Is Wickham really in Meryton? What is Will going to do about that?
Will tugged on his gloves in Netherfield’s front hall. Charles ought to have arrived by now. After Richard decided to go for a ride through Meryton in hopes of finding Georgiana, Will determined his cousin and sister should not be the only one seeing Elizabeth on this day. Speaking with Charles, they decided to ride to Longbourn. Finally, his friend arrived in the hall.
“You are looking more well-groomed than usual,” Will said as he looked Charles over.
“It is an important day,” Charles said and fiddled with his cufflinks.
“You will pull it out of me, will you?”
Will playfully bumped into his friend’s shoulder. “If it is important for the reason I think it is then I should say if you find it so difficult to utter the words for me then you will never survive your lady.”
“My Bennet lady is far sweeter than yours,” Charles said.
Will laughed as he recalled his several proposals to Elizabeth. She had been a bit demanding when he could barely string a coherent thought. Jane surely would not put Charles through all that. “And her father?”
Charles ceased his movements. “He would not refuse would he?”
Will did not think Mr. Bennet would, but he would probably enjoy teasing his potential son-in-law. “I expect he will give no leniency if you beat around the matter. You are asking for his daughter’s hand. He needs to see that you can be the man of the house.”
Charles nodded and finally began walking toward the stables again. “I can be the man of the house. I am the man of the house!”
“Are you?” Will asked.
“As it happens,” Charles said after mounting his horse, “Caroline and the Hursts will be returning to London shortly.”
“This was your idea?”
“Yes,” Charles nodded. “Not that I have explained it to them but if Wickham has intentions for you, they are safer in Town. Secondly, I will not put up with Caroline and Louisa’s mocking of Elizabeth or Jane. I have made my mind up and do not care for childish tantrums. If they do not like it here, they can go to London.”
Charles thought for a moment. “And I will inform Caroline she cannot go over the allotted budget of what she might have spent while here. Allowing her extra time in Town is not to be a reward for bad behavior.”
“Excellent,” Will said. Charles ought to have taken Caroline in hand years ago. However, as Will was discovering with Georgiana, it was not easy to restrain one’s sister. He could only guess that their closeness in age created even more problems.
Will slapped the reins against his mount and raced off. “Catch up!” He grinned over his shoulder. “Or you will never beat me!”
“I did not know we were racing!” Charles called after him as he directed his horse to a gallop.
Arriving at Longbourn, Will immediately sensed something was wrong. The servant who answered the door looked at them warily and brought them to the drawing room where a pale Elizabeth sat drinking wine as Jane rubbed her back.
“Perhaps you were mistaken,” Jane said.
“No. I know it was him,” Elizabeth replied.
Will cleared his throat, garnering Elizabeth’s notice. Before he had made more than two steps into the room, Elizabeth had raced to his arms and squeezed him tightly. “What is this? Are you well?”
“I am; are you?” Elizabeth pulled back and glanced over him.
Not understanding her behaviour, Will searched the room for Georgiana and Richard. They were not present. “Come, let us sit. You feel as cold as ice.”
Will led Elizabeth to a settee and rubbed her hands between his. “Miss Bennet, could you articulate for me what has scared Elizabeth nearly out of her wits?”
Jane looked at Mary before replying. “Elizabeth thinks she saw Mr. Wickham in Meryton.”
Instantly, Will’s body tensed. How could he be here? Did not Richard have Runners watching the scoundrel’s movements? Where was Richard?
“Will!” Elizabeth cried.
Looking down, Will realised he was vigorously rubbing Elizabeth’s hands. He released them. “Forgive me.”
Taking a deep breath, he blew it out. She was safe, that much was clear. Additionally, Richard, wherever he was, had surely ensured Georgiana was safe. He had no reason for urgent action. Bingley had been correct earlier. The safer route was to form a plan.
Fortunately, before Will had to ask about their whereabouts, Richard and Georgiana entered the drawing room. Richard’s face was set in a stern and grim expression, while Georgiana visibly stiffened. Upon seeing Will. “I have been apprised of the situation. Did either of you see him? Georgiana, did he speak with you?”
“Of course, I did not speak with him,” Georgiana said with flashing eyes that indicated annoyance. “I was never alone.”
“Georgiana did separate from Miss Elizabeth and Miss Bennet,” Richard supplied.
“I was getting better acquainted with Miss Mary,” Georgiana interjected. She gave the lady a soft smile. “She did not leave my side, and I believe we shall become very good friends.”
“Miss Mary, is this true?” Richard asked.
Will hated that he had to doubt his sister. He loathed that it was displayed for the Bennet ladies to see and that his cousin had to take on the role as Will had already failed to protect Georgiana once.
“Yes,” Mary nodded enthusiastically. “Mrs. Darcy and I went to the bookshop together. Jane and Lizzy had gone to the milliner.”
“I did give them leave to go to look at books without me,” Elizabeth said. “I hope you are not angry with me.”
Will shook his head and affectionately touched Elizabeth’s hand. “I am not angry, my dear.” He knew Georgiana well enough to suppose she had insisted on going. He would deal with that later. Now, the greater concern was Wickham. “Are you certain that it was he? You have not seen him and several years.”
“I could not forget what he looks like. If I had greater sketching ability, I would draw his picture for you.”
“Lizzy, might you be overwrought?” Jane asked. “You have been greatly concerned lately, and Mr. Wickham has featured prominently in those worries.”
“I know what I saw!” Elizabeth turned to Will. “Do you believe me?”
“Yes, love. Richard and I shall discuss how we will discover why he is in this place and what his potential motives are.”
“Are we in danger?” Jane asked.
“Certainly not,” Charles said.
Will nearly jumped at the voice. He had forgotten his friend was here as Charles had been uncharacteristically silent. “Charles is correct. We will do the best in our ability to protect you all, and he has nothing to gain from harming any of you. There is nothing to worry about.”
As Will said it, he forced himself to not cringe at the lie. The other girls probably had no reason to be concerned. Elizabeth, however, could be a target. Wickham would know that harming her would crush Will.
“Elizabeth, do you remember anything about where he was or what he wore? Were there any distinguishing features?” Will asked.”
Elizabeth thought in silence for a moment or two. “Now that I think about it, his jacket looked like a militia uniform. I could not see most of his body only his face.”
“And the location?”
“It was where our carriage was. Near the water pump.”
“There is a tavern nearby, and I suspect that is where we could find many other the militiamen if not the Colonel of the Regiment himself,” Richard said.
“We will journey there ourselves as soon as we bring Georgiana back to Netherfield.”
“Must I go?” Georgiana turned to her brother and gave him a pleading look.
It had worked when she was a small child and wished for some trifling thing from him. Years ago, it had ceased to work, and she had used the tactic with less frequency. He distrusted her motives for attempting it now.
“You have visited long enough for one day.”
“I thought I was invited to spend time with your betrothed?”
“And yet you did not,” Will raised his brows. He would not publicly expose that she had arrived before the “invitation” was ever issued. However, he was not in a mood to indulge any of her requests. She had disobeyed him again.
“Allow me to rectify that now. Miss Elizabeth also enjoys music. We could play together.” Georgiana sent Mary an apologetic look.
“That is a fine idea for your next meeting. It is useless to argue, though.”
“Oh, I would not dream of arguing with you dear brother.”
Georgiana stood and curtsied to her new friends, but it was done with an attitude Will did not like. If Elizabeth had less strength of character, he would wonder about bringing his sister around her lest the poor behaviour rub off.
“Goodbye for now,” Georgiana said to the room while wearing a false smile. “I trust we shall meet again soon.”
Richard escorted her to the carriage while Will and Charles said farewell to their ladies. When Will grasped Elizabeth’s hand to bring to his lips, he felt her tremble.
“Fear not, my love. We shall apprehend Wickham. You are in no danger. I will inform your father on my way out. This will soon be but yet another unpleasant memory.”
“It is not myself who I worry for you. I have told you this,” Elizabeth whispered and glanced around anxiously. “Take care,” she squeezed his hands tightly, “for you carry my heart with you and it could not survive another blow.”
Will had never ached to hold her more, but he could not gather her into his arms before her sisters. They had already broken propriety once while she was in the throes of distress. Soon, they would not have to separate, and she could always be with him. He placed a stray tendril behind her ear. “Everything shall be well,” he promised.
While he had not felt the words when he said them earlier, he meant them now. Whatever it took to make Elizabeth happy again, to ease her worries and erase the concerned look in her eye and lines between her brow, he would do. A quick kiss to her hands, a short conversation with Mr. Bennet, and Will was climbing in the carriage within minutes.
Looking at his sister, he vowed, “It will not work.”
“What will not work?” Georgiana asked and glanced nervously at Charles.
“I do not mind if he hears this,” Will said. “I will explain all to him later. I reference your dear Wickham’s scheme to have you ingratiate yourself with the Bennets.”
“That is not what I was attempting to do!” Georgiana folded her arms over her chest.
“I could care less if you liked them or they liked you. Elizabeth will be your sister, and you will have plenty of time to get to know her better once our marriage begins. I will not be bringing you with me on any subsequent calls at Longbourn until you earn my trust.”
Georgiana said nothing. She glared angrily at Will for a moment before defiantly turning her head and staring out the window. Will nodded his head at her actions. She knew it was useless to argue. He would not budge on this.
They arrived at Netherfield after a silent and tense ride. Charles had wisely chosen not to speak. Miss Bingley met them in the drawing room.
“I would ask where you all wandered off to but with those scowls, I believe I can guess,” she teased at the serious looks the men wore. “Mrs. Bennet’s effusions always makes me feel the same way. Colonel Fitzwilliam, do you not think it is absolutely intolerable that Mr. Darcy has aligned himself with such a woman?”
“We did not speak with Mrs. Bennet,” Charles said before Richard could answer.
“You did not?” Caroline’s brow furrowed. “Well, surely you did not speak to Mr. Bennet! I have never heard the man utter a word!”
“I did go to Longbourn with the intent of speaking to Mr. Bennet about a courtship with his eldest daughter, who you call a friend,” Charles hissed between grit teeth. “I have had enough of this, Caroline. Tell your maid to ready your trunks for tomorrow. I will inform Mr. Hurst as well.”
“Surely you are not banishing me to London because of a ill-timed tease!”
“I am sending you to London so I may court the woman I love in peace. She deserves no less from me.” He motioned to the door. “Now, go on your way. When I return, we will have a very candid conversation about your spending habits in town.”
Caroline scurried off calling out a mixture of disbelief at her treatment and vows to behave better if only he did not cut her allowance. Charles murmured that he would speak with Hurst and then return.
Georgiana sulked to the door. “I suppose you will do the same to me,” she said as she neared her brother.
“No. Go to your chamber, and we will speak to you when we return.”
Georgiana nodded but hesitated for a moment. She looked back at Will with tears shimmering in her eyes. “I know it to be impossible for Wickham to behave as you have described. He would never hurt anyone and could never have hurt Father.”
“Go now,” Will said and shook his head. It was useless to try and convince her of anything just then.
While Richard and Will waited for Charles to return they came up with a general plan on how to approach Colonel Forester. When their friend returned, they apprised him of it before setting off for Meryton.
They returned two hours later with even more haggard expressions than they wore at their outset. George Wickham was a member of the Militia and thus far an exemplary soldier. Will could hardly fathom the young man he knew happily doing such menial tasks. Other than a lifetime of taunting, spending his inheritance too quickly, and his attempted seduction of Will’s sister there was nothing to lay against the man. In the end, they had no examples of Wickham’s perfidy aside from his spending too freely. Colonel Forester sent them on their way with a promise to keep an eye on the man but would not have others picking on one of his officers either.
As the evening wore on, Will wrote a message to Mr. Bennet informing him of the meeting and ordered a tray to his room. He could not abide the theatrics of Charles’ sisters or his own. One good thing came from Wickham’s presence in the area, Caroline Bingley and her sister would be gone, and Will would have one less headache. As it was, he would need most of his concentration to affect confidence and security when calling at Longbourn when in reality he felt nothing but sheer terror at the thought of Wickham hurting Elizabeth.