A Phantom Courtship- Chapter Two

phantom courtship 7Lily awoke to raindrops on her head. At first, she remained motionless, allowing the refreshing chill to wash over her and ease the aches of her body and the sting of her wound. As the storm picked up, she attempted to sit, feeling dizzy as she did so.

“Easy now, Miss!” a lady’s voice called from several feet behind her.

Lily struggled to turn to see who approached but moaned in pain at the action. She heard footsteps increase in speed.

“We saw you fall. We will be there in one moment.”

“Try not to move,” a masculine voice said.

Who were they? Lily had never seen others visit the cemetery before. Although at the moment all she cared about was ending the near blinding pain in her head.

“Let’s get you out of the rain,” the man said as he reached her side.

Lily took in his Wellington boots, buckskin breeches, and black overcoat before slowly moving her head up the inches of his frame to see his face. Any sudden movement would end in agony. A kind face and pale blue eyes gazed back at her.

“Do you think she has a concussion?” the woman said.

“Out of the rain first, Sybil.” The man knelt before Lily. “Can you put your arms around my neck? There’s a folly not too far from here we might seek refuge.”

Lily attempted to speak, but no sound came from her. Deciding that nodding would be too painful, she lifted her arms, fighting the dull, heavy feeling of those limbs. Her teeth chattered as cold crept in from the rain. Already sodden, she began to fear she would never be dry or warm again. What would have become of her if not for these angelic strangers?

In one graceful movement, the young man scooped her up and marched toward the folly built by the previous squire. The lady kept pace with them.

“I am Sybil Morgan and this is my brother Peter. We are visiting kin in the area.”

When Lily did not speak, Sybil chatted on. “You must be overwrought from your experience. Never mind speaking to us just now. I only thought introducing ourselves would put your mind at ease.” She paused and beamed at her brother. “Peter is a doctor. He’s going to be the best doctor this country has ever seen!”

Lily glanced up at the man who held her. He looked as though he had just finished his training. They reached the folly, and he set her down gently.

“May I examine you?” he asked with practiced calm.

Again, finding speech too difficult, Lily gave a slight smile and Mr. Morgan began his assessment. His fingers ran over her limbs and ribs, looking for signs of any broken bones.

“It is as I suspected. Other than a few scrapes and bruises any injury was to your head. I imagine you have the devil of a headache.”

Lily attempted to nod and moaned at the sensation.

“Help me with her bonnet,” Peter said to his sister. Together they undid the strings of Lily’s sodden hat. Sybil undid her hairpins and Peter speared his fingers through Lily’s dark brown mane. Locating the tenderest spot, Lily yelped. Peter withdrew his fingers.

“No blood,” he frowned.

Lily furrowed her brow and looked at the siblings, hoping one would explain.

“After a fall like that, I would expect bleeding. That there is none on the outside indicates an internal contusion,” Peter said matter-of-factly. “Can you tell me how many fingers I’m holding up?” He held up three, two on the one hand and one on the other.

Lily opened her mouth, but again, no words came out. She motioned to her throat.

“No voice?” Peter asked.

Lily nodded, wincing at the pain.

“But you understand our words?”

“I do not think she is a mute,” Sybil said. “She wouldn’t try to talk if she were.”

“I agree,” Peter said. “How curious.” He reached for Lily’s chin and turned it gently in his gloved hands. He trailed his fingers over her neck which would have made her blush if she were not so cold.

“Does your throat hurt? Have you had a recent cold?”

Lily shook her head and held up three fingers.

“Three?” Peter said in confusion. “Oh, from a moment ago. Yes, I held up three fingers.”

“Well, we need to get you home Miss. You need dry clothes and a warm fire.”

“How can we manage that if we don’t know who she is?” Sybil asked and twisted her hands. “We could bring her—”

“You know we can’t do that,” Peter said quietly but in a tone that left no room for argument.

Lily thought for a moment. Her quick mind moved slower through the pain and the cold. If only she could write out her name and directions to her home. She held out her palm and shaped her other hand as though she were holding a pen. She went through the motions of writing.

“I’m afraid neither one of us have any writing instruments,” Peter frowned.

Lily’s shoulders sagged for a moment.

“I’m sure someone in town must know who she is. Her clothes are fine enough, she must be local,” Sybil said.

Lily’s eyes widened at the thought of her being carted off to town as they asked every passer-by if they knew her as she looked ragged and a mess. Frantic to avoid being made into such a scene of pity—again—she held up her fingers in the shape of a cross.

“A cross?” Peter and Sybil echoed together.

“You would like us to take you to the church?” Sybil asked. “I do not think anyone will be there at this hour.”

Lily would roll her eyes if she did not think it would cause pain. Sybil was not the most intelligent lady Lily had ever met.

“Perhaps she means the vicar’s house. He would know her at the very least.”

Lily clapped her hands in approval rather than risk moving her head again, earning a smile from Peter and Sybil. Peter looked out at the horizon.

“The rain is easing, and our carriage is not very far.” Again, he scooped her up and carried her as though she weighed nothing.

Sybil took to chattering again. “Our father was a doctor too. Of course, Peter paid much more attention to doctoring than I did. I suppose he would have wanted me to be a nurse like our mother, but I was not made for that kind of concentration.”

By the way the lady walked—nearly skipping—Lily would agree.

“And not to be outdone with displeasing our Papa, Peter took an assignment that had him travel all over England, the Continent, and the furthest corners of the Empire.” Sybil grinned. “He brought me with him, of course.”

“Sybil, let us not air all of our private lives just now,” Peter said with a hint of annoyance.

“Well, I suppose you are correct. It is more fun to release it in small doses and surprise one’s friends. When next we see you, I will tell you a tale from India.”

Lily blinked and wondered if Peter’s worry about a contusion on the brain was indeed correct. They thought they might see her again? They did not even know her name! And now they were laughing and carrying on as though she were one of their dearest friends. And as strange as it was, Lily also found herself yearning for it. She had felt so very alone since her mother died.

Once in the carriage, Peter brought out a blanket from a box beneath the seat and Sybil arranged it around Lily. The trundled the small distance to the parsonage house. Rather than carry her to the door, Peter assisted Lily out of the carriage, and then both siblings helped her walk to the door. They knocked and at first no one answered. Tears were welling in Lily’s eyes as she reached for the knob, determined to see herself inside when the door opened.

“Oh, it’s you,” Daisy said and moved aside. “What on earth did you do to yourself? Hurt your ankle, I guess,” she supplied when Lily did not answer. “Well, put her in the parlor here.”

Daisy pointed in the direction and then yelled for the cook, marching off when no one answered. The siblings brought her to the room and lowered her on the settee.

“You are certain she will be looked after here?” Sybil asked her brother.

“She is with her people,” Peter said. “It is wrong for us to intrude longer. We will call on you tomorrow. Ice for the head,” he said then bowed.

Sybil curtsied and followed her brother out of the room. Lily laid her head back on the pillow, thinking it the strangest but most thrilling day she had ever lived.

 

****

 

In three days’ time, Lily recovered from her fall. At first, heavily bruised and sore, the pain eased with the application of ice and rest. Her voice, as well, mended and returned within a day. Not that Lily had much use for it. Her sisters did little more than pop their heads in and gawk at her. Her father avoided her room entirely. Although disappointed that Peter and Sybil did not visit as promised, Lily determined to leave the house on the third day. She had spent too much of her life in the sick room.

Strolling through the muddied lanes, she approached the cemetery. Closing the gate behind her, she meandered through the paths to her mother’s grave. Laying aside the now destroyed flowers she had last left at the tomb, she lovingly placed a new bouquet.

Hearing the squeak of the gate closing in the distance, Lily lifted her head. A gentleman and a lady entered the grounds of the cemetery. As they came closer, Lily made out the faces of Peter and Sybil. How strange that they frequented the graveyard but were not residents of the area.

They paused for several minutes at a set of stones and Lily allowed them privacy. When they looked up, Sybil caught her eye and tugged on her brother’s coat. Nodding to his sister’s unspoken request, they began walking toward Lily. She met them halfway.

“Good day,” she said with a polite curtsy.

“Miss Shapcote,” Peter said with a bow. “Forgive us for not calling on you. I am happy to see you are well.”

“It is of no matter, but I was sorry to not be able to thank you earlier. I shudder to think what might have become of me if I had not been discovered so quickly.”

“Yes,” Peter agreed.

“Fate must have played a hand in our meeting,” Sybil said with a smile.

Since her mother’s death, Lily had no trust in fate whether it was called destiny, Providence, or God’s handiwork. How could there be any good in her mother being taken from her? Rather than disagreeing with her new acquaintance, Lily gave them a tight smile.

“Will you walk with us, Miss Shapcote?” Peter asked and extended his arm.

Lily took it and allowed him to lead her from the graveyard. They walked in silence for several moments. Perhaps like Lily, they considered the most likely candidate for conversation—that of mourning a loved one—too intrusive. Finally, it occurred to her, that they had learned her surname.

“You discovered my name,” she said. Her voice rose, indicating her apprehension. She dearly hoped her story of falling and rescue in the rain like a drowning kitten was not bandied about the town.

“I hope you do not mind,” Peter said. “We asked our aunt the name of the vicar and were told he is Mr. Shapcote with three daughters and recently lost his wife. Seeing as we met you at the cemetery, it seemed likely you were a daughter and not a servant or friend.”

“Yes, I am his second daughter. Lily.”

“We are pleased to formally meet you,” Sybil said with a gentle smile.

“You seem to know the area well, and yet I do not recall meeting you before,” Lily said and redirected the conversation.

“As my sister told you when we found you, we have spent many years abroad. My father moved here, at his sister’s request, shortly after our mother died over ten years ago. Not to malign your town, Miss Shapcote, but coming from the bustling city of Liverpool, we found it too confining. I took a post to India and Sybil came with me.”

Lily glanced at the couple she walked with. Ten years ago they would have been in their early twenties, and well out of the sphere of people Lily would have known as a child. “Who is your aunt?”

“Mrs. Wilson,” Sybil answered.

Lily’s eyebrows shot up. She had not heard Mrs. Wilson had any kin. The widowed woman was reported to not have left her home for nearly ten years.

“You do well to seem surprised,” Peter said in a melancholy voice. “It seems she has shut herself in after our father died. News of which did not reach us until recently. I fear there is no one to blame for his death but myself.”

“Peter! No, do not say such things!” Sybil let go of her brother’s arm and stood in front of him, hands on her hips and tears in her eyes.

“It is the truth, Sybil. I broke his heart when I left home.”

Lily shrank back, uncertain she should hear such a private conversation.

“You are not to blame for his illness,” Sybil shook a finger at her brother. “As a physician, you should know better. Nor was he so heartbroken that he bothered to read your letters.”

“I suppose you are correct,” Peter said looking at his toes. “He simply returned them unopened.”

Lily stifled a gasp, shocked that a father could do such a thing. Then, she considered the indifference her own had shown her in the recent months and tears welled in her eyes.

“No matter how much he blamed you for Mother’s death, it was not your fault,” Sybil said. “I am sure Miss Shapcote would agree.”

Sybil looked in Lily’s direction. “Oh, my dear!” She rushed to Lily’s side and embraced her. “I am sorry our discussion distressed you so much. Peter is always telling me to quit chattering so much and telling all the world our woes.”

She rubbed her hand soothingly over Lily’s back. She had not had an embrace since her mother died. Her sisters had not shown much emotion at their mother’s passing, and Helena was not the demonstrative sort.

“I apologize for my tears,” Lily said and rummaged for her handkerchief but not finding one.

“Use mine,” Peter said and pressed his into her hand, giving it a squeeze.

“I can sympathize with your troubles,” Lily said when she could speak. “My mother died after caring for me through illness.” Lily sniffed then confessed, “I know my father—” Her voice broke, “My father blames me.”

A Phantom Courtship

 

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(Only a promo cover)

I began writing this in 2016 for an anthology with Jenni James but we decided to make that set about fairy tales. We’ve decided to put another Paranormal Regency duet out this coming February.

 

Blurb: Lily Shapcote used to long for adventure. After the death of her mother, she only wishes for life to return to the way it used to be. Ignored by her family, her thoughts take a fanciful turn. Meeting new neighbors gives her everything she’s yearned for: acceptance, affection, and adventure. But what if it isn’t real? Will she be enticed to stay in a fake world or will she return to reality?

Chapter One

Thunder cracked overhead, jolting Lily from her sleep. Pushing her arms up, she stood from the rain-slickened ground and dashed wildly to the nearest tree for shelter. Drops continued to filter through the leaves, pelting her like angry tears but she did not feel them. Her eyes were riveted on the headstone she had just laid beside. A cry came from her lips when she saw the tombstone cracked down the middle. A round of thunder so loud it shook the earth and seemed to be laughing at Lily’s fright. How was it that lightning could strike so near her without any ill effects?

By the same token, she wondered what it would feel like to feel that alive. To feel a fire spark in her body and run through her veins would be more than she felt in her whole life, especially in the last few weeks following her mother’s death. And if she did not survive the strike, might that not be for the better? What was there worth living for at this point? The rain lessened, and Lily’s frantic heartbeat calmed. At last, she left her refuge for the dirty lane and her family’s parsonage. As her boots sunk into the damp earth, she noted the headstone that bore her mother’s name along with her dates of birth and death was split asunder much like her heart.

“I’m home,” she called upon entering and tossing her russet brown bonnet that had seen better days, on the table. She knew perfectly well her words were heard by no one. No housekeeper or maid greeted her. No smiling mother or sisters sat in the drawing room awaiting her return. Her father seldom stirred from his library. A dark cloud of mourning hovered over the Shapcote home, and Lily doubted it would ever lift.

Not caring about the puddles left in her wake, she drudged upstairs to change into dry clothes. The familiar room brought no comfort. Weeks ago, Lily had fallen ill with putrid fever. The doctor recommended the room be cleared and left dark and bare. Now, heavy drapes covered the window, blocking all sunlight. All furniture had been removed save a table and chair next to the bed. Mrs. Shapcote had sat in the chair countless hours nursing her middle daughter before succumbing to the illness herself. After being insensible with fever for a week, Lily recovered. As her eyes fluttered open, she witnessed her mother faint from sickness. During her rapid decline, Lily was not allowed to visit her mother. Afterwards, Lily couldn’t bear to change a thing about the room. Potion bottles littered the table with weeks worth of dust collecting around them. The book Mrs. Shapcote had been reading aloud still sat on the chair. Lily reverently trailed her hands over the worn cover on her way to the closet.

Knowing her sisters were busy and not wanting to bother a maid, she awkwardly dressed in a fresh black bombazine gown. It was time to switch to lavender, but Lily could not bear the thought. Her grief of her mother’s passing — and because of her — would never fade like the colors of mourning suggested. Already, it seemed her family adapted to the loss of their wife and mother. They moved forward at an alarming pace. Lily frowned in the mirror as laughter from the drawing room below drifted to her ears. When had she last laughed? Would her voice even make the noise?

“Maybe Helen will have a piece of humorous gossip,” she muttered to herself as she patted down the folds of her gown.

Helen had been her best friend since their infancy, but they could not be less alike. The older they got, the more different they became. Helen now bemoaned her lack of suitors and sat amongst the spinsters at dances. At twenty, she already believed her youth was over. Helen’s plain looks and relative poverty did not help matters, neither did the lack of eligible gentlemen in the area, but Lily would never give up hope for a love match. Even if her sister downstairs encouraged a gentleman twice her age, of weak constitution and disgusting breath.

“I wish you were here, Mama,” Lily said and stared intently at the mirror. Sometimes, when she concentrated hard enough, she could nearly swear her mother would appear to counsel her. Not just in the mirror. Lily knew that would be a mere flight of fancy. But she sometimes thought she heard her mother’s voice or felt her caress. Then, in another moment it would seem to be only the wind.

Deciding she could not spend all day upstairs, Lily left her chamber. When she returned below the water was cleaned up as if by ghostly who worked only out of sight. Sighing, Lily entered the drawing room.

Her younger sister, Daisy, sat near the window with a book open on her lap but of no interest. Daisy looked longingly at the table of hat fashioning supplies and then the clock. She had one hour of reading left before she could begin recreational pursuits. Ever since she ran away from school a month ago, she had been allowed to remain at home but with stringent rules. The carefree fifteen year old apparently chaffed at the restrictions.

Violet, the eldest sister, sat near the other window. Her suitor, Edward Norton, the local squire, and patron of Mr. Shapcote, sat at her side. Neither even looked in Lily’s direction as they continued their conversation in near privacy.

Lily picked up embroidery she had begun before her mother’s death. They had planned it together. Upon completion, it would read “The sun always rises,” with a sun rising over mountains covered in mist and a garden of sunflowers tilting their heads up in the sun’s direction. Lily did not complete the text before falling ill. She had determined to work in the garden instead, but thus far only had grass and green stalks.

Does the sun really always rise, Mama? she thought to herself. As though in answer, a small ray broke through the clouds and shined in the room, dancing off a crystal dish and sending fragments of light through the chamber.

 

*****

 

A half an hour later, Mr. Norton took his leave, Violet fiddled with a fan, Daisy declared herself too tired to read and Lily had barely ten stitches completed. She rolled her eyes at herself. Since her illness, her concentration had been broken. Was it any wonder her family mostly ignored her if she sat staring at her embroidery without minutes on end? She was fortunate they did not consider her touched in the head and send her away.

Daisy gathered hat supplies and plopped next to Lily. “I think working on this bonnet would be just the thing to soothe my head, but we have nothing but old ribbon.”

“What do you need new ribbons for?”

“Just because I am the youngest and not out does not mean I have to exist solely on your hand me downs! Catherine Landing is two years younger than me and more fashionable! She’s a child!”

“So are you,” Lily said. At times the five years between them in ages seemed enormous.

Violet sighed. “I suppose it is unfair to expect you to never want anything new and fresh. ‘Tis part of growing up. Lily, remember when you hated wearing my old things?”

Lily only nodded her head. It was a common enough complaint from her. Her mother always had some piece of advice or idea on how to make something old new again. Since Mrs. Shapcote’s death, Daisy had used this excuse several times to gain new items, and Lily feared in danger of becoming thoroughly spoilt.

“I would walk with you to town,” said Violet, “but it is too muddy. I must look refined to the community or Mr. Norton will lose interest.”

“Lily, will you come? I know you always like to speak with Helen.”

“Do you forget she is the doctor’s daughter and not the milliner’s daughter?” Lily asked.

“Of course not! It is on the way.”

Lily narrowed her eyes at her silly younger sister. “And then you will be left alone at the milliner’s?”

“What?” Daisy put on her best innocent look.

“Ask Father,” Violet offered.

Daisy dashed away and came back triumphantly, just as Lily expected. “He said I could go if I am alone for only ten minutes.”

Lily raised a brow. “And ten minutes of time with my friend is supposed to be sufficient bribery?”

“It is better than nothing,” Violet said.

I am not the one who is restricted to the house. I could go and spend as long as I like,” Lily said.

“Mama would have understood,” Daisy muttered before crumpling to tears, which Lily suspected were put on.

“Then I will go,” Violet said while leveling an angry glare at Lily. “And it shall be your fault if Mr. Norton throws me over and I am an old maid forever.”

“I’ll go,” Lily said while rising to her feet. No one had even asked if she wanted to go into town today, after all, she had been stuck in a rainstorm just this morning, but putting aside their feelings for the other is what sisters did, wasn’t it?

Wetherham was a small town, just barely deserving the nomenclature and that only because there were so few towns in Northern Cumbria. Still, the residents were proud of their butcher, milliner, blacksmith, and doctor. In recent years, to the delight of young ladies, a bookshop and circulating library had been added, while the tavern and sport remained of primary interest to the menfolk — of which there were not many and even less that were young and solvent.  A short walk from the Shapcote residence, Lily and Daisy reached their destination in a matter of minutes.

“I shan’t be longer than ten minutes! I swear!” Daisy said when she left Lily at the door of Dr. Jamison’s. Daisy’s solemn vow reinforced Lily’s belief that her sister had little intention of shopping. One could never promise to be so precise when looking for fripperies. She shrugged her shoulders, though. Nothing dangerous or exciting ever happened in their corner of the world. Daisy could hardly meet disaster.

The Jamison housekeeper showed Lily to the sitting room, and she greeted her friend affectionately.

“It seems an age since I last saw you,” Helen Jamison said while scrutinizing Lily’s face.

“Forgive me. I have been desired quiet more than usual.”

“Understandable, of course. I only hope you are taking care of yourself. Father still worries.”

“I am entirely recovered,” Lily said. The references to her past illness always served as a reminder that her mother had not survived. She cleared her throat. “You must tell me about the ball last week.”

Although she had entered half mourning, Lily still preferred to avoid public gatherings. Violet had gone, but Lily had not the patience to hear her sister’s gushing over the attention paid to her. Helen was a far more sensible companion…even if that did not always suit Lily.

The tea things arrived just as Helen launched into a description of Mr. Norton’s puffy face turning red with the exertion of dancing.

“I can’t imagine what my sister sees in him!” Lily cried. What once would have made her laugh, only made her concerned for her sister.

“I daresay she sees a home of her own and two thousand a year.”

“You make her sound like a fortune hunter! If she were, would she settle for such a paltry sum?”

“Two thousand is quite a lot more than your father or mine earn,” Helen mused before sipping her tea.

“But Vi has never cared about such things before. Daisy would be more likely to marry for money.”

“Perhaps recent events have changed Violet’s feelings.”

Lily made no reply. Not only had she caused her mother’s death, but now she was the reason for her sister desiring to marry the first sweaty, aging man who showed her any interest? A knock at the door interrupted her musings and looking out the window showed it was Daisy.

“It is time for me to go. I fear if I stay longer Daisy will invent some excuse to leave us. I’m exasperated at Papa as it is.”

“I am sorry my company was such a burden,” Helen said with a smirk.

“Oh! You know what I mean!”

“I do,” Helen nodded. “Still, I think it is good for you to get out more and talk with others. I know your sisters are given to ignore you. If I were stronger, I would visit you.”

“And have me give up my walk?” Lily feigned shock. “I thought you cared about my health!” By unspoken agreement, the two never mentioned Helen’s limp. Indeed, it was easy to forget about it entirely.

“Then you’ll promise to visit more? Like you used to?” Helen asked with no small amount of anxiety in her voice.

Unable to bear the thought of concerning her friend, Lily agreed. Even if she felt her visits were more for the sake of their past friendship than any current feeling. Helen had very few friends and was mostly homebound during the day when her father needed the gig. They no longer shared the secret yearnings of their heart, and their interests seemed too varied as Helen had long ago given up reading sentimental romances. While Lily was a loyal friend, she could not help the selfish wish of desiring a friend who might understand her a bit better. Seeing her sister waiting for her on the doorstep with glowing eyes and flushed cheeks made the feeling even stronger.

“What have you been up to?” Lily eyed Daisy with suspicion as they walked toward their home.

“Nothing so bad.”

“Daisy,” Lily warned.

“Alright,” she said and pulled two apples out of her reticule and handed one to Daisy. “The reddest I could find!”

Lily looked at the shiny fruit in her palm. “These look like the ones Mr. Alistair grows, but I did not think he came to market on Fridays.”

“He doesn’t!” Daisy grinned.

“Daisy June Shapcote! Do you mean that you went on his land to retrieve them?”

Daisy erupted into laughter. “And climbed a tree and beat James and John Fr to the top as well!”

She skipped off and left Lily rooted in place. Those boys were two or three years younger than Daisy, and she was getting into scrapes with them as though she were a young girl still instead of blossoming into womanhood. Her figure was now curved and rounded in a feminine way. Could it be that Lily had one sister who was desperate for the carefree days of lost youth and another that was equally desperate to leave behind the cares of a troubled family? Where did Lily fit in the two extremes? For no matter the extremes, her sisters seemed capable of moving forward with their lives, of embracing change while Lily remained firmly rooted in a longing for the past.

 

*****

 

The following morning dawned no different than the ones in the last several weeks. The sun hid behind clouds with only peeks of it coming out for a few brief moments at a time. Lily had enjoyed enough of William Wordsworth and the Lake Poets to consider it a metaphor for her life. Arriving in the breakfast room at her usual time, she chewed her toast while her sisters chatted around her.

“You’re wearing the blue ribbon again, Daisy? I was going to ask to borrow it. Mr. Norton favors the color and my last pair broke.”

“Well, it is my favorite.”

“What of the others you bought yesterday?”

“Yesterday?” The younger girl blinked, confused.

“When you went to the milliner with Lily.”

“Oh… Oh, I decided to not purchase anything. It is better to not make a hasty choice, isn’t it?”

“Hmmm. Yes, frugality is a virtue.”

Lily’s eyebrows raised at Violet’s words. Was she worried about income? Lily had not thought about it before, but Violet was likely now doing the family accounts.

“Was Lily angry?”

“For what?” Daisy said nervously.

“For dragging her to town for no reason.”

“Oh, that. No, she did not seem to be.”

Lily stifled a sigh. When had her family begun to talk about her as though she was not in the room? Pushing back from the table without so much as excusing herself, she left. Uncertain if it might rain again, she changed into her sturdiest boots and bonnets. Seemingly prepared for the day, Lily set out for her usual morning location.

The frequent rains made the distance more cumbersome than usual, but she managed to trek up the hill to the old graveyard. As she approached her mother’s headstone, Lily again wondered how she had been so close to calamity and came out unscathed. She knew better than to tell her family or friends. They seemed to have little interest in what she had to say even more so if it sounded as outrageous as surviving a lightning strike.

After having sat silently and thoughtlessly for an hour or two, Lily departed the cemetery as unnoticed as she came. Darker clouds were beginning to roll in and, determined to not be caught in another downpour, she exerted herself faster than usual. Suddenly she lost her footing and felt her body lurch forward. Flinging her arms out for balance, she had no protection when she careened head first and landed on a sharp rock. A split second after the severe pain and loud buzzing sound came nothing but blessed darkness and silence.

Justice in July- The Independence of Jane Bennet

William_Blake_Mrs_Q_1820_engraving_after_Francois_Huet_Villiers_The_British_Museum
In an 1813 letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen says she recently saw a portrait that was a good likeness of how she envisioned Jane Bennet. It has been suggested this portrait (Mrs. Q by François Huet-Villiers) was the one she had in mind.

In January, I examined Jane Fairfax and Jane Bennet. In the series, I argued that both Janes had inconstant lovers, a reputation as Miss Perfect, and secondary heroines. This week, I want to specifically consider Jane Bennet.

I have two anticipated releases for this month. Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride contains Jane, of course. The inciting moment of conflict happens when Elizabeth reads a letter from Jane about Bingley giving her a cut direct in a shop. More on that story later (currently posting!). My other book is called Kissed by a Lord and is a rewriting of Jane and Bingley from A Sense of Obligation–in which Bingley and Jane quickly fall in love and anticipate their vows.

One of the primary conflicts in Pride and Prejudice revolves around the question of Jane’s desire for a love match or willingness for a marriage of convenience. Of course, Elizabeth as a sister knows Jane is in love with Bingley. Darcy, somewhat understandably, believed Jane too cold-hearted to fall in love so fast. The irony is that Darcy, in turn, is cold and aloof and falls just as fast for Elizabeth.

In Kissed by a Lord, I hone in on the question of Jane’s desires and run with it. The ultimate end point is the same as A Sense of Obligation. Jack and Eulalie anticipate their vows. The path for getting there is entirely different.

 

Jane-and-Mr-Bingley-pride-and-prejudice-couples-6970676-600-389
See the immediate smitten kitten. If only he treated her better!

 

Eulalie is not Jane. The Ashworths have twenty thousand pounds a piece and are orphans. She is a little older, does not believe in romantic love, and considers a marriage of convenience. She even approaches Jack about marriage first. However, her core beliefs are the same as Jane Bennet.

Eulalie feels deeply for her family. As the eldest sister, she worries about the younger ones. She has never had a selfish thought before approaching Jack about a mutually compatible marriage. Throughout the book, she displays her kind heart. Although sensitive and easily attuned to the emotions of others, she puts on a brave face for others. Despite internal and external conflict, she appears unflappable. These are all elements present when I write a Jane Bennet. To me, they’re crucial for staying in character–although, I will add that I don’t dislike out of character Janes or ones that have more depth and struggle with vanity and selflessness (everyone has a backstory).

 

I try to write my Jane Austen Fan Fiction with Austen’s original intent in mind. There’s romance and love. I use my obsession with research to sprinkle details throughout the story so that we would call it Historical Fiction. But, I also try to talk about the themes Jane Austen addressed. It’s what has made her a Classic and not just the mother of romance novels. My spin-off series does not have the Classic aspect. It is purely Historical Romance/Historical Fiction. Who, then, should a Jane Bennet–or her non-Classic cousin– wed?

I admit I have problems with Charles Bingley at times. Mr. Darcy gets all the blame for Bingley’s decisions. What if Bingley decided to stay at the house he rented? What if he did what he wanted to do, and believed right and/or harmless, rather than listening to Darcy and Caroline? What if he thought his friend and sister had suspicious motives for their advice? He would have to be an imbecile to not consider what Caroline’s motive was. What if he had a backbone? How does the story change for everyone? At the very least, Jane and Bingley probably marry earlier. More than likely, so do Darcy and Elizabeth.

However, does Jane deserve this? Does she deserve a man that can be talked out of loving her and then talked back into it? I suppose his feelings may never have wavered but his intentions sure did. I might feel more forgiving if he seemed to have learned anything in the process.

 

Bella Heathcote in Screen Gems' PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.
Say what you will about zombies with Jane Austen, but I love that it made Jane kick a**. 

 

In the grand scheme of things, Bingley’s actions propel Jane into an independence she seems to have not displayed before. She is not as outgoing or buoyant as Elizabeth, but it is there. She won’t be controlled by her mother or the people of the area and all their gossip or pitying looks. She won’t let Caroline Bingley trying to block her access to Bingley affect her. She won’t even let Elizabeth meddle and tries to write to her sister in the best of spirits. None of these things will gain her Bingley, but she makes a life without him. When he returns to Hertfordshire, she is in control of her feelings and actions. Instead, he looks to her for encouragement. Meanwhile, Elizabeth has turned into the less independent sister and places her happiness in Darcy’s hands and then waits for him to do something. Just as Marianne and Elinor had to adopt a bit of the other’s disposition, so do Jane and Elizabeth.

So, how can we vary the story with Jane still gaining her independence? Does she have to marry Bingley? In Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride, I write him what many would say is out of character. He leans on Darcy’s guidance and then Darcy is gone and he’s left to stumble through decisions on his own. I don’t want to give any spoilers but it looks pretty bleak for Jane and Bingley and she is soon courted by a duke.

 

lizzie-bennet-diaries-bing-and-jane-x-500
Finally, an adaptation that has Bingley grovel and admit to not knowing what on earth he’s doing with his life. 

 

In Kissed by a Lord, Eulalie establishes her independence early in the book. Her love interest must be compatible with that. Jack Crewe has a lot in common with Mr. Bingley. He’s been a dutiful son, brother, and friend. He’s been insecure and anxious to be liked. He’s never been expected to do much besides exist. As the younger son of a marquess, he has no responsibilities. However, unlike Bingley, he recognizes a tipping point in his life where he can let others dictate for him or he can seize his own destiny. And he fights so, so, so hard for it. Time and again, things arise to threaten his marriage to Eulalie but he’s not having it.

While I think Austen’s version of Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley work within the author’s greater themes, I think it leaves something to be desired as a twenty-first-century romance reader. Jane deserves justice. Mr. Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride and Kissed by a Lord are my attempts of giving it to her.

Kissed by a Lord pre-order link: Amazon

2017 Plans

Well, another year has begun! I’m so excited to start this year and bring on my third year of publishing! I’ve got the usual sorts of resolutions: lose weight, read more, get organized. Last year I lost over 30 pounds but since my move in mid-October I have taken a break from eating well and I truly miss it. Today, we start again! I can’t wait to see how much my husband and I lose this year! He lost over 50 pounds in the few weeks we were on our wellness plan!

Professionally, I have more goals. You’ll see some changes here on the blog in the coming weeks. I’ve become health coaching and selling Younique make-up and want to combine everything under one host site. I also plan on making several books available in audio this year. Do you have any favorites you would love to have as an audiobook?

As always, I plan on writing my fingers to the bone! 2016 was a tough year for me and my family in many ways, although nothing like what so many others faced so I count myself blessed. My son was diagnosed with autism in the Spring and around the same time I was clinically depressed due to a variety of issues. However, we both have made huge improvements via therapy and I hope I won’t have the long periods of inactivity that I had in 2017.

These plans may change as the muse dictates but this is my rough plan for releases in the coming year. I’m SOO excited!

February: Lords & Bluestockings Series: Lord Darcy’s Bluestocking Bride

Fitzwilliam Darcy is the heir to a barony. His duty to the title is to marry well. His duty to his family is to continue the bluestocking salon. And the only lady that meets both requirements is embroiled with Darcy’s nemesis, George Wickham.

April: When Love Blooms: Extraordinary Devotion

Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam and Lady Belinda Crenshaw never thought they would love again. Despite their reservations, neither can deny the love and passion between them. However, when he cannot resign from the army, her parents refuse to allow their marriage. Can their devotion remain when all hope seems lost?

May: Pride & Prejudice & Prophecies: Mr. Darcy and the Bewitched Sisters and Mr. Darcy and the Magical Pursuit

Rewritten novel length versions of Sisters Bewitched and The Secrets of Netherfield Abbey. This series will mix a fantasy world and Jane Austen’s six major novels.

June: Regency Fairy Tales: Soleil’s Slumber

Soleil longs for freedom, adventure, and true love. Since her sister Bella’s marriage, her father has become over-protective but when one dreams one finds a way. Retelling of Sleeping Beauty.

August: Loving Elizabeth

A terrible carriage accident forever changes the lives of the Darcy and Bennet families, long time friends. Fitzwilliam Darcy has lost his father and best friend, Sam Bennet. He is now master of Pemberley and the guardian of his young sister. Elizabeth’s father survived but her elder beloved brother did not. The stability of the estate vanishes and her father refuses to answer questions about the accident. Five years later, George Wickham, whom Elizabeth met only once, returns to her life and seems to have all the answers…and as she always assumed, the fault rests on one Fitzwilliam Darcy.

September: A Phantom Courtship

Regency Paranormal.

October: Love & Duty Series: The Earl’s Return

Thirteen years ago, Clara Lumley fell in love on a holiday. One letter from her step-father changed everything, however, when her younger sisters fell ill with smallpox. Leaving her betrothed behind would have broken her heart, but his breaking their engagement crushed her soul.

Stephen Clifford journeyed to India over a decade ago to clear his family’s name and forget the woman who wouldn’t stand by him when his father was stripped of his title. His family reputation has been restored, but what Stephen uncovered threatens the Crown itself.
As events throw Clara and Stephen together again, they may be the solution to each other’s problems but how can they trust let alone find love again?

November: Mr. Darcy’s Christmas Joy

When Darcy and Elizabeth get stuck in a time loop two days before Christmas, they have the chance to make things right and set their lives on an alternate course. Now posting.

December: Love & Duty Series: The Baronet’s Heart

Sylvia may not be the most beautiful Linwood daughter, but she’s fiercely loyal and protective of her family. To further her sister’s courtship, she accepts the attentions of a man whose manners repulse her. To her surprise, the baronet has a warm heart underneath his gruff demeanor.

Sir Nathaniel Russell doesn’t trust women. He’s been sought after all his life for his wealth. His logical reasons mean nothing, however, when his heart falls for Sylvia.

Falling in love is easy, but withstanding the deceptions from outsiders tests their devotion. By the time truth comes to light, all might be too late as Nate gathers soldiers to protect his mill from attacks of out of work farmers. Non-JAFF retelling of Sufficient Encouragement.

Beauty’s Mirror- Chapter Nine

beautys-mirror-2Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Bella sagged into her bed at the end of a long day. She had been home for a week and immediately cast into her old position of servant and housekeeper for her family. Her sisters seemed barely shocked that she arrived without notice, or without them writing to her, and instead seemed annoyed at her being away at all. That she came with no gifts for them, they found equally insulting.

Her father did not seem as ill in truth as she had seen in the mirror. Or perhaps she was merely finished with treating him as an infant for every minor ailment. Yesterday, he admitted the reason she had been requested as governess was because he had tried to take Rosie from the house.

Bella could understand how it must have seemed to her father, but she could not excuse his deceit in leading her to believe the arrangement was because of George’s debt. When she defended Leo and his relationship with Rosie, her father insisted she was wrong and sent her to the kitchen. As far as Bella could tell, the only person that seemed to appreciate her presence was Cook.

She rubbed her aching feet and then stretched her back. The truth was, she had eagerly launched herself into Leo’s troubles. It seemed she felt some innate need to rescue people. The difference was she felt appreciated at the Castle and Leo never took her assistance for granted.

“Enough about him. You knew him only a few days and in the end…” Bella trailed off. For, in the end, he proved exactly what she had seen in the beginning. Perhaps not exactly, but neither was he what she had believed him to be.

“George was right,” she mumbled before she fell asleep. She needed to find some way to live life on her terms.

The next morning, Bella awoke at her usual time and immediately began chores. By mid-morning, she had accomplished much of her to do list. The difference between planning a fine meal and ball for a duke and scrubbing in her father’s house was stark, however. Unexpectedly, she heard a vaguely familiar male voice calling out in the hall.

“I will see to it,” Bella told Cook.

Arriving upstairs, she stopped in her tracks. “Lord Morgan?” She rubbed her eyes in disbelief.

“Miss Beauley,” he executed a perfect bow, even as his eyes scanned her stained apron. “Forgive me. No one answered my knock.”

Bella hastily wiped her hands on the offending garment and then attempted to untie it. “Allow me,” he said and came behind her to undo the string. His presence unnerved her. Freed from the apron, she invited him to the drawing room.

“This is a fine home,” Morgan said, and Bella felt the weight of ridiculous small talk.

“May I ask why you are here, Lord Morgan?”

“You suddenly vanished, Miss Beauley. One minute we were enjoying each other’s company at Erroll’s ball and the next you left without a word.”

Bella blushed but raised her chin. “I would not say it was so sudden as that. I had previously left your side.”

Morgan nodded his head. “Yes, to dance with Erroll but you did not return to the ballroom. I worried.”

His tone sounded almost hurt and deeply concerned. “I apologize,” Bella said before recalling his plans with Leo. She would not be made to feel the villain here. “However, I believe you spoke with His Grace and did not seem concerned about my whereabouts then.”

Morgan’s eyebrows raised high. “You heard my conversation with Erroll?” Bella nodded her head but would not explain how. “And that offended you in some way?”

His incredulity was obvious to her. “That you both should consider I would marry a man I had just met, with knowing very little of his character or temper, yes. That I would marry him without so much as being asked, moreso. I suppose you believed I would marry you based on your rank and wealth alone. To me, that is the highest insult.”

Bella had stood and begun pacing during her speech. “To think that Mrs. Hammond’s friendship was nothing but an insincere ploy!”

Lord Morgan shot out of his chair at that charge and stood before her, ceasing her movement. “Alice’s friendship was genuine. Do not lay such a charge on her feet. Will you listen to me?” He reached for her hand.

Bella pulled her hand away and turned her head. What could he say?

“It was Erroll’s idea!” He said angrily.

“I know!” Heat rushed into Bella’s cheeks.

“So you know that he loves you? I know he is ugly, but why not go back to him?”

“What?” Bella’s eyes snapped to his. She could not breathe as she waited for him to repeat the words.

“Erroll asked I marry you in exchange for half his income. I thought then that you were his mistress.”

“No!” Bella said and began to storm off.

“Wait! I apologize!” He called after her.

Bella whirled around, tears threatened to spill out of her eyes. “If he loved me, why would he wish I marry you?”

Morgan shrugged his shoulders. “He said he was dying. I assume he wished to protect you. He asked for me to become Lady Rosalyn’s guardian as well and to allow neither of you to enter the Castle again. If you want to know more, you would have to ask him.”

The world titled and Bella stumbled to a chair. She worked hard for breath, it felt as though someone stood on her chest. “Breathe, lass,” Morgan said as he thrust a glass of wine into her hand.

Oh, Lord. Leo loved her. He didn’t want to tell her because of the curse. Couldn’t he see that even if their time together was short, she would have rather spent it with him? He loved her enough to give her up. That was more than anyone had loved her before.

“How is he?” Bella asked when her mind began to calm. Morgan would not meet her eyes and remained silent. “Tell me!”

“We found him after you left. He had destroyed the South Drawing Room and was shouting, incomprehensibly. He was holding this,” Erroll held up the mirror.

“Where did you get that?”

“He has spent all day with Lady Rosalyn since you left. Every night he would hide in his study with books and the mirror—but it was broken. Four nights ago, I found him staring at this—whole, with no cracks. Tears filled his eyes and he chanted your name over and over again.”

Tears welled in Bella’s eyes. Leo must have consulted the magical books to find some way of fixing the mirror. And then his first desire was to see her?

“After he finally fell asleep, I took the mirror and determined to find you. I needed to understand what happened.”

“You can never understand,” Bella said and shook her head.

“Try to explain,” Morgan pushed.

Bella took in a deep breath and began to tell all she had experienced in the days since arriving at Leo’s Castle. Not caring if Morgan believed her tale, she needed to know how Leo and Rosie were. “Did anything unusual happen after Leo left the room? Was Lady Rosalyn safe?”

“If you mean to ask if this ghost of the duchess returned to haunting the Castle, I would say it did not appear so.”

“What use is that?” Bella cried and then recalled the mirror. “Let me see the mirror!”

Morgan handed it over. Bella watched as the mirror showed her George with a sword and breathing hard. “No, I do not worry about George now. Show me Leo! Show me the Duke of Erroll!”

Again, George appeared but this time, Bella noted he was not wearing fencing gear. Then, she saw Leo tossing a matching sword down. “I will not fight you, Beauley,” he said calmly.

“You will pay for what you have done!” George screamed and charged at Leo.

“No!” Bella cried in horror. Then, immediately a new fear emerged. “Rosie! Mirror, show me, Lady Rosalyn!”

Lord Morgan, disturbed by Bella’s reactions, leaned over her shoulder. They saw Rosie in a carriage, crying and begging to return back to the Castle.

“Who has her? Oh my goodness! What shall I do?” Bella stood to her feet and raced to the door. Her ring! It had allowed her to travel in the blink of an eye once before.

“Wait!” Morgan called after her.

Bella cast an impatient glance at him with her hand on the door.

“The carriage was mine. I believe my sister has chosen to take Lady Rosalyn from the Castle. We had discussed it before I left. If your brother is there and acting like a madman, Alice will do anything to ensure Rosalyn’s safety.”

Bella nodded her head. Of course, they had no idea of the curse and even Rosie did not understand why she could not leave. But, oh! Leo! Even now he could be dead. She only hoped she could get there in enough time to say goodbye.

“Thank you, Lord Morgan,” Bella said. She knew she had seemed hateful and ungrateful before. “I truly appreciate your coming. I must go, immediately. You do understand?”

“Of course,” Morgan said, and Bella raced up to her chamber. Sliding the ring on her finger, she twisted it and immediately stood before Sundridge Castle. Heart pounding, she ran toward the front entrance.

******

Leo lay panting on the floor of the great hall, blood pouring from the wound received by Bella’s brother. “I did not dishonor your sister!”

“No more lies! You called my debt and forced her to come here. And then you couldn’t keep your filthy hands off her!” George Beauley swung wildly, and Leo had only just enough energy to slide out of the way.

“No! She worked as a governess. You have heard lies.”

“I do not believe you! You killed your first wife. I am happy Bella got away before you ended her life too.” Beauley’s blade swiped Leo’s arm.

Were all Beauley males so hot headed? Even still, his words pierced sharper than the blade. Leo’s heart ached for missing Bella, but he too was glad she had left before he had ruined her life. She had become too embroiled with his concerns. And suggesting she marry Morgan? A life without love—for Morgan surely did not love Bella, no matter his pretty words on finding her enchanting—would be worse than death for her.

“Such an ugly, beastly thing. A monster. I would be doing the world a service to kill you,” Beauley said as he hovered over Leo.

“Do it, but ask if you think your sister would want you as a murderer. I already forfeited the duel,” Leo said, his chest heaving.

Beauley swore and took a moment to consider Leo’s words. Leo braced for the mortal blow. At this rate, his life was ending anyway. Before Beauley had made contact with his skin, and even now it was not a grave wound, Leo felt the life draining from him. Mrs. Hammond had taken Rosie away when a madman stormed into the house. His hours were numbered. Perhaps he had only minutes.

Suddenly, the door slammed open. “George!” Bella screamed.

Beauley immediately spun around and Leo jerked his head up, the movement making him dizzy. Forcing himself to focus, his eyes locked with Bella’s.

“Bella?” George asked amidst the confusion.

“George, stop this!” Bella demanded and walked closer.

“I am defending your honor,” Beauley said like a child blaming poor conduct on another one starting it first.

“My honor is entirely intact. I do not know what you have heard, but His Grace has always behaved well toward me.”

“But you came back so suddenly. Meg wrote to me of it. Then I heard of the ball. Several of the guests thought you were his mistress.” Leo said with far more disapproval than a man of the world such as he should have.

“Do you think I would do such a thing?” Bella asked angrily. “Do you really believe I would do that—even for you and your debt?”

George shifted his weight between his feet. “I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

“Of course you didn’t. Do you think he forced me? If he managed to force himself on me, what are the chances of me then being able to escape? Or that he would have me act as hostess for his ball and mistress of his estate?”

“Oh…” George said and dropped the sword with a loud clatter.

Bella approached her brother, and they spoke in hushed tones. Or perhaps it was that Leo’s ability to hear was diminished by the sound of his heartbeat in his ears and a rushing sound.

Unexpectedly, they grew very close.

“Leo,” Bella’s sweet voice whispered.

He tried to respond, and no sound came out.

“What is happening?” Bella asked, her voice shaking.

“I do not know…” George replied. “I swear I didn’t wound him that badly.”

“No…look! He’s glowing!”

Leo felt his eyes begin to flutter open and something the size of a large dog threw itself on his chest and wept bitterly.

“There, there. All will be well,” he said uncertain as to why a dog wept on him.

“Papa!” At last, the creature croaked out, and Leo recognized the mop of curly hair was Rosie.

“How did she get here?” Bella asked.

“She opened the door and jumped from the carriage,” a disembodied voice broke in.

“Love you, Papa. Love you!” Rosie cried over and over again, and the tears dropped on his chest.

Leo rubbed her back. “I love you too, poppet. Be a good girl for Mrs. Hammond.”

“But I want to live with you and Miss Beauley!” Rosie cried.

“Miss Beauley has to go home, sweet,” he said gently. Was this his afterlife? Living with Rosie was no hell, but no Bella could not make it heaven.

“I am home,” Bella said and Leo tried again to focus his eyes. “Hush, rest now,” she said, and Leo obeyed.

Leo could hear nothing else. Instead, he had the sensation of being lifted into the air as bright lights assaulted his eyes. He was filled with warmness. Then, everything went black.

After what felt like an eternity, Leo awoke. His eyes opened with ease. He took in his surroundings. Bella and Rosie were curled up next to him on a bed. Bella’s eyes fluttered open.

“You’re awake,” she said with a smile.

“I’m alive?” he asked.

Bella slowly nodded, her smile growing.

“I’m alive,” Leo repeated in disbelief. “How?”

“Rosie,” Bella said. “She would not go with Mrs. Hammond. She would not leave you. You were freed by her love.”

Leo looked over at the child sleeping on his side. He would have never guessed all those years ago that loving Rosie would have broken the curse.

“And you are…staying?” he asked.

“Yes,” Bella said and smoothed a hand over her skirt. What was she nervous about?

“I admit I am a bit jealous of Rosie.”

“You are?” Perhaps he was not recovered enough for he was not following the conversation very easily. “Why?”

“She has your love,” Bella said.

A low rumble sounded in Leo’s chest.

“Why is my affection humorous?” Bella asked and sounded hurt.

“I’m not laughing at your confession, only how you confessed it. You’re jealous of a five-year-old!”

“I’ll remind you that you’ve not given me any reason to not be jealous,” she said raising an eyebrow and he laughed again.

Lifting one of her hands to his lips, Leo bestowed a tender kiss. “I love you Arabella Beauley. I am not worthy of your esteem but would be greatly honored by your hand in marriage.”

“I love you Leonard Sundridge, and I promise to never leave your side again.” Bella picked up his hand and kissed it. “So, you see I must marry you,” she added with a playful grin.

“Your brother is not around to run me through, is he?”

Bella shook her head. “No, everyone has left for home. And I am home. Where I belong.”

Leo smiled, marveling at how it felt to do so. “Why do you think Rosie is the one who broke the curse?”

“Because I had loved you for weeks, you silly man! Trying to make me marry Morgan!”

“I thought to do it because—”

“I know, I know,” Bella said and Leo smiled again. For the rest of his life, he would be grateful for this woman. “Rosie said it first, though.”

“Say it again,” Leo said and he hugged her close.

“I love you, Leo. Now, look in the mirror,” Bella said as she retrieved the enchanted mirror from the bedside table. She handed it to him and then returned to her position with her head leaning on his chest.

For the first time, when Leo looked in the mirror, he saw his outward image reflected back. The love of Bella and Rosie had done that and freed him not just from Celia’s curse, but it allowed him to see the good in him. He would never feel unlovable again.

“There we are,” he said. “Two beauties and their tamed beast.”

“You were never a beast to me,” Bella said before kissing his cheek, “but you made me a beauty.”

“You have always been, but I will gladly tell you hourly if it will give you peace,” he said before claiming her lips.

“I knew it would be a happy ending,” Rosie said sleepily from his other side.

Leo laughed to himself. A happy ending indeed!

The End

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.