Renewed Hope–Chapters 6-12

RH2

Chapter Six

 

Richard remained on the periphery of Lord Townshend’s ball. Old chums occasionally greeted him and once in a while he noted a young lady smile upon him approvingly before being swept away by their mother to meet some other more desirous match. On the marriage mart, the second son held little attraction. Battlefield commendations turned the heads of silly debutantes, but their parents understood the cost. On the slim chance that he inherit the earldom, he could never offer the emotional support and affection any caring parent would want for their daughter. He was as he always was; the spare. Unnecessary unless calamity struck.

Ordinarily, he never attended the balls and soirees while on leave. These occasions were for the heirs, or men of rank for the few younger sons of marquess and dukes of marrying age. If they had not been matched in their cradles, that is. James was only a viscount but had been expected to wed their cousin Anne since her birth. Richard came tonight to collect on his dance with Belinda, shocking his parents at his attendance.

Never mind that Belinda refused him. She was too well-bred to refuse him if he insinuated that he was on her card or she had reserved space for him. It was devious and niggled at his conscience, but he had come to a conclusion.  In his usual battle-ready mind, he withdrew after their last meeting and reassessed his knowledge. Fighting attraction between them only wasted energy. As a soldier, he had refused to marry, but he now meant to retire. Although uncertain of his future, becoming a husband and father certainly filled in quite a bit of time. Her complicity, and even instigation, to their kisses, proved she desired him as well. The only honourable path included a wedding ceremony. She turned down his request to dance only because he had not played the genteel suitor. That would change starting with their first set.

Richard cast his eyes again to the entrance. The Crenshaws usually arrived nearly the same time as the Matlocks. Why were they late this night? Annoyed, he tore his gaze away but whipped his head back as he heard whispers carry the name Lady Belinda from a group of wallflowers near him.

Richard looked at Belinda and heard the approval of men near him. She looked a sea nymph; Aphrodite rolling in on the foams of the waves. Belinda wore a silk pale green gown with a white gauze overskirt. It looked as though it floated around her and accentuated her curves.

Richard made his way to her as gentlemen encircled around her. With each slight blush and nod from her head, she raised her arm and allowed another man to write his name on her card. Richard wanted to thrash every last one of them. In the past, Lady Belinda’s standoffish demeanour of the last three seasons deterred most gentlemen. Tonight, they buzzed around her like bees. Her gown marked to the world she finally acquiesced to play their game. Richard nearly felt sorry for the men who had come too late. She apparently desired a husband and had already caught him. Now, to let her reel him in.

“Lady Belinda,” he said as a sweating young baron approached.

“Lord Compton, Colonel Fitzwilliam. How nice to see you”

“My lady, your spirits seem much improved. The fresh bloom has returned to your cheeks.”

Richard was confident enough to wager her blush came from memories of their last encounter. It stole into his mind as well.

“Thank you, my lord,” she said with a nervous look at Richard.

“I trust you have remembered our set,” Richard said.

“Oh, of course. As you see.”

She lifted her card for him to look. Only the last remained. Perfect. As he reached for her pencil, he recognized the fire in her eyes. What had he done to anger her? The sounds of the first set began, and her partner collected her.

“If you will excuse me,” she said with all the haughtiness one expected from a lady of rank.

His lordship ambled off, honing in on another woman with deep pockets and too attractive for him. Richard shook his head. Some sots never learned. The man on the dance floor with Belinda did not appear to be doing any better with her. Her eyes lacked the animation that enraptured him during their conversations. She did not laugh. Her smile was too tense.

As the night went on, however, Belinda relaxed. Richard would have thought it was only getting used to the event if she did not cast her eyes at him every so often and then snap them back at her partner before bestowing him a radiant smile. What was she playing at? He found himself reaching for more champagne than was his wont. Determining to give her a good show back, he began asking wallflowers to dance. Of course, they were too awed to speak much.

At last, the evening came to a close and his time to collect arrived. Richard waited at the edges of the dance floor, eager to take her hand from her current partner, who was, from the looks of his attire, a colour-blind fop. The dancers took their final turn and then Belinda careened to the side, nearly falling over as her face contorted in pain. Her partner caught her by the shoulders. Then, instead of leading Belinda to him, the cad escorted her to a seat.

Jealousy replaced concern as Richard considered she must have injured her foot. All those ridiculous men! They had been so selfish they did not allow her to rest properly between sets. A sick feeling twisted in his gut. Lady Crenshaw came to Belinda’s side, and Richard walked over as well. He arrived just as her mother was looking about.

“Oh, Colonel Fitzwilliam. I am happy to see you,” Lady Crenshaw said.

“My apologies, sir,” Belinda said. “Unfortunately, I am unable to complete this set.”

“Are you badly injured, my lady?” He asked.

“Nothing a few days’ rest cannot heal,” her voice held a note to it he had not heard before but surmised was from the pain.

“Colonel, I wonder if you could find a footman and call our carriage? And would it be possible to find his lordship?”

“Certainly. I am glad to be of service.”

He left on his errands and completed them in only a few moments. Lord Crenshaw favoured cards and was easily found in the first room.

Upon his return, Richard allowed himself a moment to watch Belinda. He hated that they would miss their set, but he hated even more that she had been hurt. He had seen gruesome wounds in battle and been injured himself. His physical reaction to her in pain was beyond anything he had felt before. She attempted so hard to cover her pain at the death of her beloved, Richard believed her injury likely hurt worse than she let on as well. He scrutinized her lovely countenance, hoping for signs of improvement. Blessedly, he saw them. Followed by noticing her foot tapping to the rhythm of the dance. Her injured foot.

Belinda’s eyes scanned the room and landed on him. She returned his pointed stare, and he raised his eyebrows then inclined his head toward the dancers and then looked at his feet. Glancing up, he saw Belinda immediately still, then blush. The lady had faked her injury to avoid dancing with him! So that’s how it was? He would not surrender the field of battle so quickly. Unless matters changed, he would be stationed in London until his commission was up in March. She could win the skirmish, he intended to win the war.

 

*****

 

The following day, Belinda ordered her carriage to the hospital. It was not her usual day for visiting, but she began to suspect Richard—that is Colonel Fitzwilliam—would attempt to meet her there. She had told him she would not dance with him and then last night he ran right over her wishes. Belinda had no doubt such bullheadedness served him well in battle. She had not intended to be his enemy, but if he would treat her as such, she could reciprocate. Such as, feigning an injured foot to sit out their dance.

Belinda rest her head against the walls of the carriage. In point of fact, she was tired from the efforts of the night. She was lucky to have not injured herself in truth. She had never been a Society favourite and had every dance filled before. She wondered how the popular debutantes did it. But then, they would not be spending their days assisting in a hospital. Her duties went well beyond the reading and pianoforte playing she had admitted to the Colonel. In truth, she could not say why she did not divulge the full information to him. She had cared little for the opinions of others before.

The felt fatigue all the way to her bones. All through her shift, she was sluggish with none of her usual merriness. Another worker, a twice widowed middle-aged woman, pulled her aside toward the end of their shift as the ladies folded linens.

“Lady Belinda, what ails you?”

“Another ball last night. I danced too much.”

Mrs. Stanton frowned. “That is unlike you.”

Belinda shrugged her shoulders in a hope to put the woman off. They had become friends of a sort, and Mrs. Stanton often had an unnerving way of seeing to the heart of matters. She was also plain-spoken and honest. Belinda was not sure she desired more insight on the topic. “Balls are often a way to meet suitors.”

Beside her, Mrs. Stanton stilled. “You are ready for that?”

“Life goes on.” Belinda ducked her head to avoid meeting Mrs. Stanton’ frank gaze. Inside, a part of her clawed at the false hope of her words. Could she really move on? She prepared for criticism from the lady.

“Good for you.”

Belinda looked up sharply. Her confused eyes met Mrs. Stanton’ open ones.

“It’s not easy for us to go on living after our beloved dies. But we do go on living.”

“You do not think it is too soon?”

“It is different for each person. I do not doubt your sincerity for your Captain, but you had only known him a few weeks. You had few memories together to haunt you. Of course, a young lady as yourself would find a future with another.”

A future. In truth, Belinda had seldom considered what the future would be like with Seth. Contemplating her parents accepting the engagement and allowing a marriage was uncertain enough. She had come to realize she would long for companionship and children, as her mother said. “How did you know when Mr. Stanton was the man you wished to marry after losing your first husband?”

“We had known similar grief. A fever took his first wife. He was looking for a mother to his children. His duty to them awoke my dead heart.”

“Your heart?” Belinda could not imagine loving again.

“Yes,” Mrs. Stanton sighed dreamily. “It seemed impossible. He courted me for months. I was honest with him. I was uncertain about marriage and most certainly could not love him. He never pushed me but then, as happens with all soldiers, his Regiment had orders to move. I realised a week or two later that he had become necessary to me. His friendship had become dearer to me than anyone else’s. Others had opinions about how I ought to live my life as a widow, he never did.”

Belinda was now enthralled with the story. Chagrin filled her as she noted their task and shift was nearly finished. “But you must have met again. How?”

“He spent the winter quartered in Exeter. I heard nothing of him for five months. In the summer, they were to depart for Belgium. He was given leave and surprised me something fierce when he showed up at my home. Said he rode through the rain to see me in time.” Mrs. Stanton wiped a tear from her eye.

“How romantic!”

Mrs. Stanton chuckled. “It wasn’t really. He was soaked through. He was too tired and wet to say anything sweet. He was more to the point than even I am.” Mrs. Stanton smiled ruefully, and Belinda’s eyes widened at the thought. “He stayed in the Inn and spoke with the parson in the morning then had to leave again. By the time he returned to camp, he had come down with a dreadful cold, but he wrote it was well worth it. Mr. Stanton returned three weeks later for our wedding. As the Regiment was soon leaving, he could not find married accommodations and had to leave after two days.”

“You could not go with him? I thought officer wives usually did.”

“He was still an ensign at the time. Although, there was no time to make arrangements in any case. They deployed a week later, just as his two girls arrived.”

“And then what happened?”

“Well, I cannot say we lived happily ever after. Or even that we all lived, now can I? I worried every minute he was on campaign, but he returned. By the time he was sent to Spain, we had saved enough for him to buy a lieutenancy. Of course, I was expecting our babe by then so the children and I stayed behind. He returned once and was sent again to Spain. We missed him while he was gone, but made the most of our happiness when he was home. You can never be happy if you spend most of your time afraid.”

Belinda did not need those final words. She knew they were true. She had been far too fearful to allow herself to be happy.

“What I regret more than anything are those five months we might have had together, but I was too afraid to let my heart lead. So, I say again, good for you. There’s no reason to think that you cannot love again.”

“Ladies, did you finish the task?” A matronly nurse arrived. Nodding at the tidy linen cupboard and the empty baskets, she crossed off a line in her notebook. “Thank you for your help today. Shall we see you back on your normal day, Lady Belinda?”

“Of course,” she replied before saying her farewells. It did not occur to her until she re-entered the carriage that she was supposed to avoid her usual days.

 

*****

 

In a handsome, modern building situated on rising ground, sat a small, pale lady. She looked but a mouse, and not a healthy one at that, to all who knew her while her mother was a mighty lioness. On the inside, however, Anne de Bourgh chafed at her sheltered life and existence.

“Tell me about your betrothed, Mr. Collins,” Lady Catherine said to her rector.

When Anne had learned her mother selected a young man of only five and twenty as parson to replace the deceased incumbent, she scarcely managed to keep her excitement to herself. If he could not be a suitor, he might have a wife or sister to keep his house and befriend Anne. Young people might visit. In short, she might have a modicum of the life others lived.

Then she met Mr. Collins, and all hope vanished. Now, he was regaling her mother about the bride he had selected upon his recent visit to Hertfordshire. Anne noted that the unfortunate lady was not one of his five cousins with whom he stayed. It did not bode well for his future wife at all if the women who could benefit the most from marriage to him were uninterested after having experienced living with him mere days.

“A knight, you say? Well, that is more than I expected.” Lady Catherine seemed displeased by the information.

“She and her family are all that is affable and humble, madam. They would never think themselves anything near equal to you or Miss de Bourgh,” Mr. Collins hastened to say.

“Good, good. I cannot abide upstarts.”

Outwardly, Anne looked utterly indifferent but inside she rolled her eyes. This Miss Lucas must certainly be far superior to her if she had managed to gain a husband. Anne had not and instead been passed over twice. Not even her nearest male relations would take pity on her. She had no hope for the lady who married Mr. Collins to be sensible, however. And so, Anne’s imprisonment would continue. At last, Mr. Collins left.

“Anne, has Darcy written?”

“He remains in Hertfordshire.” Darcy had not written. Nor had he since her mother began hinting that he should marry Anne since their cousin James was neglecting his duty. Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, remained a correspondent, however.

“Hertfordshire! Did he not just leave there?”

“It seems he has returned.”

“What can he be doing there?”

“He visits his friend, Mr. Bingley. You recall him, do you not?”

Lady Catherine frowned. “The manufacturer.” Her ladyship tisked and stabbed a needle through her embroidery. “I do not know what the young men are thinking these days. Arlington and Darcy both dabble in these factories.”

Anne’s eyes mentally rolled again. She did not forget that the de Bourgh wealth came from trade as easily as her mother did, it seemed.

“But then, someone has to own them. I will not deny that I enjoy the products they make. It may as well be contributing to the wealth of the finest families.”

Anne concealed a huff. Yes, how dare anyone else hope to make an income.

“And have you heard from Fitzwilliam?”

“Yes…I had a letter. Mrs. Jenkinson, could you retrieve it?” Anne needed the extra minute to compose herself. She would need to skip over portions and conceal matters from her mother. Her old governess returned with the letter in hand, and Anne smiled gratefully. She wondered if any other lady of seven and twenty still lived with their governesses. At this point, the woman was far too old to be put out. She was also far too old to be much use to Anne as a companion. She had been older than Lady Catherine when she was hired.

Anne cleared her throat before carefully reading the letter to her mother. Richard had returned from Spain wounded and ill but was healing nicely. However, the bulk of his message described meeting a Lady Belinda Crenshaw. Richard had not written to Anne of a lady since his failed engagement to Miss Lucy Thrale. Anne believed Richard was quite smitten. Instead, she invented a battlefield story. She was quite proud of her imagination. She so seldom got to truly live or experience anything, she had developed the most incredible fantasies. She concluded her harrowing tale.

“And so my dearest Anne, shall you guess what happened next? I charged the structure, leading a rousing chorus of “God Save the King,” and my boys followed suit. I felt a pain pierce my leg but could not stop until the battle was won. Then, as I helped carry a wounded private to the hospital cart, he looked down at me and cried, “Dear Colonel! You’ve been shot!” Still, I refused treatment until each of my men had seen the doctor. The wound was slight, and the glow of victory warmed my heart. Who could feel pain when Britannia was safe? That is all for now. Give my love to your mother and rest assured I shall visit at Easter.”

Anne looked up to see her mother enraptured by the tale. When she noticed Anne watching her, she sat back and fussed at her embroidery. “I do not understand why he has to write to you such awful things of the violence he has faced. My brother ought to have made him go into the church. If he had, Fitzwilliam might have been a match for you…”

Anne allowed her imagination free rein, her mother’s voice becoming distant. Anne did not care who she married, but she was desperate to live her own life.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Arriving home, Belinda was directed to the drawing room by the butler. Once inside, she saw her mother, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Lord Chartley, a young viscount whom she had danced with the night before.

“Ah, here she is, gentlemen. Belinda, look who has come to call. Is that not pleasant?” As the gentlemen bowed, Lady Crenshaw glared at her daughter. Ladies were expected to remain at home the morning after a function, in case any gentlemen chose to call. For a family as busy with London families as the Crenshaws, that meant she was expected to stay home most mornings.

Belinda took a deep breath to calm her racing heart. After speaking with her mother, she had determined to carry on with her life and marry as soon as possible. While not fixated on a title or income requirement, she knew both would please her parents, and she wanted to avoid dramatics this time. Colonel Fitzwilliam was not an option. She desired calm and equanimity, and he never failed to cause her consternation.

“I see you are recovered from last night, Lady Belinda. I am happy to see the ankle healed so quickly,” he said after she sat.

“You were injured?” Lord Chartley asked.

“It was a slight sprain in the final set,” she answered. “As you see, Colonel, I am as hale and hearty as ever.”

“I do see,” he said, and she blushed. He surely divined her deceit from the night before, but said in his low, silken tone, she imagined he referenced something else.

“I am ever so glad you have healed!” The young viscount declared. “And we are fortunate it did not happen during our set. Although, with all the dancing you did last night it is no wonder that you suffered the consequences. Ladies are so fragile.”

Belinda’s eyebrows shot up, and she thought she heard a muffled snort from Richard. Although Lord Chartley was handsome, titled and she had heard he had a good income, it became increasingly clear why he was single. Tea arrived, and Belinda poured.

“A very excellent brew,” he said after sampling his. “Such an elegant service and a charming room.” He looked about.

Lady Crenshaw smiled. “Thank you. We recently redecorated. Belinda selected the drapes.”

Belinda rolled her eyes as her mother regaled his lordship with selections about the room, intended to highlight Belinda’s decorating ability. She had heard the well-rehearsed lines of promotion many times before.

“And what a beautiful pianoforte,” his lordship said. It seemed he could not allow there to be silence for even half a second. “I look forward to hearing Lady Belinda perform sometime.”

“I do not play.” She lied between sips. Her mother glared at her again while his lordship stumbled to cover his surprise.

“I often think too much is demanded of ladies,” Richard intervened. “I do not know the first thing about music.” Belinda averted her eyes in confusion. On the evening of their first meeting, he had discussed music. “Nor do I fence, which is considered de rigour for gentlemen.”

“Perhaps you are not so athletic,” his lordship preened and puffed out his chest. “I am often at Angelo’s.”

Belinda rolled her eyes again. Just looking at Richard and you could tell he was the superior athlete.

“Nor do I recall anything from my lessons in Greek and Latin.”

“’Tis easy to forget what we do not make it a mission to practice. I am often rereading Latin texts for my position in Parliament—”

Lord help her.

“Such is the difference between you and me, Chartley,” Richard interrupted. “Gentlemen have a plethora of options and are valued nonetheless. We both serve King and country though in vastly different ways and abilities.”

“Indeed.”

“And you cannot say one is superior to or complete without the other. A politician is as necessary as a soldier.”

“Certainly.”

“Just as an empty-headed Society flirt is as necessary as a confident, capable and faithful woman.”

“How so?”

“It is just like with the politician and the soldier, sir. You cannot know one without appreciating the other.”

Lord Chartley turned red, and Belinda’s eyes widened. Not only did Richard cleverly put down his lordship and defend all womankind, he specifically told her that he found her to not be the vain and shallow sort he had first taken her to be. That he appreciated her.

The clock chimed in the silence that had fallen since his last words. Richard stood, “Pardon me, I believe my visiting time is at an end. I shall walk you out, Chartley.”

Although annoyed, his lordship stood. “Thank you for a delightful visit, Lady Crenshaw. Lady Belinda, I hope we might meet again under even pleasanter circumstances.”

She nodded her head to escape saying anything. Richard walked straight to Belinda and took her hand, bowing over it before delivering a kiss. “Bella dama, su personaje eclipse a las estrallas.” Belinda immediately blushed, and her heart pounded in her chest.

“I thought you did not speak Latin?” His lordship said.

“Spanish, I believe,” Belinda answered for him.

“Indeed,” Richard said with an earnest look in his eyes before letting go of her hand. “Lady Crenshaw,” he said with a bow and then led his lordship through the door.

Belinda’s mother looked after them with a mixture of annoyance and amusement on her face. “My, my. Well, what did he say?”

Between her French lessons and the Spanish she had learned from soldiers at the hospital, Belinda gleaned the meaning of Richard’s words. “He said my character outshines the stars.”

“How charming!” her mother cried. “I know you are tired from last night, but before you arrived, the Colonel issued an invitation from his mother to dine with them on the morrow. I have accepted. Be sure you return from the Hospital in enough time to dress.”

“Yes, mother,” Belinda said in a daze and left for her room.

To her mother, Richard simply said pretty words designed to flatter a woman. However, Belinda believed he meant something deeper. First, he called her beautiful lady. That would appease most ladies’ vanity, but Belinda tired of the emptiness of beauty.

More to the point, he referenced her character. She well knew the source of her name. The Rape of the Lock satirized the fragility of Society’s standards. In the poem by Alexander Pope, a lock of a woman’s hair is stolen. The Baron uses it as a form of subjugation over the woman, who has lost esteem in Society as her beauty is now flawed. Many soon become angry for Belinda’s sake and a battle ensues, meant to mock the battle for Helena of Troy. However, the weapons are wit and songs. Belinda threatens to kill the Baron if he does not return her lock but soon finds out that her hair has disappeared and joined the stars. When Belinda is dead, her lock shall live on forever.

Was Richard indeed saying what she believed? To him, her character outshined her beauty and artificial adornments? The legacy of her character could outlive anything else said about her? Certainly not if she married Lord Chartley or anyone else without her heart in it.

 

*****

 

Caroline entered the breakfast room, surprised to see her brother within it at this hour. He greeted her casually but, bitter at having been dragged to Hertfordshire and then ignored, she could not return the friendly tone. “I am surprised to see you. Tired of Jane and Mrs. Bennet already?”

“Hardly.”

It seemed he was unwilling to say anything else, and she hoped if he did not intend to depart for the day, the others might remain as well. “Where are the others? I hope Lord Arlington is not ill.”

Charles tossed down his napkin. “That is precisely what I wanted to speak to you about.”

“I will send for a physician at once!” Caroline hastened to the bell and was about to ring it when Charles’ voice broke through her rapid movements.

“Arlington is perfectly well. Sit down.”

Although confused, she obeyed. “That was a cruel joke.”

“It was no joke. You misunderstood me. Just now, you cared only for Arlington’s health and did not spare a moment to ask after Darcy or Georgiana. I would point out that you have known them much longer and have claimed deep friendship with them both.”

“What are you saying?” Caroline stared at her coffee. Of course, she considered Arlington first. He was the only one who seemed considerate of her and his precedence demanded the first concern.

“You have to cease these grasping ways.”

“What?” Caroline’s eyes met her brother’s. The very man that had nearly called a London physician to look after Jane Bennet’s harmless cold mere weeks ago.

“It is no secret you believe Jane Bennet beneath me. You treated her nicely enough when we were first in the country, but you were terribly rude to the rest of the Bennets.”

“They are intolerable!”

“No. They are—”

Suddenly, Caroline had enough of duty and sacrifice. Her brother would hear her real thoughts. “Do not dare make them into something they are not. They have no fortune, no fashion, or extreme beauty. Their relatives are in trade.”

“So are ours!”

“I know!” The desperate tone of her voice echoed off the walls of the room. Tears pricked her eyes.

“I am very aware that we have relatives still in trade. I know our fortune will never remove the stain of its source. It is our duty to marry better, to find a position in society for our future generations.”

But she hated seeing that the Bennets immediately had a better chance at all than she. If her father or grandfather had chosen to become a solicitor instead of amassing more wealth, would they have been considered equals?

“Our duty to whom, Caroline? Mother and Father are dead.”

As if she needed the reminder. If her Father had lived and if Mother had not been as frail, she might have had the courage to follow her heart.

“I believe they were weakened long before the fevers struck,” Charles said. “They allowed no true happiness into their lives. Mother always worried about society and how to do better. Father was terrified of making a mistake; that is why he never bought an estate. They never followed their hearts. You know they barely tolerated one another.”

“So you would tell me to marry any man, regardless of rank? Do you not wish for me to have security? Women are entirely dependent on men. Tradesmen expect loving and doting wives; the upper circles allow women to lead their own lives.”

“You mean take lovers!”

Appalled that he could think it of her, Caroline shook her head. “I would never dishonour myself so much, but it is the only way some ladies ever know love or happiness.”

Charles looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. When he spoke, it was with a soft voice. “It would not be that way if you accept the right gentleman from the start.”

“Who is the right gentleman for me, Charles?” She whispered.

Their conversation continued, and she explained the disadvantages of being a lady of wealth from trade. When her brother brought up Caroline’s attentions to Darcy, she clarified that she had only desired a man that might respect her. But when he foolishly brought up love as a suggestion for the basis of marriage, she could no longer hold back the truth. She recited the facts, and the words tasted like ashes in her mouth. It all sounded so perfectly logical in her ears, but her heart revolted.

“We will both have love, Caroline.” He waxed poetic about Jane, but Caroline listened with sadness. After ten years, she did not expect to find love. “Any gentleman you would meet now would have income, and you know, it is not impossible for me to add to yours if needed.”

His words surprised her. “You would do that?”

“If it made you happy.” He shrugged. “So it would mean I buy a bit smaller of an estate. What is that compared to my family’s happiness?”

Caroline squeezed his hand and shook her head. “Oh, Charles. Let us hope Jane is better with economy than you.”

It was a sweet, thoughtful gesture and Caroline then vowed, if she ever did fall in love again, she would avail herself on her brother’s kindness if needed. Some would be too proud, but she knew the cost was too high.

“Say you will come with us today.”

Caroline took a deep breath. What right did she have to resent the Bennets? Life had not been kind to them either. She had a greater fortune, the blessing of a good education and most important of all, a brother who loved her and could support her. For the first time in a long while, Caroline chose to count her blessings. “Just allow me to finish my breakfast, and then I will get ready.”

Charles smiled and walked to the door, she called after him. “I really did worry about Lord Arlington. I am not as heartless as you think.”

Charles shook his head and exited. When Caroline met him outside the carriage a half hour later, his smile was all the payment she required for the trials of the day.

 

*****

 

Arlington sat in Mrs. Bennet’s drawing room amidst two courting couples and nearly danced in joy when Georgiana and Miss Mary Bennet had suggested the younger girls go to the other room to play the pianoforte. Unexpectedly, Miss Mary asked Caroline if she would like to accompany them. Arlington plainly saw her hesitation, but even more surprising, she accepted and followed.

Since arriving at Netherfield, he had taken the time to notice Caroline Bingley, and he rather thought no one else had really seen her before. Frequently, she looked lost as conversation circled around her. Often times when called upon to give her opinion, or when she attempted to interject herself, her sarcastic opinions were too strong for the company. She excelled at individual conversations when she did not have to keep up with the banter of many. Arlington rather supposed she was like Darcy in that respect. If she only gave herself the trouble of trying, she could be quite the conversationalist. He hoped her going with Miss Mary was a signal of good things to come for her.

Just when he was about to pity that it seemed no one else took the time to notice Caroline, Arlington perceived Jane Bennet’s concerned gaze follow the lady in question. Relieved, that Caroline had a friend in her future sister, and desiring male company that did not include besotted lovers, Arlington inquired after Mr. Bennet. He soon realised his mistake as Mrs. Bennet prattle about her husband soon turned to promoting her daughters to him. Only quickly thinking of a compliment silenced her on the subject. After complimenting Mrs. Bennet on her tea, and her profuse thanks, he was ensured a few moments of silence from her. There was a lull in Elizabeth and Darcy’s conversation, and they overheard Bingley and Jane talking.

“He seldom leaves the library now, only when the officers come,” Jane had said of her father.

“Oh? Any officers, in particular, who are his favourites?” Arlington hoped, for Darcy’s sake, the answer was not Wickham.

“It is the same ones who always visit: Captain Carter, Mr. Saunderson, and Mr. Denny,” Jane said. “Mr. Wickham has not come in several days. Papa sits here for the visit and then invites them into the library for cards and chess. If any of you prefer them, I am certain he would enjoy a match.”

Arlington slid a look to Darcy. This did not bode well. “Perhaps on the next call,” Arlington said and stood. “Darcy, we had better leave if you still want to go shooting.”

Arlington took his leave of Mrs. Bennet and the ladies in the other room while Darcy struggled to pry himself away from Elizabeth. As they rode to Netherfield, they talked.

“So, Wickham does not attend Longbourn, but all of his cronies do,” Arlington observed. “I do not like it. He is up to something.”

“What would you have me do?”

“Speak with Mr. Bennet and any other area gentlemen. They ought to know that Wickham is untrustworthy with their daughters.”

Darcy shook his head. “Wickham’s design on Georgiana was for profit and revenge on me. No one in the area can offer him such.”

“His commanding officer ought to be forewarned.”

“Forster? Out of the question. He showed his colours with Bingley’s ball. Wickham was to be sent to London on a mission and instead attended; weaselled his way out of whatever duty Forster intended. You can only help a blind man if he agrees he is in need of assistance.”

“You ought to know,” Arlington muttered, growing exasperated at the exchange.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.” He pushed his mount to a gallop so he might think in silence and reach the house faster.

Unfortunately, Darcy proved immoveable on the subject. They were still at an impasse when Bingley arrived hours later.

“I assume you left Longbourn to deal with Wickham?”

Arlington shook his head. “Maybe you can talk some sense into Darcy. He is too stubborn for his own good!”

Bingley, however, was of little use. Arlington, at last, succeeded in making Darcy see that he did have something to lose that Wickham might attack much as he did with Georgiana. Darcy refused to see the sense in going to Mr. Bennet about an engagement to Elizabeth and all the gentlemen agreed that Elizabeth was not ready to accept out of affection. Deciding it was useless to argue further, Arlington went upstairs.

In the stillness of his room, Arlington marvelled that he had not persuaded Darcy. Was he losing his touch? As a youth, he could swindle Richard and Darcy into anything. As a young man, he had persuaded many a lady out of her skirt. As an MP, he had convinced many an opponent to see the reason of his own desires. He did not know the art of compromise.

His father, of course, did. Recalling the letter he had read from his father earlier that day, old feelings of paternal resentment began to build, but for once, Arlington determined his father might be right, and he was willing to compromise. Most MPs married far younger than he was now. Ladies had a way of gossiping together and whispering in their husband’s ears. Many a woman had helped the party cause by their social graces and soliciting votes. The Earl strongly suggested that Arlington marry. It might as well be a lady that could not be manipulated by his father. Lucky for him, there was one dwelling in the very house as he.

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

“I am sorry, sir, but the Brigadier-General has been delayed and has yet to leave Chester.”

“What the devil is he doing in Chester?” Richard looked at Brigadier-General Gordon’s aid with annoyance.

“Visiting his daughter,” the young aid said.

Richard returned to his parents’ house, angry that he had been sent on a fool’s errand. He wrote Major-General Vyse to alert him he could not meet with Gordon yet and received a reply from his adjutant. The Major-General was currently away as well. When further prodding revealed he, too, was in Chester, matters became clear. The day was ended with a summons to Chester from the Major-General in the evening’s post.

“I am a grown man and they treat me like an errand boy!” Richard said as he tossed his cravat on a chair.

Truman frowned. “You seem more annoyed than I would suppose over this.”

“Instead of courting Lady Belinda, now I have to ride over one hundred miles to Chester and, if I am fortunate, have just enough time to then ride on to the estate before Christmas.”

“Courting Lady Belinda, are you?” Truman’s tone was clear shock.

Richard smiled. “Well, I am trying to court her. If she could make up her mind if she is willing to accept a courtship.”

“You will forgive me if I do not understand how there can be room for confusion.”

Richard rubbed the back of his neck. “Have a seat, Truman. I think I could use someone to talk to.”

He gave Truman an abbreviated history of his interactions with Belinda. Truman grunted at the end. “I see it like you do, sir. You are honour-bound to her. It may be that she wants assurance that you are unlikely to die like her past beau. And if she loved him, she probably wants the same from you.”

“I cannot promise that…” Richard trailed off. The truth was, when he was with Belinda, he did not consider the pains of the past.

“Do you need anything else?” Truman had walked to the dressing room door.

“No, that will be all. Thank you,” Richard said. One of the best things about Truman was he knew when to leave and be silent.

There was no time to see Belinda before he left for his meeting with Vyse. She had remained faithful to her captain all these months, Richard had no worry that she would forget their own encounters. He knew she needed time to come to her own decisions and perhaps the time between now and when he would return to London in January would give her the space she needed. And if she needed more time? Richard would give her as much as she needed.

As he walked to his bed that evening, for the first time in many years, he felt at peace. He supposed loving a good woman could bring that to a man.

 

*****

 

Truman awoke to a knocking on the bedroom door he shared with the Earl’s valet. It was the night watch footman. “Truman, express rider for you.”

Fear stole into his heart. The only correspondents he had were family. The Trumans were not poor, his father’s shop did well, but only catastrophe would justify sending a missive by express. Was it his father? Letty? Her children?

Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he tore it from the footman’s hand.

Dearest Jacob,

I can barely see through the tears to write this. My darling, sweet Meg has just breathed her last in my arms. Jake and Harry do not look like they may survive. Johnson and our father are ill. Nothing but the worst would have me write you express and so it has come to that. I’ve got Johnson’s brother minding the shop while I look after the invalids. Can you have leave to come and assist in the settling of matters?  By the time you arrive we should know whether the menfolk will live or die.

Your devoted sister,

Letty

Again and again, Truman scanned the contents. His poor sister! Left to care for all of this. What if he had not even been in the country? How selfish he had been all these years! There was no time for regrets, however.

“Bad news?” The footman interrupted his thoughts.

Grimly, Truman nodded. “The worst.” Belatedly, he realized the footman remained because he needed to pay the rider. “Here.” He gave him enough coin to cover the cost. “Do you have the time?” His voice cracked.

“Four. Best of luck, man.”

Truman nodded his head. He appreciated the sentiment. The Matlock servants had not been prejudiced against him due to his skin colour, even if they had not really befriended him.

After the other man had left, Truman returned to his bed. His roommate still snored. They had another two hours before they were expected to awake and little could be accomplished until daylight, so instead, Truman waited. The regrets he had struggled to push away moments ago swirled in his mind, threatening to pull him in a spiralling vortex.

Two hours later, Mr. Andrews yawned as he got out of bed. “You’re already dressed?”

“Aye. I got bad news in the middle of the night. It seems instead of going with Colonel Fitzwilliam to Chester, I will be asking for leave to go to Leeds.”

“I am sorry to hear it. Family?”

“Aye. All that I have left in the world ill and on their deathbeds. Will you see to the Colonel today? He will probably make do with his host’s footman or without once he leaves.”

“Of course. My sympathies. I’ll not detain you,” Andrews said, and Truman readied for his journey.

Having no time to speak with Richard directly, he jotted a few lines for Andrews to deliver later, knowing Richard would clear it through the appropriate channels. Then, Truman caught the mail coach to Leeds, all the while wishing it had wings.

A little over a day later, he arrived at his childhood home, bone weary and unkempt. As he walked up to the place, it seemed both larger and smaller than he remembered. The old housekeeper was still there and showed him to a spare room to freshen up while Letty was called down from their father’s chamber. He met her in the drawing room.

“You made it faster than I thought,” she said while clutching a handkerchief near her red-rimmed eyes.

“I left at first light. How are you?”

He approached, and she fell into his arms, sobbing. As he attempted to comfort his sister, now little more than a stranger to him, he was angry anew at himself for leaving her to oversee everything. At length, she calmed.

“The doctor thinks Papa will survive,” she whispered.

“And the others? Your boys and husband?”

Letty shook her head. “Jake is very weak but Harry and my dear Mr. Johnson…”

More crying ensued. “Letty, I do not know what to say. I cannot imagine the sorrow of losing a beloved spouse or children. How can I help you? Give me a task.”

His words brought no comfort to his sister. He was not a man made for idleness, however, and he mentally made lists of matters to consider while he allowed her to pour out her tears. She quieted, at last, and he realised she had cried herself to sleep on him. His cravat drenched in her tears. Not wanting to wake her, he sat patiently with his arms around her, even as fatigue clawed at his own body and a desire to see his father gnawed at him.

Eventually, the housekeeper appeared with tea and refreshments, followed by a pretty young woman, Truman immediately recognised. “Sally—beg pardon, Miss Johnson. I would bow for you, but you see I am otherwise engaged.”

“Jake—Mr. Truman. She knew you would come. Oh, it will mean the world to her to be able to divide her burdens.”

“Come, sit,” he said. “Tell me how the shop is. In Letty’s message, she said your brother was watching it?”

“Yes, your father and Matthew were teaching him. It is too much for him to handle the whole store for long, however. The girls and I have been assisting.”

“You all are well? An illness like this I expected many others to be sick.”

“The doctor thinks it came from their visit to Scarborough. They visited the docks.”

“Letty did not go?”

“No…”

Truman did not like how the woman trailed off. “What is it?”

“Her condition required she rest, so she stayed at the Inn while the others had gone out. The doctor is worried that she has pushed herself too hard with caring for everyone, and she may lose the babe.”

Truman closed his eyes in pain. His sister had been through enough.

“How long can you stay?” Sally asked him.

“I am uncertain. I am batman to the colonel of my Regiment, and the rest are returning from Spain any day now. However, he was to meet with his superiors on some matter in Chester this very day.”

“I thought your conscription was close to an end?”

“I am the King’s man until the very last day. Colonel Fitzwilliam will do everything he can for me, I have no doubt.”

Sally nodded her head and Truman could see her quick mind working matters out. “I would suggest you call on Old Man Greenwell. Although retired, he is well-respected and can assist arranging help with some of the other stores.”

“If it is so simple why did Letty not go?”

“He won’t deal with women.”

Truman frowned. Greenwell was a bright man who ran a good shop but had old fashioned ideals about ladies. He looked down at his sister. “I’m going to take her up to a room to sleep. Can you help?”

“Of course,” Sally said and followed him upstairs.

“I’ll let you get her comfortable. Thanks for your help.”

Truman sketched a bow and heard her call after him. “It is so good to have you back.”

He let her comment pass without reply. Was he back? He did not think he could leave for Canada now.

After leaving his sister in the care of her friend, Truman went to his father’s room. He saw him sleeping fitfully, with medicinal paraphernalia all around.

“I’m here, Pa,” he said as he sat in a chair next to his father’s bed.

The housekeeper came in. “You ought to sleep,” she frowned at him. His mother died when he was a child, and the housekeeper became his surrogate mother.

“I’ll stay. You go rest. You’ve done enough.”

In between caring for his father, wiping his brow with cool water intermittently and providing doses of tonic when his coughs were severe, Truman managed to rest. All the while, his father did not recognise him.

 

*****

 

Anne looked around the ornate dining room at her home. All her life, she had seldom stirred from these walls. She knew every gilt gold detail, exactly how many paces it was from the drawing room to the library and dozens of other useless pieces of information. This evening, she dined alone with her mother and Mrs. Jenkinson. Thankfully, Mr. Collins had returned to Hertfordshire to court his bride. It was the only thing that marked, to Anne, this day as a celebration of her birth.

“Mother, what do you think of going to Bath after Christmas?”

“Bath? Whatever for?”

“I had thought a holiday might be nice.”

“Bath is too congested this time of year for you,” her mother declared. The tone meant discussion on the topic was over, but Anne did not intend to quit so easily tonight.

“What about Ramsgate or Margate?”

“Oh, no. I hate overnight stays in Inns.”

“Brighton is only half a day’s drive.”

“There is no reason to visit the coast in winter.”

“I desire to travel, Mother,” Anne said with an uncharacteristic hard edge to her voice.

Lady Catherine glared at her daughter. “That is no way to show respect for your mother.”

Anne dropped her fork. “I am seven and twenty, Mother. I have been of age for quite some time and should have some say in my life.”

“And so you shall when you marry.”

Anne stood and pushed her chair back, the thick carpet muffling the sound of its scrape against the floor. “And what if I never marry?”

“Do not be ridiculous, child.”

“Excuse me,” Anne said and left the room.

Once in her bed chamber, Anne pulled out old diaries filled with flights of fancy of a young mind. Her mother’s insistence that she would one day marry, as though a suitor would appear out of thin air, would not tear at Anne’s heart so much if it had not been exactly what she always wished. From a tender age, Anne had imagined herself as a wife and mother. She never fixated on one of her cousins, as her mother was wont to do, but something about the idea of making a cheerful home and being surrounded by laughing children comforted her lonely heart. She would, at last, be loved and would never be like her mother.

She tossed the journals aside in disgust. So many years of her life she had wasted merely dreaming when she ought to have taken life by the horns.

A knock sounded on the door, and Mrs. Jenkinson entered. “I wished to see if you were well.”

“I am perfectly well,” Anne said through clenched teeth and a false smile. She still lived with her governess of all things!

“I do not need to tell you that your mother is displeased,” the old woman said.

“No, you do not.”

“Mend your anger, tomorrow.”

“Perhaps.” She could be as stubborn as anyone with Fitzwilliam blood.

“Then I wish you good night. Happy birthday, my dear. I often have to remind myself that you are not my little charge still.” The woman said with real affection in her voice and guilt pricked Anne’s conscience.

“I am sorry I am in such a foul temper.” Mrs. Jenkinson seemed pleased by the words. “All shall be better tomorrow. Good night.”

Mrs. Jenkinson nodded and left. Anne waited for her maid to appear and after she was finally alone for the night, she ran into her dressing room. Pulling out a sturdy valise, she began filling it with articles. The mere necessities, she assumed. She had rarely travelled before. She counted the money in her coin purse, knowing it was all she would have access to until London. She reckoned she had enough for the stage.

Anne would ride to London and then throw herself on the compassion of her aunt and uncle. Darcy and Georgiana might be in Town by then. Between Pemberley and Matlock estates, they ought to have plenty of space for her. They would let her live. Not for the first time, she was envious at the relative nearness of the two estates in neighbouring counties compared to Rosings’ virtual exile in Kent.

Anne would leave at first light and arrive in Hunsford before anyone noticed her absence. Yes, it would all work out. Deciding that she would have time to read in the carriage, she tossed a book from her desk into the  valise. A letter from her Aunt Matlock fluttered down as well. Recalling its contents, her plans for freedom vanished.

Her aunt had written that the Matlocks intended to leave for their estate for Christmas on the morrow. Richard had been called to Chester but would join them there later. Darcy and James remained in Hertfordshire. Even if Anne felt brave enough to ride stage all the way to Matlock Hall, she did not have the money. She doubted she had enough to get to Hertfordshire and certainly knew better than to throw herself on her cousins’ host.

Anne cast a look around her room. She had packed in a fit of anger like a child. Leaving like this would do more harm than good. If she wanted to be treated like a mature adult, she would need to act like one even in this instance. She could arrange to travel and visit her family without stealing away at dawn.

Taking a calming breath, Anne went to her desk and withdrew writing instruments. She had requested to travel after Christmas, surely she could wait until then. Her aunt and uncle always returned to London when Parliament resumed. She had just as much right to the carriages and horses as her mother. She would write her aunt and request to visit then make appropriate arrangements with the staff.

As she went to her bed, Anne, at last, felt she had some determination over her life. If all went well, she would be on her way to London around Twelfth Night. She had waited seven and twenty long years for freedom, she could handle a few more weeks.

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

Belinda scanned the drawing room of Lady Jersey’s soiree.

“Are you looking for someone?” Lady Crenshaw asked.

“This is the fifth engagement we have gone to this week where I have not seen Lord or Lady Matlock.”

Her mother raised an eyebrow and Belinda could have died from being so transparent. “They have returned to Yorkshire for the Holiday, as they usually do. They shall return when Parliament resumes.”

“Oh,” Belinda said lamely and felt like a ton of bricks landed on her chest. “And…their son is with them?”

“I believe Lord Arlington remains in Hertfordshire with his cousins,” her mother said with an indulgent smile.

Oh! She was enjoying this far too much. “And the Colonel?” Despite herself, a blush betrayed Belinda’s anxiety for information.

“Louisa sent word that he had been called to Chester and would likely not join them at home until close to Christmas Day.”

“Chester? Why is he needed there?”

“Some meeting with his superior officers. General Vyse is combining it with a house party to last through the holidays.”

Belinda frowned. She knew of Miss Vyse: nineteen, a flirt, and she had a fortune of twenty-five thousand pounds. Belinda had feared the three weeks’ separation between now and mid-January would be enough to lessen Richard’s interest in her, but a fortnight spent in the company of Miss Vyse might kill it stone dead. Suddenly, she realised she could not bear such a tragedy.

“Of course, if you are so eager to see Lady Matlock again, I could accept her invitation.”

“Invitation?” Belinda no longer cared that her voice raised with eagerness.

“We have been invited to Matlock for Christmas. I had a mind to decline. I did not think you would wish to go.”

“The holidays with our friends would be most delightful!” Belinda blushed and lowered her voice. “I mean, they are such dear friends to you and father. You must consider my feelings last. I will happily follow wherever you wish to go.”

Dinner was called, and Belinda was lead in by Lady Jersey’s nephew, allowing her to nearly miss the look of triumph on Lady Crenshaw’s face. Belinda’s dinner partner talked most of the meal, but she lost interest sometime after he mentioned cravat knots and Brummell. For the first time in her life, Belinda allowed herself to consider an immediate future: Christmas with the Matlocks, and even hoped for something further out: a marriage with a man she loved.

 

*****

 

The Netherfield Party returned from a ball at Sir William Lucas’ house tired and in various spirits. Bingley had proposed to Jane Bennet and could not stop speaking of his “angel.” There was gossip that Darcy would offer for Elizabeth Bennet, which he did intend to do, but Darcy and Arlington both feared the gossip came from Wickham. Arlington was rather certain on the morrow Darcy planned to not only explain to Elizabeth about Wickham but also propose.

Perhaps it was the repeated nudges from his mother and father, the fact that it would assist his political career, or simply the fact that he was suddenly, and for once, the only unattached man in the house, but Arlington rather thought to make the leap himself. As the others went to their chambers, exhausted from the evening’s recreation, Caroline lingered and gave orders to the housekeeper about the morrow. Accomplished, hard-working, shrewd, and handsome. Her fortune would prove worthwhile, and her background was the sort that always appealed to him. She would make a fine Countess one day, in the hopefully distant future. At least sufficient enough for a man that never wanted to be an earl. Surely the earldom had seen worse. Their blood was not nearly as blue as most peers.

Finished with her tasks for the evening, Caroline, at last, went toward the stairs. She startled to see him waiting at the bottom. “I did not mean to frighten you.”

“I am merely overtired,” she said.

“Allow me,” Arlington offered his arm, and he began escorting her to her room. “You are unhappy with the evening?”

“No. I have made my peace with Charles marrying into the Bennets. It seems like Darcy will wed Eliza, so I can no longer continue to claim they are too low for him, can I?”

Arlington chuckled. “Indeed not. It seemed to me, though, that you were finding a better footing with them.”

“Perhaps,” she said. “I am smart enough to know when a fight is useless.” They reached her door, and she released his arm. “I will wish you a good night.”

Smiling, he withdrew a piece of mistletoe from his pocket. “Kiss me and it will be,” he said with his most roguish smile.

“Lord Arlington!”

Caroline blushed pink but did not sweep away into her room. He framed his arms against the door, and she looked into his eyes. She looked like she was quite willing to accept his kiss, curious even. Arlington was leaning forward to meet her lips when a sound in the hall interrupted him. As he pulled away, Caroline let out a breath.

“Maybe tomorrow night will be better,” he said with a wink and left her. He had never been so forward with a single, well-bred lady before. It was rather exhilarating.

Awakening the next morning, Arlington eagerly went downstairs for breakfast. Darcy and Bingley had already left for the day while the Hursts and Georgiana were still abed. He made the usual small talk with Caroline. They often ate together. Afterwards, he suggested they adjourn to the drawing room.

“Will you play?” he asked, and she obliged.

As he turned pages for her, he realised he enjoyed this sort of closeness. It was not strictly erotic, but there was a companionship. The very thing he had decided he wanted weeks ago. How had he been so foolish to think a mistress would provide that? What he had wanted was a wife. The music came to an end.

“You play beautifully,” he said.

“Thank you,” Caroline replied. “I have certainly practiced enough.”

“But do you enjoy it?”

Caroline laughed. “I do enjoy playing, but I rather think I like it because I do it well. I have no patience to pursue a hobby I cannot do well.”

“I think you could excel at anything.” At last, his praise made her blush. “In fact, I believe that you could even be an excellent viscountess.”

Caroline gasped and then met his eyes. He reached for her hand and kissed it. “Will you, Caroline?”

“I can’t believe this is happening,” she said.

“Surprised?” He was too.

She let out a rueful laugh. “More than a little.” To his astonishment, she pulled her hand from his and stood, creating distance between them. “Why me?”

“I have decided to marry, and you meet my qualifications.”

“As simple as that?”

“I will only speak the truth with you. Yes, it is as simple as that.”

“You have only known me for a few weeks, and I can offer you nothing that dozens of other ladies could not as well.”

“Nevertheless, you are my choice.” Was it his imagination, or was she attempting to dissuade him? “You never struck me as the sort to believe yourself unworthy before. Do not play missish now.”

“Oh, no it is not that.”

“Yes?”

“It’s…it’s…what about love?” she blurted out.

Arlington frowned. “I had thought we understood one another.”

“You do not believe love is necessary for marriage?”

“I believe companionship and faithfulness are. I will be a good husband to you.”

She looked at him for a long moment and for the first time, Arlington felt inadequate before someone whose good opinion he desired. Before she spoke the words, he knew the answer. Sadness filled her eyes.

“I thank you for the compliment of your request, but I must decline.”

“Because I do not love you?”

She shook her head and tears pricked her eyes. “Because you love another and I will not compete with that. I told you once before that I know when a fight is useless.”

So did he. Rather than question Caroline further, Arlington sketched a bow. “You have my wishes for your health and happiness. Excuse me.”

Returning to his chamber, he called for his valet.

“To London, sir?” the man asked once he heard the news that they would be leaving immediately.

“To Kent,” Arlington replied. He had unfinished business ten years in the making to resolve.

 

*****

 

Caroline staggered to a sofa in the drawing room. Had she really just turned down an offer of marriage from a viscount? If he had asked a week ago, she likely would have said yes. Her conversation with her brother several days ago tore her heart open. Light was allowed in and now that the hope of finding love a second time was permitted to grow she could not snuff it out.

She only knew of Arlington’s reputation. He had no shame in showing off his mistresses. None of that would speak to a wounded heart, and yet Caroline saw her own reflection in his eyes. She had chosen to become grasping and bitter to cope with her despair. Arlington became a rake. And yet, he offered fidelity to her, and she believed he meant it. It was not that he was incapable of faithfulness. Indeed, offering marriage at all spoke to his willingness to put that time of his life aside. Neither one of them were particularly proud of their pasts. Besides all this, Caroline had seen the panic and sadness in his eyes when she mentioned love. No, his heart belonged to another and fool she might be, but she would not attempt to please a man in love with another.

Caroline had not realised she was weeping until the door opened without a knock, causing her to jump.

“Forgive me,” Darcy said. He looked ready to dash from the room but hesitated at the final moment. “Miss Bingley, are you well?”

She threw her hands up in the air. “As well as you can be after refusing a viscount!” She sounded crazed, and she wondered if she was. Surely turning down a peer was madness.

Immediately, Darcy turned red with anger. “I apologise for my cousin. I told him upon inviting him here that none of his usual antics would be tolerated. I will speak with Bingley immediately, and we will see he leaves.”

Caroline shook her head. “You misunderstand. He made me an honourable offer of marriage, and I,” she blew out a deep breath, “declined.”

She watched as a variety of emotions flitted across his face. The one that stuck out the most was fear. “You need not look so terrified. I did not refuse him because I still wanted you. I have made my peace with your marrying Eliza.”

Darcy closed his eyes and his pain on the subject was immediately apparent to Caroline. “Oh! That girl is a simpleton!”

Even while hurt, Darcy defended his lady. “No. She has her reasons, and I can only respect her for them.”

“Does she not know what a precious gift love is?” Caroline wished with all of her heart she had had a friend or relative to counsel her against ending her engagement all those years before.

Darcy’s face took on a guarded look. “If you are certain you are well, then I will leave you.”

“I must apologise to you.” She looked down at her hands for a moment. “I am sorry if I have been too insistent with my hopes. It has been a very long time since I considered seeking love in marriage. I was selfish to ever think you would not want it and then to get in the way when you sought it with another.”

Darcy furrowed his brow. “So you refused my cousin because you do not love him?”

Caroline explained her reasons for refusing Arlington and suggested Darcy speak with Elizabeth again. Unexpectedly, Georgiana barged into the room taking her side and the situation in hand by telling her brother to write a letter to Elizabeth. The siblings soon left, and Caroline stood on shaky legs to return to her chamber. She did not know if Lord Arlington meant to leave right away or stay but she hoped to avoid him.

At last, she felt ready to consider new love. Surely Charles would take her to London sometime this Season. Jane would love it. While there, Caroline would make a real effort to find a gentleman she could love.

 

*****

 

Soon after arriving at Brigadier-General Gordon’s home in Chester, Richard understood that his superiors were not so much interested in discussing military matters as much as they were interested in putting their daughters before him. All this time he had thought second sons of earls and military men were undesirable marriage partners, and it seemed these two warring fathers thought otherwise.

The real mischief, of course, occurred when General Vyse’s son shifted his attentions from Gordon’s daughter to another lady. What would have been a mighty alliance, was now a battleground. Miss Vyse and Miss Gordon were generally cried up as pretty and very good sorts of girls, but Richard found they paled in comparison to Belinda. None of their fathers’ hints at advantageous promotions for him should he choose one as a bride deterred his plan for a moment

At last, the day of his appointed leave arrived. He would meet his family at Matlock Hall, and when his parents returned to London, he would resume his courtship with Belinda. To that effect, he chose to remind the generals that his conscription was up in March.

“The Regiment will be returning next week and after much thought, I have decided to resign when my commission is up in March. I would ask that you keep that in your plans for the Regiment and me while I take the time to smooth returning to civilian life,” he said.

“Civilian life? What is that? You ought to stay. Attached to the right Regiment and you can still do many things. Many men serve in Parliament or at court and are only deployed every few years.”

“That may be,” said Richard, “but I prefer a quieter life. I fear I lack the ambition.” And it was true. If he had wanted to, he would have been able to buy the commission of general and been approved on merit and length of service as well.

Vyse shook his head but offered his hand. “Best of luck to you, Fitzwilliam.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I would suggest you need a wife in your civilian life,” Morgan said while pumping his hand. Then he added with a wink, “Vyse’s daughter is lovely.”

“Now see here…” the men walked off and allowed Richard to board his carriage.

A day later, he was dozing in the carriage when a sudden jolt awoke him. The coach was in a deep rut and a light rain had begun, causing it to stick. Determining that they were only a mile from a coaching inn and from there only an hour’s ride to Matlock Hall, Richard rented a horse to complete his journey.

Once he embarked, the rain picked up. The cold, late December air blew and chilled him. His wounded leg ached. Still, he pressed on. He had lived through worse and knew the comforts of a good bed, and a warm meal awaited him.

Arriving at his home, he tossed his reins to the stable hand and walked as briskly as he could manage through the rain. The stables were close to the side entrance, which also had a staircase that led to the wing his chamber was in. Wet hair dripped into his eyes, and he cast them down, watching to avoid leaving muddy footprints. Suddenly he knocked into a form that let out a yelp. Stretching his arms out to catch the person and expecting a maid, he was surprised to realise he would recognise that shape anywhere.

Belinda.

What was she doing here? Tugging out a wet handkerchief with one hand, he did not release her with his other. For once, she made no complaint. Clearing the raindrops from his face, he took in her beautiful countenance.

“Richard,” she breathed, and he was lost.

“Are you a dream?”

“Not unless you are,” she said with a mischievous smile.

“When I dream of you in my arms, I’m never soaked through like this.” She shivered against him, and he brought her closer.

“I do not believe your mother was expecting you yet.”

“Good. Then no one will be looking for me while I do this,” he said before savouring her lips. When he broke the kiss, he could no longer hold back the question in his mind. “What are you doing here?”

“Your mother invited mine.”

“Yet, you seem to have come of your own volition.”

“I missed you,” she said shyly and stared at the buttons on his chest rather than meet his eyes.

Tenderness swept over him. He raised Belinda’s chin. “And I you.”

“Really? You did not forget about me for Miss Vyse?”

He laughed. “No, nor Miss Gordon. There is only one Belinda in the world, and I could never forget her. And what made you miss me?”

“Do you really want to know right now or would you rather take advantage of the mistletoe we’re under?”

Richard looked up and saw indeed they were under mistletoe. With a smile, he complied with his lady’s suggestion. Not caring that he was dripping on the carpet, he met her lips with ravenous need. She learned quickly and too soon, he had to pull away from her lips to calm himself. Raining kisses on her face and then neck, his haze of lust faded just enough for him to hear the surprised shriek of his mother.

 

Chapter Ten

 

A day and a half after leaving Netherfield, Arlington arrived at Ramsgate. The cottage Claire had died in was now owned by someone else, her aunt having perished in the last ten years. After securing a room in an Inn, he made his way to the cemetery and found the du Val plots. He passed by Claire’s aunt, mother, and father before coming to hers. Each site was well tended to, and he wondered why when he was the only person in England that might have cared about them at all. He had never been able to bring himself here before, after Claire’s tragic and early death, he could not even bear to stay for the funeral. Instead, he had fled to London and visited the first tavern he laid eyes on, descending into a gin-soaked stupor and awoke in the arms of a stranger and his purse several pounds lighter from a bad night at the tables. No guilt invaded his conscience. He had felt the finality of Claire’s death all too keenly.

Ten years later, he stood before her gravestone, holding his breath. Since her passing, he had never allowed himself time to mourn or feel grief. He welcomed anger and bitterness, instead. First, he blamed his parents for refusing their consent. Blaming himself was a natural second step. But never once had he allowed that there was no one to blame for an illness. Who did he know that had been spared knowing death’s sting? His parents had suffered the loss of children after Richard’s birth. Darcy had lost both parents as well as many siblings before Georgiana survived infancy. His cousin Anne had lost her father and was conspicuously an only child. His friends had similar stories as well. Fate had not given him an unnecessarily harsh blow. Losing the love of his life had devastated him, but was it a blessing that if one of his loved ones had to go, it was her and not another? New as he was to allowing such thoughts, he had no answers.

Arlington had never been given much to sentiment. No tears threatened his eyes. To look at him, one would not know the clenching of his heart, the struggle he felt with each breath. Nor did he say any audible words, but in his soul, he felt a communion with Claire’s departed spirit. This was an act of parting he had never let himself experience before. He had been too determined to live while she had died. At last, he allowed himself to say goodbye to her in his heart. She, like Caroline the day before, would not be impressed with the man he had become. Her memory deserved better of him.

Seeing the sun begin to set, he returned to the Inn and informed his valet of his plans for more travels on the morrow. There was another stop necessary for him to fully put the ghost of Claire to rest from his mind.

Allowing himself a more leisurely pace, he arrived at Rosings estate on Christmas Eve. When he was shown into the drawing-room his aunt, for once, was silent. Her mouth hung down, and she seemed to need to gather it from the floor before she could speak.

“Arlington, this is a surprise!”

“I hope it is not an unwelcome one,” he said bowing over her hand. “You look well Aunt.” Then he directed his gaze to Anne, and he startled.

He had remembered her as frail, thin and sickly. Now, though, while still thin, her face had a healthy glow. Her features were not exactly pretty, but neither were they the very plain nearly contorted image he had held in his mind for the last ten years. Shaking his head, Arlington dispelled the memory. He had last seen her while first falling in love with Claire. Of course, every lady paled in comparison to her uncommon beauty, added all the more exceptional by his passionate feelings. Seeing Anne again cemented his plan.

“Will you not greet me, Cousin?” Anne asked with an outstretched hand and raised eyebrows framing her dark eyes.

“How are you, dear Anne?” he asked as he bowed over her hand. Surprisingly, he found he truly meant it.

“Well, I suppose. Have you seen your mother recently? I wrote her but have not had a reply yet.”

Arlington sat beside her. “No, I have not returned to London although I believe they are at Matlock by now.”

“Indeed. I sent my missive there. So you have not had a letter from her either?”

Anne looked very anxious for news from his mother, confusing him. “I am behind in my correspondence. Darcy had a recent letter from her and all was well.”

Anne studied him, uncertainty evident in her wrinkled brow.

“Well,” he said. “I had thought to visit since I was so near. Aunt, do you think there is a guest room I could beg use of?”

“Certainly, certainly. Stay as long as you would like.”

The old lady, Mrs. Jenkinson, pulled the bell cord for a servant and upon a maid’s appearance, Lady Catherine declared need of a room.

“I had not thought Hertfordshire closer to Rosings than London is,” Lady Catherine said with reproach in her voice.

He tugged at his cravat. “I have come from Ramsgate. I have been quite busy, you see, with Parliament.”

“You will be in London when it reopens, will you not?” Anne asked.

“Of course,” he said.

Anne nodded her head and then remained silent while Lady Catherine asked after his duties as an MP. When she began inquiring into his habits, he put an end to the interview. Frayed as his nerves were, he had no patience for her impertinent questions. “I am not here to give you the workings of the House, madam. Should you have more questions, I suggest you visit the library or consult your brother.”

Lady Catherine’s eyes narrowed. “What is the intention of your errand, Arlington?”

He had walked right into that. It was not his intention to tell her a thing. “My business is my own. If that does not suit your ladyship, I will inquire after rooms in the village.”

“Certainly not. The son of the Earl of Matlock seeking rooms in a village inn? No nephew of mine shall stay there.”

Ah, blood and pride would trump at last. The maid reappeared saying his rooms were ready, and Lady Catherine was “kind” enough to direct him to them herself. Having purposefully arrived after dinner, he requested a tray be sent up for supper. He did not intend to visit with his Aunt again before speaking with Anne.

The following morning, Arlington had his valet deliver a message to Anne’s maid, requesting he speak with her. She replied, summoning him to her drawing room.

Anne sat on a settee in a frilly, lace-covered morning gown that dwarfed her tiny frame.

“You look lovely,” he said as a greeting and sat beside her. She gave him a confused look.

“Thank you. You slept well?”

“Yes. Now, this is awkward enough without attempting inane civilities. You must understand why I have come.”

“As you say you have not heard from your mother, no I do not.”

“I am determined to settle a date for our marriage.”

Arlington watched in shock as Anne’s mouth dropped open, a mirror image of her mother’s the night before. When she had regained her senses, she snapped it shut and turned red. After several minutes of silence, she spoke. Her words dripped with sarcasm. “Pray tell, what date did you have in mind? Next week, next month, next year? Am I to be expected to wait at your leisure for eternity?”

“I suppose I deserve that.”

Anne laughed. “Oh, do not presume you understand what you deserve. I believe it is customary to ask when speaking of marriage.”

“Surely not. You know the arrangement as well as I.”

“I know the agreement far better than you! For I never engaged myself to another and then ignored my betrothed for years. You cannot act as though you respected our parents’ arrangement all along.” She lifted her chin and said through clenched teeth, “Ask me.”

Through her tirade, Arlington stood, anger rising in him. Why had he thought to do this? Compromise, he reminded himself. “Very well. Anne, it is my extreme honour to offer you my hand in marriage. Will you be my viscountess?”

“No,” she said with glee in her eyes.

What the devil had overcome the women of his acquaintance? “Do not think I will ask again,” he said with a hard edge.

“If you are asking me, you must feel as though you have no other options. I rather think I can stake matters as I please.”

“You are mistaken. I do not come to you beholden to anyone.” It was not like before where his father had cut his allowance if he did not marry Anne. “My fortune is my own.”

She stood as well. “I do not care about your money or your title. I have everything I need right here.”

“This is not a game,” he said advancing on her. “What is it you want from me?” He expected her to shrink from him, but she lifted her chin and boldly met his eye.

“I will have you as my husband only if you can promise me faithfulness.”

 

*****

 

Anne stood before James, holding her breath. He seemed to accept her facade. She used all of her courage to refuse him and make her demands when a greater part of her welcomed any chance to flee Rosings.

“Is that all?” He asked.

“I believe that will be hard enough for you,” she said. Meeting his eyes again, he actually managed to look ashamed. “If there is no threat to your income, what has made you consider marriage and to me after all these years? I know you cannot have affection for me. Yes, I doubt your fidelity.”

“You desire truth?”

“I will have nothing else.”

“Sit with me and I will explain.” She looked at him warily but agreed. In an awkward way, James explained that he had determined he should marry, especially as his father was growing older and James desired a more distinguished career in Parliament.

“And I was your first thought?”

“You are certainly the best for the position,” he said.

Anne wondered who he had proposed to before her. And even more so, who was stupid enough to reject his offer. As unacquainted with gentlemen as she was, she still knew James was wickedly handsome and had the devil’s charm…usually.

“You still have not promised me faithfulness,” she pressed.

“I will honour you,” he said with a savage tone to his voice.

“Forgive me if I doubt that. You have said enough to allow me to know you recently proposed to another woman, this on top of already overthrowing me years ago and your reputation as a rake the last decade.”

Arlington smiled slyly. “You will have no need to regret my experiences.” He took her hand in his and lightly caressed it.

“Of course, I will!” Even as his ministrations brought pleasure, Anne reminded herself it had been practiced on many others.

“Anne,” he said and leaned close to her. “Trust in me.”

His breath fanned her face. “I…I cannot,” she said. Then she made the mistake of looking into his blue eyes that watched her earnestly. Anne fluttered her eyelashes as her heart skipped a beat. Then she felt nothing but warmth as he brushed his lips against hers.

Arlington brought his hand to her cheek. “That was not so bad, was it?”

“Perhaps more experience is required before I can give an opinion.” Her tart answer was rewarded with the return of his lips, this time with greater pressure. The shock of pleasure trickled through her body, her mouth felt afire. Feeling him attempt to suck her bottom lip, she tried mimicking the action. In the small opening of her lips, he flicked his tongue forward. Feeling as though lightning struck her, her ears rang. Arlington teased with his tongue again and this time, she moaned as a shiver coursed down her spine.

Arlington withdrew, his chest heaving. “Do not doubt that I feel attraction for you, Anne. Come with me to London. Be my bride.”

She had her answers, did she not? “Yes,” she said before returning his kisses. She had waited ten years for these, and she would not give them up easily.

 

*****

 

Christmas morning dawned in Leeds as a cloudy, cold day. Despite its lack of suitable holiday cheer, Jacob and Letitia Truman had reason to be thankful. Their father was, at last, regaining his strength and little Jake seemed stronger every day as well. Lucius Truman recovered so much as to talk about returning to the shop the following week.

“I was astonished at how prices have changed,” Jacob admitted to his father after Christmas dinner. Letitia and Jake were napping.

“The war and the harvests have changed much. The people are unhappy, of course.”

“I do not doubt it.”

“There were attacks in Nottinghamshire last month. Angry farmers attacked the factories.”

“Hmmm,” Jacob said between puffs of a cigar, a special, Christmas treat. “Do they not understand if materials are more expensive, the price of goods goes up as well?”

“It seems they do not know that,” Mr. Truman said. “I have tried to keep my costs reasonable, but I cannot operate at a loss.”

“What does your friend, Mr. Bingley, say?”

“There are trade interruptions with the Continent and even America due to the war. Local wool is in high demand, but that will collapse when there is peace. He knows he will face a financial loss at the time, it is only a question of how much and for how long.”

“If local wool is in such demand that means he buys high as well, correct?”

“Indeed. The same farmers angry at stocking machines set the prices, there.”

Jacob shook his head. “I assume they charge high to pay their rent.”

Mr. Truman raised an eyebrow. “Dare you say the landlords are at the heart of all of this? I thought you went to fight the French, son, not take up their Jacobin ways.”

“I am not blaming the landlords,” Jacob held up his hands. “They face poor harvests and inflation with the rest of us. Taxes continue to rise on them in the never-ending war.”

“So, we shall blame Napoleon.” Mr. Truman raised his glass.

“I will drink to that,” Jacob agreed.

“What are your plans for March?” the father asked his son.

“I will not renew my contract, and I will return home.”

“There is talk of war with America. You will not feel duty-bound to serve?”

“I am needed here,” Jacob answered firmly.

“I have never wanted you to sacrifice your desires for the wants of others. That is not the Truman way. Do you still fancy Canada?”

Jacob shrugged his shoulders. “What is there for me there that I cannot accomplish here?”

“I am surprised to hear that. The very fact that we were just talking about landowners and how they are the machinery that spins the wheels of our economy says it all. Over there, you might become one yourself.”

“I do not have a head for agriculture or collecting rents any more than I have one for ledgers.”

“No, you were more suited to those dead philosophers.”

“I was young and foolish. Do not fear, I know my place now, sir. I will not fail you.”

His father stilled, his glass halfway to his mouth. Setting it down, he fixed an earnest gaze upon his son. “Is that what you think? That I was ashamed of your interests?”

“I was an idiot to ever think I could be a tutor.”

“Is that why you did not continue to Cambridge when Bingley offered to pay?”

“I was sick of charity and felt I owed allegiance to a country that had offered me so much.”

“Promise me you will consider Canada, still. Letty’s sister-in-law would make an excellent wife for you in a new land.”

Jacob promised to think it over, but guilt gnawed at him for even considering leaving his still-recovering father and his sister.

In hindsight, Jacob wondered why he was given a gentleman’s education when there was no means of launching him into gentry society. The Trumans were not rich like the Bingleys. His friend Frederick went on to become a barrister. Having visions of glory, Truman shunned working in his father’s shop and instead joined the army when war broke out with France again.

He had been young and foolish; sheltered even. The Bingleys treated the Trumans as equals, as did everyone in their market town that Jacob had met. It was not like the stories he had heard of America. At Eton, the gentlemen’s sons treated him the same as Fred Bingley. Detestable, new money and the victims of no small amount of hazing. Entering the army, however, Jacob encountered prejudice in its rawest form for the first time. Many soldiers hated having one of his ancestry as an ensign and giving orders. Worse, he had to obey the cruel orders of his sadistic commanding officer or face court martial. At times, he braved the risk. And was soundly punished.

Of course, he should have understood the wider world would never accept him after Carrie broke off their engagement on the eve of their elopement. They had been too young to wed without parental consent, and her male guardian never would have approved of such a poor match. Jacob had been too much in love to consider the realities, and when it seemed to occur to her, he had been too angry to think rationally about them. She claimed it was about pleasing her family, but even then, he wondered if it was not because she understood the world better than he. Marrying him would be a step down for any English lady. Mulattoes, such as he, were often more detested than free blacks. When it came down to it, Caroline Bingley made the choice of money, wealth and society. Things he could never offer her.

As a younger man, Jacob was reckless in battle. He dared God to strike him dead. What did he have to return to England for? What did he have to live for? Fighting Napoleon’s Mamelukes in Spain broke his angry spirit, however. They were part of Napoleon’s troops that had suppressed Spain and were hated by the locals for their dark skin. Napoleon had bought them in Egypt. They were slaves forced into the army and given no choice but to oppress and kill. War was always kill or be killed and, somehow, Jacob was surprised to learn it was no different when the person on the other side of the field aiming at you could be a distant cousin. Since that battle, however, he had learned there were worse things than being a black man in England.

Accepting the prejudices of his countrymen was part of the way of the world, but, at least, in his part, it was not as terrible as it could be. Except, of course, this phase of life would soon be over. His contract was coming to an end, and Richard considered resignation as well. They were growing old and battle weary. Without the army pay, however, Richard had little independence. He could not afford personal servants, and Jacob would need to be hired as part of the Matlock estate or find other employment. The trouble was, of course, that he could recite Greek passages and kill but had never been very skilled in cravat knots or keeping ledgers.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

After a headache-inducing Christmas, Arlington left Rosings with Lady Catherine and her daughter in tow. Thankfully, he had few moments with Anne and Lady Catherine was even more overbearing than he recalled. It allowed him to avoid reflections on the insanity that seized him with her innocent kisses. He began to curse Darcy and his stupid scheme to take him to Hertfordshire. If he had not gone then, he never would have got it into his head to marry. Mrs. Bennet must have poisoned her soup with seasons to induce matrimony. The one thing that brought him comfort, was recognising how Anne suffered living with her mother.

They arrived at Matlock House before his parents. Arlington craved the solitude of his apartments but stayed to greet his parents. After an hour of Lady Catherine observing that his mother ought to redecorate the drawing room, Lord and Lady Matlock along with Richard arrived.

“James! What a surprise!” His mother gushed and greeted him with a kiss. Glancing about the room, her gaze landed upon her sister-in-law and niece. “Catherine, Anne what brings you to London?”

Arlington cleared his voice. “I invited them for the wedding.”

Lady Matlock swung her head toward Richard. “How did you manage to tell your brother already? Or was kissing Belinda under the mistletoe all part of a plan?”

Confused and shocked, Arlington turned his eyes to brother. “Richard, what is she talking about?”

“Congratulate me, brother. I am engaged to be married to Lady Belinda Crenshaw. I count myself fortunate you and Darcy were stupid enough to pass her over.”

Arlington blushed for Anne’s sake, but she appeared indifferent. If only memories of her kisses made him feel indifferent. He cleared his throat. “You have my congratulations, and I will ask for yours as well. Anne and I are engaged. We plan to wed in a fortnight.”

A hush fell over the room as each person digested the unexpected news. Lady Matlock reacted first, “How wonderful!” She kissed James’ cheek again and then ran to Anne’s side. “I am blessed indeed to have two such sons and now two excellent daughters.”

Richard and the Earl greeted him with hearty handshakes, but a questioning look in their eyes. Arlington felt no compulsion to explain matters to them.

“We had planned on inviting Darcy and Georgiana over for a family dinner tomorrow in honour of Richard and Belinda. Now that you and Anne are engaged as well, we shall have to host quite the party in a week or two.”

The men in the room groaned simultaneously. “Do not believe that is necessary for mine or Belinda’s sake, Mother,” Richard said.

“Nonsense! Both sons of the Earl of Matlock are engaged? Of course, we shall host a magnificent party. And a double wedding!”

Arlington walked to the sideboard as he saw his mother’s eyes glaze over with visions of lace and fripperies. She had mourned the loss of her daughters and always looked forward to her sons’ weddings.

“Catherine,” Lady Matlock continued. “Lady Crenshaw and Lady Belinda were to accompany me to my modiste next week. Surely we can fit Anne into the schedule as well.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Arlington watched as Anne was drawn into the conversation. She had little experience with such enthusiasm. Visits to Rosings garnered much less joy from his mother, but Anne’s eyes brightened with amusement. Her full lips smiled at his mother and laughed at some remark Richard made. The longing to kiss her again felt like a punch in the gut. He needed to leave and regain his sanity.

“My apologies,” he said to the room. “I had promised to meet with my solicitor, and now I certainly have new matters to take care of. You will excuse me, of course.” Although he felt all eyes in the room upon him, he only sought out one pair. He made his way to Anne and bowed over her hand. “Rest from your travels and I will call tomorrow.”

Anne blushed prettily in return. “I look forward to it.”

Once he quitted the house, he went directly to the solicitor to begin matters for Anne’s marriage settlement. He had no need of her fortune although she was entitled to all of his. He had expected this moment to bring melancholy remembrances of Claire, but the situation was utterly different. With her, it had been a matter of attempting to find hidden treasure, and now they both had wealth aplenty.

Again, his solicitor had worries of frame breakers, and it put to mind a way to rid Hertfordshire of George Wickham. He determined to call on the young Duke of Devonshire as Cavendish was the Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire and in control of its militia.

Finishing there, he called on Darcy. Arlington had been surprised to learn his cousin was in town and presumably unengaged since his aunt did not share any news. Arlington feared Darcy had met with a disastrous answer. The master was not home when Arlington arrived, but expected from his club any moment. When he entered the study, his sunken eyes was answer enough to Arlington’s unspoken concern.

“Ah, you emerge at last,” Darcy said while handing him a glass of wine.

“My last hurrah,” Arlington replied. He did not need to let his cousin know that his condition was from lack of sleep due to stirring thoughts of his betrothed. Although, he likely could have found commiseration from Darcy with the headache and raw nerves that afflicted a person after more than an hour in Lady Catherine’s company.

“Last?” Darcy raised his eyebrows.

“I finally visited her grave,” Arlington murmured without meeting Darcy’s eyes. “Congratulate me. I am to be married,” he attempted to hide his volatile emotions.

“You have been back to Hertfordshire as well, then?”

Arlington furrowed his brows. It seemed like a lifetime ago he had offered his hand in marriage to Caroline Bingley. Having a sudden understanding, he answered, “Ah no. No, that was a misguided effort to punish my parents again.”

“They are sorry,” Darcy said. He had always hated the division in the family.

“I know,” Arlington said. “Claire is buried in Kent. Hertfordshire would be rather out of the way.”

“You went to Rosings,” Darcy said while leaning back in his chair.

Why did he say it with such shock? Darcy had been visiting Rosings all these years and never noticed Anne? She hid behind a mouse-like exterior but was firm and unyielding. She had not cared for his opinion or his title. Arlington shook his head to clear his thoughts and chose to play his usual indulgent noble role. “Well, I do dislike the London ladies, and Anne has rarely left Rosings.”

Darcy did not reply and after another moment, Arlington shrugged. “If I am to make a marriage without affection, I might as well please the family and save Anne from her mother. I likely saved you as well,” he said before taking another sip. Why did considering Anne marrying Darcy fill him with a desire to throttle his cousin?

“I never would have agreed. Especially now…” Darcy trailed off and looked at his wine. “I do not intend to marry at all.”

Silence stretched between them. “Your pain will wane,” Arlington said at last.

Darcy returned to the sideboard to refill his glass and create distance between them. “Your Claire has been gone for ten years. As long as the woman I love lives, I cannot extinguish any hope through my own actions.”

Arlington was uncertain he could sympathize. Was not a courtship interrupted worse than one declined? Having compassion on his cousin, he nodded his head. “Mother is including Anne and me in the engagement party she is holding for Richard and his betrothed. I know he plans on calling tomorrow before the dinner. Prepare yourself. Mother is expanding the guest list and has set her mind to matchmaking the last bachelor in the family.”

Arlington had no real purpose in calling on Darcy other than to satisfy curiosity and hoping the man might say something that could make the jumble of his thoughts make sense. He soon returned to his quiet apartment, and while he could not mourn the absence of Lady Catherine, he was surprised to consider how he already missed the company of Anne.

 

*****

 

Belinda watched Lady Matlock smile at her dinner partner. It did not reach her eyes. Her laughter did not have its usual bright ring to it. The night’s festivities were in celebration of the engagements of her sons and yet she seemed to lack the joy that Belinda had witnessed in recent days.

“You are quiet, love,” Richard said in her ear.

“Is your mother well?”

“I have not heard of any complaints. Why?”

“Watch her. She does not seem her usual self.”

Again, Belinda observed as her future mother-in-law forced a smile at another guest. Beside her, Richard frowned. “She is talking as rapidly as when she is nervous.” His eyes flew to Darcy and his brother’s. Both men were already glancing surreptitiously at Lady Matlock.

“Perhaps it is just nerves from the evening? Or too much wine?”

“My mother could plan a feast such as this in her sleep.” Richard raised her hand and gave it a kiss.

“What was that for?”

“For caring enough to notice. Never fear. I will speak with my father after the meal.”

Richard looked at her with undisguised affection and longing, and it caused Belinda’s heart to flutter. She still had not made sense of her feelings for him. Or rather, she had delayed having to label them. His proposal under the mistletoe at Matlock Hall came a minute after being found embracing her, but Belinda saw no signs that it was a forced proposal on his side. On hers, she had determined to accept her attraction to him. With the intimacies they had shared, Belinda knew as well as anyone what was required.

A part of her still thought it possible she was betraying Seth’s memory by another engagement so soon, but a greater part of her recognised she in no way wanted to give up what she felt with Richard, and it was better to make peace with moving on than try to hold back her feelings. She had read about great storms in Asia. An unstoppable wall of sea water would sometimes crash into the coast. Belinda rather thought her affection for Richard was the same way. Nothing could stop it or explain it. Some things defied logic and science.

The meal soon came to a close and the ladies withdrew to the drawing-room. There the conversation was entirely about the upcoming weddings and Lady Matlock seemed more withdrawn than ever. The other guests did not appear to notice. Even Lady Catherine did not take note. Belinda had been in that lady’s presence long enough to learn that she voiced most thoughts that entered her mind. More surprising, was her own mother’s lack of discernment, but Belinda understood her mother was too distracted.

Between the wedding talk—of which Belinda noticed she and Miss de Bourgh were not allowed to have an opinion on—and her concern for Lady Matlock, Belinda was unusually quiet. She was invited to the pianoforte and could barely conceal her relief when Miss de Bourgh followed to turn the pages.

“I cannot read music so you will have to tell me when to turn, but I had to get away from the others,” Miss de Bourgh whispered as they sat.

“They are in a rather terrible mood this evening,” Belinda said as she looked over the room at the dozen or so sour faces of unwed ladies and their mothers.

“Why must they hate me?”

“Think nothing of it. They are jealous. Rumours abounded that Lord Arlington would not marry at all, even while gossip lingered that he was engaged to you all along. No doubt some of these ninnies thought they might appeal to him.”

“I may not be as young or as accomplished as them but James has always appreciated a lady that can think for herself. They have a look about them that they would agree with anything he said!”

Belinda chuckled as she nodded her head to signal a page turn. “My, you are honest. I quite like that about you!”

Miss de Bourgh laughed as well. “I suppose it would not matter if we liked each other or not. We are to be sisters and at the moment seem to have earned the ire of all other young ladies present.” Belinda’s eyes grew wide. “Not that I mean I dislike you. I don’t. That is, I do like you. Dash it all!”

Belinda had compassion on the woman. “It is quite alright.”

“Mother has not let me in company enough. I fear I get too nervous and bungle all my words. That is hardly the behaviour of a viscountess.”

“Actually, that may be an asset. London can be cruel. The ability to insult is a greater tool than the capacity to befriend.”

“You do not worry that I might offend the wrong person? I would hate to be a liability for James. He has told me of his political aspirations.”

“You can easily learn the names worth knowing. Few of them are young, so putting the ignorant misses in their place is unlikely to have drastic consequences.”

Belinda smiled as she saw Miss de Bourgh’s eyes light with amusement at the possibilities. “Since we are to be sisters, as you say, you must call me Belinda.”

Anne reciprocated the civility just before the gentlemen entered. Belinda’s eyes sought Richard’s, and she could tell by the way he held himself that his father must have shared his concerns about Lady Matlock. Despite the cause of the evening’s engagement, the night broke up soon afterwards. The hostess’ energy seemed to drain from her as night carried on.

When it was time to depart, Richard escorted her to the carriage. “Send word in the morning, please, about your mother. I do hope she is not ill.”

“We have matters well in hand, love.” The steely resolve in his eyes assured Belinda that was indeed the case.

 

*****

 

Truman slowly drank his tankard of ale while plying his drinking partner with the best whiskey the low-end establishment offered.

“Soon I’ll be able to afford much better stuff than this,” the man slurred.

“Is that so?”

“I’ll be rich. My friend and I have it all figured out.”

As the man continued to drink, his Derbyshire accent came out more clearly, and Truman had a feeling where the conversation might lead. He had followed the gentleman to this tavern on Edward Street.

An hour ago, this man had delivered a note addressed to Lady Matlock, which seemed to unsettle her greatly. There was no time to discuss its contents before guests arrived for the engagement party for Richard and Lord Arlington. Instead, Truman, recently back from Leeds, was sent to discover the man. The stranger had been terribly careless, not realising how badly he stood out in a neighbourhood as refined as Mayfair.

“You have an investment that is ready to return?”

“Gotta a sure fire way of getting ten thousand pounds. Split with me friend.”

“Ah, and he’s going to share with you, Mr…?”

“Denny. And ‘course he will. We old chums an’ I’s half the brains o’ the operation.”

“Of course,” Truman said before another sip.

“You dunno believe me? Jus’ the utha day I’s say ‘Wickham, you otta beat Ol’ Bennet at cards and clear him out!’ An’ he did!”

“A fine idea. And Mr. Bennet lost? What made you sure he would pay?”

“We’s got insurance,” Denny stopped to hiccup. “But it’s a secret, so shhh!”

The man nearly yelled, and Truman was disgusted with how easy it was to gather information from the man with a little drink. “Very clever. Your idea again?”

“You bet!” Denny beamed. “Speakin’ of bettin’ you up for a game?” He shrugged in the direction of a table.

“Another time. Enjoy the next on me,” Truman said and paid the barkeep before returning to Matlock House.

The following morning, Truman arrived at the residence of Richard’s cousin, Mr. Darcy. Last night, Richard, the Earl, and the viscount were grieved to hear that Wickham was involved in the letter and after some pleading, Lady Matlock revealed the note she had received. The letter listed no demands, simply:

It would be a shame for a scandal to befall the House of Matlock due to her ladyship’s gambling debts.

Unfortunately, there was some substance to the claim. Years ago, Lady Matlock had been an avid card player, like most of her class. She racked up debts to a middling earl, who owed a debt to a powerful Duke known to take the favours of ladies instead of payment. To complicate matters, the Duke had once been engaged to Lady Matlock and in a fit of anger from being thrown over for a mere viscount, he circulated rumours that her eldest child was his sire. Although old gossip from over thirty years ago, the Earl and Countess were desperate for rumours to not resurface and mar their sons’ impending marriages and careers.

Soon after arriving at Darcy’s house, Truman and the others learned that Wickham also attempted to blackmail Darcy out of ten thousand pounds—clearly, the sum Denny spoke of the night before. His missive to Lady Matlock was an ill-planned endeavour for revenge for being ordered to West Riding of Yorkshire to suppress the frame breakers. He blamed Darcy for the assignment when in reality it was Arlington that suggested the Regiment in question.

Ordered to retrieve Denny and bring him to Lord Arlington’s apartment, Truman was leaving with the others when a face he never expected to see again greeted him in Darcy’s hall. For a moment, Truman greeted Caroline Bingley’s brother with happiness. Until, unavoidably, their past was brought up.

“You know my batman, Bingley?” Richard asked.

Bingley tore his gaze from Truman to answer Richard. “Indeed. The last time I saw him, I was a lad about to enter my second year in Eton. Mr. Truman was about to enter the army and was good friends with my cousin, with whom my family was staying. Caroline would…”

Bingley winced, undoubtedly in response to Truman’s reaction at hearing Caroline mentioned. “How are your sisters?” Truman was not practiced in the arts of disguise and the anxiety in his voice must have been clear to all.

“Louisa married a few years ago. Her husband is heir to a small estate. Caroline is still unwed.”

A great feeling of relief washed over Truman, and he nearly missed the strange exchange between Arlington and Bingley. His lordship seemed to want to make his engagement known to Bingley. Soon, the gentlemen parted, and Truman went to conclude his errand. He could not put from his mind, however, that Richard knew Charles Bingley, and there was the smallest possibility of crossing Caroline’s path.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Caroline sat in the Netherfield drawing-room as Louisa laid on a sofa with a cold cloth over her eyes. “Mrs. Bennet’s voice is just so shrill. Oh, my head hurts so much more after visits at Longbourn.”

“I am sorry,” Caroline said. “Perhaps we can invite Miss Mary over here tomorrow. Our instrument is superior, and I believe she would enjoy playing it.”

“I am not complaining, dearest, but it will take some getting used to for all these changes in you.”

Caroline shrugged. “I only wish to be honest with myself.”

“But you are giving up London?”

“I do not desire a London life. I have had enough people peering down their noses at me. Besides, Eliza should go with Jane and Charles and make amends with Darcy.”

“You are too kind to her,” Louisa said with a hint of humour in her voice.

“Perhaps,” Caroline said. “But I also know the regret of giving up the man you love. I do not understand what she can be thinking.”

“Undoubtedly, she has her reasons as you had yours,” Louisa’s voice belied her fatigue of the subject. “But will you actually go to our aunt and uncle’s?”

“I can hardly stay here alone, nor can I accompany you.”

“You do not fear the memories?”

“You may say his name, Louisa. No, I do not fear the memories of Jacob Truman. It was years ago, and I have determined to embrace the good rather than dwell on the bad.”

Caroline would have said more but heard loud, rapid knocks on the front door. “Good Heavens!” She ran to the window and saw an express rider. “I hope it is not Charles!”

A moment later the butler carried in a missive for her to read. What she was more or less able to make out was:

Dearest Caroline,

Fear not, I am well. You have insisted that you do not wish to come to London, but I have seen Jacob Truman. He is alive and well. He was visiting Darcy with Colonel Fitzwilliam. If you still regret him, come to Town and I will do my best to arrange a meeting.

  1. Bingley

She had read it aloud. Louisa immediately sat up. “Oh, my dear! Shall we go?”

“You can give Hurst a reason?”

“Yes, he will gladly escort us.”

“Then let us go tomorrow.”

The ladies had just settled matters with the housekeeper when they heard another, gentler knock. Caroline’s shock when Elizabeth Bennet was shown in, limping, with matted hair and a ripped gown was beyond expression. Immediately, Louisa’s nurturing instinct took hold and Eliza was nestled in a guest chamber. While attempting to hide her tears, her gown slipped low, revealing a terrible bruise. As Louisa inquired who had assaulted their friend, Caroline knew in her heart. There had been one officer, hated by Mr. Darcy, paying her far too much attention at Longbourn lately. Caroline could only pray nothing irreparable had happened. It did not escape Caroline’s notice that Eliza was adamant her father not know and instead requested Miss Mary to be sent.

“We will let you rest,” Louisa said when it became apparent their guest would resist any other interference from them.

Caroline paused before leaving. “I have had a letter from Charles, and we intend to leave for London in the morning. If you are recovered, you are welcome to join us. I hope… I hope you will use your time in London wisely, Eliza.”

The journey the following morning to London was unlike any Caroline had ever known. Could she have imagined when she returned to Hertfordshire mere weeks ago that she could now be driving to renew her friendship with the one man who still held her heart and likely ever would? Eliza was mostly silent on the ride and Caroline genuinely hoped she would overcome whatever reason she had for refusing Mr. Darcy. For herself, Caroline hoped she would have some cause to see Jacob Truman before fate allowed him to slip by again.

 

*****

 

Anne watched Darcy and Richard interact with their betrotheds with longing. They were all at Darcy House, along with Darcy’s friend Mr. Bingley, his betrothed, and his sister, celebrating Darcy’s engagement to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Surrounded by smitten couples, it became more evident than ever that despite James’ promises of faithfulness and his passionate kisses the morning of his proposal, their engagement looked nothing like the matches of affection she saw. It was a marriage of convenience for them both, she knew, but after waiting so long, Anne could not help but wish James would play the suitor better. Particularly since he did for every other lady in the kingdom. She consoled herself with although she was the last chosen, she would keep him the longest.

While her mother asked Miss Elizabeth impertinent questions, Anne kept company with Miss Bingley. It seemed as though there were lines drawn amongst the room between the charming and the reserved. Arlington seldom glanced her way, and when he did, he looked pained. Anne examined Miss Bingley. They were near in age, but that is where their similarities ended. Miss Bingley was taller, beautiful, and had an air of accomplishment and grace about her. Anne felt awkward and bumbling. Recalling that James and Miss Bingley had spent several weeks together in Hertfordshire, a suspicion formed in Anne’s mind.

Taking a cue from her mother, Anne turned to her companion. “I believe you are unmarried, Miss Bingley?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Lord above. When had she become old enough to be “ma’am”? “And have you any beaus? A woman in your position must desire to marry.”

“In my position?”

“Your brother is marrying, and his wife will become the mistress of the house. Surely you wish for one yourself?”

“Oh, yes. Certainly.”

Anne watched as Miss Bingley’s eyes were drawn to the lively gathering of Darcy and Richard. Perhaps she had been wrong in supposing Miss Bingley had been the recent object of James’ affections. On the other hand, she would not look at him at all, which seemed to denote some degree of embarrassment. Anne’s interview of Miss Bingley was interrupted by her mother directing her attention to them. As her ladyship held court around Miss Bingley and Miss Bennet, Anne felt a tickle in her throat, causing her to refill her tea more often than the others.

At the close of the visit, the Bennet ladies’ relatives had asked about touring Manchester this summer. James and Lord Matlock discussed the current unrest in the Northern counties. Anne sat enthralled as her betrothed sensibly explained the situation and then, with all due confidence, assured that matters would be resolved by the summer. Anne knew that James’ fortune came from factories. In fact, for as much as her mother liked to tout the importance of land ownership, all the gentlemen in the room were involved in the manufacturing business.

By the time she returned to Matlock House, the tickle in her throat had developed to a true cough, making her feel lightheaded. Lady Catherine ordered a physician who declared the London smoke of winter did not agree with her.

“I knew it,” her mother said. “I will speak to Arlington, and we will have you removed to Rosings right after the wedding.”

Anne was too ill to put up a fight. She needed to conserve her breath but vowed to herself— as her mother’s daughter—that was not the end of the discussion.

 

*****

 

Since seeing Charles Bingley at Mr. Darcy’s residence a week ago, Truman had both anticipated and feared this moment. It was unusual for a valet to be invited to a wedding, but Richard insisted that he was more friend and family than anything else and Mr. Darcy welcomed him at his wedding. It took no thought at all to realise there was some match-making afoot.

During the wedding, Truman had not been able to seek out Caroline’s face. He was seated too far to the front. Now, during the wedding breakfast, he drank his fill of her. How was she still unwed? She had grown in height, and her figure had rounded to a full-blossomed woman since last he saw her. Her hair was as shiny as ever, her hair just as smooth. Her eyes…he could not make them out. Drawing closer, he attempted to peek at them.

The youthful look of wonder was gone, but in place of the sadness was apprehension. Was it for him she looked thus? Did she desire to approach him and was she as aware as he that this might be their last chance? He shook his head at the fanciful thought. She would have no reason to care. Her sentiments were made plain. It was not that he was invited out of her desire, but rather because Richard could not leave well enough alone! All the more now that his own wedding was postponed.

Originally, Darcy, Arlington, and Richard were all to wed on the same day. However, news was learned of an intended attack on a Bingley mill. One of the things Truman admired most about the Matlock family was the way they would band together when needed. The Earl, Bingley, and Darcy would go to Huddersfield and hope to speak with local landowners to alleviate their concerns. Darcy was able to move up his wedding, at his bride’s insistence, but Richard and Lady Belinda chose to delay theirs. And so Lord Arlington would be the only one to wed in three days’ time. He intended to remain in London to lessen the cries for blood from vocal members of Parliament. Nothing would provoke a riot faster than a greater sense of injustice coming through an unnecessarily harsh punishment. Currently, transportation to a colony was the penalty for frame breaking, but those that desired to make it a capital offense grew daily.

Truman was saved from continued concerns about Caroline by the Earl’s signalling him. The other gentlemen were gathered as well. It had been arranged that Truman would journey to Leeds and speak with shopkeepers of the area. Perhaps if together they were willing to lower the price of flour and bread, matters would not feel so desperate to the farmers. The Regiment had arrived just after Christmas and after a short holiday, they were now sent to East Riding of Yorkshire, where General Gordon held a parliamentary seat. He was using the Regiment to supplement the militia units assigned to the area, lest the frame breakers in West Riding spread the matter east.

Returning to Leeds was just as well for Truman. He had unfinished business. He had half made up his mind to take over his father’s shop and marry Sally Johnson. Seeing Caroline Bingley again, changed everything, though. He was far from settled. Did she think differently now than she did all those years before? Even more, he could now appreciate how lively her concern for her family must have been, having recently suffered such losses himself.

 

*****

 

Anne hummed a happy tune as she readied for her wedding night. A cough still lingered some but was not as bad as before. At last, she would get to live. She still had insecurities about her marriage and her abilities as a viscountess, but having seldom stirred from the half dozen rooms she had known her whole life, Anne understood she would rather be a failure because it meant she had at least tried.

And so, she would give her marriage her best try. James, at first, had taken her mother’s side and agreed Anne should return to Rosings after the wedding. He soon saw reason, however, between Anne’s temper and a few kisses. Anne smiled to herself at the memory. She would not have thought when she wrote to her aunt that she would become so proficient at the art of kissing as to use it against her husband. She still feared his ability to remain faithful, but at Darcy’s wedding Belinda had encouraged her to have hope.

Anne vowed that she would not be the sort of wife her mother had been. Lady Catherine had a way of doing everything and was convinced her way was the only correct way. She ran over the opinions and feelings of everyone. Anne may not always agree with James, but she intended to respect him. She would make their home a comfortable place, as best she could while both sets of their parents lived, and would be the sort of pleasant wife worth coming home to. She had worked it out in her head that they would be the most content of couples.

Looking in the mirror, she nervously tapped her fingers on her thigh. The Matlock residence was like most London houses. Even the master’s and mistress’ chambers were on separate floors. Guest rooms were smaller than at the manor house, nor were there any connecting doors. She waited for her husband to knock on her door to enter. Both her mother and Lady Matlock had talked to her of wedding night duties and had sufficiently confused her in their contradictory accounts. All Anne considered for sure was that she enjoyed James’ kisses, so why would she not enjoy more lovemaking? After all, certainly all the other ladies he had known had.

Growing tired, she decided to wait in the bed and read. Her candle burned low before she fell asleep, the book still opened and tossed to the side. She awoke the next morning noting that she most certainly did not have any sort of visit the night before. Confused and hurt, she was uncertain what to do when her maid entered and said Lord Arlington requested her presence downstairs. Dressing as swiftly as possible, she obeyed his wishes but gasped upon seeing him. It looked as though he slept in his clothes.

“James, are you well?” she asked. Had he caught her illness?

“Yes.” He paused and then shook his head. “No.”

“I do not understand.”

“I cannot do this, Anne.”

Her stomach seized at his words. He could not possibly mean what she feared. “Do what?”

“Us. This. Marriage.”

He could not have wounded her more than if he had slapped her. “What—what do you mean?”

“We should have waited,” he said.

Feeling slightly relieved, but angry at the worry he caused, she answered testily. “We did wait. You had ten years to become accustomed to the idea of our marriage. You assured me you had no qualms.”

“I know, I know. But that was before there were lunatics in the North setting fire to factories, hoping to maim and kill the owners. Our cousins are up there now! I am an owner. And so are many in Parliament. They are angry and frightened. I have a duty to try and prevent rebellion and civil war.”

“I do not understand. Tell me plainly,” Anne said before coughing.

“Exactly that. London makes you ill. You cannot remain here, and I cannot leave Town.”

“I am recovering!” She coughed again. It always seemed to happen when she grew agitated.

“Please,” he said. “I need to know you are well. I cannot go with you, but you cannot stay here. I will not let you kill yourself just to be with me.”

Anne wanted to argue more but instead saw the beseeching look in James’ eyes. He had lost his first love to illness. The fact that he now worried about her welfare must mean something good. “What do you wish for me to do?”

“Return to Rosings with your mother.”

“For how long?”

“Until all this is settled and then I will come to you.”

“You will come?”

Even as James vowed, Anne was uncertain if she could believe him. He had taken ten years before. This time, she would not play the princess locked in the tower. Marriage gave her respectability and independence if nothing else. She could make her own demands and travel if she chose. Boarding the carriage later that morning to return to Rosings was the greatest feat of strength Anne had ever shown. And while she looked like the obedient, docile new wife, she began to scheme. James Fitzwilliam, Viscount Arlington, would have thirty days to come to her or she would come to him.

Continued in Extraordinary Devotion

Renewed Hope- Chapter Five

renewed hope 4Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

 

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.”

“Oh.”

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.”

“Indeed.”

“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.

Renewed Hope- Chapter Four

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!

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

renewed hope 4Chapter Four

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.

Dear Jacob,

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.

Your sister,

Letitia Johnson

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!”

“Do tell!”

“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?

Renewed Hope- Chapter Three

renewed hope 4Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

 

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.

 

 

Renewed Hope- Chapter Two

renewed hope 4

Chapter One

Chapter Two

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.

Chapter Three

Renewed Hope- Chapter One

I am so excited to bring the companion story of Sufficient Encouragement! It is part retelling and part sequel as the story coincides with the timeline of Darcy and Elizabeth’s courtship and also extends past the epilogue of their story.

renewed hope 4Here’s the blurb:

Sometimes love needs a second chance.

Told against the backdrop of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s timeless love story, Renewed Hope continues the story of Sufficient Encouragement through the eyes of three couples experiencing love for the second time.

James Fitzwilliam may be the Viscount Arlington, but ten years ago he walked away from money and prestige to marry a servant girl against his family’s wishes. Unexpectedly, she died, and he has spent the time since trying to forget his loss. At last determining to marry with no hope of love, he settles on his cousin Anne de Bourgh – the very lady he cast aside years earlier.

Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam is a celebrated war hero and has loved only one woman. Her plot to use him to entrap his brother, the heir of a wealthy and powerful earl, crushed him in ways even battle could not. Years have passed, but the wounds remain. He knows better than to trust a lady again but is defenseless against the captivating Lady Belinda Crenshaw. Instead of proving faithless, she proves constant to the naval captain she loved who died at sea mere months ago. As Richard attempts to convince Lady Belinda to love again, his plans for retirement disappear.

Caroline Bingley has not always been mercenary and title grasping. Once upon a time, she was a naïve girl who fancied herself in love with a shopkeeper’s son with poor prospects due to the colour of his skin. When war broke out with France, he chose to prove his patriotism just as Caroline recognized her family would grieve over the match. Breaking the engagement nearly destroyed them both. Meeting Jacob Truman again could be the answer to all their dreams or their worst nightmares.


Volume One: Before Darcy and Elizabeth Wed

Chapter One: Awakening

James Fitzwilliam, Viscount Arlington and eldest son of the fourth Earl of Matlock, almost leaped out of his seat when the crowd at the King’s Theatre applauded. His eyes flew open, and the undeniable truth descended. He had fallen asleep!

“Are you ill, Arlie?” The blonde beauty next to him asked. “You fell asleep again.”

“Perfectly well,” he said. Only his companion was no longer listening as a tall, handsome man entered his box. Arlington recognized the gentleman, Lucas Hopewell, an acquaintance of his who had recently inherited a vast fortune. Sophia had eyes only for the younger—and seemingly more virile—man. Blast it if he was going to lose another mistress.

“Come, Miss Smith, you had claimed to not feel well,” Arlington said as Hopewell approached.

“If you are feeling unwell, then I will not delay you. It would be a crime to deny the stage your talent and beauty.” Arlington waited for the normal rage to emerge, but it did not come. He simply was not that interested in Sophia…or the last several mistresses he had.

“Oh, you are too kind,” she said with fluttering eyes. “I am in perfect health. It was his lordship,” she attempted to whisper, “that is fighting a cold, I believe.”

Not a cold, utter exhaustion at life. Boredom. And fatigue…it was as though his four and thirty years finally caught up with him after a decade of raucous living.

“Then I will bid you good night. Unless that is…Arlington would allow me the honour of escorting Miss Smith home.”

Arlington considered the situation for a moment. He had no exclusivity rights with Sophia. If Hopewell wanted a bite of the unimaginative, ignorant aspiring actress he discovered in a milliner’s shop, then he was welcome to her. On Sophia’s side, he could little blame her.

Hopewell had no title but was an independent man of means. Arlington had learned ten years ago there seemed to be only one lady who could be interested in him despite wealth and titles. He had thought himself unable to give up his allowance and marry her as he wished. How did he repay her love and devotion? By having Claire banished to a damp cottage on the coast of Kent and dying of a fever. Now, he lived off investments of his own—refusing Matlock money—and it certainly was insufficient to buy women like Sophia the jewels they craved.

“As you please,” Arlington replied at last and said his goodbyes.

As he left the opera house, he noted the expression of interest of many of the ladies of Quality looking for lovers. They might condemn Sophia, but they traded their virtue for pleasure and money just as much as Sophia and her kind did. Then, there was the sort his brother had briefly been engaged to. They threw themselves at him for his name. Faithless creatures, the lot of them! No amount of begging from his mother to meet Lady Belinda Crenshaw—much accomplished, divinely beautiful and with twenty thousand pounds—could convince him to make a marry any more than he would consent to marry his cousin Anne. Their arranged marriage was the beginnings of all his problems.

 

*****

 

The next day, Arlington met with his solicitor.

“How attached are you to these investments in the North?” the graying man said as he patted a stack of papers.

Arlington’s lips twitched. “I didn’t know one could be sentimentally attached to factories. Are they in trouble?”

“There’s quite a bit of unrest in Nottinghamshire. Out of work farmers upset over the technology in the factories.”

“My investments are in Lancashire. Surely they are safe.” Truthfully, Arlington would rather do anything but give up those factories. The one near Bolton, Lancashire was the first investment he made, shortly before Claire died. It marked the beginning of his independence from his family. “What are a few unhappy farmers?”

“You would do well to recall your history lessons. Small rabbles always find a king, and it’s said this one has one. You’re too young to recall the problems after ‘45.”

“So are you,” Arlington smirked. His father hadn’t even been alive when the Jacobites were defeated at the Battle of Culloden. “A group of poor farmers is not the same as having the support of Scottish lords and chieftains.”

“We were lax with the Americans but France changed everything, even your father agreed there. You know how fast we put down the rebellion in Ireland.”

“Still, they’re Englishmen through and through.”

“Aye, but there are Jacobins among them. They were all Englishmen in the Civil War, but that didn’t stop the slaughter.”

Arlington stood. He had no time for history lessons. “I think we’re done today, Bridges. I’ll be ‘round near Christmas to go over the quarterly statements again.” He was halfway out the door when he recalled an important change he needed to make. “Oh, and send no more gifts to Miss Smith.”

Mr. Bridges took up a pen and made the note. “And who shall they be sent to instead?”

“No one,” Arlington said and left the room.

He had chosen to not take a new mistress after Sophia left him for Hopewell. There were plenty of willing ladies, but none of them attracted him. Mere beauty bored him and even reputations of inventiveness in the bed chamber no longer thrilled him. He never meant to marry and the ladies his mother thrust in front of him still held no appeal. He would take his time and discover some gem, unnoticed by other men. He did not expect constancy from a female, but some companionship of shared interests and enjoyable conversation would not be remiss for a change.

Inside a hackney coach, Arlington ran his fingers through his graying curls. There was no denying he was getting older. The responsibilities he always ran from, were now unavoidable. His father was approaching seventy, and far too soon, Arlington would become Lord Fitzwilliam. Already the Earl was less active in Parliament, when he once stood as a true statesman, like a beacon before other men. Arlington had disagreements with his father and mother over their personal understanding of classes in society but had always admired his father’s politics. He might not have the stuff in him to be an earl, a steward to the estate and title and beget heirs, but he did revel in his political prowess. His father had groomed him well in all aspects, but the cunningness and shrewdness required for politics appealed to him in a way the straightforward and plain talk of a master to a tenant never did.

Put simply, Arlington had always enjoyed the game. As a youth, he was a talented athlete and skilled in chess and debate. After drifting for three years after Claire’s death, his lordship suggested that Arlington run as MP for West Riding and with his father’s staunch support gained an easy victory. Immediately, he showed great skill in matters of diplomacy and thought. He loved nothing more than to intellectually best an opponent and out argue him. With women, he had always enjoyed the chase and the conquest more than the fruits of his labor. So, why now that he was free of Sophia could he not consider a new lady to seduce? And why did he feel entirely dead inside at the notion of taking as mistress one of the ladies he already passed over several times before?

 

*****

 

While sitting at his table eating a late breakfast, Lord Arlington read Darcy’s letter. He had met Darcy’s friend, Mr. Bingley, a time or two but the man seemed too astonished to speak in his presence. Darcy’s distaste for Arlington was well-known to him. If Darcy came alone, Arlington was sure the errand would be to complain about being left to go to the Crenshaws’ in his place. Arriving with a friend was unusual and left Arlington intrigued. Bingley had factories in Yorkshire, perhaps a business venture was the purpose of their visit.

Darcy and Bingley arrived promptly at the requested time. Accustomed to Darcy’s look of displeasure, he had not expected to see his cousin’s anxious looks or haggard appearance. Bingley looked even more nervous than usual in his presence.

“Gentlemen, be seated,” Arlington said. “How have you been?”

“Tolerably well,” Darcy said succinctly and obviously lying. His right eye always twitched when he lied. Bingley remained silent. If Arlington was less affable, he would be offended at this odd pair that did not extend the usual civility back to him. Silence consumed them, making Arlington want to leap on his chair and shout.

“I have no complaints, other than the aria last night seemed slightly off.” Baiting his cousin’s displeasure would be better than this infernal silence.

Darcy raised an eyebrow. “You have been enjoying much of the opera, I hear.”

It seemed his bait would go untaken if that’s all Darcy had to say. Sighing, Arlington crossed his legs. Darcy would have it his way and get on with the straight talk. “Darcy, you requested this meeting, and I can see you have no interest in empty chat. Say your piece.”

“As you may know, I have been in Hertfordshire with Bingley for several weeks. We have left for only a few days and when I return I mean to take Georgiana with me.”

Arlington mutely nodded his head, his mind wandering. What on earth could attract Darcy in Hertfordshire enough to return? Just as Arlington was envisioning a buxom farm girl that would certainly draw his notice if not Darcy’s his reverie was interrupted.

“I want you to come with me.”

Just like Darcy! He did not ask, he simply stated his preference. “And I would like to visit Spain but we cannot always have our desires, Cousin,” Arlington said and winked at Bingley’s smile.

“There is the matter of Georgiana’s safety. Wickham is quartered in the neighborhood of Bingley’s house, and I would appreciate an additional chaperone for her.”

“Why take her there at all? What can draw you to a country town that London does not have?” When Darcy did not answer, Arlington looked at Bingley for a clue, but the young man remained silent. “Did you not hire a new companion?”

“She cannot leave with us.”

“With your dislike of company and her fear of you, I hardly understand why you would need additional company for her. Bingley has a sister doesn’t he?”

The man in question only nodded his head.

“Miss Bingley cannot offer the supervision and companionship that a girl of Georgiana’s disposition needs.”

“Then ask her other guardian,” Arlington said. Why should he be inconvenienced?

“He has only just returned and will be busy with matters for some time. In any case, she has always been fond of you. As little as I can understand it.”

Curse Darcy for bringing up Georgiana’s affection. He had disappointed so many people in his life, it touched his heart that she still revered him with awe-like fascination. If he could, he would keep her an innocent young girl forever. But again, that would all be for a selfish motivation.

“I will think about it, but you said Bingley had a request of me?”

Bingley turned red but finally met Arlington’s eyes. “Forgive the impertinence, but I believe you have expertise in these matters.”

“I would not think that I could have more experience than yourself.”

Bingley blushed again. “I—I cannot say I am an innocent, but your reputation exceeds my own…” he trailed off as at last he noticed the surprise on Arlington’s face. His eyes darted to Darcy’s who wore a small smile at his friend’s embarrassment.

“I had thought you were speaking of a business venture, but it seems you come on a personal request?”

“Bingley needs assistance in ascertaining the desires of a lady,” Darcy translated.

Arlington looked his guest over. “You are handsome and rich enough. She desires you.” He stood to refill his port.

“Her mother certainly desires him for a husband, but the lady is very discreet in her opinions.”

“A husband! Why would you talk to me about courtship? I had thought you meant advice on arranging a mistress or liaison.”

Bingley stood to his feet. “I would never disrespect Miss Bennet so!”

Arlington returned to his seat and shook his head. “Ah, so you think you love her?”

“I—I care for her.”

The look on his face belied his true feelings. He loved her but either was too anxious to admit the feeling to a man nearly a stranger and a peer or did not wish to declare his feelings before knowing hers. The latter was likely the reason he was in Arlington’s room. “You wish to save yourself the embarrassment of requesting her hand before knowing her sentiments?”

Bingley nodded his head, and Darcy’s attention was also focused on Arlington. “Each lady is different, but if her mother is such a promoter of the match, then it is more difficult to decipher. Has she taken notice of Darcy?”

Darcy quickly answered, “Certainly not.”

“Well, I can hardly comment without meeting her.” He took a sip of his port. “It seems you get your wish, after all, cousin. I will come to Hertfordshire with you although I do not believe that what draws you back is the concern for your friend attaching himself to a fortune hunter.” Seeing Bingley’s look of anger, he added, “I mean no offense. I am sure she is as good as any of them.” His words did little to change the expression on Bingley’s face, but then Arlington had not cared to be charming. “How was dinner with my parents, Darcy? And latest debutante being thrown at you?”

“It was a dinner. We ate. There was conversation.” Clearly annoyed, Darcy stood. “Thank you, for your assistance. I should return to Georgiana and begin preparations for our travels.”

“Yes, thank you,” Bingley followed suit.

After the men had left, Arlington studied his wine glass. He had no reason to stay in London and no real reason to leave either. Again, he felt adrift in life. What use was there in the endless seas of balls, dinners, engagements, and ladies? Once, he had planned on really living life and being of use. He wondered when it was that after turning his back on the Matlock fortune, he had become the typical dissipated heir in waiting. Had Claire lived, he would have had purpose and meaning. He would have been a husband and father. There would have been a reason to wake each morning and go about his business. A legacy to leave, children to instruct. As it was, no one relied on him or expected better of him, save one. Having committed to leaving with his cousin out of little more than curiosity, he would do his duty by Georgiana. Especially if Darcy was foolish enough to bring her within one hundred miles of Wickham.

 

*****

 

Plans were made for Arlington to accompany the Bingleys and Darcys. As such, he was surprised to receive a message from Darcy two days before the intended departure date.

Arlington,

Bingley has determined he must go to Hertfordshire early as there will now be additional guests. He has requested I join him when he leaves on the morrow. You know I am going for his sake. I entrust Georgiana to your care.

Arlington chuckled as he read the missive. Everyone knew a housekeeper that oversaw the arrangement of things before Bingley resided in the house could certainly handle two additional guests. Bingley was eager to see his Miss Bennet, and it was plain to see Darcy had an equally fervent desire to return. He hoped his cousin was not lusting over a woman that seemed spoken for. He knew Darcy to be too loyal to act on his desires and harm a friend, but the heart wanted what it wanted.

At the appointed hour, he arrived at Darcy House to ride with Georgiana to Hertfordshire. He kept no coach, but Darcy kept one. He had gone in Bingley’s chaise. Miss Bingley and the Hursts would go in their own. Or so Arlington had thought. He was surprised, however, when he was taken to the drawing room and found a young lady seated with Georgiana.

“James,” Georgie said nervously and introduced the other lady as Miss Bingley.

“Dear Georgiana was so gracious as to invite me to ride with her. She desired female companionship and Mr. Hurst’s carriage makes three crowded.”

“I see,” he replied. He did see. She had heard that a viscount would be accompanying Georgiana and hoped to insinuate herself in the situation.

“I am sure your carriage would be even larger, but there is no need for us to have that much space.”

She stood and selected a few grapes from the refreshments laid out on a table across the room. Arlington recognized the activity for what it undoubtedly was. Her figure was displayed to its best advantage when walking, and she meant for him to notice. Attempting to not roll his eyes, he instead noticed Georgiana’s pale face. “I actually have no carriage. Did you eat, Georgie?”

“No. I never eat before a journey.”

“Then we had better leave as soon as possible so you may refresh yourself when we arrive.”

“Have no fear of that,” Miss Bingley said returning to her friend. “The housekeeper has specific instructions about the meal and rooms. Your brother was so good to go ahead and make sure everything was to your liking.”

The butler then arrived telling them the carriage was ready. Arlington took a deep breath, quelling the strength to bear with such a grasping lady for the next several hours. As they gathered in the hall, Georgiana spoke with the butler about something and Miss Bingley whispered to him.

“I understand you have not traveled much with her before. She often feels ill when not facing the road. If you will forgive the impertinence of not allowing your lordship to choose the better seat, I think Georgiana should take it.”

Her words startled him. He had planned on giving the ladies the better seat in any case, but her obvious concern for Georgiana was unexpected. Her eyes continued to watch her younger friend.

“And perhaps we ought to stop more often than usual.”

Arlington nodded his head but inwardly he was assessing the lady at his elbow. She came from trade but must be worth nearly as much as Georgiana. She was past the first bloom of youth but still handsome. Her dress suggested she hoped to look of the first circles of Society. A gentleman of Darcy’s family legacy or a title such as his own would be a tempting catch for her.

Still, she might have married earlier in life. Darcy seemed to believe she always hung on his arm, but this lady was too intelligent to hang every hope on marrying her brother’s friend when he had maintained indifference for so many years. He, however, was fresh meat and yet she did not seem to be circling too much to prey. In fact, she seemed resigned. He had no doubt she would offer the usual compliments to a peer and attempt to gain his notice, but she did not seem to have real feeling behind it. She only played a part, as much as he did.

Before he could allow the startling duel revelations too much time in his head, he called Georgiana away from the servant and escorted the ladies to the carriage. In a matter of minutes, they were on their way. Georgiana soon squeezed her eyes shut to stave off a headache. At first, Miss Bingley was silent, but at last, she spoke quietly.

“I will not pretend to you, Lord Arlington, that I am happy to be going back to Hertfordshire.”

“Will you return to London after Christmas?” He only intended to stay for a few weeks and imagined few things worse than being trapped in a country house for the winter.

Miss Bingley sighed. “I suppose that is up to Charles. Usually, he takes my feelings into consideration so much but…” she trailed off and motioned at the window, “here we are.”

“Here we are,” he vacantly replied. And then, simply because he was bored, he smiled his most charming smile. “How shall you spend your time, Miss Bingley? Do you need recommendations for activity?”

Her eyes grew large as she understood his deeper meaning. Of course, he would not actually proposition her, she was a lady and his host’s sister. It was merely fun to tease. He waited for the shock to give way to pleasure as was usually the case but any feeling soon left her eyes. She returned to her falsely blank exterior and cleared her throat.

“Will you stay until Parliament returns or will you spend the Holidays with the earl and countess?”

Arlington shuddered. He would rather fall off a cliff than spend holidays at the family estate. “I have no fixed plans. I will see what my business determines.”

“Men are fortunate. They can travel as they wish.”

“Indeed,” he said but considered his brother who now resided with their parents and would be spending Christmas in Yorkshire. Richard had been a soldier for most of his life. The only travel he had done was to the Spanish Peninsula.

They said little else and their journey was without incident. At the first stop, they encountered Mr. And Mrs. Hurst. The other lady seemed to bring out more liveliness in Miss Bingley. Georgiana continued to feel unwell, but he could see she did not appreciate too much attention. He chose to take her at her word when she declared she was well. Displaying his trust, he was rewarded later when she admitted she was fatigued and thought returning to the road would be best rather than prolong the journey. After that, the other stops had a better air of efficiency about them.

At last, they arrived at Netherfield. It was a large, handsome building. Darcy and Bingley greeted them on the steps.

“Georgiana, are you well?” Darcy asked when he took in her pale face. He cast an accusing eye on Arlington.

“I only need refreshment and rest. James took excellent care of me,” she said, and Darcy visibly relaxed.

“Of course,” he said succinctly and led her inside.

Miss Bingley came to life in a flurry of activity as the hostess and Arlington never would have imagined she had no desire to be there. He saw too as the act she put forward included flattery to Darcy and coddling of Georgiana.

“When will we meet the Miss Bennets?” Georgiana asked as they all sat in the drawing room eating a cold luncheon.

“I can hardly imagine why you would be in such a rush to meet them. Whatever your brother must have told you of them must hardly be complimentary,” Miss Bingley said leaving Arlington to conclude she did not approve of her brother’s attachment.

“Indeed! The whole family is noisy and loud! Such uncivilized manners!” Mrs. Hurst chimed in.

“Do you think two days’ time ought to be sufficient, Darcy?” Bingley ignored his sisters’ remarks like the affable chap he was.

“You can hardly call on them on Sunday,” he said.

“Why not have the ladies here?” Arlington suggested. If he was meant to determine a lady’s feelings, seeing her reaction to the possibility of her future home would be beneficial.

“A splendid idea, Arlington!” Bingley seemed to find his voice around him now that it involved an intention to see Miss Bennet and tell her the longings of his heart…eventually. “Caroline, will you write them at once? I recall they may need advance notice to arrange matters with their carriage.”

“Yes, with the horses on the farm,” Caroline sneered.

Arlington crossed his legs. Who was this woman with so many faces? Which was the true her and why was she so fascinating? Disliking the train of his thoughts, he stood and quickly excused himself. In the safety of his room, he wondered if madness over Claire’s death was finally consuming him. Why should the harpy interest him? He knew little of her but that she dogged Darcy’s steps for half a decade.