I didn’t mean to leave you hanging for so long! Teddy is in between summer camps and it’s difficult to get anything done!
She kissed him.
Lord forgive her.
Seth forgive her.
She would never forgive herself.
She kissed him.
Belinda broke the kiss that was little more than a mere whisper of touched flesh. Somewhere in her chest, she felt a wild thumping, but it could not be her heart. Her heart had shattered with Seth’s death. That possibility terrified her more than the actions she just took. Belinda ran to the other side of the room and behind a settee just as her mother came in.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam, how nice to see you!”
Belinda turned accusatory eyes on him. Instead of acknowledging what happened in any way, he merely bowed at her mother. Belinda took note of how his muscles flexed under his attire. Now, it made sense. Of course, he was not the pampered eldest son. He was the Earl of Matlock’s younger son, celebrated war hero just back from the Continent.
And that was really all she knew about him.
That and that his lips were impossibly soft, his arms incredibly strong, and she would never tire of the look of surprise in his eyes after she had kissed him.
“I came to see if Lady Belinda recovered from her headache. I was sorry she took ill last night.”
Ah, there was the perfectly formal apology he should have started their encounter with. Belinda took a deep breath and sat on the settee. His eyes never left hers. “As you see, Colonel. I am recovered.” She tossed her curls a little. Hoping the insanity that caused her to kiss him would be just as easily shrugged off.
“Yes, then I will leave you,” he stood to leave.
“Oh, it is such a nice day out. Perhaps you would like a stroll in the garden? Belinda loves walking out there.”
“My lady?” he asked and held out his arm.
Resigned, she took it and allowed him to lead her to the garden. As soon as they were away from her mother, Belinda released his arm.
“Colonel,” she began.
“Richard,” he interrupted.
“Excuse me? I cannot call you by your Christian name.”
“Because it would break propriety?”
He said nothing but his raised eyebrow told her his thoughts. He must now think her a loose woman since she threw herself at him and kissed him mere minutes ago. Opening her mouth, tart words ready to drip from her tongue like a sword cutting flesh, she closed it when she saw a twinkle of amusement enter his eyes. She had misjudged him several times in their short acquaintance. Perhaps he did not mean to insult her, and it was merely her own feelings of guilt prickling her conscience.
“Have I confused you again?”
Ooh! He was having too much fun at her expense.
“Oh, no. I am not confused. I, at least, know my own name.”
“I did not claim to be Arlington. You inferred it.”
“Yes, but only because my parents are desperate for me to marry him!” By the way the Colonel’s right eye twitched, she thought her arrow landed too close to the mark. She had aimed to graze, not wound. “Forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive. And I shall rescind my apology as well.”
Belinda’s mouth dropped. “You believe your accusations are merited after all? Do, explain what fault you find with me now. Recall, if you would, that you have already changed your mind about me once. But I listen with baited breath to hear the evidence you have for renewing them.”
He stepped closer to her. “You acknowledge that you thought I was Arlington. You acknowledge your parents wish you to wed him.” He paused and stepped even closer. She arched her neck to meet his eyes but instead they landed on his lips. “And I see I do not need to remind you of your kiss. What is there to suppose, madam, but that you hoped to ensnare my brother? And your tears will not work on me this time.”
He did not want to see tears? Very well. Her hand landed on his cheek with a satisfying and loud crack. His nostrils flared. That time she did aim to wound, but it seemed she merely grazed him. She cradled her hand.
“Did you think that would hurt me? I’ve been in the King’s service for half of your life. Or did you think it would shock me into apologising? I’ve been a soldier too long to care about genteel manners.”
And to think she had once been worried about falling captive under his charm!
“Give it here,” he said while reaching for her hand. He turned it over. “I do not think you broke it, merely sprained. You will not be able to perform on the pianoforte or embroider for a few days.”
She wrenched her hand away. “You may have no honour left in you, but I do,” she hissed. “I had apologised for in anyway insinuating that you were a lesser man than your brother. I only meant that I had assumed you were he because he is all my parents would speak of.”
“How fortunate for me, that your parents now seem to believe we are interchangeable.”
“As if your parents are any better! First Lord Arlington, then Mr. Darcy, now you. They do not care who among your clan marries me, so long as one of you does. At least you do not bear the added insult of men fleeing Town to avoid you. My objection is not specific to you. I refuse to permit any man to court me. My heart is not for sale. It sank to the bottom of the sea.”
As she fled his side in tears again, she vowed it would be the last time Richard Fitzwilliam, or whatever name he had upon their next meeting, would cause her such distress.
Jacob Truman shifted about Richard’s dressing room. As he silently put away various accessories, Truman considered that he should think of Richard as his master. However, the two men had seen hell on Earth on the battlefields of Spain. As a descendant of a former slave, Truman had understood the world was prejudiced and unjust towards people of colour. He was ill-prepared, however, for how he might be treated in Army life.
Richard, at last, appeared in the bedchamber. Truman went to him. “How did the meeting go?”
“I made a blasted ruin of it all again.”
“It’s not like you to upset the General.”
“Oh! Yes, I saw the General. He is considering installing William Gordon as the Brigadier. We are to meet with him later this week.”
Richard began dressing and handed Truman articles of clothing to put aside appropriately. After several minutes of silence, Richard spoke. “I had an additional errand today, and that is what I was referring to as ruining. Again. You are a man of the world, Truman. I would welcome your insight.”
“I would not call myself thusly, however, I will gladly assist you in any way.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
The question startled Truman so much, he dropped the cufflinks he was attempting to put away. Truman had heard Richard’s story of a young lady who had done him wrong. However, Truman was less forthcoming than his friend. “A long time ago.”
“It’s easy to guess it ended badly.”
“Indeed. I was mistaken in her affections.”
“That is because women can have no sincere affection.”
“Do you really believe that? Or are you merely angry the one before did not have sincere affection for you?”
“It was not merely Lucy’s betrayal that has shaped my opinion. Through the years, I have seen ladies court wealth and titles above seeking the affections from honourable gentlemen they believe are lesser.”
“I tend to agree with you. However, ladies have much less freedom than gentlemen. They are beholden to their families and even after marriage have little means to independence. Many might settle for contentment instead of risking family disapproval for their heart’s desire. Fortune is relative. There’s no guarantee on it. One wastrel head of the family might dissipate it all. One poor investment might ruin a family.”
“Are you justifying a lady’s pursuit of money at all costs?”
“No. When my love broke our engagement, she said it was out of concern for family approval. Indeed, we already knew her family would disapprove on some extent, and so we planned an elopement. On the eve of the departure, she chose to break our understanding entirely. She said she could not bear to lose her family in such a way.”
Richard grunted. “That may be sensible, but I think if two people are truly in love they would not wait on sense.”
“Could there be lasting happiness without sense?”
Richard was silent for a while and then seemed to desire to change the conversation. “Tomorrow, I must see the doctor.”
“Is the wound troubling you?”
“No, but he made me vow to continue the checks and so I must journey to the Royal Hospital. Upon my return, we will set out to see the Brigadier-General Gordon.”
“Very well.” Truman mentally noted that Richard would prefer to wear a uniform to such engagements. He also made it a habit of donating funds and necessities to the hospital at each visit. Truman would prepare a package.
“Have your leave, Truman. I am dressed now for dinner and will not need you again until before bed.”
Truman nodded and left his friend. Instead of going below stairs, he returned to his shared chamber with the earl’s valet. The other servants were not hateful, but he could tell that they disliked how friendly Richard treated him. He never had to spend hours fussing over the clothes and instead had more time for leisure than the others. He supposed it would be wiser to attempt to learn more about the station of valet and show interest in becoming a butler, but Truman was far from deciding to remain in household service. There was something more dignified in serving as batman on the battlefield than in being a servant in a house.
But then, that was Truman’s pride in his ancestors. His grandfather had been a slave purchased by an English officer in fifty-eight and then brought to England and freed. He stayed on as valet and later butler. Truman’s father was his only son and upon the elder’s death, the younger Mr. Truman had enough money to open a shop. His father struck a friendship with a manufacturer near Leeds. They became so close that the man sent Jacob to school at Eton with his son. In hindsight, it was not the great gift Mr. Bingley likely thought it was. Truman could now read and write Greek and also kill a man but could hardly maintain ledgers. Taking over his father’s store seemed impossible. The prejudice he faced in the army, especially if Richard retired, was not only insupportable but dangerous. Truman felt like a pilgrim with no home.
Of course, home did not forget him. Going to the small desk in the room, he pulled out his sister’s latest letter.
We were so happy to learn you have returned unscathed to England. I am sure I do not have to remind you that your contract is almost up. Father and I have counted the years, then months, and now days eagerly. You have proved your duty to your country, now prove your duty to your family and return to Leeds. Father is ready to hand the store to you. Do not tell me you are still bitter over C’s treatment. Were not eighteen years of happy memories enough to wipe out the bad ones?
My sister Sally begged to be remembered to you. You will not keep her waiting longer, will you? You know how all the area expects the match.
Now, I will scold no more. Your niece now knows her entire alphabet and wishes to meet her uncle at last.
Write when we can expect to see you and pray, let it be for more than a week.
Truman shook his head. He remained uncertain of the future, but life in Leeds and married to his sister’s sister-in-law was surely not it. It was true his family expected him to take over the shop. They and all of the coloured community in Leeds thought he would, and it was no secret that Sally Johnson was sweet on him when he left for the army. The truth was, Caroline would not have been the only one to face the displeasure of one’s family had they married. The difference was Truman believed his family would support his happiness no matter what, and when it came down to it, he never felt tied down by expectations. He defied convention his whole life. All he wanted was to find his own way with the freedom he saw others enjoy. It was never easy, even for one as privileged as Richard—son of an earl—but it was far more possible.
In his drawer, he kept other letters from family and friends, including, Letitia’s poetry she had sent him over the years. He also kept a sketch he had made of Caroline Bingley. Her blonde hair and blue eyes could not have been more different than his dark ones, but it was not that which held her beauty. It was the look of wonder she had in her eyes. Fresh and innocent. That was how he preferred to remember her. Not as sad and wise as at their last interaction when she broke their engagement. He wondered what those eyes would look like now. Had the years been generous to her? Had she married? And did that unnamed man, that Truman could not help but hate, love her as much as he still loved her?
Shaking his head, he put aside the sketch and withdrew a map. In his youth, he had been enamoured with the New World. He no longer looked at it with a young man’s naiveté, but with an older man’s cautious vision of potential. England held no draw for him, and the Continent would be impossible to travel to, for some time. Let other men battle over the same field and shed more blood. If he would shed blood in service to a country again, he desired it to be for one that could see past the colour of his skin. Tomorrow, he would see an old friend about purchasing fare to Upper Canada.
The day after meeting the Miss Bennets, Arlington joined the others as they called on Longbourn. Caroline outdid herself again. Her taste in London fashion could not hold a candle to what Meryton had to offer. Still, he had a mission for Darcy’s sake. He approached Miss Elizabeth, feeling Caroline stare daggers at his back. At least his presence awed Mrs. Bennet, who he had heard much of, into silence.
“You must have been out walking, Miss Elizabeth.” The small twig in her hair charmed him. Darcy certainly chose well.
“I was. I am very fond of walks.”
“My cousins and I would be pleased to walk with you sometime, I am sure.”
“Yes, that sounds most pleasant.”
Miss Elizabeth had little else to say, and Arlington found it curious. She seemed less reserved at Netherfield, but he soon understood the cause for anxiety.
“I am surprised to hear that you walk much, my lord,” Mrs. Bennet loudly addressed him. “You must have many fine carriages and horses.”
Beside him, Elizabeth stiffened slightly. Ah, he well understood being embarrassed by family. He hoped she could see that he was not offended.
Mrs. Bennet prattled on, hoping to hear confirmation of his London address or income. It was a dance he knew well. He wondered what her reaction would be if she knew the majority of his income came from factories in Lancashire.
“What did you say was the address of your house? I believe I have read that the Earl resides in Park Lane.”
The corners of his lips twitched. “I did not say, but I have rooms on Piccadilly Street.”
“Oh, it must be in The Albany, then. Well, they say those rooms are comfortable, but you must admit a real house with a sweet, lively wife to keep it up for you would be infinitely preferable.” Mrs. Bennet glanced at her youngest daughter. She looked the same age as Georgiana; a child!
Arlington gritted his teeth as Darcy chose that moment to stand and exchange seats with him as had previously been planned. On and on Mrs. Bennet droned with platitudes. Darcy must be in love to consider Mrs. Bennet as a mother in law when he already had one relative, their Aunt Catherine, that pontificated in such a fashion. The youngest daughter giggled. Again. Had he really thought he preferred country ladies? Not one of them had the decorum of well…Miss Bingley. Even Miss Elizabeth seemed to be arguing with Darcy over something. Miss Bennet was blushing and silent—not particularly useful at the moment. Of course, she likely could only think of Bingley speaking with her father about a requested courtship.
When Arlington believed he could bear it no longer, Mr. Bennet and Bingley entered the room. At the news of Mr. Bennet’s approval of Bingley’s courtship—when everyone knew it ought to have been a marriage proposal—the Bennet ladies erupted. They sounded like five loud geese honking at once. Wondering if he could die from too much noise, Miss Bingley pushed forward and resolutely, if coldly, drew the visit to a close. Arlington was the first out the door.
God help him. Darcy better appreciate his sacrifices on this rural expedition. To think he had to return tomorrow so Darcy might court Miss Elizabeth on a walk was nearly more than his amiable self could handle. If he ever considered the idea of marriage again, he would cut straight to the point. No one would dare to refuse him, and it would be better to make up his mind and live with regret than suffer weeks of indecision as plagued Darcy.
Arlington, Darcy, and Bingley arrived at Netherfield before the ladies and Hurst.
“Well done, Bingley. I congratulate you,” Darcy said.
“Better to wish him luck,” Arlington muttered.
“Mrs. Bennet is not so bad as that,” Bingley said.
“Do not forget the younger girls,” he returned.
“Young girls eventually grow up,” a note of sadness lingered in Darcy’s voice.
“If Georgiana were ever as silly as the young Miss Bennets, you would have every right to lock her up for the rest of her life.”
Bingley frowned. “Those are my future sisters you are speaking of.”
“Forgive me. I am sorry I am poor company.”
“He has been out of his environment for too long,” Darcy said with a conciliatory clap on his shoulder. “It is well you do not visit Matlock too often. Yorkshire may as well be an unchartered frontier.”
The words were said without criticism, for once, but Arlington felt them all the same. One day, Matlock would be his and he had spent barely more than a few weeks there in over a decade. He relished his role as a Member of Parliament and the freedom of his own investments, but he knew little of how to be a landlord. Not that his father had shirked his duties in teaching. Arlington simply resented the role as heir.
The carriage finally arrived, and Darcy’s notice was drawn to his sister. Bingley had another idea.
“I will begin dressing for dinner,” he reached the top of the stairs just as Miss Bingley and the Hursts walked in. The latter made their way to the stairs while Miss Bingley called for the housekeeper to go over a last minute menu change.
Realizing they were alone in the hall, Arlington shared what had been on his mind for several minutes. “I believe we have you to thank for our timely rescue.”
Caroline shrugged her shoulders. “We are not so different. You generally accomplish such manoeuvres through charm, and I daresay it would have worked had not Mrs. Bennet been so excited over Charles’ announcement. The Bennets, you will find, are a proud lot. Treating them coldly and inferior gains a bigger reaction than anything else.”
“Is that so?”
“If Elizabeth Bennet knew half of what Mr. Darcy said about her and her family instead of overhearing only his remarks at their first ball, she would likely never forgive him.”
“You think she is so stubborn?”
“They are practically perfect for each other in that way.”
“And what did he say? Called her mother an over-rouged pigeon?”
Miss Bingley laughed. “Worse!”
“Charles was dancing with Jane and saw Darcy standing out, as usual. He offered to find Darcy a partner, but he refused.”
“You know all of this?”
“The families of the area talk and their servants hear. My maid is quite faithful, of course.”
Of course. Her maid reported interesting gossip. He nodded his head for her to continue.
“Charles would not take no for an answer and continued to press. Then he pointed out Eliza. Now, guess what he said.”
“Oh, I am sure it could not be gentlemanly and that he was awestruck by her beauty,” Arlington drawled. Caroline’s eyes twinkled with mischief that they often lacked. The same cunning behaviour that repulsed in Lydia Bennet appealed coming from a sensual lady of five and twenty.
“Never! He said she was tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt him to dance, and he was in no mood to give consequence to ladies slighted by other men.”
Arlington affected incredulity. Sadly, such behaviour was standard in London—though generally out of earshot of the recipient—undoubtedly, Meryton was scandalised by Darcy’s words. All the more as the Bennets were reputed beauties of the county. “You, of course, were unavailable?”
“Naturally,” she sniffed. “There was a shortage of partners, but other ladies—the youngest Miss Bennets, for example—did not have to sit out. Eliza is pretty enough to have partners aplenty if only she would make herself more agreeable.”
The housekeeper finally appeared. “I apologise profusely, Miss Bingley.”
“Yes. Well, do excuse us, my lord,” Caroline said to him and Arlington bowed before ascending the stairs. As he dressed for the evening, he rather thought Caroline had determined exactly what drew Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet. Neither one of them performed to society’s dictates. They could charm and please only when they decided it worth their while. On the other hand, he charmed and pleased everyone while Caroline charmed no one. Was it possible opposites did attract?