Reunited- Chapter Six

reunited 2Reunited is now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks,  Kobo, and paperback!

 

Previous Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four / Five

Chapter Six

 

Elizabeth’s heart pounded as she read Will’s letter. He had written with such tenderness and feeling. She had waited five years to see such words. She read and reread, lingering over every line until tears welled in her eyes. Reverently, she touched her fingers over the page noticing where it appeared his pen stopped as he paused over his words.

Will understood Elizabeth’s concerns. When she had tried to express them before he talked with her father, she had thought Will angry at her request. She did not wish to break their engagement, but so much had changed. They had changed. Who was the Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley now? When she had fallen in love with him, he was only the heir and very young at that. Now, he was master.

Five years ago, Elizabeth had believed herself inadequate to become the eventual Mrs. Darcy and Mistress of Pemberley. She can hardly fathom Will’s notice of her. Upon meeting him again and his declarations, she had determined that he must have felt honour bound to her. It was obvious she had not accepted any other suitor in the years they were apart. That he still had passion for her was obvious, but that did not mean he loved or respected her still. It did not mean he had not given his heart to others.

Elizabeth reread the words one more time. Just like when the man spoke, she had to understand the hidden meaning of his words. Will was reassuring her. He validated her concerns. He had also perceived her unsaid questions regarding his fidelity and loyalty. Well, they did not answer everything she wondered about. However, the most important part regarding his fidelity was answered. Now that they had found each other again, he intended to stay true.

Many moons had passed since Elizabeth was the naïve girl at sixteen confused about her brother’s attentions to the young woman at the theatre. Elizabeth had grown in the ways of the world and had overheard enough conversations to understand the matter better now. Whatever Sam’s business with that woman had been, it had not been marriage on his mind when he gazed at her. He had even tried to confess such a thing to Elizabeth when she had encountered him drunk later that evening. Of course, such a thing he would hardly want to tell his sister if sober. Still, Elizabeth understood that, for men, hearts were sometimes at odds with their carnal desires. Perhaps Sam had always loved Charlotte, and would have married her if he had lived, but enjoyed his time with the courtesan just as much. Elizabeth would be foolish if she thought that Will had not had similar liaisons while they were separated. She refused to ever be that foolish girl again. However, it now seemed he vowed to have only her in his affection. It was a bittersweet consolation, but she would take it. She would rather be Will’s last lover then never have him at all.

Next, her mind turned to focus on the words he wrote about his torment and imagining her with another man. It seemed they equally tortured themselves as the years passed. Each time a new gossip article turned up in the papers of Will’s attachment with other women, the hole in Elizabeth’s heart grew. However, he claimed to have written letters, even after he’d given her up. Did he still have them still? Would he let her read them? Perhaps she had no right to know his thoughts. Although unconsciously done, she had severely wounded him. Perhaps if she read the letters, she could help heal his wounds.

Finally, she opened the package and pulled out a small miniature of Will. It looked to be painted when he was about two and twenty. In fact, Elizabeth realised, it was probably done on his holiday after they had met. Elizabeth lovingly ran her fingers over the face of the young man she once knew. She could still see pieces of the young man in the visage of who he now was. Now, Will bore great burdens. It had aged him with fine lines forming around his eyes. When he smiled, they crinkled, and Elizabeth had found them more attractive and endearing than all his youthful grins.

Turning the miniature over, she read the inscription on the back. It read, “To Elizabeth with all my love.” As she had expected, the date included his holiday to Scotland. What astonished her was seeing a second inscription. “Yours, past, present and future, Will.” The date was from last week.

Lost in her thoughts, Elizabeth and did not hear Jane approach.

“Lizzy,” Jane’s gentle voice called out. “Mama asking about you.” Jane came closer, and her eyes widened when they fell upon the items in Elizabeth’s lap and the tears on her sister’s cheeks. “Whatever is the matter?”

Elizabeth let out a heavy sigh. “Will wrote me a letter.”

“After all this time, he finally wrote? My dear Lizzy, I had wondered how you felt after seeing him last night, but we’ve not had a moment to discuss it.

Elizabeth let out a laugh. “It feels as if my life turned upside down again. It was this way five years ago when we met. If I were wiser, perhaps I would be afraid.”

“Afraid? Why should you be afraid?”

“Any sane person would go running in the opposite direction of a man who turned everything on its head every time she saw him. Last night, I was so angry with him. This morning – –”

“This morning!” Jane took Elizabeth’s hands. “Did you see him before he called on Papa?”

“I had walked to Oakham Mount, and he came on horseback. Oh!” Elizabeth touched her head. “Speaking of his horse, while we were…” Elizabeth hesitated for she did not wish to share about Will’s embraces and kisses. “While we were attempting to discuss our separation and the matter of our betrothal, his horse nearly killed us.”

“Goodness,” Jane threw a hand to her heart after Elizabeth told her tale. “But do not put me off. I am sure whatever happened with the horse must have been distressing. However, both of you appeared to be in one piece at Longhorn. Tell me what you spoke of. What did he have to say for himself?”

A small smile played out Elizabeth’s lips. Jane so rarely expressed disapproval and anybody. Through the years she had often had a more charitable opinion of Will than Elizabeth had. However, Elizabeth had to admit it was amusing to see Jane so protective. “He says he considers us engaged.”

“Engaged! If he had honored the betrothal years ago, then he would have come and called on you. There would have been a courtship. Our Father’s permission would have been applied to. Instead, he left you alone!”

Elizabeth threw her hand her arms around Jane. “Please, my dear sister. I am well his, and his return does not distress me. He had much to say about his about our separation. I will tell you all only calm yourself.”

Jane gave Elizabeth a tight squeeze before pulling back and wiping her eyes. Finally, she said, “I will listen to what you have to say. I will reserve my judgment until I hear his defense.”

Jane listened in silence as Elizabeth explained her encounters with Will and their belief that someone intercepted his letters. Then, she read the one Elizabeth had just received. When Jane had finished, she folded it up and handed it back to Elizabeth. “He does seem to love you very much,” she said gently. “And I daresay he appropriately grieves the pain he has inflicted. Do you really believe someone would go to such lengths to have stopped his letters to you?”

“It is an astonishing thought, but I find that more likely than Will never having written and lying entirely. You know how I rationalized it. I tried to say that he must have found me unworthy or that he is simply toying with me.”

“Yes,” Jane said. “You would repeat that argument over and over again as though trying to convince yourself.”

“That is it entirely!” Elizabeth vigorously nodded. “We were so in love. He withstood the arguments from his father and from Sam. I may have been very young in the ways of the world, but I could not be confused about something as natural and intuitive as love. I do not mean the passion we shared. It would not be unusual for a young man to give in to such ardent displays. No. I reference the conversations we had which bared our souls. When I felt as though he and I were alone in the whole world and he was the only one who truly understood me.”

Jane straightened and looked offended.

“Jane!” Elizabeth hastened to say. “I do not mean that you did not understand me, but you do not have the same feelings yourself. Will and I differ on many things, but there are others that we are of very similar mind. You are so apt to see the good in everyone. I appreciate your friendship and your wise soul, but I do not know you can perceive how it feels to me. It is impossible for me to see the world from your sunny outlook.” Elizabeth shrugged. “I could be myself and was accepted for what I was with Will. I did not always have to try and be better than I am.”

“I do not mean to make you feel inadequate,” Jane said. After a pause, she added, “I believe the best loves are ones which make both partners stronger. Is that what you felt with Will?”

“Yes! Somehow, even as I would call it a flaw myself, Will turned every attribute into a strength.”

Jane stood, then gathered Elizabeth’s hands in hers. “We should return to the house. Mama sent me out here ages ago.”

“What has put her in a tizzy now?” Elizabeth laughed as she stood. “Or is she still angry at Will’s visit. It is as though she blames him for Sam’s death. Nothing could be more senseless. Not only were they the greatest of friends, but he lost his father that fire.”

“I cannot say how mama feels about your Will. However, Papa has received a letter from Mr. Collins. He asked to visit.”

“Our cousin? The one Papa has not talked to in years?”

“No,” Jane shook her head. “No, he has died. It is his son who wrote. Apparently, he is now the rector of a substantial living and Kent.”

“Why does he wish to visit? What could his intention be?” Elizabeth wondered.

“I am uncertain. Perhaps if you read the letter, you will be able to deduce it. Papa found it most amusing.”

Elizabeth did find Mr. Collins’ letter amusing. Unlike her father, however, she also thought it unusual. The older man broke ties with Mr. Bennet soon after Sam’s birth. With the birth of a Bennet heir, his residual claim disappeared. After Sam’s death, the old Mr. Collins wrote to Bennet offering his son as the new heir. Sam had lived long enough to sign the papers which broke the entail. Mr. Bennet could now we leave Longbourn to whoever he wished. To that effect, he chose to leave it to his eldest grandson who would not otherwise inherit an estate.

As the eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Jane had become the target of many suitors in the area. However, despite Mrs. Bennet’s matchmaking tendencies, she counseled her daughters to only accept gentlemen of means. There was no urgency or fear for the girls to marry. Although she put Jane and Elizabeth out into society at the age of 16, that was while the entail remained unbroken. The moment the ink dried on the papers, many of Mrs. Bennet’s anxieties gave away. The next youngest sister, Mary, now age seventeen, still waited for her turn to enter Society. As she seemed in no hurry, it created no distress between the sisters.

Elizabeth had half-vowed to never marry after losing Will. She had always assumed it would be Jane’s second son who would inherit Longbourn. Elizabeth chewed her bottom lip as she continued to think about the ramifications of their cousin’s visit. Eventually, if Will could prove himself faithful—or even if he could not as news of their engagement and their passionate embraces would certainly ruin her reputation and require marriage—Elizabeth would marry Will. However, Jane’s head had not been turned by any suitors. Years ago, Elizabeth believed Jane had a tender regard for Mr. Bingley. Now that he was in the area again, Elizabeth hoped the two could resume where they left off. Would Jane feel the pull to marry a relation? Whatever living Mr. Collins had contracted it could be nothing compared to Mr. Bingley’s fortune. However, that did not allow for other concerns which might influence a daughter as obedient and docile as Jane.

 

*****

 

It was two days before Will saw Elizabeth. Then it was at Lucas large. While there, Darcy had the pleasure of seeing Charles dance with the elder Miss Bennet. While they had never discussed the unselect Bennet girls after the fire, Will was not surprised to see signs that Charles had continued to admire Jane Bennet just as he had continue to admire Elizabeth. One of Elizabeth’s younger sisters was there as well. She was invited to the pianoforte by Miss Lucas. Mrs. Bennet bustled over to Mary’s side.

“Pray, Mary,” she said.” “You must play the new sonata you have been practicing.”

“I had planned to play a few jigs,” Mary said.

“Nonsense!”

Mary rifled through the music books and selected one. With chagrin, Will noted it was indeed a Mozart sonata rather than something the young people could dance to. Elizabeth approached Charles and Miss Bennet. Will perceived his opportunity to speak with her. Just before reaching her side, Sir William appeared.

“Mr. Darcy,” he said. “You honor us with your presence. Mrs. Bennet told me, just now, how long you had been friends with their family.”

“Samuel Bennet was one of my dearest friends.”

“Indeed? But I should not be so surprised. I have often heard of the liberality of the Darcy family and know from my experiences at St. James’s how kind people of great rank can be.”

“I assure you, sir, the kindness was all on Sam’s end. Many mistake my disposition and I am certain I if not for Sam, I might have offended the whole of Eton and Cambridge.”

“Ah, you do your friend great justice, but I will not allow it to be so far I have seen your good nature. You danced at our assembly.”

“It is a civility one can hardly avoid.”

“I saw a great deal more than civility, Mr. Darcy. Did you not dance with Miss Eliza? And her sister, Miss Mary, as well?”

“As an old friend of the family, it was the least I could do.”

“Yes, we miss Sam acutely. My Charlotte, well she learned to get on well enough. Do you know that when we got news of Sam’s passing, she did not shed a tear? She bore it all with such strength that if my own dear wife could be as brave as she in the face of my demise, I would not be unhappy.”

Will glanced at Charlotte as he thought over her father’s words while he babbled on about his visits to St. James. Will had never supposed that what Sam and Charlotte shared was anything like his passionate feelings for Elizabeth. In that regard, he could understand Sam’s dilemma in choosing between Lucy and Charlotte. He could not excuse his friend’s decision to entangle himself. However, Will could comprehend the difficulty of his choice. Charlotte, on the other hand, he previously believed, truly loved his friend. How could she have borne the news of Sam’s passing with such sanguine? True, Will’s impression of Charlotte was that she was not of a sensational nature. Surely some tears at the death of her betrothed would be human nature. Will himself cried much over the death of his friend and his father. The belief that he lost Elizabeth forever wounded him more than he would ever care to admit. And he had dampened more handkerchiefs at the thought of never seeing her again than any man could countenance. Now, Will observed Miss Lucas and started at the hardness he saw emanating from her eyes. Why, she despised Will and Charles! Jane smiled at something Charles said, and Charlotte stepped forward. Mary’s sonata ended and, thinking quickly, Will return Sir William to the discussion of dancing.

“I am surprised a man as jolly as you has not arranged for dancing this evening.”

“Quite right. You are quite right Mr. Darcy.” Sir William Lucas ran off to invite his daughter to entertain his guests.

Now, Will made his way without interference. Elizabeth saw him approach and blushed.

“I hope, you came all this way with that smile on your face to dance with me?”

“I believe I made my sentiments on that quite known to you, Elizabeth,” Will bowed over Elizabeth’s hand and brought it to his lips.

She blushed again and glanced around nervously. “Sir,” she scolded

“I am courting you, as you deserve. Your neighbors and friends should acknowledge my interest, and I shall make it quite worth remarking upon, I assure you.” He smirked. At two-and-twenty, he gave little thought about how to court a woman. After five years of blaming himself for her supposed abandonment, Will had imagined all the ways to court Elizabeth in and out of drawing rooms. Will nodded to the dance floor where several of the young Lucases had rolled up the carpet. “May I have the honor of a dance, Miss Elizabeth?”

“I believe the honor is mine,” she said.

Will have been used to thinking that he would rather have his head on display in the Tower of London then engage in inane pleasantries. However, he would suffer all that and more to spend even one second in Elizabeth’s company. He beamed with pride when she placed her hand on his arm. Not to be outdone, Charles requested Jane’s hand for a set. Soon other couples also joined the dance as well.

“I believe we must have some conversation,” Elizabeth acknowledged.

“I will speak on anything you desire, my love.” The endearments fell from Will’s mouth without second thought. “Might I suggest a date for our marriage to begin?”

Elizabeth frowned. “I thought you understood,” she said. “I need more time.”

The dance separated them for a moment. When they returned, Will took a deep breath before speaking. “I understand your request, my dearest. Do you understand mine? After all the years of separation and pain, I believe we have been engaged long enough. Yes, there is much we need to learn about each other, but I have no intention to give you up. Nothing I could learn would shake my determination to marry you.” He dropped his voice. “Please, I cannot bear to lose you again. Have we not learned how quickly everything we think we have imagined for our lives may change?”

Elizabeth met his eyes, and they glittered with tears. The dance separated them for several minutes, and Will watched Elizabeth as closely as he could. He did not mean to pressure her into anything she was uncomfortable with, but the courtship was a mere formality, was it not?

Reunited- Chapter Five

reunited 2We left with Will, finally, asking Mr. Bennet for his blessing on marrying Elizabeth. What will Mr. Bennet say?

Previous Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four

“I accept.”

As Mr. Bennet spoke, relief and peace washed over Will. He could breathe easier than he had a moment before and his racing pulse calmed.

“However, I have conditions.”

The flash of hope that swelled Will’s heart evaporated. Would he ever have Elizabeth as his wife? Perhaps stealing away to Scotland would be necessary after all these years. “What are they?” Will asked through grit teeth, his patience wearing thin.

“You must court her openly for several weeks. No one else knew of this secret betrothal from so many years ago. I will not have you swooping in and acting the ever-constant lover who deserves liberties with his betrothed. She deserves far more than that, and her reputation requires it.”

“Must we conceal our attachment and act as new acquaintances, then?”

Mr. Bennet paused before answering. “I will allow you two to consider the best method. Everyone knows you were friends with Sam and that you had met previously. That you had both held a torch for one another will be hard enough for most to credit.”

Will blew out a breath, and his muscles relaxed. “Very well. I will accept those terms. For what it is worth, I do know what Elizabeth is worth, and I know she deserves more from me than I have given her in the past.”

“See that you do not forget it again,” Mr. Bennet added with raised brows. “Did your father know of the betrothal?”

“No,” Will sighed. “He knew of my attachment and the direction of my thoughts. He had attempted to dissuade me but ultimately said he trusted me. Of course, he probably believed my interest would wane during our holiday. Why do you ask?”

“I am considering the fact that you claim someone stole your letters. Do you think he would go so far as that to discourage matters?”

“I do not think so…” Will trailed off. “I had come today with the purpose of if you had.”

Mr. Bennet chuckled. “I assure you, son, I was oblivious to any romance between you and my daughter. While I would have been of your father’s mind, if Sam ever told you anything about me then you should know that I am far too lackadaisical to go to such measures.”

Will blinked. “You would not have approved of our attachment?”

“For all the reasons I am sure your father put forth. It was formed too quickly, you were both too young. You were raised to other expectations and Elizabeth could offer you nothing in the way of fortune or connection. She could hardly be a credit to you as Mrs. Darcy.”

“I strongly disagree, sir.” Will straightened and his jaw set tightly. “Elizabeth is exactly what I need as a Mrs. Darcy. Whatever she has experienced in our years apart will only continue to be an asset.”

“Well,” Mr. Bennet smirked. “You may go and visit with your future sisters and mother-in-law. Send Elizabeth to me. Your courtship may begin tomorrow in Mrs. Bennet’s drawing-room.”

Understanding his dismissal, Will stood and bowed. He had not discovered who had separated him from Elizabeth but had made something of an ally of her father regarding his courtship. It was as much of a good start as he had a right to expect.

Will left Longbourn disappointed he had not had more time with Elizabeth. All he had heard about Mrs. Bennet had prepared him to find a matchmaking mama. Instead, she seemed protective of Elizabeth and wanted to keep her away from Will. She filled any silence with her voice and, if the confused looks on her daughters’ faces were any sign, acted more ridiculous than usual. It seemed designed to put him off, but Will had no intention of leaving Hertfordshire without Elizabeth as his wife. He may have been delayed five years, but he would see his goal met. All those years ago, step one of his plan had been to rent Netherfield and court Elizabeth from there. The situation had changed, but the ends could still be claimed.

“Will,” Charles said with surprise when they passed one another on the stairs. “You have already been out? I am calling on Longbourn as soon as I finish breakfast. Go and change. I will wait for you.”

Will shook his head. “I have already been to Longbourn and in any case, have a servant looking for Apollo.”

Charles’ eyes widened. “There is a story there.”

“Indeed.” Will looked at their surroundings first. “Follow me, and I will tell you all.”

The men walked in silence to Will’s chamber. Upon shutting the door, he relaxed. One never knew which Bingley sister might be listening to a conversation in the hall. “Something spooked Apollo, and he nearly trampled us.”

“Us?”

Will explained the happy surprise of finding Elizabeth at Oakham Mount.

“So you talked and have it all settled now, do you?” Charles grinned.

“What would there be to settle?” Will peered at his friend. He had never told Charles of his proposal. He had barely hinted at the time of his admiration for Elizabeth. Since the fire, he took all pains to never mention her name.

“I know what love and courtship look like far more than you do,” Charles laughed. “Do not look so surprised. You could not act before because of Sam. I never saw you behave around another lady the way you did around Miss Elizabeth. Now that we are here, I assume you have wasted no time in staking your claim, at last. Was she very relieved to finally hear the words?”

Will’s head spun in circles at Charles’ speech. He presumed that Will had proposed already to Elizabeth and would have no way of knowing they had, in fact, been engaged for half a decade. Will had not uttered anything that came close to a second proposal. In fact, his first proposal was rather terrible. A small smile came to his lips as he recalled Elizabeth’s teasing until he actually asked rather than demand her hand. More than anything though, Elizabeth must have longed to hear the words he had waited so long to hear. When Elizabeth confessed she still loved him and always had, a dam broke in Will’s heart. He was as defenseless against his net actions of taking her into his arms as a ___. He acted on instinct. Words were too inadequate to explain his depth of feeling and had failed him years ago. It had been a time of action. Only…did Elizabeth not understand his continued love?

Years ago, she had briefly thought he used and discarded women. Last night on the balcony, she mentioned the gossip rags and their false tales of his exploits with ladies. She must very well understand his continued passion for her, but she had never been courted. She did not understand how he loved and needed her.

“Will!” Charles exclaimed.

“Pardon me. I was wool-gathering.”

“I could see that. You may keep your thoughts to yourself about Miss Elizabeth, but I asked if you would accompany my family and me to Longbourn.”

“Ah. As I said, I have already visited today. I will go tomorrow as Mr. Bennet invited me to begin my courtship with Elizabeth then.”

“A courtship already! I only teased before, but I knew you would not wait long to come to your point.”

Will chuckled. No, he had not waited long at all. Bingley excused himself, and after withdrawing writing utensils, Will settled in. While his friend was away, Will intended to woo his lady from afar. When he had finished, he reread each line, praying they would convey a shred of his regard to Elizabeth. Pleased with the final product, he sanded and sealed it before ringing for his valet.

“Please send this to Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn, along with the blue box,” Will instructed. “Choose a servant you trust to discharge the duty discreetly and ___. I want no one but Miss Elizabeth to handle them. Should that be impossible, he is to return here, and I will see to it myself.”

“Yes, sir,” Matthews answered.

“Oh, and Matthews, I must inquire about your time with my father.”

Will watched his valet tense. He and his father had shared a man since Will had not required one while at University. His father died before Will hired a manservant of his own—a task intended for after the summer holiday. Not wishing to sack Matthews and feeling comfort in a familiar face, Will kept on the older gentleman. Through the years, they had built a rapport and he hoped he could trust the man.

“Before Mr. Darcy passed, did he ever ask you to intercept letters of mine?”

“No, sir.” Matthews shook his head. “May I speak freely?”

“Of course,” Will waved him on.

“If the old master would have asked that of me, I would have resigned. It was on my minds much during his final days. Many of us were displeased with his favouring young Wickham. However, I do not wish to speak ill of your father.”

“Nothing you can say will disturb me. I am aware of all he was, both good and bad.”

“Indeed, sir. And do not think me ungrateful. To all the staff and me, Mr. Darcy was the greatest master—except you, sir—that ever lived. You are very like him in that regard. Only…it did not seem right the way he favoured George Wickham so much.”

“What makes you think so?”

“I do not mean from a servant’s perspective. Many a steward’s son is groomed in such a way. I do not know how aware you were with dealings below stairs, sir. There was considerable trouble between Wickham and the maids—even Miss Darcy’s governesses. I feared for Miss Graves until Annesley, God rest him, was appointed to accompany her whenever she left the house. Of course, he took it a step further and became her shadow even in the home and well, I suppose, that is how they decided to marry.”

“It does you credit that you worried so much. I did know of Wickham’s wicked ways and approached my father many times on the matter. However, you make it sound as though you continued to worry for Mrs. Annesley even after we went on holiday that summer.”

“I did not believe Wickham would be above sending someone to exact his revenge upon her. Additionally, he often visited Pemberley while you were away.”

“Pardon me?” Will’s every muscle tensed. “What reason did he have and why was I never informed.”

“I did not know you had not been informed. I apologise for the lapse—I can only plead there must have been some misunderstanding. It is not like Mrs. Reynolds to not inform you of these matters and you know she was no supporter of him. As for a reason…”

Matthews looked away for a moment and rubbed the back of his neck.

“Out with it, man,” Will commanded.

“He always claimed to want to visit Miss Darcy and indeed he spent hours with her.”

Will swore and his valet blanched. “No wonder she believed the fiend so easily! Her father died and her brother seemingly abandoned her, but Wickham had been her friend for years.”

“You must not blame yourself,” Matthews said consolingly.

“Who is to blame then? It was my duty!” A vice gripped Will’s heart. Who had he not disappointed? He had falsely abandoned Elizabeth, allowed a rake to importune his sister and break her heart.

“You are responsible for no one’s decisions but your own,” Matthews placed a bracing hand on his master’s shoulder. “Besides, you do not think Wickham is so wicked to have intentionally created a friendship with Miss Darcy all to enact later?”

Colour drained from Will’s face. He had not considered such a thing but could he rule it out? Matthews shifted on his feet and cleared his throat. “I will send these to Longbourn. It is good to see such an address on your correspondence again.” He briefly smiled.

“Yes, very good,” Will dismissed his valet.

He had been prepared, even expected, to learn of interference from either his father or Elizabeth’s. He had thought he put the pain of Georgiana’s seduction behind him. Now, he wondered if she deserved any of his scolding and ire. A few minutes later, Matthews returned informing Will who he had selected for the task and with a bundle of mail.

Leafing through the envelopes, Will sighed. Georgiana’s felt incredibly light—probably only a few lines with nothing more than a nod to civility and written under duress and threats of no privileges per his plan with Mrs. Annesley. Richard’s felt the usual weight and Mrs. Reynolds’ heavier than ever before. Arranging his supplies once more, Will bent over the desk. He had much to read and even more to write.

 

*****

 

After Will left Longbourn, Elizabeth went for a walk just within the garden. Upon his leaving, her stepmother had begun telling her how unworthy Will was for their attention. Fanny Bennet had never seemed to understand Elizabeth, but she also never seem to desire to purposely wound the girl. Elizabeth knew none, but Jane could understand the pain that her mother’s words against Will brought to Elizabeth’s heart.

After an hour or so in the garden picking the remains of the autumn flowers, Elizabeth returned to the house. She arrived at the door just as a footman from Netherfield, dismounted on the drive.

“Tommy,” Elizabeth said in surprise at seeing the son of one of Longbourn’s tenants who was recently hired as a footman by Mr. Bingley at her door. “Is all well with your parents?”

“Yes, they are very well. I come on business from Netherfield.”

“Netherfield?” Elizabeth scrunched her nose up in confusion.

Tommy turned and withdrew a small package and envelope from a saddlebag. Facing her again, he grinned. “Mr. Darcy’s valet selected me for the task of bringing this to you. I was instructed if I could not give it to you directly to return to the house and Mr. Darcy would come.”

Elizabeth felt her cheeks heat at Tommy’s knowing smirk. “Thank you, Tommy. I am sure that Mr. Darcy’s valet also selected you for your loyalty and ability for discretion.”

“Indeed,” he nodded with a grin. “That is exactly what Matthews said.” He hitched his leg over the horse.

“Thank you for discharging your duty. You may please tell Mr. Matthews to pass along my greetings to Mr. Darcy and my thanks.”

Tommy waved and set back toward Netherfield. Elizabeth glanced nervously around to be sure no one saw the delivery before hastening back to the garden. Choosing the bench in the furthest corner, and therefore away from prying eyes of sisters and parents, Elizabeth settled to read the note.

My Dearest, Loveliest Elizabeth,

 

My heart is full, and my mind overwhelmed as I attempt to comprehend the depth of my love for you. The only words I can summon barely do it justice. Forgive my poor attempts at courtship. My ineptness does not reflect the esteem in which I hold you.

When we first met, I was an arrogant youth who thought only of his own worth. I loved you, but I could not set aside my fears and insecurities. If we had spent more than a week together or if I had not left on holiday, I would have learned to see past them. I was a selfish lover who did not consider your feelings although you and others attempted to explain to me the difficulties you would face as my bride. In my hurt and conceit, I abandoned you when you most needed me. I can never forget or forgive myself for failing you in such a way. I vow now, to never make you feel alone again.

Your father has invited me to begin my courtship on the morrow, but I could not wait to share my sentiments—thoughts and words which could not be said in your mother’s drawing-room.

Five years ago, I was dumb-struck at your loveliness and vivacity. Your wit fascinated me and your courage impressed me. Now, I have witnessed your strength, your determination, your capacity for love and loyalty. Each of these facets and I am sure many more, make up the wondrous woman you have become. Once more, I am rendered mute at your beauty and the incredible fortune which has turned your attention to me. I did not deserve you then and assuredly do not now.

Although we have been separated by time and distance, you have been the wind in my sails, Elizabeth. I never could meet a lady without wondering what you would say or do instead. None of them could intrigue or captivate me like you. Having a taste of incredible passion and a sliver of happiness, I could not accept anything less—even as I presumed to never have such with you. My heart was yours alone even as I had believed you moved forward with your life. Can you imagine the torturous hours I have spent imagining you with another? That any other man might know the taste of your lips, feel the heat of your blush, or hear the whispered words I so desperately longed for plagued me. I spent hours consumed in letter writing just to resign myself that you no longer cared and did not send them. Countless times, I determined to ride to Longbourn and stake my claim—announce my improprieties to your father and force yourself wed to me—only to determine I would rather never have you at all than have you hate me for life.

My dearest darling, I will not plead that you do not make me wait long to alleviate my suffering. Instead, I will assure you that I will court you until you are satisfied. Nothing will tear me from your side now. I came to Hertfordshire to see you—I had to see you—and here I will remain until I leave with you as Mrs. Darcy. I have held you in my arms for mere moments and in my dreams nightly for years. I will not rest until I have the right to embrace you for a lifetime.

Yours forevermore,

Will


What a letter! That’s two suspects knocked off the list. We still have Mrs. Bennet and Sam. Any other guesses? Reunited is finished and being edited! I think I will keep to posting on Saturdays just for my own sanity. Therefore, the story will continue to post after the book is released. I also will probably not do a pre-order this time around. However, if you subscribe to my mailing list (there’s a pop up for this blog but here is the link as well: http://eepurl.com/cXCKVT) then you have the opportunity of getting a downloadable advance reader copy. There is a limited amount and first come, first serve so I can’t promise everyone will get one. I send out the email as soon as I have a link to share. Look for an email in early August.

Reunited- Chapter Two

reunited 2Well, lots of questions from the last time! This chapter will illuminate a few things. Hang on to your bonnets!


Previous chapters: Chapter One

Chapter Two

October 15, 1811

 

Elizabeth Bennet hugged her wrap closer to herself as she stood over the marker. It did not stand alone, but she always felt it impossible to mourn the mother and elder sister she never knew.

Her eyes drifted over the inscriptions and lingered on the most recent addition to the family cemetery. “Oh, Sam!” Elizabeth cried out and fell into a heap.

After Thomas Bennet’s first wife and eldest daughter died of an illness, he remarried. Instead of a gentlewoman, he chose the daughter of his solicitor. Although Fanny Bennet desperately wished to give her husband a spare heir, she brought only three more daughters into the world. All hope of breaking the entailment on Longbourn had rested on Sam.

Despite the occasional nervous flutters of Mrs. Bennet, Sam came of age without harm and broke the entail thus securing the fates of his five sisters. The same spring, he planned to tour Ireland and Scotland with several of his friends from university. The same spring he died in a fire at an inn which forever altered four families.

Five years had passed, and it sometimes felt to Elizabeth she was the only one to grieve the loss of her beloved brother. Even Sam’s betrothed, Charlotte Lucas, had found contentment with the situation. In fact, Elizabeth’s once-upon-a-time betrothed had apparently moved on as well.

Sam’s best friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, had proposed to Elizabeth shortly after they first met. With little more than a promise to court her at Longbourn, he left for a holiday with Sam and others. For weeks, Elizabeth waited to receive a letter from Will. Sam had written several times but there was not even a line about Will passing his greetings to her.

Then, one morning a messenger came with news of the fire. News that her brother had died and her father gravely injured, Elizabeth desired the support of her betrothed. Will never arrived at Longbourn, and as their engagement had been a secret to all but Jane, Elizabeth had no choice but to conceal her emotions.

Elizabeth shook herself from memories of her foolish youth. Today would have been Sam’s six and twentieth birthday. He likely would have been a father to children of his own by now. Instead of mourning her brother, Elizabeth had been ordered to attend the local Assembly this evening. How could she enjoy dancing and gaiety when her brother was gone?

“Lizzy.”

Elizabeth felt the familiar touch of her father’s hand on her shoulder.

“Here child.” Mr. Bennet placed another wrap around her. “It is growing late. Your mother will be upset to learn you have been out here crying so long. She expects you to enjoy this evening.” His voice took on a mildly amused tone. “I believe you will enjoy meeting the new arrivals to the area.”

Elizabeth finally looked up at her father. “The gentleman that leased Netherfield?”

“Yes, he will be there, and he brings family and friends.”

Elizabeth smiled through her tears. “It will be amusing to observe them. Can you imagine what Sam would say?”

“Yes, yes my dear. Now, dry your eyes.” He handed her a handkerchief.

“I am sorry Papa. Only sometimes it feels as though no one else cares. He was so young. It is so unfair!”

“I know you wish you could find some cause or meaning for the fire but we cannot understand the Lord’s ways.” Mr. Bennet squeezed Elizabeth’s shoulder. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. We should remember with pleasure the time we had with Sam, as I must think the same of your departed sister and mother. It will not do to dwell on what might have been.” Mr. Bennet winced as he stood from his crouched position.

“Does it still hurt, Father?”

Mr. Bennet looked up at the sky. “I believe it might get worse as I continue to age, and you know how the weather affects it. However, time heals all wounds though some take longer than others. Come along, dear.”

He held out his hand to help his daughter, but she managed on her own. Casting a last look at her brother’s marker, Elizabeth sighed and walked home on her father’s arm.

 

*****

 

Inevitably, Charles was delayed in taking his house. His sisters could not miss a particular event in Town, and rather than arrive in Meryton on the proposed date, they were one day later. In fact, Charles’ sisters made such a fuss about going at all that they barely had time to refresh themselves before leaving for the local assembly to which Charles had promised to go.

The carriage ride from Netherfield to the Meryton Assembly hall was unusually tense. Will could not forget this day was his best friend’s birthday. Sam had been a God-send to him at Eton. Will was delayed a year in being sent to school by his mother’s death. He could have started in the second term of the usual year, but by then George Will had decided to send his godson, George Wickham, to school as well.

In addition to mourning the loss of his dear friend, with reminders of the loss of his father which occurred on the same day—losses he firmly believed he could have prevented—he was disturbed by the mixed feelings of fear, nervousness, and elation at seeing her again.

Miss Elizabeth Bennet had never seemed far from his thoughts in the last five years. In the time since they last met, Will became master of his ancestral home. He was too busy to make new friends or meet new ladies. Nor did he want to. In his heart, he still considered them betrothed, even if she never replied to any of his letters. Any time he considered courting another lady, it felt like a betrayal to the one he had vowed to love forever.

However, if Sam and his father had lived, Will believed he would not have become so unsocial and taciturn. He had little time to socialize until the last year or two, and no lady he met could compare to the interactions he had with Elizabeth Bennet.

Disgusted at himself for carrying a tendre for a slip of a girl he met a handful of times half a decade ago, Will shifted in his seat. His father and Sam had attempted to tell him. One week of acquaintance was too short for it to be love. Wickham had enlightened Will to the truth—even if he was a devious cad—and Elizabeth’s own actions proved her cold heart. However, Will’s heart beat wildly just the same, and he prayed his leg would allow him at least one set with her. He needed to prove, to both of them, that they could meet as indifferent acquaintances.

The Netherfield party arrived at the Assembly Hall, and Charles quickly introduced them to Sir William Lucas. That talkative gentleman happily brought them to his family and Charles secured the first dance with Miss Lucas, Sam’s former betrothed. Mr. Bennet soon reacquainted himself with the party and introduced them to his family. Will immediately noticed Elizabeth was not in attendance and again was frustrated at the ridiculous deflated feeling of his heart. Pull it together, man!

Will had chatted with Mr. Bennet for a few minutes before his wife, who glared at Will, pulled him away. As Will did not know anyone else in the room, he circled about. A few times, he was spoken to, and he answered in the barest civility. His mind refused to concentrate on anything but seeking the room for a pair of particularly fine eyes.

During the second dance, between sets, Charles approached Will. If he were in a better frame of mind, Will would have noticed Charles’ sincere concern for his friend as he left Miss Bennet’s side.

“Come, Will,” said Charles, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”

“I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is only one other woman whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.” It was the closest Will had come to admitting his continued admiration of Elizabeth Bennet to his friend. By unspoken agreement, they had never again mentioned their attachment to the Bennet sisters since the day of the fire; until Charles sent a letter stating he leased a house not three miles from their estate, that is.

“But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.”

Fearing that the young lady had heard Charles, Will drew in closer. “I am in no humour at present to give consequence to any lady save her. She appears to not be in attendance. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles for you are wasting your time with me.”

Mr. Charles followed his advice. Will walked off, as did the lady Charles mentioned. Will watched her go, fearful she had overheard the whole thing and was upset. It really was bad form of Charles to act so. Will caught his breath when the line parted and allowed him to see who the lady was speaking with. Elizabeth!

She looked at him, and he could see her eyes turn the vibrant shade of green he recalled from five years before. No other lady had ever captivated him the way she had. Elizabeth returned her focus to the younger lady. A third woman, who Will recognized as Sam’s former betrothed, talked with them. The ladies passionately discussed something. Finally, Elizabeth straightened her back and met his eyes again. Then she walked toward him like a goddess on the warpath. Will did not care at all that he had earned her ire. He was old friends with it and could not say that he did not appreciate the view as her eyes snapped with fire and her anger added a flush to her cheeks. Once, he had, briefly, felt that loyalty directed toward him. What he would give to feel it again.

“Mr. Darcy,” she boldly said when she came near enough. Then she descended into a very proper curtsy.

“Miss Elizabeth,” he replied and bowed. “I regret I did not see you earlier.”

“And you might have minded your manners better?” she scoffed. “I see five years have not done you much good.”

Will smirked. “Thankfully, I cannot say the same to you.” He lowered his voice. “Five years have done you a great deal of good, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth recoiled, and derision flashed in her eyes. Her reaction drew the notice of others. She raised her hand, but Will caught it. Tugging her toward the dance floor, he said loud enough for others to hear. “I am delighted to dance with an old friend.”

For half a moment, Will felt Elizabeth plant her feet firmly on the floor. Sweat beaded on the back of his neck. He had pushed his luck, and while most ladies would demur to his intention to cover the situation, he had never known how to read Elizabeth. She might just as well call him a cad to the general public as she might follow him to the dance floor. As much as he had fondly recalled their encounters and, admittedly, idealized them, he remembered that much about her. His heart stood still for several beats until she took another step forward.

“Oh, so it is old friends you wish to dance with?”

“I never was good at making new acquaintances.”

“I suppose it is much harder on you now,” Elizabeth said as they found their positions in the set.

“I will not say I do not feel my losses acutely, but I am sure it is nothing to your pain.”

Elizabeth, who had avoided his eyes, snapped her attention to him. She gazed at him for a long minute, and Will wondered if she attempted to ascertain the truth of his words. It seemed as though she peered into his soul.

“Thank you,” she finally said and nodded.

“I have not forgotten what today is,” he said before the dance separated them.

Elizabeth’s hand had a slight tremor to it when they returned, and her voice wavered as she said, “And yet it seemed as though you did forget about him as well as the rest of us entirely for the last five years.”

“Why would I send yet another letter after a fortnight of writing daily and having no answer?”

Elizabeth paled and nearly tripped.

“Forgive me,” Will said and squeezed her hand tightly. He did not wish to wound her. He had told himself he wanted to understand why she chose to toy with his heart when he did not believe her naturally cruel. After seeing Elizabeth again, it no longer mattered. He would forgive her of anything and only wished to win her affection in truth this time.

Elizabeth had remained quiet for a few moments but finally recovered, she observed, “I suppose the distance from London to Longbourn is so inconvenient one can only make it every five years. We were foolish to ever expect you.”

“I did not judge as I ought to have.” Will lowered his voice, “I could think only of my own pain.” Abiding the physical pain from his injuries in the fire to attend Sam’s funeral would have been a torment he gladly would have borne if he had not also known Elizabeth did not care for him. Seeing her weeping at her brother’s death and having no right to comfort her—knowing she never welcomed his attention—was more than he could bear at the time.

Elizabeth’s expression softened. “I suppose it is understandable if you are not in the most cordial mood today.”

“Thank you,” he murmured before they parted again. When rejoined, he ventured, “Perhaps this evening has displayed us both to least advantage and we ought to begin again.”

Elizabeth raised a brow. “What have I done that might damage anyone’s perception of me?”

Will matched her raised brow. “You have, once again, jumped to the least flattering conclusion about me. One might think you have not learned from the lessons of the past. One might believe you lacked character growth and maturity since our last meeting.”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed, but they were once more separated by the dance. “One might believe these things, or you believe them?”

“I speak only in generalities,” Will rushed to say. However, he could see his words did not appease the lady.

She stood across from him silently for several moments before pursing her lips. “Very well. I might have leapt to conclusions. I give you leave to exonerate yourself. Why would you not dance with my sister, Mary?”

The final steps of the dance brought them close. Tilting his head down, Will murmured, “Because I wished only to dance with you, Elizabeth.”


Well, what did you think of that?

Loving Elizabeth #2 Reunited- Chapter One

reunited 2Chapter One

September 26, 1811

 

Sitting at the desk in his London townhouse, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s hand shook as he attempted to read Bingley’s note. Determined to not display his anxieties, Darcy paced around the room. Finally, he sat in a chair and browsed an agricultural report until his friend arrived.

Ten minutes past the correct time, the butler announced Bingley’s arrival. Darcy stood to greet him.

“Darcy, it has been an age. I was sorry to hear Georgiana felt poorly the whole summer and we could not meet. How does she fare now?”

Darcy managed a small smile as both men sat. “It is always good to see you. My sister is much recovered, thank you. Tell me about this estate you have leased. Hertfordshire, is it?”

Bingley gave Darcy a curious look. “If you know that much, then you have read my note and know it is called Netherfield. You also know it is quite close to Longbourn, which you should recall…”

“Yes, as the Bennet estate.” Darcy paused. Tumultuous emotions rioted in his body. As his heart pounded a blistering headache formed. “You cannot blame me for not being able to read through all these blots.”

Bingley smiled at the tease. “Will you come and visit? I know your feelings on the Bennets, but it has been five years.”

Darcy closed his eyes as painful memories threatened to intrude. Shaking his head to clear the thoughts, he opened his eyes and met Bingley’s. “Yes, of course. We must all move forward with our lives.”

Bingley gave an ebullient smile and waxed long on the house and its situation. “Louisa and Hurst will come, and Caroline will be my hostess. Will you bring Georgiana?”

Fear and rage temporarily clouded Darcy’s vision. Regaining control, he answered, “I…I will leave it to her to determine.”

Bingley openly gaped at his friend. “You will allow her to decide?”

Darcy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Of course. She is growing older and must have some independence. I cannot order her life forever.”

Bingley nodded approvingly, then turned serious. “I have attempted to keep in contact with the Bennets over the years, did I ever tell you?”

Darcy shook his head. “No, you have not. You must have worried about bringing up such a painful subject.”

Bingley agreed.

Darcy picked at imaginary lint on his breeches. “What news have you heard?”

“Scarcely a thing. Mr. Bennet only replies around twice a year. In October and then usually in June…” Bingley trailed off for a moment. “They are all quite well.”

Darcy smiled a little. “I can imagine he enjoys telling tales of his grandchildren.”

Bingley’s brow furrowed. “Darcy…all the girls are still at home.”

Darcy’s head jerked up.

Bingley continued as though he noticed nothing. “I cannot imagine why. I have never met a more angelic creature than Miss Bennet, and Miss Elizabeth was quite pretty as well. The men in Hertfordshire must be blind or stupid.” Then he paused, and a solemn look crossed his face. “Or perhaps five years has been slow to heal their pains as well as ours.”

Darcy could only nod his head. The two men, now masters of their homes, sat in silence for several minutes.

Bingley stood and clapped a hand on Darcy’s shoulder. “I will be escorting Caroline and the others on the Fourteenth after the house is ready for visitors. Will you ride with us then?”

Darcy flinched and then agreed, “Certainly. Apollo could use a good stretch.”

The men said their farewells and Bingley departed. Darcy walked back to his desk and picked up Bingley’s note again, this time with determination. “It is time.”


Don’t kill me! The title should give the theme away. Darcy and Elizabeth are reunited after years of separation. What happened to them? Why has so much time passed? We’ll get answers next time but what are your guesses?

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