Richard walked into the hospital and greeted the staff. He had been home from the Continent for several weeks now and was blessed that his stay in the hospital was so short. He was even more blessed that his family was as healthy and whole as when he had left. Many of the men in the hospital had no family to return to. While they were fighting on the Continent, disease or even hunger had ravaged those left behind. It was not the sort of image Parliament or the ton enjoyed thinking about. The men from well-to-do families got all the glory while the men who could barely scrape a living did all the fighting.
While recovering in this hospital, a lieutenant in the bed next to Richard had slipped into a melancholy no doctor could treat. The man had just received notice that his wife and child had died of fever. The image of returning home to them no doubt filled had his mind during battle and gave him the strength to fight the loss of a limb. There had been no evidence of infection, at first. He was encouraged to move around on crutches but after learning of his wife and child’s demise he refused to leave his bed. The lack of activity reduced his blood flow, and the amputated limb became gangrenous. The infection spread and in the end, the soldier met the same fate as his departed family.
For all that Richard hated Lucy Thrale and how she treated him, he was thankful he had never known the horror of such a loss. He had seen how his brother mourned his betrothed for nigh on a decade. As Richard waited in the doctor’s private office for an exam, his mind turned toward Belinda. How would her captain have mourned losing her? And how unjust it was that the man would have staked a claim on her heart when he knew the perils of war? For himself, Richard would never dare to leave her once he won her heart. Duty to the country be hanged, a man could not be in love and act so selfishly.
Richard shook his head. Why was he considering love? Let alone adding Lady Belinda in the same sentence. No matter her kiss, she would not have him. He crossed his legs, attempting to cover his growing discomfort at the remembrance of her sweet and exploratory kiss. Since joining the army, Richard had experienced no shortage of willing bedmates but never had a kiss affected him so much.
The doctor came in, interrupting Richard’s thoughts. After he had completed the examination, he returned to his desk and made notes. “It is remarkably healed. For your sake, I am sorry. I cannot defer your recommendation for continued action.”
Richard nodded his head. He had been prepared for such news. It is why he scheduled this last visit with the physician before he met with Gordon. There were still some weeks left on his contract. The Regiment was to be quartered in England for the winter, but there was always the possibility of going to the Continent again. Confirmation that he was fit for continued active service weighed on Richard’s mind. Thoroughly distracted, he rounded a corner and nearly collided with a figure.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam!” the unexpected voice of Lady Belinda Crenshaw exclaimed.
“Lady Belinda! I beg your pardon,” he said assessing if he had hurt her. She held a stack of linens.
“It is quite alright, Colonel. But may I suggest you either take care where you are going or at least slow down?”
Richard chuckled. Others had often commented on his barrelling ways like a horse set on a mad dash.
“Did you have business in the hospital? One of your men?” She did not meet his eyes, and her cheeks looked pink.
“No. I travelled ahead of my regiment.”
Hoping to not offend her this time, Richard tried to jest. “Despite Napoleon’s best try, they were no match for my quick acting batman. He saw the shell coming before I did and managed to pull me from my mount. I may never ride again without pain, but the horse certainly had a worse fate.”
“How terrible,” she said at last meeting his eyes.
“Yes. I was quite fond of Victory’s Triumph.”
“How can you joke?” Tears pricked her eyes.
Blast, he caused her to cry again after all. “Soldiers often joke, otherwise the fear would be too great.”
Belinda jerked her chin up. “I understand that. I used to be fearless. I had thought tragedy could not touch me.”
Taking out his handkerchief, he gently held her face in one hand. “It is not that we are insensible to the fear. It is that living through it creates a certain amount of madness. We are not in control of when we live or die, but we might control some of the moments in between.”
As he said the words and looked into her eyes, he felt the lie of it. He had no control. Every rational part of his brain told him to break contact with her, but his lips were magnetically drawn to hers. That very madness he had mentioned before clawed at him and told him to kiss her savagely. Kiss her until there were witnesses or she succumbed to her own desire. Kiss her until the decision was out of both of their hands and a wedding was the only option.
Desperately, he stroked her lips with his. Running his tongue along the seam of her mouth, he made his attack when she gasped and opened for him. The first stroke of their tongues was like a canon blast. He ought to have felt the danger of it. Instead, the primal beast in him pulled Belinda closer until their bodies were flush as she dropped the linens she held. Slowly, reality returned. He released her lips and touched his forehead to hers, letting their breaths even.
“Was that the madness?” She looked up at him with swollen lips and a coy look.
God help him. He wanted to plunder her mouth again. “Everything about you drives me mad.”
She laughed a little but pushed away. “Do not blame it on me. I am sure you were that way long before you met me.”
Perhaps, but at the moment he was having the most lunatic thought of all. Belinda was laying claim to his heart. Shoving the thought aside and hoping to act as unaffected as she, he struck a casual pose and leaned against the wall for support. “What are you doing here?”
“I come several days a week to volunteer. My mother told you when she was busy trying to hawk me on you.”
“I do not recall.” He had changed his mind about her so many times since that conversation, he remembered little of it.
“I play and sing in the drawing room and then I read to the ones that are not mobile.”
“A pity we did not meet before,” Richard said. Surely he would have remembered meeting her.
“I usually only make rounds to the enlisted men. It seems officers have enough comforts.”
Had he not been thinking something similar less than an hour ago? Considering the time, made him pull out his watch. “I must go.”
“Of course,” she said with the usual curtsy.
Heeding the reckless voice in him, he took her hand. “Lady Belinda, might I claim a dance with you at our next meeting?”
She could not deny the attraction between them any more than he could. And yet, instead of nodding eagerly, she turned white. “No. Forgive me.”
This time, he left before she had the chance to turn her shoulder on him once more.
Belinda watched Richard leave with a sinking feeling in her heart. Why should she care so much that she had hurt him? And why should she suppose that she had hurt him when he barely knew her? Deep down, however, she knew he was like her. They had both been wounded and hurt. Neither one was given to trust easily or wore their feelings on their sleeves. The attraction that drew her to him was much deeper than the physical longing to be in his arms.
And she hated herself for it.
Mere days ago, she had taken him for his brother: a rake and indolent. Learning his true name should have done little to change Belinda’s opinion. A Fitzwilliam son would be pampered and spoiled. Their father was one of the richest men in England! The truth was, however, that Richard Fitzwilliam was one of the most honourable men she could ever hope to know. Aside from kissing ladies, that is. Her pride reminded her that she had no reason to believe he kissed just any woman.
She needed to end…whatever it was between them. No more raw emotions. No more shared understandings. And certainly no more kisses.
Since Seth’s death, Belinda had made plans for an empty life. She would never marry. She would become an eccentric spinster living in an assortment of country houses, favouring her one by the sea. As she would not marry and have children of her own, she might select an orphan to be an heir to her fortune. The earldom would pass to a distant cousin, perhaps Belinda would leave it all to him. She would donate at last one-third of her income to charities.
Having a plan consoled her. As Richard had said, one cannot control when they live or die, but they might determine a few of the moments in between. She would no longer be left a prisoner of fate and tossed about like a ship during a tempest. Spinsterhood offered a safe harbour, and the pain of her broken heart provided a heavy anchor.
Then she met Richard Fitzwilliam, and she turned into a despicable wanton woman, kissing a man she had no intention of marrying. Forgetting, for blissful moments, her vow to love only Seth until she died. However, refusing his request to dance at some hypothetical ball in the future, would inevitably run him off. She had been far less provoking to all the other men she had met since her come out, and only one had withstood her distance.
“Lady Belinda, here you are,” the housekeeper said from down the hall. The unexpected voice caused her to jump.
“What has happened, my lady?” The woman eyed Belinda carefully and then the pile of fabric on the floor. “You look like you just ran for your life. Never tell me you have seen a ghost.”
“Maybe I have,” Belinda murmured as she followed the woman.
Upon returning home, her mother requested she sit with her in the drawing room.
“I have just had a visit from Lady Matlock, my dear,” Lady Crenshaw began, and Belinda stifled the urge to groan. “Lord Arlington plans to remain in Hertfordshire with Mr. Darcy for several weeks. However, the Colonel is not a bad match. I believe you are fond of men in uniform—although, of course, he would have to resign.”
“I loved Captain Rogers not because he wore a uniform, although his sense of bravery and duty certainly appealed, but because I loved his character. That is not interchangeable any more than a naval uniform is for an army one.”
“Good. So you’re not fixed on a naval officer. You know your father does not care much for the Navy, how it raises men of no distinction up to gentlemen.”
“Mother—” Belinda said in a warning tone but was interrupted.
“No. Listen to me.” Lady Crenshaw put down her tea cup and drew Belinda’s hands in hers. She met her daughter’s eyes with unmistakable seriousness. “I have never loved your father. We are fond of each other, but we barely knew one another when we wed. Do you think we have been unhappy?”
“No,” Belinda answered honestly.
“You think because you are wealthy that you will have no need of a husband. A good spouse provides so much more than income. He can be your support when you are weak and ill. He can be your voice of reason or lend courage in times of hardship. And what of children? You are my source of joy! I would not trade you for one moment with the man I loved.”
Her mother’s words slapped Belinda. “The man you loved? You loved another when you married Father?”
“I did. He worked on my family’s estate. The match would have been impossible for my parents to approve. He suggested we elope, and I was tempted, but how would we have lived? My father would not have released my dowry to the footman. Your Father proposed at the end of my first season, and I accepted.”
“You did what was expected of you,” Belinda said. “We do not have the same sort of temperament, Mother. I cannot crush my hopes and desires so easily to conform to the wishes of others.”
“Nor should you. I only ask that you seriously consider what it is you want for the remainder of your life. Do you sincerely wish for isolation? Before Captain Rogers, you were such a vivacious and happy woman. You would not have wanted to shut yourself away forever. You have so much love to give. Will you choose to become only the rich relative to some distant cousin who visits only hoping to see your demise? We may not have ever agreed on your Captain, but I know you have always loved me.”
“Of course, I do,” Belinda whispered. She would not admit it to her mother, but her words were sinking in.
“Would you deny yourself knowing the love of a child? The comforts marriage can give?”
“I….I do not know!” Belinda cried and stood. Walking to the window, she wrapped her arms around herself and waited for the tears to come. They did not, and instead, she was shocked to feel her mother embrace her from behind.
“I cannot pretend to know how your heart has suffered. But I hate to see how you are wasting away, and the Belinda I have known is disappearing more and more each day. So long as you go on living, your Captain will always live as well. You carry him in your heart, but believe me, your heart is big enough to love again.”
Her mother remained hugging her for several minutes before giving Belinda’s shoulders one final squeeze and departing. As she watched out the window, the sun slowly began to set.
Caroline watched her brother walk toward the stables from the breakfast room window. In a few moments, he reappeared on his mount. She knew his direction: Longbourn. Since returning inviting them to Netherfield last week, he had called every day. A few days ago he asked permission to court Jane Bennet. Caroline took a deep breath. At least it was not an engagement.
She let go of the curtain and let it fall back into place. Then she went about her breakfast, the others typically arose later. Her gaze skipped around the large room. Charles only rented, but this was everything her parents desired for her and her siblings: a large country house, an estate with tenants, far removed from the smoke of busy cities and hundreds of miles away from the factories. They hosted a gentleman worth ten thousand pounds per annum and a Viscount. Her father had worked himself to an early grave, and her grandfather and great-grandfather had worked even harder to accomplish this possibility. Meanwhile, Charles courted a lady who could do nothing for their standing and who without any sacrifice whatsoever was privileged to entertain the same men as she. Caroline sat alone in a breakfast room while Jane enjoyed the comforts of a boisterous family and true affection from an honourable man.
How Caroline hated the country! It served only to remind her of the last time she had happy memories in the countryside. She had been sixteen, and although her father had recently died, the family was on holiday in Yorkshire where she had many happy memories of childhood. Caroline and Louisa had just finished school, and Charles was home from Eton. Caroline relished in the easier manners and expectations of the country over Town life. Quiet mornings with her mother, sister and female relatives were a welcome respite from the class-conscious behaviour of the seminary she attended. There, she was among her own.
But like a summer butterfly, such innocence soon flitted away. On the eve of her elopement, she overheard her mother speaking with her aunt about concerns for the Bingley children. The pain and concern in her mother’s voice rang in Caroline’s ears. How could she hurt her only surviving parent? They had done so much for her. If she eloped, would it hinder Louisa and Charles? At sixteen, new love can seldom be stronger than the ties of family. Now, Caroline thought if she had a choice to do it again she may have chosen differently.
The breakfast door opened, and Lord Arlington entered. He greeted her with his usual amiable manner. After piling his plate with food, he asked her, “Bingley has left already?”
Caroline sighed. “Yes. You know what draws him there every morning.”
“We will not see him until supper, I suppose.”
“Indeed. Are you to dine there today again?”
“No, I do not think Darcy intended to stay as long today.”
“Ah. I think, like you, he has learned to take small doses of Mrs. Bennet, no matter how fine Eliza’s eyes are.”
Arlington took a sip of coffee and then assessed her. “I wonder; do you not get lonely by staying here so often.”
Caroline shrugged. “Louisa keeps me company.”
“Mrs. Hurst cannot always remain at Netherfield. When Bingley and Miss Bennet wed, would it not be better for you to have more acquaintances of the area?”
“Meryton has the sort of people that even if I would know everyone in a crowded room, I would still feel alone.”
It was the sort of statement she was used to making. He could take it as he liked, that she thought herself above the company and would, therefore, be an ideal viscountess. She knew the truth. She had straddled two worlds for so long she did not fit in anywhere.
“Indeed.” Arlington returned his attention to his breakfast, and a moment later Darcy and his sister joined them.
Conversation wrapped around Caroline. Discussion was made of a ball hosted by Sir William Lucas later in the month. Far too soon, the others left for Longbourn. After practicing on the pianoforte for some time, Louisa came down, at last.
“Are you well, Louisa? You have been very fatigued since we returned to Netherfield.”
Her sister smiled. “I am happy to say that I am in a delicate state.”
Caroline embraced her sister. “Are you—are you well this time?” Louisa had suffered several miscarriages during her marriage.
Louisa nodded her head. “Everything is progressing normally.”
“I am so happy! When may we hope for the blessed event?”
“We expect the babe in April.”
Caroline’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “So soon? You have kept it a secret!”
“I tired of the pitying looks and…and I worried it would end as all the others. The doctor assures me we are past the usual concerns.”
“That is why your visit with the doctor took so long before the ball and why you saw Dr. Mitchell while we were in London.”
“And this travel? Should you not be in London?”
“The doctor has said it is perfectly safe to travel as long as I rest often.”
“But surely London would be better. The access to doctors…”
Louisa looked at her hands. “You know how helpless doctors were to help mother and father. It is even more so with pregnancies. We will be in London for the delivery. But the truth is, we must soon depart for Cornwall. Hurst says now that he has an heir of his own on the way, he means to be more serious about his father’s estate.”
“Of course,” Caroline said with a smile. She was happy for her sister. truly. She had not chosen the wealthiest man, but he came from a good family and was not too indolent. He was exactly the sort of man her parents would have hoped for their daughters. And now Louisa would finally have a babe to love. …And no more time for her. Nor could she invite herself to the Hurst’s estate.
“You will be well with Charles. And Jane is a dear, even if her family is…less than desirable.”
“Do not worry about me, Louisa. Come, let us begin plans. We shall have to return to London to shop!” That thought, at least, took away the stab of jealousy she felt.