she would give her best chase anyway. Her maid entered, and Caroline ordered her most daring dinner gown prepared. It would emphasize her superior figure. The accompanying necklace landed just above her décolletage, drawing the eye. She declined the matching bracelets, earbobs, and her most lavish turban. Instead, Caroline ordered a simple hairstyle. The overall effect said that she could play the part of Viscountess but did not drip with London society adornments. Even more startling, she felt more like herself than she had in years. A touch of the refined and a touch of the country lass she used to be.
Arlington looked across the dinner table at Netherfield and smiled at Caroline Bingley. The self-satisfied smirk that appeared for half a second told him exactly what he thought. She was making a play for him. He would let her try, like all the ladies before her. A harmless flirtation never hurt a soul.
“My compliments, Miss Bingley. You have ordered an excellent meal.”
The half-smirk appeared again, even as Darcy stomped on his foot. Arlington contained his yelp to himself. He knew what he was doing. And it was not solely for selfish reasons. Earlier, he had made a pact with Georgiana to plan a walk that would allow Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet time together with Caroline out of the way.
“As a bachelor, I seldom enjoy such a spread for a meal at home with family.”
“Thank you, my lord,” was her impeccably civil reply.
“You concede there are downsides to being a bachelor, after all, Arlington?” Bingley said from several spaces down.
“It has been said that the way to man’s heart is through his stomach. Who am I to disagree with the platitudes of matchmaking women?” He smiled at Caroline and then turned to Georgiana. “Take heed, Georgie. Setting a good table is one of the most important accomplishments for a lady.”
Of course, he generally did not think so but knew that his cousin would not take anything he said too seriously. Instead, his remark apparently pleased Caroline. He studied her smile. There was a guardedness he did not see in other women. It was as though she was playing a part. She wanted the world to think she was the sort of lady who desired to ensnare a viscount, but she often forgot her role. There were no secret glances. She did not stare longingly at him or flatter him too profusely. She relied entirely on outside influences to attract him: a gown, jewelry, a meal. There was nothing particularly in her demeanor that was artful.
She was grasping, that was evident. She had been angry and resentful to notice Darcy’s unabashed admiration of Miss Elizabeth earlier, but it merely wounded her pride. She now spoke to Darcy with tolerable civility. She had never cared much for the man. She had only wanted his money and name. And yet, why would she need more money? Her income was reported to be twenty thousand pounds. She had been educated at an excellent seminary in London and had many friends of the peerage. She must be nearing five and twenty, as she was older than her brother. In London, there were enough baronets and knights that would be eager for twenty thousand pounds. It would not be the position of Viscountess, but Darcy could not offer that either. Nor could the income of his ten thousand pounds been the only attraction. For a truly mercenary woman, an assured five thousand a year is better than the unlikely possibility of ten thousand a year.
Arlington had spent much time with actresses and could easily spot a fake. Caroline Bingley was an imposter of a fake. What was the part of her that she kept hidden like? Why would she desire to be so much like the ton and yet after all the years of acting, not truly absorb its values?
Richard had kept his word about leaving the dinner early, but for entirely different reasons than he had thought they would be. He discomposed a lady! What an ungentlemanly scoundrel he was!
And the truth was, he had no reason for his pointed barbs on her character. She had not seemed artful at any point in the evening. She asked about Georgiana, not Darcy. She seemed entirely uninterested in information on how to gain his good opinion. Whatever conversation she had had with Darcy seemed to direct him back to a lady, that Richard knew would be unlikely for her to know. Had not Darcy reported the Bennets had no connections? And the Crenshaws were the dearest friends of the Matlocks.
Lady Belinda had not deserved his harsh words. He had been discombobulated wince their accidental meeting earlier in the evening. So much so, that when her father attempted to introduce him, Richard did not want her to think less of him for knowing he was the second son instead of the heir. He expected, for just one night, to enjoy the pleasures that can be afforded from the flattery and charms of a beautiful lady.
Lord and sunder she was beautiful! Soaking wet, she had taken his breath away. Her hair made darker, her features paler. So striking in contrast! When she returned for dinner, there was no trace of their first meeting left. For some reason, he needed to know that it was not an illusion on his part. He searched for any sign she had been as deeply affected as he but found none. Annoyed that he sought her good opinion, when he knew more than most the dangers of a woman, he attacked ruthlessly. Her words about uncivil soldiers were too on the point but in the next moment she softened and seemed genuinely interested in Georgiana and his opinions of music. His head was swimming with conflicting information, and he had waged into battle half-cocked.
After she had fled the table, Lord Crenshaw explained the reasons for his daughter’s low spirits. She had formed an attachment to a young naval officer who could not offer marriage without needing her entire dowry. Even if Crenshaw had wished to assist, and he understandably had his reservations about the match, it was placed in a trust that could not be touched until Lady Belinda came of age. Determined to make his own fortune, the officer took a posting last summer. The ship was soon lost at sea and Belinda was still grieving.
Richard tugged off his cravat and threw it on a chair. Having done little to ease his frustration, he then poured himself a drink. He had unjustly wounded a lady, and his honour was the only thing he had left. The drink was to drown out the portion of his mind that screamed at the folly of going into enemy territory. But his better nature demanded that he make amends. A familiar feeling that he had experienced many times before formed in the pit of his stomach. He was equal parts excited by and terrified of another interaction with Lady Belinda. He needed a plan of action for the latest battle he faced.
The following morning, Truman entered while Richard was finishing dressing. “Toss me the cravat. Yes, the old one will do.”
Truman laughed at the finished product. “Have you no compassion for my dignity?”
“What? Like you wish to be my nurse and dress me. I am not a baby.”
Truman looked away and did not laugh as Richard had expected. “That was insensitive of me. Of course, you are proud of the station valet.”
“It may not be much to an earl’s son, but earning wages for work that half a world away my kin folk are forced to do in chattel makes me proud.”
Truman’s grandfather had been a slave and brought back to England after a war in the colonies. He became valet and butler to the officer who bought and freed him. Truman’s father earned enough money to open a shop. Such was the usual career path for a household servant and his descendants, but it meant more to a man who might be denied his freedom due to the colour of his skin.
“Forgive me. Last night’s dinner and my errand this morning made for a poor night’s rest.” Of course, dreams of Belinda in his arms did not help matters.
“What happened last night?”
Rather than attempting to put into words the strange effect Belinda had on him, Richard waved off the concern. “I have a daunting errand today. Hopefully, all goes well.”
“Good luck with the Major-General,” Truman said as Richard left.
The words rattled in his ears. Richard had meant apologising to Lady Belinda.
Richard did have a meeting with Major-General Vyse planned, however, and they met at one of London’s finest clubs. The fact that the superior officer clearly felt at home in his surroundings did not bode well for Richard.
“I have looked over your reports, Fitzwilliam. It seems nothing could have been done differently. My apologies if you were close to Craufurd.” Richard inclined his head at the civility. “Now, it seems the regiment needs a new brigadier.”
This was the moment Richard had been dreading. He prayed he was not offered the command as refusing would be near impossible and dishonourable.
“Do you know William Gordon? I think he will be the perfect fit for this regiment. He shows promise. I have already cleared it with headquarters. You will report to his office when he arrives in London later this week.”
Their meeting soon ended and Richard’s frustration grew as he rode to the Crenshaw residence. The only promise William Gordon showed was a sizeable pocketbook, an unwed daughter, and a lackluster parliamentary record. He worried about himself first and had no loyalty to the crown. Or to the mere men that fought under his command and at his whims. The problem with the British chain of command is that it mattered more who one knew than how one fought. With any luck, Richard could suggest a few advisors for soon to be Brigadier-General Gordon to take on. Perhaps if he had competent people surrounding him, he might listen to their opinions.
Arriving at Belinda’s home, the knot in his stomach returned. Strange that he would feel it before asking for an audience with her but not while speaking with the General. Richard usually associated the feeling with battle. Although, in this case, she was certainly the more dangerous enemy.
Lady Crenshaw certainly made her instructions clear to the butler as Belinda entered the drawing room without a chaperone. What mother would not give a lady a few minutes alone with a suitor? Richard’s black heart laughed at the idea of trusting a man who killed for a living with an innocent’s reputation. Mere minutes could end a life…or bring thrilling pleasure. The thought pricked Richard’s mind as Belinda exuded vitality in a pale pink gown. Richard blessed the fashion designers who dictated gowns follow a lady’s curves more naturally than the generation before had. Living in the age of Napoleon might be well worth something after all.
She resolutely refused to look at him and sat down on a settee. Apparently, he was not even due the usual civilities. After several minutes in silence, Belinda glanced at the door and huffed. Richard gathered his gumption. He needed to make his apology and depart, not stare at the graceful line of her neck or where the fabric skimmed over her hips. He stood and walked closer to her. Despite herself, she looked up, craning her neck as he towered over her. The ridiculousness of it caused him to smile.
“Did you suppose, Lord Arlington, that because I did not speak to you, I could not see you? Perhaps you believe I need spectacles or that no woman would be able to resist your charm? Or more likely, you suppose all ladies desire the title you could offer them. Well, I do not covet a title, nor do I need glasses. And as you see, I am perfectly capable of—”
She abruptly stopped and stood. “You were saying?” He followed her to the window.
“I cannot think straight when you are standing near me like that!”
Richard smiled and leaned against the wall. “How is this, then?”
“Why do you unsettle me so?”
“All part of my irresistible charm,” he drawled. He should at least inform her that he was no viscount, but then viscounts could be forgiven for rudeness.
“I certainly find it resistible,” she said but stepped closer and arched her neck again.
His attention was divided between wondering about the taste of her plump lips and desiring to query the smoothness of her neck.
“Are you even paying attention to me?” She snapped.
“Yes,” he said.
“Good. As I was saying, there is nothing charming about you! You accuse innocent ladies that you do not even know of being mercenary and conniving—”
“I am sorry about that.”
“And you— What was that?”
Richard’s smile grew as he looked at her large eyes go round in surprise and confusion.
“I apologise for my accusations last night. Please forgive me. I would not mean to hurt you.”
“You think you hurt me? Your words were nothing. Nothing…compared to losing…” Tears began to fall, but she still attempted to speak. “And then to be forced to go on like nothing happened. Like I am not empty. Paraded around for suitor after suitor.”
He withdrew his handkerchief and pressed it into her hand. “I am sorry.”
“What for?” she blubbered.
“For thinking it was all about me?” He gave her a half-smile, and she returned it. Mentally, he was apologising for wanting nothing more than to kiss away her tears. She was mourning another man’s death. The last thing in the world she desired was his kiss!
Belinda shook her head. “I do not think I like you apologetic. You’re far safer when gruff and demeaning. When you are like this, it’s so—so—so confusing!”
“What is confusing?” His mind was too busy changing “honour, honour, honour” and ignoring the craven beast-like feeling to kiss her jumping up and down begging for attention. When had she come so much closer to him?
“This,” she said before touching her lips to his.