Richard scowled in the mirror as he awaited his valet’s return. His brother, James, and Darcy had hightailed it off to Hertfordshire, leaving Richard alone against his mother’s machinations. Why Darcy suddenly wanted James at his side Richard knew not. He was Georgiana’s other guardian, and Darcy had spent the better part of a decade avoiding James. But then, James could come and go as he pleased and Richard was bound to a soldier’s life. He had just returned from a third deployment to the Continent, and another one was possible.
Richard examined himself. The uniform covered up his scars. The jovial smile he plastered on his face masked the pain he felt at seeing friends and brothers in arms die on bloody battlefields. And all for what? He had not felt some great duty compel him to fight. Not like other men like his valet. Nor had he sought glory. He was intended for the church and a rash decision at after the betrayal of a woman sent him fighting Boney as soon as the short-lived Treaty of Amiens was broken. No sound emitted from his lips but in his black, ugly heart he laughed. He had proved quite a good soldier, quite adept at taking life. To imagine he was capable of helping lead others to an eternal one was beyond ridiculous. It must have been that flaw in him that sent the lovely Julia longing for the arms of the first man she laid eyes on after recognizing the mistake she made in accepting his proposal. Fortunately for Richard, that man had been his brother. While the ton may think he was a rake, James, at least, had the honour to rebuff the lady’s advances and alert Richard. But then, James had been wiser about women than Richard. Now, they both had learned and had it on good authority there was only a handful of decent women on the earth: their mother, their deceased Aunt Anne, their cousins Anne and Georgiana, and the only woman who had captured James’ heart, Claire du Val.
“Here is a fresh one, sir,” the voice of Richard’s valet, Jacob Truman, broke his musings. He held out a cravat. “You should quit thinking about her. It will do you no favours this evening,” Truman said quietly while studying Richard’s face in the mirror.
Richard did not need to ask who Truman meant or how he had known. The men had served together for half a decade. When Richard found Truman, he was the beaten batman of a cruel colonel who found fault with everything Truman did simply for the color of his skin. The fact that Truman was twice his size and could have had a successful career alongside Gentleman Jackson and Bill Richmond should have alarmed the abusive colonel. That Truman did not fight back spoke to his superior character. It was easy enough for Richard to secure Truman’s transfer. Since then, the men had become like brothers and had seen hell together.
Finishing his cravat, Richard shrugged on his jacket. “I intend to leave as early as possible tonight but if somehow I am prevented, do not stay up. I am quite capable of dressing and undressing. Ridiculous that after all we have seen on the battlefield we now have to pretend as though I cannot tie a knot. Then again, perhaps we have been fighting Boney so long because the noblemen lead the military, and they are actually that inept.”
Truman tsked. “It is the way of the world.”
“With any luck, it will not be the way of ours for much longer. Have you thought more about what you will do when your contract is up?”
Truman’s eyes took on a vacant stare. “There is not much of a life for me other than a soldier’s.”
“There is your father’s store,” Richard pushed.
“Far too gentle for the likes of me,” the other man shook his head.
Richard understood the man’s true feelings. Returning to his home and circulating with the people he had once known was impossible for a man still running from the memories of a woman who had done him wrong. Which is precisely why Richard dreaded this evening. The Countess of Matlock was on the hunt to see her sons and nephew married. As Richard boarded the carriage with his parents to attend a dinner at Lord and Lady Crenshaw’s and heard them extol the virtues of the daughter and heiress, Richard acknowledged he might rather face another battalion of Frenchies than try to live in polite society with insipid debutantes and cunning widows flung at him. But then, the French could only maim his body and women were a vast deal more dangerous. If he had a heart left, he would be concerned.
Lady Belinda Crenshaw sat on the bench in her family’s London garden. She hated London and all its confines. Her heart longed for the countryside and the open fields of the family estate. Often as a child, she would visit the coast with her governess and allow the ocean spray to hit her face. The wind would blow, freeing the locks of her hair and tickling her nose with salty sea air. Of course, that was before the sea took Captain Seth Rogers from her.
As a naval captain, she ought to have been prepared for his possible demise or injury. He had faced Napoleon’s navy before, however, and returned unscathed. Or so he said when she questioned him about it. Then he gave a hearty laugh and upon seeing his charming smile, Belinda pushed all negative thoughts from her mind. However, he did not die in battle. His ship and crew were lost during a perilous storm.
For a time after hearing the news, she had fantasized that he had survived. She dreamed of waves carrying his body to a distant land. Upon washing up, he was taken in. Living in enemy territory would be dangerous, but her strong captain would find a way home. He would find a way back to her. As long as she could think that, her heart continued to beat and drawing breath was not so painful.
Hope vanished some weeks later when news came that he had washed ashore. Dead.
There would be no returning. The life Belinda imagined disappeared as suddenly as the puff of clouds it had been built upon emerged.
She had known Seth for only a few weeks the previous summer while he stayed with relations near her estate. Before he left to take command of a new ship, however, he proposed. Belinda rapidly said yes but her parents refused consent. He was a nobody to them. His family was nothing impressive, he advanced in the Navy only through middling connections. He had no fortune, nor would he inherit one. Indeed, they were convinced he was a fortune hunter as Belinda was worth twenty thousand pounds. He never mentioned her wealth, however. Indeed, their dreams included her accompanying him, not his retirement from the Navy and living off her funds. Belinda had made up her mind, however. She waited only for her one and twentieth birthday to come so she might wed where she wished without parental interference.
Fate was a cruel mistress indeed. Her birthday was last week, and she now had complete control of her income. Only she had no visions for her future. Perhaps in time she might hire a companion and take a small house in a different county. Returning to the Crenshaw estate would be inexplicably painful, and she would never like London. The worse difficulty laid in the fact that she could not mourn Seth’s death as they were not openly engaged. As it was, her parents insisted on hosting dinner party after dinner party in an attempt to marry her off. Her mother, especially, took it as the highest insult to have a “spinster in the making” as daughter. Her father bemoaned the family legacy as she was the sole child. If she did not marry and have children, it would go to a distant cousin and what duty did they have to the Crenshaw estate and coffers?
Her parents had a favorite. Lord Arlington, the Earl of Matlock’s eldest son. Belinda knew him perfectly well by reputation. She would rather die than marry him. There was nothing honourable about him. According to the gossip sheets, he sought his pleasures anywhere and everywhere. He dabbled in trade and factories for his income, was a liberal Whig and a rabble rouser in politics. In short, he was everything the perfect viscount should be. And she would never be the perfect viscountess. She was not formed for boring drawing room talk with ladies who came only to be jealous and spiteful. She hated London balls and soirees and would rather dance a lively reel any day. And she was entirely unapologetic about it all.
The wind blew harder, and Belinda looked up to see darker clouds roll in. At least she thought they were clouds. In London, it was difficult to know. Still, she ought to return inside. Her mother planned another ridiculous dinner with Lady Matlock. After running Mr. Darcy off the other night, Belinda had not heard the end of it. She smiled to herself. Their conversation had been intriguing, and if Belinda had to guess, Mr. Darcy was quite in love with some unsuitable lady in Hertfordshire. She could only hope he would be brave enough to try for her.
A few steps from the door, the clouds opened. Large, heavy rain drops pummeled her face, forcing her to bend her head down. She opened the door and bolted inside then collided with a wall that had never been there before.
“It is a good thing Lady Crenshaw wrote and adjusted the time for our arrival. It looks like rain,” Lord Matlock said as they followed the butler to the drawing room.
“Louisa did not adjust the time for our arrival. We were always meant to arrive at four,” his wife said.
“No, when we last met they had said five.”
Richard rolled his eyes at his parents’ disagreement. His parents had never been very traditional. His father had been the second son and unexpected to inherit the earldom. His pursuit for the fair Miss Eleanor Manners’ hand was declined by her father and instead she was betrothed to the heir of a duke. The couple eloped, scandalizing Society. Of course, all was forgiven once he inherited not only a title but his wealthy uncle’s income. Now, they all tolerated the lord and lady’s eccentricities, including their free way of speaking to one another. Richard, however, had often wished his parents had conformed just a bit more to the normal function of society.
The door to their destination was opened, revealing it was empty. As they sat, Lord Matlock’s sly smile showed he enjoyed besting his wife.
In ordinary cases, a baron would not leave an earl waiting long. However, the Crenshaws were nearly as eccentric as the Matlocks and on the best of terms with them. It was why Richard’s parents promoted a match with Lady Belinda so much. Aside from the prudence of money and social standing, that is. However, they loved Belinda nearly like a daughter and after the disservice they gave Arlington when he wished to marry Claire, they were eager to prove they had only the best intentions toward him. They would be happy if she married either of their sons or their nephew, but would be happiest if Arlington wed her.
Something like jealousy rose in Richard’s heart. He had never felt such before. He could not understand the sentiment. He did not desire to marry anyone, and indeed had no need to. He had income from his father in addition to his profession. Being a soldier afforded him all the company he required, and he needed an active life. He had never chaffed against the rules and regulations of service but neither could he imagine the idleness James experienced. Still, he did not think he should be a soldier for the rest of his life. What he would do with himself, therefore, he had no idea. James’ had direction and fulfillment within his grasp.
Uneasy with the direction of his thoughts, Richard stood. Under the guise of needing to use the privy, he excused himself. He just needed air. On assignment, even officers slept in tents on the battlefield. Then there were the ship travels from England to foreign land and back. To escape the dark and wet confines, he spent as much time as he could on the ships’ deck. The vastness of the sea and the wind on his face calmed the dark thoughts of his mind. London drawing rooms, while not dark and dank, proved to be just as stifling.
Descending the stairs to the ground floor, he recalled the threat of rain. He just reached the garden door when he heard raindrops. Before he could open it and decide if he should face the deluge or not, the door flung open. More suddenly than a sea squall, a drenched water sprite dashed right into his chest. As she bounced off his body, his arms reflexively reached around her so she would not stumble. A jolt like lightning struck him, causing his arms to tighten. With a strangled cry she wrenched herself from his arms and ran out of sight.
Head swimming for calm, Richard stood before the still open garden door as rain poured in. He felt like he had just lived through a hurricane, though it had been but a woman. His body’s reaction to her shape and the feel of her against his chest reminded him of the two tempests, she was surely the more dangerous. Whoever she was.
Belinda ran upstairs to her bed chamber as fast as her water-soaked skirts would allow her. Pins fell from her hair and drenched curls stuck to the side of her face. A blush of mortification crept over her skin. She must have looked a terrible fright and yet had not only been seen that way but literally crashed into a man. Her parents’ guest. She knew Lord and Lady Matlock were to dine this night, meaning the gentleman must be Lord Arlington.
Reaching her room, she slammed the door shut as though she could keep out the dangerous thoughts flooding her mind. He had been the most handsome gentleman she had ever seen. He was solid and well-built. His shoulders took the whole door frame. She could still feel the strength of his arms when wrapped around her.
Belinda shook her head, sending droplets of water to the floor. As accidental as the embrace had been it had been more than she ever allowed Seth, whom she loved. It mattered not that she could not entirely recall his face or the color of his eyes or the scent of his cologne and that his lordship was far more muscular than any nobleman had a right to be. She was ruined for love now. She refused to be sold like chattel to the highest bidder for her parent’s sake, let alone to a rake such as Arlington. And if she could not love him, then she refused to allow whatever momentary attraction she felt to sway her opinion. He could never be constant, and if she were ever prevailed upon to marry again, she would desire fidelity and mutual interests. Companionship. Not that she had even been willing to consider the idea before. And she still was not willing to consider it. Purely hypothetical thinking.
To pull her from her jumbled and traitorous thoughts, she began removing her sodden clothing. At last, her maid appeared and helped restore her to order. By the time she descended the stairs to join her parents in the drawing room, she looked every inch the proper Lady Belinda that she never was in her heart. She steeled herself for the evening. Lord Arlington would see no sign of embarrassment from her.
“Ah, Belinda. Here you are, at last.” Her father said. “You have not met Matlock’s son. Allow me to introduce you.”
“Forgive me, my lord,” the gentleman in question said. “We met briefly in the hall earlier.
Belinda drew her lips tightly together. Already, he hoped to unnerve her.
“Indeed?” Her father questioned and looked at Belinda for corroboration.
“Yes,” she said with an affected shrug.
“Well, then…” her father trailed off. Clearly, he had rehearsed in his mind how the night would go and now everything was off balance. Fortunately, Lady Matlock was a talented conversationalist.
“I simply adore the new drapes, Louisa.”
“Yes, it was high time to begin improvements in this room. We have not done any since our marriage. I consulted Belinda, of course, as it will be hers one day.”
Inwardly, Belinda sighed. She hated the marriage mart. Most of her worth in society’s age was summed up in that sentence. As an heiress, it was near impossible to find a gentleman whose attentions would be genuine. Then, her mother’s primary note was about her decorating skills. This was what was expected of marriages among peers. Her interests did not matter. Peers did not marry for companionship or love. Her mother prattled on.
“She was especially keen that the fabric come from England. She would not even hear of Indian silk.”
Her mother left off the fact that Belinda chose such fabrics because French fabrics were unavailable and Belinda would just as soon ride into battle herself than support anything from the country that sent her beloved to war. Neither did she want reminders of Britain’s empire at all. If not at war with France, Seth would have just as likely been fighting the Americans near the Indies or been on a merchant ship traveling to and from India. All of it was dangerous work. Instead, she promoted textiles from the North of England.
“How patriotic,” Lord Matlock said and then glanced at his son, who looked at her peculiarly. Breaking eye contact, she returned her gaze to her hands.
“Oh, yes. Belinda volunteers at the Royal Hospital several times a week.”
Belinda’s head snapped up. The others looked at her, expecting a remark of some kind. “A lady has duties to her country just as much as any man. They may fight, but we may nurse.”
“What duty does a lady owe to Britain?” Lord Matlock’s son said. “There are some that would say the French treat their women better.”
“You cannot convince me Napoleon cares about women, France or anything but himself. This war will, God willing, one day end. And then we will be friends with France again, as we always are. It is he, and his supporters, that must be stopped, and Jacobin women are fooling themselves if they believe he can offer them more freedoms.”
Dinner was called before Belinda could say more and it was just as well. She had wanted to remain indifferent and composed. Rumour had it that Lord Arlington did not like proper English misses, therefore pretending to be one would be the surest way to send him packing. She remained perfectly polite and calm during dinner. Nearing the dessert course, Lord Arlington leaned over and whispered to her.
“I expected you to attack your meal as though you were after Boney.”
Rather than remark on his break in propriety, she matched him. “Even a soldier must appear civil at times. What do I gain by sawing into my food as though it were a bayonet?”
She had expected to offend him. If being silent did not run him off, then insulting him surely would. Instead, his eyes took on a faraway look. Unnerved, she changed the topic of their conversation. “Do you enjoy music?”
Her words seemed to bring him from his reverie, and he blinked rapidly for a moment. “That is a rather general question. There are many forms of music.”
“What is your favorite form?”
“The pieces that speak to the soul. They communicate feeling and depth. My cousin, Georgiana Darcy, has a great talent. Her masters are delighted with her fingering but her audience delights in the emotion she gives mere notes on a page.”
“You speak fondly of her.”
“I do not get to see her as often as I would wish.”
“I have not met her. What is she like?”
“No, you would have little occasion to meet her. She is but fifteen. I am the wrong one to ask, however. I still think of her as a young girl. Darcy could tell you more.” His hand flexed slightly around his wine glass.
“Mr. Darcy did not seem very welcoming to conversation when I met him. Nor do I blame him. I understand he was distracted with thinking more about cursed pirate gold.”
“Pirate gold?” A smile inched across his face.
Compelled to broaden the smile, Belinda went on. “He seemed to need help deciding if a certain jewel that might be under a curse would be worth owning. Of course, we had first talked about finding unexpected treasure in the countryside.”
“The countryside!” Awareness filled his features. “Hertfordshire. Lady Belinda, I do not know whether you are clever or devious.”
The bluntness of his words drew her back. “I hope I am neither. I wish to be known only as honest and friendly. You cannot blame me for encouraging him to return to Hertfordshire. I could not sway his mind. My words would hold no importance if it were not something he already desired to do.”
“You are acquainted with the Bennets of Hertfordshire, I take it.”
“I have never heard of them before!” How dare he accuse her of something underhanded. “If you insinuate I schemed to have Mr. Darcy return to a match you find unsuitable, then you should know it was for selfish reasons only. I had no desire for Mr. Darcy’s courtship. Or yours. I have loved too deeply to be attracted to wealth, rank or name. In my own way, I pleaded that he would leave me be. I now make the same plea to you. Excuse me.”
She stood and left the room, not caring that she had ruined her mother’s dinner. Her parents ought to be used to her severe moods by now, and if they continued to push suitors on her, it would only get worse.